Thursday, 30 December 2010

David Rubio, Luthier





Recently, thanks to my friend James Westbrook, I had the opportunity of examining the log book from the archive material of extraordinary English luthier, David Rubio. The rather grand front of this book is shown above, complete with an unused Rubio rossette. Log book is perhaps not the right title for this document; it is part diary, part note book, part order book. Initially, when I opened this, I was hoping for workbench notes on instruments made or examined, but there was little of this. However, this proved to be a document that inspired, educated and moved me.

David Rubio started building guitars in New York in the early 1960s. A career in medicine had been the intention but colour blindness prevented this. Rubio's skill as a flamenco guitarist brought him into contact with guitars and guitarists, and it was almost inevitable that his interest in making musical instruments grew.

Looking at the beginning of this log book you can see the origins of Rubio's business. Most of his clients at this time were local to New York, perhaps familiar faces to Rubio from his days as a professional guitaris? He also took in repairs; Domingo Esteso is mentioned, and he must have learned much from these instruments. It is quite apparent that David Rubio's reputation and workload gathered pace rapidly. The pages of this book fill as the 1960s progress and some familiar names start to appear.




One of the most important names to appear in these pages is that of Julian Bream. The support of Bream must have been important to Rubio, but Bream was also very lucky to find a maker of Rubio's caliber, and to have guitars and lutes made for him. It is easy to imagine Rubio and Bream at the Greenwich Village workshop, discussing instruments and pinning down the details of Bream's next commission. The image is added to by a small technical sketch on one of the pages. It is a detail of a lute by Thomas Goff, and it seems likely that this was Bream's lute that Goff made for him.




Tucked into the log book are some random documents such as a business card, pictured above, with the Duns Tew address. There are some receipts for wood from Andreas Gleissner (my first batch of 50 spruce tops came from Gleissner) and a fabulous letter from an American client arranging to pick up a guitar from Rubio after his relocation to England. The happy recipient of the guitar insists that he will take David and his wife for a celebratory meal at a restaurant of their choice.




There is much to be enjoyed in this notebook, and it really has fired me up in all sorts of ways. Last year I heard Paul Fischer at the Cordefactum guitar festival in Belgium, lecturing on Rubio and this notebook adds to my knowledge of a guitar maker I have long admired. One thing that is clear is that Rubio was an incredibly hard worker and I have heard that often meals would be taken into the workshop and eaten at the bench while he worked. His passionate curiosity turned him towards early instruments, violins and keyboard instruments. He really had extraordinary talents.

Above all else, this log tells part of the story of a man's passion, of his career and his contribution to musical instrument making. I had the good fortune to meet David Rubio, albeit briefly. I was a student at the London Collage of Furniture and on one occasion David and his wife visited the musical instrument making department and had a look around the workshop. I seem to remember that he recommended we should buy a rather expensive German vice, although that was beyond our reach at that time. Since then I have worked on a number of Rubio guitars and my opinion of him grows - a man of real substance and a fine luthier.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Purfling and binding





With the main body of John's guitar together, it has been time to move onto the purfling and binding. The picture above shows all the strips laid out on the bench. The cocobolo bindings are all cut from the same board and are in sequence, so the grain follows from one to another. It is a small detail that is missed by many, but gives me a quiet satisfaction.
The channel for the purfling is cut first and the veneer strips are glued in and held in place with pins. Then the second channel for the binding is cut and the binding is bent and fitted. I like to use cloth tape to hold the binding in place whilst gluing; it is one of those tasks that gives me great pleasure to complete.
The picture below shows the binding glued in place. The next job here is to scrape it flush with the top and rib. In this picture you can see the finely marked Amazon rosewood. and the detail in the cocobolo.




Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Of mandolins and other things....

Dating from the early part of the 20th century, this flat backed mandolin is not the most distinguished instrument I have had in recently, but has given me considerable pleasure to put back into playing condition. The picture above shows how much dirt accumulates over time. The original finish on the soundboard appeared to be a coat of sealer and wax, and then added to that were years of grime, more wax and DNA. Cleaning the soundboard is a very simple but enjoyable task; half an hour gently 'washing' the front revealed the aged spruce colour. In the picture I have just completed the first quarter and the contrast is clear.
The top 2 strings were tripled rather than doubled, which for me is a great bonus as it really does give a shimmering tone.



