I Think It’s a Guitar

According to Tom the Luthier it has Good Bones

In my collection of character flaws, one really stands out. I have tremendous difficulty finishing projects. During my previous incarnation as a remodel contractor there was always an enforced end to the job. No matter how well we got along and no matter how well everything was turning out, at some point they wanted to stop giving me money and they wanted their peace and quiet back.

Neither of these cases applies to my personal projects, and sometimes the finish line on these resembles the infinity described by getting halfway there, and halfway again, and halfway again…no way to push through and actually break the tape.

The hold up for stringing this fancy round box up and deciding whether it actually was a musical instrument was, ironically, the finish. My first attempt at French polishing the back, sides, and neck went great, and only the finish on the top remained. And remained and remained. I started out well, and too late noticed that I had made a measurement error in masking out the bridge location. Since I needed to glue the bridge to the top, I needed the wood underneath the bridge to be bare. Moving the masking forward to the correct position left a naked spot that I would have to patch in, and here’s where sin entered paradise.

I won’t describe my fumbling stumbles with patching in and making it to final polish on the top, or the trouble I had getting a decent coat of shellac on the rosewood overlay of the headstock. Suffice it to say neither went well. Needing a project I wasn’t mad at, I started the second guitar, this time a different pattern which required new molds. Tooling up for the second guitar and building a bending machine, I tried to focus on not making the same mistakes a second time.

Productive distractions, new fixtures and a new guitar build

But I had to decide; let the quality of finish on the top and head stock stop me cold or accept a higher than comfortable degree of imperfection and forge ahead.

I opted for imperfections and tackled the last steps necessary to wind on the strings. These consisted of gluing on the bridge, installing the tuning machines, carving the nut and saddle, and drilling the peg holes.

One more fixture for the drawer

There are any number of schemes to glue on the bridge using deep throated clamps through the sound hole. The clamps are spendy though, and I had already invested in a vacuum pump, so after consulting YouTube I built a vacuum bridge clamp. This was a fairly simple project, a tenoned bottom frame for rigidity and a lighter mitered top frame to sandwich weather stripping and the vacuum film. I had to pick up a swatch of stretchy film from Fiberglast, a great online resource for everything resin and casting, but the second or third iteration worked like a charm.

Next came the tuning machines. These take a stepped hole through the head stock, 10 mm for the machine and 8 mm for the threaded bushing that threads in from the front to lock the machinery in place. I had bought a fancy reamer to drill the stepped hole but I couldn’t find it, though I was certain where I had put it. Forge ahead was the motto, so I broke out the hand cranked drill press I had scored on Ebay and worked from center punch locations to pilot holes to a deep hole from the back and then a shallow hole from the front. fortunately, the machines covered up the minor blowouts.

Lain out are the graduated nut slot files

I had bought the nut, pictured above filling the gap between fretboard and headstock, already milled to thickness, and had used it as a place holder when laying out the neck and bridge placement. It’s made from cow bone and works pretty easily. I cut it to length, filed the back side to a curve, copied the string placement from my Martin, and filed in string slots. Now for the saddle and peg holes, and one last mistake.

Peg reamer to taper the peg holes

Somehow in laying out the peg holes I got them too close to the saddle…who knows, maybe that will improve the sound. Above you can see me reaming a taper in the holes to match that of the pegs. Time to string her up. Putting the reamers and nut files back in their drawer that missing peg hole reamer called “olly olly oxen free” and rolled into view.

All that was left was to file and sand the saddle to shape. The fret board has a curvature across its cross section, a feature of the steel string guitar though not of the classical guitar. Using a long straight edge and a flattened pencil I extended the line along the frets to the saddle in its groove and scribed the fretboard radius onto the saddle. It was also too tight in its slot, so I carefully worked it thinner on the dead flat sanding stone and filed it to the radius I had scribed.

Popping it back in its slot I took a trip to the local guitar shop for strings and strung it up… and plucking each string individually it sounded pretty good. The action, which is the height of the strings from the fretboard, was ridiculously high though, too high to play and the force needed to push a string down to the fret board was adding so much tension it actually increased the pitch of the note plucked.

I had kind of expected this, having been conservative with my filing So I started the process of winding the strings loose, deepening the nut slots, and sanding the bottom edge of the saddle a millimeter at a time. I also called up Tom, the luthier and guitar tech who had set up the couple of used guitars I had bought in prior years. I threw myself on his mercy for the final setup and he was really friendly about it.

I half expected he would work on the action while I watched and learned. Well, I learned some more but mostly through shooting the breeze for three hours. He even invited me to join the local luthier’s society, which sounded like a dozen or so other crusty old wood heads with an addiction to guitar building. In the end he said I was close and that the guitar had “good bones”, which I took to mean that my mistakes had mostly cancelled out and that the basics, neck alignment, string length, and neck relief were well within parameters.

Returning to the shop with more confidence I filed the slots deeper, shortened the saddle and lowered the action considerably. Now it’s pretty comfortable to play and sounds at least as good as my entry level Martin. I don’t think much about how much it cost in time, tools and materials, I plan to amortize most of that over the next ten or fifteen guitars. And, of course, I have a date with the Luthier Society next week. Tom says that as long as my skin is plenty thick I’ll do fine;)

The pretty side

p.s. When I figure out how to post a recording on Medium I’ll add it to this story.

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John Griswold

John Griswold

Master carpenter, watercolor artist and beat up old jock…owned by Black Lab Bo who considers two tennis balls a minimum mouthful