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It’s easy to understand why professional guitar players choose to play large powerful instruments. They need to be confident that they can fill a concert hall with sound.

But why do amateur players so often select instruments with the same characteristics? After all, they are mostly playing for their own pleasure, and mostly in their own homes. When they do play for others, the audience is usually small and loudness is rarely an issue.

I’ve often wondered whether they might do better to choose a smaller instrument with a shorter scale length. The loss of volume would be slight and probably more than compensated for by sweetness of tone. The shorter scale length would make fewer demands on the left hand and flatter their technique. For players with a smaller hand span, a shorter scale can extend their repertoire, bringing pieces with extreme stretches within reach. And, of course, small instruments have the advantages of being lighter to carry and taking up less room when put away.

I’ve written about smaller instruments before but, apart from a single request from a client who wanted an instrument with a scale length of 630mm instead of the usual 650mm, never got much in the way of a response. Recently however, my patience was rewarded and I was delighted to be asked to make a small guitar. There are a few photographs of it below.

 

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It’s much smaller than modern concert guitars with a body length of 425mm and a width across the lower bout of 283mm.(Typical figures for a concert guitar would be 490mm and 380mm.) It’s based on an instrument made by Antonio de Torres in 1888 for which workshop drawings are available in Roy Courtnall’s book Making Master Guitars. The soundboard is spruce and I used some old Brazilian mahogany with a striking fiddleback figure for the back and ribs. It’s finished with French polish.

 

It was commissioned by Gill Robinson, a professional artist and keen amateur guitarist, who was looking for an instrument that was light and easy to handle. Here she is trying it out.

 

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Although I copied the shape and size and bracing pattern of the original guitar, I wasn’t trying to make a replica and I felt free to modify some details. The headstock is slotted to allow modern tuning machines, while Torres’ instrument used tapered wooden pegs. The scale length is slightly longer than the 604mm of the original at 613.5mm. This isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem, because 613.5mm gives the same open string length as a 650mm guitar with a capo at the first fret. I also used a 12 hole tie block for the bridge. Photographs of some of these details below:

 

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Steel string guitars often carry scratch plates or rather anti-scratch plates to protect the soundboard being damaged by vigorous strumming. These plates are usually made of plastic sheet. Although  they do the job well enough, I’ve always recoiled from the idea of sticking plastic on top of a beautiful piece of spruce. Why not make one from an off-cut of the wood used for the back of the instrument? Here’s one of  walnut on a guitar that I made last year.

 

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But guitarists who like to play percussive finger-style want scratch plates for an entirely different reason – not to protect the soundboard from inadvertent damage but as an extra facility to increase the number of different sounds they can get out of the instrument. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try these YouTube links to Mike Dawes and Thomas Leeb.

A couple of weeks ago, Darcey O’Mara, a talented young guitarist from Brighton, brought me two guitars that needed adjusting and setting up.  She also asked me to make scratch pads for  them.

After a bit of experimentation with different sizes and different textures, we reckoned that a combination of smooth and grooved surfaces offered the most potential. Here’s a maple pad fitted to Darcey’s cedar topped Lowden guitar.

 

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And here’s something similar in mahogany for her Takamine cut-away.

 

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Giving it a first try in the workshop…

 

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… with some satisfaction, it seems.

 

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Several years ago,  a friend who lives in an old farmhouse in rural Oxfordshire asked me to make a table to go in her sitting room. We agreed that something in  English Oak in an Arts and Crafts  tradition –  simple lines, stopped chamfers , exposed joinery –  would fit with the character of the room. David Simmonds of Interesting Timbers found me some  figured tiger oak to make a book-matched top for it. There’s a photograph of the finished piece below, although unfortunately it doesn’t show the table in the room for which it was intended.

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I mention it  because I’ve been thinking about the design of a couple of smaller tables to go in a different sort of room in a Victorian house in a city. This time,  I wanted something quite the opposite of the table above: light rather than heavy and elegant rather than sturdy. Looking for ideas,  I found this Shaker table in Christian Becksvoort’s book, The Shaker Legacy. Like many Shaker pieces, it’s attractive in its simplicity although, according to  Becksvoort, it isn’t very stable probably because it only has a narrow stretcher hidden behind the drawer.

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And I liked the unfussy lines of this mahogany dining table by Roger Heitzman, which appears  in  500 Tables (published by Lark Books), despite the fact that it’s several times larger, and much heavier-looking, than what I had in mind.

 

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Taking elements from both these tables, I sketched out some ideas and made a rough prototype in soft wood, experimenting with the proportions and dimensions until I got close to the look that I was trying to achieve.

