Friday, October 14, 2016

Seizing the Means of Production!

I have been slowly reading this book Zoey bought me (The Invention of Capitalism) about the not so free market origins of capitalism and how the European peasantry (and indeed people around the world) was divested of their traditional self sufficiency in order to make them into wage laborers.  In honor of that I have been thinking of my woodworking as one way of Seizing The Means Of Production!, though lately I have been a little distracted from my shop, and have taken quite a break from blogging. It has not been as big of a break from woodworking as it has been from talking on the internet.  It has been a whirlwind summer, to much time behind the coffee shop counter, some car work, some bike work, and a lot of reminders of why I liked my past self employment so much.  I have sold Queen City Guitars #2, the North American guitar that I blogged so much about and I got quite a compliment from the man who bought it. "...Sounds better than a friends 1947 00 Martin."

I am happy to hear that I am on the right track.

I have also been plodding along on a writing desk and recently finished a guitar that I think sounds even nicer than QC #2, built on the form I made to construct resonators in.  The shape was originally inspired by the late 1920s Gibson L-0/1 shape and so it is only fitting to build a steel string acoustic with it.

I am ecstatic (not an exaggeration)  with how this guitar turned out.  Being my own design it gave the chance, the necessity really, to do a little experimentation with brace layout.  Where do the braces go, exactly, where do I scallop them?  What is going to be strong enough to resist the pull of the six strings and still flexible enough to produce a great sound? 

One of the big question about this guitar was how to ensure the top would resist bellying, that deformation of the top where the bridge wants to rotate along its horizontal axis flexing the wood between it and the sound hole down and bellying out the wood behind it.  On a more traditionally shaped X braced guitar the wings (the edges to the treble and bass side) sit over the legs of the X brace and help to keep the bridge from rotating, but the shape of this guitar makes that difficult while maintaining the bridge near the center of the lower bout.  You could do it if you wanted to anchor the front legs of the X into the front of the upper bout and make some sort of A-brace/X-brace hybrid, but I want to keep my experiments on the small side so I can trace my steps and better learn about guitar tops and sound production. 

The top two are of the Roundbout soundboard and the bottom is QC#2 (Martin 0 style).

It got me thinking about what exactly I am trying to do when I brace a guitar.  This seems like an unimaginably simple question, but it is certain that no one has definitely answered how to brace a guitar because of both how complex sound production is and how subjective are our opinions on the sound of a guitar. 

When I make a guitar I know my personal preference is for something that is responsive with a fast attack.  I want some sustain to add to the fullness of the sound, but I also don't want it to get muddy with fast finger picking.  I want it to project and retain its quality of sound through a large dynamic range.  Most factory guitars are heavy and overbuilt because wood strength and stiffness varies a great deal and an overbuilt guitar ensures the weakest brace/top combo won't self destruct without requiring much if any variation between guitars.  This makes the most obvious step to making a more responsive guitar lightening braces, but as you take away mass you can also lose things, like sustain.  There is less mass to perpetuate the energy from the string.  The best analogy I can think of is the flywheel of a car, if you lighten it up the engine will rev up faster, but a heavy flywheel will help keep the engine rotating once it is up to speed.  If you take mass away in the wrong places it might not even make the top more responsive and leaving mass in the wrong places could hinder the ability of the top to vibrate.

I started thinking about this while building this particular guitar because I knew I would have to add mass to help ensure the bridge didn't dramatically belly the top. most discussions of improving the tone of a guitar focus on removing mass so even thinking about adding more seems wrong. The more I thought about it while working up to the top bracing, and the more I think about it now (being encouraged of course by the fact that the guitar has been strung up and I am very happy with the sound) the less worried I am about it.

