Wednesday, November 23, 2011

That's All She Wrote

Finished on November 22, 2011
It figures. Since I started working on my guitar over a year ago it's been like this. One day everything falls into place so perfectly that it's hard to imagine that anything could stand in the way of finishing the perfect guitar in record time. A week later it feels as though significant progress is a thing of the past and the rest of the process will be nothing but a miserable slog.

I'm very happy to say that yesterday was the former. After struggling mightily with my setup for the past week, I walked into class yesterday praying I could get to at least a reasonably good place with my guitar before Natalie and I left for Birmingham for Thanksgiving. All I wanted was to be able to take it along and feel it was getting closer to being finished. But I was in class for only a half hour before I realized it: Today was the day. Not only was I going to be finished, but I was going to leave class with a real guitar - not just one that I would be proud of because I built it, but an honest to goodness excellent instrument. And by the time I left, no qualifications were required. There would be no more "little by little" or "almost there." The setup is fantastic. The pick guard, strap button,  and end pin are installed. It's buffed to a shine bright enough to see your reflection.

Yesterday was the last class and I'm done.

I said in my last post that my impatience served me well this past week, and it's really true. I beat my head against a wall trying to figure the complicated set up process, but I got closer and closer. Enough so that every buzzing sound, every muffled note, and every out of tune chord was eliminated with just a few small suggestions from Ted. Most of the problems were solved by a few strokes of a file on the back side of the string slots in the nut. It took five minutes at most. And with a few more suggestions and the encouragement to lower the action (the distance between the strings and the neck) even more, I had it playing like a dream.

After coming home last night, I restrung it with good strings and played for quite a while. And I really couldn't believe it. This guitar is not a week old and the sound is incredible. Without a doubt, I'm biased. And I'm sure my judgement is clouded, but I was able to convince myself last night of this: I own six other guitars, three worth thousands of dollars each, and mine is not the least of them. Any guitar takes time to open up, and I won't even begin to know what it will sound like when it's mature for at least a year. But, according to Ted, there will be noticeable improvements in the sound even in the next week as the wood stabilizes and stretches out.

I've begun to wonder if the guitar I built won't wind up being one of the best I own. Like I said, I'm biased, and I know my opinion lacks objectivity. But that I'm even asking the question is absolutely amazing to me.

So that's it for now. I'll play my guitar for a couple of months, then I'll start it all again in January.

For the record:
Date started: September 7, 2010
Date completed: November 22, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

FINISHED! (Sort of).

The Harris D-8
After more than fourteen months of Tuesday classes and weeks of agonizing anticipation, the day finally came. The slots for the bridge pins had been carefully placed, the frets leveled and polished, and the time had come to string it up. It took longer than I expected, but before long I was tuning up that last string.

The big moment had arrived. Time for the first beautiful notes from my new guitar, and......THUD! It sounded like crap. Not just a little like crap, but a LOT like crap. It buzzed, it was nearly impossible to play, and it was out of tune. And that's the GOOD part.

I have to confess I wasn't prepared for it. I was prepared for not finishing in time to string it up. I was prepared for the likelihood that adjustments would be necessary. I was not prepared to be playing what was quite possibly the worst guitar I had ever strummed. Once again, I was being asked to exhibit a quality that I possess in quantities too small to measure: patience.


But I'm getting there little by little, and I may have learned as much about guitars since I "finished" it than I did while I was building it. I've learned volumes about how the sound of a guitar is affected by minute adjustments in the bridge, the nut, and even the slots in the bridge where the strings are attached. I now have a new appreciation for the "set-up" technician, and I now know not to judge a guitar by how poorly it plays and feels without first checking all of those minor details.

I've made huge leaps in my knowledge of how to resolve those issues. It is not simple, I can tell you that. And truth be told, I think my lack of patience may have served me well in this case. Since I couldn't stand the thought of waiting to get Ted's help next Tuesday I learned by trial and error. I knew that the worst case scenario was that I would screw up my nut or saddle, either of which would cost a couple of bucks and a few hours at most. So I now know lots and lots about how NOT to set up a guitar and much more than I did last week about how TO set up a guitar.

So I'm feeling very, very good about it now. I actually spent more than an hour last night playing a guitar I built myself and while I was playing, I forgot the fact that I built it more than once. I take that as a huge victory. It still needs lots and lots of work. It isn't anywhere close to playing and sounding the way I want it to. But I'm finally ready to say it: I think it's going to be a really, really good guitar. The quality and balance of the sound is fantastic. It has excellent volume and projection. And those things will only get better as it opens up, which will take months and years.

With luck, this coming Tuesday will be the last class I need to clean up the rest of the details. I may need to continue tweaking for a few weeks, but anything other than tweaks should be behind me. Then I'll take a break and play my guitar until January. Then it's time for round two - the archtop.

By the way, most every guitar has a model number, so I decided to call mine the Harris D-8. As with most guitars, the letter refers to the body style (in this case, a Dreadnought). The number usually refers to the degree of fanciness of the inlay and binding. But I decided to number mine after Joe Morgan, second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds during their "Big Red Machine" heyday in the 70s, when Little Joe was my hero. I wore his number on my little league uniform. I always loved Joe Morgan because he was little, but he was still powerful and quick on his feet. That's what I want my guitar to be like.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Close, But No Cigar

So close and yet so far. Agonizingly, tantalizingly, close. But everything has a time, and today was not the day.

