Lutherie - the making of guitars

Thoughts About Selling Dulcimers That Don’t Exist

Dulcimer in progress

I have decided to take a break from taking advance orders for custom dulcimers.

Five years ago about half my dulcimers were sold before I made them. Someone would choose from various options I offer and give me a deposit to begin making their dulcimer. I prioritized these custom orders and built them in the order they were received.

While building these custom dulcimers I also had time to build dulcimers that were not already sold. I usually had three to five dulcimers on hand for sale.

Five years ago I suddenly had to deal with some serious lower back issues that added unexpected flavor and color to my life. It has been an interesting journey and it is not yet over.

I am currently able to work in the shop about one-third the amount of time I would prefer to be working. Some days or weeks I am able to work more, some less, some not at all, but it averages out to working about a third of the time I used to.

During this time I have also had a surprising increase in custom orders.  All but one dulcimer I have sold in the past 3 years was ordered in advance.

My time in the shop has become completely focused on custom work. I keep thinking I will have time to build some dulcimers to put up for sale but it just hasn’t happened.

Most of the custom dulcimers I build are pretty much the same as dulcimers I would ordinarily build but the new owner chooses particular wood, string length, number of strings, fret patterns, and other options that I offer. Occasionally someone asked for a unique feature that had to do with playability for their particular style and when I felt it worked with my sense of instrument design then I would do that as well.

The tricky part of this is that when I do have dulcimers on hand for sale they are sometimes not exactly what someone wants. If it has no dots in the fingerboard someone will want dots in the fingerboard. If it has 3 strings someone wants one just like it with 4 strings or vice-versa.

In the near future I will be offering dulcimers for sale and I am thinking there will usually be something available that will appeal to someone. If someone wants something specific I will keep a list and contact them if I make something like what they want. I’ll also be happy to contact people and let them know when I have more dulcimers available.

In the long run I think this will work better for everyone. When I put a dulcimer up for sale people can try it and know exactly what they are getting. I can ship it and you can return it if you decide you don’t care for it. I have sold many dulcimers this way and so far no one has decided not to keep it.

With a custom order the dulcimer is yours. Unless there is a problem with it covered by my warranty the dulcimer is not returnable. Again, I have sold many dulcimers this way and almost everyone was 100% happy. One person was less than 100% happy but still liked the dulcimer.

I think this is a good track record.

So in the near future I will be only selling dulcimers that exist.

If you are on my waiting list please don’t freak out! I am happily working on your dulcimer and you will get it on schedule.

I feel better already.

Antonio de Torres - Guitar Maker, Carpenter

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Tue, 06/13/2017 - 09:38
His greatest merit is that he came up with a universally accepted guitar.

Jose Luis Romanillos, luthier



Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Antonio de Torres.

Those of us who love the classical guitar owe this man everything, he created a model of the guitar that continues to capture the hearts of true music lovers.

He really didn't do anything that hadn't already been done by other guitar makers - other makers had used larger bodies, the so-called fan bracing, domed tops, longer string lengths, all this was already known - but Torres guitars sounded different from others.

Many contemporary classical guitar makers build copies of the original Torres guitars, there are several well known classical guitarists that concertize on original Torres guitars because even after 130+ years those guitars still have wonderful voices.

Antonio de Torres apprenticed with a carpenters guild in Vera, Spain when he was 12 years and when he was 17 he was listed in the guild rolls as a master carpenter. Several writers have stated that Torres was a "simple" or "lowly" carpenter, but to be a master carpenter in 1834 was anything but simple.



You were expected to know all the latest building styles and construction techniques, many of these techniques were published in books which meant that you had to be able to read. At that time in Spain, 76% of the population was illiterate, yet, Antonio de Torres could read and write. Torres' father was a tax collector, perhaps he taught his son how to read and write. In the book, Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker, by Jose Romanillos, Romanillos speculates that Torres attended local schools before he became an apprentice.