A top vibrates in specific patterns, or modes, the positions of which are influenced by the bracing of the guitar. As I understand it which mode is active on the top is determined by the frequency, and similar to the frequency of a wave as you would think of it affecting a string.  The top is a fixed space that will vibrate as one node, monopole vibration, at a given frequency the same way a string on a guitar will vibrate at a given frequency.  Because the top is a fixed space, unlike the string which we fret to make smaller, producing higher notes, but not ever vibrating with multiple poles, the top must reach a doubling of frequency to enter into dipole vibration (a distinct mode, where two nodes, the bass and treble sides of the sound board vibrate separately, but not independently) and upward with an increasing number of nodes vibrating separately, but not independently across the top.

These nodes need to be flexible around the edges to allow them to vibrate freely, and once they are started vibrating they are aided in perpetuating that vibration by the weight they carry in the interior of the node.  If you think about monopole vibration on a guitar it is essentially the entire lower bout.  The edges run along the rims and the center is precisely where I was worried about adding mass in the form of a larger bridge plate.  That extra mass could make it harder for the strings to get the top moving and it probably slows down the speed they get it moving, the attack (like a heavy flywheel in a car), but the extra weight is small and not in any area affecting the tops ability to move.  Even in higher modes, like dipole, where the edges of nodes cross the bridge plate its restriction on vibration is bound to be far less than the heavy, cross grained, bridge glued on the the face of the top.  I also feel like it might aid things in helping to transmit the force of the string across the top.  Without the Bridge plate the bridge of this guitar would be surrounded by thin, unbraced top.  How much energy would be lost flexing this small section in order to drive the rest of the top? 

This instrument gave me a lot of interesting things to explore as I build in the future, and I could go on and on about the things I thought about while bracing it, but I am not going to.  Here is what those thoughts translated into a guitar sound like.  As always sorry my playing is a bit rough.  Thanks for reading.

You can see more pictures of Queen City Guitars # 4 by clinking on the link on the top right of your computer screen or by clicking the scroll down menu under "Guitars" at the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thanks again.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The North American is Finished

It is all together, set up and sounding great.  I made a little video, you will have to excuse the quality of the sound, my camera only has so nice of a mic.  Also the shaky playing.  The first bit repeats a few times, but it does move on about half way through.

I want to clarify some of my thoughts about this guitar now that it is out in the world.  I feel like we as a society,have a real difficulty with ambiguity and nuance.  There is no smoking gun to to show off as evidence of the ethical nature of this guitar.  The ethics and sustainability of a product are always going to be moving targets.  We want to point to an object and say, that is good, that is ethical, when it is more about our relationship with things.  I know that I feel uneasy with ambiguity about the ethics woodworking of in general, but I do feel like the truly unethical ways we relate to the world have a lot to do with the lack of value we place on the things we make to consume, the throw away nature of mass production.  I don't know whose hands this guitar will pass through in its life, but I made it with the intention to be around for a long time. 

To get back to a little more specific things about this guitar, one of the biggest challenges of sourcing non-tropical woods is finding a suitable bridge and fingerboard wood.  Maple of course is acceptable for fingerboards, but it is a very light color and has to be finished to keep it from getting dirty and stained.  It is also not as striking as rosewood or ebony and many would even say it colors the tone a certain way.  I don't know how mesquite colors the tone of this guitar, but I think the guitar sounds great, the mesquite looks great, and it is even a little harder than Indian rosewood (and much harder than maple).  Hardness and stability are two of the most important things in a fingerboard and mesquite is excellent on both accounts.  It is also nice that it grows right here in the US and I am hoping to be able to get it directly from the people cutting it.  That I hope will make it easier to find someone using good practices.

I'll leave off with a few pictures of the finished guitar, thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Ethical Guitar: Part 2

I have been doing a lot of thinking about this post I have been planning to make, regarding ethical guitar building.  I actually wrote out a nearly completed post, but I was never totally happy with it, and the same nagging thoughts keep returning when I thought about working more on it.  I wanted to discuss rainforest logging practices and really focus on the lumber and how hard it is to source ethical lumber from many other parts of the world.  I wanted it to be one of three or four parts all together that would lay out a good starting point for something that we could start to call ethical and sustainable... and all of those paths I wanted to follow in this discussion are good, but they are also kind of feel good.  Buy a sustainable guitar, save the planet.  A little more nuanced, but that's what all of those arguments amount to.  Quite possibly that is what all of the paths I can follow feel a little like when confronted with such a large thing to sort through.  What really brought me around to changing the focus of this entry was reading a story from a few years back.  This story.

