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

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