 

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This version, in sycamore,  is on the way to being finished. It still lacks a proper top – I’m hoping to find some fiddleback sycamore to complete it. In the mean time I’m making do with a  sheet of  MDF painted white.

 

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The curved stretcher is secured at each end by a tusk tenon and an ebony wedge, which turns the flimsy looking legs into a surprisingly rigid framework.

 

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To relieve the slightly monotonous look of sycamore, the stretcher carries a simple chip carved pattern between two beads worked with a scratch stock.

 

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I’m making another version in oak. When both tables are finished I’ll  post some more photographs.

 

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In the 1930s, the Head of the School of Furniture at the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts, Mr A Gregory, wrote two books about woodworking: The Art of Woodworking and Furniture Making, and (shown above) Constructive Woodwork for Schools¹. I bought second-hand copies years ago when I first got interested in woodwork but  I hadn’t looked at them in a long time until I got a request for a chair suitable for a young child.

 

Constructive Woodwork for Schools  contained a simple design for exactly what was needed.

 

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I was amused (and, as things progressed, slightly irritated) by Gregory’s remark  ‘It it is not a very difficult piece of work’.  He’s right, I suppose,  in that it’s largely mortise and tenon joinery. But there are 24 of these joints to be cut and adjusted and, because the front of the chair is wider than the back, they’re not all at right angles. The business of fitting the arms and making the doubly curved top rail isn’t completely straightforward either.  I certainly didn’t find making this chair a breeze, and I should have thought it would have been a fairly taxing task for a schoolboy. Or perhaps I’m underestimating the standard of woodworking 80 years ago?

Here are the individual components and the chair assembled dry. The wood is English oak.

 

 

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And here it is glued up and  finished with a couple of coats of Danish oil. The seat is woven out of seagrass.

 

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Happily, the client seems satisfied.

 

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¹ I assumed that these two books would have been long out of print but, in fact, new copies are still available and there are lots of reasonably priced second-hand copies on Abe Books  too.  The books may be a little dated in their approach but I thought that they were well worth reading. I recommend them, particularly The Art of Woodworking and Furniture Making, to anyone wanting to develop their skills in designing and making wooden furniture,  especially if they’re attracted to work in the tradition of  Edward Barnsley and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The soprano ukulele that I made from scraps of wood too nice to throw away (but too small for anything else) turned out to be a nice sounding and surprisingly loud instrument. I thought it would be fun to make another.

The classic wood for ukes is Koa, a tree in the Acacia family, which grows only in the Hawaiian archipelago, although it’s closely related to Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and the wonderfully named – after its smell when sawn – Raspberry Jam wood (Acacia acuminata). I was pretty sure that I remembered having a set of Koa somewhere in my stash of guitar wood and eventually I found it.

After a bit of thought, I reckoned that there would be enough material for two ukuleles – one soprano and one tenor. However, as soon as I began to clean it up with a view to book-matching fronts and backs, I ran into trouble. The Koa had a beautiful and dramatic figure, but it was very difficult to plane without causing tear out. That’s often true of highly figured woods of course, but this this was much worse than usual.

A drum sander would have solved the problem – except that I don’t have one. So I tackled it in the old fashioned way.

First I used this large scraper plane to produce a good surface on the face side of each piece before gluing them up, book-matched, for fronts and backs.

 

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Now, working from the other side, I needed to get them down to a thickness of under 2mm. Fortunately, the wood had been well sawn and was only around 3mm thick so there wasn’t too much material to remove. This Krenov-type plane with a short thick blade set at an angle of 55° performed better than a plane with the usual 45° blade angle. There was still some tear out, but it did allow me to approach the final thickness without too much anxiety.

The plane was made by David Barron and it’s nicely designed with a soft rounded shape that’s comfortable to hold. It has a sole of lignum vitae and a fairly tight mouth.

 

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For the really difficult patches, where the grain was running all over the place, I switched to a toothing plane. This one is a lovely old tool made by Varvill and Son, York, well over 100 years ago. It bears name stamps of two previous owners but it’s in such good condition that I suspect that more of its life has been spent in a tool chest than on the bench. It’s really intended for preparing a surface before laying veneer and, although it’s able to flatten the wildest grain without tearing it, it removes wood very slowly.

 

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To speed things up in the less wild areas, I used an ordinary No 4 bench plane fitted with a modified blade. I’ve written about this blade before, so I won’t repeat myself except to explain that the rationale behind it is that the individual serrations are too small to grab and tear out large chunks of wayward grain while, at the same time, being wide enough to remove material fairly quickly – certainly a lot faster than the wooden toothing plane.

