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Why I use animal glue in my guitars even though I’m a vegetarian

27 Nov
cast iron pot used for preparation of hide glue in guitar construction

cast iron pot used for preparation of hide glue in guitar construction

Here I am going to address the complicated question: (how) can I use animal glue in the instruments I make and still be a vegetarian?

Animal glue (or Hide, Bone, Skin or Hoof glue) has been used for thousands of years to stick things together. Since the 20th century, chemical alternatives such as PVA, Aliphatic Resin, Epoxy Resin and Cyanoacrylate ‘Super’ Glue have been available.

Since I don’t eat animals or wear their skins, mainly because I think it’s unnecessary and grim, why would I choose to use a stinky, mucous-like substance made from boiling up dead animal parts in the fine musical instruments I build?

It’s not because it’s easier. The glue must be heated in a special double pot to just the right temperature, requiring constant attention, stirring, adding a bit of water now and again, making sure it’s not too thick or too thin, adjusting the heat so it doesn’t get too hot or too cold. It’s a bit like having a pot of porridge constantly on the go. Luckily, being an excellent cook and multi-tasker I don’t find this a problem. It adds an interesting extra dimension to the construction process. Besides the glue being tricky to prepare, joints must be very well fitted and working time is very short – only a matter of seconds, compared to PVA glues which can be fiddled about with for several minutes before they start to set.

The reason I use it is mainly it’s because it’s much much better. If it was as good or slightly better, I’d probably stick with the old (new) Titebond Carpenters Wood Glue, with its convenient plastic bottle, ease of use and none of the pangs of remorse for the pain and suffering of my fellow sentient beings.

It’s better for these reasons: First, it doesn’t creep. (Yes, it is creepy to consider the boiling up of bones, skin, teeth and hair – at least for those of us that consider these things. Most meat eaters will not consider the horrors of the abattoir, nor shrink from putting a dead animal in their mouth even though they wouldn’t even touch a dead animal they saw in the road – even with the wheels of their car.) By creep, I’m talking about the tendency of some glues, particularly PVA, yellow and white glue, never to fully dry. It always stays slightly soft, so joints which are under constant tension, such as the bridge, may over time creep out of position. Animal glue on the other hand, once it is  dry, becomes very hard, crystalline, flexible, yet very strong indeed. This makes it perfect for musical instrument making.

As well as this, while most chemically composed glues work by grabbing the surface of the wood, animal glue acually creates a molecular, electro-chemical bond with the wood itself. It somehow (don’t ask me exactly how, it’s getting a bit technical, but the information’s out there if you’re interested) gets into and beneath the surface of the wood and as it dries, actually pulls the two pieces together with a strength, stability and longevity that modern glues cannot come close to.

The result of this is that it makes musical instruments sound much better, clearer – more crisp and sparkling. And we know that they last a long time as luthiers have been using such glue for centuries.

Animal glue also has another very amazing property and it is this: Even though joints glued with it will last indefinitely and resist changes in temperature better than most other adhesives, all it takes is for heat and water to be applied at the same time and the join can be easily reversed with no damage at all to the wood. From a repairman’s point of view, this is ideal, as well as from the instrument’s. It means that with due care and attention it could last for centuries. Whereas piece held together with chemical glue must be forced and pried apart, causing damage to the wood, an instrument held together with animal glue can be gently disassembled. Not only that, new glue will bond to old glue, which is another of it’s remarkable properties.

Finally, I think it’s worth considering the effect of modern industrialisation practices on the lives of animals and on the environment. While we all know and can imagine the suffering, pain and fear caused to animals bred and killed for our consumption (though most of us never see or even know the whereabouts of our local slaughterhouse)  we might also think about the wider effects of the giant chemical industries that we rely on these days. Water pollution, air pollution, destruction of habitat, the creation of poisonous products and bi-products and generally making our planet toxic and hazardous for most forms of life. Well, that’s not such a great alternative either.

I was going to go on to explore the more interesting subject of Necromancy in Musical instrument making – or whatever the term is for bringing the dead back to life. Considering the act of giving new life (of sorts) to the dead tree.. etc, etc., but I think I’ll just leave it at this for now.

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Building a Traditional Flamenco Guitar

22 Aug

Here’s a photo diary of the latest guitar I’m working on.

