Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Three takes on the concert guitar

  In my last post I showed three guitar bodies I had been working on.  They all share the profile of my Concert size, but each stands out uniquely from the others.  They are all completed and paired up with their respective owners, and I want to share a bit about each one here.

  First up, this guitar most closely resembles the old Washburn concert guitar that I originally traced and mapped out.  Twelve frets to the body, ladder braced, Spruce top with a Mahogany body and neck, clean and simple appointments with a french polished shellac finish.

  This guitar went across the sea to a great country blues finger picker who normally plays on a really cool pre-war Stella.  He was looking for a solid guitar for a working musician that had the old fashioned sound and style but better playability with a radiused fretboard, truss rod, and a compensated saddle for proper intonation.  It was a joy to build and a joy to play for the brief time I got to hang out with it before it got sent off to it's happy new owner.  It has the classic focused sound that comes with a smaller body, ladder braced guitar.

  Next is this concert guitar for my friend "Rattle Snake" Ron.  Ron is a great singer, songwriter and musician who wanted a little cowboy guitar with a sweet sound.  He has always really liked one of the first guitars I built, a parlor guitar with rope binding, and he was looking for something similar, but with some of his own custom ideas incorporated into it.  The rattlesnake themed inlays are cut from old piano ivory.

  The entire guitar is made from local and regional woods.  The back and sides are Oregon Myrtle, the neck is Poplar, and the binding, fretboard, and bridge are Black Walnut.  The top is from a beautiful piece of Cedar salvaged from an old stump along the Nooksack River.  The rope binding is cut and inlaid by hand, piece by piece.  It's a slow process, taking almost a whole day, but a very enjoyable day...  good music on the stereo, a strong cup of coffee, and sitting at my bench cutting tiny pieces of wood with a very sharp saw.  This guitar is X braced with Yellow Cedar and overall the guitar has a very warm and balanced sound.

  Third in this trio is this concert sized archtop.

  I was excited to get this order because I'm really enjoying making archtops lately, and I was curious to try it out on a slightly smaller scale.  This one had some custom appointments requested by the player, like the segmented f-holes and the number 13 (his lucky number) on the 13th fret.  It is also 13 frets to to the body.  The top is a lovely reclaimed piece of very tight grained Cedar that I procured at Skagit Salvage.  The back and sides are Big Leaf Maple, neck is Cherry, and the fretboard, bridge and tailpiece are all Black Walnut.  I went with classic parallel braces made of well aged Sitka Spruce.  The sound of this guitar is tremendous.  Very clear and loud, and balanced up and down the neck.  Upon stringing it up I had a hard time putting it down, and in fact I wrote two songs on it that first day.  I especially enjoyed playing it with fingerpicks as the notes came punching out very separate and with a round clarity.  I'm absolutely going to have to make one for myself one of these days.

  Well, there's three guitars that all came from the same mold, built by the same hands, but each one unique.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

New Shop

Hello Folks.  Well, we're getting settled into Fall here in Western Washington.  Temp's are dropping, rain is falling, and leaves are fluttering to the ground.  Time to brew some strong coffee and get to work!  Over the summer I moved myself and the shop from Bellingham to Seattle.  It's not too far as miles go (just over an hour drive), but it's definitely a different world here in the city.  Fortunately I ended up with a great little house with a great big shop attached to it.  It's taken a bit of work to get it all together, but it's up and running now and I've got the wood chips to prove it!  Let me show you the new space..


  It has a few big perks that I didn't have at my last space.  The most noticeable change to me is the windows.  After being in a basement shop for over two years, I vowed that my next space would absolutely need to have some natural light available (and an easy way to get fresh air once in awhile too).  Fortunately, I have free reign to remodel this space as I want, so first order was cutting in some windows.  I got some nice double panes from the ReStore in Bellingham.  I then spent a good deal of time insulating the walls and ceiling and hanging drywall.  A quick coat of paint to make it cozy, and I was ready to set it up.  Once I got all my tools and everything organized and the basic layout figured, I realized I still had a lot of space in here.  Well, I've been a skateboarder since grade school, so I wasted no time in building myself a little ramp.