Carpinteria de Armar

I have done some research on the Internet about traditional Spanish carpentry and discovered that Spanish carpenters of the time dealt with the same construction problems the rest of Europe had to deal with, namely how to keep the building from falling apart. As a master carpenter, you would know la carpinteria de armar(how to construct a building); la carpinteria de lazo, (loop carpentry) and perhaps mostly importantly tocar de madera, (how to work wood).




I want to believe that Torres was a carpenter, not a joiner, because a guitar is in a way, an architectural creation. It is constructed so it can stay together under pressure (a modern classical guitar is subjected to 90 pounds or more of pressure from the strings). If the top is not properly braced to take this tension it will collapse or even worse the whole guitar may fly apart. Most cabinets and chests are not subjected to a constant pressure. Cabinetry is not carpentry.

Carpinteria de Lazo

It is claimed that Torres went to Granada, Spain in 1836 to learn how to make a guitar, when he returned home he continued as a carpenter and tried several other business ventures. His first wife died in 1845 and that is when he moved to Seville and by 1852 was known as a guitarrero.

I would like to thank Don Antonio de Torres Jurado for the work that he did. The guitar is a beautiful instrument, but Torres took all the work of the great makers before him and made it the most beautiful instrument ever created.

If you are interested in learning more about traditional Spanish carpentry I recommend that you click here to visit the Albanecor website on carpinteria de lo blanco.



The kind of carpentry work that Antonio de Torres was trained to do

Guitar by Antonio de Torres

What’s On The Bench – 6/12/2017

Dulcimer Peghead In Progress

I have decided to go back to an older style of peghead assembly on the current batch of dulcimers I’m working on. I used this design for years and preferred how it looked but it seemed too labor intensive for a relatively simple part of the dulcimer.

I follow my intuition on things like this and it seems like time to use this joint again, at least for now. So what if it is a lot more work? I enjoy the process! There is the old saying that “time is money” but if I made more money off of my time I would just waste it on house payments, groceries, healthcare, etc.

The head block gets glued on with hide glue and is then sawn to rough shape with a kataba saw. Following the sawing comes bringing the block close to flush with the sides using a low-angle block plane followed by a scraper and file.

Cleaning up a dulcimer with a file and scraper

The first few times I did this required nerves of steel. It would not be difficult to have a major “Oops!” moment fairly late in the construction process. After gaining some experience I found this to be a relaxing and enjoyable process.

Binding Dulcimers

Dulcimer Binding ToolsDulcimers traditionally did not have binding. Every time I put binding on a dulcimer I am reminded of this; putting binding on a dulcimer is a lot of work!

Putting binding around the edges of the soundboard, especially a soundboard made of a soft wood, helps prevent dings and chips along the edges. To my design aesthetic binding the soundboard is also like putting a frame on a picture.

I usually do not put binding on the backs of my dulcimers unless someone really wants it.  I don’t think it is necessary to bind the back since it is usually made of hardwood. Also, should the dulcimer ever need major repairs an unbound back simplifies removing the back of the dulcimer to gain access to its innards.

In the photograph above are the hand tools I use when preparing the dulcimer for binding.

In the upper left is a shop-made binding scribe. It consists of a scalpel blade glued and taped to a piece of wood the thickness of the binding that is again glued to a piece of wood that serves as a handle. I use this tool to gently score the binding channel on the soundboard. After the channel is scored I deepen the scored cuts with the scalpel and knife.

I use a simple router jig to remove some of the bulk and then finish up the binding rebate with the small chisel and file. I also use the chisel as a scraper, using my fingers as a depth stop to guide the cut.

After taking the photograph for this post I noticed the fingerboard did not look quite right. I realized I had left out one of the fret slots! It has since been cut and all is right with the world.

Forgetting to cut a fret slot is not a big deal as it is easy to add at anytime. What is a big deal is cutting a fret slot where one is not supposed to be.

Guess how I learned that lesson?

