Headstock from Hell

Pressing onward with the Hell’s Half Acre guitar, I’ve gotten the neck blank to the rough carve stage. To do this, I use a cabinet scraper as described in my previous post. After the truss rod has been installed and the spline glued in, the final headstock shape could be cut. Jim looks on as I finsih up.

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In the photo below, you can see the tuner holes which are undersized until the moment the tuners are fitted. This will give a snug fit for improved vibration transfer.

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The stepped channel for purfling and outside binding has also been cut. I’m using a half-herringbone purfling made of alternating maple and ebony pieces to create a look that evokes an image of the cowboy’s lariat. Here, you can also see the ring groove that has been cut at the headstock tip for the pearl monogram inlay. More after a while…

Saturday Morning Shop

I like Saturdays. It’s quiet and nobody calls, so the workflow is uninterupted. I also like it because it’s usually when Jim comes in to help out. He’s always curious about details, so I’m usually showing him a lot of stuff I’ve taken for granted for decades. Like how to carve a neck by hand with a scraper. I refer to him as my apprentice but he’s really more like my memory exercise trainer.

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Little things that come instinctually to me, like how to slightly bend the scraper, are revelations to someone on the learning curve. Jim is a quick study though. He’s good with tools, and his keen intellect allows him to see things both close-up and within the bigger picture. Most of all, he’s got the right attitude. In exchange, I get stimulating conversation and continuing education on all sorts of subjects.

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With a degree in Literature and Folklore from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and University of Edinburgh, Scotland Jim has always tread the line between his head and his hands. He was first introduced to instrument making while doing research on dulcimer builders in the Black Mountain region of North Carolina and can’t get it out of his blood. Even when we’re talking about other things, like books, eastern religion or motorcycles, somehow it all relates to the job at hand. That’s why I like Saturdays.

 

Crow Wing Spread in Guitar Player

With about fifteen minutes to kill before our pizza was ready for pick up, my wife and I ducked into Barnes & Noble. Carla headed directly for the photography magazines while I hovered over a copy of Vintage Motorcycles. Eventually, I made my way to the music section and opened up a copy of the latest Guitar Player.

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The main subject was dedicated to fuzz boxes so I was curious and hoping to see some coverage of my good friend Analogman. Before I got to the effects-pedal article I found something that stopped me dead and brought a smile to my face.

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Wow! Just wow. There she was, spread out over two full pages—Rick Whittey’s epic shot of the Crow perched on a tree branch. Now, of course I knew that the editors had the shot, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Even when you pour yourself into a project like I do, you’re still happy when people “get it” and this told me that they did.

I rounded the corner of the aisle where Carla was standing and flashed the spread just to see her beautiful smile.

Thanks guys.

 

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!