My friend Mark Spencer droped in for a visit, so I put some guitars in his hands and rolled the camera. In this clip Mark found that the Crow can get twangy.
My friend Mark Spencer droped in for a visit, so I put some guitars in his hands and rolled the camera. In this clip Mark found that the Crow can get twangy.
Visitors to the Workshop are always a welcome diversion especially when they entertain the camera with their prowess on my guitars. But recently I’ve been prone to taking guitars on the road. Regular readers of this blog and corresponding Facebook page will already be familliar with my build process. I put a massive amount of forethought into what I call the “pre-story” of each instrument. I employ 1930s wire, 1950s switchgear, old-growth wood and old world craftsmanship to build a soul into each guitar. Still, the most important part of any instrument’s life is the experience it gains by being played. In this connection, I have ventured out into the world and allowed my creations the luxury of being stroked and spanked publicly. These instruments are not vintage, nor are they new. They are not used, as in second-hand. They are becoming experienced. Every player who caresses my instruments imbeds a bit of their being into the guitar.
With that in mind, I met up with Steve Kimock for a little soul searching. Every scratch on these guitars is a badge of honor.
All that remains in the Sakura build is the case and to complete the binding of the journal. So while we’re waiting for those components I decided to get some portraits taken. Hope you enjoy them.
Sakura is availabla for $28,000 with profits going to Japan tsunami relief.
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Here’s a front shot that shows the overall form. I really like the way the tone knob shows the cherry color. I enjoy the small details so I try to work them in so that they continue to delight as time goes on.
So many things today are built to “wow” you on first blush, but then they’re done. That’s why they get “upgraded” or traded off by their owners. Sakura’s charms are subtly hidden from immediate view, which allows them to be revealed slowly over time. You’ll probably never find them all.
24k yellow gold sun. Click on the photo for more detail.
It doesn’t matter what day it is—sometimes I just like to be in the Workshop. The Sakura was starting to shape up, so I elected to continue working. I’m the boss anyway. Over the previous two days I’d been focusing on the detail work, like rebuilding and aging the Kluson tuners.
Using a combination of heat, solvent and dyes, the appearance of the buttons was now exactly what I wanted. All of the mold marks on the plastic and metal have been removed by sanding. This gives the tuners a friendly feel with a look that invites you to touch them. The color is beautiful and warm.
Up next was the elecrical wiring. I installed the polished CTS pots from my stash of NOS parts. The switch is a refurbished 1950s CRL 3-way which I rescued from an old switchboard panel. You can identify its age by the brown phenolic wafer and the two patent numbers stamped on the frame. I also utilized the original ’50s straight-slot screws to mount it. From my supply of vintage Western Electric cloth-covered wire, I chose a length of yellow wire with a nice patina on it. The tone cap is a Jensen-made, oil filled from Steve at Angela. For the ground wire to the output I chose a small length of Western Electric multi-color—also cloth insulated.
I like to use the Switchcraft stereo jack. The extra prong holds the plug in better and provides a more secure ground. I also use a dab of red Loctite threadlock on the threads to reduce the chance of the jack coming adrift from vibation. The hot lead is a black, cloth covered wire with a bit of shrink wrap to eliminate the possibility of a short from wear or vibration over the life of the instrument.
After all the wiring is complete and the engraved front plate is secured, I attached the bridge to get a look at the guitar. Then it was time to attach the back plate.
Here, I’m fastening down the rear plate using stainless steel screws. After waiting almost nine months for the engraving to be finished, this was an exciting moment for me. I had to conciously tell myself to breathe as I worked.
As long as the weekend was on a roll, I decided to do the cleanup cut on the perimiter of Hell’s Half Acre. Using a hand-cut birch plywood template, the overarm router is used to cut the final shape after roughing out with a .750” bit. I use a .500" carbide downspiral bit to make the final pass to eliminate any cutter marks. The pickup routs and switch access are done at the same time. The neck joint is undersize and won’t be finalized until moments before the neck is fitted. This eliminates any problems with wood movement and ensures a perfect fit.
