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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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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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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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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.

Lars Hedelius-Strikkertsen is a Danish guitarist, who plays a 19th century guitar and specialises in the music of that time. Here he is playing a piece by Fernando Sor.

 

 

If you go to his website, you’ll see that he sometimes takes the trouble to dress the part when he gives concerts. Not surprisingly, in view of this attention to authentic period detail, he didn’t like the idea of using an anachronistic metal contraption as a capo d’astro and asked me to make him a cejilla.

 

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I’ve written about these devices before so I won’t repeat myself. But the commission reminded me of what delightful instruments these early romantic guitars are. Anyone interested in finding out more about them might like to take a a look at this excellent online gallery.

A few years ago, I made one of these guitars, which is now owned by the artist, Gill Robinson. The instrument that I copied was made by Louis Panormo around 1840, and it’s now in the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

 

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There’s a photograph of my guitar above, and a video of Rob MacKillop playing the original instrument below.

 

Players of stringed instruments, particularly fretted stringed instruments, have been using capos to raise pitch and change key for a very long time. Some early English guittars, like one below, made in London in 1760¹, actually had holes drilled through the fingerboard and neck to allow a capo to be held in place with a screw and wing-nut.

 

 

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with another type of capo with a long history – the cejilla. Nowadays, they’re mainly used by flamenco guitarists, but a friend, who plays a copy of a nineteenth century guitar, thought that it would be nicer to have a capo that was plausibly of the same period as her instrument instead of a modern metal anachronism.

My first attempt to make one worked well enough as far as stopping the strings was concerned. But it looked clumsy because the peg head was too large. Worse, at least from the player’s point of view, the sharp corners were uncomfortable for the left hand.

 

 

So for the second one, I substituted a smaller peg from a half-size violin and softened the edges of the cejilla with a tapering chamfer. It looks better, I think, and I hope it will be more comfortable to use.

 

 

Cejillas aren’t difficult to make as long as you have a peg shaver and a matching tapered reamer available, and a bit of practice in persuading tuning pegs to turn smoothly in a tapered hole. This is everyday stuff for violin makers but guitar makers who fit worm and wheel tuning machines may not have the necessary kit. Mind you, since a pencil and an elastic band will do much the same thing, they may think cejillas are too much fuss anyway.

 

 

Anybody interested in the history of capos and the diverse and ingenious mechanisms that have been invented to provide what’s really just a moveable nut will enjoy the online Capo museum which has a wonderful collection (237 different designs).

 

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a more detailed view.

 

Footnotes

1. The early English guittar is in the collection of historic musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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.

I had intended my previous post to be the last on the V joint. But, as I’ve just completed a guitar using the one that I made for the photographs, the series can end in a rather more satisfactory way by showing how it turned out on an actual instrument.

 

 
Here’s a close-up to show any sceptics that the small extra piece of wood glued on to the male part of the V really is invisible in the finished joint – scroll down to the last couple of photographs in this post if you can’t remember what I’m talking about.

 

Before gluing up the joint, it’s worth taking some trouble to make sure that the two parts fit perfectly. I put the neck in a vise and hold the headstock in place while checking for gaps with a 0.05mm feeler gauge. A bright light behind the joint also helps to reveal places where the fit is defective.

Here I’ve discovered that the sides of the V are a bit loose…

…while the shoulders are tight.

A couple of fine shavings taken off the shoulders of the headstock using a shooting board…

…improves the fit. As a final check, I rub chalk over the male part of the V joint, locate the female part in position and press the joint together hard.

Where the fit is perfect, chalk will be transferred evenly. High spots, on the other hand, show up as a blotch of chalk surrounded by unchalked wood. Here it looks as if there’s a high point on one side near the mouth of the V.

A small file takes off the bump…

…and a second chalk fitting shows that the joint fits pretty well all over, except for a small low spot on one side at the apex of the V. I decide that I can live with that.

The next step is to dust off the chalk, size all mating surfaces of the joint with hot dilute hide glue and leave them to dry.