 

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Having got close to the final thickness with this pair of toothing planes,  I finished the surface with a small Lie Nielsen scraper plane and an ordinary cabinet scraper.

 

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Here’s a line up of the workhorses that I put to use.

 

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And here are fronts, backs and ribs ready to assemble.

 

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Since writing about Bang, Ai Weiwei’s enormous installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale constructed entirely out of traditional three-legged stools, I discovered that he had produced several smaller sculptures using the same piece of furniture as the basic repeating unit.

 

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I’m not sure why Ai Weiwei is so fascinated by these stools but one can’t help admiring the skill of the designers and woodworkers who brought these sculptures into existence.

 

I’ve no ambition to make these stools into sculpture, but after completing a single scaled down stool (see earlier post)I thought I’d make a larger version to use in the workshop. Here it is. The seat height is 22 inches and the legs are splayed at 8º from the vertical, which makes the proportions taller and narrower than the original. The legs and stretchers are Douglas fir and the top is English Cherry. It’s finished with a couple of coats of Danish oil.

 

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Among the treasure trove of information and tips and tricks at Frank Ford’s website Frets.com there’s a description of how to turn a single-edge razor blade into a miniature cabinet scraper for repairs of guitar finishes. Click here to read it.
 

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I thought that this was a really clever idea and immediately ordered a box of blades to try it out. Ford says that he draws the edge of the blade across a round piece of hard steel such as a screwdriver shank to create a fine hook just as one might finish a full size cabinet scraper.

I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t make it work. Maybe it was my technique or perhaps the steel of the blade had hardened during the sharpening process but despite repeated trials all I could produce was a ragged edge that scraped less well than a blade straight from the box.

 

The solution was first to grind off the bevelled edge of the blade;

 

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then to make the blade edge straight and square on a diamond stone;

 

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and finally to turn a hook with a burnisher in the usual way.

 

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These little scrapers work extremely well if you need to remove polish or varnish and they’re easy to re-sharpen.

 

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I hadn’t realised, when I wrote about Ai Weiwei’s Bang in my last post, that traditional three-legged Chinese stools had featured in Popular Woodworking a few years ago. Thanks to Mike for commenting and alerting me to the articles.

At the end of the piece on Ai Weiwei, I’d said how much I liked the design of three-way stretcher and added that I might make such a stool for the workshop. So it was extremely useful to have a warning that these stools aren’t as easy as they look.

I started by making a full size drawing for a stool with a final height of around 10 inches (top of seat above floor) and a 10º splay to the legs. This is around half the height of those in Ai Weiwei’s installation but I reckoned it would be big enough for any constructional difficulties to become apparent.

First I made the three way stretcher, leaving each of the pieces over length. This is straightforward mortise and tenon joinery, complicated only by the fact that angle at which the stretchers meet is 60º.

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Then I marked out and cut the tenons at the peripheral ends of the stretchers. The popular woodworking articles say that these tenons need to be angled so that they point at the imaginary centre of the equilateral triangle that the stretchers make. I have to say that, although I followed this suggestion, I’m not completely convinced that it’s necessary. Would a Chinese carpenter making a utilitarian bit of furniture have gone to the trouble to do that?

Obviouusly, the marking out also needs to allow for the fact that the legs are splayed and don’t meet the stretchers at right angles.

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Next I marked and chopped out the mortises in the legs, and fitted legs and stretchers together. It was only at this point that I noticed that each of the three legs and each of the three stretchers were identical to one another. Had I tumbled to this fact earlier, marking out would have been easier.

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I’ve only got a baby-sized lathe, so I couldn’t make a round seat. Foolishly, I made it octagonal instead. It’s not a disaster but hexagonal would surely have been a better shape for something with 3 legs.

Here’s the stool assembled dry.

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And here, after gluing and cleaning up.

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I painted it with a warm grey undercoat, top coated with a flat white eggshell and finally cut it back with fine wet and dry paper to give it a slightly distressed look.

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The stool is strong, stable and light but, at this size, not much use for anyone but a young child. However, I’ve learnt how to build one and I shall make the next twice the height.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger versions of the photographs.

A couple of years ago I saw Ai Weiwei’s installation “Bang” at the Venice biennale and I’ve been meaning to post some photographs of it ever since. It was shown in the French pavillion at the Giardini della Biennale.

 
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Nearly 900 traditional Chinese three-legged wooden stools had been ingeniously joined together to make a huge three dimensional lattice work of wood.
 

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A closer look to give a sense of how it was put together.
 

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And here’s a more detailed view of the joinery of these stools.
 