Not bad for a cloudy weekend. But now it’s a sunny and bright Monday. Maybe I’ll go for a walk in the woods with the dog.
Not too far from here an old factory sits quietly alongside the Farmington river. Once upon a time it was the pride of the townspeople. The products made there were superior quality and sold around the world. The company employed most of the town. Those were the good times, but now they’re gone. Groups of business people have tried to revive and repurpose the old mill—none to any good effect. Sure, there are still some tenants inside. A few businesses continue to turn out some product, but for the most part, bitter and defeated ghosts walk the hallways.
I thought about the old axe factory today as I cut up some kindling for the wood stove that heats my shop. The small Fayette R. Plumb Co. hatchet I use almost every day felt good in my hand—its hickory handle burnished smooth from decades of use. Most of the original finish on the handle has worn off, and the gold foil Boy Scout seal is tattered and illegible. I’ve had this tool since 1963 when I joined the Scouts at age eleven. Somehow, it has followed me through countless moves back and forth across the country. I’ve always taken it for granted.
The Plumb tool company can be traced back to Jonathan Yerkes, who had been an established Moreland, Pennsylvania toolmaker since 1856. Yerkes moved his concern to Philadelphia and partnered with a young man named Fayette Plumb in 1887. Eventually, Plumb bought out his partner and the name was changed to the Fayette R. Plumb Company. These were tools made to work and made to last. Over the next hundred years, Plumb manufactured fine tools in Philadelphia, until the company was consolidated with the Cooper Group and manufacturing was shifted primarily to China to cut costs.
Like so many products once made in this country, axes are much cheaper to buy from places like Mexico and China. Will those tools stand the test of time? Now, I don’t doubt that the people who toil in those foreign factories are fine folks. They deserve a shot at a better life, just like our ancestors did here. It only makes me sad that most of what remains of all that effort is a tool that will probably outlive me.
Interestingly, my particular Plumb hatchet utilizes an epoxy resin to attach the head to handle. The process, which Plumb patented on September 2, 1958 is said to reduce the vibration of the tool overall. Reducing vibration is obviously a benefit in a striking tool but not in a guitar. That gummy epoxy is still doing its job today fifty years later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an axe to grind.
Without resorting to my usual long-winded spiels bristling with cultural tie-ins, I’ll just say “happy Thanksgiving” to all of you. Hopefully, this holiday finds you with much to be thankful for. I’ll be spending the day with my wife Carla and our dog Heidi, the resident optimist. I’d tell you about how I wish that I was more like our canine friend, who greets each day with joy and a wagging tail—but I digress.
Yesterday, a hawk flew past my window. I was able to grab the camera and got a pretty average photo. Behind the shop, the hawk settled down for a snack of fresh chipmunk. I was really surprised by its size—so much larger up close than they appear when winging high overhead.
Later, the dog alerted me to a familyof deer bedded down for a rest about twenty yards from our back door. Just seeing all the creatures here makes me happy. A good way to start the proceedings. Later today, friends will join us for dinner and conversation. I have to return some books to Jim, and want him to borrow Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, if he hasn’t already read it twice. Maybe we’ll get to jam a little too.
Because this is the Workshop blog, I’ll leave you with some images of something else I’m extremely thankful for. The exquisite hand engraving for the Sakura guitar done by Heidi Roos.
It is difficult to capture in a photograph, the way that hand engraving catches the light. The human touch leaves each fine stroke beveled differently from the next in subtle ways that give the images life.
This is a good look at the spot plating technique. The cherry blossom is real rose gold, and the leaves are done in green gold. The background is a brushed finish of nickel plate. Here you can see the superiority of handwork over the more common photo-etching process on production examples. This is where the time (and money) goes.
The staggering amount of detail of this piece just blows me away—more than I’d hoped for. Heidi just knocked this one right out of the park.
After the holiday I’ll get some shots of the back piece which is even more stunning. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone.
