Sawdust: The Artisan luthier's Process

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Sawdust

The Artisan Luthier's Process Alexandria Shannon


Copyright Š 2020 by Alexandria Shannon All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Printed in Canada First Printing, 2020 ISBN 0-0000000-0-0 Alexandria Shannon Enterprises 271 Dolph Street South Cambridge, ON Canada N3H 2C1 alexandriashannon.com


artisan luthier noun ar∙ti∙san lu∙thi∙er An artisan luthier is someone who designs and creates their own original stringed instruments. For example are: guitars, cellos, violins, mandolins, dulcimers, ukuleles and banjos. The word luthier has French origins, derived from the word luth, which means lute. The art of creating and repairing instruments is trade that has become a centuries-old tradition.


Preperation

An introduction

01 The Artisan Luthier

Thank you for taking the time to pick up this book. It means a lot to me that in the limited time we have in this earth, you have chosen to invest a some it into learning about the trade of artisan lutherie, the trade of designing and building stringed instruments. It occurred to me that while much time, heart, and soul is invested in constructing instruments, unlike many art forms little is actually understood about what the process of creating an instrument actually entails. Much of the work takes place under the cloak of the private workshop, and the knowledge needed to understand a process is usually quite extensive. Because of this I've decided to take you into my workshop, perhaps the same as your eccentric next door neighbor's, to exprence a taste of the process of making a instrument design to reality.

03 Successful Guitar Design 08 Wood Preparation 10 Templates


Woodworking

Assembly

12 Crafting a Neck

34 Sanding

14 Fretboard

36 Finishing

18 Fretting

38 Electronics

20 Neck Profiling

42 Final Assembly & Setup

22 Crafting a Body

44 Finished Product

26 Preparing the Body Blank 28 Alignment & Scales 30 Sculpting the Body 32 Carving the Top Veneer 1


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“An artisan luthier’s design options can be limitless when the inflexibility of an assembly line is removed from the equation.”

The Artisan Luthier Guitar making is an art form which combines many trades and art disciplines to create an end product which, in the right hands is capable of being an artist’s tool all of its own. To carry the project from start to finish one needs to be able to play the role of a fine woodworker, mechanic, product designer, musician and, unless the instrument being made is an exact copy of an existing design, it will take some fine art and design skills too. For the exception of a few select luthier schools, the only way for most builders to get into this trade is to be self-taught. If you read this book and think to yourself “this shop looks small and cramped?” that is because it is. With some exceptions, the artisan luthier is, like most artists, working a cottage industry. Even though the end product can fetch anywhere from $1,0003,000 or more, the hourly pay is surprising low. Most are usually working another job either in instrument repair, or in another industry altogether. This industry is a labor of love for the artist. No one would pursue this lifestyle is they were not passionate about the work they are doing.

Why Artisan Instruments? The music store can sell me a decent guitar for far less, so why have an artisan luthier make me a custom instrument? There are many reasons to engage in this process for your next instrument. An artisan guitar’s design options can be limitless when the inflexibility of an assembly line is removed from the equation. Any wood can be used, any design change is usually easy to accommodate. It is like walking up to a sundae bar and picking any, or all of the flavors and toppings at your will. How much you spend and where you spend it can be altered as you see fit. Having a custom instrument made the way you want is usually cheaper than buying a production example and modifying it to your taste. Most of all though, whether you custom order, or buy a premade example of the craftsman’s own design, what can be better then having a guitar that is one of a kind special?

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“Successful guitars need to strike a balance between creative and practical design.”

Successful Guitar Design There are a lot of factors to consider when designing a guitar— visual appearance, ergonomics, sound, sustain, it all matters. Another consideration is the genre of music the guitar is being designed for. Balance, how much will it weigh in total and how strong the musician playing it will be. Generally, you will want the guitar to be well balanced with the body weighing more than the neck, placing the guitar’s weight on the strap or the players lap, and not on their fretting hand. The shape needs be visually pleasing, however it also needs to designed first with ergonomics in mind. If playing it feels awkward the guitar will likely not see much action and generally be of very use. Generally, soft and more compact shapes help with this regard. The headstock should visually work as a system with the body shape, any personal branding the builder wishes to apply to the guitar, and have enough strength to prevent breakage. Neck shape is a very personal choice, so is fret markers and fret sizes. There isn’t one right way to design an instrument, you just need to know what it is exactly the guitar needs to do and who it needs to do it for. Generally though, successful guitars need to strike a balance between creative and practical design.

