Hell’s Half Acre Build Completion

The HHA build has been underway for a number of years—yes, years. But it’s finally completed, and the wait has been worth it. A lot of other guitar builds and various projects kept me from dedicating my time to “The Acre” but I alway knew I’d return to this patch of ground.

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Now it’s time for a new owner to start writing the rest of the story. In the meantime, I’ll do what I’ve done with every signature guitar (and Artist’s Proof models too) which is to invite players of all kinds to pick up and play Hell’s Half Acre. Because a guitar’s story doesn’t end when I finish it, I want musicians to handle and perform on my guitars, even before the next owner gets it. Life is experience, even for an instrument.

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Acre Head

Hell’s Half Acre: Vintage Guitar Wiring

The Hell’s Half Acre build has been over five years in the making. During that time there’s been a lot of stops and starts, and a lot of waiting in the wings while other projects received priority. All through it “The Acre” hasn’t complained. It knows that this is part of its story—the pre-history built right into the guitar.

This week I had some time and applied it towards the completion of this wonderful instrument. The cellulose faux tortoise shell material I got from my friend Paul Chandler was the perfect stuff for the pick guard, backplate and truss rod cover. Cellulose is highly flammable, so you have to be careful not to heat it up on a sander or saw. The final fit is done with hand files because this guitar is a one-off and doesn’t conform to any tooling that I have.

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Before loading the electrics, the control cavity gets coated with some defense contractor-grade shielding paint. A friend of a friend works for Pratt & Whitney, so I didn’t have to buy the minimum order of 20 gallons. This is the stuff that big corporations and the CIA use to block communications in safe-rooms. I figured it would be fine in an electric guitar. It goes on like pudding, so I have to use a special tip on my spray gun. Honestly, I only use it because I can, and it looks really nice.

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This guitar gets one of my prized Centralab rotary (blade) switches from 1953. It came out of some old telecommunications gear I bought at auction. One can only imagine the conversations that have passed through this piece. I spent about an hour and a half cleaning and aligning the contacts, then adjusting and lubricating the spring mechanism. It should be ready for at least another 50 years of duty.

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I love the look of the brown phenolic circuit wafer, and it has a lovely (and rare) old Bakelite switch tip that will look great on the guitar. The new versions of this switch are not built to this standard any more, and I enjoy finding and repurposing these.

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The electronics are twenty-year-old NOS potentiometers from CTS, and the tone cap is a Sprague Black Beauty that was pulled from some vintage equipment.

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I realize that 1930s materials and wire, 1950s switchgear and 1990s potentiometers don’t line up exactly with the 1860s theme of Hell’s Half Acre, but every decade is capable of raising a little hell, right?

If you haven’t seen it already, here’s a video about the inspiration and build of this guitar.

True and Lasting Value—Journaling the Build

The requests come in daily. Can I make a Telecaster? Would I build a bass using a Fender style as a starting point? Will I ever make a guitar that the average musician can afford? My answer is yes, and no. I can make a Telecaster, anyone can make a Telecaster. I can make a great one, but that doesn’t interest me. I politely suggest that they invest their money in a collectible vintage 1950s Fender. If they are bound and determined to spend money on a replica I send those folks to a fellow builder who is known for knocking the T-style out of the park. Tom Anderson or Creston Lea come to mind. If I didn’t mention you, please don’t take it personally.

It’s not that it is beneath me, it’s just not what I do. I love Telecasters, I just don’t make them to sell. The P-bass thing falls into the same category. I have a lovely 1964 3-tone sunburst Precision which is my go-to bass. Why would I want a copy, when I already have a rubber stamp version from ‘64?

p bassAnd that’s what most guitars are—rubber stamp instruments. I don’t condescend, it’s just fact. My bass and my beloved ’56 Stratocaster were just churned out of a factory that CBS saw fit to buy for $100 million in today’s money. Not exactly a boutique shop. Even brands like PRS build hundreds of instruments every day. The chances of your guitar being one of a kind are extremely limited. This is not to say that these guitars aren’t great tools—they are. They may be genuine, but they’re not an original. In the art world this is known as a serigraph (or its poorer cousin lithograph). Merely a reproduction of an original. Unless you have the very first pre-production protoype, you own a copy.

