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.


3 Responses to “If it looks like it’ll fly – it should make a good guitar”

  1. Steve Higgs September 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    There is a fourth type of maker…one who aspires to perfection, is artistic and creative but has the patience of a two year old when it comes to inanimate objects. I am far more likely to end up with a carrier bag full of matchsticks than a ‘Fleta’ soundalike. Still, it would be a boring world if we were all perfect 🙂

    • g weigert handmade guitars September 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

      Thanks Steve, I’ll add it to my incomplete list of types of guitar maker.
      Here’s some other kinds of people:

      There are “two kinds” in the world….

      There are two kinds of men who never amount to much: those who cannot do what they are told and those who can do nothing else. — Cyrus H. Curtis

      There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.
      — Robert Byrne

      My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition. — Indira Gandhi

      Men are divided into two groups — those who love and build and those who hate and destroy. — Jose Marti
      There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones that suck the life out of every day, and the ones that let every day suck the life out of them. — Bill Purdin

      There are only two kinds of scholars; those who love ideas and those who hate them.
      — Emile Chartier

      There are two kinds of Americans: those who want this country for themselves and those who want it for everyone. — Bill Purdin

      There are two kinds of people: some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.
      — Robert Frost

      There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing. — Oscar Wilde

      … those who divide people into two types, and those who don’t.
      — Edward A. Murphy, Jr. of “Murphy’s Laws”

      People can be divided into two classes: those who go ahead and do something, and those who sit still and inquire, ‘Why wasn’t it done the other way?’ — 0liver Wendell Holmes

      The elect are whosoever will, and the non-elect, whosoever won’t.
      — Henry Ward Beecher

      … those who go ahead and do something, and those who sit and inquire, “Why wasn’t it done the other way?” — Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.

      …those who believe there are two kinds of people, and those who know better.
      — Anonymous

      There are two kinds of people: happy and unhappy; both have no reason to be that way. — Bill Purdin

      …the world is divided into two types of people: those who love to talk, and those who hate to listen. — James Thorpe

      …those who walk into a room and say, “There you are” — and those who say, “Here I am!” — Abigail Van Buren

      …the givers and the takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better.
      — Anonymous

      There are two kinds of people: those with open minds and those with closed minds, and never the two shall meet. — Bill Purdin

      …those who want to be and those who want to do. — Bill Purdin

      ..those who put themselves first and those who put others first. — Bill Purdin

      …those who believe in global warming and those who don’t. — Seth Berman

      …those who have lost data due to a system crash, and those who will. — Mike Epstein

      There are only two types of warriors in this world. Those that serve tyrants and those that serve free men. — Special Forces NCO Stefan

      And, there are “three kinds” of people in the world….

      There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can’t stand Picasso, those who can;t stand Raphael, and those who’ve never heard of either of them.
      — John White

      Today, there are three kinds of people: the have’s, the have-not’s, and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-have’s. — Earl Wilson

      People can be divided into three groups:
      1. Those who make things happen,
      2. Those who watch things happen,
      3. And those who wonder what’s happening. — Anonymous

      All mankind is divided into three groups: those that are immovable, those that are movable and those that move.” — Benjamin Franklin

      There are three kinds of people in the world, the wills, the won’ts, and the can’ts. The first accomplish everything; the second oppose everything, the third fail in everything
      — Eclectic Magazine

      And, then there are “four kinds”s of people…
      There are basically four kinds of people: cop-outs, hold-outs, drop-outs, and all-outs.
      — Robert Schuller

      • Steve Higgs September 25, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

        Nice! One that always springs to mind when deciding whether someone cheers you up or makes you depressed…”There are two types of people in this world, ‘drains’ and ‘radiators’.

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