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Guitar 001

Before there was ever a website, an operational classroom of guitar lutherie, or a logo, there was only an idea to make a guitar I’d never seen or heard anywhere before. I was after something that I struggled to described: a timeless guitar, nylon string but not strictly classical, big-bodied, voluptuousness that you’d want to curl up with and never let go of. A delight to touch, to see, to hold and to hear. It would be perfect for jazz (especially bossa nova and latino jazz), blues, classical, flamenco, Americana, country, jazz country, and maybe even for styles not yet known. I wanted it to be a piece of art. I wanted it to be the one I’d never let go of. I wanted it to be my Trigger.

I never was able to find that guitar but one day the sky opened up and lit an unmistakable path so I could find that guitar. That was about two years ago almost to this very day. Despite having worked as a carpenter, having learned to and made numerous West African drums called sangban, kenkeni, and dununba, it had never occurred to me to try to learn to build a guitar. I thought lutherie (the art of making stringed instruments) was something you were born into, like people are born into wine-making families, farming families, investment firm families. It was for other people who were not me.

Two years ago I was on a short drive from Athens, GA to Lexington to visit friends I had not seen in over a decade. There was a store in the turn-of-the-century brick downtown of Lexington that had a window display of some of the most interesting guitars I’d ever seen. I was on summer vacation as a public school teacher with money in pocket and always open to getting a cool guitar so I pulled into the parking space in front of that store and went in. The showroom was cool. It was perfectly small, cozy, warm and inviting. It was full of the coolest guitars I’d ever seen. Turns out, dude in the store, a guy my age, was the owner of the store and he made all those guitars himself. They were unique in shape, size, and build. I played a few of them and instantly wanted to drop a lot of money into his cash register.

This is the good part. After a few minutes of playing and chatting, he asked me if I wanted to see his shop. We walked through a curtain door into a room that opened up to three, four, or a thousand times the space that was in the showroom. In a space of one second:

  • I saw a room full of guitar necks in different stages of development.
  • I feasted my eyes on all sort of old-fashioned woodworking tools: hand-planes, chisels, clamps, you name it
  • I saw guitar bodies, sides, tops, backs.
  • I knew I was going to leave teaching and that I was going to make guitars.

Yes, that all happened quickly. Things didn’t start rolling immediately, it took at least two hours for me to get back home to Atlanta, get on Amazon, and buy Guitar Making Tradition and Technology (but I had to be cool and pay triple the price to have the original 1st edition hardback). Then, it took another 5 minutes or so to find a guitar building workshop to attend, one that aligned perfectly with my fall break at school.

But, where to set up shop at home? By the grace of God, I had a full, unfinished basement under my 1200 square foot upstairs living space. Not only was it completely unused space but the basement also has a very clean concrete floor and no moisture problems, at all, which had actually been the tipping point when I decided to buy the house.

I found inspiration in this nook. I wanted to transform it. It would become something special and that would be the kickoff project for the transformation I was about to undergo. I bought a Japanese pull-saw, some framing 2x6s, and found a stash of old wood I’d been hauling from place to place each time I moved for the last 5-10 years. After a couple of days, the nook was something new. I still have not found a perfect use for it, but it has filled many roles.

I quickly decided that I wanted to make the guitar out of an old dresser. These are the first top and back set I ever cut. Not having any luthier tools, what you see in this pick took about 5 hrs of work. I eventually learned what kind of wood you must use to make a decent instrument, so they never made it into a guitar, poor fellas.

The learning curve is quite an elliptically exponential and seemingly never-ending trudge through hard decision$ to make concerning purcha$ing the necessary tool$ and then learning how to use those tools. Millions of videos on how to: use the tools, sharpen the tools, calibrate the tools, fix the tools, but nothing on how to slam the tools on the floor or throw them across the room when they won’t do what you want them to do.

Highlights from the first bend in the learning curve.


Binah

Along the way, I lost a very special friend, soul mate, son, brother, BFF, homie and once in a lifetime sorta pet. I probably might have finished the guitar in 6 months, but the emotional high of becoming a luthier was crushed to bits with the rest of me. Binah will always live inside this guitar. He was there with me through the beginning and all the way up til this moment: As soon as I got to this point, attaching the sides to the top, I put the guitar down and headed out for Thanksgiving. It was the last time I ever saw my little man alive.