Basically, in 2005, the Sealaska corporation released some timber analysis numbers.  Sealaska supplies most of the sitka spruce that North America makes into guitar tops.  The numbers in 2005 suggested that if Sealaska continued their logging practices unchanged they would exhaust their supply of old growth trees in six years.


Since that analysis Sealaska has been granted new logging rights on untouched old growth forest in Alaska.  I know what you are thinking, "those luthiers have to have their old growth wood, don't care about destroying the planet."  If only sustainability were so easy.  Turns out around 80 percent of Sealaska sitka at the time of the analysis was exported to Asia for things like home building.   Only around 150 logs a year supply all of the US guitar building that is sourced through Sealaska.  This comes around to a point that I did want to make in my first draft of this post.  Guitar building, and acoustic guitars in particular value using lumber from trees that we have a definite interest in protecting from exploitation.  Large diameter, slow growing trees.  They are not however the predominant source of pressure on these forests, we are not cutting down the amazon to supply wood for musical instruments, even though luthiers do incentivize the practice.

I did a little simple math in my first draft to try and put this into perspective.  I wanted to start with a comparison to something we can all envision, a table.  I built myself a drafting table last year and according to my notes from the sketches I made to plan it out, I used about 45 board feet of wood to build it (I'll give you a definition of board feet in a minute).  It is about 4 feet by 2.5 feet and about 30 inches tall.  Not a real big table.  If you are interested in a visual of the table I posted a picture in this blog entry.  So lets compare that with a guitar.  The methods I am outlining here are based on the tools I have at my disposal in Denver and now that I have the use of a large bandsaw I can resaw boards much more efficiently and so we could probably make two guitars with this amount of wood, but I want to build inefficiency into my estimate so that we can hopefully overestimate impact and not underestimate.   

To build a guitar lets start with the assumption that it will be all mahogany.  Braces, linings, top, the whole thing, with the exception of the bridge and the fret board.  A ten inch wide board should suffice for just about any guitar we want to make.  We need about 24 inches (which is on the long side of what we need) of that board to make a back, 24 inches to make a top.  We need 36 inches (again on the long side) to make the sides and out of that same ten inch width we used to make the sides we could make the neck.  We need one more 36 inch length of this board to make linings, binding, end and heel blocks and braces.

Total we need a ten inch wide by one inch thick board that is 120 inches long (it would not have to be one board, but 120 inches worth of one inch thick lumber.  If you are unfamiliar with measuring in board feet, one board foot is a 12 inch by 12 inch by 1 inch piece of wood.   Our mahogany guitar ends up needing 8.333 board feet.  You could build a lot of guitars with one table.

To further put this in perspective lets look at the yield of a single mahogany tree.  Lets assume a mature tree, 30 inches in diameter  and 50 meters (164 ft) tall(5).  Building fine instruments, we want quartered wood which limits the amount of the tree that we would use for instrument building.  I can't find a good estimate of the difference, but quartered or rift sawn wood, though it makes higher quality lumber, is more wasteful of the log being milled and so we will try and account for that.  Multiple websites talk about the "number of 16 ft logs" obtained from a tree when estimating board feet of lumber.  We are going to use the first from Ohio State (6).   Our mahogany tree should yield about 10 based on its height, but reasonably it wont all be usable and it will narrow as it reaches the top.  Also not every bit of wood will be suitable for building instruments.  Lets say, unscientifically, that out of the whole tree, we can use half and then to reflect on the increased waste of using quarter sawn lumber that we only get the yield of 2.5 logs instead of 5.  I think this seems conservative enough to me to be comfortable with the unscientific nature of our estimate.  This would mean that from that one tree we could expect to harvest 740-810 board feet.  About 89 Guitars.  Assuming 12 guitars a year, I could build for 37 years and consume 5 trees based on our very conservative estimate.

