Kevin Hall | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Kevin, thanks for letting us interview you. I know you from the timberline series of guitars you built back in the early 2000’s- but I gather your lutherie career goes further back?
KH – I started messing about with guitars in self defence around 1968 or ’69. I was playing here and there in those days, and it was hard to find good techs so started doing my own set-ups. That led to other players asking me to work on their instruments, but I really was flying by the seat of my pants.
In Vancouver a jazz sax player, Gavin Hussey, had a little music shop and he hired me part time as a guitar salesman and to do set-up work. When ‘heavy’ repairs came in we had an old chap who would come in on a casual basis and show me how it was done. His name was Oscar Carlson, and he’d been a guitar and banjo builder of some note in the 30s and 40s but had fallen on hard times by the 60s. He showed me all sorts of things, and helped reduce my terror at the idea of ‘unzipping the top’ on old Martins etc.
My first major restoration of a decent but damaged guitar was to an old Gibson Country/Western model, which is basically a Southern Jumbo built for the market north of the Mason Dixon line. I forget everything that guitar needed, but I had bought it for next to nothing and was tickled pink when Terry Jacks, front man for the Poppy Family bought it from me. You may remember they had a hit with ‘Which Way You Goin Billy’ and a couple of others.
There weren’t many good repair or building books on the market in those days. Irving Sloane had a repair book which was pretty much dictated to him by the guys in Martins’ repairshop so it was good, but his volume on steel string guitar construction was dreadful. His classical book was marginally better.
The Oklahoma repairman and one-time Martin warranty guy Don Teeter had a pretty good two-volume book on repair techniques, but there are better ways of doing a lot of what Don advocated at the time. I think he’s the guy who popularized the idea of opening up fret slots and epoxying the frets in, which is a terrible concept. It’s a means of avoiding having to learn how to do a proper compression fretting, but it is complicated, messy, and pretty much destroys fingerboards. You lose the ability to correct neck warps by compression fretting with an appropriately oversize tang size.
Still, Dons’ book set was about the most complete repair manual I was aware of at the time, and it got a lot of beginners off to a very good start. I bounced around the world for a while, bothering repairmen and builders where ever I landed up trying to learn as much as I could about new construction, repairs and restorations. Then, as now, there weren’t really that many good repairmen around so there was lots of work available if you wanted to tackle it.
After a year in Europe in ’70 I came back to Canada and got a job selling and repairing at Waddingtons’ Music in Hamilton. The other young repair guy there was George Furlanetto, who is now reasonably well known for his excellent ‘F’ Basses.
I started building my first complete guitars while I was at Waddingtons, and in late ’73 or early ’74 got involved with banjos during the boom which followed the popularity of the movie ‘Deliverance’. That show, in which Weisberg and Mandel played ‘Duelling Banjos’ sparked a renewed interest in banjos all over the world, both bluegrass and frailers, so two friends and I put together a little company to build Ruby Banjos. Bruce Dowd is still in Toronto, and may be the best banjo set-up guy in the country. Bill Wager was the third partner. He owned Ring Music in Toronto where we built the banjos in the back of his shop, doing all sorts of guitar repairs in between runs of banjos. I believe Bill went back to the States in the late 70s or early 80s.
Partnerships are always hard, and after a year or so I sold my interest in the company and struck out on my own in a little repairshop. Out of the blue I got an offer from Martin to expand their Canadian warranty operations so that they could do serious work like re-tops, resets, full finishing etc. at their facility in Scarborough. Working for Martin was interesting to say the least, especially since during my stay there they had the infamous 8 month long strike.
I left Martin in the spring of ’78 and set up again as a one-man repairshop. That soon expanded to a full line music store under the name Timberline Music, and I’ve been building guitars, banjos and ukes under the Timberline name ever since.
The Timberline instruments you mention having seen are probably the offshore jobs marketed by two guys in San Diego under that name. When I discovered they were using the name a few years ago I contacted them to make them aware of my prior claim to it. We got along, and it didn’t make any sense to start fighting over the name at this point in my career so I agreed to help them with their product development work instead. I did that for about 3 years under an independent consulting contract similar to the arrangement I’d had with Yamaha, Washburn, and a couple of others during the late 70s and early 80s.
Last year when it was time to renew that contract I chose not to. I’m about 80% retired now, and had no wish to involve myself further with the US operation. If I had it would have meant regular trips to Indonesia to keep the factory on track, and I just have no interest in that sort of travel any more. That’s a young mans’ game, and to be honest I’m too old, crusty, anti-social and idle to be bothered.
