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.

Sculptor’s Studio

Let’s get one thing straight—I don’t consider myself a sculptor. That said, I did find some things in common with Daniel Chester French when I visited his studio yesterday. It was a perfect New England summer day and after an hour of  pleasant driving we arrived at Chesterwood—French’s summer residence.

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French is best known for his public works, most notably the nineteen-foot tall seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

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Chesterwood is located just outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—that’s right, the same town in the Arlo Guthrie song. With the Berkshire hills as a backdrop it’s a gorgeous piece of real estate. I can’t imagine a more wonderful place to create.

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I’m always interested in how artists and designers work, so touring the studio at Chesterwood was inspiring. One of the things I found most interesting was to see the workup sketches and plans that preceded the final output. Art does not happen in a vacuum. As much as any musician can improvise a song or melody on the fly, most of their work is crafted over time. As a mixture of sculpture and assemblage, guitars are also three-dimensional objects that must catch the light and shadow. A real sense of balance and composition from multiple viewpoints needs to be established in both disciplines in order to be effective.

Chesterwood - the studio of Daniel Chester French located in Stockbridge, Connecticut. Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was the sculptor of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Memorial in Washington, D.C. The studio has a standard-gauge railroad track used to roll large sculpture outdoors for viewing in natural light. The museum holds what is probably the largest single collection of work by any American sculptor.
Chesterwood – the studio of Daniel Chester French located in Stockbridge, Connecticut. Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was the sculptor of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Memorial in Washington, D.C. The studio has a standard-gauge railroad track used to roll large sculpture outdoors for viewing in natural light. The museum holds what is probably the largest single collection of work by any American sculptor.

Seeing and feeling the artist’s environment is what makes something like my trip to Chesterwood studio so satisfying. French’s use of preliminary sketches and models reminded me of the techniques I use to prepare for my builds. The Chesterwood studio displays outlined and reinforced the research that an artist or designer must conduct to bring every aspect of their creation to life.

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On a purely technical level, one thing I really thought was cool can be seen in the two photos above. Most of the work done in this studio was to be displayed outdoors, where the light is very different than in the studio.  When I need to view my work in a differnt light, I pick it up and carry it somewhere. Because his work was so massive French couldn’t just take it outside to look at it. The soulution was to build a portion of the studio’s floor on a platform that rode on railroad tracks. French would open the tall doors and roll his work out into the back yard so that he could see the effect of natural light!

 

Crow Guitar Setup

With the frosted duco finish cured, I am able to continue with the assembly and setup of The Crow. Both the headstock face and the back of the guitar are hand buffed to a gloss finish with a series of compounds. The next step is to remove any residue.

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The nitro was flattened five percent to give it a slightly lower gloss. It’s hardly noticeable, but gives the guitar a more vintage and “lived in” appearance. The idea is to build a guitar that already looks and feels broken in and experienced.

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In this shot you can see the ivory string nut. I like this material for a lot of reasons, including its rich, grained appearance. Any tape residue on the fingerboard is removed at this point; I go over each fret with a small hand buffer to shine them up.

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Once cleaned up, the electronics are fitted in through small openings in the pickup routes. The Charlie Christian pickups are mounted on stainless steel shoulder bolts from the back of the guitar. You can see the mounting holes in the photo above.

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Held from behind and cushioned on on springs, the pickups do not touch the top of the guitar. This allows the top to vibrate freely while the pickups are isolated for feedback rejection. It also gives the guitar a sleek look because there is no mounting hardware in the front. Height adjustments are done with a 4mm allen wrench.

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After assembly, it’s time to put a set of Pyramid Nickel Classic strings on and do the setup. First I adjust the truss rod. From experience gained in thousands of set-ups, I can pretty much guess how much bow to put in even before the strings are on. I set the bridge to a middle height and then string up the guitar. With a close approximation of the final action, I then can cut the nut slots to their final depth. Then the guitar can be tuned to pitch and all the final heights and truss rod changes can be made.

To do the intonation I used my vintage Peterson strobe tuner on The Crow. I’ve had this tuner since the early 1970s and used it at Northern Prairie and the first Hamer shop in Palatine, Illinois. Here is a photo from the very first Hamer catalog—you can see the tuner in the shot. I’m wearing a tacky madras shirt that I bought in London’s Carnaby Street in April of 1973. I believe that is Martin Barre’s Standard on the bench.

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And now, here is the crow on the bench in the new Dantzig shop. Same tuner, same tech, same procedure. Thirty seven years later and I’m still at it! Just for fun we colored the photo to match the original.

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The last step is to intonate the guitar by adjusting the bridge saddles. First I set them to the 12th fret on the bench. Then I get the guitar in the playing position and tweak it from there. If you attempt to finish it on the bench while gravity pulls straight down, it’s going to be different when you put the guitar on your leg or on a strap.

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After installing the truss rod cover, which is made from black ebony with a cellulose ivoroid binding, I trim the strings neatly. I’m going to jam on The Crow for a while to break it in more, and then it’s off to the photographer’s studio for some more formal portraits. I can’t wait to show them to you.

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.

Guitar Hardware from Scratch

After completing the strap buttons and switch tip made from buffalo horn, attention now turns to the rest of the hardware. The Crow will be fitted with variegated nickel finish metal parts, so I was thinking now about the control knobs. Amber speed knobs seemed like a good bet, but the match to the rest of the guitar seemed less than perfect. One consideration was Daka Ware 1930s bakelite knobs. The brown color and retro look was classic Charlie Christian, so they seemed like a good possibility.

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I found some in my parts vault and laid them out on a black background and wasn’t impressed. They’d probably be good on a tobacco sunburst guitar.

I’ve always loved the clear plastic lap steel knobs from the 1940s, so I thought that I could make my own based on an original one. The precursor to the “speed” knob, they were slightly taller and not tapered like modern knobs. They were painted gold or sometimes silver underneath, but I just wanted one for a model. A fairly exhaustive search only turned up a few knobs for sale, and those were in really rough shape. I called a few friends in the vintage trade, but no luck. Finally, I found one in almost new condition—amazing for sixty-plus year-old plastic. Needless to say, it didn’t come cheap.

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My idea was to make some replicas in clear acrylic and maybe paint them underneath with slver. The lack of color would help mimic The Crow’s reflective finish without detracting from it. The first step was to make some molds from a pourable silicone material. This entails pouring the silicone over the original knob allowing it to cure for twenty-four hours. The result was very good so I made a few more, including a two-piece mold just for backup.

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This is what the mold looks like when fully cured. The next step was to mix up some casting acrylic in a cup. The amount of  catalyst is determined by the total thickness of the part, and I’d have about ten minutes to get it into the mold.

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By pouring the first of the material into the center recess I was avoiding any trapped air which would cause bubbles in the finished part.

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After another twenty-four hours, it was time to pull the part from the mold and see how it looked.

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Not bad for a first try, but it was obvious that I was going to have to sand and polish the part to get it to look like the original. I went ahead and made about another seven parts in order to experiment. I mixed some color into the liquid on a few just to try it, but it wasn’t a good result.

Once I figured out how to sand and polish the molded knobs (using the trusty drill press again) I also tried painting some of the knobs with chrome, silver and copper paint. In the end, it was the fully clear versions that I liked the best.

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Here’s the finished knob, polished up and sitting on my desk. I really like the way it catches the light—like a crow’s feathers. I think they are going to look great on the guitar, and the fact that they are not off-the-shelf parts makes me happy too.

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I think I’ve found my “signature” look.