Tag Archives: hand built guitar

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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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.

g weigert handmade guitars

25 Aug

This is my new site dedicated to everything to do with guitars that I couldn’t manage put on my old site.

If you’re interested in learning how to build a guitar, you should read my ‘how to build a guitar’ pages that I’ve started writing.

Alternatively you could come and enjoy a guitar making course with me, Gideon Weigert, here in Hararit – in the delightful and tranquil hilltop Galilean village not far from Nazareth, Acco, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean – where I live and work.

You can see more pictures of my guitars at www.gwguitars.com as well as of our charming guesthouse where you can stay, whether you’re coming especially to learn guitar making – or just for a holiday.

Please feel free to write comments. I’d like to hear from you and welcome any suggestions