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.

Steve Kimock and Sakura

Visitors to the Workshop are always a welcome diversion especially when they entertain the camera with their prowess on my guitars. But recently I’ve been prone to taking guitars on the road. Regular readers of this blog and corresponding Facebook page will already be familliar with my build process. I put a massive amount of forethought into what I call the “pre-story” of each instrument. I employ 1930s wire, 1950s switchgear, old-growth wood and old world craftsmanship to build a soul into each guitar. Still, the most important part of any instrument’s life is the experience it gains by being played. In this connection, I have ventured out into the world and allowed my creations the luxury of being stroked and spanked publicly. These instruments are not vintage, nor are they new. They are not used, as in second-hand. They are becoming experienced. Every player who caresses my instruments imbeds a bit of their being into the guitar.

With that in mind, I met up with Steve Kimock for a little soul searching. Every scratch on these guitars is a badge of honor.

Sakura Portraits

All that remains in the Sakura build is the case and to complete the binding of the journal. So while we’re waiting for those components I decided to get some portraits taken. Hope you enjoy them.

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Closeup of the amazing detail and precious gold inlay of the hand engraved plates.

 

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Here’s a front shot that shows the overall form. I really like the way the tone knob shows the cherry color. I enjoy the small details so I try to work them in so that they continue to delight as time goes on.

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So many things today are built to “wow” you on first blush, but then they’re done. That’s why they get “upgraded” or traded off by their owners. Sakura’s charms are subtly hidden from immediate view, which allows them to be revealed slowly over time. You’ll probably never find them all.

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24k yellow gold sun. Click on the photo for more detail.

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Yellow, rose and green gold inlets. Click for more detail.

Here’s the back profile showing how the entire form works together.

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Hardware Handiwork

Now that spring seems to be truly here, work on finishing the Sakura guitar ramps up. Here’s a bit of background on the control knobs.

I had decided to use my own handmade control knobs like I did for the Crow. First, I tried a series of metal Tele-style and plastic old-school cupcake knobs—they just weren’t right. The Sakura guitar demands something that both blends in, and complements what’s already there. The chrome just stood out too much and dark knobs did too. So, it was time to pull out the knob-making gear.

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The first step is to pour acrylic resin into my silicone mold. I made the form from an original 1947 lap steel knob I got from a collector friend of mine. I was lucky to find one in good shape without any crazing or cracks. The secret to using this resin is getting all the air bubbles out before it sets up. I found that vibrating the material with an electric oscillating sander did the trick.

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The surface tension in the mold creates a slight dish shape on the top that I want to remove. I use a fine file and then sandpaper on a stone to take the scratches out.

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The fine scratches are then removed on a polishing wheel with some white compound. Spinning the knob slowly in my hand also breaks the edges slightly, which gives the knobs a broken-in feel.

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As nice as the clear knobs look, they were slightly distracting on the Sakura’s cherry face, so I had decided to add some opaque silver in the inside cavity. This will tone down the look and match the engraved front plate better.

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Here you can see the knob’s full .650″ height. Although they are larger than a traditional “speed” knob, their clarity keeps their look balanced on the guitar. I mixed a little yellow into some silver lacquer to match the nickel plating on the front plate.

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As you can see, the silver changes the look just enough to subdue the knob slightly. There is still enough clear to allow the background to show through too. After the lacquer cures completely, I’ll swap out the test knobs that are on the guitar.

Attending to the Details

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

Working Weekend

It doesn’t matter what day it is—sometimes I just like to be in the Workshop. The Sakura was starting to shape up, so I elected to continue working. I’m the boss anyway. Over the previous two days I’d been focusing on the detail work, like rebuilding and aging the Kluson tuners.

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Using a combination of heat, solvent and dyes, the appearance of the buttons was now exactly what I wanted. All of the mold marks on the plastic and metal have been removed by sanding. This gives the tuners a friendly feel with a look that invites you to touch them. The color is beautiful and warm.