This is the clamping arrangement that I use. It’s important that the compression force runs through the centre line of the headstock and bears directly on the shoulders of the joint. Chiselling off the front of the V where it projects through the headstock allows the bar of the clamp to sit close to the surface of the headstock.

Once I’m happy that I can get the clamp into exactly the right position, I un-clamp, brush medium strength hide glue onto all joint surfaces, re-clamp it and leave it undisturbed for a couple of hours.

Here it is after taking the clamp off. The shadow below the right hand shoulder of the joint indicates that the headstock is slightly twisted relative to the neck. I suspected that this would happen while I was making the final adjustments but decided that the inaccuracy would be small enough to plane it out after the joint was glued up.

And I’m pleased to say that it was.

The back of the joint looks a bit weird until the extra block is shaved off.

But these two necks show that it comes out all right in the end. Even with a magnifying glass it’s scarcely possible to see that extra wood has been added and after the final shaping it will be quite invisible.

That’s the last of the series of posts on making a V joint. Thanks to anyone who has followed the story this far. Before finishing, I ought to add that there are many variations in the way this joint can be cut. Some makers, for example, prefer to use a template for marking out rather than a ruler and dividers. Please add a comment if you know how to do it quicker or better.

Click on the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

Moving on from my previous post about marking out a V joint, it’s time to cut and trim it to shape.

First, I saw out the V in the headstock, keeping close to the lines but being careful not to saw past them. I try to be brave in sawing up to the line at the narrow end of the V because that’s the hardest part to clean up later.

Next, I stop to put a fresh edge on the chisel that I’m going to use. When it will slice through tissue paper, I reckon that it’s sharp enough.

I clean up the V, paring from both sides towards the middle. Final cuts are carried out with the chisel resting in the knife line that marked out the joint. A small square is useful to check that the sides of the V are flat. The most difficult part of the joint is the apex of the V but a slicing cut with the corner of the chisel will remove the last bit of waste.

Here’s the female part of the V joint in the headstock finished. It shouldn’t be necessary to touch it again.

Now I cut the male part of the joint on the neck, starting with the angled shoulders. I chisel out a ramp for the saw in the usual way…

… and then saw down to the V, keeping clear of the lines.

I mark the starting point of the cuts for the sides of the V on the endgrain…

… place the neck in a vise, tilting it so that the cut will be vertical, and …

saw off the sides of the V with a tenon saw.

I mark and keep the pieces that I’ve just sawn off. They’ll be useful later.

Now I clean up the V and its shoulders with a chisel, paring in from both sides as I did for the headstock.

Here it is almost finished.

The neck and headstock are now tested for fit. Below is the view from the fingerboard side of the neck.

And here’s the view from the back of the neck.

As you can see, there’s a problem at the apex of the V, where a shadow shows that the neck isn’t quite deep enough to fill up the whole of the female part of the joint in the headstock. (My stock of mahogany for necks is planed up at a thickness of 25mm which means that I always run into this difficulty.)

The solution is to add a little extra depth at the apex of the V. This is where the offcuts that I saved come in handy. I prepare a small piece from one of these…

and glue it on, taking care that the direction of the grain in the extra piece is orientated in the same way as the grain of the neck.

When the glue is fully hard…

… it’s sawn roughly to shape…

… and trimmed with a chisel. This addition will be invisible in the completed joint.

The last step is to make sure that everything fits to perfection before glueing up. I’ll discuss how to do that in the next post.

Click on any of the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

Although the geometry of the V joint is simple, it’s surprisingly hard to to visualise if you’ve only seen the joint on a finished guitar. So, in an attempt to make the marking out easier to understand, I’ve sketched it below.

As with all joints, the more precisely it’s marked out the better the final result. It’s crucial that the stock is sized and squared up accurately. The headstock needs to be 17 or 18mm thick to give a final thickness of 19 or 20mm after application of the veneer. The neck must be rather thicker – at least 24 or 25mm – or there won’t be enough wood at the apex of the male part of the V where it engages with the female cut out part in the headstock. The side view in the drawings of the joint above will show what I’m getting at. (Even 25mm thickness may not be enough for full engagement but I’ll show how I deal with that problem in my next post.)

