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.
‘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.
‘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.