I still build and take on repairs if they are interesting, but stopped booking custom guitar orders about 4 or 5 years ago. You have no idea what a relief it is not to have a 3 year backorder list hanging over your head!
TT -So am I right in thinking your own guitars are in that vintage martin vein? Could you let us in on some of your build philosophies?
KH – Growing up in the 50s and 60s in Canada I learned there were pretty much two camps among acoustic players. Guys who wanted lots of punch and bass bought Martins. Guys who wanted slimmer necks and easier playing bought Gibsons. I like the best examples of both, particularly the pre-war Martins. I love the understated elegance of their models, as opposed to some of the flashy cosmetic antics Gibson got up to even in the old days. That being said, a good Gibson can be a wonderful sounding rig. They had some great designs. The old J-185 is a favourite of mine, but Gibson always had a habit of taking their best designs and ‘improving’ them to death.
The old Martins were very lightly built with first rate materials, and from a repairmans’ standpoint they are a delight to work on. You know exactly how they went together and exactly how they’ll react to repair techniques. With old Gibs you can expect to find anything in them, including design features and materials they never listed in the cataogues. Two of the same model from the same year can be totally different in details.
For about 35 years I’ve worked at making traditional American style flat-tops which incorporate the best of Martins’ pre-war designs but with some of the structural flaws engineered out. For instance, tucking the bridgeplate under the lower legs of the X brace just makes no sense at all from an engineering standpoint. Martin did it pre-war and many builders slavishly reproduce that on new builds but it is structurally unsound. It also makes it extremely difficult to remove a damaged bridgeplate down the road. I’ve also tried to produce dreads which are better balanced up the neck.
When large guitars first came into being they were thought of as rythm and bass accompaniment instruments, but as time passed they became the most popular of flat-tops and players demanded more of them than a steady rythm and bass runs. It is quite possible to build a dread which delivers the traditional sound in the bottom but which can also have nice clear, balanced trebles up the neck. I use mostly sitka for my tops, although I have used lots of other woods over the years.
I don’t much care for western red cedar on steel strings, although it’s a fine wood for classicals. It’s ok on smaller bodies, but I just don’t trust the stuff over the long term for a full sized, longish scale flat-top. Cedar requires roughly double the clamp time when gluing, and if you don’t comply with that you’ll come to grief. It is much softer and more prone to damage in ordinary useage than spruce.
I find Engleman gives a very warm, immediate tone, sort of mid-way between cedar and the harder spruces. It’s great for a steel string which is going to be played in small rooms, but it lacks the cut of good stiff sitka for big stage applications. Many builders love it and it’s close cousin German spruce. When I first joined Martin I was surprised to learn that most of the old timers who had been there for many years strongly disliked Brazillian rosewood and were very pleased when the company stopped using it in ’69. Like most folks I had believed that they had run out of the material due to the embargo in the 60s and switched to East Indian when stocks ran out.
That was true to a point, but they did still have a considerable supply of it on hand when I worked in the plant during the strike in ’77. Braz. is much less stable than Indian, and far more prone to checking. It can have tiny cracks in it that are invisible to casual inspecition and only show up after you’ve finished it. There can be problems with the resinous nature of the stuff, and all in all it can be a pain to use. By the time it was dropped at Martin they were baking each component in an attempt to stabilize it.
Some other modern luthiers are coating it inside and out with cyanoacrylate in order to try to head off any of those tiny checks before they show up in use. I have a few sets of Braz. left, some from the 50s and from time to time I’ll use it for a repro of an old Martin but by and large I prefer to work with Indian. I find that Braz takes much longer to come into its’ full voice; a matter of years rather than months.
I can produce a pre-war sound in mahogany quite easily, but building an exact physical repro of a Braz. Martin I find the sound is generally more brittle and bright than what you’d expect from the real thing. Over the last few years I’ve run into Braz. instruments I built 20 years or more ago, and now they are starting to sound the way you expect old-time Braz. flat tops to sound. Perhaps its’ a product of the material being as hard and dense as it is. Just takes a very long time for it to get used to being an instrument and produce the sound you were after a couple of decades ago.
The trouble with that is not many players are interested in waiting 20 or 25 years for the sound they have in mind. I’m not saying new Braz. guitars don’t sound good; they just don’t sound like the pre-war targets guys are after until they have a lot of miles on the clock.
