Day 7 - New adventures in side-bending

Day 7: And on the seventh day...we took a half-day.

In the morning, my dad and I drove over to Hanover, NH (which is about 20 minutes from Post Mills) to resupply on groceries. Hanover is the home of Dartmouth College, and also has a nice Co-op market. I got a few local products, including some Vermont apple cider and cheeses. After returning from the market, we met up with the rest of the boys (i.e., students) to make a run to the laundromat in Fairlee and then to grab lunch at The Hungry Bear in Bradford. We got back to the workshop at about 3pm and (some of us) worked until 6:30pm or so.

My big task for the day was to take a second stab at bending my sides. George reassured me that the problem yesterday was with the equipment and/or that particular piece of rosewood, and not with my technique, so I felt confident enough to give it a second chance and came away with two nicely bent sides with no casualties this time. 

Once the sides were bent, I installed the linings (a.k.a., kerfings) in one side (will do the other tomorrow). The linings are slot-cut and bent pieces of wood (walnut in this case; also can be cedar, mahogany, or spruce) that follow the contour of the sides to give a ledge to glue the top and back to the sides. They are held in place with a bunch of small clamps (like clothespins) while they are being glued.


Day 6 - A good day, until about 6:30pm

Day 6: Yes, we work on Saturday, but I don’t mind at all. It was one of the days I had most been anticipating, and it turned out to be the longest so far (8am to 9pm, with an hour for lunch). The tasks for the day included (1) making the bridge plate and finishing up installing the bracing on the top, (2) beginning to shape the bracing on the top, (3) shaving down the center back brace, which was installed with a lot of extra height, and (4) preparing the sides for bending, and then getting them bent and installing the linings into them.

The bridgeplate is a thin hardwood piece that is affixed to the top, under where the strings are connected to the body of the guitar (i.e., it provides support for the “ball-ends” of the strings). I fashioned a nice bridgeplate with a piece of maple that was scrap from Matt’s (another student) back, and fitted it to the top. I’ve got an up-close picture of it, but it’s not that interesting unless you’re a true guitar weenie. You can see it in the pictures below, right below the main X-brace.

I really enjoyed shaping the top bracing; this was just a first pass, and we’ll be refining this much more in the days to come. This is an important process, because it is the key balancing act in creating the tone of the guitar. The top (and bracing) needs to be light enough to be responsive and sound good, but strong enough to not collapse. I also planed down the back strip (a support that runs down the center of the back), although there is still more bracing to install to the back. Here are some before, during, and after shots of shaping the bracing:

In addition to beginning to shape the top bracing, the other big task for the day was to get the sides ready to be bent. This meant getting the dimensions set for the thickness of the guitar, as well as making sure you know which piece is for the treble side and which is for bass side, and in which direction. Once this was done, we were ready to hit the side bender!

The side bending machine heats the wood to 300 degrees; at that point it (in theory....see below) becomes pliable and can be molded to fit the shape of your particular body shape. This seemed to be going fine for me, until I opened the bender and found my first rosewood side had cracked. Ack! Luckily, preparing a new set of sides only takes a couple of hours, and it could have been much worse (i.e., messing up my top or back would set me back days!). But I do feel really bad for the beautiful set of straight-grained rosewood that I butchered. In my defense, I was fully supervised in that procedure and was told that it wasn’t my fault and that sometimes wood just misbehaves like this. I’ll try again tomorrow or Monday.


Day 5 - My new best friend = the "go bar deck"

Day 5: Today might have been the most interesting day so far. I’ve been looking forward to doing the bracing of the top, and today we got to beginning doing that. From the pictures and description, it might not sound like a lot was accomplished but it was actually a really busy day. 

The bracing for the top and back is made with small pieces of very stiff spruce (mostly; the back has one piece of cedar in the design we’re using). The back is radiused, meaning you put a slight arch into it in both directions, so each brace must be carefully shaped to include that curve, so that when they are glued to the back it will be pulled into that radius.

The center back brace was glued into place with the “go bar deck,” which is a frame with a floor and ceiling (one is flat and the other is radiused), just smaller in height than a series of fiberglass sticks (made from the same material as kite poles). Right now it’s a bit oversized; we'll shave that down later and then install three braces that intersect with this brace and run the width of the back.

In addition to beginning to brace the back, we also did the bracing on the top. Most of us (at least those building steel string guitars) used a variation of the traditional Martin X-bracing system. Thanks to my iPad, I was able to quickly able to bring up a picture of the interior of a prewar Martin similar to the design I’m building, so I copied that as best I could. The bracing for the top was also glued on using the go bar deck, and in the next few days we’ll begin shaping the bracing.

