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Monthly Archives: August 2011

This is the back way in to the Ca’ del Duca, a palace off the grand canal of Venice, begun in 1467 but never fully completed. The stylish way to get there is by water taxi but it’s quite as nice and a lot cheaper to walk, which is what I did to see Luxembourg’s exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale – Le Cercle Fermé by Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil.

Like most of what was being shown in the Biennale, it turned out to be an installation rather than a conventional exhibition but I have to admit that it provided a mildly amusing experience. You walked along corridors with undulating walls, got disorientated by halls of mirrors and nearly lost your balance navigating wonky floors. It was supposed to challenge our notions of stable constructed space and to make us look differently at the world when we leave. There are more photographs (and some pretentious artspeak) here.

Two of the rooms were especially interesting to furniture makers. Chairs and chests of drawers had been made to look as if wood had a melting point and they’d been left too close to the fire. They were still recognisably chairs or drawers, although obviously you couldn’t use them for sitting on or keeping things in. Indeed, part of the point was that they’d be completely useless for any practical purpose.

I shall leave you to decide whether this is a clever way of encouraging us to think in a fresh way about familiar objects or whether Feipel and Bechameil are just playing a prank.

There was however, a wonderful floor in one of the rooms. Not a wonky one to throw you off balance but a laid wooden floor that had been part of the Ca’ Del Duca in its days of glory. It hadn’t been looked after very well and my photograph isn’t very good but I couldn’t help thinking that it was rather more interesting (and enduring) than the chairs.

This splendid photograph was taken by John Runk¹ in Stillwater, Minnesota on an 8 x 10 plate camera in 1912. I came across it in a book, The Photographer’s Eye written by John Szarkowski. Unless the chap in the hat is unusually short, these pine boards must be around 3 feet wide and 15 – 18 feet long. The saw marks run straight across the boards which made me wonder how they had been cut – not with a circular saw obviously. Were large bandsaws in operation at the beginning of the 20th century?

Buying wood a few months ago, I realised that I didn’t know much about modern methods of conversion of timber either. Here are a couple of photographs taken in Andy Fellows’ wood store in Gosport, Hants². He has supplied me with quite a lot of the wood that I’ve used in recent guitars including the Madagascan rosewood for this nylon string guitar and the beautiful walnut for this copy of a 19th century guitar by Panormo. These boards aren’t quite as large as those in Runk’s photograph but they’re still pretty big and I’ve only the vaguest idea of how he goes about transforming them into the book matched guitar sets from which he lets me pick and choose. Next time I visit, I shall try to find out a bit more.

Sometimes, when handing over an completed instrument to its new owner, I catch myself wondering whether they have any idea of the time and trouble that has gone into making it. (Of course, it’s enjoyable time and trouble so I’m not complaining. Even so … ) But I suspect that instrument makers and woodworkers aren’t any better. When we buy wood we’re more likely to whinge about the price than to acknowledge the efforts and skills of the people who selected the log and converted it into sets of conveniently workable dimensions like those below.

1. There’s a brief biography of John Runk here.

2. Andy Fellows also sells wood at his on-line shop, Prime Timbers.

Having established, to my own satisfaction at least, that it would be asking for trouble to make a steel string guitar without a truss rod, the next question was which type to use and whether to arrange to get access to it at the top of the neck or the heel.

My friend Peter Barton, who makes beautiful steel string guitars in Yorkshire, recommended the Hotrod, which is a 2 way adjustable truss rod available from Stewart-MacDonald and looks like this.

But there were a couple of reasons why I had misgivings about this device. One was that it weighs over 100g and I thought it might make a small or medium sized instrument too heavy in the neck. The other was that it’s 11 mm deep and, although it would be easy to rout a deep enough slot to accommodate it, there wouldn’t be room to glue a fillet over it. The top of the slot would have to be covered by the bottom of the fingerboard and I worried that, when the rod was tightened up it might split the fingerboard or cause a bump.

To check, I made a model guitar neck out of a scrap of softwood, routed out a slot, installed the hotrod, glued on a pine ‘fingerboard’ and tightened up the trussrod as hard as I could.

It worked fine. My anxieties were unfounded: no splits or bulges in the fingerboard, even though it was made of nothing more substantial than cheap pine, and I could put a curve in the neck in either direction.

Still, there’s no getting away from that fact that it’s heavy.

An alternative, which is less than half the weight of a hotrod, is a simple tension rod. This what’s recommended by Jonathan Kinkead in his book Build your own Acoustic Guitar (ISBN 0-634-05463-5), where he gives instructions how to make and install it. I liked this idea because of its simplicity and light weight, and because it’s easy to arrange to adjust it through the soundhole, which means that there’s no need to excavate the headstock to provide access to the nut.

If you go for this solution, you have to find a way to anchor the rod at the top of the neck. Kinkead recommends a metal dowel tapped to receive the threaded end of the rod. I made one out of silver steel and repeated the earlier experiment.

It’s easy to install, although it’s important to judge the depth of the hole for the dowel accurately to avoid drilling right through the neck.

And it seemed to work OK too, although obviously it’s only able to bend the neck in one direction. However, when I took the fingerboard off, this is what I saw.

The fixing at the top end of the neck had been pulled out of its cavity and had begun to travel down the neck. Of course, this experimental neck is made of softwood and the problem might be less severe in a real mahogany neck. Even so, I thought there had to be a better solution.

It was the shape that was wrong. The cylindrical nut had acted a bit like a wedge. When I made a rectangular shaped nut out of mild steel, it stayed put.

As you can see, the first nut was unnecessarily wide. A narrower version worked just as well.

That’s what I decided to use in this guitar: a tension rod made of 5mm studding, anchored at the top of the neck with a square nut and adjusted through the soundhole. The nut at the top of the neck was silver soldered to the studding to prevent it moving during any adjustments at the lower end. Tension in the rod is controlled by turning a 5mm column hex nut bearing on a substantial washer at its lower end.

This arrangement worked well in the finished instrument and was more than powerful enough to keep the neck straight against the pull of the strings. Next time I make a steel string guitar, I shall be tempted to use 4mm studding instead of 5mm, which would mean even less weight in the neck.

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