This picture really does not do this piece of flamed mahogany justice. A while ago Frank acquired this lovely piece of mahogany from Bob Smith of Timberline. This week we cut into it and I was the lucky recipient of 3 nicely flamed necks. I just had to run a plane over one of them and revel in the beauty of it. Mahogany is a timber that I am coming to value more and more. I am so looking forward to using this material - it should be just deep enough to cut for V joints. Imagine this mahogany with a burnished French polish....!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Gluing on a back

Here is the back to Johns guitar being glued, a job that always uses all of my wooden cam clamps. The pressure is spread by a shaped rim that sits around the edge of the guitar. I like using this method; every so often I think I ought to come up with a more elegant solution, but this is simple and it works. The only drawback is that the clamped guitar takes up a lot of room on the workbench, so I tend to glue up at the end of the day and allow the glue to cure overnight, ready for unclamping the following morning. I know some guitar makers like a jig,mold or tool for every job but I choose to work simply and not to have my workshop cluttered with equipment I only use occasionally.
Here is the back fully glued on and trimmed flush with the ribs. ( When did I start calling them ribs rather than sides...?) This is always a great stage in the build, as this is a fine opportunity to tap and flex the soundboard. Now I am thinking of the purfling and binding; I am going to use 4 matched cocobolo bindings that I know will complement the Amazon rosewood beautifully.
How much work will be done to day is unclear. Yesterday 20 cm of snow fell and brought chaos to a country not used to such weather. To my children's delight, their school shut because of the snow and it is shut again today, so playing outside (for me too) is the order of the day.







Thursday, 18 November 2010

Vicente Arias





The Vicente Arias guitar that I worked on earlier on in the year has been attracting alot of attention, so I thought I would post a few more images of it. Apparently this guitar was selected by Julian Bream for a cousin who wished to play guitar, although Bream has not been personally associated with Arias guitars to my knowledge. This is a plainly decorated guitar but the picture of the rosette illustrates the precise and delicate nature of the workmanship.


The bridge had lifted badly and so needed to be removed and re-glued. The picture above shows part of the process, and an original locating mark on the soundboard. The bridge is very dark, plain rosewood and completely unadorned.

This picture of the heel shows some delicate and graceful carving.
The label is incredibly faded and is not the later, and more familiar, 'medallion' type.
The picture below is of the headstock with a fine piece of Brazilian rosewood as the facing.
These final pictures show some internal details. The picture above shows the foot, or slipper (and some old repair cleats) and the picture below is a detail of the back bar, bent lining and side support.

The wrong sort of strings...

The wrong kind of strings and too many of them as well. In over 23 years of running a guitar making workshop, this is the first time ever that I have had a pair of 12 strings on the bench, so worth a mention I feel. I enjoy seeing steel strings and have even been made 1 or 2. These 3 are in for some adjustment.At the front is a John Kinnaird baritone 12, based on the Stella that Leadbelly played, and it has a really impressive sound. Paul's Yamaha needs the action bringing down a bit as did the Collings at the back. I like Collings although they represent a different guitar world from the one I know. Although there are some profound differences between steel string guitar technology and classical guitar, there is always something I can learn and enjoy from studying a good steel strung guitar.

Guitar assembly

Here are are a few pictures of Johns guitar coming together. With all the parts completed, the transformation from kit to guitar is very rapid, but it is a process that takes the uttermost care. It is at this point that precise final fitting takes place, and checks are made to ensure that the geometry and tensioning is as required. This is my more traditional instrument and the strutted soundboard would be familiar to Torres and Hauser. Behind the ribs in this picture are the tentellones ( the small blocks that hold the ribs onto the soundboard), the endblock and the neck wedges. On this guitar all these internal details have been made from salvaged mahogany. Old Victorian drawer fronts have been the donor in this case; when I cut into them there was a wonderful and indescribable smell of dry, aged wood, quite unlike sawing fresh timber.
On this model of guitar I use the Spanish method of building, with the integral neck. The ribs are held into the neck by wooden wedges which, when correctly fitted, push the sides firmly against the heel. I polish the inside of the block, for no other reason that it looks fine and finished.
Finally, all the parts are assembled, the last job is to individually glue in the tentellones with hide glue. This is the the last opportunity to study the inside of the guitar as soon the back will be fitted and glued, and the instrument will be a step nearer completion. Many makers have lamented the fact that all this detailed and precise work is lost from view!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Headstock work