In between glueing bracing to the back and top, we continued doing some work on the neck, this time trimming down the “tongue” that will be inserted into the body. Anytime you take a bandsaw to the neck it’s traumatic, but with some careful measuring (“measure twice, cut once” evolved into “measure five times, cut once” for some of us) it all ended up okay.

In the shop by 8am, home at 6:45 or so (although the last 45 minutes or so a few of us hung out chatting while others finished up the day’s tasks). Looking forward to bending sides and binding tomorrow!


Day 4 - My fingers smell really great!

Day 4: Yesterday we joined two pieces of bookmatched wood into a single piece for the back of the guitar, letting it dry over night. This morning we continued working with the back, cleaning it, removing excess glue that had squeezed out, and working the thickness down to 110/1000" with our friend the metal scraper. In the second most scary operation of the day, we used the band saw to rough cut the back to the shape of the guitar (leaving about 1/4 - 1/2" all around the outline of the body).

We also continued working with the headstock, cutting it down to its final shape (except down near the transition area to the neck). The most anxiety-provoking operation to date was when we drilled the tuner holes. This is a pretty bold task, and there aren’t any easy (or at least unsightly) “undos” if you mess it up. With a bit of luck, mine seemed to go okay.

My headstock

The headstock for my dad's classical guitar

After lunch we chose wood for the sides, to match the back. I got a nice set of straight-grained rosewood that has a similar coloration to the back. Since the sides (as opposed to the back) fit through the thickness sander we didn’t have to manually scrape/plane them down to the proper thickness. We did have to clean them up a bit, but mine looked pretty good to start with. By the way, rosewood smells great! My hands are currently stained purple, but at least they are really sweet smelling. You’re probably wondering “who goes around sniffing their fingertips?” Well, if you haven’t spent two days working with rosewood, don’t laugh.

The design for the neck that George employs is really clever; from what I can tell, it’s similar to the Taylor “NT” design. I’m sure I’ll talk more about it later when when connect the neck and body, but today we worked on the heel area, which will include the hardware for the bolt-on hardware. It’s a three piece neck: headstock, neck shaft (for lack of a better term), and a stacked heel. Today we drilled the heel for a brass shaft that receives the bolts to attach the neck. Somehow I messed this up and drilled my hole slight off vertical by about 1/16”. That might not sound like a lot, but it could have been a serious problem if we hadn’t caught and corrected it. It was my first screw up, and hopefully (but probably not) the last! Finally, we glued the heel to the neck, and left it to dry overnight. 

Started working at 8:00am, left the workshop at 6:45pm.

My commute to and from "work" each day


Day 3 - Hey, that's already starting to look like a guitar!

Had a great night's sleep last night; my usual 7.5 hours of continuous Z’s. I woke up totally refreshed and hit the workshop at 8am.

Day 3: We started the day shaping the top for thickness; lots of planing, scraping, and sanding. I’m surprised how much we rely on the little metal scraper. It’s a very refined and useful tool, if you keep it sharp. Mostly we worked the back of the top (i.e., interior side) to get it ready for gluing bracing, but also we cleaned up the top around the rosette (which we installed yesterday and let dry overnight). The top is thicker in the middle (around the soundhole and bridge) than on the outer edges, which need to be more flexible to promote bass response. For my 00-sized guitar, that is about 125/1000” and 100/1000”, respectively; for bigger guitars it would be a shade thicker, and for classical and parlor guitars it would be a bit lighter. Thicknessing the top makes a huge stack of shavings!

Once the top was the right thickness, we cut out soundhole using a router and a similar technique to cutting the channel for the rosette, only this time we cut all the way through. We also rough cut the top into shape of the guitar using a band saw. This freaked me out a bit, since any mistake could cause a nasty cut into your top! I was very conservative and didn’t cut right on the line. Instead, I was few millimeters outside (i.e., too big). No big deal (so I’m told)-- I’ll trim that up later.

We also did some trimming up of the headstock and made a template for the shape and layout (e.g., where tuning pegs will go). I had previously been working on a design for a Gibson-inspired headstock shape, but since I’ve switched over to a Martin-style body I’ve now reverted to a simple squared-off design. A few weeks ago I took careful measurements of my D-18 and made a detailed diagram. That came in useful today, and my headstock template came together pretty quickly once I figured out where my center line was (i.e, you have to keep track of the true center of the guitar, which can slip to a side if you’re not careful).