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What is it about and what does it mean? Well, the most compelling interpretation I’ve heard came from a friend who said that it looked as if these traditional domestic objects had been picked up by a great wind. She saw the installation as a visual parallel of the way economic development in rural China was sweeping aside old ways of life.

If you think that’s too straightforward, here are some comments from the art critics:

‘The single stool as part of an encompassing sculptural structure may be read as a metaphor for the individual and its relation to an overarching and excessive system in a postmodern world developing at lightning speed’.

‘Weiwei’s “Bang” criticizes modern throw-away culture, which has replaced artisans and craftsman with industry and factories. Hand carved wood has been replaced by disposable plastic and aluminum. Weiwei arranged the handmade stools in chaotic bursts and arcs as a metaphor for the industrial world that has spiraled out of control as industry and technology develop at incredible rates.’

‘Ai Weiwei’s work ‘bang’ employs 886-three legged wooden stools made by traditional craftsmen whose expertise is now something that is rare to find, and has installed an expansive rhizomatic structure which speaks of the increasing volumes of organisms in our world’s megacities. The single stool can be interpreted as a metaphor for the individual, and its relation to an overarching and excessive system in a postmodern world which is developing faster than it can keep up with.’

 

Still, whatever you think of the installation as art, the stools themselves are rather attractive. I especially like the three way stretcher, which can’t be that easy to construct. Perhaps I’ll try making one for the workshop.

Most woodworking vices are designed to hold pieces of wood with sides that are parallel. This is a problem for instrument makers because much of the wood they work with is curved or tapered.

So guitar makers frequently use a carvers’ vice, which has adjustable jaws, to get around the difficulty.  Dan Erlewine uses one in his excellent series of videos, Trade Secrets.  And here’s one in my own workshop.
 

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But they’re big, heavy, ugly things (mine is a particularly repellent shade of green) and whenever possible I prefer the simpler solution of a moving accessory vice jaw. This is no more than a block of wood with one gently curved side that allows it to rotate to accommodate the work piece. The flat side is lined with cork and there’s a thin sheet of plywood is glued to the top to maintain it in position while the vice is tightened.

 

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I’ve written about these before (see here) so I’ll only say that they’re easy to make and that they’re very effective in gripping gently tapering (10° or less) objects.

 

The device below  is a little more complicated in having 2 jaws connected at the bottom with a flexible hinge made of leather. It was originally intended to hold the head of a violin or cello  bow while the mortise for the hair was being cut – an invention of Andrew Bellis, who is a bow-maker in Bournemouth.

The 2 jaws are slightly thicker at one end (hence the arrow on the top) which gives it a head start when it comes to accommodating a tapered shape. The flexibility of the hinge allows it to adapt to objects with complex curves. It’s easy to make, too.

 

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Here’s a similar idea but in a more elaborate form. I took the jaws off a small Record vice and substituted cork-lined wood. On one side there’s a permanent version of the moving jaw described earlier. A thin metal bar located by a 3mm rod keeps it in position. I’m hoping the photographs will make things clear.

 

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A couple of photographs of it in action. In the first it’s holding the neck of the soprano ukulele that I mentioned in a previous post. The second shows it gripping the head of a violin bow while it is being re-haired.

 

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I’m pleased with how these vice jaws turned out. And it’s certainly convenient having them immediately available to hold an awkwardly shaped work piece. However, I have to say that they’re significantly more effort to make than the simple devices described earlier. Unless you’re dealing with tapers and curves a lot, it may not be worth the time and trouble.

There’s an apocryphal story about someone sorting through the possessions of an elderly relative who had died. Among a houseful of stuff, he comes across a shoe-box labelled ‘Bits of string too short to keep’.

I sympathise with the elderly relative – at least as far as bits of wood are concerned. It’s hard to throw away even small scraps of timber, especially when they contain an attractive figure. One solution is to heat the workshop with a wood burning stove. Then the problem goes away each winter. Another possibility is to use them up making something tiny. A few years ago I wrote about making musical boxes. This week, wondering what to do with the walnut left over from the 5-string guitar that I wrote about in a previous post, I thought I’d make a soprano ukulele.

Apart from the walnut, I was able to use up other off-cuts that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to throw away: spruce for the soundboard, laburnum for the headstock veneer and the fingerboard, and a piece of plum for the bridge.

The plans for the ukulele came from Christophe Grellier, a French luthier, who generously makes them freely available on his website.

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It was said, by none other than Keith Richards himself, that his discovery of open G guitar tuning was a revelation. (See here for more.) He certainly had a lot of successes with it including Honky Tonk Woman, Brown Sugar, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, to name but a few.

