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.


  1. I don't claim any craftsman status but I am certainly a doer and have also noticed that doing doesn't pay. With limited time availble for productive work, reading about interesting projects, fills the void. I'd like to register my interest in the guitar build blog...with lots of photos!

  2. Same here.....Rob I assume this little interlude will also be filled with quiet contemplation of the merits of strip planking over carvel.
    He says with tongue in cheek.


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  4. Rob, I too would be most interested in following the build. What guitar making and boat building might have in common I don't know:

    I meant to drop you a line, I have acquired a pair of industrial sewing machines, if you fancy some sewing of boat covers or indeed a guitar cover give me a shout.

  5. Oh yes there would be interest in your building a guitar.
    When I was a teenager an enlightened teacher had three of us building mandolins, outside mould. I haven't built another instrument but "The Making of Stringed Instruments" sits on my bookshelf and maybe one day I'll build myself a guitar.
    At least they're a bit smaller than boats.

    Cheers Graham

  6. Thanks for the feed-back. (from a bunch of solid 'doers' if ever there was one)(although I'm not sure if 'bunch' is an adequate collective noun for doers).
    Cheers PB, Mike, Dale and Graham