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Up next was the elecrical wiring. I installed the polished CTS pots from my stash of NOS parts. The switch is a refurbished 1950s CRL 3-way which I rescued from an old switchboard panel. You can identify its age by the brown phenolic wafer and the two patent numbers stamped on the frame. I also utilized the original ’50s straight-slot screws to mount it. From my supply of vintage Western Electric cloth-covered wire, I chose a length of yellow wire with a nice patina on it. The tone cap is a Jensen-made, oil filled from Steve at Angela. For the ground wire to the output I chose a small length of Western Electric multi-color—also cloth insulated.

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I like to use the Switchcraft stereo jack. The extra prong holds the plug in better and provides a more secure ground. I also use a dab of red Loctite threadlock on the threads to reduce the chance of the jack coming adrift from vibation. The hot lead is a black, cloth covered wire with a bit of shrink wrap to eliminate the possibility of a short from wear or vibration over the life of the instrument.

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After all the wiring is complete and the engraved front plate is secured, I attached the bridge to get a look at the guitar. Then it was time to attach the back plate.

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Here, I’m fastening down the rear plate using stainless steel screws. After waiting almost nine months for the engraving to be finished, this was an exciting moment for me. I had to conciously tell myself to breathe as I worked.

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As long as the weekend was on a roll, I decided to do the cleanup cut on the perimiter of Hell’s Half Acre. Using a hand-cut birch plywood template, the overarm router is used to cut the final shape after roughing out with a .750” bit. I use a .500″ carbide downspiral bit to make the final pass to eliminate any cutter marks. The pickup routs and switch access are done at the same time. The neck joint is undersize and won’t be finalized until moments before the neck is fitted. This eliminates any problems with wood movement and ensures a perfect fit.

Not bad for a cloudy weekend. But now it’s a sunny and bright Monday. Maybe I’ll go for a walk in the woods with the dog.

 

 

Friday Fretboard: Sakura Details

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Pickup Progress and the Z-Ray Factor

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Sakura Backplate Engraving: Pre-Fit Closeups

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Now it’s time to get into the paint room and get on with the program.

 

No Corners Worth Cutting

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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

 

Fitting Sakura

The week has really flown by. I’ve been so busy with a host of things that I’m only now getting a chance to survey the fitting of Sakura’s parts. Eight long months ago, I delivered the steel plates to be engraved with Heidi at Baron. They were right in the middle of some very high-profile jobs so I knew I’d have to wait my turn. Luckily, I had plenty of other work to do, but now it’s time to get back on the Sakura. The first step is checking the fit, as the guitar has been painted in the interim.

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The brushed nickel finish looks great against the transparent cherry lacquer, and the neck fit is perfect so I won’t have to do any finessing there.

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Time to dig out the hardware I set aside for this build and carry on. More in a few days. I’ll post some photos of the back plate then.

 

Being Thankful

Without resorting to my usual long-winded spiels bristling with cultural tie-ins, I’ll just say “happy Thanksgiving” to all of you. Hopefully, this holiday finds you with much to be thankful for. I’ll be spending the day with my wife Carla and our dog Heidi, the resident optimist. I’d tell you about how I wish that I was more like our canine friend, who greets each day with joy and a wagging tail—but I digress.

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Yesterday, a hawk flew past my window. I was able to grab the camera and got a pretty average photo. Behind the shop, the hawk settled down for a snack of fresh chipmunk. I was really surprised by its size—so much larger up close than they appear when winging high overhead.

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Later, the dog alerted me to a familyof deer bedded down for a rest about twenty yards from our back door. Just seeing all the creatures here makes me happy. A good way to start the proceedings. Later today, friends will join us for dinner and conversation. I have to return some books to Jim, and want him to borrow Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, if he hasn’t already read it twice. Maybe we’ll get to jam a little too.

Because this is the Workshop blog, I’ll leave you with some images of something else I’m extremely thankful for. The exquisite hand engraving for the Sakura guitar done by Heidi Roos.

