Industrial Disease

“Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control 
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole 
There’s rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town 
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down.”

One of my favorite Dire Straits songs is “Industrial Disease,” from their 1982 album, “Love Over Gold.” It’s a bouncy little number with a cheesy ’60s combo organ part that belies its serious subject. Mark Knopfler’s lyrics are expertly crafted with an endless stream of references to the woes of the British Industrial decline. Actually, it is pretty universal and can be applied to our own American landscape. As much as Knopfler tries to keep his tongue in cheek, as a writer he is keenly aware that a good joke is funny because it contains an uncomfortable truth.

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Near the song’s conclusion the narrator encounters a pair of competing Jesuses at a public rally who both propose their solutions to the situation, with the second Jesus offering, “I’d cure it soon—abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.” Which refers to the old adage about how anything made during those periods didn’t recieve the full concentration of the employees.

Having worked in industrial settings since my teens, I can attest to the fact that it is sometimes hard to find your stride at the beginning of the week and likewise at week’s end. As much as I enjoy what I do, a little perspective goes a long way. Which is why I’ve made it a practice of using these periods to inject some fun into the workshop, and ease in and out of the week.

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Last week it was the changeup of dismantling the door of a vintage Porsche, but it could be any number of things. I find that by breaking up the week with departures from the routine, I keep my interest up for the job of making guitars. Today, it was sorting through a box of cool old parts that was left on the shop’s doorstep by a friend who knows I like this sort of stuff.

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So, as we head into midday I return to the woodshop to some builds that are in progress—the grogginess that sometimes accompanies a Monday morning left far behind. I’m ready to concentrate fully on the task at hand, and avoid having to pitch good wood into the dumpster, which costs more in the long run.

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Gearhead Garages

Every day we are bombarded with corny sales pitches for all sorts of “man” stuff—the kind of kit that men would buy for themselves if they weren’t busy thinking about other people in their life first, or at least cowering in the fear that any splurging on themselves might be construed as selfish. So, in the spirit of free enterprise, male empowerment and self-promotion, I urge you to buy this wonderful book written by Ken Gross and Tom Cotter. It’s chocked-full of groovy photos of cars and guitars in the collections of some very cool rockers, by master lensman Michael Alan Ross, and the bonus is you get to see some of my shop too. (That’s the self promotion part).

The authors tell me that if they sell enough copies to actually make a profit, they might make another one about Heavy Metal. Now wouldn’t that be grand? See, it’s a double good cause. Go ahead, buy two and give one to a buddy for his birthday.

Because I’m such an agreable chap, I’ve made it easy for you by providing this link:

Rockin’ Garages: Collecting, Racing & Riding with Rock’s Great Gearheads

So go ahead… you’ve got my permission to splurge on yourself. If anyone doubts your frugality, tell ’em I made you do it. You’ll thank me later.

Take Your Time, Son

There are a lot of things about guitar building that I have yet to learn. One thing I do know is that taking your time building a neck is a worthwhile investment. Wood is not as unpredictable as some folks might like to suggest, but you have to know where to look. Years ago I did some research on how necks in their raw and finished states behaved over time. My tests were conducted on two separate occasions and each involved a test group of ten necks along with a control group of an additional ten in a climate-controlled chamber. Every neck was measured daily for three months with electronic equipment capable of a resolution of 1/10th of one degree. Both times I achieved similar results. I’ll spare you the details, but my conclusion confirmed that proceeding slowly over time was the best way to build a stable instrument.

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Today I’m taking a neck that has been in progress for several months to the next level—the rough carve. As you can see, the fingerboard has been bonded on, but is still flat. The first step is to make some radial marks on the shaft with a pencil, which allows me so see wherre I’ve been. This process is repeaded several times as the neck is broght closer to final shape and size. I probably could do without this step after all this time, but I still do it out of habit. I’ll use a cabinet scraper to bring the back of the neck to within .050″ of its final dimension, then back on the shelf it goes. By this point, most of the movment has taken place, but any last twisting will be taken out when the fingerboard is radiused in eight more weeks.

Crow Demo

The Crow was the very first Signature Series guitar. The series will be a group of instruments, every one completely different and each guitar is one of a kind, never to be repeated. For those who haven’t seen the very first Crow video, here it is again. Thanks to “The Visitor” Tommy Williams.

Rough Around the Edges

That first cup of coffee in the morning is always the best. I like mine strong, black and very hot. The espresso machine in the Workshop is almost as essential as the shaper or router. Some folks like to cut the brew with milk or cream, and others smooth the edges with sugar—but not me. I like to taste the coffee.

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Right now I’m listening to Humble Pie’s live rendition of I Don’t Need No Doctor from their Rockin’ the Fillmore album, and I’m struck by the fact that it is a rough and tumble as it is beautiful. What stands out most to me is the fact that I can eassily distinguish each singer’s voice as they harmonize the chorus. I’m not talking about the notes—but rather the individual character of each singer. There’s bassist Greg Ridley down low and gruff with the unmistakable Peter Frampton in the middle. Above all of that is the legendary wail of Steve Marriott, bobbing and weaving like only he could.