Wow. It didn’t seem possible, yet there it was. Two feet of heavy snow before the leaves were even close to being off the trees. The result was catastrophic. On our road the trees went down like tenpins, pulling down powerlines and bowling over utility poles. In an apocalyptic orange flash, transformers energized with tens of thousands of volts were tossed into the ravines around us. The roads were blocked, the power was out and even cell service was extremely spotty.
What followed was a week of melting snow for water and living like campers. After rebuilding a reluctant chainsaw, I got to work with neighbors to clear a path out. Luckily, we’ve got solar heat here, so at least we didn’t freeze.
I didn’t really miss the gym as there was plenty of physical labor to be done. Just when I’d thought the splitting and stacking of firewood was about finished, we had twenty times that amount to clear off the road just to get out.
Generators, jugs of fuel, tractors and chainsaws. By the third day, we could get onto the main roads, although there were plenty of downed powerlines to avoid.
Downstate, things weren’t quite so bad. One of the first emails that I was able to access informed me that Heidi Roos had finished the engraving for the Sakura guitar, so I decided to take a ride down to Baron Engraving to pick it up. When Heidi, Pat Stuhlman and Custom Shop manager Tom Lent presented the work to me, I was lost for words. Heidi had reproduced my drawing, and improved it by adding a three-dimensional depth not evident in my original art.
The engraving and gold work exceeded my expectations completely. The detail is amazing and the nuance of the inlaid golds really make this a superior piece. The photos here don’t do it justice. While in the Baron shop, I did take a few photos of some of their other work in progress.
Here, Heidi holds the bridge pickup cover for the Sakura. It completes the cherry blossom engraving on the front plate pickguard seamlessly. You can see the brushed nickel background, rose gold blossom and yellow gold leaf highlights. I can’t wait to get some better shots back at the Workshop.
A quick entry to thank all of you for your continued interest in my work. It has been satisfying to be able to create at my own chosen pace—following my muse. I’ve never been comfortable with large groups, so the interaction via email and through your comments on this blog has offered me a way to speak with each one of you as a friend.
The media has noticed this as well, and I’ve been approached with more opportunities than I can reasonably manage. For now, I’m keeping it as low key as I can and still put food on my table! I’m not after big-time production so it’s really about the quality of my interactions—not the quantity.
For those of you interested in more “news” type information about what’s going on here at the shop, I suggest that you sign up for the e-newsletter.
Until next time.
Just a few days of heavy rain clearly illustrated how our earth has been carved up over millions of years. The Workshop is located up a rural road on the side of a hill, and a lot of water flows down creeks and streams—right alongside the road to the shop. But just as quickly as the rains came, the sunshine broke through the clouds and everything started to look good again. Carla and I stopped on our way to take some photos in the morning mist.
Further up the way, the evidence remained. After three days of bad weather the road was collapsing at the edges, and rocks and stone were getting deposited along the way. It wasn’t impassable, but if it had continued much longer there wouldn’t be any work getting done in the shop now. As it was, the driveway will have to be filled and raked and the town will have some work to do along many of the smaller roads.
What this all brings to mind is that the climate not only messes with the outdoors, but it affects the health and well-being of guitars and other musical instruments. I work hard to maintain a relative huumidity of 35% in my shop. That’s the prescribed level that most knowledgeable luthiers will cite. It’s a good mid point, but more importantly it errs on the side of dryness. I have some acoustic instruments that bow and bulge a bit when things get too humid, but being built at 35% allows them to tolerate lower humidity days without splitting wide open. Bulging is manageable, imploding is definitely not. It’s a good idea to monitor your instruments at home too. I had decided to equip the case for the Crow with a nice German-made hygrometer to do just that.
I’d seen a few cases with some sort of humidity gauge placed inside where it couldn’t be seen until the case was opened. I thought that was a waste, especially if you have a lot of guitars in storage. So, I decided to put mine on the side of the case where it could be seen more easily. This entailed making the case shell with a mounting hole.
After the tweed was glued on and the interior plush installed, I carefully trimmed around the hole. The gauge back (where the sampling takes place) is inside the pocket, which will have screened openings into the main body of the case.