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It is difficult to capture in a photograph, the way that hand engraving catches the light. The human touch leaves each fine stroke beveled differently from the next in subtle ways that give the images life.

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This is a good look at the spot plating technique. The cherry blossom is real rose gold, and the leaves are done in green gold. The background is a brushed finish of nickel plate. Here you can see the superiority of handwork over the more common photo-etching process on production examples. This is where the time (and money) goes.

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The staggering amount of detail of this piece just blows me away—more than I’d hoped for. Heidi just knocked this one right out of the park.

After the holiday I’ll get some shots of the back piece which is even more stunning. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone.

Snowstorms and Sakura

Wow. It didn’t seem possible, yet there it was. Two feet of heavy snow before the leaves were even close to being off the trees. The result was catastrophic. On our road the trees went down like tenpins, pulling down powerlines and bowling over utility poles. In an apocalyptic orange flash, transformers energized with tens of thousands of volts were tossed into the ravines around us. The roads were blocked, the power was out and even cell service was extremely spotty.

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What followed was a week of melting snow for water and living like campers. After rebuilding a reluctant chainsaw, I got to work with neighbors to clear a path out. Luckily, we’ve got solar heat here, so at least we didn’t freeze.

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I didn’t really miss the gym as there was plenty of physical labor to be done. Just when I’d thought the splitting and stacking of firewood was about finished, we had twenty times that amount to clear off the road just to get out.

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Generators, jugs of fuel, tractors and chainsaws. By the third day, we could get onto the main roads, although there were plenty of downed powerlines to avoid.

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After a full week, the power was finaly back, but twelve days into it there’s still no internet. I’m posting this from mylaptop in a cafe.

Downstate, things weren’t quite so bad. One of the first emails that I was able to access informed me that Heidi Roos had finished the engraving for the Sakura guitar, so I decided to take a ride down to Baron Engraving to pick it up. When Heidi, Pat Stuhlman and Custom Shop manager Tom Lent presented the work to me, I was lost for words. Heidi had reproduced my drawing, and improved it by adding a three-dimensional depth not evident in my original art.

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The engraving and gold work exceeded my expectations completely. The detail is amazing and the nuance of the inlaid golds really make this a superior piece. The photos here don’t do it justice. While in the Baron shop, I did take a few photos of some of their other work in progress.

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Check out this Colt revolver in a matte nickel finish. Hartford’s best made better.

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On Heidi’s workbench was a shotgun part positioned underneath the stereo microscope she uses to see her work as she engraves with a mryiad of fine tools.

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Here, Heidi holds the bridge pickup cover for the Sakura. It completes the cherry blossom engraving on the front plate pickguard seamlessly. You can see the brushed nickel background, rose gold blossom and yellow gold leaf highlights. I can’t wait to get some better shots back at the Workshop.

Sakura Guitar Engraving Update

The idea for the Sakura Guitar came to me in January while at a sushi restaurant. The large bottle Sapporos may have had something to do with it. My original “napkin” sketch on dinner table set things in motion with a large cherry blossom (sakura) inlaid on the body. In other views I sketched large metal plates with engraved flowers.

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As the next day arrived, the sketches still looked cool so I pressed onward. The first real step was to start a dedicated journal of drawings and notes as I played with different ideas.

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Slowly, things were coming together. The more I read about Japanese history and the significance of the cherry blossom as a symbol of rebirth, the more I knew this project was going to be fun. I decided to design a motif to be engraved on steel plates for both the front and back of the guitar in the tradition of Tony Zemaitis’ work.

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I cut the plates from a sheet of cold rolled steel, and then finished the edges and drilled and countersunk the mounting holes.

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I didn’t want to use lasers or chemical etching, the technique that is most often seen on guitars today. I wanted the real thing—hand engraving. This technique creates a sparkle and depth that absolutely cannot be matched with shortcut methods. I wanted to raise the bar.