The first winter storms are here with strong winds and lashing rain. Before getting into the workshop today I ventured down to the beach and was exhilarated by the waves. A dry, warm workshop is the place to be today.
Here are some pictures of a headstock I completed a few weeks ago for John's guitar. The back and ribs of this guitar are made from perfectly quarter sawn Amazon rosewood which is simple but elegant to look at. As such I felt it needed a few exotic details such as the use of snakewood for the headstock facing. This really is a special timber and the mottled figuring really is unique. A snakewood tree yields very little precious timber; usable trunks are rarely more than 20 cm in diameter. It has been used for turned decorative items such as walking sticks and lace bobbins and for the ribs of lutes and early guitars. It is very hard but polishes beautifully. I have carved round string ramps on this head. It gives me the opportunity of using a small mallet that was made for me many years ago by fellow guitar making student Nick Swann. The head is made of Lignum Vitae, an incredibly hard and resilient timber.
This a view of the side of the headstock just after the holes for the tuner barrels have been drilled. I use a stepped drill for this. This ensures the end of the barrel is held accurately and securely, but the barrel at the plate end does not bind. I like the fine lines of veneer between the cedar of the neck and the snakewood head plate.
The machine heads on John's guitar are Rodgers, held by many as the finest tuners in the world. They are indeed magnificent. David Rodgers has been making these tuners for years now and the wealth of experience he has is phenomenal. His great work is being continued by his son Robert. They are of course beautifully made and classically elegant to look at, but most importantly they work supremely well.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

1916 Manuel Ramirez/Santos Hernandez



This guitar came into the workshop a few weeks back and really fired me up. It is a Manuel Ramirez, built in 1916. The Ramirez workshop produced many instruments, some built by Manuel Ramirez himself; the others built wholly or partly by craftsmen employed by Ramirez. Some of the notable Ramirez craftsmen were Modesto Borregero, Domingo Esteso, and Santos Hernandez. It is this last name that creates real excitement as Santos went on to become one of the greatest guitar builders of the first half of the 20th century, and his instruments are still revered by makers and players alike. Manuel Ramirez died at the age of 52 in 1916 and the label shows that this guitar was completed after his death. If you study the picture above, you will notice that the initials S.H. are stamped on the label, showing that this was a guitar from the bench of Santos Hernandez.
The picture above shows the signature of Santos Hernandez on the underside of the soundboard.
Shot through the soundhole, this picture shows some internal workmanship.
This picture of the inside of the guitar shows some rather heavy handed repair work. Glue soaked material has been used to support some of the splits in the soundboard.
Andres Segovias first great guitar was a Manuel Ramirez guitar from 1912, that was built by Santos Hernandez. It was a source of great frustration to Santos that Segovia refused to acknowledge that this fine guitar was built by him.
The back and ribs of this guitar are made of Spanish cypress, a wood almost exclusively used for flamenco guitars, although I for one would be very happy to use it for classical guitars. This guitar is definitely a flamenco and has what Stefano Grondona has described as an 'explosive vitality'.
Although showing signs of age and considerable professional use, this guitar is in good, and largely original condition. When you look closely at the workmanship you can see that it is fine indeed. The simple but effective rosette illustrates the crisp and accurate work.

I was delighted to see this headstock as by chance I had used this design for the first time a few weeks before. I was copying a Hauser 1 headstock for a guitar I am building. Herman Hauser saw Segovia's Ramirez/Hernandez and occasionally adopted this design, although he is usually associated with the 3 lobed design of Torres.
The hole in the center of the headstock is for a cord or ribbon that can be used to hang the guitar on the wall.
This repair label shows that the guitar was repaired in the Jose Ramirez workshop in 1929. The picture below shows the label on the original case.





video

Saturday, 16 October 2010



This is how my workshop has been for most of this week and I have a suspicion that it is going to be like this for a few days more. The picture above is part of my stock of Rio back and sides. Once this is used up then that's it; I'm not buying any more. Most of my material has CITES certification although a few sets do not. (That was some timber that I bought years ago from a retired cabinet maker up in Essex.) I had all my Rio rosewood out to select a couple of sets for 2 guitars that I am going to built in 2011 and at the same time to photograph each set.
One of the reasons for sorting through all the Brazilian was to select some wood for a guitar that Julio ordered last week. It was good to meet up at last. I'm very much looking forward to making his guitar and hearing him play it.

