Basecoats and Bonamassa

Yesterday was a beautiful New England day—the kind that makes you want to play hooky even when you’ve got a great job like mine. As soon as the stained back on The Crow was thoroughly dry I taped up the fingerboard, masked the f-holes and got it into the paint room for its first coats of nitro.

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Just a few coats first to raise the grain on the spruce top, and to tie to the filled mahogany. This process goes pretty fast as the nitro flashes off quickly. After the tie coat, the top gets scuffed, and then it’s time for three solid coats.

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Each coat gets thirty minutes to dry, then I repeat the pattern. After three coats I hung it up to dry for three days. Now it was time to take advantage of the nice sunny day. I threw a few things into the car and headed off to Worcester, Massachusetts to see some old friends who were playing there.

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An hour and thirty minutes later I walked through the back door and onto the stage of the Hanover Theater. Just inside I found Gav, with one of Joe Bonamassa’s Les Pauls in hand. We quickly took a tour of Joe’s rig and guitar arsenal, which was housed in probably the largest guitar trunk in history. I didn’t really know too much about Joe Bonamassa before Gav started working for him, but I was getting the idea that he’s a serious guitar man.

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Sorry for the crappy cell phone photo, but I think you get the idea. Ninety-six inches wide and it needs to be licensed in sixteen states. I was wondering if it had its own HVAC unit and zipcode.

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We spent the afternoon hanging out with Joe and the band, looking at gear and swapping stories. I was happy to realize that Carmine Rojas was in the band—we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. We passed some time leaving messages on mutual friend’s voice mail and catching up a bit. I also had the chance to spend some time with Alan Phillips who makes the Carol-Ann amplifiers that Joe uses. Alan is a knowledgeable and unassuming guy who really has a passion for what he does—and the amps he builds certainly prove it.

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Joe had recently acquired a real 1959 LP Sunburst, and he uses it every night, just as it was made to be. This guitar is wired out of phase in the middle position, exactly like the Peter Green/Gary Moore guitar. As far as I know, this wasn’t available as an option back in the day, so it must have been a mistake. I didn’t bring my magnetic tool in order to determine if it was a magnet reversal or a wiring mistake inside the pickup—that’s for next time. Oh, and Joe sounded amazing all night.

 

The Electric Crow

After a couple of gloomy days that saw a few inches of snow fall, the sun is breaking through again. Of course the sunshine makes us feel better and the workshop is humming with electric activity. The Crow guitar is sanded and ready for its first coats of nitro clear. I’ve stained the figured maple back with a black transparent stain that I think will go nicely with the main finish that I have planned.

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While the stain is drying, I’m collecting all the electronic parts that I want to use. This build will feature authentic recreations of the Charlie Christian pickups, which my good friend Seymour has created in his lab. The Christian pickups are completely different from any other type, and the resulting tone is incredible. Here are my notations in the Crow’s journal—I’m including a scrap of the #42 wire as well.

 

I use a unique mounting trestle machined from 6061 aluminum. Here’s my drawing of the part that will go into the journal. I had a friend down the road help me machine the parts on his Bridgeport. The oval mounting holes will allow the pickups to be adjusted transversely relative to the guitar’s center line. Stainless steel hex socket screws will allow height adjustment from the rear of the instrument, keeping the front of the guitar clean and uncluttered.

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This is the resulting part which will be attached to the bottom of the pickup.

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Gotta get back to the paint room and start spraying.

 

Guitar Hardware from Scratch

After completing the strap buttons and switch tip made from buffalo horn, attention now turns to the rest of the hardware. The Crow will be fitted with variegated nickel finish metal parts, so I was thinking now about the control knobs. Amber speed knobs seemed like a good bet, but the match to the rest of the guitar seemed less than perfect. One consideration was Daka Ware 1930s bakelite knobs. The brown color and retro look was classic Charlie Christian, so they seemed like a good possibility.

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I found some in my parts vault and laid them out on a black background and wasn’t impressed. They’d probably be good on a tobacco sunburst guitar.

I’ve always loved the clear plastic lap steel knobs from the 1940s, so I thought that I could make my own based on an original one. The precursor to the “speed” knob, they were slightly taller and not tapered like modern knobs. They were painted gold or sometimes silver underneath, but I just wanted one for a model. A fairly exhaustive search only turned up a few knobs for sale, and those were in really rough shape. I called a few friends in the vintage trade, but no luck. Finally, I found one in almost new condition—amazing for sixty-plus year-old plastic. Needless to say, it didn’t come cheap.

