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Category Archives: hardwoods

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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The low Autumn sunshine streaming into my workshop last week showed this oval walnut bowl in such a flattering light that I couldn’t resist taking a photograph. The bowl was being carved on the bench because my lathe isn’t big enough to turn a piece of this size.

Mind you, carving lets you do things that wouldn’t be possible on a lathe, as the photograph below shows. It’s taken from David Pye’s book The Nature and Art of Workmanship (ISBN 1-871569-76-1) and the author carved the dish out of the wood of the wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis. Service wood is not a timber that I’ve ever seen, although I understand that it was once sought after for harpsichord jacks.

I wasn’t attempting anything nearly as ambitious as Pye’s dish. What I had in mind was the egg-like form that Barbara Hepworth frequently used in her sculptures – but on a much smaller scale and as a utilitarian object rather than a work of art.

Here’s a photograph of the completed bowl, which has been finished with clear French polish.

To see a larger version of these photographs as a slideshow, click on any of the thumbnails below.

Footnote

1. Thanks to due to the anonymous photographer who posted the picture of Barbara Hepworth’s garden in St Ives, Cornwall on Flickr (http://flic.kr/p/7J4gud).

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.

Recent posts have been about experiments or jigs or tools so, to make a change, here’s a folding book (or music) stand in pippy English oak.

I’ve made quite a few of these in various woods and various sizes. After the curves of violins and guitars, it’s a pleasure to make something based on a right angle. They make good presents for musicians and bibliophiles. And people who like to cook find them useful for holding recipe books open.

 

 

 

 

 

The arms that hold the pages open are in bog oak…

 

 

… and so are the dowels which act as hinges for the frame that props the stand open.

 

 

Here are a couple more. The one on the left is is sycamore, with page holding arms and dowels of laburnum.

 

 

The construction is fairly straightforward. The only tricky bits are in making a neat job where the arms that keep the book open fit into the bottom ledge and in constructing the curved stretcher of the frame that allows the stand to fold up when not in use. I’d be happy to give more details if anyone is interested.

All that remains at this stage is to cut the inner and outer circles to make the annulus of the rosette. I start by drilling a hole in the centre of the work piece…

… and then use a Dremmel mounted in a shop-made jig to cut the circles. (More details of the jig are available in the ‘Tools and Jigs’ section of this site.)

Here are the two rosettes that I’ve talked about in early posts in this series cut out.

And here are a few more. Going clockwise from top left, they’re made of English yew, laburnum, spalted beech, spalted crab apple and mulberry burr.

It’s probably best to leave them attached to their base until you’re ready to install them on the soundboard but, as you can see from the two rosettes at the bottom, I don’t always heed my own advice.

The rosette below is made from laburnum, arranged to show the striking contrast between the light coloured sapwood and the dark heartwood. It’s rather more complicated to make than the spalted beech rosette shown in the previous post and a fair degree of accuracy is needed throughout.

The starting point is a small piece of laburnum. This one has been air drying for a couple of years and I reckon that it should be pretty stable by now. I’ve scraped off the wax that covered the endgrain while it was drying.

The first step is to decide how many individual sector shaped pieces to use to complete the circle. I’m planning to use 20 for this rosette, which means that the sides of the billet must be planed to converge at an angle of 18°. That’s hard to manage on the bench top and it’s worth making a cradle to hold the wood while you plane it to size and shape. Go slowly and carefully because it’s important not only that the angle is right but that there’s no taper along the length of the piece. In addition, the width must be right so that the line between the sap wood and the heart wood ends up where you want it to be in the finished rosette.

Having planed the wood to a near perfect prism, it’s sliced on the bandsaw.

The pieces are numbered as they come off, so that they can be put together again in consecutive order.

Here the rosette is being assembled ‘dry’.

It may be necessary to make some fine adjustments with a shooting board and a block plane.

Here, the first piece is being glued and clamped into position on its plywood base. The base has been marked out in pencil to aid positioning of the individual pieces.

As the pieces are glued into place, the rosette nears completion.

Cleaned up and levelled with a finely set block plane.

The guitar that I have been writing about in my last few posts is now, more or less, completed. It’s finished with French polish, which will benefit from a final burnishing in a couple of weeks time when it has got fully hard. But I couldn’t wait any longer to string it up and hear how it sounds. The back and ribs are zebrano and the soundboard is European spruce. The binding is Rio rosewood and maple, and the soundhole rosette and headstock veneer are spalted beech. I’m pleased with how it has worked out, though perhaps I got carried away when it came to the rosette, which might have been more elegant if the diameter had been a little less. Below are a few photographs of the completed instrument.

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Classic Hand Tools held a show at West Dean last weekend. It wasn’t a big event but I’m glad that I went for all sorts of reasons. One was the opportunity to meet Karl Holtey and to see and handle some of the planes that he makes. Another was to talk to Mark Bennett who, as always, had brought some amazing wood with him. With some difficulty, I succeeded in persuading him to part with this remarkable specimen of spalted beech.