 

1961 Hernandez y Aguado Style Guitar, Engelmann Spruce/Ziricote, Nearing Completion

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Mon, 05/29/2017 - 10:40
The wood of Engelmann spruce is light-colored, relatively soft, low in resin, and sometimes contains many knots and is more valuable for pulp than for high-grade lumber. It has been used for home construction, pre-fabricated wood products, and plywood manufacture. Less commonly it is used for specialty items such as food containers, and sounding boards for violins, pianos, and guitars. Engelmann spruce is widely used for Christmas trees. Spruce beer was sometimes made from its needles and twigs and taken to prevent scurvy.

USDA Plants Database, Engelmann Spruce


I apologize for not having posted anything on this blog for a while, as all of you know life can get in the way of doing things.

The New Mexico Guitar Festival is next month, June 15-17, and I will be attending as a vendor.

Much of my time these last few weeks has been spent finishing the two guitars that I want to take to the Vendors Expo at the festival: this 1961 Hernandez y Aguado style guitar, with an Engelmann spruce top and ziricote back and sides and a 1963 Hernandez y Aguado style guitar that is made entire from locally sourced wood. I'll post about that guitar in the future.

Tomorrow, I will level and re-crown the frets on this spruce/ziricote guitar, grind down the nut and saddle, attach strings and set up the playing action. I can't wait to hear this guitar!

Here are some photos documenting the building of the spruce/ziricote guitar.









From left to right: spruce/ziricote, redwood/black walnut, redwood/Indian rosewood.

Here's a video of Stephanie Jones, a wonderful young guitarist from Australia. Click here to watch videos of Ms. Jones playing all five of William Walton's Bagatelles!

Free-Form Dulcimer Making

Bartione dulcimer soundboard layoutI have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.

By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.

The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.

Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.

Laying out position markers and soundholes on a baritone dulcimer These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.

Making sure everything is where it belongsAlso important are notes to myself to make sure everything goes where it is supposed to go. There is a reason I do this. Guess what happened the last time I didn’t do this!

It Doesn’t Take Much

It doesn’t take much to do some of the things we want to do. As a teenager I was in a theater company that cobbled lighting together from parts found at the local hardware store. It worked. Some of the best musicians I have heard played on what many would call substandard instruments. I have […]

What’s On The Bench – 4/21/2017

On the bench are three planes that have been getting quite the workout lately. They started complaining that they were overdue for a sharpening. I have come to trust their feedback so I took them seriously. Here they are minus their blades. They feel empty and lonely without their blades but this situation will not last long. […]

Workbench Tote

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Wed, 04/12/2017 - 15:34
I do not know when the open wooden tool box came into general use.

Roy Underhill, The Woodwright's Work Book, 1986



If you own copy of The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin, then perhaps you have constructed his workbench tote project.

My workbench is always a mess and now that I am getting to the finishing stage for two classical guitars, I thought I would try to mend my ways and keep a tidy bench. A workbench tote is a start in the right direction.



I held fairly close to the dimensions in Tolpin's book, but used some nice pine that was on hand (I think it is lodgepole pine, it's hard to find good ponderosa pine these days) for the sides and handle, with pine plywood for the bottom.

A carpenter by trade, I decided to build this tote in the house carpenter tradition, nothing fancy, just 45 degree miters, a table saw cut groove for the plywood...



...glue and pin nails from a trim gun to hold everything together.



The tote handle shape is a personal decision, you don't have to copy anyone's design, make it look the way you want it to look.



Boring the holes for the handle made me realize that I need to spend some time sharpening my augers!



It is a tote for the workbench, so the handle is held in place with trim nails - rulers, chisels and gauges aren't heavy enough to warrant larger fasteners.

It's not as fancy as the one in The New Traditional Woodworker, but it was a fun, quick project.

I save the fancy work for my guitars,


you know, something like this!

Now, get out in your shop and make something!

Here's a video of Stephanie Jones, enjoy!



Building a Bridge with a Stanley No.192 Plane

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 19:32
The bridge of a guitar as we know it today is a relatively modern invention consolidated by Torres, although he was not the inventor.

