Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Last Day!

Coming to an End . . .
It felt strange walking up the walking up through the Castle precincts and heading to the workshop for ‘the last time’ . . . only four weeks ago we all entered the building to find a pile of wood and tools and today I will walk out with a guitar! 

'The office' for the last time

Pin Holes . . .
The first tasks of the day were to ream the pin holes even further and then make some slots in the bridge where the strings will run from the holes to the saddle.  The string effectively turns 90 degrees in about 5cm so it is important to round this turn a little.

More reaming

Tweaking the pin holes

Dressing the Frets . . .
Next came ‘dressing the frets’ – a term I have heard a million times but never really knew what it meant.  Fundamentally you start with the big picture by putting a long straight edge over the entire neck to see which of the frets are proud and which ones are low and using the 20” radius sanding block you sand back the offending frets.  Once that looks OK you then get a much smaller straight edge (I forgot to take a picture of the Stewmac tool that Richard has) and address three frets at a time so as to take out minor variations – remembering to take readings across the length of each fret.  Finally, you come back over each fret with a fret file to properly round each one to the correct profile – which is pretty much defined by the file.

Starting the set up

The big picture first

Then some 'black magic'

Sanding the frets

Fret file

Nearly done

Visitors and ‘the Other . . .
Despite it being Saturday we still had a string of visitors in the workshop , including Nick’s son Harmish who came in to show us the three string ‘cigar box’ guitar he has just finished.  If you are wondering what a ‘cigar box’ guitar is – don’t bother!  Another visitor was the gypsy jazz luthier and player Jerome – he made Phil’s new guitar sound like a Maccaferri!  Phil and Richard needed to sort out the pick up Phil's guitar - which turned out to be a faulty jack.  But I think Phil  was showing the early symptoms of ‘withdrawal depression’.  Look out Suzi – we have learned he is dangerous when he gets bored!
A luthier in the making

Hey Richard - I thought we were building American style guitars!

That's amazing - I think I will nick this one when he isn't looking!

You would have thought a new one would work!
One of Phil's t-shirts - for musicians

You wish!!

Installing the Tuners . . .
Turning my attention to the headstock, I installed the tuners.  This is a quite simple task – remembering that the three on each side are ‘opposite’ to each other and need to be put the right way around.  They are lined up by eye and secured by a little screw in the back of the head . . . which sounds much more interesting than it is!

Finally - something easy!

The other side we never look at

The Nut and Saddle . . .
Making the nut and saddle is quite a detailed process . . . and a very smelly one as it is made from bone and it sort of ‘burns’ when filed.  The short of it is that it needs to ‘thicknessed’ to the right depth, string slots marked (exactly), slotted, cut to length and then shaped to the right profile – but of course everything needs to be done precisely as it will affect the way in which the guitar plays AND you will see both every time you play the guitar!  We will come back to both in the final set up of the guitar.

Profiling the nut

Saddle in place

Fine adjustments

Scratch Plate . . .
This is an optional item, but those of us who commit the unforgivable sin of sometimes playing with picks need to have the lower section of the playing area protected against scratching.  Pick guards are often a ‘feature’ on guitars, but Richard uses a transparent film so as not to detract from the overall look.  This meant marking out the overall shape of the guard, scribing a semi-circle to match my rosette and then cutting with scissors and special little compass cutter.  The surface itself is ‘roughed up’ using Superfine and the Ultrafine pads so as to give it ‘satin’ look and blend into the guitar.  Like most things in making a guitar, installation is quite easy but the consequences of a mistake will be very obvious!

Cutting out the scratch plate

Strings . . .
This subject was quite entertaining . . . Richard asked me what ‘size’ strings I would like and I said I always use 11s.  For the non guitarists amongst us this will be meaningless – but strings come in various sizes, most commonly 10 to 14.  The number refers to the thickness of the bottom E string (the biggest one), but the short of it is that ‘real men’ don’t use 11s!  I insisted as I don’t have a particularly strong finger technique and to his credit Richard agreed and everything sounded great – although the actual moment of the first playing is no indication of what the guitar will be like as the set up is extremely important.  I could tell Richard was wincing about something . . . and finally he blurted out that I “need” 12s!  He stopped short of refusing to let me walk out the workshop with the 11s, but I would not liked to have tested the matter.  So I agreed – and of course he was right!