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It’s not a big block (only about 5 inches by 5 inches by 6 inches) but the figure is exactly the right scale for instrument making. My first thought was  that it would make striking rosettes for guitars and I’ve been playing around with designs (using photocopies so as not to waste any of the material). Here’s one idea:

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had started making a classical guitar with slightly smaller dimensions than usual. I hadn’t got anything radical or particularly innovative in mind but I hoped that, by reducing the diameter of the lower bout, decreasing the depth of the ribs and using a scale length of 640mm, the instrument would be easier and more comfortable for a smaller person to play. The fingerboard and string spacing were also to be narrower by a few millimeters to suit someone with small hands, and the guitar was to be as light as reasonably possible.

The instrument is now finished. The top is cedar with lattice bracing. The ribs and back are of English walnut with an unusual ‘watermark’ figure and the rosette and headstock were made using spalted beech that Mark Bennett, who runs a funiture making business called the Woodlark, sold me a while ago. The fingerboard and bridge are of Rio rosewood and the tuning machines were made by Keith Robson. The final weight, with strings and tuning machines in place, was just over 1400 grammes, which is significantly lighter than the weight of most of my instruments.

It has only been strung up for a day or two and it has yet to be played by a proper guitarist but my first impressions of the sound are good and the volume doesn’t seem to be perceptibly less than that of larger instruments. I’ll try to add a recording sometime but, in the meantime, here are a few photographs of the completed guitar.

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A report from the UK last year complained that gender stereotyping influenced children’s choices about which musical instruments they took up. Girls get to play harps and flutes, while boys prefer trumpets and drums. I don’t know whether this is really right or that, even if it were, it would be a very terrible thing, but it certainly is true that more boys than girls play guitars. And while this might be gender politics, I can’t help wondering if the dimensions of the guitar have something to do with it too. The body of a concert guitar can be too big for many women to hold comfortably and I suspect that the usual measurements for the string spacing and fingerboard size are optimised for a male rather than a female hand.

I thought that it might be interesting to make a guitar with a slightly smaller body size than usual and combine it with a shorter scale length and narrower fingerboard. The idea is to make an instrument that a woman will find easy and responsive to play without compromising either the quality or the volume of the sound it produces.

The water-mark figure in this walnut is attractive but delicate and I think that it might work well for the back of a smaller guitar:

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The front will be cedar and I’ve inlaid a rosette of spalted beech. I’ve carried the same theme through to the headstock veneer.

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Pictures are better than words when it comes to describing how to make something. So yesterday, I made a curved sole finger plane, keeping a camera within reach to record each step. I hope these photographs will be a useful supplement to the written instructions in my last post. Read across the rows to stay in sequence and click on any of the thumbnails for a larger view and (sometimes) more detailed comments.

At the beginning of the year, in their Tools and Shops issue, Fine Woodworking included a short piece about some violin-making planes that I had made. Since then, several people have asked about them, and how they are constructed. A recent request prompted me into writing down some instructions and, in the hope that they might be useful to others, I’m going to post them here.

A few of these planes are shown below with a Record No 4 in the background to give a sense of scale.

Side view

Three quarters view

Close up view of wedge

I’ve used a variety of hardwoods: box, cherry, elder, hornbeam and beech and made a variety of shapes and sizes for different tasks. The longer plane lying on its side in the foreground is for shaping violin cornerblocks, for example, while most of the others are for the final stages of arching the top and bottom. Some of these have flat soles for planing flat or convex surfaces; others are gently rounded both across and along the sole and are used for refining concave areas of the arching.

The design is extremely simple as from the photographs of this little plane, made of elder, show: just a body, a wedge and a blade. It’s quite possible to make a plane like this from a solid block of wood simply by chiseling out the required shape. But I’ve found that it’s easier and quicker to adapt the method James Krenov describes in his book ‘The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking’ for making much larger planes. Essentially, the idea is that you saw two slices off the block to make the sides of the plane, shape the bed and throat from the middle section, and then glue it back together.

Here’s an attempt at step by step instructions.

1. Find a suitable blade, around 0.5 inch inches in width and 2 to 2.5 inches long. It’s possible to make one out of an old chisel blade. Another idea is to use a blade that once was part of the set that accompanied a combination or plough plane (these sometimes turn up in second hand tool shops having parted company from the original tool). Or you can buy a new blade from a supplier of Ibex or Herdim violin planes.

2. Now you need a small block of wood, preferably sawn on the quarter. Box, holly, elder, hornbeam, fruit woods and beech are all good. Plane all sides accurately square, though you need not worry about the endgrain faces (diagram, step 1). Then saw it into a sandwich (diagram, step 2) making sure that the layer in the middle (the filling of the sandwich, as it were) is a little wider than the blade you have chosen. Plane the sawn surfaces, keeping them square so that you will later be able to glue the sandwich back together without visible glue lines. The final width of the filling of the sandwich needs to be just a whisker greater than the blade.