Jose L. Romanillos, Antonio de Torres, 1995


Many people don't know how much work is involved in constructing a guitar bridge, I know for most classical guitarists it is simply an anchor point for the guitar's strings.



I arch the bottom of the bridge to match the guitar sound board's doming, cut a channel for the saddle to sit in and I make a tie block for the strings.

The tie block gets covered with a piece of mother of pearl, this protects the tie block from string wear and gives the guitar a bit of bling.

Since I am making a fairly close copy of a Hernandez y Aguado bridge, the tie block is sloped towards the saddle slot, this was original done to increase the breaking angle of the strings over the bridge. This helps increase the overtones in the guitar. Compare that with a modern flamenco guitar bridge and you will see the string "breaking angle" is very, very shallow, the string goes almost straight from the tie block to the saddle.



I souped up the blade on my grandfather's Stanley No.192 rabbet plane and it works wonders in cutting out a rabbet for the tie block overlay.



It would be nice to close up the mouth of this plane just a little, but if I do my job of properly sharpening this Sweetheart Era blade it performs with perfect aplomb.



The Rocklite Ebano bridge with its new MOP tie block overlay. I put a bit of hide glue on the tie block, dry it with a heat gun, clamp the MOP onto it and then run some CA glue along the edges.

Tomorrow is the day from drilling the string holes in both bridges, then the final shaping and carefully stowing away the bridges so they will not become damaged.

Please bear with me as I find a new template for my blog, I want the blog to be easy read and search.

Here's a video of a brilliant young guitarist from Australia, Stephanie Jones!



Learning From My Past – Dulcimer #24 From 1979

Dulcimer #24 is the only dulcimer I have in my possession from the first phase of my life as a dulcimer maker. The dulcimer made its way back to me a few years ago and has spent most of its time hanging on the wall since its return. I began making dulcimers on the kitchen […]

New Shop Made Marking/Cutting Gauge and Blog Page Template

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Sun, 03/26/2017 - 14:21
Gauges are tools for producing lines upon the surface of wood, parallel with the edge they are used upon.

George Ellis, Modern Practical Joinery, 1902


I started making this gauge about a year ago, it was a rainy day project that I didn't finish until today, thus it became a snow flurry day project.


The fence and arm are walnut, the wedge is made from a 20 year old piece of ebony, the cutter was taken from a purfling cutter that I abandoned long ago.


I need to reshape the cutter's end from a knife point to a v-point, that tends to work better for cutting veneer into purfling strips.



There is another marking/cutting gauge on the tool shelf that is the standard "go to" gauge, but I wanted another gauge just for cutting veneer.


Here is my quiver of gauges, from left to right: the newest gauge, the day to day gauge, a double arm mortise gauge and a pin gauge. The mortise and pin gauges were made from Claro walnut harvested near my parents home in Northeastern California, I wish I had track trailer full of that gorgeous wood!

I hope everyone likes the new look of the blog! I wanted something that was easy to read and navigate, though for some reason I can't seem to get the "Label" gadget to work so one can randomly search the blog.

In Search of the Best Finish for a Classical Guitar

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 13:26
You can bring the surface to a smooth sheen by rubbing the wood, with the grain, using a handful of dry spokeshave shavings - before you scoff at the idea, try it.

Drew Langsner, The Chairmaker's Workshop, 1997

The other day I consigned a cedar/Indian rosewood guitar at a guitar shop of a fairly well known guitar maker. He liked my guitars and said that I was doing "a really good job in making them", but he criticized my use of French polish.

He said "Shellac scratches too easily and it doesn't hold up well." He took one of his custom guitars off a wall hanger and showed it to me.

"Here, the way you should go is UV cured catalyzed polyester! You can finish a guitar in a day!" he boasted, "however, you have to wear a hazmat suit to enter the spray booth"

"Why would I do that?" I asked, "I have a very tiny shop and I am trying to be safe and green!"

"It's the finish we like to see these days! Looks like glass, hard, long wearing and very scratch resistant", he replied.

I couldn't help but to notice the slight "orange peel" on the back of the his guitar.