So maybe our drive towards sustainability will have to take a very broad scope.  The actual impact of the guitar you buy is probably pretty small, though it certainly bears consideration and I do think that the impacts are large enough to warrant the effort to mitigate them.  At the same time it is important to focus on all of the considerations that come into the ethics of guitar building, because focusing on one without looking at a larger picture is not going to help us come to an ethical and sustainable place in the world.   My "ethical" North American guitar is really putting money into the pockets of a company that has a history of clear cutting old growth forest at a very unsustainable pace.  I of course am just a luthier and I can't control the construction practices of another continent and even large groups of concerned people couldn't keep Sealaska from clear cutting old growth trees to supply those construction practices.  This brings me back to the other nagging thought that kept me from posting my first draft.

As a community, guitar builders large and small, may not be using huge amounts of lumber, but are we making good use of the lumber that we are using?  The 150 logs cited in the story about Sealaska only references wood used to build guitar tops in the United States.  These are the higher end guitars made by the large manufacturers (things branded Gibson or Martin and "made in America"), but by no means accounts for all guitar construction.  Most of the production of lower end guitars sold in the United States is done outside of the United States (just like everything else).  Samick and Cort produce huge numbers of guitars for companies selling in the United States and around the world (Epiphone, Washburn, Ibanez, etc.).  It is hard to find exact numbers, but Samick's production is so vast they easily complete more guitars in a minute than I could complete over the course of a year.  Several times as many.

That kind of big production requires large quantities of lumber.  That kind of big production is not concerned with making instruments that are as finely crafted as possible, instruments that are going to last and be worth servicing in the future.  That isn't to say that they can't and don't produce any fine quality instruments, but it is saying that their business model is one based on quantity.  This is a business model of unlimited consumption and I think it highlights one of the nuances of sustainability.  150 mahogany trees make 13,000 guitars by our conservative estimate.  A few days worth of production for Samick.

My ethical guitar might remain unethical by some standards (or many, or all, depending on who you are), but no matter what wood is used to construct it, it is still an attempt to move away from a business model based on quantity and consumption.  In my mind any guitar built with quality and longevity in mind lends itself better to sustainability, but it also requires the participation of the people actually buying instruments to make sustainability a real thing.  It would be a cop out to say that because of my small production anything I choose to do is ethical, just like it would be a cop out to say that my utilizing North American wood makes my guitar somehow sustainable.  I do think by the very nature of my business that it is more sustainable, a step in the right direction.

To be meaningful however requires a continued exploration of what it means to be ethical, and how to bring that into practice in my building.  At this point I am not totally sure how to best proceed with that though I do have some ideas.  As a small producer it seems possible to find alternative sources of wood that may not work for mass production.  It might mean building some or all of my guitars with woods that are not the industry standard (something that definitely came into practice with this guitar), but that I still feel make quality guitars and that will mean finding a way to sell those instruments to people who have preconceived notions about what makes a fine guitar.  Notions that are sometimes based more on tradition and cosmetics than on the reality of what actually makes a fine guitar.

I'll leave off with a couple of photos of my North American guitar.  It should be finished any day now and I will try and post a blog about it specifically in a timely fashion.  This won't be the last post I make about the ethics of guitar building, I have some things to explore and I will be talking about it again when I have a little more to say.  Thanks for reading!


Friday, December 11, 2015

Changes for Queen City Guitars

I'm back, still around really, but there have been some significant changes in my life and so what that around refers to is a little different.  Queen City Guitars has a new home these days, I am now residing and building in sunny California, or in the rainy and temperate east bay.  Between moving and setting up my shop and life I haven't found much time to blog, which is to bad because I finished the first guitar out of my personal shop just before I left Denver. 