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Working with Wood Designing anything made primarily of wood requires being able to work with nature, as the materials used are unique and created naturally without human interference. The phrase ‘starting with a blank canvas’ is never true with wood, and selection is very much luck of the draw. The wood that started the final design for this guitar was finding some one of a kind, heavily spalted, and worm holed maple— perfect for a body veneer. This piece of wood inspired the remainder of the design choices. A combination of walnut for the main body, birds eye maple for the neck, spalted maple from a value pack for the headstock veneer, and rosewood for the fret board were chosen to fill out the wood choices. Black fretboard binding and metal hardware will complete the look. This should also be a good

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combination to provide great tone, should all the pieces work together sonically, which takes a little luck and tuning. This is typical of my design process, to start with a rough idea and let a single piece of wood, often from the off cuts or novelty section, guide me the rest of the way. It is hard to be creative when your only shopping in the part of the store always has the same predictable products that every other builder shops for. Another factor everyone should consider is sustainability, we all have a responsibility to the environment to design guitars that don’t use endangered wood species or support unsustainable logging practices.


“The phrase ‘starting with a blank canvas’ is never true with wood, and selection is very much luck of the draw.”

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“It is details like these that often make artisan guitars more interesting, as the builder can take the time to make more complicated pieces work together.� Wood Preparation Before beginning the build process, the wood needs to be prepared. This includes plaining the boards to the required thicknesses, gluing any laminated pieces. This is the process of combining different boards to achieve the required sizes, or to create various artistic appearances and patterns. This is usually the first job to be completed before beginning to sculpt the wood into the various parts. At this stage the templates need to be used to determinate the best way to orientate the wood. Grain patterns need to be looked at to figure out how to make the guitar as visually appealing as possible while transferring the sound vibrations efficiently. This usually means finding the straightest grain with the least imperfections to run the length of the guitar, and avoiding imperfections such as knots from being placed in awkward places such as screw holes, or critical structural joints. Some imperfections that can’t be worked around may have to be stabilized, either by filling with glue or being patched with another piece of wood. It is details like these that often make artisan guitars more interesting, as the builder can take the time to make more complicated pieces work together. 9


“Taking the time to plan and refine the design at the front end of the build will ensure a higher quality result in the end.” Templates Templates are used to for a few reasons, only one of which is to ensure the design works. Another is to create a guide for a router to flush cut to, ensuring the risks of wasting premium wood are kept as low as possible and making the process more efficient in the long run. Templates also make the possibility of small-scale production runs possible, which is important even in one off designs as musicians often require backup instruments for stage work or alternate tunings. It is important to be able to have consistency in the product, especially in elements where playability is concerned. Even artisan guitar builders need to remember that this is a business–as much as we all like to forget. The templates are made of standard ½" MDF board as it is inexpensive and dense.

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During this stage refinements are made to the design. Control cavities are resolved and minor changes are sometimes made to the shape. A negative space paper template of the guitar body is used to ensue desired aesthetic appearance. Sanding drums have a way of making any shape appear organic and allowing small design deviations instead of changing the drum for a smaller one can help with keeping continuity in the final design. This step can be skipped completely if the builder is feeling brave and there is no interest at all in replicating the guitar or any of its parts in the future. Taking the time to plan and refine the design at the front end of the build will ensure a higher quality result in the end.