So when someone asks where they might try one of my guitars, the answer is simple—in my shop. OK, here’s the short story to save you the effort required to read my blog or website. There is and will only be one Sakura. Only one Crow. Only one Hell’s Half Acre, one Copperhead, one Wardenclyffe, so on and so forth. I build true one-of-a-kind instruments for people who understand the value of something original.

Here’s a video episode that explains a bit of my building process.

Roping in the Acre

After a few week’s absence from the docket, the binding of Hell’s Half Acre is back on the burner. Both neck and body are trimmed with a checked purfling made of ebony and maple—then bound with Italian-made cellulose.

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Of particular beauty is the florentine cutaway, which is my siganature flourish. I love the way the purfling and ivoroid binding mitres at the peak. It’s a bitch to do, but the results are worth it. Getting the black stripe of side purfling to line up isn’t a walk in the park either. If it were easy, wht fun would it be?

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The idea here is to evoke the cowboy theme contained in the history of Fort Worth’s most lawless period and place known as Hell’s Half Acre. The checked, half-herringbone really does look like the trail driver’s lariat. Now the guitar is completely roped in and ready to bring home. Just as the trail bosses pushed their herds north from Texas to the railheads in Oklahoma, we’re ready to push on with our project.

Binding the Acre

Any build is a journey of refinement as it progresses. Rather than beginning with an idea fully formed, I set off in a direction and look and listen for clues along the way. That’s not to say there isn’t a plan, just that it isn’t set in stone. The constraints of stubbornly adhering to a preconcieved path ignores the creative and intuitive process.

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As Hell’s Half Acre starts to shape up, with its rope purfling, my eye told me that a little extra touch was needed on the side of the instrument to balance out the busy look of the top. It didn’t need to be so ornate as to distract, so I settled on a single black stripe within the ivoroid binding.

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Starting with some strips of cellulose binding in ivoroid and black, it’s a matter of laminating three pieces togeter before adding it to the guitar.

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Acetone-solvent adhesive is used to melt and bond the edges together on a caul of aluminum. There is a raised stop that holds the parts true and provides sideways clamping pressure as the assembly sets up.

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There are lots of different ways to do this, but I used this technique to make some test strips up to check the appearance before I commit to it.

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The next step is to rough trim the black material so that it can be scraped flat to the ivoroid. The black strip was a little too big so I’ll have to trim it with a nipper.

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A few passes with the cabinet scraper is all  that’s needed to get things ready to put on the body. I’l also trim the final edge on the binding to reduce the width of the small white stripe and make sure it fits perfectly into the routs on the instrument.

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I think this is going to look great on the sides of the guitar which will be painted with an opaque black lacquer.

Headstock from Hell

Pressing onward with the Hell’s Half Acre guitar, I’ve gotten the neck blank to the rough carve stage. To do this, I use a cabinet scraper as described in my previous post. After the truss rod has been installed and the spline glued in, the final headstock shape could be cut. Jim looks on as I finsih up.

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In the photo below, you can see the tuner holes which are undersized until the moment the tuners are fitted. This will give a snug fit for improved vibration transfer.

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The stepped channel for purfling and outside binding has also been cut. I’m using a half-herringbone purfling made of alternating maple and ebony pieces to create a look that evokes an image of the cowboy’s lariat. Here, you can also see the ring groove that has been cut at the headstock tip for the pearl monogram inlay. More after a while…

Building the Soul: Vintage Parts

Following in the footsteps of my last post, I’ve unearthed more vintage electronic parts from my stash. Both the Sakura and Hell’s Half Acre call for the use of three-way blade switches for pickup selection.

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This is one of several early 1950s vintage “blade” switches on my bench right now. Technically this type of device is referred to as a model 1454 rotary switch. In this case the rotation, or throw, is 30º. It was used for military and communications equipment because of its reliability—being rated for a minimum of twenty-five thousand cycles.