At first, I thought about learning engraving and doing it myself. As insane as that seems to me now, I really thought of it as an option. I’m good with tools, can draw, and have steady hands—why not? Well, the more I looked into it, the more I realized that real hand engraving was a whole career path, not something you pick up in a few days or even months. The kind of work I was looking for was something that takes a lifetime of dedication. That’s when I found Heidi Roos.

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After a thirty year career as a jewelry designer and goldsmith, Heidi turned her attention to hand engraving. Recruited by renowned gun decorator Paul Lantuch in 2003, Heidi helped launch the engraving department at the legendary Sturm, Ruger & Company. Mentored by Lantuch, Heidi learned even more old world techniques that have served her (and her high-profile clients) well.

Six years ago she came to Baron Engraving in Trumbull, Connecticut where she has completed projects for celebrity customers and collectors. Her resume includes commemorative editions for Harley Davidson, Beretta and Colt, including the Centennial edition of the Colt 1911. Recently, Heidi’s shopmate Rob Bunting, engraved a custom Browning High Wall rifle which sold at auction for $143,000 to benefit the USA olympic shooting team. When I learned of Heidi’s love of Japanese art, I knew she was the only one to bring my Sakura project to life.

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Yesterday I rolled over to Baron to see how Heidi was coming along with the work and I was simply floored. The level of detail is beyond what I imagined. Seeing my drawings translated to raw steel by a master like Heidi just about brought me to tears.

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Here you can see her working on the branch and flower detail that sweeps around the edge of the back plate. In the center you can see the Sakura that “grows” up the center of the guitar.

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We decided to spot-plate the blossom petals with rose gold for a pink hue. At the top of the scene the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, signifying a new future or rebirth. The sun will be inlaid with 24k gold.

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The idea to add some green gold to the branch and leaves came up, and we decided that done subtly it would add an entirely new dimension to the work. I just can’t wait to see the finished pieces—and this is just the back!

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.

Cherry Nitro on Sakura Guitar

Yesterday was a beautiful New England spring day—blustery and crisp. I took the time to walk around the property and allow myself to be open to all that was around me.

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Earlier in the day I’d spoken to my friend Tony who was in New York wrapping up a week of filming. Tony is an amazing, creative cinematographer, and it was great just to catch up and just jam on some ideas. One of Tony’s favorites is photographer William Eggleston, whose work reminds us that there are no ordinary moments.

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We continually and systematically narrow focus until we run the risk of becoming insensitive to the wonder of everyday life. So, in that spirit, I went out into the woods to undo my focus. It wasn’t long before nature was speaking to me and I envisioned a new project. More on that in a while.

Back in the shop I went about the job of masking off the Sakura’s fingerboard edges and headstock faceplate. Those would be the only areas not painted red. The lacquer was already mixed and in the cup so it was just a matter of wiping the guitar down with cleaning solvent and tack rag before having a go.

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I had the choice of laying on multiple coats to darken the color, but I chose to stop when I had a nice even coverage. The guitar had the pale hue of those time-faded SGs and Juniors that I love so much—fini.

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The color is going to look great contrasting against the nickel colored plates—I love how the grain of the mahogany shows through. My feeling is that a low-gloss topcoat treatment will really highlight the metalwork rather than compete with it.

Next week I’ll start building up the nitro clear coats after the color has a chance to cure. Have a great weekend everybody, and take some time to enjoy the moment.

Mixing Cherry Lacquer

One of the most popular colors for guitars is red, and it’s fitting that our cherry blossom guitar will be just that. There’s something electrifying about a bright red instrument—guitar or otherwise. The Sakura is ready to be colored, so it’s time to mix up the color. I’ll use a coat of red transparent lacquer (referred to as a shader) which I mix using a concentrated tint. The first step is to measure out enough natural (clear) nitrocellulose lacquer into a cup.

