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Here are a few photographs of a recently completed steel string guitar. It’s based on a Martin ‘OO’ model but I’ve added, although that’s surely the wrong word, a venetian cutaway. The soundboard is Sitka spruce and the back and ribs are English walnut. I used holly for the bindings and tail stripe, and Rio rosewood for the bridge.





My friend, Dave Crispin, came to the workshop to try it out a few days ago and while he was playing I captured a few moments on an Edirol recorder.



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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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On a grey day earlier this week, I took some photographs of a recently completed steel string guitar just before handing it over to its new owner.

It’s based on a Martin OO model using plans drawn by the French guitar maker, Christophe Grellier.

 

 

I’d made a cutaway version of this guitar a couple of years ago (photographs here) but, this time, I modified the design to have the neck meet the body at the 12th rather than the 14th fret. This means moving the bridge about 30mm down the soundboard and narrowing the angle between the two arms of the X brace slightly.

 

 

The back and ribs of the guitar are made of English walnut and it has a Sitka spruce soundboard. The bindings, bridge and heel-cap are Rio rosewood and the rosette is spalted beech.

 

 

Click on any of the thumbnails below for a larger image.

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.

Below are some photographs of instruments made in recent years.(Click on thumbnails to enlarge)

Small Torres guitar

I finished this small guitar at the end of 2015. It’s loosely based on an instrument made by Torres in 1888 but has a slightly longer scale length than the original at 613.5mm. The top is spruce and the back and ribs are rippled mahogany.

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Tim’s guitar

Specially commissioned by New Zealand guitar player Tim Cundy, this 5 string cutaway is  designed to be played with  open G tuning (that is G D g b d going from  5th to 1st string).  It was made of English walnut with a Sitka spruce top and pear-wood bindings.

 

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Sarah’s viola

Made in 2014, this is a copy of the famous Conte Vitale  by Andrea Guarneri.  The photograph shows Andrew Bellis trying it out, but it’s now played by Sarah Bongiovianni, violist and violinist in Nottingham.

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Poppy’s guitar

OO size, X-braced, steel-string guitar with 12 frets to the body, made in English walnut and Sitka spruce at the end of 2014.

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Violin after Carlo Bergonzi, 1736

 

Michèle’s cello

The last instrument that I made in 2010, photographed in less than optimal circumstances while building works were in progress. There’s a short recording of how it sounds at the end of this post.

 

Guitar in the style of Panormo

This guitar is a loose copy of an instrument made by Louis Panormo circa 1840, which is described in more detail here.

 

Guitar in Madagascan rosewood

A smaller guitar, based on an instrument by Herman Hauser, with a scale length of 630mm. The soundboard is spruce and the back and ribs are of Madagascan rosewood (Dalbergia baronii). The bindings and bridge are of Rio rosewood and the rosette and headstock veneer are of English yew.

Baroque violin

A copy of an instrument by Andrea Amati in 1564 for Charles IX of France, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Made for Pamela Rosenberg, who is a member of the Tartini ensemble.

 

Violin – after Guarneri del Gesu

 

Zebrano guitar

 

Walnut guitar

 

Patrick’s cello

This cello, set up in the baroque manner with a short fingerboard, low bridge and gut strings, was completed at the beginning of 2009.

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Stephen’s guitar

This classical guitar, loosely based on an instrument by Hernández y Aguado, was finished in July 2008. It has a spruce top inlaid with a rosette of laburnum. The back and ribs are cocobolo and the instrument is bound with ebony.

 

Jamie’s guitar

This guitar is also based on an instrument by Hernández y Aguado, and was finished in June 2008. It has a cedar top inlaid with a rosette of spalted crab apple. The back, ribs and bridge are Maccassar ebony and the instrument is bound with black Indian ebony. You can hear it being played by Fiona Harrison and Dave Crispin on the Music page.

 

Sophie’s cello

A few pictures of Sophie’s cello, made in 2007 when she was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

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Tom’s guitar

I made this guitar in 2007. The soundboard is European spruce and the back and sides are English walnut. The headstock veneer, bridge and rosette are laburnum and the guitar is bound with rosewood.

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Violin, after Nicola Amati

Here are two views of a violin, made in 2006, based on an instrument by Nicola Amati – the Alard, 1649 – which can be seen the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It is now being played by Liz Gregg of the Tartini Trio.

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Clavichord

This double-fretted clavichord was completed in 2007. The casework and stand are made in English cherry with an oiled finish. It has just over 4 octaves (from C to e”’) and is a copy of an instrument by an anonymous maker built around 1740 and preserved in the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague. The plans (and much good advice on clavichord making) came from Peter Barnes, a maker and restorer of early keyboard instruments who lives in Somerset, UK. He also wound the strings.

 

Steel string guitar

Made in 2006, this guitar has a soundboard of spruce. The back and sides are maple.

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