I like reasonable scale lengths. It’s easy to get more power by going to ever-longer scales, but there are definite trade-offs with that. Longer scales are harder to play and they increase tension on major components like tops and necks. If you want to go longer than about 25″ you have to start using more lumber inside the top or you’ll have trouble down the road.
Of course when you increase brace mass and/or top thickness you reduce the response of the instrument so you end up with something which may produce a lot of power, but you have to beat the bejabbers out of it to make it do it. I don’t find that attractive in a guitar, so I mostly stick with scales under 25.5″. I like 25″ for a lot of things. It’s a good compromise between ease of playing, power, response and durability. Scales shorter than that tend to be a bit hinkier to tune for many people, and they tend not to produce the horsepower players want.
The late Bill Lewis, a noteworthy builder in his own right and the founder of Lewis Luthier Supply which later became Luthier’s Mercantile, insisted that scale length was the most important single consideration when you design a new instrument. I like Martins 12-fret 000 designs a lot, and have built a number of those in the past few years. I build a few modern 000s, but when I do I usually add about 1/8″ to 3/16″ to the overall depth. I think the 14-fret 000s tend to be a little too bright sounding for my ear, to the point of sounding brittle. The extra depth knocks a little of that harshness of ’em.
I love the original old J-185 Gib design. If those are well built of good materials they can be delightful instruments. Unfortunately Gibson tended to fall down a little on overall build quality, and the instrument was redesigned out of recognition. Dreads have been my mainstay for years of course, with the majority of those being fairly plain. I have built a number of style 41s and fancier, but I prefer the plainer ones myself. The D-21 was always my favourite rosewood dread.
Old D-18s can be amazing things, and I build repros of those. Some of my ‘deluxe’ 18s built over the past couple of decades are very close in sound to the best pre-war Martins. For some reason mahog. has been under-rated as a building material for decades. Probably it has to do with Martin using it for their entry level instruments and keeping them plain.
In Canada in particular it has been a hard sell to move even the best of mahog. dreads over the years, so I dressed them up with ebony binding, fingerboard and bridge, the old diamond and snowflake inlays, herringbone top trim, and the best, stiffest sitka tops I could lay my hands on. Those are very responsive, ‘authentic’ sounding boxes. I do a highly modified version of Gibsons’ old CF-100 cutaway model from the late 40s or early 50s. Mine are usually rosewood bodied rather than Gibsons’ mahogany, and most of mine have 12 fret necks rather than 14. With the cut you still have access to all the frets I need, and telescoping the neck makes for a very compact, handy little package. It also puts the bridge much closer to the middle of the diaphragm where it belongs.
That little LG/ B-25 body is virtually the same as a small classical, and it works much better with 12 frets and the bridge placed where the body wants it. Over the years I have made a number of solid body electrics, but my heart isn’t in those. They’re fun for a while, but it’s closer to making furniture than instruments. I like flamenco guitars and the folks who play them, so from time to time I do one or two of those. I’m working on a couple of experimental flamencos at the moment, just for fun.
About 10 years ago I was asked to do some ukes, as the ukulele market had picked up especially in Japan. The design I favour is the old original Ditson dreadnought shape which Martin built for the Oliver Ditson Co. in the teens and 20s. It’s a rounder body design than Martins’ own somewhat angular uke shape, and it appeals to my eye and ear better. The ukes range from quite plain ones to very ornate repros of the 5K ukes which were the top of Martins’ line, lots of ab and very highly figured koa.
The fancy ones don’t sound any better than the plainer models, but they’re cute. My favourites are probably the ‘flamencoleles’ I built as a bit of a joke. Ukes and flamenco guitars have much in common. Both were originally peasant instruments, built of what ever was on hand. Both are expected to have a very fast attack and be almost percussive in nature. Both have to have very good projection for their purpose.
That being the case, I ran off about half a dozen ukes built like flamenco guitars, using British Columbia western yellow cedar ( a.k.a. Alaskan Cypress) for the bodies. That wood has been used for flamenco backs and sides for decades with great success. The resulting ukes were the loudest, most responsive of any that I’d built. Particularly in the concert size they are really interesting little things. They aren’t ‘traditional’ ukes but players really seem to like ’em.
TT -How about these new alternative woods like bubinga, cocobolo and how about the new craze for Varnish finishes/ French Polish?