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Crafting a Neck One of the most important parts of a guitar is its neck. The neck consists of a few different systems to make the guitar work, most notably: a fretboard, a truss rod, and with some exceptions, the neck will have a headstock built into the end of it this the tuning pegs are located. The neck is what the player will feel most while playing. It is the source of most of the variation in the resulting sound. It is where a guitar to fail given that it is not only the thinest part, also under about two-hundred pounds of string tension. For this build the neck will be using a design and construction style based on those of Leo Fender. Its hallmarks consisting of being bolted onto the body using four screws and a flat headstock. Advantages of this system is that without an angled headstock there is less chance of breakage in a fall and the entire piece can be made from a single one inch thick piece of maple which is good for the environmental sustainability.

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“The spacing of the frets must be accurately placed according to your instruments scale length, or the instrument will never play in tune no matter what you do compensate for it.”

Fretboard The fretboard is typically made of a different wood then the rest of the neck, It consists of slots filled with metal fretwire spaced using the rule of eighteen. The spacing of the frets must be accurately placed according to your instruments scale length, or the instrument will never play in tune no matter what you do compensate for it. Under the fretboard will be the truss rod, usually metal with an adjuster screw. The truss rod is there to help strengthen the neck while under string tension and to allow for adjustability in the curve of the neck in event the neck warps. To create the fretboard, a slot is carved into the board where the nut is to be installed, this is completed using a router and a 1/8th straight cut router bit. The fret position slots are then marked out on the board from the edge of the slot. The slots are cut using

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a special thin saw against a guide. The slots are cut on the pull stroke to avoid the blade from warping and distorting the slots. Care must be taken to ensure the slots are cut at a perfect 90° to the fretboard’s centerline. The fretboard is then glued to the neck using locating pins to ensure it holds its position. If it slips under the clamps, or the centerline is not drawn right, the frets will not be positioned correctly. The fret position markers are installed by drilling holes in their positions the corresponding size and gluing them in. Once they are dry, the fretboard is sanded using a radius block to achieve a desired curved radius. Once this is completed it may be fretted.


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“A good fret job is arguably the most important part of building any instrument.� Fretting A good fret job is arguably the most important part of building any instrument. The fretwire, which comes in long lengths, must be pre-bent, to the matching radius. Once this is completed, the wire is cut to length starting with the first fret and ending with the last. Once they are all ready, they are pressed in using a clamping press caul. The barbed tang of the fret holds the wire in the slot although a drop of glue is added to ensure it stays in place. The ends are beveled on a 45 degree angle using a special block file. Super glue is used to seal the fret ends to the fretboard to ensure they feel smooth to the touch while playing. A flat file is used to flatten the fret tops and smaller files are used to round over the sharp edges of the 45 degree bevel. A final polish is made using metal polish and a rag to ensure the filing can’t be felt under the strings while playing. 19


Neck Profiling The back profile is what will make or break a guitar for almost every player. It must be designed to comfortable and provide just the right amount of hand support while also not being too chunky and in the way. A profile gauge is used to profile an existing neck that is known to work well, using the 1st and 12th frets as reference points. In this case that guitar is a classical model with a similar neck width. Neck thickness is also measured to complete the desired neck profile design. Japanese rasps and spindle sanders are used to quickly carve into the neck and profile the 1st and 12th frets. A spindle sander is again used to connect the neck profiling to encompass the full length. This job will take hours as it must be completed carefully or else all your work can be easily made into kindling because once wood is removed, it can't be put back on. With this work completed, the neck is finished with the exception of some body fitment, and finish sanding work.

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“The body has to house all of the electronics, the neck, successfully transfer sound vibrations, and be ergonomically comfortable for the player, all the while appearing aesthetically pleasing.�

Crafting a Body The guitar body is the central component which brings everything together. It has to house all of the electronics, the neck, successfully transfer sound vibrations, and be ergonomically comfortable for the player, all the while appearing aesthetically pleasing. The design of the body must provide the necessary structural support to hold the neck in place. Many different takes have been tried to varying degrees of success. In short though, the body should be where most of the weight is balanced to, cutaways are often carved into the design to allow for access to deeper frets and a good design must be comfortable for playing whether the player is standing with the guitar hanging from a strap, or sitting with the body resting on their lap.