I have just finished a couple of rosettes and I have another one to finish tomorrow. I like making these although it would be far cheaper and efficient to buy them as some makers do. This inlay is such a personal touch that I cannot imagine using a shop bought one. Although my rosettes have similar elements, each one is nevertheless subtly different and this year I am going to introduce a couple of new designs. This week I shall be dropping these rosettes into the soundboards I have selected and also continuing to work on the current guitars on the bench. Oh, and I will spent a bit of time each day polishing, naturally!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The memory of the hot summer is receding now and the workshop is returning to being a snug refuge from the cool seasonal weather outside. Looking out to sea the other day I saw a flock of brent geese fly westwards to their winter feeding ground, at Pagham harbour perhaps. They have spent the summer high in the arctic.
As the picture above shows, I have been busy making necks; there are a number of different headstock shapes here including Torres, Hauser, Friederich and Whiteman. Included here is the neck for Johns instrument, and a short scale guitar that one day I will finish for my children. I have also finished some bridges including this rather colourful rosewood one.
There have been many visitors to the workshop over the past couple of weeks. Most unexpected was Kai Heumann and his partner travelling back to Germany from Scotland. Kai, a fine professional guitarist also runs a guitar shop and a fabulous looking cafe. This looks like somewhere I would like to visit, drink coffee and listen to music...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010





It is a pleasure to be able to see one of my guitars again and last week Vic dropped by with his 2008 Whiteman guitar as the tuners needed some adjustments. I took the opportunity of taking a few pictures as this guitar was really striking. The back and ribs are beautifully patterned although for once that isn't the main focus of attention. The top is what really catches the eye as it is covered in the most spectacular bear claw figure, which gives the most sumptuous texture to the top. This guitar is bound in curly koa which adds a really rich detail. This guitar is maturing nicely which is something I don't always get to experience. I hear the guitars when they are new, so I get to hear the potential in them. Playing this guitar I could feel the roundness in the notes; the filling out; the quickening of the response. I would like to see this one again.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The pear tree outside the workshop is heavily laden with fruit and I am planning a campaign of harvesting, storing and baking. After a hot summer the transition to a cooler autumn is welcome. I always find the change of season inspiring and my energy levels lift dramatically. So, it's been a busy week in the workshop with quite a few projects coming together, and lots of detailed list making taking place planning out the work ahead.
The 2 new guitars for John and Richard are progressing well. I have nearly finished the neck for Johns Hauser guitar- I must post some pictures of that soon. Running alongside that is some polishing (there is always some polishing to be done in my workshop) and the ongoing restoration work on the Davis and the Lacote.
I recently acquired some more salvaged mahogany in the form of old Victorian drawer fronts. Not big enough for backs and ribs sadly but I have converted some of it into back bars. Wonderfully dry and stable stuff and a pleasure to reuse. I have also purchased some blocks of Adirondack spruce from RC Tonewoods in the States. This spruce was used on many old Martins and is a strong, light timber. I am going to use this very selectively in my top strutting.
Finally I have been rosette making and the picture above shows a selection of inlays to be used. I am frequently using a small quantity of shell these days and it can provide a sparkle to a traditional design.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

New tools, old tools...
The acquisition of fine woodworking tools has always been a passion of mine and there are some tools that I simply would not be without. In the centre of the picture is one of my two trusted cabinet scrapers. There is not one part of the guitar that isn't touched by this tool at some point or other. When I was first making guitars I used to get terrible blisters from using the scraper but my thumbs soon got used to it.
To the right of the scraper is my small thumb plane, whose main function is to shape the top and back braces, although it gets called into use for other tasks as well. This particular plane is no longer made I believe. I got it originally from Sidney Evans Violin making supplies in Birmingham.
At the top of the photograph is the newest tool in the workshop, a Lie-Nielsen block plane all the way from the USA. This really is a wonderfully made tool and is a pleasure to use. (Thanks Frank)
And finally the awl at at the bottom of the picture. This is a tool I use all the time and is one of those things I would be quick to save if a fire or flood threatened. When I was at college there was a great hunt to find Brazilian rosewood which was getting very scarce at the time (1985ish).
One of my tutors, Michael Gee, had just uncovered a huge pile of sumptuous material in Millers Dale, Derbyshire and I was determined to spend the summer vacation trying to track down some more. I was tool hunting in Brighton's Gardener Street market one Saturday when I found this awl, for 10p as I remember. The Gardener Street market was like a scene out of Brighton Rock, crawling with dubious antique dealers and fly-by-night chancers. You kept your hand firmly on your wallet as the place was the haunt of snatch purses. The handle of this little awl is exquisite rosewood and stamped with the name of its previous owner, F Monk.
I took the discovery of this tool as a good omen and looked forward to finding a lot more Brazilian rosewood but as it turned out this was the last I found that summer....