There’s no way I can ever tell the story of my first steps into guitar-making without placing this footnote where it belongs. I’ll never forget Binah.


I didn’t have a blog when I finished this guitar, so it never had its own article. Out of all the ones I’ve built so far, it’s definitely the one that deserves it the most. In celebration of two years on this journey, I can think of no better way than to hit the publish button then go grab a spot on the couch with this beauty until it’s bedtime.

Not for sale.

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Guitar 010.

I began this making this guitar alongside a student building his in February. Then a pandemic came. We focused on finishing his. To say the least, it has been a very strange gap between my last post and what I have to share today, which is a small gigantic milestone. I want to celebrate the fact that I’ve made 10 guitars.

But, aside from this being a trivial matter considering the moment we find ourselves in, there just really isn’t any reason why the number ten should be any more meaningful than 9. In fact, in some regards, the number 9 is a sacred number (in the Bible and also in other major religious texts and traditions). But, I digress. Let’s get to the pics, shall we.

Hart’s Guitars Ltd Co is back in full swing. Don from Brunswick is coming next week to stay here at The Bamboozle and build a guitar using plans based on an 1864 model of Antonio de Torres, an unrivaled and revolutionary figure in the world of 19th century classical guitar luthiers.

When I get a new set of plans…I trace all the parts, transfer the trace paper to the pieces of wood, cut and sand to shape.

Then I need to make a monstrosity of a jig to bend the sides.

I spend about an entire day building this “side bending machine” for each different guitar.

The guitar is from a set of plans for an 1867 Francisco Gonzalez and he had a much more flamboyant rosette and binding style than most guitars we see today. My intent to make this one in his style really got off to a slow, then ugly start. I almost threw the soundboard away.

I was not even close to happy with the way this was developing. I screwed up. The outer ring is made up of three slices of different species of wood bent to circles. From the outer layer goin in: Brazilian Rosewood, Spanish Cedar, Cocobolo Rosewood. You can see that some of the pieces were damaged especially in the 3 o’clock range. I’ve read that the secret to becoming a better luthier is to become better at covering your mistakes. So, I stayed with it and I’m surely glad I did because I am so proud to say that I turned it into this….
Ugly duckling into swan.
The soundboard is Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The binding that flows along its perimeter is made up of three thin strips of different species of wood that I spent forever and a day cutting, sanding and re-sanding, throwing away, re-cutting and sanding (Cocobolo Rosewood, Maple, & Chakte Viga). They meet up at the corner with with a beautifully made vintage strip of binding I found at a local exotic-wood shop, Carlton’s Rare Woods and Veneers.. The sides of the guitar is bird’s eye maple. I’m beyond satisfied with how this all turned out aesthetically. It added a week to the job of building this instrument, but in my attempt to balance the art and the science of being a luthier, I’ll always have my scales tipped to the art side.

A while back I asked people to vote for the fingerboard to be used. It was a very contested result, split down the middle between choices B and D. So, I threw the results out the window and went with the canary wood, E.

This has been a fun one to play and it sounds really distinct. I’m still letting it “settle in” which is a phenomenon that takes place over a few weeks and longer wherein the instrument plays and sounds a little better with every passing day as you make micro adjustments. It will be available for sale with all of the others, except 001 of course, in the coming days on a newly designed store page, with prices and photo montage videos with audio of the instrument being played.

This instrument sounds amazing. I am ready to sell it with no hesitation for $1795. This is quite a bargain for anyone who knows what hand-crafted guitars go for usually or have seen websites that sell independent-luthier handcrafted classicals. I will personally deliver within a 2 hr radius of Atlanta, GA for gas money and lunch. Honestly, I hate the thought of my instrument sitting in a place where it’s not cherished. If you have buyer’s remorse, there’s a no questions asked 30-day 100% money back guarantee. After that, a lifetime guarantee on anything other than normal wear and tear.

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Billy’s finished 1869 Francisco Gonzalez classical guitar.

