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.

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One Response to “Mistakes”

  1. Bill Quinn September 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Brilliant! I love the one about the heavy weight. I’m an amateur maker and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I was enlarging the holes in my classical headstock and forgot to glamp supporting timber around the face and back. The brand new 10mm twist bit slagged, spun the whole guitar around and split the headstock. This is where I started to learn how to repair a guitar.
    Thanks for sharing

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