I went to a Saturday class today to try to get closer to finishing, and I had it in the back of my mind that I might actually get to string it up today. And it turns out that I came much closer than I thought I would. As a matter of fact, I could have done it if I had stayed another hour. But after almost four hours I was starving and starting to make mistakes. And the last thing I wanted was to get that close and screw it up.

But I made great progress today. I got the rest of my frets laid and the tuners attached, made some progress on the nut and saddle, and even did the final sanding on the top. So there's no doubt about it. I'll be playing that guitar on Tuesday. Those small remaining details will probably keep me busy for a week or two, but that's it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Down To The Wire (Literally)

13 more frets. 6 tuners. 6 strings.

Preparing the frets
That's all that is standing between me and a guitar I can play. And the moment of truth is nearly at hand because, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I'll be putting strings on it in my next class. What happens after that is a mystery but, with luck, I'll be spending more time playing it than I am adjusting it. But only time will tell.

Last night's class was a very productive one. The first big task was to level the fretboard and to clean up the binding that runs along its edge. It was mildly monotonous, but after six straight weeks of sanding it was a breeze. And the sanding requires a little special care, since the fretboard is radiused (meaning it has a slight arc from one side to the other rather than being flat). After finishing the sanding and cleaning out the fret slots, it was time to move on to the frets.

Fretting a guitar is an especially interesting process. Even after 40 years of playing the guitar, I really had no idea how a fret is attached or even what the whole thing looks like. It turns out it's a pretty complicated little piece of wire. It's basically a "t" shaped piece of wire with a rounded top. The rounded part is the part you see when you look at a guitar and the "t" is the part that is inserted into the slot on the fretboard. The "t" part has barbs running along its length so that it grabs the wood when it's hammered in.

Magnified close up of a fret
But it's not that simple. The fret extends from the fretboard to the edge of the binding, so a small portion of the "t" needs to be cut away from the rounded top part at each end. This requires a special tool and lots of precision. In addition to that, the fretboard gets slightly wider as it goes toward the body, so each fret is slightly longer, meaning each one has to be measured individually, and then carefully clipped before hammering in. As is almost always the case with guitar building, it's the preparation that takes most of the time. When it comes time to actually hammer the frets in, it goes pretty quickly. I could have easily finished in 20 minutes or so, but it was already 10 minutes past the end of class time so I had to save it for later. I should be able to finish that quickly in the next class. Then I'll just need to level the frets and file the ends down.

Then it's just a matter of attaching the tuners. The difficult part has already been done, which is preparing the holes in the head stock. Now that that job is behind us, it's simply a matter of fitting the tuner parts into the head stock.

The Collings and the Harris getting acquainted
I will then have a guitar. A few cosmetic details will remain, like the pick guard, truss rod cover, and strap button, but it will be ready to play without those things. Then it's just a matter of adjusting.

So the word has been delivered from upon high: We WILL be stringing up guitars next week.

I brought my guitar home this week, not because I'm going to do any work on it here, but because I can. And I have it hanging up in my music room right next to my Collings and it looks like it belongs there. By the way, the color of my guitar is about the same as my Collings (on the left) was when I bought it ten years ago. The wood will darken gradually, although my new guitar has an Adirondack Spruce top as opposed to a Sitka Spruce top, so it will be a little redder in color when it ages.

So, to sum it all up: Wow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Final Weeks

Masking before gluing the bridge
Well, it was almost two months ago that I proclaimed, "the end is nigh!" I'm not sure of the precise definition of the word "nigh" but I'll admit that it probably refers to a period of time shorter than two months, so one should always maintain a healthy skepticism when I make such statements. Having said that, I am almost finished!

Last night I did a little bit of touch-up sanding on the top, but spent most of my time gluing the bridge on the guitar. And, as is the case with many parts of the process, it's substantially more complicated that you might think. For one thing, the placement of the bridge is absolutely crucial, so great care and many, many measurements are taken to ensure its precise location. If it's out of place, nothing can be done. It won't play properly and, worst of all, it won't ever be in tune. So I spent a good bit of time working with Ted to make sure it was perfectly set before moving on.

After setting the location, holes for the strings need to be drilled. It's a fairly simple process so I won't go into detail. The small holes I drilled yesterday will eventually be bored out to their full size so that the bridge pins fit into them, but the purpose now is to establish the proper placement of the holes.

Scraping off lacquer before gluing the bridge
The next step is to mask the area where the bridge will be placed with tape and to then trace the shape and location of the bridge. The tape in that area is then cut and removed so that the lacquer in just that area can be scraped away, leaving a wood surface to which the bridge can be glued. And after countless layers of lacquer, it's not as easy as it sounds. Then the bridge is glued and clamped.

By the way, if you're interested in milestones, I'm pretty certain that's the last glue I'll use on my guitar. I might be missing something, but I think it is.

So I am really running out of tasks. The biggie is the frets, although I've been told that's a job that can be easily completed in one class. The tuners need to be attached, but the holes are already ready, so that's simply a matter of drilling two small holes for each tuner and screwing them in. The nut (the piece of material that holds the strings as they pass from the headstock to the neck) needs a little work on the slots. The pick guard needs to be attached, which should take a good five minutes. And then comes the stringing and adjusting.

Clamping the bridge after gluing
It looks like the odds are very good I'll be bringing my guitar home on the 15th or 22nd. It might even have a few small things left, but they should be things that can be done out of the shop. So two or three more weeks looks most likely. Maybe four, but I doubt it.

And another sign that we're almost finished: My class (with two additions) huddled last night to plan the purchase of wood for our arch top guitars, which we will start building on Tuesday, January 24th.

You must be relieved to know you get another 14 months of my blog. Lucky you.