Only days after we began our journey together, it became clear that Corvid-19 was no longer a warning but a guarantee. Billy and I decided we’d continue to do the class. I had some hand sanitizer and we kept our 1 Joey Ramone distance 90% of the time. Last night he took this beautiful instrument to show to his wife and kids: a Spruce top with Limba back and sides and a Brazilian Rosewood fretboard. The guitar was built from plans from the Guild of American Luthiers of an 1869 Francisco Gonzalez classic.

The Guild of American Luthiers has some nice plans to pick from.

I can’t believe we made this. Thank you so much for this amazing experience.

Billy H.

A bit of a recap on our work together

Over the course of the first week, Billy and I accomplished a TON of items on the list to make his guitar. Then, I had to go home to Greenville, SC to take my mom to the doctor and spend a couple of days up there. When I returned, I fell ill for several days (not with Covid-19) and only days before the Coronavirus became an inevitability. After some delay, we were able to get back to work. Seeing the near future clearly in front of us and the disruption to modern life that was shaping up, we decided to just be casual with our approach, in no hurry. I advertise my guitar building intensive as a 7-day course. That flew out the window and we added to our projects the process of French-polishing our instruments. So, this also added a but more time to the process.

As we worked, we realized there was a lot of common ground in our life experiences. Days flew by quickly. Billy said he’d picked up so many skills that would be useful in his daily life and other projects. That is such a gratifying thing to hear as it’s what has been my wish all along from the beginning, when this hole business was just a daydream.

With the soundboard voicing, we really took our time and did things right. Those tonebars are very important in determining the character of a guitar’s sound. Some have said they could listen to a classical guitar played while blindfolded and name the luthier who built it. Billy and I decided to take an online course together on guitar top voicing.

Then it was time to bend the sides. It was the first time I had ever worked with Limba. I made a form to bend our sides. Heat is applied to the thin piece of wood using a thermal blanket with a temp controller.

This took about a day to make.I could have bought one for several hundred$, but I’m poor, so…….

With the sides attached, and glue drying, Billy now has to carve more cross strut braces for the back. The back will be entirely domed in a 25′ radius dish. It’s a process of sanding which involves pushing and pulling the back all around the dish until it takes on the domed shape.

Back to doing one of his favorite tasks in guitar building using one of his favorite tools, Billy uses the finger plane and shapes the braces for the back of the guitar.

Attaching the back……

Attaching the back is always a nerve-wrecking endeavor, at least for me. This time I decided to make some new spool clamps to aid in the process. Normally, keeping the back tight to the body while the glue sets is done using a number of clamps. That number is every clamp you have available in the shop. Plus rope. And a cinderblock on top. Here’s how a made the new spool clamps.

With the back in place, we move on to routing out the channels for binding, which is used to protect the edges of the top and back. Binding is also an area where some luthiers give a special touch, their own signature in the way they pick colours and textures.

Making the fretboard

Making the fretboard is a task. First, usually the piece of wood you plan to use is in the form of a short and slim board, called a “billet.” This particular billet was locked away in a special closet at Carlton’s Rare Woods and Veneers. It has been sitting in that closet since the 1970s. It’s a special collection of Brazilian Rosewood, which is now prohibited from being imported. There are many legal issues surrounding this wood including travel restrictions. Here is a good article on the endangered wood, Dalbergia nigra.

Brazilian Rosewood has a nice fragrant aroma when cut, sanded, planed, scraped. In fact, the tree used to be harvested to make perfume and because it took massive amounts of the wood to extract a tiny bit of oil, the tree became endangered as it was already beloved by luthiers and furniture makers.

Early on in the process, Day 1 I’m sure, we planed this beauty down to be trued and squared in two adjoining sides. This way, it will be cut with precision by the bandsaw. Otherwise, it comes out ugly because the bandsaw will make it wavygravy. Not groovy!

So the final stage was a lot of sanding, pore-filling, sanding, pore-filling, and. Billy was a great student, a sponge for valuable and pertinent lutherie information. He was eager to learn and do a French-Polish finish for his guitar, which is not normally a part of the guitar building intensive. But, with nothing but time on our hands, I was more than happy to learn it with him. He ended up being my teacher in some moments. Here’s a slideshow.

If you missed it, read part 1 of this story.

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Jeffrey’s finished classical guitar.

