Sunday, 31 July 2011

Making guitar parts

Last week I spent some time producing a number of components for future guitars. Normally I make in batches of 2 instruments at a time, although at the moment I am making 1 guitar and finishing off various long term projects at the same time. The picture above shows sets of ribs for future orders; the nearest ones, that look a bit blotchy at the moment, are satinwood. Most of the time these days I bend ribs in my side bender rather than on the traditional bending iron. It is quicker, more reliable on highly figured woods and releases me to work on more important parts of the guitar. I can bend ribs quickly by hand (I should be able to - I've bent enough of them!) but the bending machine takes a few minutes of of my time, and then I work on something else until it has cooled down. In the winter it helps to heat the workshop as well!
The bending machine I use is found in many guitar makers workshops these days. Designed by American guitar maker Charles Fox, it uses light bulbs as its' heat source and really is a tremendous bit of equipment.

I have also been busy preparing a bundle of fingerboards for future use. I have featured my table saw on a recent post, but I enjoy using it so much I thought I would mention it again. I have just cut the fret slots in 6 fingerboards and each board took about 3 minutes. It really saves time doing it this way and is very accurate.

I have listened to heated debates amongst makers concerning the use of machines verses traditional hand tools. There is a school of thought that believes a guitar will be better if made entirely by hand, and that any use of machinery will impair the quality of the final instrument. This is not a belief I share. Much as I love and respect fine hand tools and their usage, I am very happy to make use of machines and new manufacturing innovation and technology.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Herman Hauser

Hauser has a special place for me as the first great guitar I held, played and examined was a guitar that Hauser made in 1935. Once, as a young student in London, I was chatting to Colin Cooper, then the editor of Classical Guitar magazine. He mentioned that Victoria Kingsley had a Hauser, and a Bouchet. I duly wrote to her, asking if I could see the guitars, to which she kindly agreed. I visited her in Hampstead one dark winters evening and she very trustingly left me alone with her instruments for as long as I wished. She also provided me with a cup of delicious Earl Grey tea, served in a delicate china cup. Sadly the light was bad, and my photographic equipment primitive. The picture above is the only one I have. I took notes and measurement, expecting a great secret to be revealed: I am still waiting for that revelation.
Below is a picture of a page of the notebook into which I made notes and measurements, and the note from Victoria Kingsley. They are resting on the template I made of this guitar, and that I still have and use in the workshop.
I regret that the guitar was strung with the oldest strings imaginable, but what I regret more is not talking more to Miss Kingsley who had led the most remarkable life, which was eventually to run to 100 years. I will always be grateful to her for her generosity and trust in allowing me to learn from this beautiful guitar.

Hauser is one of those names that in guitar making circles has gained almost mythical status. Undoubtedly one of the most copied makers of the 20th century, his guitars have been used by hugely influential players, of which Andres Segovia and Julian Bream are the most notable. The prices that his guitars fetch are massive, and many are bought by collectors rather than players.

I have recently been going through my archive of papers and photographs and taking the opportunity of throwing quite a lot of material out. The pictures in particular have provoked quite a few trains of thought; none more so than these pictures of a Herman Hauser guitar that I worked on 4 or 5 years ago. Built in 1941, this guitar is pretty representative of Hauser's output and includes his characteristic rosette, headstock and inlay. Whilst it was in the workshop I took the opportunity to take detailed measurements and from these produced a full size working drawing. There were no surprises with this guitar, and anyone who is familiar with drawings of Hauser guitars by Richard Brune and Jeff Elliot will immediately recognise the details on my drawing.

The 1941 guitar was a pleasure to have in the workshop. The back and ribs were Indian rosewood, a timber that I have seen on a number of Hauser's instruments. The neck was mahogany with a tight, precise V-join. The top was of good quality but had a number of previously repaired cracks. It was thicknessed to 2.5 mm, thinning to 2.2 around the periphery. It should be noted that the instrument had been refinished, although I felt that the top had not been substantially altered. And how did it sound? Well-balanced, refined, not loud (nor quiet), a deep bass register that had not become be honest I suspect it was past its best, but it is still a fine guitar. A hugely important piece of classical guitar history but no longer a concert guitar in my opinion.

2 years ago I was walking through Central Park in New York, wondering whether I had time to fit in a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was close by. They hold a fabulous collection of guitars, including Segovia's '37 Hauser, which he described as 'the greatest guitar of our epoch'.

