Archive | September, 2012

Mistakes

24 Sep
Stress

Bending the guitar’s sides

Wow, this is really stressful.’ says my guitar making student who’s sweating over the hot iron, bending  the sides of his first guitar. ‘Is it going to crack?’

‘Well, it might, I suppose. Maybe.” I reply. ‘Try not to use too much force. But not too little either. It should be ok. The only way to learn how to do it is to do it. There is no other way. Cypress wood‘s not too bad. Figured maple’s worse.’

‘Have you ever cracked the sides doing this?’

I crack a wry smile. ‘I’ve made just about every mistake there is to make, making guitars, that is.’ I say – trying to sound like Jonny Cash when he says ‘I’ve been everywhere’ but probably not sounding that way at all.

So here for your entertainment, my blog reading friends – and perhaps as a cautionary, instructive tale – here is a list of my guitar making mistakes – at least the ones I can remember – and not the mistake of becoming a guitar maker in the first place, which I have already described in my first blog post.

A note to owners of my guitars: If you happen to own one of my instruments, don’t worry – what you read does not change the intrinsic value of your instrument. Besides which, everyone makes mistakes.

My first guitar making mistake was in the first join of my first guitar when I glued the head on upside down, necessitating me to start again from the beginning. After that (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps down to some mischievous  imp or demon lurking in my workshop, in my tools or in my brain, perhaps due to my slackness and lack of concentration) I made it my mission to make at least one new and different mistake in every instrument I built – trying at the same time not to repeat the same one more than twice.

Twice, by my reckoning I have glued on the back of a guitar inside out, and the sides also. Now I make sure to write very clearly on the wood (somewhere where it won’t be very visible through the soundhole) the word INSIDE. Owners of my guitars might find it written there if you look deep inside – somewhere near the end inside the back. If not, you might have one of the inside out guitars. I also write TOP on the topside of the neck, just to be sure, but you won’t see that unless you remove the fingerboard.

Assembling the Guitar

The silliest mistake I made was at a time when I used to use a heavy weight to hold down the guitar while I shaped the sides, before putting on the back. I usually assemble my guitars very late at night – it’s a process that takes me about six hours and glueing on the back is the last part – usually about 3 o’clock in the morning – if that’s any excuse for forgetting to take the weight out and sealing it inside the guitar. These days I just don’t do that thing with the weight as it’s not worth the risk of making such a stupid mistake.

I used to cut the rebate for the bindings with a knife and chisel. It took a very long time. Then one day I bought myself a 1500W router machine in order to do the same job 100 times quicker. Nobody told me how to use it. If they would have done, they might have told me what the big arrow above the spinning blade was for. That is the direction that the blade spins in. So you’re supposed to move the machine in that direction. If you move it in the opposite direction, the side of your guitar explodes very suddenly and without warning. When about two months of work is destroyed in such a way, it kind of makes you wish you’d read the instructions.

Almost the last part of building a guitar is putting in the frets. The 19th fret is the last of all. After that, the guitar’s practically finished. Hours and hours of careful painstaking work almost complete. But not if you put the 19th fret in with a hammer. That’s when the soundboard cracks and hours and hours of work are ruined in an instant.

Those are my most memorable guitar making mistakes. Of course there are many others that I can’t remember, none of them too serious that usually just waste a bit of time and make me feel a bit of an idiot for a while – although at the same time congratulating myself for my boundless creativity in discovering new ways of doing things wrong.

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As a footnote to this post I should add that although I am a guitar maker by profession (even, almost by religion) I am aware that it isn’t the most  important thing in the world. The mistakes I have just described here pale into utter insignificance when compared to even the smallest mistakes I’ve made in other parts of my life. But that goes well beyond the scope of this blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

My guitar making student, as it happens, is taking time out to build a guitar before his internship as a surgeon. ‘If you think this is stressful, how are you going to feel when you’re cutting into someone’s heart instead of just a piece of wood?’

