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!