Diagram of steps in making a finger plane

3. Saw the central section (the sandwich filling) across at 45° and 85° to make the mouth and throat of the plane (diagram, step 3). Keep the wedge-shaped waste piece because it will be useful later. File the 45° surface smooth, flat and square.

4. Glue the sandwich back together, adjusting the distance between the two filling pieces to give a tight mouth (diagram, step 4). Clamp up and allow plenty of time for the glue to cure.

5. Clean up.

6. Try the blade in position. You will probably need to plane something off the sole so that the mouth is just wide enough for the blade to peep out. Bear in mind that if the sole of the plane is going to be curved, the width of the mouth will initially be wider at the sides of the blade and you’ll eventually need to adjust the mouth to an even width by enlarging it centrally. So keep it on the tight side for now.

7. Plane or file the sole to the desired profile. This is most easily done by holding a block plane upside down in the vice and moving the workpiece (ie the plane you’re making) over it in the same way that a cooper’s plane is used, though on a much smaller scale – see photograph.

Using a block plane in a vice

Jig for holding wedge

Jig for holding wedge while planing

8. Rough out a wedge. A simple jig like the one in the photograph makes it easier. I like to use a wood of contrasting colour and, if possible, to include a streak of sapwood. But that, of course, is just a whim and of no functional importance. Make the wedge overlength to give leeway for later fitting and leave any fancy carving of the thick end until after the fit is perfected.

9. Put the wedge and blade into position and estimate where to drill for the crossbar that will hold them in place (diagram, step 5). The position isn’t critical but, if the bar is placed too low, it may tend to obstruct shavings as they emerge into the throat. I’ve found that placing the bar about half way up the finished plane works well. Measure the combined thickness of the blade and wedge at this point. Then use a mitre gauge to draw a line on the outside of the place corresponding to the position of the bed. Scribe a second parallel line in front of it (ie towards the toe of the plane). The distance between the two lines should correspond to the combined thickness of the blade and wedge. Draw a third parallel line 1.75 mm further forward again. This is to take account of the 3.5 mm diameter of the cross pin. Half way along this line is the point to drill. While it’s good to get this point placed as accurately as possible, don’t worry too much because you’ll be able to accommodate any inaccuracy by adjusting the wedge.

10. Drill a 3.5mm diameter hole centred on the position that you’ve just marked using a drill press. Before drilling, fit the waste piece that you’ve saved tightly into the gap between the sides of the plane. This will minimise breakout.

11. Turn a short length of hardwood to a diameter of 3.5 mm. Or make it using a dowel plate. Glue into position and trim it off when the glue is dry.

12. Using a coping saw, saw out the curve of the top of the plane. Refine the curve with a knife or file.

13. Then there’s rather a lot of fiddling about to do. Thin the sides of the plane. Adjust the length. Curve the ends. Fit the wedge. File or plane the final profile of the sole and then adjust the curve of the blade and the throat of the plane until you’ve got a tool that does exactly what you want it to do.

14. Obviously, the dimensions, bed angle and other details of the plane can be altered to suit your own requirements.

I’ve no doubt that there are many better, faster, easier and more ingenious ways of making finger planes than this. If you know of them or invent them, please let me know. In a later post, I’ll try to give a bit more detail and discuss modifications and refinements. (See here.)

Making guitars means that there are often offcuts of attractively figured wood left over. One thing to do with them is to turn them into musical boxes. As well as making amusing presents, they demonstrate how even a tiny box and soundboard act to produce a surprisingly loud sound from a mechanism that, on its own, is whisper quiet.

The musical mechanism can be bought from novelty shops quite cheaply. A range of tunes is available of which two are shown below.

The mechanism is a steel comb whose teeth are tuned to a scale. Rotating the hand cranked drum causes the raised pimples on it to ‘ping’ notes as they first bend a tooth and then release it.

Held in the hand, turning the handle produces a tune so quiet as to be almost inaudible. But pressed against something that can itself vibrate – even a table top or a wooden box – the volume of sound is substantially increased.

If you go to the trouble of mounting the mechanism on a thin plate of spruce (I simply glue it with a little epoxy), the sound is really quite loud. Here’s one in a walnut box. The mechanism is mounted upside down beneath the top and hidden inside the box so that only the handle protrudes.

And two views of another, this time with four mechanisms each playing a different tune.

The bridge is made out of Macassar ebony inlaid, on the tie-block, with a flash of laburnum to echo the rosette. Earlier today, I positioned it on the soundboard and glued it into place. The clamps are now off but I’m going to be patient and wait until tomorrow before stringing up the instrument. It’s always wise to let the glue cure completely before putting a lot of tension on the bridge.

The binding is made from sawn veneers of ebony and maple. The photograph below shows a true edge being planed using a shooting board before using the bandsaw to slice off a narrow strip.

Here, a border of maple is being glued to the ebony in a shop-made clamping device.

Below is a strip of the finished binding, bent and ready to be glued into the ledge already routed on the guitar.

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