Friday, April 22, 2011

Jigs, Mortises, Blanks, and Tenons

Placing the box in the jig
Suddenly it seems things are moving along very quickly. A few weeks ago I had a bunch of pieces of wood that didn't resemble anything really, much less a guitar. Now I have a box that looks very much like a guitar and I'm ready to attach the binding and purfling, which makes the list of things left to do to the box pretty short. And I've already begun work on the neck. Don't get me wrong, I'm a very long way from the end (or even the light at the end of the tunnel), but tangible progress seems to be coming quickly these days, and that makes it a lot of fun.
This week I made good progress in two areas. First, I routed the neck mortise (that's the slot where the neck is inserted). Like many things about building a guitar, it's a very complicated and difficult task made much, much easier by a jig, which you can see in the picture at left. It consists mainly of a slot on the top that guides the router bit as you cut a huge hole in your guitar. (You may remember me describing that feeling last week. It was just as cringe-inducing this time).

The mortise after routing
The difficult part is positioning the jig, since placing it even a fraction off can cause huge problems, like a guitar that won't play in tune, buzzes a lot, and sounds horrible (all things one would like to avoid). But after getting it in just the right place, the rest is fairly easy. And after several passes with the router, getting deeper each time, you have a beautiful mortise ready to receive what you hope will be an equally beautiful neck tenon. But first one must have a neck. That was the next job.

In creating a neck, the first step is to create a neck blank, which is essentially a block of wood in the rough shape of a neck. It has a big chunk at one end from which the neck tenon will be carved, a shaft that will be contoured to just the right shape for the fingerboard, and a flat part at the end where the headstock will go. But first the wood for the blank has to be prepared. We're using mahogany - Honduran mahogany, to be exact - which is typical for guitar necks. And although the slab of wood was big and thick enough to make a whole slew of blanks, it's not just a matter of cutting it to shape.

Gluing the neck blank
Since it's so important for the neck to be not only strong, but straight and resistant to warping, the slab of wood is cut to the right length, then cut in half along it's length. Then it's folded together so that the grain of the wood meets in the middle, which will make it strong and stable after it's glued together (as you can see in the picture) and clamped. Next week, I'll cut the blank out of the glued piece and begin shaping my neck.

So we're moving right along now and I'm actually starting to try to estimate when I'll be able to finish. This is obviously a mistake, but it's hard to resist. And no doubt by talking about finishing, making lots of progress, and tangible results, I'm tempting fate in the worst way. But as strange as it sounds (especially for someone like me with a well-deserved reputation for impatience) I seem to be in less and less of a rush. Over the past month or two I've come to realize that I really enjoy what I'm doing. It's tedious sometimes and often frustrating, but all in all a very good way to spend a few hours every week.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Zen and the Art of Guitar Building

It's been a couple of weeks since I posted an update, so I'll start with a report on last week's class.

I sanded. For three hours. Without stopping. The end.

And that's it for that post. It sounds mind numbing, I know, but I guess that's its charm. I can't say I'd want to do that all the time, but I admit there's something about going to class after a day at work and losing yourself in the most minute details. I've never spent much time meditating, but I have a feeling it has a lot in common with a three hour stint sanding the sides of a guitar (aside from the fact that meditating doesn't usually involve being covered with a film of rosewood dust).

Routing the binding and purfling ledges
And the important thing is that the outcome was good. The purpose of all that sanding was to smooth and even the guitar's sides in preparation for routing the binding and purfling ledges. The binding is the strip of material that is applied around the edge of the top and back to bind them to the sides and they also serve a decorative function. And the purfling is a decorative feature that is applied next to the binding. While the binding is one strip of wood, the purfling is several strips (3 for the back and 5 for the top) of thin strips glued together. The multiple strips alternate in color so that if you were looking at the top you would see walnut binding on the outside edge of the guitar, then five thin strips alternating dark and light color inside that.

So the job this week was to rout out the ledges for the binding and purfling to sit in. Since the binding is wider, it's necessary to rout once around the top and back for that ledge, then another narrower ledge on top of that for the purfling.

After routing the ledges
And let me just say this: taking a power tool and cutting big chunks of wood out of something you've spent the last seven months working on is NOT meditative in any way. I can think of a very specific way to describe the feeling but since my dear mother may read this post, suffice it to say that it's not for the faint of heart, especially for someone who can count the number of times they've used a router in their life.

But the job is complete, my guitar is intact, and I'm now ready to begin work on the binding and purfling. I'll start work on that task next week. And the final achievement this week was to rout the end graft. I wish I had remembered to take a picture because it was very satisfying and looks very nice. It would also really help in explaining exactly what it is. I'll try anyway. The end graft is a strip of wood at the very bottom of the guitar (where the strap button will go) that covers the intersection of the two sides. Like the binding, it has both a functional and a decorative purpose. Now that it's been routed, a strip of walnut about 1/2" wide will be inserted.

It won't be long before I'll be working on the neck. This thing might wind up with strings after all! Wonder of wonders.