KH – There is very little new under the sun. Many of the ‘new’ woods being used today have actually been used before with greater or lesser degrees of success. I haven’t used bubinga myself, and because of the era in which I started building find it hard to divorce the material from its’ rather pedestrian roots in low-end Yamahas of the 60s etc., but I understand a number of builders are having good results with it these days.
Cocobolo is one of the South American rosewoods, very similar in a lot of ways to Brazillian. Like a number of other tropical hardwoods it can be quite toxic, so it has it’s own hazards of which builders should be aware before they start messing with it. Some people are far more susceptible to reactions from cocobolo dust than others, and with those folks the damage can be spectactular. A Canadian builder by the name of Don McPhee sawed a smallish cocobolo log under very poor conditions in his tiny shop in the 70s. Don had bought the log as Brazillian rosewood. The species is from the same part of the world, and it is a rosewood, but it isn’t what luthiers expect when they specify Brazillian. The dust from that log inflamed Dons’ lungs so badly that he had to stop building, and his health deteriorated steadily over the next 15 years or so to the point where he had to have a heart, double lung transplant which did not work.
An apprentice of mine in the late 70s was so sensitive to the material that he collapsed at his bench while making a run of cocobolo fingerboards and bridges. It is not a material to play with unless you take extraordinary precautions in terms of dust removal and personal air filtration. That being said, some people can work it with no obvious ill-effects, but the risk just isn’t worth taking.
Many of us older builders have spent decades inhaling all sorts of dust from wood, mother of pearl etc. as well as nitro lac. etc. These days there’s no need for that sort of nonsense at all. Good air filtration systems and dust removal outfits are available to even the smallest shops now for very reasonable prices. There are also a number of ‘air hats’ or air-filtering face shields available which are far superior to any of the old style dust masks. I’d strongly advise any young luthiers to investigate those products and invest wisely, particularly if they have any intentions of playing with tropical hardwoods and particularly cocobolo.
I’m very happy to see domestic ( here in N.America) materials like black cherry and black walnut being used again. Cherry is just about as stable as mahogany, it works beautifully as do any of the fruit woods, it’s easy to finish and has a great appearance when finished natural. It makes a very good subsititute for mahog. in necks, and is excellent for backs and sides as well. Of the walnuts I’ve tried, I like our Ontario black the best for backs and sides. It is good to work with either hand or machine tools, can be beautiful under a clear finish, is stable, and it’s available in large sizes. It isn’t a good choice for necks in my experience, since it lacks the stiffness required for that. The old timers learned that on banjos in particular in the 20s, and Fender learned the same lesson to their cost on their US-built expensive banjos in the 70s. Very good guitars can be built with either material.
The ‘new craze’ for varnish and French polish makes me smile. Nothing new about it, except that a new generation is struggling to learn age-old techniques out of necessity. Finishing is tedious work, made more-so by the tendency of manufacturers of finishing products to change their formulas without notifying their end-users. Over the years I must have used dozens of different lacquers, mostly nitros, because suppliers kept changing the recipe. These days nitro has fallen into disrepute, with some states now banning it altogether so it’s tough to find it.
There are a number of excellent lacs available which work well on instruments, but small independent builders tend to buy it in small quantities which makes it expensive. Good spray rigs are expensive, and it is very nearly impossible now to get a spray booth approved in urban areas unless you have $20,000 or more hanging around doing nothing.
It makes perfect sense for small builders to go back to the old ways and learn the use of less expensive, more environmentally friendly methods of finishing.
It takes time to learn how to apply a high quality varnish or French polish finish, but when you get the hang of it it’s a very valuable technique. There is a lot of chatter about the sound superiority of one finish over another these days, but I find there’s a lot less difference in sound than the magazines and ‘experts’ would have you believe. Unless a lac or poly finish is applied much too heavily, it takes an amazing ear to hear the difference between them and varnish.
Any finish applied too heavily will dampen sound, but it takes more than .010″ of build to do that in my opinion. You don’t need that much depth to get a very good finish, what ever the material. These days a lot of players are starting to accept finishes which would have been rejected out of hand a few years ago, which I find interesting.
I’m not a fan of the thick, UV-cured poly finishes which are in vogue in the big commercial operations, nor am I a fan of the extremely thin finishes which leave the pores open, whether they are water-borne, cat.- lac, or varnish.
TT -Okay, here’s an “old” one: popsicle or no popsicle brace?
