The best part of the big picture is attending to the details that make it up. I want a guitar that works on many levels, so apart from having a great theme that is cohesive and focused I want the details to stand up too.
To make a truss rod cover, I fly cut some ebony to .040″ and laminate it to a sheet of ivoroid cellulose. The next step is to trace my shape with a pencil and rough cut the blank with an inlay saw and the dremel. After I get close enough, it’s just a matter of hand sanding with small blocks to achieve the final shape. Lastly, I drill the mounting holes.
Although I liked the finished shape, I wanted to integrate the look with the rest of the guitar. Sakura’s headstock is ebony over cherry red, so I used the same cherry lacquer to pinstripe the ivoroid.
The next detail was to slot the string nut. There are many ways to choose the string spacing on a guitar. None are best, but they all feel slightly different. I like to keep the spaces between the strings uniform as opposed to the center to center dimension. I recently wrote about this in my monthly Premier Guitar column
I generally use genuine ivory for string nuts—I love the color and texture. However, the Sakura is a Japanese theme so I chose oxen bone. The final touch is to sand the bone down to 1500 grit and then polish with a small buff and compound. The bone polishes up nicely and looks good against the lower gloss lacquer. Now it’s just a matter of oiling the board and stting up the guitar.
With the Sakura finish having cured for fourteen days, it’s time to pull the fingerboard mask and do the detail work. I begin by making an incision across the bottom of the string nut with an Exacto knife. Then, using 600 grit sandpaper on a rubber block, I sand the edge of the board—cutting through the lacquer to the wood and frets. This allows me to gently remove the masking tape without shattering the lacquer on the sides of the neck. The next step is to go over every milimeter of the fingerboard edge with the knife. This cleans the edge and bevels it for a smooth feel.
I decided to put some of the masking into the Sakura’s journal—I like the way it looks. It’s an interesting artifact of the build and is a perfect companion to the previous page with the color tests. The label is included as wel—the number is a reference to the finished weight of the guitar without hardware.
There are a lot of little details that need attending to before Sakura can be assembled. One thing I like to do is to polish the potentiometer casings. It doesn’t make the guitar sound any different, but it makes me happy to think that if someone ever opens up the guitar, they’ll enjoy what they see.
Using techniques that I’ve learned from years of art training, I age the plastic with heat and dyes. This brings out the swirl of the plastic in the button and gives it a warmth that beckons you to touch it.
The next step is to pre-wire the electronics and mount everything on the engraved front plate for fitting on the guitar. It won’t be long now.
The Sakura’s engraved steel plates interact with the magnetic field of the pickups. This made it essential to do on-guitar ear testing with mockup parts prior to picking the final configuration. I’ve chosen the set from about ten different possibiliteis based upon my taste, but knowing full well that this guitar is going to sound unique because of its construction parameters. The most satisfying sound came from a set that Seymour wound for me in his pickup man-cave in Santa Barbara. Shimmering highs, with a strong midrange wallop—these gave the guitar a huge presence for big Stonsey chords.
With that part of the build process completed, it was time to assemble the finished engraved pickup set.
The first step was to remove the mockup covers. and then replace them with the final brushed nickel and engraved versions. I’m always careful not to distress the parts while handling, but I also like to leave some evidence that an actual human built the guitar.
No guitar that I make is ever perfect, and that’s what makes them perfect.
With that job done, I turned to the process of shielding the control cavity. I previously used a shield paint made in Belgium that did an excellent job, but electronis genius John Grail turned me on to an American-made nickel-based paint that is used by military electronics makers to isolate computer and communication rooms. I procured a small amount and thinned it enough to go through my touch up gun.
This stuff goes on like rice pudding but dries to a nice silver layer and the conductivity is off the scale. I’m thinking of painting my house with it to avoid Z-Ray exposure and unwanted cell-phone calls. Enjoy your weekend!
It’s now time to apply the final lacquer coat to the Sakura, which means a final fit test is in order. This procedure allows me to check all the clearances and alignments of the hardware without the danger of damaging the final finish. I also don’t want to compromise the engraved pieces. These parts took nine months to be engraved by hand, and I absolutely want everything to fit.
Everything seems to fit fine with just the right amount of clearance for the last thin coat. I’ve decided to go with a lower gloss vintage style nitro to alow the brilliance of the metalwork to come forward visually. This will be achieved by adding a flattening additive to the nitrocellulose lacquer before spraying.
Every time I unwrap the engraved parts they bowl me over with their fabulous detail. I only wish that these photos could reveal the depth of the work that is visible in person.
The cherry blossom petals are adorned with real rose gold and the leaves are green gold. At the very top of the picture a 24k yellow gold sun rises through the clouds. The entire plate background is finished in brushed nickel.
Now it’s time to get into the paint room and get on with the program.
I’ve spent a lot of my life cutting corners. Carrying two bags of groceries at a time to save steps, or taking a back street to clip a few precious seconds off a trip to the store. We all do it. My hobby is racing sports cars—the ultimate corner cutting exercise.
At age thirteen I devised jigs and fixtures to hold brass tubing in place while soldering them into slot-car chassis to be sold at a local hobby store. A succession of factory jobs building things like film inspection machines, splicers, mechanical scales and grain moisture testers introduced me to the big-time of cost-cutting time management. Even my promotion to purchasing agent at nineteen taught me the ideas of maintaining a lean inventory and shaving pennies off an order. Later, my studies with Japanese Kaizen gurus Yoshihisa Doi and Hajime Oba took this to an even higher level. You might say it’s in my blood to look for a better, faster, cheaper way.
When I first set up shop as a guitar maker, those same skills helped to fashion jigs and fixtures that kept things consistent and maintained an orderly flow. My training had also taught me to seek help and insight from those more experienced than myself. So, in 1980, while setting up the Hamer guitar factory in Illinois I invited a visit from Stan Rendell, former President of Gibson Guitars. As he looked around, Rendell pointed out places where money and time could be saved without upsetting the customer. He mentioned that he could help whittle the time it took to make a complete guitar to under eight man-hours. I was horrified. The changes he suggested would certainly have reduced manufacturing time, but not without consequence. It became clear that the modern world had shifted its focus from improvement and consistency, to reducing cost without affecting customer perception.
Today, I’m beginning my second day of testing pickups for the Sakura guitar. Every build goes through this process because every guitar is different and unique. From experience, it’s easy to whittle down the choices before I even begin. Still there are variables that only ear testing can address. I have a test rig that holds a pickup in place under strings to give me a baseline along with measuring the impedance and inductance. Because the Sakura guitar has steel plates on both front and back, the inductance will be important. Still, the final ear testing in the guitar will be the final exam.
When I talk to people about what I do, the thing that always surprises them the most is how much time it takes. In a one-click world where the emphasis is continually on saving time and cutting costs, this kind of patient work is almost viewed as quaint. I could just put a pickup that was deemed “good enough” in the guitar and assume that the customer will change it out anyway. But that would be a waste of my skills. I just remind folks that I’ve already cut enough corners for several lifetimes.