Set Up . . .
Richard talked Phil and me through the setup process . . . in essence it is a matter of adjusting the height of the nut (by filing more out) at each string slot to get the exact height above the fret board.  The measurement is taken by holding each string down at the F# (second fret) position and looking at the clearance over the first fret – and then adjusting the nut.  The string can be ‘slipped’ out of position to do minor adjustments.  And the entire neck is adjusted by tweaking the truss rod one way or the other – which is determined by holding the string down at the 14th fret (right up the dusty end of the fretboard where few of us play)and looking closely at the string clearance all the way down the neck.
In summary, set up is a matter of simulteously adjusting overall fret height and shape, each fret’s height, nut and saddle height and the truss rod – other than that it is quite simple!
Finished – Nearly . . .
So the guitar was finally finished . . . and I am absolutely thrilled with it in every way.  It is a very fine guitar in sound, looks and finish – there a no compromises in any way and it is one that I would happily buy from a shop.  As I look at the beautiful guitar sitting in its case this morning I am still pinching myself with the realisation that I made it – under Richard’s supervision of course!   We of course celebrated with ‘swift half’ – but even while we were having that Richard was playing the guitar, adjusting this, tweaking that, ‘hoovering’ the insides again and the like.  He even put another coat of French polish on the neck and gave the whole thing his ‘eagle eye’ check over – he really is a perfectionist! 

There is a crack in everything - that's how the light gets in!

How about that!

All done . . . thanks Richard!

Ready to go to Australia

“Is That All There Is” . . .
So, in the words of that famous Jerry Leiber (who passed away while we were building our guitars) and Mike Stoller song, Phil and I walked out with our guitars in hand.  One of the added bonuses of doing this course was the fact that I have met Phil and Suzi . . . and we will definitely be in touch and hope to visit each other’s homes in Sheffield and Melbourne sometime very soon.
And my dear blogettes . . . you will no doubt be relieved to know this is the last of my ‘daily’ blogs.  I am heading to France tomorrow for a few days and then making my way back to Australia the following Sunday.  I will post one more ‘reflective’ entry a day or two after September 5th which will include a photo of my new guitar ‘down under’.  To Richard, Phil and Patrick – please feel free to send me anything you would like to have included.
Thanks again everyone – to Patrick and Phil for your friendship and collegiality, to Nick for taking an interest in our work and especially to Richard for your fine luthier skills, stellar pedagogical abilities and for being so patient and tolerant of this ham fisted would be luthier!

The 'morning after' . . . I still can't believe I made this!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Week 4 . . . Day 20

Are We There Yet . . .
We have finally arrived at the penultimate day of the course . . . the final day for Patrick . . . and no-one is more surprised or delighted that we have achieved so much and produced such lovely guitars than me!  And the big surprise of the day is that Richard walked in and took the £8 guitar from the wall, tapped it in tonal way (without response!) and then put it back on the rack!  So I have just lost some money.  I decided to bring in a bowl turned from Tasmanian ‘blackheart sassafras’ to give it a drink of wood oil – turning is another of my interests and I brought this one from Australia.

Tasmanian Sassafras meets Indian Rosewood in the UK!

It’s All Happening . . .
Respecting a famous Australian poem, “there was movement round the workshop, word had got around” that some guitars are nearing completion in Richard’s workshop.   We had quite a few visits from Nick and then Jerome, Chip, Tony and Howard all called in for one reason or another.  And Phil put a drill through his finger and bled all over his guitar . . . just after Richard had said you cannot drill through your finger!  The reaction was interesting; we were all concerned about the guitar and left Phil to fend for himself!

I'm watching you!

Oh dear!

Oii - what about me!

Back to Work . . .
My first job was to do even more sanding!  I went back over the entire guitar with Superfine and Ultrafine sanding pads – and then I gave it a good rubbing back with ‘wire wool’ being VERY careful to go exactly along the grain.  I am very happy with the finish I am getting and we all seem to prefer a satin look over a very high gloss finish – which would have been impossible to achieve in the constraints of the course.
And then Nick paid another visit . . . he takes his inspection duties very seriously!

More sanding

The final Nick and Dick show

Interim Job . . .
A quick fill in job for me was to ‘sand’ back the bone saddle (from the shin of a cow!) so that it fits into the slot that routed sometime earlier . . . I still need to do some more on this.

Shaping the saddle

Back to the Bridge . . .
In readiness for shaping the bridge I needed to remove the masking tape from the top of the guitar – you will recall that we had to mask off the bridge and neck areas before the guitars were sprayed with lacquer.  The tape now had to come off so the neck and bridge material could be assessed for alignment – and therefore how much had to be taken off the bridge material during its shaping.  Getting the masking tape of is a very delicate operation as the Spruce can easily tear . . . and of course it is possible to mess up the beautiful lacquer finish!


