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Category Archives: classical guitar

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.

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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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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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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.

Although many people prefer guitars made of dark coloured wood, lighter colours can make good looking instruments too. The back and ribs of this one are in satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia), a dense hardwood from Sri Lanka rarely available nowadays but which in Georgian times was widely used as a veneer in furniture making. It’s hard, brittle and difficult to work with hand tools but it bends fairly easily and, because it doesn’t contain large pores, finishes well with French polish. As its name suggests, satinwood is strongly reflective and when polished takes on a shimmering, almost iridescent, quality (sometimes called chatoyance) that’s impossible to capture in a photograph.

The rosette and bridge decoration are burr ash and the bindings are Rio rosewood. The soundboard is European spruce.

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a larger view.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog speculating that one reason why more men played the guitar than women was simply the dimensions of the instrument. It’s not that women aren’t attracted to the guitar; lots start to play it. But the trouble is that as they get better and the music gets more interesting, the stretches that they must make with their left hand become uncomfortably long, if not physically impossible, unless they have a unusually wide finger span.

No one seemed very interested in this theory (I don’t think I received a single comment) but, even so, I thought it would be worth making a smaller guitar with a shorter scale length, a narrower fingerboard and closer string spacing as an experiment. You can see photographs of the instrument here. It has been played by lots of guitarists both professional and amateur, both men and women. Most of them said they liked it and nobody complained that it made too small a sound, although a few of the men found that their fingers were too cramped at the nut end of the fingerboard.

And it did persuade someone to commission a similar instrument, shown below. It too, is a loose copy of a Hauser guitar. 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. The scale length is 630 mm; the width at the nut is 48mm; and the string spacing at the bridge is 56mm. I’m pleased both with how it looks and how it sounds and I hope its new owner will be too.


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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In Roy Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, there’s an interview with José Romanillos in which he talked about some of techniques he uses. To attach the ribs to the foot of the neck, he prefers a wedged joint over the usual 2mm wide slot cut at the 12th fret line. Apparently, he got the idea from seeing such a joint in a 17th or 18th century French guitar. He gives some rudimentary instructions about how to make it:

‘You cut a wide tapering slot, then fit the rib tight up against the front end. Then you drive a wedge down, which matches the taper exactly. It is very strong.’

Well, I haven’t had any problems with strength of the joint when the ribs are housed in conventional narrow slots. But I’ve never found it easy to cut these slots to exactly the right width with a hand saw. If you want to do it with a single cut, you need to adjust the set of a back saw so that it cuts a kerf 2mm wide. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to do this without breaking the teeth, it makes the saw almost useless for any other purpose. The alternative is to do it by making two cuts. After the first cut, you can place a piece of plastic or plywood in the kerf to guide the saw for the second cut. But it’s not a very satisfactory solution because it’s too easy to cut into the plastic or wood and end up with a slot that’s too narrow near the bottom. You can get around that problem by substituting a sheet of metal, such as a cabinet scraper, but it doesn’t do the saw much good. Things get even more difficult if you want the slot to be 2.5 or 3.0mm wide to accommodate laminated ribs.

So I was interested to learn about Romanillos’ wedge technique and decided to try it out in the guitar that I’m making at the moment, which does have laminated ribs – zebrano lined with maple with a finished thickness of about 3mm.

The 2 photographs below show the wide tapering slots cut and chiselled out in the foot of the neck before the heel has been shaped.

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Here, I’ve roughly shaped the heel and lower part of the neck.

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Then I cut the wedges and adjusted them to fit. Obviously, it’s particularly important that they draw everything up tight before the narrow end of the wedge reaches the soundboard end of the slot. I deliberately made them too long initially to give plenty of room for error.

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This is a dry run before gluing to make sure that everything fits perfectly. I discovered that another advantage of making the wedges too long at the beginning was that it provided something to grip when wriggling them out.

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And this is the finished joint, glued and cleaned up. As you can see, I’ve already started attaching the ribs to the soundboard with tentellones.

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Altogether, this turned out to be a useful experiment. The wide slot presented no problems to saw or chisel out. Indeed, it was significantly easier than cutting the conventional narrow slot. There’s a bit of extra time and trouble preparing the wedges but, as long as you have the right jig (see here) it’s not difficult. Gluing up was easy: plenty of room to coat all the surfaces before putting them together and sliding in the wedge. A couple of taps with a light hammer and it’s done. I’m fairly sure that I shall be using this technique again.

This is the second half of the story, started in my last post, about making a rosette from spalted beech.

The next step was to cut the channels around the edge of the rosette to receive the border strips. Again, I used my jig mounted Dremel for this.

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Here the channels have been cut and the decorative strips bent more or less to the right curvature on the bending iron ready for glueing in.

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And here is the finished rosette, planed flush with the soundboard and given a wipe of shellac. I shan’t cut the soundhole until I’ve planed the soundboard down to it final thickness.

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A few weeks ago, I bought a block of spalted beech from Mark Bennett and mentioned, in a previous post, that I hoped it would make some striking guitar rosettes. I’ve been trying out some ideas. Here’s the piece of wood that provided the starting point.