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“The veneer being used in this guitar is made from a handpicked, heavily spalted and worm-holed piece of maple which will make for a very interesting design visually, yet will no-doubt present many challenges when being worked with.�

Preparing the Body Blank Crafting the body requires starting with a prepared body blank, in this case freshly glued walnut. The body is rough cut before the template is screwed on using the hole for the tine knob and an additional hole located where the neck pocket route will eventually be. The centered glue joint in the walnut is where the centerline of the template is placed to ensure the aesthetic of the guitar is as well designed as possible. A board with a width of at least half the width of the body was hand-picked from the lumber pile to ensure this is possible. The template allows the use of a router with a template bit to follow and make the outline of the rough-cut blank. The veneer being used in this guitar is made from a handpicked, heavily spalted and worm-holed piece of maple which will make for a very interesting design visually, however will no-doubt present many challenges when being worked with. The veneer

is rough cut and, in this case, a piece of the offcut is required to be relocated and grafted into another part of the board to make it wide enough for the lower bout. This is done by choosing a specific line in the grain to sand to on the drum sander in order to make the joint as invisible as possible. It is important that joints such as this are as hidden as much as possible, as to not detract from the visual design of the instrument. Once the rough-cut veneer is ready to be installed it is glued onto the walnut base. An even layer of wood glue is used to adhere the veneer and many clamps are used to hold it down around the perimeter to ensure the joint maintains a tight seal during the curing process. Wax paper is placed under the body to prevent it from gluing to the work table. Once dry the veneer is cut flush to the base using a router.

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“Failure to acknowledge the centerline will result in a useless instrument. You live and die by it.� Alignment & Scales Failure to acknowledge the centerline will result in a useless instrument. You live and die by it. The neck pocket is routed in and attached, with this the bridge placement is confirmed using the desired scale length determined in the initial design process. The method of ensuring perfect alignment is simple. It is simple household string attached to the neck and held taught in both the highest and lowest string positions. The fact is the string won't ever lie. It is at this point that the instrument really looks like it coming together however, patience is a virtue and anticipation has to be contained or else the process will be spoiled.

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“How well the various parts fit together and the quality of the shaping will have a profound impact on the sound of the instrument.�

Sculpting the Body At this step the template is once again screwed onto the body and the template’s centerline is transferred to the body. This pencil line will be a very important guide for the remainder of the build. With the template on the pickup cavity is routed first with a forstner bit removing as much material as possible and then finished with a router. The necessary volume and tone control location mounts are drilled. With this completed the body is flipped over and another template is clamped on, this one for the control cavity. A template bit is used to create a thin route,

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and then a larger bearing is silpped over the bit shaft to route a recessed edge for the cover to sit on. Forstner bits are used to remove as much of the cavity as possible. How well the various parts fit together and the quality of the shaping will have a profound impact on the sound of the instrument. Quality takes time and this is a step that will show the quality of the build, both sonically and in the visual fit and finish.


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“The task of carving the top has taken about four hours and countless inspections from multiple angles to assess the work in progress.”

Carving the Top Veneer This guitar is to receive a bevel top, similar to what you might find on a PRS Guitar. A bevel is a mid-point between a flat top and a full arch-top guitar. The bevel’s main purpose is to make the guitar more ergonomic for the player, placing their hand in a more comfortable position for tasks such as palm muting, a common technique used in heavy metal music. However, when done right it can also add dynamic visual appeal through accentuating the body’s shape and leading the viewer’s eye. A plan is made by drawing a 1/4" line around the body above the glue joint and another 11/2" in from the circumference of the top. The bevel is carved by first rough filing with handmade Japanese files using the guidelines drawn. Handmade files are used because the randomness of the filing spikes makes for a smoother carve not possible with machine made files. Once the carve is roughed in to satisfaction, moving to finer files helps finesse the profile further. Hand sanding with a flat sanding block and corse grit sandpaper flattens the upper horns and creates a pleasing downward profile to the leading edge of the body that complements the profile of the back scoop when viewed from the side. The bevel now blends into the waist of the instrument creating a dynamic shape through the use of leading lines. The task of carving the top has taken about four hours and countless inspections from multiple angles to assess the work in progress. However, the result is a better instrument for its intended appliction.

