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Category Archives: musical instruments

Stewart-MacDonald has been sending me emails recently about a device which allows guitar makers to adjust the height of a guitar nut or saddle while keeping the underside both square and straight (item # 4047 in the StewMac catalogue). Here’s a picture.

I thought that this was rather a good idea.  Although it’s not especially difficult to adjust a nut or a saddle by hand with a file, it’s a tedious job and often takes a while. And the reviews on the StewMac website were positive, saying how quick and accurate the device was.

The drawback is that it’s quite expensive.  By the time I’d paid  shipping and import duty, buying one would probably cost around  $200.   So, I decided to make one for myself.

The body is a length of aluminium bar, 15mm x 30mm, drilled at each end to take an axle that carries miniature ball bearings.

Used with a sheet of P280 sandpaper on a flat surface, it worked quickly and accurately.

As I hope you will be able to see from the photographs, it’s not difficult to make, although you will need access to a drill press and a small lathe. The materials needed (aluminium bar and four miniature ball bearings) are easily available and cheap.

Mine took a bit longer to construct than it should have done because I drilled the holes for the axles too low, which meant that the body of the device ended up too far above the sanding surface. So I had to bush the holes and re-drill. If you’re making one, I’d recommend positioning the axle to give a gap of no more than 2mm between the bottom of the device and the sanding surface.

This charming little guitar came into the workshop recently. The tightly arched back had come away from the linings in a couple of places at the edges of the upper bout and needed re-gluing. I also made a new saddle to replace the existing poorly-fitting piece of plastic and fitted a set of new strings. Otherwise, the guitar was in remarkably good condition for its age.

 
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The label inside the guitar attributes it to Adolf Kessler junior of Markneukirchen, where it was probably made in the last part of the 19th century.

The Musical Instrument Museum in Markneukirchen has an on-line forum where I discovered that Adolf Kessler had founded a mail order business there in 1886, selling guitars and violins. I guess Kessler was a business man who marketed instruments made by some of the many craftsmen working in the town at the time. There’s a short BBC film about Markneukirchen and its 400 year history as a centre of musical instrument manufacture here.

 
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The rosette is made from decorative shapes of mother of pearl set into mastic.

 
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The ribs and back are of plain wood, perhaps maple, with a painted faux grain pattern under the varnish.

 
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The ebonised bridge is neatly carved into fleurs de lys at the ends, although the bass side has sustained some damage.

 
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The headstock carries Stauffer style tuning machines.

 
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Altogether an attractive little instrument – and I’m pleased to think that it is ready to make music again.

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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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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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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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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Here’s photograph of a viola that I’ve recently completed. It’s based on the famous ‘Conte Vitale’ by Andrea Guarneri.

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My friend Andrew Bellis, who is both a bow maker and viola player, tried it out recently.

 

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Here he plays the two bourées from Bach’s third cello suite.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often keep a photographic record of instruments while I’m building them. However, the making of this viola was rather special because it was documented in a series of drawings and paintings by the Winchester artist Gill Robinson. I’ve shown a few of her drawings below. If you’d like to see the whole series, there’s a video here.

 

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A few years ago, I wrote about pochettes after learning about them from my friend Michael Lavelle, who had just made one. It was a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, with an intriguing variant – it had an owl’s face instead of a scroll. That instrument was bought by a musician from Belgium, which encouraged Mike to make another, as shown below.

 

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Mike’s second pochette is now looking for a good home. If you are interested, send me an email (info@finelystrung.com) and I’ll put you in touch with him. The price, which includes a bow and a case, is £850.

It’s always nice to hear from people for whom you’ve made instruments, and I was delighted when Dave Crispin got in touch recently. I made him a classical guitar five years ago, (see here for photographs) and he sent me a recording in which he uses it to play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

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