Richards usually took the bottom E string off a six string guitar and then tuned the remaining strings to GDGBD. But a guitar player from New Zealand, Tim Cundy, who also plays with open G tuning, thought that he’d like to have an instrument especially designed for this tuning and asked me to make him one.

Here it is: about the size of a Martin OO, with a cutaway and 12 frets to the body. It’s made in English walnut with a Sitka spruce soundboard. The rosette is spalted beech and the headstock veneer is spalted applewood. It’s bound with pearwood and the purflings are ebony.

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Stanley made two side rebate planes, numbered 98 and 99, which were mirror images of each other, designed to cut either the left or right vertical sides of a channel or dado. I found one in a secondhand tool a long time ago, and then spent years looking for its opposite number.

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While searching, I came across other designs of side rebate planes some of which ingeniously incorporated the ability to cut on left and right sides in a single tool. They’re attractive little devices and I struggled to resist buying them.

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However, side rebate planes have two defects. The first is that the blades are hard to sharpen. It’s crucially important to maintain the exact angle of the cutting edge relative to the long axis of the blade because there’s no capacity for adjustment in the plane itself. Get it wrong and the blade cuts only the top or bottom.

The second defect is rather more serious: even sharpened and set up properly, they’re useless. I mean that literally: it’s not that these planes don’t work but that problems they could solve or jobs they could make easier never seem to crop up.

At least that’s what I thought until a couple of weeks ago when I found that a truss rod that I was installing into a guitar neck was a whisker too fat to enter the groove that I had routed. I could have got the router out again, but a side rebate plane provided a quicker and easier solution. A few passes and the truss rod was a nice snug fit.

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Of course, I’ve been writing about my own experience. Other woodworkers may find side rebate planes so handy that they like keep a pair on the back of the bench. If so, I hope they’ll comment and describe the tasks they use them for.

Pattern makers often used long gouges and chisels with a crank between the blade and the handle. This allowed them to operate the tool deep into a workpiece without the handle catching on the edge. In his Dictionary of Tools, R. A. Salaman calls them trowel-shanked, but one often hears them referred to as cranked or crank-handled too.

 

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I’ve got a couple of long in-cannel gouges which I suspect were originally straight and later modified to achieve the same end. Perhaps R. Myers (the name stamped on the handle of the gouge) needed a tool with a cranked shank in a hurry, didn’t have time to obtain one, and so decided to make the best of what he had. The steel at the bent part of the shank is dark and discoloured, which supports the idea because it would surely have been necessary to heat the shank to bend it successfully.

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Mr Myer’s talent for improvisation and economy prompted me to try something similar with a small chisel blade. I’d often thought that a small crank-handled chisel would be the perfect tool for cleaning up squeezed out glue when putting braces and harmonic bars on guitar soundboards but the only ones that I had come across were too big for what I had in mind, and too expensive as well.

I removed the handle from the chisel, wrapped the blade in a wet rag to prevent the important part of the tool losing its temper and then, after heating the shank to red heat with a propane torch, bent it up about 15°.

When it had cooled, I put the handle back on and was delighted to find that it worked just about as well as I hoped it would. The flat underside of the blade acts as a jig and prevents it digging in, and the raised handle allows it to be used in places where accessibility is restricted.

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I’ve been a fan of Roland Chadwick’s music since hearing a performance of his trio for classical guitar, Letter from LA, a few years ago. So I was delighted when he contacted me about a guitar that needed some attention.

It was a fine instrument too – a cedar top classical guitar made by an Australian guitar maker, Simon Marty, in 1988. Quite apart from being 25 years old, it had worked hard for its living and the thin cedar top had developed some nasty cracks in the widest part of the lower bout. Some of the internal braces had come unglued too, and the guitar was more or less unplayable. To make matters worse, someone had tried to repair the cracks with superglue.

This is what it looked like after I had scraped away most of the superglue.

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With a hand through the soundhole, I could feel that the cracked part of the soundboard had become detached from a long transverse bar running across the instrument under the bridge. This explained the multiple little dowels, which were a previous attempt to fix the problem. The only thing to do was cut out the damaged wood and replace it.

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I also needed to replace some missing braces and re-glue several that were beginning to come unstuck. The difficulty here was that the braces, constructed out of balsa wood and carbon fibre, were very thin and it was almost impossible to position conventional clamps accurately enough to hold them in place without distortion. In the end, I solved the problem by making a few spring-loaded miniature go-bars. Wedged between the back of the guitar and the top of the brace, they kept everything in place while the glue cured.

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After re-polishing, it was ready to perform again. All well worth the trouble because, despite its age, it’s an excellent guitar which produces a big warm sound.

 

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