I am pretty happy with this little parlor, it is almost a shame to have to sell it, but I gotta have money to keep building new ones.  One good thing about the bay, it sure seems like there is more interest in hand built guitars out here.  Short post today, but I am almost done with my "ethical" guitar so I will have to get on those posts again soon.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Lutherie

It is a satisfying feeling, getting a top onto an instrument.  Even more so when it is an instrument involving so many things that you have never done before.  I dont know how you feel, but those F-holes look mighty fine to me.

And then it's just as bad of a feeling to realize something went horribly wrong gluing the top down.  A full centimeter to the left wrong.  Was it that this top has no brace structure to locate it and fix it in place?  Did it skate when the clamping box (called a "go bar deck") came apart mid glue up (a bolt in the base came loose and de-tensioned all of the fiberglass rods holding the top down)?  Why did I not notice this before it was to late?  Why didn't I just put a positioning pin under the tail piece?  Who really cares if people would see it if they took the tail piece off?

The kind of questions that come up when you are doing something, like building a resonator guitar of your own design, for the first time.  The answers matter in the future, but today all that mattered was getting this top off and doing the glue up over.

Out comes my brand new palette knife and my pressure cooker to make some steam, and begins a couple hour lesson in top removal.  For anyone who has ever said that hide glue wont stand up to heat and humidity, I say you are crazy.  As an added bonus, I now know that my glue up method works quite effectively.

I Started out with the palette knife and the pressure cooker, but despite early encouragement it was not enough.  At one point it was actually easier for the palette knife to be pushed through the wood than through the glue joint, the wood had softened up so much more than the glue.  I wish I had taken a picture, but on one side the blade went in at the joint between top and side, but when it came out the other side it was through the lining a couple millimeters above the joint.  Soon I knew I had to move on to bigger guns.

The combination that finally worked was covering the cone hole and turning the inside of the guitar into a sauna while resting this iron on high over the spots I wanted to cut apart with the knife (a different one, because the first kept folding up on itself).  Eventually everything came apart.  Well not everything, all of the glue joints on the sides and the tone ring seemed to have emerged more or less unscathed.

A thirty second mistake and hours of back tracking and repair.

Otherwise, the shop has been going pretty well.  I am way behind on posts I would like to make.  Still working on the ethical guitar posts, hopefully I will have the second installment up soon and I want to go through a repair I did a while back and maybe explain a little bit about resonator guitars while I do that.  In the meantime, here are some photos of what I have been up to.  Thanks for stopping by.

Setting pins to hold down the top while I thin it.

This top is going to look so good, it is a shame to have to cut so much out for the resonator cone.

Back bracing for the walnut guitar.

Cutting the ledge into the Resonator tone ring.

Shiny hardware, mmmm

Gluing in the tone ring with the tone ring mold.

Carved braces for the walnut guitar.

Ready to glue up the top.
A little extra insurance on the X-brace.

Friday, July 17, 2015

An Ethical Guitar: Part One

Walnut side, with a piece of buckshot embedded in it.

I have been kicking the idea around in my head for quite some time now.  How to address some of the difficult questions and realities involved in making guitars.  We live on a planet with finite resources, and with many things which I think most people can agree should not be crassly exploited simply as resources.  Guitar building, like many things, often ventures into some grey areas of consumption that I personally want to take into consideration as I move forward in my endeavors as a luthier.

The side pictured above will be a guitar that I hope to use to start a discussion, with myself and with those interested people reading my blog, about the ethics of what I am building.  I had an idea to build a guitar entirely of North American woods and it seems like the process of building it is as good a way as any of beginning to more actively consider the ethics of my trade. 

The use of the term "ethical" feels a little unnatural to me, and I would assume to anyone reading this.  Currently we are far more used to hearing about things being "green" or "sustainable," so let me start by saying a little about my thoughts towards those catch words and why I am a little shy towards them.  The idea of something being "green" to me feels vague, almost to the point of being useless.  To claim something as "green" it seems one only has to take some arbitrary feature of an object or function and claim that it is better than another arbitrary feature of an older variety.  At best it is an oversimplification of our relationship to the world and the objects that we bring into it and at worst it is a crass marketing con, allowing consumerism to perpetuate itself with a kinder facade.