Materials:

Neck – Honduras Cedar

Soundboard – European Spruce

Body – Spanish Cypress

Head Veneer – European Maple, Indian Rosewood

Rosette – Galilee Olive root, European Maple

Bindings – Galilee Rosewood (Sesam)

Fingerboard and Bridge – Indian Rosewood

Tuning Pegs – English Boxwood

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The Neck

guitar neck

headmarking

headcarving

heelmarking

heelcarving

heelcarving2

neckgw2013

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The Rosette

162

This is my neighbour’s woodpile. They are lucky enough to have a big pile of olive roots to burn for the winter.

olivewoodlog

This is a piece of one of the olive roots.

rosette1

On the top left of the picture you can see a small part of that olive root. That was sliced very thin and inlaid into a groove cut in the soundboard.

rosette2

Bands of maple are bent and inlaid around the central olive part with thin sycamore veneers to add contrast.

rosette3

When the glue is all dry, I plane it down level with the surface of the soundboard.

It looks like this:

rosette4

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Assembly

thicknessing

Thickness planing the soundboard to about 2.2mm.

measuringthickness

Measuring the thickness.

guitarparts

All the parts ready to be assembled. At the bottom you can see the kerfed linings that will hold the guitar together. Above those are the sides. At this stage they’re still flat and have to be bent to shape.

assembly

Photo taken just before the back was glued on

routing

Cutting the channel for the bindings.

heelinlay

Detail for heel inlay.

heelinlay2

binding

scraping

bindings1

back

back2

Ecological Jazz Guitar – Part 5 – The Neck

31 May

001

The adjustable truss rod is placed in the groove in the neck.  This is used to adjust the bow of the neck when the tension from the strings  pull it forward.

004

A piece of sycamore veneer is placed over the truss rod. This will stop the truss rod getting covered in glue when the fingerboard is glued on as that might limit its movement and clog up its moving parts.

019

This is to be a three part neck. The first part is the cherry wood of the neck. On top of that is an angled piece of maple to give the fingerboard  and strings greater clearance of the arched soundboard. The fingerboard will be glued on top of the maple. Pictured above is the maple being glued onto the neck.

020

Maple glued in place. Later on I’ll put a cover over the end of the truss rod. This will be attached with screws to make it accessible.

022

Now for the fingerboard itself. This is made from local Sesam wood, which is a type of Rosewood that grows here in Galilee. In this picture I’ve marked out the fret positions using a ruler and am sawing the slots with a Japanese saw.

023

Here the neck has been cut to the right width and is now being planed to the right thickness. This cherry wood is very hard. It’s a lot of work with this little block plane.

024

Carving the neck profile with a spokeshave. This is the only part of guitar making where I get to sit down.

025

The final shaping of the neck is done with a cabinet scraper. It makes very fine shavings.

027

The finished neck.

029

030

cherry wood, maple, rosewood

Ecological Jazz Guitar – Part 4. Bindings

22 May

006 - Copy

Glueing Sycamore veneers for the purflings (the black and white stripes around the edges) and local Sesam wood for the bindings.

008 - Copy

Cutting the grooves for purfling and binding.

009 - Copy

After the purflings have been glued in, the bindings are bent to shape, ready to be fitted in the groove.

013 - Copy

When it’s all glued in place, the whole body is then scraped and sanded smooth. Here it is with a coat of Danish Oil, prior to the shellac.

016 - Copy

011

012

Ecological Jazz Guitar, Part 3 – Assembly

7 May

After a damp and humid April, along with lengthy deliberations about the revolutionary, innovative, electric scratch-plate design that this guitar will feature – came a very dry spell of weather. Perfect for assembling guitars.

Once the soundboard had been braced and the back and sides had been thicknessed to around two and a half  millimetres, the last thing to make were the linings. The bits that hold it all together. For this I used an old plank of hardwood, picked up in Jerusalem. Probably birch wood. Here is my fascinating photo journal of how I turned an old, discarded plank of wood into an integral part of a guitar:

hardwood plank

1.(above) The plank.

planing off the varnish

2.Planing the varnish off the plank.

cutting with elecrical saw

3.Cutting the plank into strips with an elecrical saw.

strips

contouring the strip

4.Contouring the strips.

finsished precut lining strip

A contoured strip.

sawing slots in the lining

5.Sawing slots in the strips.

guitar linings

handmade guitar linings

Finished linings.

child labour

6.Getting unpaid child labour to collect the wood-dust in a plastic bottle by letting her believe it to be fairy dust. I’m not sure if that’s ecological or ethical.