It’s also important that the end grain edge at the lower end of the headstock is exactly square to the sides and faces. I ensure this with a low angle plane and a shooting board.

To begin the marking out, I scribe a centre line down both faces of the headstock with a marking gauge, being careful to scribe both faces from the same edge.

Then I mark the corners of the V with dividers, placing points 18mm either side of the centre line to form the base of the V, and a single point 42mm up from the base on the centreline to define the apex. In the photograph, the pinpoints are marked with chalk to make them more visible.

A single bevel marking knife is used to mark the sides of the V, keeping the ruler on the outside of the V. I try not to cut beyond the point of the V, particularly on the back of the headstock. It doesn’t matter so much on the front which will be covered with veneer later.

To ensure that the ruler doesn’t slip, it’s helpful to fix a strip of fine sandpaper to its underside with double-sided tape.

Here’s the V marked out on one face of the headstock. This process needs to be repeated on the other face so that both sides of the headstock are marked. I haven’t bothered to illustrate this.

Now it’s time to mark out the male part of the joint on the neck. Again, I start by scribing a centre line down both faces. Then I square a line across the upper face of the neck slightly more than 38mm from the end.

Using a sliding bevel set for the angle that I want the headstock to make with the neck (10º in this case, so the bevel is set to 80º) I scribe both sides of the neck from the line that I’ve just squared across it.

Then I square across the back of the neck at the point where the angled lines on the sides end. Finally, I mark out the V on both faces using dividers set to exactly the same dimensions that I used on the headstock. The only difference is that, when it comes to scribing the lines with the knife, I keep the ruler on the inside of the V.

Here’s the top of the neck marked out…

…and here’s the back. You can see that, on the back, the V is positioned slightly further down the neck than it is on the front.

In the next post, I’ll show how I cut out the joint.

You can see larger versions of the photographs by clicking on the thumbnails below.

There are two ways to create the angle between the headstock and the upper end of the neck of a guitar. One is to saw it out whole from a large piece of wood; the other is to make it out of two pieces using a glued joint – either the V shaped joint invented by the early guitar makers or a scarf joint. Of these options, the most rational is the scarf joint. It’s quicker and easier to execute than a V joint and wastes less wood than sawing out a neck and headstock whole. What’s more, it has a large glued surface so it doesn’t rely on nanometric accuracy for its strength.

Despite the obvious advantages of a scarf joint, the V joint has become something of a fetish among guitar makers. This is easy to defend where historical accuracy is concerned. After all, if you’re attempting a copy of a 19th century guitar, it’s desirable – even obligatory – to imitate the constructional methods of the original maker. But for a modern instrument, why prefer a weaker joint that takes longer to make?

The answer, I guess, is to show that you can. It’s not a million miles away from the Georgian cabinet makers who made the pins of their dovetails so skinny that they almost vanished at the narrow end, as you can see in this photograph of the drawer of the table at which I’m sitting as I write this post.

There’s no practical advantage either in strength or speed of production in cutting dovetails like this. Indeed, the reverse must be true. But they do provide an understated way by which makers can demonstrate that they care about seldom seen details and show off their skill.

I’ve found myself using a V joint for both these reasons. Here’s a copy of a 19th century guitar that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. The V joint in this instrument was present in the original and it seemed right to keep it.

On the other hand, the V joint in the guitar below could perfectly well have been a scarf joint. The guitarist for whom I made the instrument didn’t notice it until I drew it to her attention. Still, I enjoyed making it and, for reasons that I can’t properly explain, felt that it was worth the extra time and trouble.

I’ve just cut a couple more V joints for guitars that I’ve got planned for 2012 and, although instructions for making this joint already exist (see here, for example), I thought it might be useful if I kept a camera handy to document the process. In the next post, I’ll explain how I mark out the joint.

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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