"I've been thinking about going to a water based finished", I said.

"Water based finishes are too pasty looking for my taste!", he fired back, "don't waste your time with them, use a catalyzed polymer or nitro lacquer!"

That was pretty much the end of the conversation and I walked out of the shop.

On the drive home I thought long and hard about what I should use to finish the two guitars that are on my work bench, they need to be finished by the first of June. French polish/shellac is the time honored way to finish high end classical guitars, but shellac takes a long time to harden and continues to shrink, ad infinitum, into any unfilled pore. Not too mention, if you look at a French polished surface cross-eyed you will more than likely scratch it. I would like to revive what George Frank called "an open pore French polish" that he said was very popular in France and the rest of the world in the 1920's. No pore filling, just shellac showing all the beauty of the wood. Problem is most classical guitar players want to own an instrument that has that "perfect factory glass-like finish". And no, no one in the flamenco or classical guitar world wants a guitar that has a soap finish.

I have pretty much decided to go with a water-based lacquer to finish the back, sides and neck of my guitars and French polish the top. There is one company that I will be calling next week to ask "Why should I use your finish for my classical guitars" and see what they say. Their website is very informative and I like the idea of being able to rub out a finish just three to four days after applying it. If I like using a water based finish, once I complete the new workshop I will dedicate a space for a spray booth, yes, I will purchase a HVLP spray gun.

I wonder how many people who read my blog will groan at this post? Wilson not using French polish? It is a wonderful skill to have, but, I am trying to make a living at building and selling my guitars. I am not an amateur. I want the best finish possible for my guitars, that helps bring more customers to me.

Yes, I know there are many guitar makers and players who swear up and down that French polish with shellac is the best finish for a classical guitar, however...

Here is something to think about: the world famous guitar maker, Robert Ruck, who was awarded a life time achievement award from the Guitar Foundation of America in 2016, is considered the man who set the industry standard for classical guitars. He uses a catalyzed polymer finish for his guitars. Shouldn't that be the standard for all classical guitars?

On the Bench - A 1963 Hernandez y Aguado Style Guitar, Redwood/East Indian Rosewood

Brokeoff Mountain Luthierie - Fri, 03/10/2017 - 14:24
To whoever invented fantasy, redwood trees, and apple pie for breakfast: well done.

Dr. SunWolf, professor, Santa Clara University


This guitar, redwood/East Indian rosewood, is based upon a guitar that was made in the shop of Manuel Hernandez and Victoriano Aguado in 1963.

It is a little bigger bodied than the 1961 HyA style guitar that I usually make, I wanted to see if there is a difference in sound between a guitar with an eighteen and seven-eights inch body and a guitar with a nineteen inch body length. I know that is only an 1/8 of an inch difference, but I have heard guitar makers and players alike swear up and down that a larger bodied guitar, even an eighth of an inch bigger, is bigger and better sounding.


The top bracing is based on one used by Jesus Belezar, Manuel Hernandez's son-in-law, except I added one more bass brace.



I decided to use only three braces on the back, sometimes Hernandez and Aguado used four braces. Four braces tends to give the back a higher pitch than three braces.



Yesterday was spent doing the final sanding on the interior, there are people who believe that the inside of a classical guitar should be immaculate. Those people need to look inside a guitar made by Antonio de Torres, Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso or any other guitar made by an Spanish master. I spend at least one day cleaning, sanding, burnishing the inside of a guitar, it's as if the guitar is nickel and dime-ing you to death.

Glueing a guitar's back on is very nerve wracking for me, I want everything to be as perfect as possible, which means no glue drips and that all parts mate well.



This redwood top has some gorgeous medullary rays! I have learned to put several wash coats of shellac on a guitar top before I start the binding process, it helps to protect the top from binding tape and glue.



The shop is starting to look more like a guitar maker's shop with all these guitars hanging up waiting for work!

From left to right - Engelmann spruce/ziricote, redwood/black walnut, redwood/rosewood. The neck you see hanging on the rack is for a Port Orford cedar/rosewood guitar.





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