Today we also picked out the wood for the back of our guitars (sides will come shortly, and it’s assumed that they will be the same as the back, although I suppose someone could get creative about it!). I was debating between a striking piece of zebra wood (which, low an behold, is a relatively light colored wood with dark bands) and a really nice straight-grained piece of Indian rosewood. The traditionalist in me went for the rosewood. Like the top, the back is made from two pieces that are joined (glued) in the middle.

Left the workshop at 8pm; pasta for dinner.


Days 1 and 2, and I'm already exhausted

Please pardon any forthcoming typos; I'll fix them later. It's late, we're only two days into the class, and I'm pooped. But it's more from the driving (three hours each way down to Albany to pick up my dad, and the accompanying four hours of sleep last night), not from the work (at least not yet). I am glad that my dad finally arrived!

A view of the shop

The view from my bench

Day 1: I worked double-time today, because my dad wasn’t here yet (he got in last night), doing each operation twice so that he wouldn’t have to start from scratch and catch up when he got here. Instead, he’ll have a partially build guitar waiting for him (approximately 1/18th of the way done), along with a few inches of fresh new snow that blew in today.

The two main tasks for today were joining the two halves of the top (from bookmatched, quarter-sawn sitka spruce) into one “guitar size” piece for the top. We selected tops, and prepared the edges (that would become the center line for the top) on a joiner and then with a router to get them as smooth and straight as possible. Then they were glued together and held tight (overnight) on a contraption of bars that was tightened using rope and wedges driven between the bars and rope to increase the tension.

We also selected wood for our necks, either mahogany or walnut (being a traditionalist when it comes to guitar design, I chose mahogany), and created the rough shape of the neck. This was done by cutting off a piece of the neck blank at an angle, and then gluing that angled piece (which will become the headstock) to the end of the remaining neck to create the rough shape of a proper guitar neck.

The above two tasks took most of the day. After class I drove down to Albany to pick my dad up at the airport; his flight arrived at midnight. We crashed there, and got up early to drive back to Vermont on Tuesday morning for class.

Day 2: Today’s tasks involved attaching the veneer to the headstock; I selected a simple piece of ebony with some subtle vertical striping (and didn’t do the more fancy black/white/black sandwich that the rest of the class did. Again, I’m a traditionalist, and if Martin doesn’t need to fancy up the headstock, I don’t either!). We also routed the channel for the truss rod.

We drew and cut our templates for our bodies, both in full and half-form. I had been planning on doing a Gibson-inspired guitar (like a L-00 or Nick Lucas), but templates for that shape weren’t available, so I chose a Martin 12-fret 00, with the general idea of doing a 00-21 ("double-O-21") style guitar.

Finally, after spending a lot of time working our tops smooth, we installed the rosette (the little patterned ring around the soundhole) into the top, by routing a channel around where the soundhole will be and inlaying the pre-fab (from LMI) rosettes. I chose a simple single herringbone ring.

Today was a long, but good day. Up at 5am, drove from Albany to Post Mills, and was in the shop from 9:30am 'til 8:30pm, with a hour for lunch and an hour for dinner. Looking forward to getting a full eight hours of sleep tonight!


Separated at birth: Lutherie and social psychology?

I arrived safely in Vermont this afternoon (although I still have 3 more hours of Keith Richard's Life to get through), and in other news it looks like my dad will be able to get here tomorrow night, so he'll only miss one day of class.

After arriving at their home and workshop, George and his wife Pippa provided a fantastic home cooked meal for me and the other three students. Over our dinner conversation, in which George talked about his experiences as a luthier (a.k.a., the profession of guitar building) and about the processes we'll be doing over the next three weeks, it struck me that guitar building and social psychology are actually very similar in several key ways. Of course, take this with a grain of salt, since I haven't actually picked up a piece of wood or tool yet:

  • Both work under the apprentice model, in which you learn the craft from a more experienced mentor, taking on the techniques that s/he have developed, and then once mastering those, branching out and then deviating from those practices as you develop your own identity in the trade. There is likely a similarity that stems from a common ancestry within a particular tradition, but that as you become independent you also start to diverge.
  • At their core, lutherie and psychology (as well as other sciences) are about understanding the complex relationships between variables. How will this particular tonewood, shape of the braces, or thickness of the top combine to create a particular tonal voice? What other variables will I be accounting for (or not) in the decisions I'll be making along the way? You can't control everything at once, can you? (although as you become more experienced and sophisticated, you can take on more at a time.) Doesn't this sound a lot like designing and interpreting a research study? Don't I wish that I could run a multiple regression to predict how my guitar will sound? I'd try, but so far I haven't figured out how to get my data into SPSS.
  • With both you need to consider the big picture, but when it comes down to it, success occurs when you are able to focus on and succeed at the particular task at hand. A project is only as strong as the quality of the individual steps along the way. This was advice George gave us tonight: be attentive to each small task, and if executed well, together they will produce a good product.

