Stephen Kinnaird. Luthier Interview

Stephen Kinnaird | 2009 | Luthier Interview


Stephen Kinnaird guitars


Stephen Kinnaird is well known for his use of alternative tonewoods and innovate building styles. Steve very kindly took a little time out of his very busy build schedule to speak to us about these tonewoods and his building philosophies.


Stephen Kinnaird guitars



Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT – Thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule for this interview! I’m actually also just interviewing John… how has having a brother who is a luthier been for you?

SK – Hi Terence, having a brother who is a fellow luthier is a godsend. We got started in the early ’70s, when there were very few books on lutherie, and no internet. My brother John was the only other fellow I knew interested in guitar building, so we constantly bounced ideas off each other.

He was not only a source of information, but a fount of inspiration. I feel that there is a lot of John in my approach to building, and thus in my guitars as well. As an added bonus, we have never lacked for gift ideas at birthdays or Christmas time. I have received quite a bit of guitar wood from John, and he is responsible for my entire collection of fine LMI chisels.


TT -Would you say your guitars differ from John’s?

SK – What a good question. Yes, they differ. Of course there are similarities, as one would expect. All the back-and-forth from those early years has yielded a fairly common approach to building. But there are differences, too. John is a bit more of an explorer than I, while I am a bit more of a traditionalist than he.

We each have our unique models (well, other than stock copies). Now add to that the phenomenon that a given set of wood will yield different results through the hands of different builders, and yes–there is a discernible difference in our instruments. Of all the guitars I’ve played, I’d say John’s and mine are the most similar. Yet we each have our own sound.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT -Would you mind letting us in on your building philosophy?

SK -The short answer is “to build a guitar that I would want to keep”. To elaborate, I can say that primarily I am a fingerstyle player, so I build with that goal in my mind. The desire is a ringing timbre with lots of overtones and sustain that won’t quit. So the quest starts by looking for a stiff but musical top.

Then each one is evaluated by a density test as well as a deflection test. These stats tell me how far I can push a soundboard, and how that soundboard could be expected to respond. Next, the brace stock is also tested for deflection values, and then paired with suitable tops. It’s a lot of work up front, but the yields are rewarding.

The soundboard is viewed much like a speaker cone. My view is that the entire top is working to produce bass frequencies, so the perimeter is thinned to make the assembly more flexible as energy radiates from the bridge. Also I put in a little “Don Musser” brace right behind the bridge plate which gives a localized area of siffness right behind the treble strings.

Functioning like a tweeter, it helps to sweeten the trebles–as well as even out string values. All this is within the Martin “X” brace system, which gives the customer’s ear a recognizable starting point, but hopefully offers more than a factory guitar can deliver. Like everyone else, I’m trying to walk that thin line between a top that is stable, yet one that responds easily to string input. I’m not working for a particular note, but rather a musical sound.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT -And how about your take on the various styles of neck joints?

SK -There’s a lot of clever work being done now, and not least in the area of neck attachment. The number of solutions devised by  luthiers show that it’s a troublesome task. I’ve tried an angled mortice and tenon, a locked mortice and tenon, a sliding dovetail (typical Martin style) and bolt-on neck joints. They all work well. Currently I’m using the bolt-on neck style popularized by Bob Taylor. What sold me on this was the ease with which a steel string neck could be reset in the future.


If you are asking my thoughts about neck joints and sound, my belief is that the dovetail is not inherently superior tonally to a bolt on neck. What is needed is a solid mating of the neck to the body, and the bolts do a fine job at this. I was privileged to hear Rick Turner’s Antarctica guitar. That neck doesn’t even touch the body, except for three small points. There is an air gap of 1/8″ or so between the heel and the sides.


It’s a nightmare for a purist. Well… that guitar has a thunderous sound–rich, complex, loud. And it helps to dispell the assumption that only a certain type of neck joint can produce good tone. Or even the best tone. Earlier I said I was something of a tradionalist, but not in this area. Yes,I admire a good dovetail. There is a certain elegance about it. However, I’m sold on the bolt-on neck.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT -And how about tonewoods, Steve?

SK – One of the things that intrigued me early on about guitar building was the woods used for their construction. We are blessed with an almost endless variety of choices, most of which are stunningly beautiful. One early influence was a guitar being built with Padauk and Purpleheart. That might sound garish now, but back then it was an eye-opener. Why not try some “alternative” tone woods?

Now, I love the tried and true selections as much as anyone. Indian rosewood, mahogany, and maple can raise my pulse rate. But so can Bubinga, Black Limba and Oregon Myrtle. Why not try them?

The contribution of back and sides is mainly cosmetic. Oh, they do flavor the sound–rosewood gives that depth, that ringing quality as if the sound was coming from a cathedral.  Mahogany and walnut sound drier to me, as if played outside. On a sunny day. Both sounds are good and have their place.