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Nitrocellulose lacquer is a quick-drying, solvent based coating that was developed in the early part of the twentieth century. Basically made from cotton cellulose, chemical solvents and various additives, it differs from the ancient Chinese and Japanese lacquers in both substance and in the technique used to apply it. Known as a thermoplastic, it reacts to heat, cold and solvents. Nitro bonds to previous applications by melting the surface of previous coats. As the solvent escapes over time, the hard cellulose material is left behind as a coating. Nitro is revered for its luxurious look and feel, and has been associated with the finest guitars of the last century. Nitro can be buffed to a gloss, but it never looks plastic or overly glossy, which gives a guitar an elegant sheen and depth.

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The tint that I use is made from a powder mixed with solvent. This creates a super-concentrated dye called a toner. Just a few drops of this stuff is all that is needed—you can see how dark the color is in the squeeze bottle.

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Now I use a squeegee  to “draw down” a streak of the color on a test piece of mahogany. The first test was just the cherry red color. I added some amber and blue to the mix and drew those down too in order to get the exact color I wanted.

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Nitro lacquer is slightly yellow, and as it ages it yellows even more. This is what gives vintage instruments their glow, but it also means that the color I mix will not be the final shade. Keeping this in mind, I stop short with the yellow. When the color is exactly what I want, the mix is complete.

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Now the shader is ready to be applied over the base coats already on the guitar. Although there is a definite place for staining or painting directly on the wood, sometimes I like to “float” the color. Layering the color between sets of top and base coats is my secret to adding depth to a finish. Here, I’m pouring the color into the spray gun cup, it’s showtime!

Finalizing Sakura Guitar Engraving Drawing

While The Crow guitar is drying there are plenty of other projects to do. The Sakura guitar has been sprayed with its base coats and is waiting for color, so I decided to get myself in gear and finish up the drawings for the engravers.

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This is the detail for the back of the guitar showing the hard detail around the edge as well as the full tree in the center area. The entire plate will be nickel plated with the flower petals spot plated with rose gold. At the top of the drawing the sun is peeking through the clouds—representing a new day dawning. My plan is to plate the sun with 24 carat gold.

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This is a study that I’ve done using my drawings. The cherry red color on the mahogany will look great against the nickel-plated parts. I can’t wait to get the engraving going.

The entire theme of Japan and renewal is most poignant in light of the horrible disaster there. I’ve decided to donate the entire proceeds from the sale of The Sakura to relief efforts in Japan. I just need to determine the most appropriate charity to work with—I’ll be writing more about this in the weeks ahead.

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Metal for Sakura Guitar

Work continues on the metal plates for the Sakura guitar. The task of making the pieces has taken the better part of three days but they are looking great.

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The pickup adjustment will take place directly from the top plate, so they needed to be drilled along with the control holes. Around the edge the mounting screw holes needed to be countersunk.

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After smoothing the edges and drilling, a brushed finish is put on the metal before it is to be nickel plated and engraved.

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I had the foresight to cut a second top plate because I’d been talking to a client about another guitar that would use one. It’s a guitar that I’m calling “Hell’s Half-Acre” and I can’t wait to get going on it. Stay tuned!

Taking a Break

What a difference a few days can make here in New England. My last post was about being locked down by the snow, but now it’s sunny and (relatively) warm. Accordingly, I took a few hours out of the day to stack up what will hopefully be the last of this winter’s firewood.

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It was a bright, crisp afternoon—the kind that makes you feel great to be alive and privileged just to be outdoors. I worked at a steady pace piling up the logs, breathing deep and stopping every so often to look at the trees and sky. Just a few steps away was our suet feeder, which attracts larger birds. As I labored, wrens, bluebirds and thrushes flitted back and forth from the nearby trees to the feeder. A noisy group of three downy woodpeckers alternated with the bluebirds and wrens for a shot at the food. At one point I grabbed my camera and got a photo of a bluebird patiently awaiting his turn while a male downy woodpecker feasts.

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Once the last of the firewood was stacked I went inside to finish up the drawings for the cherry blossom guitar. The shape of the front and back plates had been finalized so it was time to cut them out of steel. My first step was to make paper templates from my drawings so I could check the shapes with the actual guitar parts.

