Ye Ancientest Bone Orchard Angels

A while ago I wrote about how my headstock design came about. I was reading a book called In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaology of Early American Life, by James Deetz. The book is a study of the archeological history of  early America (or New England) which is where I currently reside.

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Chapter four entitled Remember Me as You Pass By outlines the evolution of headstones carved in Connecticut and Massachusetts  in the period between 1715 and 1829. I was struck by the author’s description of  how the symbolism used on headstones changed in step with society’s evolving ideology and notions about life, death and the hereafter.

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The gravestones begin as simple markers with warnings about death, transitioning to the memorials that we are more familiar with today. The inscriptions begin to refer to the “earthly remains” alluding to the idea of a soul or afterlife being separate from the buried husk. It is interesting to note that society’s concept of the human being’s place in the universe is not static. Even today, despite our “modern” scientific arrogance, we are still evolving our understanding of what it is to be alive.

Yesterday, my casual glance came across the book. I was reminded of my earlier post and the way that chapter influenced my design. It was a gorgeous day so I decided to take a field trip to one of the early graveyards mentioned in the book.

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Sandwiched behind a freeway entrance ramp and a dead end street, I found New London’s “Ancientest Bone Orchard” quiet and almost forgotten. I made my way around looking at the stonework and reading inscriptions. Just as I’d hoped, I found examples of exactly what I’d read about.

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This is an early example—a winged death’s head. Note the row of scary teeth and blank eyes. Certainly a grisly warning about the end of the line.

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Next is a transitional winged skull. The bottom of the nose resembles a frown as the teeth become less evident as well.

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Another skull sports crossed bones and a very prominent frown. The teeth have migrated to the bottom and appear almost as a collar.

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Finally, surrounded by urns and flowers, the cherubs and angels appear around 1860. These headstones clearly are memorials as opposed to just body markers. The upturned wings, eyes and mouths signify a happier ending than the death’s heads of just half a century before.

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Although tramping around in a three hundred year old cemetery isn’t my usual idea of a picnic, I was thrilled to witness the actual articles in the Deetz book. It was a sobering reminder of the transience of life. As I read the inscriptions I couldn’t help but to think of the families who have grieved at their loss. I said a few words—a kind of haiku—and moved along home.

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Even though the shape of my headstock isn’t exactly the same as the headstones that helped to inspire it—I’m still hoping that it too will be remembered as people pass by.

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!

Frosted Duco Spray

After the lengthy process to polish the cellulose tortoise binding it was just a matter of carefully taping off the parts of The Crow that would not receive the Duco.

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The shop is humidity controlled, but there had been a lot of rain so I had to wait a few days to be sure. The Duco is very environment-sensitive so the temperature and humidity needed to be exactly like it was during my tests.

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As the skies cleared and an even thirty-five percent RH was sustained. That’s the golden number—it was time to spray.

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First step—tack cloth the entire guitar. This removes any large debris that may have settled on the surface. Then a very thorough blow-down with compressed nitrogen. I also use compressed nitrogen to spray. It doesn’t absorb water, so the spray is completely dry. It’s a little trick I learned from racing cars.

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Now the moment of truth is upon us. After months of research, preparation and testing it’s time to pull the trigger. I have to admit that even after making so many guitars over the last  thirty-five years, my heart was racing a bit. Now it will have to hang and allow the paint to do its thing. As the solution dries it contracts and creates the “frosted” effect. It takes a few hours to form and dry. Hopefully all my planning will pay off.

Headstock Monogram Inlay

The Dantzig headstock design came fairly quickly. I’d been reading about the history of New England at the time, and was struck by some headstone carvings described in the book.

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This is the entry in The Crow’s journal—you can see the idea taking shape.

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With The Crow guitar, I wanted the monogram “D” at the tip of the head to be inlaid mother of pearl. I have some nice chunks that are about .070″ in thickness, and large enough to do the circle in one piece. The thickness will help avoid breakage when cutting the piece which is very delicate.

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The first step was to clean up my sketch and commit it to a paper template. Then I could glue the template to the pearl and begin my cut with saw. Most times, I use a powered jigsaw, but this piece is so complicated I decided to use the hand saw. I’m using an extra-fine blade (.009″) so patience is imperative. The work is backed up on a .125″ thick piece of maple with a slot cut in it for clearance. The inner cuts are made by using a micro-drill to put a starter hole in the pearl; then inserting the saw blade through and into the handle.

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Once the cuts are made, I can use a set of miniature files to smooth out the edges. The finished monogram looks good. It needs to be clean because the headplate is unpainted ebony; so there is no way to hide the edges.

The monogram has also been repeated on the headplate. Here it is on the overhead router. There is a matching template to follow, and by using a .020″ micro-mill bit, I can get very close to final fit—the last adjustments being done by hand with an air powered mini tool that is similar to a dentist’s drill.

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Here’s the headstock with the pearl inserted and some of the binding in place. I like how the white ivoroid purfling stripes terminate in a blend to the top of the monogram’s circle. The rest of the treatment will be my signature in the center of the headstock. After all, it is a “signature” guitar.