Friday, September 30, 2011

no place for socks

A long time ago there was a beginner violin maker who had it in his tiny brain to make an archtop guitar, because he liked the idea of the carved arching that made sense to his violin inclinations, and because it seemed logical from an engineering point of view too.

The idea died rather quickly over a beer with an acquaintance who was a well-known jazz guitarist and very influential guitar teacher, when he confessed that he needed to keep an unspecified number of woolen socks inside his beautiful instrument to make it usable at a gig.

This was not the sort of technical information this luthier was seeking, and the idea was dropped. He (I) couldn't bear to put all that work into questionable acoustics, so just got on with (mainly) making violas etc.

Now this doesn't mean that archtops aren't good or worth pursuing, just that one person's experience as expressed to another person's inexperience changed somewhat, the agenda of the latter.

The pic above is of the sides initially trimmed to the centre line. The black stains on the inside are remnant tannins that made bending hot wet blackwood such a messy business, but it will all be scraped off soon. I used my bending iron which is electrically heated, and the shape is created by covering the wood with a thin 'belt' of steel strapping to keep heat concentrated where it is wanted and to spread the stresses around the curves as they emerged.

I started with the waist bend- this is the tightest- and it is important to let the curve develop as the timber plasticizes with heat and moisture, rather than pulling or forcing a bend. It was all a bit mucky while doing this....and this isn't really inteneded to be a 'how to' blog, but I can photograph the equipment if anyone needs more information about this bit....I guess I have glossed over it rather superficially...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

working all over the place

 Is it all over the place? Or is there method in my madness? The rosette is done, the back has roughed out braces on it, the neck is roughed out the belly braces are split and ready to fit, the sides are bent and waiting quietly in the mold- resting, and watching the chaos unfold around them. Above, the neck has it's groove cut for the truss rod.

Above, the bandsaw is used to rough cut the taper on the neck. Below, not guitar bits at all, but part of an explanation for my work methods.
It is a painting from the late nineteenth Century by Paul Cezanne. In the early '70's this painter was a powerful influence on me at a time when I was also reading early ecologists talking about the relationship of everything to everything else. As I recall, this was referred to at the time as the first law of ecology.

As a painter, Cezanne attempted to reconstruct nature in such a way as to bring everything into harmony with its context- and that normally was a rectangular picture plane. So everything on that plane had a role to play, and nothing existed in isolation. A colour here would relate to a colur there, and a gesture or angle here would be answered somewhere else that was suitable. But one of his central messages was to 'advance the whole canvas simultaneously'.  In other words, don't begin at the start, begin everywhere so that the whole system can be realized together, and each part can be considered consciously and unconsciously as a component of the whole. The idea was that this would bring unity (physically, and in any other context of meaning).

analysis and synthesis

I loved this concept of unity, and I generally work this way still. First analysing the parts, then synthesising them through the craft and the ideas that it is able to carry. Fragment (to understand it) then combine harmoniously (to make it).

If there is ever a chance that we can make things that are really well considered and true  expressions of a set of clear, related ideas, then this is how, as a master of nothing in particular, I try to achieve it. Of course none of this will guarantee good craft or sound technique or even worthwhile ideas, but it is at least considered.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

can a rosette have meaning?

Can a rosette have meaning? Probably not, but that won't stop me from trying. This simple inlay for the rosette is made from a small piece of blackwood given to me by a venerable old timber miller in the 1980's. He was third generation wood cutter, and his son is fourth, and they've seen some changes in the Otways and Colac/ Camperdown/Cobden areas, and being of a green inclination, I could have been a bit hesitant about their work and their motives, but they were of a different breed altogether from the forest purging-cut-it-all-down type of outfit. They had a vested interest in keeping the trees growing and their livelihoods intact. 

But by the 1990's the big boys with the big contracts and the huge machines had made them all but redundant. Anyway, he gave me this from his woodpile, because he knew that I was one of those silly types that takes a pretty bit of wood and stashes it until I can find a worthy way to give it some dignity, and it might have taken thirty years in this instance, but he was right.

