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 Finish Flies

Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun is roaring in the shop today—fitting. With the fine weather and perfect humidity, I did give ’em the gun. Four more coats of nitro on Sakura, but more importantly, The Crow got the frosted Duco black lacquer. I had to wait overnight to see the complete result, and it’s breathtaking.

Duco Drying

Exactly as I’d hoped, the Duco finish looks like crow’s feathers, and it is different on every part of the guitar. From bold, wide crystals to small intricate patterns—it’s all there.

The next step was to carefully un-tape the masked portions and then scrape the binding clean at the right time. There’s a fine line between too soft and too brittle to scrape. Happily, I got it just right.

Cutaway

I use a sharp blade to scrape the black Duco lacquer off the binding. I can vary the depth of the cut with pressure and the width is controlled by the angle of the blade relative to the side of the guitar.

Scraping Binding

Special care was needed to avoid scratching the clear nitro over the binding on the sides. After I was done I went back and did some final polishing and cleanup.

There is a pleasing tactile sensation when you touch this finish—something I hadn’t thought about but am happy with. I can’t wait to get all of the parts on this sucker and fire it up. That will have to wait for a bit while the finish cures completely.