KH – By ‘popsicle’ brace do you mean the low flatish job between the head block and the fingerboard support brace just above the soundhole? If so, yes, I use ’em. Lately though I’ve been looking at more modern ways of reinforcing the upper bout area. The various forms of ‘A frame’ bracing make a lot of sense in the upper bout, since much of the neck reset problem is directly traceable to weakness in the area between soundhole and neck block.
I think Martin have patented or copyrighted their version of the A-frame, but many builders have used variants of it for a long time. Lowden for instance, and even Ovation had bracing along the same lines as far back as the 70s.
Cantilevering a pair of braces from the headblock and running them down through the fingerboard support brace and upper legs of the X past the hole makes really good engineering sense to me; greatly increasing the bodys’ resistance to bending at the waist and soundhole. By stiffening that area, you can get away with substantially lightening bracing in the lower bout with great effect on overall sound and response in particular. The upper bout contributes little to the voice of the instrument, so you can make major changes up there with no deleterious effect on sound.
Where Martin use the A-frame system on some of their models, they have replaced the traditional two pairs of ‘shoulder’ or ‘finger’ braces between the outside of the upper and lower legs of the X with a single low, flat brace which could also be termed a ‘popsicle stick’ type. I’m not sure that change makes any real sound improvement but I suppose it does reduce labour and material a tiny bit.
Builders who start off as repairmen tend to look at instrument design and construction a little differently than those who come to the trade directly as apprentice builders. Working as a repairman gives you a slightly jaundiced view of the world, since most of what crosses your bench has some form of problem.The problems may be a result of abuse, but over the long term in the game you also tend to spot major design flaws in the brands and models which you encounter. If you have to repair distorted tops on a number of examples of one make or model, or see a disproportionate number of neck resets needed in another you tend to start looking for the causes of such troubles. That serves you well when you start to build your own.
TT -Does anything which comes to mind when you speak of major design flaws?
KH – I’m talking about things like the old Guilds having the upper legs of their X brace terminate too far down the body, especially on the tight-waisted 12s.That leads to a lot of unneccessary neck resets as the bodies fold up. Old Martins had the ends of the bridgeplate tucked under little rabbets let into the lower legs of the X, and that makes no sense at all in practice.
Stu Mossmans’ design for holding necks on was innovative and technically sound, but unless you knew that there were a pair of bolts hidden in there you could have some serious difficulty removing necks. Given that Stu was a relatively minor builder in his day in terms of production numbers, it is unlikely that someone in say France or Australia would have heard about the bolts. Same holds true for Gurians’ nifty joint. That had a simple mortise and tenon, but the tenon was retained by means of two tapered ebony pins which ran through the sides of the head block.The pins were virtually invisible inside the guitar, so if you don’t know they’re there a repairman would have to bust the neck out. Even if you do know they’re there, you need to make a special tool from a pair of Vice-Grips to push the two out. Not a good idea.
Gibson have as a rule braced their instruments too lightly and used some pretty shabby sticks to do it with. They also used some very brittle hot glues which often let go. Their brief love affair with plastic bridges, and longer one with adjustable saddles also fit the bill I think. The hardware necessary for their saddle adjustment scheme sucked horsepower something terrible. If builders have realized for decades that in order to get best sound you have to have a good flat contact patch on the bottom of the saddle, who in their right mind would stick the saddle up on two stalks retained by brass slugs, steel nuts and assorted washers?
Gibsons’ tendency to put the bridgepin holes too close to the edge of the bridge has cost untold numbers of broken bridges, broken bridgeplates and destroyed tops. In many cases they have not only 6 pin holes right along the back edge, but also two completely uneccessary and counter-productive holes for little machine screws, all in the same row. Coupled with two more major holes for the saddle adjustment hardware, the bridge and plate look like Swiss cheese from underneath. The only thing that keeps those gtrs. from blowing up en masse is the short scale length.G
ibson have a long tradition of not letting the brace ends into the kerfing, which takes a little more time and skill to do. It is a key cause of their common back brace failures and back cracks at the waist when the brace lets go.