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“In all, the process will take many hours and require a special kind of patience.�

Sanding At this point all of the woodworking is pretty much finished, except for perhaps the most important part; sanding. The biggest indicator of instrument quality is not the resulting tone, it is the fit and finish. To properly finish a wooden instrument, it will have to go through a lengthy sanding process that starts with a course grit sand paper and finishes with a fine grit. Through this process great care is taken to ensure that all scratches are removed and that there are no distortions in the overall neck and body shape. In all, the process will take many hours and require a special kind of patience.

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Finishing This is the other half of the fit and finish equation and the final woodworking step to completing a heirloom quality instrument. There are many different methods of finishing a guitar, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Some produce a high gloss mirror-like finish, some a matte finish. Others provide greater impact protection, or a more organic feel. One constant though is that high quality finishes are costly and time consuming. Factories are naturally drawn to using whatever will have the fastest curing time and the lowest price, this usually means some sort of polyurethane or lower-end water-based lacquer. The truth is that the finish you apply to a guitar can actually effect the overall tone, experienced musicians swear that you can hear the difference in whether the finish of the guitar is letting it breathe or not. The artisan guitar builder, with their closer relationship to their customers and their craft will be willing to work with their client to choose a finish that takes all of these things into consideration. For this guitar, the finish will be a product called Osmo Ployx. This isn't a typical polyurethane or lacquer, rather a hard wax. It will preserve the natural feeling of the wood underneath while protecting it from becoming dirty, taking in human oils and collecting minor scratches. The finish is applied by hand by rubbing it on with a special sponge. Once the hard wax is applied, the excess is rubbed off and left to dry. Sanding with fine sandpaper will smooth the coats and insure a thin final coat leaves the wood feeling as smooth as the finely sanded wood below it.

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Electronics The wood may provide the resonance, however the heart of an electric guitar is its, well, it's electronics. Quality electronics are not cheap, this is why many factory guitars may look good yet sound poor. Quality components such as proper Alnico magnets and enamel coated copper coil wire are considered rare earth materials and are easy to skimp on. A solid wiring job is a requirement as well as the guitar will be under a lot of stress as it is played and potentially shipped as cargo from show to show, and around the world. It is a delicate job as the solder has to be hot enough to get a solid grip and bond the steel and copper leads, yet cool enough to not fry the delicate components such as the variable resisters hidden inside the potentiometers.

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Photo Here of putting stuff together or setting up stuff???

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Final Assembly & Setup This is where some seventy plus hours of labor comes together and becomes a functioning instrument. Still, it is not a place to rush as the quality of the instrument's function will depend on the discipline applied to the setup. It would be all to easy to simply to screw it together and have at it, however this beheaviour must be avoided at all cost if the design is to see its full potential. This is the point where the guitar will be not only assembled, it will be set up for the style, tuning, and preticular player the instrument is intended for. The nut will be slotted and filed to provide even string spacing as well as the optimal action. The bridge must be intonated to achieve the abillity to play in tune throughout all of the frets and on all strings. Once it is tuned and the strings are broken in, the guitar it self must be broken in. Over the next few hours of play, the wood will get used to the vibrations and become ever more resonant. As this process endures, it may very well become apparent that the guitar is not sounding as well as it could, simple changes to the electronics for example, changing a capacitor value could improve the guitar's tone.

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Finished Product At this point the job is finished and the guitar is ready to be passed to its new owner. The recipient can be assured they not only have a new musical instrument, they now own an original piece of art built to heirloom quality standards. It is the hope and intention of the guitar builder that their work will not only be appreciated, it will serve to inspire and act as a tool in the artist's arsenal to share their own story.

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“The recipient can be assured they not only have a new musical instrument, they now own an original piece of art built to heirloom quality standards.�

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