The little block was possessed of a bit of white heartwood along one edge, and I thought I could use it to create an abalone sort of tonal variation, using Otway blackwood on the belly to balance that Tasmanian stuff on the back, and to remind me of a lovely, decent man who really knew the trees.

 Here the pieces are happily assembled on some butcher's paper, with the grooves already cut for the two lines of purfling.

 And looking like something from outer space, the purfling has been glued in above.

And the whole caboodle cut free from the paper that was the stuff that a good butcher once used  for wrapping the chops before supermarkets made butchers into backroom boys putting things into plastic.

Here above, the belly has been routed to accept my little wooden offerings.

And above they have been glued in and are being scraped flat. Now whenever I look at that sound hole there are a whole range of things that I'll be able to think about, little things that link the man I am with the man I was, and some of the people I've admired, and maybe even the man that's trying against all sensible odds to learn how to make a nice noise with a guitar.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

neck stack boogie

 I had a lovely block of fiddle back blackwood- big enough to make two one-piece necks, but the grain orientation wouldn't have been ideal and there would have been a lot of unusable I decided to split it up. The result is enough to make three necks including pretty headstock veneers.

The stack is shown above, with the scarf already cut on the head. Below the pieces of one neck are aligned roughly as they will be glued. This headstock angle meant that the grafted head piece could be thinner than the neck piece (which will eventually taper towards that end).
 The pic below is of my ancient thicknessing sander. It has done the ribs on nearly every instrument that I've made over the years. It is a bit crude and slow, but I can produce wooden pieces as thin as tissue paper with it. It has an iron tube/roller inside with spiral wound abrasive paper adhered to it. The bottom plate is hinged at the back and adjusted with a screw at the front. A vacuum hose goes in the hole at the top to keep the dust at bay.
 The headstock graft has been glued (below) and the neck piece will be routed for the truss rod before I glue the rest of the stack. I did a bit of side bending between clients to-day, but was covered in black tannins from the timber, and everything was wet, and the phone kept going off, so I didn't photograph the process.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

little arches

The back plate here is getting its final scraping to bring it to my desired thickness. This process was pretty much done before jointing, but a further millimetre or so was removed, first with a toothed blade in a small plane, then with the scraper.
Here the concave workboard for supporting the belly while attaching its struts is in the first stages of being carved. First a template of the desired long arch was made, then a plane was used to create that arch on the plywood. The next shot shows the development of the shape with a small flat plane working mainly at right angles to the centre line to create the cross arched profiles. For the back, the maximum convexity of the plate is only about 3mm. The belly and the back each have their own workboard. A template was made for a major cross arch as well as the long one, just to make sure the shapes were true...the rest was done by feel.
 Some luthiers use a developed radius as the basis of the curved back and belly and there is a lot to be said for the thinking behind that, but I've found great pleasure in looking at and making arches for years now, and I've never found a pure geometric shape to look or perform as well as more complex and perhaps more organic curves and combinations of my arches will look a little less rigid, and a bit more like a hung chain than the surface section of a sphere. The centre of effort on the plate will have an unequal relationship to the various edges, so in my thinking, it should neither be central nor uniform in all directions.

The centre strip that reinforces the spine is of spruce here, with the grain going across the back. Here it is being cut away to fit the cross braces that will run at right angles to the centreline.

Monday, September 19, 2011

get back

 The timber for the steel string guitar back is from Tasmania- Acacia Melanoxylon (I must check that spelling), anyway it is better known here as Blackwood. I have some from the Otways here in Victoria too. The pic above is of the beginnings of the scraping to check the centre joint. These colours are quite raw in these shots, and are more mellow in reality, and will be much more homogenous when the finish goes on.
 This is the book matched joint, above. The wood under it is for the sides of the instrument. There is plenty of much better commentary on the web about the actual jointing process than I can give here, so I won't spell it all out. Suffice to say that the edges were jointed with a number 7 hand plane, using the plane on its side, running along a flat surface. This is so much easier than jointing violin or cello wood because it is so thin and therefore so much easier to keep the edge from running into a twist.