One Gibson design ‘feature’ which has always mystified me is the wooden lintel they strung across some of their J-200s and 12 strings for about a year and a half or two years in the late 60s. That was a multi-part rig, with two spruce uprights glued to the inside of the rims in line with the bridge. Those held up a wooden lintel about 3/4″ by perhaps 5/8″, running across the width of the instrument about 1/2″ below the top. Someone in Kalamazoo must have been on holiday to Stonehenge and came back with a brainwave. 😉
In the centre of this lintel they had a 1/4″ allen-headed cap-screw with a metal swivel foot on the nose. The idea was to be able to screw the allen screw up through the lintel until the swivel foot or pad butted up against the underside of the top just ahead of the saddle. You could adjust the depth of that adjustment to put quite a bit of pressure upwards on the top, which might theoretically have solved some of their problems with twisting tops, but at the cost of immense sound losses of course.
I love to see builders and repairmen the first time they encounter one of those contraptions. Most just flat can’t believe it’s original.
With the screw adjusted to put some useful load on the top, you pretty much render the instrument dead as a guppy in a pirhanna tank, so most owners have had those devices hoiked out over the years. They were current at the same time as the company tried those truly silly injection molded plastic bridges on a lot of their lower and mid-range stuff up to about the J-50 if I remember right. Those bridges were hollow underneath and had four plastic bosses cast into them so you could hold the bridge on with 4 self-tapping screws through the bridgeplate and top, complete with 8 washers. The extra 4 washers were a sort of depth stop to make sure the ends of the self-tappers didn’t come through the top of the bridge.
Another beaut of a design flaw was the whole Gibson ‘double-X’ design. Those failed miserably. In later years people have blamed the very thin tops used on those, saying that the thickness sander had been set low by mistake and they just kept running them even though the tops were blowing up like popcorn.
I remember when the double X design was introduced at the MIAC show in ’70 or ’71. The Gibson sales reps were telling people then that the whole idea of that design was to make a bracing system strong enough that they could use very thin tops to get more response. I have no idea which version is true, but the concept didn’t work. The plywood bridgeplates, bounded on all 4 sides to render them impossible to remove weren’t a lot of help.
Lest anyone thinks I’m too hard on poor old Gibson, I am a great admirer of some of their design work. As I’ve probably mentioned I love the old original J-185s, and if you get hold of a well kept J-45, J-50, SJ etc. from the 50s they can be delightful instruments, ideal for vocal accompaniment. The ones which survived are a pleasure to play and to hear, but repairmen tend to see the ones that didn’t survive unscathed. It’s easy to become slighlty jaundiced when you deal with a steady stream of the same failures of one make and model over a very long time.
If a younger builder wanted to take the time and effort to study some of the old Gibsons, and carefully work out the various problems, build a repro with appropriate care and better quality materials, he or she should produce a delightful guitar. There is much to be learned from other builders’ successes, and perhaps more to be learned from their failures.
TT -Speaking of younger builder- what other advice would you have for the aspiring or newer luthiers out there- self study or course? HIgh grade materials to start with?
KH -There is much more available resource material these days to help beginning luthiers into the craft than there was when I got started. My Dad taught me to read when I was 3, and made that into a major adventure for me. I remember him telling me that no matter where I ended up in the world, whether I was rich or poor, if I had a love of reading I’d be able to find out anything I needed or wanted to know merely by looking in a book. That’s quite a gift for a parent to give to a child, and it is still as true today as it was in 1951.
Of course some books are better than others. When asked about which to buy or borrow I usually advise young builders to read ’em all, embrace that which makes sense to them and stay wary of that which doesn’t. Not all construction or repair methods work for all luthiers. For instance, if Sloanes’ book on the steel string guitar was the only one I’d ever read, I’d probably have been a cowboy instead, or run off with the pro bowling tour. I don’t much care for riding horses, and hate bowling.
Outfits like Stew Mac and LMI offer lots of CDs, books etc. and many of those are very good indeed. You have to bear it in mind though that they are in the business of selling you tools which you may or may not actually need.
In the 70s and 80s I trained a number of apprentices and also ran what may have been the first school of luthiery in Canada for a few years. The quality of various schools then, as now, varied tremendously so for young folks who intend to enrol in one I would strongly advise that they do their homework on those schools before they commit the time and funds.
I like the idea of coming at the building process through learning repair techniques first, because it gives you the opportunity to handle a great number and variety of other makers’ products before you start building your own. Repairmen learn to look at instruments quite differently from the way players do, and that training stands builders in very good stead. If a beginner can get a job in a good retail music shop,or better still in a repairshop with an experienced craftsman, that’s probably the ideal way to start. The beginner won’t be of much real use to a tradesman for some time, so don’t expect big money. Even if you have to volunteer to sweep up and run errands for free, it’s still less expensive than paying school fees and may be much better in practical terms.