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My idea was to make some replicas in clear acrylic and maybe paint them underneath with slver. The lack of color would help mimic The Crow’s reflective finish without detracting from it. The first step was to make some molds from a pourable silicone material. This entails pouring the silicone over the original knob allowing it to cure for twenty-four hours. The result was very good so I made a few more, including a two-piece mold just for backup.

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This is what the mold looks like when fully cured. The next step was to mix up some casting acrylic in a cup. The amount of  catalyst is determined by the total thickness of the part, and I’d have about ten minutes to get it into the mold.

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By pouring the first of the material into the center recess I was avoiding any trapped air which would cause bubbles in the finished part.

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After another twenty-four hours, it was time to pull the part from the mold and see how it looked.

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Not bad for a first try, but it was obvious that I was going to have to sand and polish the part to get it to look like the original. I went ahead and made about another seven parts in order to experiment. I mixed some color into the liquid on a few just to try it, but it wasn’t a good result.

Once I figured out how to sand and polish the molded knobs (using the trusty drill press again) I also tried painting some of the knobs with chrome, silver and copper paint. In the end, it was the fully clear versions that I liked the best.

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Here’s the finished knob, polished up and sitting on my desk. I really like the way it catches the light—like a crow’s feathers. I think they are going to look great on the guitar, and the fact that they are not off-the-shelf parts makes me happy too.

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I think I’ve found my “signature” look.

Headstock Monogram Inlay

The Dantzig headstock design came fairly quickly. I’d been reading about the history of New England at the time, and was struck by some headstone carvings described in the book.

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This is the entry in The Crow’s journal—you can see the idea taking shape.

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With The Crow guitar, I wanted the monogram “D” at the tip of the head to be inlaid mother of pearl. I have some nice chunks that are about .070″ in thickness, and large enough to do the circle in one piece. The thickness will help avoid breakage when cutting the piece which is very delicate.

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The first step was to clean up my sketch and commit it to a paper template. Then I could glue the template to the pearl and begin my cut with saw. Most times, I use a powered jigsaw, but this piece is so complicated I decided to use the hand saw. I’m using an extra-fine blade (.009″) so patience is imperative. The work is backed up on a .125″ thick piece of maple with a slot cut in it for clearance. The inner cuts are made by using a micro-drill to put a starter hole in the pearl; then inserting the saw blade through and into the handle.

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Once the cuts are made, I can use a set of miniature files to smooth out the edges. The finished monogram looks good. It needs to be clean because the headplate is unpainted ebony; so there is no way to hide the edges.

The monogram has also been repeated on the headplate. Here it is on the overhead router. There is a matching template to follow, and by using a .020″ micro-mill bit, I can get very close to final fit—the last adjustments being done by hand with an air powered mini tool that is similar to a dentist’s drill.

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Here’s the headstock with the pearl inserted and some of the binding in place. I like how the white ivoroid purfling stripes terminate in a blend to the top of the monogram’s circle. The rest of the treatment will be my signature in the center of the headstock. After all, it is a “signature” guitar.

 

 

In Small Things Remembered

With the main components of The Crow guitar completed, I spent some time getting the ancillary parts assembled. My Signature Guitars each have a singular theme and I want the parts of the guitar not only to be appropriate for the build, but to be unique as well. The binding on the guitar is an Italian cellulose “faux” tortoise shell, backed by an off-white ivoroid purfling, so I wanted something that would match. Off the shelf parts proved to be a disappointment so I decided to make my own. I’d located some Asian Buffalo horn pieces that were stained a deep amber brown, so I thought that making some of the parts from it was worth a try.

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A lathe is on the shop wish list, so I had to use a drill press for the meantime. Here I’m using a file to rough out what will be a strap button. I started with a piece cut to approximate size and rounded enough to get into the chuck.

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Once I get the shape, I cut off the button just under the flange and then sand everything smooth down to 2500 grit. The next step is to drill a hole for the mounting screw that will hold it onto the guitar.

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I’m going to thread it only slightly, relying on some Devcon for the ultimate bond. I also decided to put a small abalone dot in the center, this matches the side markers on the fretboard.

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The switch tip for the pickup selector should follow the theme, so I turned a shape I liked on my makeshift lathe, using finer files as I go.

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Center drilling required the fabrication of another set of wooden “clamps”, and after finishing that I used a bottoming tap to put the proper threads inside the hole.

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The last step was to use a progression of buffing compounds to bring it to a finish that would compliment the rest of the hardware.

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The tip really looks great on the switch and it adds to the exclusivity of the build.

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The result is a matching set of buttons that are unique not only to this guitar, but cannot be bought from any supplier. That’s all in keeping with the idea behind each signature guitar I build.