  Yep.  Just big enough to goof around on and take a break from woodworking and guitars for a minute.  My fifteen year old self would be proud.

  Now that I've got all the basics dialed in I'm happy to be ankle deep in wood shavings once again.  Here's some photos of what I've been up to the past couple weeks..

   Laying out the pieces for a small body archtop guitar.  That's Western Maple sides bent up into my concert size mold, and 1 inch thick Maple and Cedar for the the back and top, joined up and ready to carve.

  For the Maple, I hog out the perimeter to a set depth with the drill press first.  It helps get rid of some of the waste very quickly.

   Then the rest of the carving is done by hand with planes and gouges.

  Cedar is so soft and easy to carve that I don't bother to drill it first.  That plane is just a small cheap block plane that I modified by reshaping the sole and blade with a slight curve.  It's very sharp and does the bulk of the rough carving.  I made the wood knob thing on the back of the blade.  It gives my palm a comfy place to rest while I carve away.

  My labels are all different and individually hand-drawn.  This guitar is going to a farmer/woodsman hence the carrot/hatchet.

  Joining some flat top plates using a low tech and very effective method I learned from Todd Cambio.

  Bending up some beautiful Oregon Myrtle.

  Ladder bracing getting glued in the old go-bar deck.  Thin White Oak strips under tension act as clamps.  It's another low tech, yet very effective method that lots of instrument builders use.  I've tried clamping braces a couple different ways, but have always come back to this.

  And here we have X-braces undergoing the go-bar treatment.

  Getting carved 'n ready...

  And the next small batch of guitars coming together.  All concert size, but each quite different from the next.  On the left is Myrtle back and sides, Cedar top, Yellow Cedar braces, and all the rest of the wood elements will continue with the Northwest theme.  It will have some unique appointments which I'll show in another post.  In the middle we have Mahogany back and sides, Spruce top and ladder bracing.  Tried and true, it is going to a country blues fingerpicker.  And on the right is the small body archtop, also utilizing mostly Northwest and salvaged woods.  The Cedar for the top came from Skagit Salvage in Mount Vernon.  If things went another way, that piece of wood could have been a shelf, or some trim around a window.  I'm glad I get to use this one.  Stay tuned to see the completed trio.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Lil' Champ

  I just flew home from Alaska and boy are my arms tired.  No.. seriously.. tired from playing music for basically five days straight.  I was in Juneau for the 40th annual Alaska Folk Festival where my band the Gallus Brothers was the official guest dance band.  What an honor and what a ton of fun it was!  Some highlights were watching and listening to Bonsoir Catin from Louisiana, hanging out with Ray Troll in a great antique map shop, playing the Alaskan Bar (our old Juneau stomping ground), and staying up until daybreak playing music and getting goofy just about every night.  It was great to reconnect with lots of folks up north, and make lots of new friends too.  It was also a particularly great time for me because I got to take my latest guitar up there and put it through the paces.  Ladies and Gentlemen....    The Lil' Champ

  It's my first resonator guitar that I've built, and the first guitar I've made that I get to keep!  I've played on a few different metal bodied resonators over the last decade, most notably a couple by National Resophonic.  They are excellent guitars and have treated me well for performing and touring.  Over the years I've found myself gravitating towards the wood body sound, so building one has been on my to-do-list for a while.  This was somewhat new territory for me and I wasn't sure what I'd end up with.  My expectations have been fully realized and surpassed, and simply put, this guitar kicks butt!  It's got the volume, the tone, and the feel that I want.  Loud without being distorted, and the full, bass-rich tone with crystal clear treble that I've come to appreciate with the N.R. guitars.  I played it bare fingered in jams, with picks, and miked in a large concert hall, a gymnasium and a smallish bar and it shined in every setting.  It's 1 13/16" wide at the nut and a modified V neck that sits perfectly in the hand.  12 frets to the body, with a 25" scale length.  The body is the same shape as my concert model.  It's a thick, solid Sitka Spruce top, solid flamed Western Maple for the back and sides, and inside is a suspended, solid poplar soundwell.  The neck is three piece mahogany and runs straight through to the tailpiece just like on metal bodies.  The "lil' champ" logo is stenciled, in the fashion of some of my old favorites.