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Then it was time to get medieval on a sheet of .059″ CRS. I had a piece that was just big enough for two sets of plates, and with a little luck I’d be able to cut them without problem. This thickness will allow the engraver to go deep without denting or puckering the plates. I chose steel because of its magnetic properties. Aluminum is fine for laser or chemical etching, but it messes with the inductance of the pickups in a way that isn’t as kind as copper or steel. Besides, I’m going with hand engraving—steel will yield better detail.

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Here I am checking the overall fit before drawing out the shapes on the metal.

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Using some spray adhesive, I fix the templates to the sheet so that I can trace the outlines with a scribe. I want to get the material into more managable pieces.

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After transferring the shapes, I roughed out the blanks with an air shear—not my first choice of tools, but it works. This gets me close enough so that I can finish the parts on the bandsaw and then the spindle sander. which is a job for another day.

 

 

 

Weighing In on the Subject

Now that the major components of the Crow guitar have been glued up, I continue to work on the Sakura project. The drawings for the metal plates and the guitar itself have progressed to the point where I can start to cut the material.

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The body will be a single florentine cutaway made from a single slab of Honduras mahogany. My mental vision of this instrument dictates a somewhat heavier weight than what is “popular” right now. I’m a big fan of lightweight guitars, but I’ve heard dozens of beefy guitars, and there’s just something about them that I like as well. In order to tailor the Sakura (or any of my guitars for that matter) I cut the body material into a standardized block to determine its relative weight.

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Here I’m weighing a group of likely candidates in order to pick one that will achieve the weight and sound I’m looking for. That’s my trusty Pelouze scale that’s been with me since high school! I worked at the Pelouze factory in Evanston, Illinois when I was in my teens and this was a “factory second” that was given to me by my supervisor. For you Hamer guitar history fans, this was also the scale that was used in Hamer’s shipping department right up through Arlington Heights. If you own a USA made Hamer guitar made before 1997, it’s probably been on this scale. Luckily, I saved it from the dumpster after it was deemed “outdated” and with a little internal tinkering I made it work again. I guess that job at Pelouze has paid off more than once.

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Now that I’ve got the sketches done, it’s time to lay things out in actual size. I like to use the real components to visualize the ergonomic and esthetic relationships of the final design. I’ve always done it this way—here’s a photo of me in the old Arlington shop designing Paul Stanley’s double neck the exact same way.

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About ten years ago I learned AutoCad, and find it useful in a production environment; but I would still draw everything by hand first to see things in real space. In this case, I won’t need to create tool paths for CNC routers so the drawing and a few paper templates will be as far as I take it.

Snowy Sakura Guitar Morning

Sweaty and breathing a little hard, I stamped the snow off my boots and leaned the shovel against the barnboard of the workshop. It was a beautiful Winter morning, so I paused for a moment to drink it all in and fill my lungs with the crisp fresh air.

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The sun was breaking coldly through the trees just above the horizon—making the icicles glow with a pinkish light. Turning inside, I was greeted by the Bakersfield boys streaming from the sound system. Don Rich’s sweet twang had segued into AC/DC by the time I had my coat off.

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Yesterday, the interior carves were finished on The Crow guitar. I’d gotten the spruce top and maple back glued up  and it was still in the vacuum press. As tempted as I was to take it out—I resisted. The Sakura guitar had been the subject of my dreams and I wanted to put some ideas down on paper before they slipped away. I got some books on Japanese art out of my library for reference. The basic idea fell right into place.

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Here’s a quick look at what I’m thinking. In my dream, the guitar was heavy like a ’60s Les Paul, with that banging midrange that sounds so wonderful through a Marshall stack. I’d dropped the idea of an elaborate body inlay, and wanted to concentrate on the engraved front and back plates. The first step was to consolidate my overall design in a series of sketches in the journal that will accompany the guitar through its construction. I like to think of this as building the soul of the guitar.

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As requested, here are some closer views of the journal.

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This is my sketch of the cherry blossoms, which will be engraved on the metal plates. Check back in a few days to see more progress.