Put me in this camp: the majority of the sound comes from the top. And once again we are blessed with wonderful choices. I haven’t met a top wood I don’t like. Recent successful guitars used Engelmann spruce, Western red cedar, Lutz spruce and Sitka. Probably my favorite now is Bearclaw Sitka. Brent Cole is supplying some marvelous tops that are both eye-popping as well as complex in their sound.

It makes sense to me that a luthier learn how to utilize any given species, and I’ve been trying to learn how to use the lowly Sitka. It isn’t as exotic as some of the other choices, but I like it. It’s giving the sound I’m after.

Plus, put some bearclaw figure in it and you’ve got a great match for some fancy back and sides. I don’t think I’ve got the time left to be a master at every top wood available, so to concentrate on Sitka is my plan. Of course, the custom guitar business is customer-driven. Usually they have read “just enough” to have formed an opinion as to what they want or need. We try to oblige. If the customer wants sinker spruce harvested from Atlantis, then we’ll use it.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT – Could you tell us a little bit about your current body shapes?

SK – Currently we’re making four models. Our SJ (Small Jumbo) is the flagship of the line. Rounder and a wee bit larger than a dreadnought. Next is our FS (Finger Style). This is smaller than the SJ, and thinner as well.

It employs a 12 fret neck. Then comes an OM. That’s offered in both standard and deep-body versions. Finally we make what we call a CS. It’s the smallest guitar in the lineup, and perhaps the most versatile, as far as pressing it into other duties. This is the frame for our nylon string cross-over and the 7/8-12 string. It is patterned after the Larivee LS model.


TT -Ah, a cross over guitar- how is it constructed differently to your usual steelstrings?

SK – The most noticeable difference would be the bracing. Much lighter than a steel string. 7 fans,  two cutoff bars and a spruce bridge patch–pretty standard stuff for a classical. Also a Brazilian rosewood tie bridge is used on this guitar, as is a slotted head. The body shape already leans toward classical lines, only it’s larger overall.


TT -And how does the body depth affect the sound of the OM?

SK – The added depth lends support to the fundamental. The increased air volume imparts a little more authority to the bass frequencies, moving toward the sound of a larger-bodied guitar. I like the “whoomph” of a big guitar. The deep-bodied OM has more of this while retaining clarity throughout its range. It is a fine design.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT -Any interesting projects you have going at the moment?

SK – We just finished what we’re calling a 7/8-12 string. It’s the request of a customer for a small-bodied 12 string. He realized he always capos up at the 2nd fret when he plays a 12, so he thought we should just shorten the neck, by eliminating the first two frets. I.E., put the nut where the second fret would have gone, and use the resulting shorter scale on a smaller body.

It makes for an unusual little guitar, whose head is almost as long as its neck! Other than that we’ve got a run of four guitars we’re trying to finish in time for the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. And a couple of those use wood that we’ve never tried.
Things like this keep the work interesting.

TT -Oooo what woods would those be, Steve?

SK – Well, one is fairly common. We’re building a deep-bodied OM out of Honduran rosewood, and trimming it out in Snakewood. Already–in its raw state–it’s pretty flashy. And then the cutaway FS built from Tasmanian Blackheart Sassafras. That’s some amazing timber: almost a khaki color with olive highlights and black “flames” streaking up the back. It’s just fun to stare at it!


TT -How is Sassafras tonally and to work with?

SK -It isn’t super hard. It’s tap is somewhat like expensive cardboard. It reminds me of some soft maple we once used on a successful guitar. That maple proved a lot to me–that a good guitar can be built with something other than rosewood–and I believe that this Sassafras will also be nice.


Stephen Kinnaird guitarsTT -Other than woods, I hear a lot about the various finishes like french polish vs. say varnish and how much they can affect the sound. What’s your take on that?

SK -You’ve got to have something on the instrument to protect it. The trick is applying the finish–whatever it is–thinly enough.  A thin film will have minimal impact on sound. I like the look of shellac, and also that of varnish. They perform well and their warmth of color is beautiful. Never tried waterbase finishes, though I think my brother has. Currently a finish pro in Michigan, named Tony Ferguson, is spraying on very thin coats of catalyzed urethane for our shop. We’re very pleased with the results. I measured some of his finish, and it was coming in around .003″ of build!


TT -Great stuff thanks, Steve. Before we go, would you have any advice for aspiring luthiers?

SK -Sure. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Don’t be intimidated by the task. Read all you can find. Check out the different web forums. Ask beaucoups questions. Study the instruments at your local music store. Ask the owner if he/she would let you get some measurements from the better instruments. That will solve a number of early questions.And finally, just start building a guitar. It may not be perfect, but the second one will be.


Stephen Kinnaird guitars



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©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of
Stephen Kinnaird ©2009

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