Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Binding, binding, and more binding

Gluing the binding and purfling to the top
It's been a few weeks since I last posted an entry because I've been working on pretty much the same thing since then. As predicted, attaching the binding and purfling was a long and exacting process, but not one I found tiresome. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact.

I've already described the process, so I won't go into much detail. It's simply a process of fitting sections of binding and purfling into the ledges I routed around the top and bottom. The pieces have to be bent to shape and  fit very precisely because the finished product won't hide many imperfections. It's one of the parts of the process that really separates a well made guitar from one that's not. The binding and purfling are both made of wood and are very thin (the purfling, in particular) so they're very delicate, and fitting them precisely without breaking them is no simple task.

Trimming the binding and purfling
But things went pretty well. There were a few challenges as there always are, but it all came together and I'm nearly finished now with only a little more sanding to do. I should explain that the first step is to glue the binding and purfling in. Then, after it dries it's necessary to plane the excess wood away so that it's even with the top and sides. Then it's sanded to finish. I've done all but the very final bit of sanding, which I should be able to compete quickly at the beginning of my next class.

I should also mention that there is a special thrill in getting the binding attached. When working on the top of the guitar early in the process, it's a very resonate piece of wood. You can really sense how it can turn into a beautiful sounding instrument. But once that top is attached to the sides, it becomes just a stiff piece of wood again and its resonant properties are really diminished. That is until the binding is attached. With that simple step, all of the wood pieces become one and they begin to resonate as one unit, and all of the work carefully carving the braces and fitting the pieces so carefully together pays off. There is still work to  do to get the box to its full potential, but adding the binding is an important and satisfying step.

After sanding the binding
We completed one other small task this week, which was to cut out our bridge blanks and rout the slot for the saddle. (For those who need some definitions: the bridge is the wooden piece at the bottom of the guitar to which the strings are attached. The saddle is a piece that sits in the bridge. The strings run down the neck, over the saddle and then connect to the bridge). The bridge is made from ebony which is, of course, very hard material. So we cut it in a rectangle to rough size, then we routed the slot. This is a simple but very important step since the saddle doesn't sit straight. It's angled slightly to compensate for the size of the strings. Soon we'll be cutting it to the proper shape and drilling the holes where the strings will go after it's attached to the guitar. But next up is the neck. The only work left on the body is to attach the bridge and do the final tap tuning of the top, which involves sanding small sections of the top and continually tapping to test the resonance of the instrument until the best sound is achieved. So next week we'll begin the process of shaping the neck and attaching the finger board and truss rods.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Focus, Focus, Focus

Fitting the binding
My guitar building teacher, Ted Harlan, is a very laid back guy. So when he tells you that you're about to perform the most difficult, detail-oriented task of the entire process, and that if you mess it up your guitar will look terrible, you're inclined to take notice. That's what happened this week.

It's rare that Ted is so direct in his instruction, but he actually gathered me and my classmates, Gordon and Bruce, at the beginning of class to emphasize how important it was for us to really focus during this particular step of the process. "Take your time. Make sure your tools are as sharp as possible. Relax and focus," he said.

This critical step he's talking about is the installation of the binding. And I think it says something about Ted's emphasis on fine craftsmanship that, while the binding is definitely important to the construction of the instrument, the part that he was concerned with is purely cosmetic. The issue is that the binding that goes around the top and back of the instrument intersects the binding that runs on either side of the end graft. On most guitars, the binding intersects in a "t", but we're actually taking the time to insert a tiny mitre so that the purfling turns the corner.  (In case you're not familiar with the term, a mitre is a joint that forms a corner). It's not necessary for any other reason than that it's beautiful and a sign of attention to detail. But to get it right is not easy.

I won't go into the details other than to say it's a process that requires very careful fitting of parts and a series of perfect cuts, any of which could ruin the joint if not done properly. The detail is so fine that, for me at least, magnifying glasses were an absolute necessity. I couldn't possibly see the detail needed without them. 

After fitting the binding to the top, but before gluing
I'm finished fitting the binding to the top now and I'm happy to say it's just about as good as I could hope to get. Almost perfect even. But I still have plenty of chances to screw it up when I work on the back next week. Once I have the binding for the back fit, I'll fit the purfling that accompanies it (a much easier process) and glue it all in. Unless I run into problems, that should all happen next week. And, get this: with that step, except for sanding and finishing, the construction of my box will be complete. Holy Toledo.

Going backwards now, I skipped over the previous week's class so I'll give the quick update on that one. We took two very important steps in building the neck. First, we cut the slots for the truss rod (that's a metal rod in the neck that can be used to adjust it throughout the life of the guitar) and two carbon fiber rods that are inserted to add strength. 

There are a couple of slightly unusual things about the construction of my neck. One is that it has a bi-directional truss rod, meaning it can be adjusted either up or down. Most truss rods only go one way. The other is the insertion of the carbon fiber rods, which is a relatively new development in guitar building.

The cutting of the slots is pretty simple. It requires some very detailed calculations, but once those are completed, the process is easy. The next step is to cut the neck blank out of the wood block that I glued the week before. Slots are cut in both sides of the block, because the block makes two necks - one for me and one for my classmate, Bruce. Cutting it out is also pretty simple. It's cut to the rough shape of a neck before I begin the process of chiseling, rasping, and sanding it, attaching the fingerboard, and getting it to the final step of attaching it to the guitar.

Little by little, step by step, progress is being made. And it's remarkable how fast the process seems now. Every week seems to bring exciting new developments and with every hour that passes I see a beautiful instrument taking shape. Now if I can just keep from messing it up!

The components of the neck
The box and the neck blank