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In this photo you can see the two patent numbers stamped into the frame. Switches made after 1953 had three patent numbers. You can also appreciate the coarse grain of the brown phenolic which was a trademark look of the older materials. Its simple mechanical construction allows me to refurbish it to a perfect working order without losing its beautiful and rich patina of age.

Salvaged from more telephone switching equipment, my piece was manufactured between 1950 and 1953 by Centralab in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Much like the Western Electric plant, rows of operators toiled at punches, riveting the pieces of metal and phenolic together. In the 1980s around the same time that Western Electric was shutting down, the switch division of Centralab was sold off  and shuttered. The buyer, Electroswitch was then acquired by ITT. The modern version of the trusty old 1454, known as E2G0203N is still made in Juarez, Mexico.

Does using vintage wire and switchgear make a guitar sound or play better? If this is what you’re asking, you’re missing the point. You can cover your wall with a twenty-dollar poster from Target if all you want is something to look at. If you are hoping for a deeper experience from the material things in your life, it has to come from a deeper place.

More Vintage Americana: Salvaged Electronics

The Western Electric Company was America’s largest producer of electrical gear from 1870 until the 1980s. Known for their Bell Telephones and associated switchgear, they also manufactured amplifiers, speakers, microphones and wire. By 1917 their Hawthorne Works plant in Chicago was one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. Although the plant is now gone, what remains is a legacy of American manufacturing might, and a massive research project known as the Hawthorne Studies.


The Hawthorne Studies were something I’d read about in high school. It was fascinating, and I struggled to use it as a guide when I became a factory department-manager at age nineteen. This research named for studies done at the behemoth Western Electric Hawthorne Works factory in Chicago was the world’s most comprehensive employee behavioral observation when conducted between 1924 and 1932. The Hawthorne Works sprawled over one hundred acres, employed over forty thousand Americans and generated a staggering $300,000,000.00 per year. This is equivalent to about $3.7 billion in today’s money.

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With vast amounts of capital to spend and even more to make through creating efficiencies, the Western Electric Company embarked upon an odyssey to use their employees as lab rats to determine how to make them work faster and better. The research covered all aspects of worker life too. The effects of smoking, alcohol and diet were put under the microscope in an exhaustive attempt to fine-tune Western Electric’s massive operation.

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In the workplace, researchers noticed a curious thing while conducting observations. If they increased lighting levels, productivity increased. When they lowered the lighting, productivity increased as well. By the time I read the studies in 1968 it was common knowledge that when workers know they are being studied, they tend to buckle down and try to look good for the bosses. My take-away from all of this was that people just want to be recognized for their contributions. It’s not about manipulating or threatening people, it’s about appreciation.

When W.E. closed down, the assets were scattered to the winds. As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s break-up of AT&T, Western Electric was absorbed by a new entity, AT&T Technologies, in 1984. An American manufacturer was crushed.

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As luck would have it, I managed to collect a stash of Western Electric parts manufactured in the Hawthorne facility. I’ve always been a fan of tube amplification and mechanical switching mechanisms like the ones produced at Hawthorne, and a lot of this stuff was rescued from telephone switching stations when they went digital.

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Here is some vintage cloth-covered Western Electric wire that I plan to use in The Crow, Sakura and Hell’s Half-Acre. It looks great, and is made to an insanely high quality compared to the imported junk available today. Think about the incalculable amount of  energy and human conversation that has traveled through this wire. Routine or romantic calls, cries for help or joyous good news—this wire has heard it all. With its installation in a guitar, the work of the fine Western Electric employees can be appreciated again.

Old Wood for the New Hell’s Half Acre

Yesterday was a good day in The Workshop. The Sakura’s finish got sanded and sprayed with new coats of nitro. I selected a nice medium weight mahogany blank for Hell’s Half Acre and began mapping out the body. Because I make guitars one at a time, I can afford the luxury of finding and using really exquisite boards—many of which have been sitting for decades.

This guitar will be a single cutaway solid body with a pair of humbucking pickups. The main section of the body will be a single slab of Honduras mahogany, with a figured maple top and back. The 8/4 billet above weighed in at fourteen pounds, but it’s going to lose well over half of that in machining.

