In 1999, I hung up my helmet after driving racing cars for almost thirty years. Naturally, I started casting about for something else to spend money on.
I had considered lutherie as a hobby for some time, after reading some of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels. Delaware's girlfriend, Robin Castagna, builds and repairs guitars in the books, and when I read about her work I thought it might be fun to try it myself.
So, I bought a cheap set of tools (first mistake), an eight-inch bandsaw, a benchtop drill press, and set out to make my first guitar.
It was hideous.
The finish was mottled and rough, the action was way too high, and the binding looked as if it had been stapled on. I made a mistake with the neck, which made it about a half inch too wide where it met the body. It wouldn't stay in tune.
But I persevered.
Seven years later, I've finally reached the point where I can reliably make an instrument that is both playable and pleasant to listen to. Since that first awful effort, I've invested in better tools, learned how to resaw my own tonewood, and improved my wood finishing and joining skills.
In the pages that follow, I will build a guitar beginning with nothing but a board of mahogany, a strip of ebony, a small piece of maple, a small piece of bolivian rosewood, and two thin pieces of sitka spruce. This project is not built from a kit. Several pieces will be bought from distributors (the tuning machines, the bridge and bridge pegs, the fretwire, the truss rod, the internal braces, some miscellaneous hardware, the pickguard, and - of course - the strings).
I'll take pictures of each step along the way and post them on this and subsequent pages, to illustrate the process.
When it is done, I'll also try to post a sound file that shows how the guitar plays.
Enjoy the ride. This will take a few months!
This doesn't look like a guitar to you?
We're looking at the back, sides, top, fingerboard, fretwire, headstock veneer, truss rod, braces, linings, bridge, bindings, and end wedge. These are the basic parts of a guitar, in the raw, minus the Honduras mahogany that will be used to build the neck. I hadn't bought that yet at the time this picture was taken.
Of course, each part has to be carefully prepared before the guitar can be assembled. In the following pictures, we'll take a look at these parts in detail, and then move on to the preparation process.
This looks a little like mahogany, which is a long-respected material for guitar backs and sides, but itís really a species commonly called sapele. It isnít a true mahogany, since all true mahoganies belong to the genus Swietenia. Sapele, on the other hand, has the tongue-twisting Latin designation Entandrophragma cylindricum. Both the genus Entandrophragma and the genus Swietenia, however, belong to the common mahogany family Meliaceae. So, if sapele isnít a true mahogany, it sure is a kissing cousin to the better-known Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla).
Okay, enough of the boring scientific stuff. Letís just say that sapele works like mahogany, sounds like mahogany, and for the most part is as completely satisfactory for guitar making as is mahogany. In fact, sapele is often (incorrectly) referred to as ĎAfrican mahoganyí. Itís just that similar. One way to distinguish sapele from the Ďtrueí mahoganies is by its figure; most sapele guitars will have clearly visible vertical ribbon striping down the back. This striping is due to the wavy, interlocking grain. Underneath is a picture from Martin Guitars, showing an instrument made from sapele. Our guitar will look very much like this one.
Sapele makes an excellent material for the beginning guitarmaker. It works easily with a plane or scraper, bends relatively easily (compared to some of the more finicky rosewoods or ebony) and Ė best of all Ė itís really, really cheap. If you break a side during bending, no problem. You can replace a side for five or ten dollars. For that reason, sapele also makes a great wood for side bending practice.
Prior to World War II, the most common wood used for tops was one of sitka's cousins, Adirondack red spruce (Picea rubens), but that wood was almost depleted for use in airplane propellers and other military applications. Sitka is also very suitable for these purposes, but tends to grow as much larger trees, so wasn't as depleted.
Adirondack red spruce is making a comeback, but old growth wood is still terribly expensive, and for this project I wanted to use wood that almost any builder can access relatively cheaply.
The two pieces pictured below are specialty items ordered for this project. They are crafted by Taiwanese artisans from black ebony (D. tomentosa) and inlaid with abalone and mother of pearl. This is the work of Antonio Tsai and his employees in Taiwan. Unfortunately, as you may note from the pictures, the pieces warped and cracked in the temperature and pressure changes while being shipped by air from Taiwan. Since I have been unable to convince Mr. Tsai's company to replace these pieces, I have begun the process of repairing them, and will document the entire process in these pages. Pretty, no? They will become the headstock veneer and the pickguard, if they can be salvaged.
All right! So we have most of our major components together. Now we start the fun part - putting it all together to make a musical instrument!
We will begin by turning those two pieces of sapele into FOUR pieces, by resawing them into thin plates.
You can watch this process on the next page.
I bought these directly from the Martin Guitar Company while visiting their factory in Nazareth, PA, about five years ago. They're about as complete a set as I've ever seen.
Follow these plans to the letter, and you'll have one finestkind musical instrument!