I'm looking forward to getting into the workshop for the first time tomorrow. We'll be talking about some of the properties of wood and principles of acoustics, and also be making some of the decisions that will serve as the foundation for the rest of the class, and hopefully to some nice sounding guitars.


All packed up!

Tomorrow is the big day! I'm driving up to Post Mills, VT to start the guitar building course at the Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie. I'm looking forward to meeting my fellow classmates and to spending some quality time with my dad (I'm tempted to insert a link to "Cat's in the Cradle" here, but that's a little sappy for my tastes). Everything is packed up; just need to load the camper in the morning. What's coming:

  • Food for the first few days: I made a huge vat of marinara sauce today, a couple of boxes of Clif bars, some fruit, and a few bags of various types of nuts (since my dad likes to snack).
  • Camera gear, since (obviously) I'm planning to document as much of the building process as I can.
  • My laptop, iPad, and other various devices (although my phone won't be much good, other than the drive up, since there's supposedly no cell phone service up there).
  • Some guitar building books, including the Somogyi and Cumpiano texts.
  • A couple of guitars, for me and my dad to play until we've got new, handbuilt guitars.
  • Plus the camper is always stocked up and ready to go, in case there's anything that I've forgotten.

I'm looking forward to finishing listening to the audiobook of Keith Richard's Life on the drive tomorrow. See you in Vermont!


A slight change of plans...

My dad's flight from Eugene was canceled today due to weather, so he didn't make it to Philadelphia tonight as planned. And for some reason, he can't get a flight until Monday night. I'm still leaving on Sunday for Vermont, and he's changed his flight to arrive up there (Albany) on Tuesday morning, so unfortunately he's going to miss the first 1.5 days of the class. I'll try to work double duty for those days so he's not too far behind :-)

By the way, the two times I've flown through Eugene I've been delayed or canceled. I think I'll probably avoid that airport for for a while.


Photo of the week - March 15, 2011

Nikon 10.5mm DX fisheye @ f/4.5, 6 seconds, on a Nikon D90. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro. Oh, and that's my Collings OM1SB.

In a week.... dad (who is arriving Friday) and I will be in Vermont, getting settled in at the Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie for our three-week acoustic guitar building course. I've been talking about doing a class like this for years, and have been anxiously looking forward to this since I signed up last fall.

My dad will be building a classical (i.e., nylon string) guitar and I'll be doing a steel string instrument. I'm planning on building a small bodied Gibson-inspired guitar; maybe something along the lines of a Nick Lucas, or the modern interpretations like the Collings C-10 and Santa Cruz H/H13. I've spent the last couple of days trying to design a headstock shape that both honors the traditional Gibson design but is still (relatively) unique. It's getting close; I've got a couple of weeks to fine-tune the design.

I don't have any woodworking experience, at least not since junior high shop class when I made a spaghetti measurer. It will be a challenge to be patient and attentive to details, but these skills will be good for me to work on. Hopefully I'll return with all of my digits attached.


Photo of the week - March 8, 2011

A vacant lot near the Girard Ave. Station on the Market-Frankfurt Line in Philadelphia.

Voigtlander 40mm Ultron SLII @ f/6.3, 1/640 on a Nikon D90. Converted to black and white with Silver Efex Pro (Nik Software).


Am I a hoarder?

We recently did a marathon of the A&E show Hoarders. Just like when you are taking an abnormal psychology class and think you have all the conditions that you learn about, I'm now wondering if I'm a hoarder. The case for it:

  • If I'm interested in something that comes in a series, I typically want the whole series. For example, I've been subscribing to Acoustic Guitar magazine since it the mid-90's and have all the back issues from prior to then. So I have every issue of that magazine. But Acoustic Guitar basically sucks as a periodical now; I don't spend more than 5 minutes looking at it when it comes each month. But I feel compelled to keep subscribing just to keep the collection going. I've thought about getting rid of them (e.g., trying to sell them on craigslist), but I'd only consider that if the buyer would take all of them, and I could cancel my subscription on not receive any more of them. I don't want just a partial collection lingering around here.
  • When there is an item of clothing I particularly like, I'll buy several extra sets if I find them on sale to replace the originals in anticipation of them wearing out. Case in point: I've got multiple boxes of Chacos tucked away in the basement and waiting to been worn. The problem, I've learned, is that Chacos never wear out, so effectively I've got more than a lifetime supply. Same thing with shirts, although those are hanging in the closet. If you ever wonder why I'm always wearing the same shirt, it's not that I re-wear the exact same item day after day. It's because I have four shirts that are the same. 
  • Some of you have seen the guitar room.