  I've also been busy with a couple other guitar styles that are a bit out of my norm.  First up.. the venerable workhorse, the J-45.

  OK, so this one's not much of a departure from what I'm usually building except for the sheer size.  I've never wanted to get into building Dreadnoughts.. they're not really my thing, and there's already plenty of people building 'em.  But Gibson's old slope shouldered sunbursted beauty has always appealed to me.  I tried to keep to general early 40's Gibson specs on the bracing and basic design.  It's a Sitka top over Honduran Mahogany, with Rosewood bridge and fretboard.  It's finished with a french polished spirit varnish.

  Next we have the gypsy jazz classic..  the Petite Bouche

  This is also one of those guitars that I've always loved and has been on the bucket list for awhile, so I was happy to oblige when a friend made the commission.  Since my friend lives in town here, he could come by and dig through the wood stacks with me.  He chose a great piece of bear claw Sitka Spruce for the top, and this pretty wild Myrtle for the body.  We decided to stay all domestic, so this one features poplar for the neck, and reclaimed walnut for the fretboard, bridge and head cap.  I made the tailpiece by hand with brass from and old letter press tray.  This guitar proved to be a fun challenge.  The thin flat top is heat bent just past the bridge, and the braces are all carved into a rather tight bend too, resulting in a domed top under considerable tension.  It's a very cool design that Mario Macaferri invented in the early 30's.  For this guitar, I used Francois Charle's excellent plans of Selmer #807.  The results, so far, are absolutely wonderful.

  And here's a photo of these two build buddies, in the works...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Winter Fun!

It's cold and dark outside, but it's always warm and dry down in the shop and I've been staying plenty productive down here.  Here's a couple of the most recent guitars to come off the bench.

This Grand Concert model was custom built for a great musician and friend of mine, Charmaine Slaven.  She kicks butt at everything I've seen her do, and that includes playing guitar, fiddle, clogging, calling dances, raising goats, and just being a general positive character in our community.  So I was naturally stoked when she asked me to build her a guitar.  This is what we came up with..

  That's Indian Rosewood for the back and sides, Engelmann Spruce top, Mahogany neck, and Ebony for the bridge and fingerboard.  Charmaine plays in a couple Seattle bands, The Tallboys, and a sort of splinter duo Squirrel Butter.  Inlaid on the headstock is a squirrel and the theme continues down the fretboard with nuts and seeds for position markers, and then culminates with the rosette with squirrel paws dancing around the sound hole with old dance step instruction style dotted arrows.

  We have an acorn, a pecan, and yes.. that's a peanut.  That's also Evo fretwire, which is a relatively new alloy on the fret market.  It has a slight brassy gold color, and supposedly outlasts the old nickel silver standby.  This is my first time trying it out, on some good recommendations, and will likely continue using it (of course the standard nickel-silver will always be available to those who request it).

  Charmaine's guitar is X-braced, feather light, and already sounds awesome.  Full, loud and rich.  I got to hear her breaking it in all weekend at The Portland Old Time Music Gathering, where I delivered it.  I can't wait to hear it more!

  And now for something completely different...

  This one was commissioned by a friend who had a vision of a big body electric archtop with all the bells and whistles that retains a simple old-school look.  It's a newly drawn, extra large body profile, with TV Jones pickups (made just down the road from here in Poulsbo, WA), Bigsby tremolo, and custom ivoroid appointments.  The "Extra Standard".

  All the inlays are hand cut from ivoroid which also matches the binding, heelcap, pickguard and truss rod cover.  The top and back are hand carved from scratch out of book matched Western Maple, and Engelmann Spruce respectively.  Hand rubbed stain, varnish, and then french polish for the finish.

  It sounds amazingly good as an acoustic guitar, considering the amount of hardware on it.  It had been awhile since I had done any wiring work and I was a bit anxious to hear it through an amp.  I rolled up my sleeves, plugged 'er in and did my best Merle Travis impersonation and...   phew!  It plays like a dream.  It screams, and bounces, and moans, and flashes, and to my relief I had to try really hard to make it feedback.  I never knew I wanted one before, but now that I've made this I won't rest until I have one for my own.