At 2:20 am this morning, Jeffrey and I made the last incision into the depth of his high E nut slot to bring the string’s action down at the lower frets 1-3. And…..we were “finished.” HAHAHAHA. If you’ve ever made anything with your hands where you’ve put a lot of time and energy, you know that no such project is every really “finished.” Here’s a shot from around 1:45 a.m., the moment we had been waiting for since we began the journey: bringing out the color of that granadillo and mahogany to its full richness and depth. It was late and the only way we could see it was under the shop lights, which aren’t bad but definitely don’t give the same hues the Sun will.

In the shop, it was the beginning of guitar 008 but Jeff was student 001 at Hart’s Guitar’s School of Lutherie guitar building intensive. Along the way, I learned that the body style Jeff was building, a Goya G-10 (classical guitar made in Switzerland in the 1950s), is the same guitar, the very SAME! guitar, held by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Jeffrey selected wood that makes it look pretty distinct from that famous guitar. We love the shape and size. It feels so good in your hands. Also, the scale length is 630 mm instead of 650 (which is .78″ or about ¾”). That difference of ¾” is enough to make a world of difference when it comes to playing a guitar. The standard for classical guitars has always been 650 mm (25 ½” roughly). Quick fact: Not everyone’s hands are the same size. Countless people have probably not had success in learning to play guitar because this standard scale length made learning not pleasant for their hands. At Hart’s Guitars, we can build your guitar perfectly sized to fit you.

We worked mostly on the weekends and a few weeknights. We began in early January. Jeffrey was a great student with cabinetmaking woodworking experience. He picked some really nice wood on our trip to Carlton’s Rare Woods and Veneers.

My first student at Hart’s Guitar’s Co. Ltd has been a friend of mine for a long time. His wife bought him a spot in my guitar building intensive as what must be the coolest Christmas gift ever for anyone who plays guitar. We’ve had so much fun reliving the time we knew each other Athens, GA where we met. For a short while we were even roommates sometime around the year 1999 or so.

We decided on his first visit to the shop that we’d be building a Goya G-10. The Goya brand name was initially used by Hershman Musical Instrument Company of New York City in mid 1950’s for acoustic guitars made in Sweden by Levin, particularly known for its classical guitars. In the 1970s, CF Martin (Martin guitars) bought the company and kept producing guitars under the brand name until the 90s. The “Goya” name comes from Francisco Jose de Goya, the famous 18th century Spanish painter known as the father of modern art (Francisco drew a lot of Spanish guitar players too). There’s a Goya G-10, made in Sweden, hanging in my house that belongs to my lovely girlfriend and it’s a beautiful antique instrument that plays like a dream.

This Goya G-10 was made in 1955!!

Jeffrey has woodworking experience so it’s been a joy to give him basic instruction and watch his mirror neurons replicate through his hands exactly what I’ve demonstrated. He’s putting together quite a fantastic instrument.

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008. Jeffrey’s Goya G-10 classical guitar, Pt. 1

My first student at Hart’s Guitar’s Co. Ltd has been a friend of mine for a long time. His wife bought him a spot in my guitar building intensive as what must be the coolest Christmas gift ever for anyone who plays guitar. We’ve had so much fun reliving the time we knew each other Athens, GA where we met. For a short while we were even roommates sometime around the year 1999 or so.

We decided on his first visit to the shop that we’d be building a Goya G-10. The Goya brand name was initially used by Hershman Musical Instrument Company of New York City in mid 1950’s for acoustic guitars made in Sweden by Levin, particularly known for its classical guitars. In the 1970s, CF Martin (Martin guitars) bought the company and kept producing guitars under the brand name until the 90s. The “Goya” name comes from Francisco Jose de Goya, the famous 18th century Spanish painter known as the father of modern art (Francisco drew a lot of Spanish guitar players too). There’s a Goya G-10, made in Sweden, hanging in my house that belongs to my lovely girlfriend and it’s a beautiful antique instrument that plays like a dream.

This Goya G-10 was made in 1955!!

Jeffrey has woodworking experience so it’s been a joy to give him basic instruction and watch his mirror neurons replicate through his hands exactly what I’ve demonstrated. He’s putting together quite a fantastic instrument.