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.

 

 

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.

 

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!