Trial Fitting . . .

Before putting the neck and bridge on to assess the alignment I needed to remove the excess 0.5mm (!) from the back end of my heel cap on the neck . . . and Richard even has a special tool made up for that task!  My brain will never be the same after this course . . . I have never measured anything so precise outside a laboratory!   Fundamentally, we needed to see if the continuing line of the fretboard was going to meet the height of the bridge at the right level – and it did within 0.5mm in my case!

Special jig for sanding the back of the heel - carefully!

Trial fit

Shaping the Bridge . . .
Before yesterday I had no idea about how a bridge was shaped . . . and today I made one!!  Once the bridge is put into a special shaping jig, the bulk of the top of the bridge is removed using the circular sander on the press drill. Then it is back to the old fashioned methods – planes, chisels, sandpaper, files and ‘a good eye’.  Within obvious tolerances, there is no prescribed shape for a bridge and you just make something respects the conventions of what everyone does!  The finished ebony bridge is then treated with some fret oil.

Shaping jig and sander

Old fashioned methods

Fairly basic really

The finished article

Affixing the Bridge . . .
Now the moment of truth . . . attaching the bridge to the top of the guitar.  Actually, it is a bit of an anticlimax as all the hard bits have already been done.  It is critical to ensure the bridge itself seats properly on the untreated Spruce right up against the edges of the lacquer – but this fit has been already established.  The main complication here is that it will feel different with the glue in place . . . and it may move as it is clamped.  So there was a lot of checking, double checking and checking again as the pressure went on with the bridge clamps . . . if you get this wrong you will never be able to tune the guitar!!  There was nothing else to do other than to let the glue dry.

Bridge in place

Another Interim Job . . .
My next job was to file back and shape the nut . . . which is the piece of bone (again) where the strings touch the headstock end of the guitar.  As with most things, this needs to be very precise as ultimately it will determine how high the strings are above the fretboard and thus how playable the guitar is – although the very last stage of setting up the guitar involves some micro shaping of the nut.  This task first involved using a flat file and then a special 20” sanding block so as to match the curvature of the fretboard.

Shaping the nut

Even more shaping the nut

Drilling the Bridge . . .
A further task on the bridge was to drill bridge holes through the top of the guitar – this will allow the bridge pins (the bits of wood that hold the strings in place) to go far enough down to get a purchase and secure the string.  And no, I did not drill through my finger!  I will also need to ream these holes a little later – but that will be tomorrow.

Drilling through the bridge without blood

Looking good

On with the Neck . . .
In a moment of great excitement (to me!), I finally got around to attaching the neck to the guitar body for the last time!  And like affixing the bridge, this is a bit of an anticlimax.  The process was to first do a final trial fit to see that everything is still going down perfectly – and then take it apart.  Finally, the glue is spread around the back neck and down it goes with four ‘quick clamps’.  And that’s it!!

The last time you will see these apart!

Glued and clamped

A new inspector - Chip giving it the once over

The Others . . .
Both Patrick and Phil finished their guitars today . . . in what seemed to be a flurry of activity and all sorts of last minute challenges and issues, they both managed to get the strings on and making noises!!  So that is a wonderful thing.
Richard gave very firm instructions to them not to play their guitars until tomorrow as they will sound completely different once the whole thing begins to respond to the tension of the strings – and then Richard’s offsider Chip walking in with his guitar and everyone started jamming!  What a sensational musician . . . I can barely imagine how he plays some of the things I saw him play.  A Richard joined in on the mandolin – and then Howard popped in and he too joined in on another guitar – so we had a bit of a band going!
Later Richard, Patrick, Phil and I went out for dinner and had a wonderful evening . . . I think we met a waitress who was up to our cheek even though English wasn’t her first language! 
Then there was a complication – there had been some questions raised by the Ancient Order of Luthiers management committee and Nick had to convene a very late night session to check some of the instruments again!  Actually Nick came and joined us for a coffee and beer . . . thanks again for everything Nick!

I'm still not sure this lot will graduate!

Hurrying to finish

Fitting the pickup

First sounds

No Phil - you cannot string your £8 guitar!!

Jerome doing another inspection

First sounds

He said don't play it!

What a team!

This is a very bad combination!!

Incredible music right in front of our eyes

Another visitor - Howard doing an inspection

This guy is really good - thanks Chip!

Finally - now we can submit these to the Ancient Order for possible Associate Membership

The happy group . . .

Late night inspection - thanks Nick