Les Stansell. Luthier interview.

Les Stansell| 2009 | Luthier Interview

Les Stansell guitars

 

Les Stansell is best known for his exceptional flamenco guitars crafted from Port Orford Cedar. His involvement with the wood is from harvest to finish and he was first on my list when I had to research Port Orford Cedar as well as Mrytle (see the Port Orford Cedar profile here and the Mrytle profile here) Les very kindly took a little time out of his very busy build schedule to speak to us about these tonewoods and his building philosophies.

 

We present and highly recommend viewing the pdf version of this article first as it contains the most up to date information and more photos.

 

 


-HTML Version Below-

TT – Thanks for taking the time to chat to us Les! I understand your family has been in Oregon for some time now?

LS – Thank you Terence for the opportunity to help spread the word about my work and my product.

Yes my Great Grandparents on both sides of my mothers family came to this area by covered wagon. My Family, including my two grandsons, lives on the same ground that my great grandparents acquired in 1887. My shop is also located on the property, so you could say my roots in Pistol River run deep.

TT: I was wondering how you got into guitar building?

While attending Southern Oregon State College in the mid 70’s (Music Major on the GI Bill), I came upon an advertisement  in “Frets Magazine” for the “Northwest School of instrument Design” in Seattle, WA.

One thing led to another and instead of finishing my College Degree requirements, I opted instead to take out a loan and commit to the full time /year long Apprenticeship Program at “NSID.”   It was a small group of us being taught by Anthony Huvard with the focus on traditional methods and techniques of Spanish Guitar Construction.

 

Les Stansell guitarsTT – Have your construction techniques changed much since then, Les?

LS – Good Question…….I was taught traditional methods using planes, scrapers and chisels….sandpaper was only allowed for finishing, not shaping.  We designed and built many of our tools and jigs. So for me, my techniques have been re-fined over the years but have not fundamentally changed.

The big difference between now and 30 years ago is the availability of tools, materials and jigs. When you add to that the information explosion happening on all levels (especially on the internet) the possibilities are endless. But again, I am building essentially the same guitar that I was taught to build…….only slightly modified version of a Torres.

And although I pre-fabricate many of my components in multiples, I prefer to assemble my guitars one art at time. So for the Guitar World in general, definitely yes, but for me personally I would have to say no.

 

TT – And what’s your take on the modern fixation on jigs and forms?

LS – I couldn’t  be competitive without  jigs,  forms and customized hand tools, many of which I may use only once during the entire process of building a guitar.  “Jigging Up” allows me to increase productivity ‘without sacrificing’ (and in most cases ‘while improving’) quality.   When the process crosses over to automated assembly then it begins to become a mass produced guitar.

If a guitar is hand fit and assembled by one person, then I consider it hand built.  But the most revolutionary of all modern tools for me has to be the Internet. I could not live where I live (“centrally isolated” on the West Coast) and effectively market my product, whether guitars or Port Orford Cedar…….just wouldn’t be possible.


Les Stansell guitarsTT – Speaking of Port Orford Cedar, you were first on list of people to contact when I was researching this marvelous wood- would you mind sharing with us how you first came to use it, why it’s such a good tonewood and tips on how work with it?

LS – Now there’s a good subject for a book. Oregon Port Orford “White” Cedar (Lawson Cypress) is such and enigmatic species of tree surrounded by an almost Mystical aura. Considered Sacred by the Native Americans, it’s closest (some say twin) species is Japanese Cypress.

The Japanese name for POC is Hinokie which translates into “Warrior of Peace”. It is the largest Cypress. It grows only along an approx 100 mile stretch of the South Oregon Coastal Mountains  and 40 miles or so into N California. There is also a small patch of POC near Mt Shasta. It is the ultimate “structural grade” wood and has the highest strength to weight ratio of all wood species.

It is among the toughest and most elastic of softwoods and due to its fibrous interlocking grain structure it is extremely resistant to splitting and is very dimensionally stable.  Highly resistant to fungus (rotting) and insect infestation, it is the undisputed most highly rated Boat Lumber on the Planet.

One of the hardest softwoods it takes to blades and machines  very well. It has all of the best characteristics (and then some) of the top “Tone Woods” wrapped up into one species. The only reason it is not being used universally by Instrument Makers is that it is just not available…..due to its rarity, being ravaged by a “Killer Fungus” and the fact that most of the remaining stands are protected.

