It has been a busy few months—lots of research, writing and following up on things, and not as much building guitars as I would like. That’s not to say that my shop has been idle. Space is always at a premium, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned—no matter how much you have, you’ll fill it up. So, in order to make things a little easier on myself (and my clients) I’ve been streamlining the shop. If you follow my posts on Facebook you’ll know that I’ve gotten the Hell’s Half Acre build back on the bench, and it feels good.
The tobacco sunburst is appropriately named for this cowpoke guitar, and it turned out really nice. I’m back in my paint room, which has been upgraded, and am now putting on clear coats of nitro.
Lately, I’ve been infatuated with three things: French polish, old violins, and the patina of age on vintage guitars. I’ve been working on a way to stylistically blend these influences into a thin nitrocellulose guitar finish.
Here is a test panel compared to an original 1964 Precision Bass. I’m not trying to match the color here, just the sheen. It is a combination of additives in the lacquer, and a hand polishing technique using a wool pad and lots of elbow grease. It’s not as easy as buffing a high gloss, or spraying a satin paint, but I think the results are great. This process gives the guitar more of a real musical instrument vibe, and less of a “production/factory” look. After all, I don’t make toasters or automobiles—I don’t think of guitars as appliances.
Here is a template that I made in the early 1980s. It has been used to start the process on thousands of instruments. It hangs in my shop to remind me of my journey and all of the wonderful people I have met along the way. At the lower right hand corner is a current color sample block for a client’s guitar order.
I’ve never done this for the money, but I like to be paid for my time and expertise. I didn’t start building guitars because I wanted to be rich, or even to be a businessman. I just wanted to make cool shit. I figured that if I satisfied myself, maybe there would be a few people like me who might want one of my guitars. So far, it has worked out way better than I’d ever hoped.
Space, the final frontier. It’s always a battle to find enough space in the workshop. If I’ve learned anything over the years it is that if you have the space, you will fill it, and there will never be enough room. Consequently, I’ve become very good at squeezing more things into less space. The downside is that sometimes you forget where things are, or that they exist at all. This runs in direct opposition to my Kaizen training—where visual systems rule the roost. I find it neccessary to routinely jockey tables, benches and machinery around in order to accomodate projects as needed.
Good things in small packages: the original 6L headstock pattern.
As I was rearranging things yesterday I came upon a small box marked “Jol’s work patterns.” Inside was a time-capsule of paper cutouts shaped like guitars folded up neatly. In an instant I knew what I’d found. Before the advent of CAD, I did all my design work in full scale on a drafting table. When specifying a custom order for construction in the shop I would draw it and then cut the pattern out to be used as a template in the woodshop. These paper patterns contained all the location and configuration information we needed—it was the blueprint that we used to create a customer’s guitar.
A customer’s order with Floyd Rose and custom control location
I have many large boxes full of my original Hamer drawings, blueprints and templates, but this small cache was part of a stash that somehow got separated from the rest. It was a bit like time travel to look through it and I intend to share more of it as time goes on.
I love tools—I’ve got boxes of them in my shop and in my home. My wife chuckles and shakes her head, I’m sure, because there’s a tool kit in almost every room of our house. Every new job I take on is an opportunity to acquire a new wrench, cutter or crimper. Punches, files, clamps and drills fill my heart with joy. Pantographs, saws and shapers fill my workspace with lovely dust.
As much as I adore specialized tools—the ones that do one thing and one thing only—measuring tools, that I use every day, or even every hour of every day are my bread and butter. Rulers, scales, micrometers, depth and diameter gauges. These are the implements needed to navigate the complexities of building something to close tolerances—like a guitar. But by far the most versatile of this class of tools is the dial caliper.
I’ve had my Brown & Sharpe dial calipers since the late 1970s. The corners and edges of the mahogany case have been rounded off from three decades of constant use, and the mahogany itself is darkened from oxidation and the oils from handling. If you look closely, you can see the impression from the serial number stamp in the wooden case. Steve Ward and I used those calipers to build the original five-neck guitar and the twin necked “Uncle Dick” for Rick Nielsen. I used them to plot the original design for the sustain block bridge and world’s first 12-string bass. They were there to measure neck dimensions on KK Downing’s Flying V and Glenn Tipton’s SG when designing their signature models in 1984. Gary Moore and I used them to measure the neck width and depth of Peter Green’s Les Paul ’Burst.
Almost every person of note who worked at Hamer handled this tool at one time or another. It’s is still insanely accurate and one of my most treasured possessions, and as much as I enjoy the new digital calipers that can add, subtract and convert to metric at the touch of a button, there is something satisfying about using the analog version. It’s a connection to something deeper than just the job at hand.
My last post about the huge amount of electric guitar builders making instruments today elicited quite a volume of mail in my inbox. Some of you had additions to my list while others wanted to know why certain names were deemed “worthy” of inclusion. A couple people with severe OCD suggested the list be alphabetized. For those who sent me names, we all thank you. I couldn’t really grasp why the list should be in alphabetical order (as opposed to by cost, state or body style for instance) but I did it just the same.
I think that my point was well made before the addition of another 100+ builders, but now we have a bigger list to view anyway. As I said before, this list is not complete—not by a longshot—and it does not represent any sort of endorsement or judgement by me.
What do you think this says about the state of the guitar industry?