Richard Chapman has just sent me a copy of his new recording, Lost Places and I am thrilled to see this at last. This is a truly remarkable recording and one that I have heard much about from Richard and others over the past year. I have been working with him for several years now and the result of that relationship, the drop-shouldered cutaway guitar can be heard on this album.
Complex, yet utterly accessible, this is truly new music. It is hard to pin down but I find myself constantly drawn back to it. It has an elusive quality but is also shot through with a strong sense of the English landscape, particularly in On Downland. Go to Richards site to find out more.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Cyndy Burton, Jeff Elliot, Stephen Sedgwick and John Doan

The phone rang. It was Jim. 'Look, could you get that Panormo finished by Saturday? John wants to play some newly discovered Sor pieces on it! As you're coming anyway you could bring the guitar with you...' As it turned out the 1832 Panormo (French style; ladder braced) sounded grand especially with John playing it (The Sor pieces turned out to be freshly written rather than newly discovered). When I walked in John was playing a harp guitar made by Stephen Sedgwick. I hadn't seen Stephen for over ten years but he's aged better than me. His harp guitar sounded wonderful too. He and John were deep in conversation with Jeff Elliot and Cyndy Burton about harp guitars and guitar making generally. Jeff is one of the worlds finest guitar makers and builds with a simple elegance and a respect for the tradition of the guitar. I first heard one of Jeff's guitars many years ago at the Wigmore Hall played by Julian Bream, and it was lovely to meet him and Cyndy, albeit briefly.
Jim got a bottle of Madeira out from somewhere and we all marvelled at the fact that it was made ten years before the Panormo.
John Doan is not only a fine player but a great guy as well and talks about the guitar with huge enthusiasm. We spoke at length about the relationship between player and maker. Some players just don't get it (believe me, I know) but it was clear that John had a great respect for the makers he has worked with. If you get the chance to hear John play; grab it.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010





The Cordefactum Guitar Makers Fair in Belgium has been one of the most enjoyable guitar events I have attended and credit should be given to the team from CMB who organised it. CMB is a prominent instrument making school in Belgium and the standard of work on display was fine indeed.
After tunnelling our way under the English channel, and cruising up the N16 through France and Belgium, the calm 18th century elegance of the Casteel d'Ursel was something of relief. It was filled with guitar makers from all over Europe. For me this was a grand opportunity to meet some new makers and players and to renew old acquaintances. Marc Peirelinck (I was at the London College of Furniture with Marc in 1985) was there as he is one of the tutors at CMB. We discussed guitars, old times and more guitars...


Good also to catch up with James Lister, who is currently one of the tutors at Newark. James had some handsome guitars with him including one with eye-catching kingwood back and sides.
A new face to me was Pete Beer who had some fine guitars on view. Pete pointed out a pike in with the carp in the still waters of the moat...
One of the highlights of the festival was the quality of the lectures and performances. I missed Fabian Zenon but heard many good comments the following morning.
The classical guitar makers lecturing throughout the 3 days were Andreas Tacchi from Italy, Gernot Wagner from Germany and Paul Fischer from the UK. Gernot and Andreas both gave an insight into their personal methods of working; Gernot Wagner has been one of the guitar makers to pioneer the use of laminated or 'double' tops. Paul took a different approach and spoke of the development of 20th century English guitar making. Starting with Dolmetsch at the end of the 19th century, Paul then spoke of his time with the late David Rubio, before concluding with the contribution made by some of the UK instrument making schools such as the London College of furniture and Newark. Andreas spoke of the importance of top selection and the way in which he selects logs up in the mountains and then evaluates the timber. He also spoke of measuring the speed of sound in spruce, a topic that interested many present.


Leaving Belgium late on a mellow Sunday afternoon we had a somewhat unplanned foray into Gent and then coasted back down the almost empty motorway. The soft evening sky looked huge above the flat land of northern France; the channel tunnel felt like a spaceship and Kent was dark and wet. We arrived back home past midnight and I found myself drawn into the workshop, fired up and full of ideas...