Les Stansell guitarsMost of what I obtain is left over “Buckskins” from previous logging. These Buckskins have been standing dead or laying on the forest floor for decades…….the bark and the sap having disintegrated long ago while the core (the “Heart) remains intact and in some cases in perfect condition. Unfortunately only a very small percentage of what I “mill” meets the criteria for Master Grade Tops. But over the years I have gradually discovered that the coarser grain POC has in some cases virtually the same characteristics (stiffness, weight. tonal response) as the “Old Growth Fine Grain” PO Cedar

That has greatly expanded my own use as well as my product line of POC Instrument Grade into backs, sides, necks and bracing. When used in Flamenco guitars, PO Cedar  has a very traditional look, feel and sound. In addition I have started supplying backs,sides and necks for steel string and Django (Gypsy) Style Guitars.

When compared to traditional neck wood, PO Cedar has the lightness of Spanish Cedar combined with the stiffness of Honduras Mahogany…….. and with its very small, almost microscopic pores it finishes out like glass (with no pre-filling) to a look of aged ivory. Can you tell that I am crazy about Port Orford Cedar? I guess for me the bottom line is that I just happen to be lucky enough to live where I live and to have access to this most incredible wood.

 

TT – And you’re also a fan of Mrytle…..

LS – Yes I am a fan of  Myrtle as well…..they are gorgeous broadleaf/evergreen trees that can live several hundred years and reach diameters of 6 feet.  Oregon Myrtle has a very similar geographic range to PO Cedar, but it is much more prolific.

Many don’t realize that Oregon Myrtle and California Laurel are the same species. What makes them different is the habitat in which they grow. The climate on the South Oregon Coast is that of a Temperate Rain Forest with a high serpentine/mineral content soil……….makes big trees with lots of color.

It is a bone-fide “Pacific Rim Exotic” with no relatives in this latitude. Still the best instrument grade is quite elusive.   Myrtle with its high range of density, color and figure can mimic other wood species like Mahogany, Koa and occasionally even Rosewood. Although I’ve used Myrtle with great success in many Classics (and a few Flamencos) their non-traditional look makes them less in demand.  That doesn’t seem to be a problem though for the steel string and solid body guitar builders that I supply.


Les Stansell guitarsTT – Are those the woods you use primarily? How about brazilian rosewood?

LS – I have, of course used in my guitars many of the traditional tone woods such as Indian and Brazilian Rosewood, Sitka,  Engleman and European Spruce as well as many non-traditional woods such as Koa, Western Red, Incense and Alaska Yellow Cedar and of course Myrtle.

These days, however I an honing in on the traditional “Flamenco Blanca” sound.  Continuing to build a slightly modified (modernized) version of the original Torres design.  ……..just using Port Orford Cedar,  (Oregon Cypress) in place of:   Spanish Cypress (back and sides), Spanish Cedar (neck) and European Spruce (top)………..Flamencos de Oregon Maderas.

 

TT – Would you like to share with us a little about your build philosophy and techniques?

LS – My philosophy towards guitar building is formed around my ultimate goal……seeing/hearing my Flamenco Guitars in the hands of good and even great players. That requires the guitar to not only have that deep, dark, woody sound of a Flamenco but it has to “feel” Flamenco. A “Great” guitar must score high in the categories of Playability, Sound and Structural Integrity .

It has to be a certain weight……… it has to play like “butter” but still have the right amount of tension. The shape of the neck working in concert with the string action, spacing and distance from the top have to facilitate the Flamenco technique giving just the right amount of “growl” while not allowing the strings to rattle and at the same time allowing the player to produce a clear sweet tone when required.

To attain that goal I focus on one step at a time (with extreme attention to detail)  understanding as much as I can about  the role and interaction of each component. I guess I could sum it up in 3 words: “Form Following Function”.

The Flamenco Guitar is a machine, it is not intended to be a work of Art.  My approach being  based on the requirement that if what I do does not contribute to the playability, sound or structural integrity of the guitar, then I consider it frivolous, superfluous and unnecessary.

Regarding Technique,  as in any discipline there is no easy way to acquire these techniques other than to first find a good teacher and then to spend the rest of your life completely obsessed.


Les Stansell guitarsTT – Thanks for that. I was wondering if you focus exclusively on flamenco guitars? I hear a lot of folks yearning for classical cross over guitars….

LS – Yes, my focus is on the Flamenco…….for many reasons……..you can play a classic on a good Flamenco but it doesn’t work the other way around.    Because of the faster “attack/decay response” a Flamenco has more headroom and volume and can be played in a highly percussive manner.