Bob Benedetto has a series of CDs or tapes and a very good book on the market. It deals almost exclusively with archtop construction, but Bob is an extremely practical and resourceful guy. Many of his techniques carry over into flat-tops or classical construction, and his approach to the work is a great example.
Sloanes’ repair book is pretty decent, showing a lot of variety of work being carried out by the lads in Martins’ repairshop in the 70s, so I recommend that. Kanimotos’ repair book has been around for years and that has some very handy stuff in it.
I encourage budding builders and techs to accumulate the best tools they can, but to be cautious about the urge to spend wildly on fancy sets advertised in glossy mags. You are better off with 3 really good chisels, about 1/4″, 1/2″ and 1″ than you are with a roll of a dozen mediocre ones. As often as not, builders find they do most of their work with those sizes, and there’s no point in paying big money for a full set, only 3 of which will ever be used. The best chisel I ever owned was made out of an old 1″ Nicholson file with the teeth ground off. These days I have some pretty fancy chisels, but I still miss that old 1″ bracing chisel made at Martin during my time there. It perished along with most of my other tools in the lightning-caused fire which ate my shop a couple of years ago.
Spend a lot of time learning to sharpen edge tools properly. Sharp tools are a delight to use, dull ones ruin work and often impale the guy who is shoving harder than he should on ’em. A well-tuned, sharp plane is a wonderful tool. A dull one is a paperweight.
You ask about materials for beginners. It’s important to learn the feel and characteristics of the materials you are going to use throughout a hopefully long career, but there is little point in using very expensive and increasingly difficult to find materials for the first few builds. I’ve seen newcomers attack some astonishing materials for their first attempt, and it just makes no sense at all. For the first few builds select decent, straight-grained, unfigured woods. They’ll be cheaper, easier to bend, and you’ll have a much better chance of ending up with a good result. If you have a few extra bucks, spend it on the top and brace stock rather than fancy rims.
One of the best ways to start these days is to get hold of one of the kits from Martin or Stew Mac. Those components are of good but not spectacular materials, they’re cut to size, profiled, thicknessed etc., and while it isn’t the same as building one from scratch it will allow a rookie to produce a good guitar the first time out. That alone can provide enough encouragement for the rookie to keep going.
The kits let you see, perhaps for the first time, exactly how the various components look, feel and fit together. They can be used as patterns for your first ‘scratch’ build. All in all they are great value and a wonderful learning aid. I’ve started a number of new builders off on them. The instructions which come with the Stew Mac kits are light years better than those which come with the Martin versions, and the components are about equal.
Apart from going mad on initial materials, another mistake lots of beginners seem to make is to spend more time on cosmetic embellishment than they do on the basic instrument. Learn to build a good, solid, well thought-out box before you start hanging gingerbread off every corner. Fitting ab trim is just drudgery. Profitable drudgery down the line, perhaps, but drudgery all the same. Learn the basics, embellish later.
I should also stress that when trying to improve or develop your designs, it makes sense to change only one major variable at a time. That means building a lot of guitars, but it’s the only way to know what changes each variable actually makes. For instance, I see lots of young builders who want to re-invent the wheel with their first guitar so they stick soundholes in the rims, use wild-eyed bridges, raised fingerboards, radical bracing systems, obscure materials etc. all in one instrument. If it happens to work, which of the radical departures from conventional construction actually made it work and which didn’t?
Experiment by all means, but do it rationally and systematically so that you can reproduce your results. Learn to build a good honest guitar, then alter one aspect at a time, comparing each change with a known-quantity base-line model. That way you’ll learn, and the instrument will progress. Radical, unreasoned change for the sake of being different will produce just another gimmick guitar.
here is a lot of technical stuff to learn, and that will come with time. The other side of it is the need to handle as much material as you possibly can, educating your senses to spot subtle differences between good and great materials. Often it is very difficult to articulate those differences, but your hands, eyes, ears and all your other senses working together will eventually guide you where you want to go.
Oh, perhaps I should mention that it is unwise to believe everything you see written by rambling old farts who may or may not know what they’re on about. 😉 Question it all in light of your own experience. Do not suspend your own natural scepticism just because someone offers himself up as an ‘expert’. Mark Twain said ‘An expert is a damned fool a long way from home.’ He was right.
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Kevin Hall ©2009
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