Evidence against me being a hoarder: 

  • I was able to let go of my big CD collection and go totally digital a couple of years ago. But I must admit that I'm quickly accumulating a lot of digital music, you just don't see it because it's all on a 2TB hard drive (although that drive is filling up fast).
  • I don't have cats.
  • I don't save spoiled food.

Does anyone want all of the Acoustic Guitar magazines? Come and take them away! Help me, please.


Photo of the week - March 1, 2011

At Via Bicycles in Philadelphia.

Voigtlander 20mm Color Skopar SLII  @ f/3.5, 1/125 on a Nikon D90. Converted to black and white with Silver Efex Pro (Nik Software).


Some love for the Nikon FM3a

In November of 2009 I decided to take a stab at photography. I had done some very basic photography in grad school, but it never really stuck. After doing some research, I selected the Nikon D90; I'm sure I'll write more about that camera in future posts. In the spring of 2010, in anticipation of taking a darkroom/film photography class, I started looking into manual operation film cameras (Nikons only, so that there could be some sharing of lenses with the D90). I was primarily interested in the FM2 and FE2, which were made in the 1980s through 1990s, but eventually settled on the the FM3a. The FM3a is essentially an updated hybrid of the FM2 and FE2; it's fully mechanical and can operate without batteries (sans meter), but does have an aperture priority mode. It's the last mechanical, manual, SLR that Nikon made (the Cosina-built FM10 notwithstanding), still being produced into the first few years of the 21st century.

I won't give the full laundry list of the features of the FM3a (there’s tons of great info about the FM3a here). And let's save the discussion of film vs. digital for later (I like both). I want to talk about the feel, handling, and ergonomics of the FM3a; the connection between machine and human user. I can sum it up by saying that “I LOVE IT!” It’s compact and rugged, with a minimum of plastic. The shutter fires with a deliberate and confident click, and I don’t even mind advancing the film with the lever. Setting the aperture with a ring on the lens and shutter speed with a knob is much more satisfying than spinning a couple of dials. It just makes the experience much more thoughtful. I enjoy manually focusing (yes, I know I can do this on the D90), and with a pancake lens like the Cosina/Voigtlander 20mm F/3.5 or 40mm F/2.0 SLII, or even a bigger lens like the Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 or CV 58mm F/1.4, the camera is small and unobtrusive. It can fit under a jacket easily and you don’t freak people out by sticking a huge hunk of plastic and glass in their faces when you are shooting on the street. I leave it in my bookbag at all times; the FM3a and iPad make perfect travel companions in a small shoulder bag. There are still plenty of times I need to opt for the D90 and a laptop, but together they feel collectively more cumbersome.

I should probably note the things I *don’t* like: while I do love the needle-match metering system, it is a pain to use when it’s dark (I guess that’s when aperture priority mode is useful). The center-weighted metering is fine, but it would be great if Nikon would have graced us with a spot meter. And I wouldn’t mind if the shutter was quieter. I also don’t like that I can’t decide if I like the chrome or black version better (mine is chrome, like the one in the stock photo here).

Please Nikon, give us a digital version of the FM3a! Even back in 2004 some bloggers speculated about it. I’m hoping that Fuji’s soon to be released X100 will start a trend, however I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. But I can always dream!


Why (and why now)?

I've gone and done it. Created a blog. But why does Ben need a blog, and why now? Some thoughts:

  • For the last year and a half or so, I've been interested in photography. They always say that the best way to become a good photographer is to take more pictures ("Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst" -- Henri Cartier-Bresson). Committing to post a "photo of the week" is my attempt to motivate myself to keep shooting, even when things are busy or I'm not actively taking a photography class.
  • In about a month my dad and I will be embarking on a guitar building course at the Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie. I've been wanting to do a course like this for years, and my goal is to do periodic posts about our progress through the class.
  • Last week my colleagues and I launched a new site called, and doing those posts have been fun. This gives me the freedom to write about stuff other than relationship research.
  • I'm currently on sabbatical, so I've got the time to try new stuff.
  • It's probably good for me (e.g., Jamie Pennebaker's research on the effect of writing on psychological and physical well-being).
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