The more I thought about it, the more cross I became with that statement and began to see it as rather destructive. I suspect Segovia was saying more about his own involvement with this guitar than anything else but it set the seeds of a grand distortion.

I, like many others, have been brought under the indefinable spell of Hauser, and have certainly played and heard some beautiful guitars that he made. He understood the materials he was working with, and he understood the nature of the instrument he was making. However, Hauser's qualities remain elusive and one wonders sometimes how his, or any maker's status for that matter, should really be evaluated.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sunday evening and I am planning out the week ahead in the workshop. The main task tomorrow will be to grain fill Julio's guitar. These are some of the last pictures I will post of it until it is polished and strung up. It is one of those guitars that I am really looking forward to polishing as the woods I selected for it are subtly striking. The picture above shows the guitar being fretted: I use a metal headed hammer and and a soft-faced hammer. The metal hammer for the first tap in and the soft hammer for the final seating blow. Fretting always makes me thing of my old teacher Herbert Schwarz, who, when showing students how to install frets, would almost invariably end up with a flourish of hammer blows -'da dadalada da, bang, bang'! He would them glance around the workshop with a wry smile to see if anyone had noticed. I still do it now and again, even when I am alone in the workshop. I like to think that Herbert notices and smiles, wherever he is.

The metal pincers, used for nipping off the fret ends, were bought when I was a fresh faced student in 1984. Made in China, the were bought from a little hardware shop on Lower Marsh, just behind Waterloo Station in London. They're cheap rubbish really, but they work and are never far from my workbench.

Here is a picture of the fret slots being cut in the ebony fingerboard. The motor is taken from a very cheap table saw (the table and the blade being virtually useless) and a bespoke MDF table build around it. The sliding carriage is the simplest possible but is spot-on accurate. The time saved by using this saw, rather than doing it by hand, is so considerable that I wouldn't want to return to doing it with my specially set Roberts and Lee hand saw, however much I love that particular tool.

And finally, here is the heel cap being glued on Julio's guitar. The Cocobolo bindings look rather fine here; cocobolo is one of my favourite woods for bindings although I am getting a bit low on stock. In the background you can see a fingerboard being glued to another guitar. I use a polyurethane glue for fingerboards and you can see all the squeeze-out foaming around the neck and fingerboard.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Test guitar

I have had this guitar kicking around for about a year now, but I only got around to stringing it for the first time last week. The idea of building a test bed guitar has appealed for a long time and I really am looking forward to working with this. The top can be changed in about 15 minutes and the list of things I want to test is growing and growing. For a month or so however I am just going to play around and get a few strange ideas out of my system! Ultimately , a disciplined approach is required to get the most from this. I'll post more on this later...

It has already been a full week. On Monday John Beckett from Northern Ireland visited the workshop with one of his guitars. John and I have been talking on the phone and via email for about ten years now but this was the first time we had actually met. It is always nice to talk about guitars and to see other makers work. The guitar John had with him was spruce and Indian rosewood, and conventional in design and build. It had a fine,balanced sound with plenty of volume and sustain.

For the rest of this week I shall be preparing two guitars for polishing. It always astonishes me how long it takes to clean up guitars and the grain filling process is one that really can be quite laborious. I strap on my dust mask, put some music on the CD player and just get on with it. (This week the workshop playlist will alternate between Julian Bream and the Foo Fighters!)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

trussed and bound

At the beginning of this week I completed the binding on the two guitars that I am building at the moment, including this guitar for Julio. Both these guitars have cocobolo bindings, which is one of my favorite woods for this job. I know I've posted pictures of this operation before but it always makes for a good photograph.
Going back even further are these shots of the back inlay going in. Although I used to make the channel with a scraping chisel, I now prefer to use a router to make this cut. I don't have any problems with using routers (or bandsaws, piller drills etc) to build my instruments. There is a school of thought that says that a hand made guitar should be made using traditional hand tools only, but this is a not a view to which I subscribe.There are guitar making tasks that are made genuinely more efficient by using machinery, and the time saved can be more usefully spent on operations where the precise touch of the makers hand is needed.
This is a picture of the back strip fitted but not glued as yet. You can also see the rather stunning rosewood, which has some lovely colours and a nice tight grain. It is very well quartered too. as can be seen by the medullary ray figure.