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Now that I had all of the parts of the guitar ready to assemble, and a nice clean workshop, it was time to assemble the guitar. Here’s how I did that:

Assembling the guitar

1.Glue the neck to the soundboard. That’s the Spanish way. If  I did it the American way I’d make the body and the neck completely separately and then slot them together when they’re both finished. One advantage of the American way is that it’s easier to take the neck off if the joint breaks. The advantage of the Spanish way is that the joint is very unlikely to break as the whole guitar is essentially one piece.

reinforcing the sides

2.Reinforcing the sides with Western Red Cedar offcuts from a previous guitar.

I’m sorry I didn’t put any pictures of me bending the sides. I suppose I should have done as it is the greatest mystery of guitar making – the thing  people always ask about. The main reason I wanted to learn how to make guitars, in fact, was just to know how they bend the sides. I’ll put a bit about it on my Frequently Asked Questions page when I next get round to making another exciting photo-diary.

linings all attached

3.Linings all glued on.

making the soundport

4.Sound-port cut out.

quality control

Quality control inspector takes a sniff around.

guitar ready for the back

Guitar gets stamp of approval.

carving the back bars

5. Carving the back-bars from a piece of Sycamore, coppiced in Sherwood forest, England 2003.

back bars

This will give the back its arched contour.

back bars

This pieces was then cut into three on the electrical saw.

glueing the back bars

6. Glueing on the back bars. The centre strip is local Cypress wood from Galilee.

back ready to be attached

Back ready to be glued on.

glueing on the guitar's back

7. Glueing on the back.

assembled guitar

Assembled guitar.

guitar back

g weigert guitars

Ecological Jazz Guitar – Part 2

14 Mar
 Solera
I build my guitars using the Spanish method. This involves using a ‘Solera’, which is a workboard on which the guitar is constructed, face down. The whole guitar (ie, neck and body) are built together – as compared to alternative methods where the body and neck are finished separately and slotted together at the final stage.
The advantages, I find, of the Spanish method are these:

It makes it easy to accurately align the neck to the body.

The neck – body join is very strong and well integrated into the guitar as a whole.
A wide variety of body shapes can be made without the construction each time of a bulky mould.

This is the solera I usually use for classical guitars

This is the solera I use for classical and flamenco guitars. The circular depression gives a slight arch to the soundboard.

Jazz Guitar Solera, with much more pronounced arching.
 

Hybrid Archtop by G Weigert

This is the bracing on the inside of the soundboard. This gives it strength as well as defining the tonal and response of the guitar. Because this is to be a guitar with a tailpiece and floating bridge, all of the pressure will be pushing down on the soundboard – I have made the bracing a lot stronger than most of my other guitars.
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Part 3 – Wood
Here are the woods I shall be using to build this guitar, and a bit about their sources and origins.
Wood
Turkish Walnut from Muzaffer in Turkey
Here is a picture of Muzaffer cutting down a tree with a large pair of scissors – he’s that ecological he won’t even use a chainsaw.
Flamed maple. I’ve had this piece for so long I can’t remember exactly where it came from. I think Nottighamshire.
Sesam is a type of Rosewood that grows around here, in Galilee.
London Cherry. This tree was growing outside my parents’ house in North London until the neighbour complained of it’s roots spoiling her lawn. When the council came to cut it down I made sure to save the wood. It’s now part of a few mandolins and will be the neck of this guitar.
Mystery Spruce. I think it’s Sitka. I got it from a guitar maker in Sheffield several years ago who was clearing out his workshop. Maybe he was retiring. I don’t know. The mystery is why he didn’t keep this amazing sounding piece of wood.
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Ecological Jazz Guitar. Stage 1: Design

6 Jan

What with 2013 being the official year of Ecological Jazz (in my house anyway), I’ve decided to keep a blog of this latest project I’m working on. I’ll be building a flat top Jazz guitar from local and recycled materials for a musician who likes to play guitar, but not at the expense of our Mother Earth’s most precious dwindling, overexploited resources.

Stage 1: Design

by G Weigert guitar maker

First I draw the shape on a board – using a pencil and rubber (eraser) until I am satisfied with the outline.

G Weigert guitar design

I hold the template up to a mirror to check how it will look.

G Weigert Guitars. Original Design

When I am satisfied with the outline, I cut it out. Then, using it as a template a take it to the drawing board and fill in the other features. Soundhole, scratchplate, etc.