To some extent, I think that "sustainable" often falls into the same trap, but it does at least offer something of a definition of itself and at least is capable of suggesting that something is not better for the world simply because we have declared it to be better.  In its best use it demands we take active consideration of the ways that the world, ourselves, and the things we bring into the world interact.  I don't think it is often used this way and so I am still hesitant to talk about a "sustainable" guitar, but it is this active appraisal of the processes and materials involved in guitar building that I would like to explore as I construct this instrument.

I want to break this discussion up into parts, to get into things in a little depth and hopefully to make it a bit less overwhelming.  Guitar building broaches a lot of difficult subjects, things like traditional inlay materials (ivory and its "ethical" twin for instance), logging of forests around the world already under pressure from other human activities, even the methods we use to finish instruments.  I think it is also important to talk about economic considerations involved in the manufacture of materials and in the construction of the end product, our guitar.  For the purposes of this blog series, I want to focus specifically on logging and the issues related to that and transition from that into a few thoughts on wood finishing and then what it means to me to run an ethical, "sustainable" business as a woodworker.  To some extent the enquires will be limited in scope.  I am not writing a masters thesis and I do not have time to dedicate to that level of research.  In addition, the guitar I am building in accompaniment with this discussion focuses things on the largest constituent of an acoustic guitar, the wood.  The choice of wood to use in a guitar probably has the most impact on the foot print that its manufacture will create in the world.   It certainly seems to me to be the most controllable element of construction.

In no way will I answer all of my or likely anyone's questions on the broad subject of an ethical guitar, and that is not the point of these blogs.  To meaningfully say something is "ethical" or "sustainable" I think requires that the conversation about what makes it so remain open.  I simply want to begin that conversation and I hope that maybe you'll enjoy the process along with me.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Finish Day!

 Or days...

I really like finishing work, especially the initial stages of it when you are building up the finish.  put a little finish on, drink some coffee, read a little, put some more finish on.  Later you actually have to pay attention and do actual work the whole time, polishing or flat sanding, but right now when the finish is just being laid on it is pretty darn relaxing. 

I haven't, up to this point, made any point of using pore filler on my instruments.  Lots of woods, like the mahogany that this instrument is made out of, have large pores (like those in your skin, but bigger) that have to be filled with something or else they show up as small dimples in the final finish.  Lots of people use a separate material from the finish to fill these pores before applying finish.  I have been going a different route, and just use the finish itself to fill the pores.  You apply coats of the finish and build it up, until the finish in the pores is higher than the surface of the wood, and then sand back so everything is level. 

Previously I have only done it with shellac and then french polished it, a process of slowing applying additional shellac and buffing it to a high gloss.  The process of french polish moves some finish material around the surface of the wood and acts on its own to fill pores.  This is the first time I have tried brushing nitrocellulose lacquer onto a guitar and I am intrigued and a little worried how well it will fill the pores.

I have sprayed lacquer to fill pores before and the concept is definitely possible, but it is worrisome because finishing is by far the most time consuming step of building a guitar.  I have been pretty slow on the actual construction of this particular guitar, but when I am comfortable in the construction process I use I think finishing an instrument will take about as long as actually building the thing, although thankfully a lot of that time is hands off.  When I put the last coats of lacquer on tomorrow, this body will get hung up and I will not touch it for almost three weeks.  During that time, the lacquer will cure, the last of the solvents in it will off gas and it will shrink back on the wood, the lacquer in the pores will shrink back into the pores.  If I put enough on, I will flat sand it and the pores will disappear, like the mountains of Antarctica under an ice sheet and I will sand it up to a mirror finish and be glad.  If not its more lacquer and more waiting.  Since I want to sell this guitar sooner rather than later,  I am really hoping I get enough on (not to much though, a thin finish is important for a fine sounding instrument). 

I'll leave you with a few pictures of one of two guitars I am starting on right now.  This will be the resonator I was drawing plans for.  Soon I will have a post about the other guitar, which I am pretty excited about.  Thanks for checking in.