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This is what the blank looks like after a few passes through the planer. A nice clean piece, ready to get a top and back. It’s almost a shame to cover up that beautiful grain, but we’ll know it’s in there, won’t we?

 

Americanarama

Blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll is as American as the wild west cowboy. In fact, I see it all as a single continuum. Roots music, which has its origins in a buffet of American influences is never more than a few steps away from the Cowboy song.

In a similar fashion, my concept for the Hell’s Half Acre guitar isn’t overtly kitch. Rather than a literal interpretation, using only blatant western cues, I wanted to hint at the idea in a cool way.

The trail driver’s whip and lasso were as crucial as his pistol and rifle—maybe even more important. The twisted form of the rope and the braid of the whip reminded me of a half-herringbone purfling that I had lying around. Made of small parallelograms  of alternating maple and ebony, I thought it would look good against a dark chestnut or black figured maple. I made up a test block of maple on mahogany and sandwiched the “rope” between the maple and a strip of ivoroid cellulose.

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The next step was to apply a dark brown stain. To avoid deep penetration on the purfling, it has been lacquered lightly.

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After the stain has set, I used a small sharp to scrape the binding and purfling clean. Using my index finger as a guide I can vary the width of the scraped area by rotating the blade, being careful not to cut too deep.

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Here’s what it looks like cleaned up. I think it evokes the idea without being too over the top. There’ll be plenty of other chances to do that on this build.

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History of Hell: Cowboy Guitar

One of my biggest beefs with the corporate structure is its tendency to discount the creative process. It’s impossible to say why or when inspiration will strike—and it can’t be switched on like a spreadsheet on a computer. I try to be open to the things around me, but I rarely can predict when I’ll be inspired to act.

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An idea for a guitar came to me while reading books about the great cattle drives and the cowboys of the frontier.  I’d heard the term “Hell’s Half Acre” since I was a kid—there’s even a Robbie Robertson song by that name. Instinctively I knew it referred to a patch of town where society’s rules did not apply for those who chose to live life on their own terms. I envisioned a guitar that evoked the spirit of the era when cowboys were just working men, and the pistol was law.

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After the Texas revolution in 1835, Fort Worth was a single dusty street lined by a few dozen wooden shacks and a couple saloons. Named for a small military outpost, Fort Worth stood along the Chisholm Trail at the edge of the Indian Territories. Like frontier towns from Deadwood to Denver, Fort Worth was barely a watering hole on the plains of Texas. There was no hotel, no church, no town hall. There was no real plan to build the town or any kind of community.

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Then in 1866, the cattle drives came. Cattle had become the most lucrative business on the frontier. From 1866 to 1884 more than three million beeves were driven up the Chisholm Trail from King Ranch and San Antonio to railheads in Kansas; passing through Fort Worth along the way. Cowboys drove their herds up the main street and made camp to the north of town just past the Trinity River. Once settled in, the trail drivers rode back into Fort Worth for a bath, haircut and some entertainment. Industrious businessmen were only too happy to oblige, and Fort Worth began to expand and grow. By 1871 a section of the main street at the south end of town was lined with saloons offering all the vices that cowboys could ever want. The gambling, drinking and prostitution became so legendary that the district was referred to as “Hells Half Acre.”

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The whiskey flowed and the blood spilled as the cowboys indulged themselves like sailors on shore leave. The number of shootings and deaths was a result of lack of law enforcement combined with a town government that was more interested in commerce than any kind of morality. Indeed, a sheriff would be hard pressed to attempt any kind of intervention, and those who were arrested usually were released with not much more than a stern warning.

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Even after the decline of the trail drives in the late part of the century, the businesses of Rusk Street (as it had been named) continued on, albeit at a slower pace. Declining into a black ghetto by the middle of the 20th century, Hells’ Half Acre was finally razed wholesale for the construction of the Tarrant County Convention Center. Ironically, the street is now renamed Commerce Street.

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It’s a great piece of American history and I’ve got some ideas prompted by a conversation with a collector of my work. My recent meeting with some extremely gifted gun engravers has inspired me as well, so today I’m into the shop for some experimentation. I’m glad we had this meeting.