Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Everything But The Bridge

Today I got to see what my guitar is going to look like for the first time. The bridge and the tuners are still missing, a few minor repairs are needed, and hours of sanding and detail work remain to be done, but this is very close to what it will look like when it's finished.

I also finished shaping the neck today, and I love the feel of it. It's an amazing experience to shave away wood with a rasp, knowing that each stroke brings it just a little bit closer to its final contour. There is a point at which no measurements are taken and progress is gauged only by the the way it feels in your palm, its heft, and its shadow as you hold it up to the light.

And the amazing part is that, as you progress, your goal becomes obvious. Its shape becomes clearer and clearer, and it reveals itself.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

This Is Beginning To Look Strangely Like A Guitar

Completing the neck
This is getting downright thrilling. There have been many periods in the building process that have gone at a snail's pace. Sometimes a month or six weeks would go by without feeling like I accomplished anything, but this is definitely not one of those periods. It seems as though every time another minute of class time goes by, another big milestone is passed. I'm not naive enough to think that will continue - there will undoubtedly be plenty of opportunities for whining and frustration down the road - but it's harder and harder to avoid the fact that, while I still can't predict a date that I'll have a finished guitar, it's only a matter of weeks before I will have something assembled that any reasonable person would call a guitar. Once that happens, the rest is lacquering and tweaking and, based on what I've seen from students in past classes, that could be a few weeks or it could be a couple of months. We'll see.

I went to my regular Tuesday class this week, then joined the Saturday class to do a little catching up, and I'm sure I haven't made as much progress in a single week since I started almost a year ago.

At this point in the process there are many small projects that are going on at the same time, unlike earlier when we might spend a month or more on a single task. Over the past two classes I've worked on gluing veneer to the head stock, cutting and planing it to the proper shape, attaching the heel plate (more on that later), carving the neck, and several other things. And each of these little parts contribute to a very rapid pace in the evolution of the guitar.

Carving the neck joint
One project that I'm sure is pretty dull to read about, but I find interesting, is the addition of the veneer to the head stock. Three very thin sheets of veneer - two of walnut and one of maple - are glued onto the back of the head stock, reaching all the way to the intersection of the neck. After they dry, the neck joint is then carved, exposing the maple veneer in the form of a decorative line. When carving it, it's possible to manipulate the width of the line by changing the angle of the cut, which has the effect of exposing more or less of the veneer. And of course the veneer forms a line all the way around the head stock if you look at it from the side. The line is still very rough since I'm not finished carving it yet and it's a lousy photo, but you  can get a sense of it in the picture at right.

Speaking of carving, I think it might be my favorite part of building the guitar so far. Much of the process of building the instrument is making exact measurements and precise cuts, but the carving of the neck allows lots of freedom of interpretation. Obviously, certain dimensions have to be maintained, but a lot is left to the imagination. The shape of the heel where the neck meets the body, for example, or the contour of the line I just mentioned, are things that are left to the eye. And I really love using the rasp file to move a little here and a little there until it's just the way I want it.

Cutting the head stock to shape
Another very exciting step this week was finally starting to cut the head stock to shape. I've bored you with enough details in the post already, so I'll be brief. It takes a little imagination to picture the final product when all you have is a shape drawn on a rectangular face plate with a pencil. But when you start to cut it to shape it's exciting to see it come closer and closer to what you've envisioned for months. First, you cut away the excess with a band saw, then use a spindle sander and a hand plane to finish the rest of it. The only thing left to do now is to cut the arc on the top. Ted urged me to leave it for now because he says it will make some of the other final steps easier with the top still squared to it can be used to stabilize the neck when working on it. But I think he really just wants to torture me.

I could go on and on about other amazing feats of guitar building, but I'd be surprised if I haven't lost you already, so I'll save those for later. In the meantime, all I can say is the feeling I have right now is like the feeling I had when I was a kid going to the ballgame or the fair. I'm just practically jumping out of my skin to get to that guitar. And it just feels soooo close.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bridges, Plates, Stocks, and Dots

My bridge after the final shaping
Where to begin?!...It's been a busy couple of weeks, and we've made lots of progress. It feels as though we spent a month doing a little of this and a little of that and now, suddenly, all these little parts and pieces are  being put together in the shape of a guitar. And that very faint light at the end of the tunnel I talked about in my last post is getting a lot brighter in a big hurry. It's hard to say exactly when I'll be done because some factors are just too difficult to predict, but I'd say it's a good bet that you'll still be able to find a good homegrown tomato when I play it for the first time.

There are just so many parts of the project to talk about that even those of you who read this blog regularly (and are therefore obviously genetically predisposed to tolerating intense boredom) might nod off into your soup if I went into all of it. So I'll just give the thrilling highlights.

We haven't progressed much further on carving the neck, but we've made enough progress there that the rest of the work should go quickly. But we have made some important progress on other parts of the neck, including gluing the face plate onto the headstock. (As a reminder, the face plate is the part where the name of the instrument goes). The face plate is attached to the headstock and eventually the tuners will be attached there.

Attaching the face plate
The process is pretty straightforward. The face plate is a large rectangular piece of wood much larger than it will be when it's finished. So after sanding it to the proper thickness, the required length is calculated by measuring the end of the fretboard, then cut to the proper size. It's necessary to sand the end of the piece of wood at a 15 degree angle so that it will conform to the shape of the neck where it meets the head stock when it's glued. (You'll notice that a guitar's headstock is angled back about 15 degrees from the plane of the neck).

Then comes the fun part. Since we're not going to have a headstock that's 6 inches wide, it's time to decide what shape the headstock will be. And I have to say this was (and still is) a tough decision for me. There are lots of options, and if you've looked at many guitars you've probably seen a good number of them. In the end, I narrowed it down to a design similar to a Martin headstock, which is a very simple rectangular shape, and one designed by my teacher, Ted, which is quite a bit wider and has an arc on the top. I decided to go with Ted's, but I must confess I'm not sure I'm going to stick with it. I've already drawn the shape on the face plate and glued the face plate to the headstock, but it hasn't been cut yet. So I may yet change my mind. That's a decision for next week, I guess.

After gluing the dots
The other fun parts were drilling the holes for the fretboard dots and gluing them in and finishing the shaping of my bridge, both of which also required some artistic decisions. I'm happy with my choice on the dots, which is a little unusual, since I used much smaller dots than most people, but I think it's a good choice. I couldn't decide between the traditional setup, which is regular sized dots laid out in the traditional way, and no dots at all, which is like my Collings. I think my choice is a good middle ground and I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

The bridge turned out well, too, although I found a small little problem in the end. I was very happy with the shape when I finished  it until I realized that one side was shaped slightly different than the other. It's not glaringly obvious, but it's easy to see once it's brought to your attention. But then I thought about what my dear old Dad would have told me. First, he would have cautioned that trying to continue working on getting both sides perfect could very possibly wind up in "chasing it" as they say, and ruining what is good about it. And, besides, as he would have said, "that's how you know it's hand made." And if it's good enough for Pop, it's good enough for me.