As sloppy as Pie could be, there was a certain cohesion that made it work. Ray Charles’ 1966 version was smooth and soulful, for sure, and it served as the introduction of this song to many artists, but Humble Pie takes it to an altogether different and manic place. I’ve listened to this recording plenty of times since it I first heard it in 1971, and every single time it has me on the edge of my seat admiring how it rocks on the rails threatening to crash, but somehow still stays on the tracks. And that’s what great rock music is all about.

Speaking of  black coffee, have anothe slice of Pie with that.

Standard (Parts) of the Industry

My column in last month’s Premier Guitar about profiling amps seemed to touch a nerve among guitarists even though it was really aimed at manufacturers of amplifiers. The debate raged on for a while, racking up some record website hits and massive pageviews of this blog as readers searched for information and backstory.

This month’s article is off to a similar start. It targets the idea that Fender created a de facto standardization of parts and simple manufacturing steps to make an electric guitar. It’s no secret that the Strat and Tele are the simplest instruments to build. Don’t get me wrong—I love bolt on Fenders. I worked in a factory where we made 900 a day. It’s the instrument equivalent of Lego.

My piece touches upon the shops that build parts (necks and bodies) for a swelling contingent of home-builders. Rather than name names or point fingers, I’ve merely laid out some of the story behind the ever-growing community of parts-guitar assemblers masquerading as “builders.” Also mentioned are the huge offshore factories that churn out instruments for lots of famous and not-so-famous brand names—side by side on the same production line. It seems that I’ve ruffled a few feathers, even among the folks wha actually build guitars from scratch. Go figure. They may be mad, or say it’s sour grapes—but they know I’m not lying.

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The Great Clone Debate

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Nothing pisses off guitarists like an article about plagarism. My latest column for Premier Guitar touches upon the legal (or not) debate about cloning, profiling, sampling and just pure ripping off. Not melodies, phrases, riffs or lyrics; but sounds. The issue is related to, but not about copyright infringements of songs, or sampling of riffs for songs. It’s about the gray area of sampling a manufacturer’s amp parameters into another device such as the Kemper amp. Personally, I like the idea of cataloging all of my vintage and modern amps into one library, but clearly this is something that makes the manufacturers queasy if not hopping mad. For those of you out there making boutique amps and effects—hurry up so I can borrow one of your creations in order to sample it into mine. That way I won’t have to buy yours.

For those of you who just wanted to hear the nice old Silvertone combo in the photo, scroll down to the sound clip videos below.

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.

Crow: The Visitor

Since my childhood, the electric guitar has called me in ways I simply cannot explain. From the first strains of  “Greensleeves” that shook the camp gymnasium windows, to the feedback drenched nights at Chicago’s Electric Theater—I was hooked. Similarly, my builds are formulated in a part of my brain that defies concious explaniation.

I imagine dusty boots walking railroad tracks, birds of prey and the jumble of words racing down antique telephone wires. A sixth sense that connects the delta with those who live in the city. The Crow is a messenger, harbinger and scrappy traveler. Like the touring musician who lives by his wits and intuition, the crow is alive in all of us.

 

Roping in the Acre

After a few week’s absence from the docket, the binding of Hell’s Half Acre is back on the burner. Both neck and body are trimmed with a checked purfling made of ebony and maple—then bound with Italian-made cellulose.

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Of particular beauty is the florentine cutaway, which is my siganature flourish. I love the way the purfling and ivoroid binding mitres at the peak. It’s a bitch to do, but the results are worth it. Getting the black stripe of side purfling to line up isn’t a walk in the park either. If it were easy, wht fun would it be?

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The idea here is to evoke the cowboy theme contained in the history of Fort Worth’s most lawless period and place known as Hell’s Half Acre. The checked, half-herringbone really does look like the trail driver’s lariat. Now the guitar is completely roped in and ready to bring home. Just as the trail bosses pushed their herds north from Texas to the railheads in Oklahoma, we’re ready to push on with our project.

Binding the Acre

Any build is a journey of refinement as it progresses. Rather than beginning with an idea fully formed, I set off in a direction and look and listen for clues along the way. That’s not to say there isn’t a plan, just that it isn’t set in stone. The constraints of stubbornly adhering to a preconcieved path ignores the creative and intuitive process.

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As Hell’s Half Acre starts to shape up, with its rope purfling, my eye told me that a little extra touch was needed on the side of the instrument to balance out the busy look of the top. It didn’t need to be so ornate as to distract, so I settled on a single black stripe within the ivoroid binding.

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Starting with some strips of cellulose binding in ivoroid and black, it’s a matter of laminating three pieces togeter before adding it to the guitar.