Then again, he’s got a point, I reckon. What does Barack Obama know about stress? He’s never built a guitar and certainly never tried to do it for a living. What we need are guitar making courses for all the world’s so-called leaders. Then again, perhaps they already have the main skills required – not only to handle the stress, but also how to hide their mistakes


Tony Blair, having just accidentally destroyed his first guitar by a combination of disproportionate force, lack of foresight, preparation and focus and bad advice.

If it looks like it’ll fly – it should make a good guitar

11 Sep

Today I was helping my student guitar maker with the thicknessing and bracing of the soundboard.

kitten building a flamenco guitar

This is my student guitar maker – 2 month old kitten ‘Tickles’ building her first flamenco guitar

The thicknessing took a while to go from about 4mm to a fairly even 2.2mm. A greater distance than it sounds, believe me. About 4 hours careful and thoughtful planing, measuring, tapping, listening, flexing, considering….

Considering all the various implications of each woodshaving removed (this is, let us remember, his first guitar) and how it will effect the tone, the feel, nay! the very soul of the guitar. We got to talking about Mary Shelly. It occurred to me how similar is guitar making to the (well intentioned but ultimately doomed) work of Dr Frankenstein. Breathing life into something that is dead. In that borderline region between chaos and order, the luthier takes some pieces of dry, dead wood – gives them shape and form, brings them to life – creates something with a living soul. Sort of.

‘Well I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a monster’, says my literal and logical student.

Although, from what I can remember of that story, Dr F’s creation became a monster because of the inhumanity of the people he met. But that’s another story. No sense in taking an analogy too far.

One last pass with my trusty and ever sharp Lie Nielson low angle block plane with cryogenically freeze-tempered high carbon steel blade (is this starting to sound like Victorian era science fiction?) and suddenly the soundboard is there. How do I know? I lift it from the table and let go and it hangs in the air momentarily before gently gliding down, like a feather. It has become almost weightless. I flex it in my hands and it bends easily but then springs back. I hold it to my ear and tap it and it resonates with a deep ring, almost too low for the ear to hear.

Someone once asked the great guitar maker Antonio de Torres what his secret was, to which he replied (something along the lines of): There is no secret – it is here, between my thumb and forefinger. What he meant by that and whether or not he had a secret and whether it had anything even to do with guitars – will remain forever a mystery. Like his guitars, which were numbered according to whether they were built in his first or second epoch – so are our days. Numbered.

Antonio de Torres. 1817 – 1892

‘OK, that’s it – quick let’s glue  the braces on.’ The humidity has just dropped from 95% where it was in the morning to 60%. It’ll probably stay there for about 4 hours before it starts to rise again in the afternoon so there’s no time for standing around philosophising and self congratulating. If the guitar’s assembled when it’s too damp it’s quite likely to crack when it gets dry. Take what lessons you will from what I have to say, but always keep one eye on the hygrometer if you don’t want your guitars to implode.

Four hours later, just as the humidity is on the rise again, the last brace is glued on. Now it really looks ready to fly. We take a step back to admire the sleek lines of symmetrically and extremely well placed fan-struts that adorn the underside of the soundboard. It looks like Concorde about to take its maiden flight. Or the Space Shuttle about to go into orbit for the first time. Now is the time for self congratulation and philosophising.

Final shaping of the harmonic bars

‘It looks good.’ says my student, who is sparing with his words but quite a perfectionist when it comes to his work.

‘Yes it does’, I agree. ‘It looks like it could fly.’ And then it occurs to me to say, ‘If it looks like it could fly, then it should make a good guitar.’ And so is the wisdom of guitar making passed on.

There are three types of guitar maker, I have discovered:

The first type are the perfectionists. They strive for perfection and will not admit any fault into their guitars.

The second type are not perfectionists but they are creative, imaginative, intuitive and artistic.

The third type are perfectionists who are also creative, imaginative, intuitive and artistic.

The third type make the best guitars, of course – but the first and second types can also make some pretty good ones. It takes all sorts. Yes it does.