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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e8868440e970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da883301538e74d0f9970b-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da883301538e75063e970b-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e88687611970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da883301538e0eeff7970b-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e88025df7970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833015431df4c68970c-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e87ff865c970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e61100c78970c-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da883301538dfc063c970b-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e87ef71d7970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e611028dd970c-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e87ef7adb970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e87f40933970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e60b98c82970c-800wi
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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e6114c371970c-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e8643edf3970d-800wi

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.

6a00e54ee874da8833014e5f69b57c970c-800wi

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

6a00e54ee874da88330147e2c4acc1970b-800wi

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!