Classic guitars tend to muddy up and mush out when when you really lay into them. I love the way a Flamenco guitar feels “alive” when played (due to it’s light weight @ around 2.5 lbs or 1100 grams). But above all it is the Music (including the dancing and the singing) that compels me to build the Flamenco Guitar. But since you brought it up I do currently have a few “Spanish/Classic”  Hybrids in my inventory.
TT – How do the hybrids you build differ from the pure Flamencos?

LS – A pure Flamenco (Blanca) would be all Cypress with a slightly thinner neck and a lower action than the standard Classic. The guitar would have “Tap Plates” and the  string height off the top should be between 8 and 9 mm ………….again to facilitate Flamenco technique.

My hybrids are built exactly the same as my Flamencos but with either Rosewood or Myrtle back and sides and a deeper body to enhance sustain.  A slightly wider neck and string spacing with the action set a little higher than Flamenco but not as high as a traditional Classic. To me a great hybrid Spanish Classic should should be able to be played either way, Classic or Flamenco.

 

Les Stansell guitarsTT – I heard your next project is a book….

LS – Yes and thank you for bringing that up.  I’ve been working with Joe Curren, acclaimed photographer/pro surfer who  shoots only “Film”, mostly in black & white and never “crops”. The shoot was done last year.  It took us 12 sessions to capture in depth the entire process of building a Flamenco Guitar. From milling the Port Orford Cedar logs to the finished guitar, including some amazing shots of the Pistol River Coastline.

In all Joe shot around 2,000 photos. It will be a photo essay on building the Flamenco Guitar using around 120 of the best shots.  It won’t be a “How To”………just gorgeous photos with captions in English, Japanese and Spanish.

The other half of the project is a 16 minute DVD using around 1600 still shots stitched together in the actual construction sequence and set to Flamenco music (using the guitar featured in the video). Taking up to 30 exposures in up to 10 second bursts we were able to really hone in on the process while capturing a lot of information and movement……….like a time lapse.

 

TT – Sounds wonderful! When is it due out and how can we get our hands on a copy?

LS – I hope to have the book done by late 09 or early 2010. However Stansell Guitars  The Movie “Flamencos de Oregon” will be available sometime this Summer.   At that time I will be posting a trailer to “The Movie” on U-Tube. Have not made final plans for distribution at this time, but I will be sure to let you know.

 

Resources: 1. Port Orford Cedar tonewood profile: here.
2. Myrtle tonewood profile:
here.

TT – Thanks Les. Before we wrap up can I just ask you if you had advice for folks who are shopping around for a hand-built guitar?

LS – Yes,  the best advice I can give to someone interested in a hand-built Flamenco Guitar is to buy a Stansell.  Of course, if that’s not possible and your still looking for a guitar in the $3000 to $4000+ price range, then I would recommend playing as many guitars as you can get your hands on…..even if it means doing a little traveling……….if you’re patient and you do your homework then when you find it, “you will know it.”

 

Les Stansell guitars

 

 

Links:
Les Stansell guitars http://www.stansellguitars.com/index.htm
Joe Curren Photography:
www.JoeCurrenPhotography.com

 

©Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of
Les Stansell & Joe Curren ©
Videos copyright original owners.

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional- although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address to: writers@guitarbench.com. We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.

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6 comments

  1. Robert Ruck says:

    Hi Les,

    Very fine interview and answers to the questions. I have made a few flamenco guitars also and think you are right on with your traditional approach. From what I have seen of the great makers works we can not do much if anything to improve the traditional flamenco guitar. I love lawson cypress as well and have built very successful flamenco guitar from it. I am looking forward to your book and playing some flamenco with you. Thank you, Robert Ruck

  2. Nice interview. I LOVE P.O. cedar! I built guitar #4 with it, a traditional flamenco with pegs in the style of a 1953 Barbero. It was/is a great guitar and I WILL be using more P.O. cedar. With out machine heads it weighed under 1 kilo! :+)
    Best regards,
    Chuck Shifflett

  3. [...] -Aaron Green: here. -Koa Tonewood: here -Dennis Koster here. -Other Classical Luthiers: Les Stansell Guitars Muiderman [...]

  4. [...] You can read an interview we did with Les where he shares his building philophies: here. [...]

  5. [...] can read an interview we did with Les where he shares his building philophies: here. A Brondel B-3can models the 2 Gypsy piks. The J hook sits pretty on the left and the standard on [...]

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