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Acetone-solvent adhesive is used to melt and bond the edges together on a caul of aluminum. There is a raised stop that holds the parts true and provides sideways clamping pressure as the assembly sets up.

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There are lots of different ways to do this, but I used this technique to make some test strips up to check the appearance before I commit to it.

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The next step is to rough trim the black material so that it can be scraped flat to the ivoroid. The black strip was a little too big so I’ll have to trim it with a nipper.

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A few passes with the cabinet scraper is all  that’s needed to get things ready to put on the body. I’l also trim the final edge on the binding to reduce the width of the small white stripe and make sure it fits perfectly into the routs on the instrument.

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I think this is going to look great on the sides of the guitar which will be painted with an opaque black lacquer.

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.

 

Axe in Hand

Not too far from here an old factory sits quietly alongside the Farmington river. Once upon a time it was the pride of the townspeople. The products made there were superior quality and sold around the world. The company employed most of the town. Those were the good times, but now they’re gone. Groups of business people have tried to revive and repurpose the old mill—none to any good effect. Sure, there are still some tenants inside. A few businesses continue to turn out some product, but for the most part, bitter and defeated ghosts walk the hallways.

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I thought about the old axe factory today as I cut up some kindling for the wood stove that heats my shop. The small Fayette R. Plumb Co. hatchet I use almost every day felt good in my hand—its hickory handle burnished smooth from decades of use. Most of the original finish on the handle has worn off, and the gold foil Boy Scout seal is tattered and illegible. I’ve had this tool since 1963 when I joined the Scouts at age eleven. Somehow, it has followed me through countless moves back and forth across the country. I’ve always taken it for granted.

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The Plumb tool company can be traced back to Jonathan Yerkes, who had been an established Moreland, Pennsylvania toolmaker since 1856. Yerkes moved his concern to Philadelphia and partnered with a young man named Fayette Plumb in 1887. Eventually, Plumb bought out his partner and the name was changed to the Fayette R. Plumb Company. These were tools made to work and made to last. Over the next hundred years, Plumb manufactured fine tools in Philadelphia, until the company was consolidated with the Cooper Group and manufacturing was shifted primarily to China to cut costs.

Like so many products once made in this country, axes are much cheaper to buy from places like Mexico and China. Will those tools stand the test of time? Now, I don’t doubt that the people who toil in those foreign factories are fine folks. They deserve a shot at a better life, just like our ancestors did here. It only makes me sad that most of what remains of all that effort is a tool that will probably outlive me.

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Interestingly, my particular Plumb hatchet utilizes an epoxy resin to attach the head to handle. The process, which Plumb patented on September 2, 1958 is said to reduce the vibration of the tool overall. Reducing vibration is obviously a benefit in a striking tool but not in a guitar. That gummy epoxy is still doing its job today fifty years later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an axe to grind.

 

 

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.

Tweed Case Wrap Up

In keeping with my intention to construct individually singular builds for my Signature Series guitars, I’ve made certain that the cases are unique to each guitar as well. The Crow, inspired in part by travelling musicians and the escapades depicted in Kerouac’s On the Road, will receive a lacquered, woven-cloth covered hard case. The covering, which is often erroneously refered to as tweed, is actually a twill material familiar to guitarists as the finish used by Fender on their 1950s amplifiers and guitar cases. My reference was a 1940s suitcase that I found in a junk shop in New Hampshire.

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The modern material supplied by the manufacturer was not an acceptable reproduction, so I went about lacquering it myself. I wanted the patina of age and experience that would be a fitting companion to the guitar itself.

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The final touch was to add a hygrometer to monitor the humidity within the case. The gauge was inserted into the case pocket from the outside, which required a pair of pass-throughs to allow the interior air to reach the sampling point on the back of the hygrometer. I used brass grommets to match the rest of the case hardware.

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Here a setting tool is used to crimp the grommet onto the pocket lid. This connects the main chamber of the case to the pocket.

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I combed through my leather selection to find a remnant to use for the case pocket’s pull tab. I’d entertained making the pull something crow or bird-themed, but rejected the idea as too cute and just went with a utilitarian pull tab of brown leather to match the case trim.

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Once trimmed to size and burnished to match, I punched a hole and fastened the pull to the pocket door flap with a brass rivet.

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After the gauge was sealed to the outside with silicone I could insert the pocket into the case. The orientation is such that it can be read easily when the case stands on its end or side.

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Now it was just a matter of fitting everything and screwing the mounting blocks into the case. The inside is finished with red velvet plush and the back of the gauge is covered except for another brass grommet.

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The entire idea is to allow the interior humidity and temperature to be read from the outside. This is particularly useful when the instrument is in a rack with other guitars.

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For an all analog solution, I think it turned out quite well. After living with the results for a few days, it has become so normal to check the readings that I can’t imagine not having it there. The Crow’s nest is ready.

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.