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Having decided which face looked most attractive, I set up the bandsaw for a fine cut and sawed two veneers at about 4mm thickness. Then I book-matched them to create a more or less symmetrical pattern, by gluing them onto thin (1/64 inch) plywood for stability. Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that. First, using weak hot hide glue, I stuck a sheet of paper to a 6 by 6 inch square of 6mm MDF. Then I stuck a similar sized square of 1/64 inch thick plywood over that, again using thin hide glue, and weighted it down until the glue was dry. This provided the base onto which the veneers were glued.

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Using a Dremel mounted in a jig (details of jig available here) I cut out the rosette making the depth of cut just through the layer of thin plywood. It was then possible to remove the rosette using a thin blade – an ordinary knife from the dinner table works well – sliding it between the plywood and MDF layers in the plane of cleavage provided by the paper. Any paper or glue remaining on the underside of the rosette can easily be cleaned off with a hot damp cloth, which of course was the reason for using hide glue in the first place.

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I missed the opportunity to photograph either the detached rosette or the routed channel in the soundboard but below you can see the rosette being glued into position on the soundboard, weighted down so that it dries flat.

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Looking around for more on V-joints, I found Gary Demos’ site where he describes not only the construction of the joint but how he made a copy of a Panormo guitar. It’s a fine looking instrument and there are a few mp3 files that show that it sounds very good as well.

Cumpiano’s website has a brief discussion of the merits of the V-joint versus the scarf joint too. (You’ll need to scroll down a bit to find it.) I enjoyed his comment:

If you use a v-joint people will shower you with praises for your skill and those in the know will guess that you don’t have to make a living at making guitars.

There’s probably some truth in that. I’ve always admired Cumpiano’s down to earth approach to guitar making and his refusal to subscribe to anything that can’t be properly explained. See, for example, his courteous but uncompromising dismissal of the mystique of tap tone tuning.

Still, in the interests of historical accuracy, I’m going to pursue the V-joint a bit further. It seemed worth shaping the neck and headstock of my trial joint to get an idea of what it would look like on a finished instrument. In reality, it doesn’t look quite as good as the photographs suggest. At this resolution, glue lines, which in places are wider than they should be, don’t show up. But I’ve discovered two useful things: first, that the joint isn’t impossibly difficult to make and second, that it’s certainly strong enough.

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Following on from my recent experiment with a small guitar, I’ve been thinking about going a stage further and making a copy of a 19th century guitar of the sort for which Panormo is famous. There’s one in the Edinburgh University collection of historic musical instruments and, rather helpfully, there’s a measured drawing available. The collection’s website has fierce warnings about all the content being copyright so I haven’t posted a photograph, but you can see the instrument by clicking here.

The neck of this guitar joins the head in a traditional V-joint. This isn’t a technique that I’ve ever used before so I’ve been trying it out, partly to get my hand in for making it and partly to reassure myself that the joint is stronger than it looks. There’s a good illustrated article on making V-joints on the Official Luthiers Forum, although you may have to register with the forum to get access. The geometry of the joint isn’t really very complicated but, on the other hand, it isn’t entirely straightforward either. The article explains it well.

The photograph below shows my rough first attempt being glued up. Hot hide glue is the correct stuff to use but, for this trial run, I substituted Titebond.

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Here it is with the clamps off.

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And after cleaning it up.

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And trying to break it.

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I wondered, in view of the endgrain gluing surfaces of the joint, whether the joint would be strong enough. So I played around, first by loading it with a 20kg weight and then by putting it in the vice and pulling on it as hard as I could. I couldn’t shift it and now feel entirely confident that it’s up to the job.

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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The ribs were thicknessed to 1.8 mm first and then coaxed into their curves using a bending iron. Because this is a baroque cello, when the neck is fitted, it won’t be mortised into the top block but simply glued and nailed into position. So, to add strength and minimise the risk of the top block splitting when the nails are driven in, I used a continuous piece for the ribs of both upper bouts to avoid having a join at the top.

Here are a couple of photographs of the ribs being glued into position around the mould.

The responses that I’ve had to the last two posts on how to construct small planes for violin-making stimulated me to look around more widely for people who make their own planes.  The basic idea of constructing them as a ‘sandwich’ came from chapter 2 of James Krenov’s book, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking. But there’s a much more detailed account of how to make these sorts of planes in Making and Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck (ISBN 0-8069-6163-5). As you’d guess from the title, this book also has stuff on sharpening plane irons  and using planes.

Derek Cohen, from Perth, Australia, has a website full of interesting stuff about tools and woodworking, mainly angled towards furniture makers.  Among other things, he describes how to make a large jointer and a plane to cut sliding dovetails.

Philip Edwards makes traditional wooden planes professionally in Dorset, England and very nice tools they are too. Better still, they’re very reasonably priced. I met him recently and he told me that he too, used the sandwich method of construction. You can just make this out if you look carefully the pictures at Philly Planes.

I’ve mentioned Konrad Sauer  before in this blog. He’s a Canadian planemaker who makes infill planes that are not only beautiful  but highly functional. He has re-invented the Norris adjuster and it works perfectly – which is more than can be said for the orginal version. However, it’s a website to visit for inspiration rather than instruction unless you are a highly skilled metalworker.

Bill Carter’s website falls into a similar category but it’s well worth a visit both to see his copies of rare mitre planes and the ingenious use he makes of discarded materials, especially the brass backs of worn out tenon saws.

Of course, if you want to buy a plane, there are many places to go – just search the web. But I hope these resources might be of use to people who want to make their own.


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