Here, I’m marking the outside before cutting the tweed. Too much time and effort has gone into this case so it was a matter of measure twice, cut once. The next step is to install a mesh back to keep small articles from getting into the meter, then fitting the gauge. I’m off to the supply store to find a fine metal mesh and some fill stone.
What a great way to begin the week in the Workshop. The air was cool and filled with the smells of early fall. The morning light streaming over the hills and through the trees made it a perfect time to go for a walk. I noticed that the first colored leaves were already on the ground.
As Heidi and I walked the road to the Workshop I thought of my time spent living in Northern California, where many mornings felt like this. Somehow my mind wandered to one of my favorite books, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Maybe it’s the feeling of being alone in the middle of an expanse of nature, far from the city. Or perhaps it’s the grounding comfort of the dependable cycle of the seasons—immune to the petty travails of humankind.
Adam Trask walked alongside us silently, wiping his brow with a handkerchief and squinting as he looked into the distance. Off in the trees, among the dappling light I caught a glimpse of a guitar—and then it was gone. How can I capture all this in a build?
Just a quick post about the Ke’ Mo’ PBS show last night. The seeds for this show were planted almost four years ago during one of Keb’s visits to the Workshop. The two of us had lunch together with Jack Forchette who is Infinity Hall’s Director of Entertainment and Business Development. Infinity’s PBS TV show was just being planned, and it seemed like a three-time Grammy Award winner like Keb’ Mo’ would be an excellent fit for this intimate venue.
I arrived at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut moments before the tour bus pulled up and Jack and I were able to welcome Keb’ and his band at the front door. To my delight, Keb’s manager John Boncimino was there as well. John and I go back to the old blues club days in Chicago, so it was great to catch up. Keb’ was in good spirits and ready to get down to a long day and night of work, so inside we all went.
The shot below shows how cozy the hall is, and the Meyer Sound system makes every seat a perfect audio experience. I was happy to see Keb’ Mo’ Band regular Jeff Paris again, today he was playing guitar and mandolin. That’s him on the far left. Seated in the center was legendary producer Russ Titelman, who was working with Keb’.
After a long sound check we all got to hang out a bit and then have some dinner. The show went well with only one break for some difficulty when the jib/crane camera went down. It was replaced quickly and it was on with the show. The band went through old favorites like “Rita” and “Shave Yo’ Legs” as well as some material from the latest CD The Reflection to get it down on video.
Directly after the taping the TV crew shot some Q&A footage with show patrons and Keb’ for a while then we all disappeared downstairs to the dressing rooms. It was great to be among friends and to celebrate the occasion. Everyone seemed really happy with the show, and Titleman was delighted. With all the tension of the long day gone, Keb’ and I were able to have a little time to sit talk about some future projects. Around midnight it was time to go, with warm goodbyes all around before we headed our separate ways in the night.
There’s been a lot going on since my last post. Hurricane Irene gave us a good scare but fortunately we escaped with very little damage. Some of our neighbors weren’t so lucky. Most of the work here involved strapping stuff down—moving and waterproofing things. The ramp up and wind down were more stressful than the storm itself. A few downed tree limbs and a general mess outdoors was the extent of it as we dodged the bullet.
After months of back and forth with the manufacturer, the case husk for the Crow arrived. Despite my sending samples for the vintage antique tweed, the color and finsih were not to my liking. I had paid for an entire hide of smooth, dark brown leather for the trim to match the antique suitcase—fortunately that was perfect.
Because I’d already tested a lacquering process for the samples, I knew that I could get the tweed right. It was just a matter of taking the case apart and antiquing it. The next step was to mix up the lacquer tint.
The color I wanted simulated decades of darkening and discoloration from use. The recipie included yellow, red, brown and a hint of violet all mixed into a thin base of lacquer. The application would be done with a two inch brush in order for me to work it into the weave.
I’ll get the last coat on this morning before I head down to Infinity Hall to meet up with my old friend Keb’ Mo’. He’s taping a PBS concert tonight, and I had a small part in hooking him up with the gig. We’re gonna be talking guitars and catching up. There are some new ideas on the boil—can’t wait to see what we come up with.