The gluing was done using clamps to hold the boards down tight on the outside edges while a batten is under the actual joining edges. Removal of the batten supplies the clamping pressure. You need to have something under the edges to avoid gluing the wood to the work board. I used wide masking tape.
This has been roughly sawn to a shape about 5 mm bigger than the final shape. I intend to be restrained in the amount of decoration on this instrument, letting the timber speak for itself- but I have given a bit of thought about the chosen 'composition' of the back grain....that dark centre has something to say about my moods when I'm not making something. I hope the flame might suggest something more subtle and a bit brighter about other bits of the maker too.

Now I have to make some concave surfaced work boards to provide the caul pressure for clamping curved braces and give the back some shape. I'm also tossing ideas around for the belly rosette....I want it simple, but strong, too.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

crossing the fret line

 For years I've always drawn the line at things that have frets. This default position made it easy to deflect guitar repairs, which I was always happy to pass on to a local guitar maker. In fact, before I retrained as a violin maker I had researched guitar making and had even made some templates, and accumulated some information.

There is even some tonewood from 20 years ago that I bought for my first projects. But after starting my little business, I needed to focus on one family of instruments, and other diverse ideas were shelved, and a splendid rationalisation was assembled about not making a guitar.

I've always been a bit intimidated by the plentiful world supply of guitars- we seem to stand knee deep in cheerfully economical ones built with the love and care of workers who have a tiny fraction of the sort of income that we could live on...and this is really starting to bite into the world of violins too.

Everyone wants to feel that they live in a society that has room for people to make a living perpetuating noble historical crafts, it is comforting to have these people around (especially when we want something fixed by a specialist) but not everyone seems willing to support the idea by paying adequately for the work. The GFC, globalisation of the marketplace and the easy purchase without local taxes, of goods from all over the world has the effect of splitting us into two worlds- the doers and the consumers. I'd rather be a doer.

Anyway, I digress into the sort of negativity that disengages readers...There are so many thousands of beautiful guitars in the world it is hard to get excited about making one, but I found myself doing just that, because it is to be for me. The process started with my restoration of the mandolin, but it was a very difficult thing for my fat fingers to learn. My eldest son provided the example though, by having so much wholesome fun learning the guitar as an adult. I began to follow his excellent example, and soon the old "what if" questions began to attach themselves to the bits of wood that I had stored for all these years.
These pics are of the beginnings of an outside mold for my steel stringed acoustic guitar. The top pic shows half molds being shaped with a pattern routing bit on the router table. The bottom pic shows the mold assembled and in the process of being finally shaped.

If there is interest I can blog my progress on this build. It is quite a different process from building a violin, but may be of interest to someone, nevertheless.

Molds are wonderful things and they come in many types. These are some  that I've made over the years.The example above is an outside mold for a violin, typically used by 19th Century French makers. They produce a very accurate rib shape, with tidy and consistent verticality. Because of this, many French beauties lacked the subtle nuance and 'swing' in the contours of Italian instruments that were made on an inside mold, and which allowed the ribs to curve into a slightly convex shape that was ideosyncratic but often breath-taking. By comparison some of the French models produced with this type of mold were clinical and a little too pristine for many eyes. This very characteristic though is what makes the outside mold so suitable for guitar making.....convexity and meandering outlines don't look well on a guitar.

 These viola molds are of the Italian type. Their most notable feature is the shape of the corner blocks.

The two pics above show a collection of half templates and German style violin and one cello molds. These Mittenwald pattern molds have a different block shape, but they have the added value of being easily collapsed while within the assembled soundbox.

Many guitar makers use no fixed mold at all. If the bending of the sides is done accurately, the mold can be redundant - but it does provide a wonderful, strong and reassuring structure to keep everything in the right place while fixing things into it, and shaping edges.

The reason I have chosen to use a mold is that I believe I benefit from producing consistency in designed shapes, learning mainly from nuances in tuning and a few consistent bodies can develop acoustically from a manageable number of variables. Overall size and shape are then design decisions, not the result of incremental variations in craft.