Day 1: The Making of Ann-Marie (Acoustic Guitar)
I stepped onto the beautiful historic grounds of Montsalvat and headed through peacocks and huge scary geese (it’s mating season) to the THOMAS LLOYD GUITAR WORKSHOP (www.thomaslloydguitars.com.au) to begin my 10 week acoustic guitar making course.
My aim is to create a custom acoustic steel-string guitar, to be used for the recording of my next studio album, and for the rest of my lifetime. It must have a cut away. Body size should be suitable for a small female, but big enough to be beefy in sound. It shall be used for playing a mix of country, blues, folk, delicate fingerpicking, hard strumming and everything in between. It needs to produce a deep bass sound when my palm hits bridge. I’m looking for a Nick Charles Santa Cruz kind of sound – bright, but warm and rich.
First things first, WHO and WHERE is Thomas Lloyd? I was greeted by a chap called Chris Wynne. I couldn’t help but ask “Where’s this Tom fella, I want the expert,” and got off to a great start with my smart-aleck self on day 1. Thomas is Chris’s late father, a singer mainly, not a luthier. While I’m naming my guitar out of my mother, Chris named his guitar workshop after his father. That’s who Tom is. Chris IS the expert, as easily discovered when working and talking with him.
I wasn’t expecting to start making anything today. Being day one I was thinking I’d be researching woods, tones, shapes, dimensions, creating the right design for my guitar, drawing plans and what more. But Chris Wynne is a walking encyclopaedia. You ask him a question and he gives you the answer. It’s quicker to ask Chris for answers than go hunting in a book. He gave me a tour of the workshop and we got straight into my new guitar. We discussed my needs and he directed me based on my preferences in style, shape, tone.
Selecting the wood for the back and sides of the guitar:
It’s a detailed process selecting wood for the making of a guitar. I can’t begin to understand the science behind how the wood type affects the tone, structure, strength, malleability, and longevity of a guitar. Chris has a selection of Australian woods including, Cooba, Tasmanian Fiddleback Blackwood, Sheoak, Tasmanian Tiger Myrtle and more. The back and sides of the guitar are generally made from the same material, and I was to select these today.
As I am making a cut away in my guitar, my selection was narrowed down due to malleability. I chose Tasmanian Blackheart Sassafras from his woodshed out the back. Sassafras comes out with a gorgeous array of colours, from a light purple grey to green, cream, and if the tree grows a fungus through the middle of it, it’s riddled with black stains giving it the name “Blackheart Sassafras”. I can’t wait for it to be polished up later down the track, it will look extraordinary. My photos don’t do the colour justice.
The two pieces of wood needed to create the back of the guitar are about 4.5mm thick. You open them up to make a “book join”. To join the pieces of wood I had to create completely straight edges. I first used the bandsaw (this is the scary one you can cut off fingers with….) to cut 25mm off the inner edges as there were several knots in the wood that made it structurally weak. I used an edger to get straighter edges, but then had to sand by hand to get an even straighter, more accurate edge (my arms will be buff after this). Once the straightest edges were created, I glued the two pieces together, side by side, and clamped them down. This is to be left to dry for several hours.
Dodgy Mc Dodgyson – when I unclamped the pieces up they hadn’t fastened evenly at one end (my dodgy clamp job), and I had to redo a section of the gluing……. ah!
The guitar shape makes a difference to the guitar sound, and as I discovered, different guitar shapes are used for different style playing. Each shape has a name. The Triple O for example, is used for fingerpicking styles. My Maton guitar has a Dreadnought shape with a cutaway. This is a pretty common shape and it’s got a deep sound to it. My Takamine, has a quite a small body shape, very rounded, and is quite thin, so it doesn’t produce such big sounds. I’m going to design a “CA” body style (short for Classical Acoustic). It has a relatively small body (good for a chick), but the difference is it’s quite DEEP, which allows for a bigger sound. Once I selected the shape, Chris has frames that would be used as a template/mould to shape the guitar accordingly.
Chris had templates for the two side pieces of wood. I traced roughly around these (he says these will be worked on later so only the basic shape was necessary at this point) and cut them out on the bandsaw. The sides were 4.5mm thick, but needed to be 2mm thick, precisely. I used a drum sander to repeatedly put the sides through, slowly sanding more and more thickness from the wood. I had to keep checking to get the precise measurement with a digital ruler (never seen one of them before). 2.08mm (yes 2 millimetres .08) was not good enough. Chris said I’d definitely notice when the time would come to bend the cutaway, as 0.08 would make it even more challenging to bend. So it was important that I got the sides of the guitar to be no thicker than 2.00mm, even if I got it to 1.99mm that would be better than anything over 2mm. This took a while. Lots of checking and sussing out the machinery. It’s handy that I’ve used some pieces of equipment before, as I did Design and Technology in school, and my father restores wood as a hobby, so he’s shown me bits and bobs, but it can take a while to get familiar with particulars of a machine, and how much pressure to apply when sanding. I had to listen for sanding noises versus squeaks from the drum sander, to tell me whether I needed to wind the drum sander onto the wood more or back it off. There’s a fine line.
Once the side pieces were thinned they could then be bent.
Bending the Sides:
I’ve always wondered how luthiers create the curves of the sides of an acoustic guitar. I suspected it would be a slow, delicate process, and wondered how it’s possible to shape the wood without breaking it, and keeping it in that shape. I used a side bending machine. It’s amazing, it feels like such old technology, I felt like I was back in the olden days, when cars had wooden wheels, yet the machinery is incredibly effective.
First, you insert your choice of template for the body style (the rounded wooden frame – “CA” shape) into the machine, so the sides have a guide to bend around. You then turn the 200watt lamps on to create a heated environment for the wood to heat up and enhance its malleability. To create further malleability you wet the sides, just running them under the tap briefly. Place both pieces of the sides of the guitar in between two thin pieces of metal. Together, the wood and the metal are placed into the machine, sitting over the top of the of the template frame.
The sides that wrap around to create the back of the guitar were bent first. You do this by pressing your elbows onto the wood and directing them downwards over the frame, at the same time, you pull the block of wood on the machine which is loaded with springs, and it guides the sides over and the template with great force. The spring loaded block of wood forces the metal and the sides to mould into the shape of the template frame.
The bends that create the front of the guitar are tighter than those that create the back of the guitar, so I had to leave the lamp on to cook the wood for several minutes before copying the same bending procedure. The bend is to be done slowly, being sure not to split the wood or tear it. Listening is required, to hear for tears, but thankfully I bent the sides slowly enough to avoid this problem (otherwise…. I’d probably have to start again… and this will be a possibility for the cutaway…. as I believe they are VERY challenging).
After some more cooking time, you tighten the drill part on the top of the machine. This clamps down to press a bend in the centre.
I left the sides clamped in the machine in that position for an hour or two.
Upon removing the sides from the machine, I then clamped each side into the template/mould. It’s important to do clamp it to the frame again, because as the timber cools down and dries outside after being in the side bending machine, it tends to shift out of shape. The sides will be left clamped for a week till I return for my next class.
Creating Bracing for the Back of the Guitar:
Bracing needs to be created for support inside on the back piece of the guitar. I needed to create 4 strips of wood, using Queensland Maple. Queensland maple is structurally reliable and tonally appropriate. I created two 8mm wide x 14mm high x the length across the guitar plus an inch either side and two strips 20mm wide by 10mm high by the length across the guitar. The process firstly included cutting them to size on the band saw, then used the drum sander to get the right width. These strips were then placed on a mould of the back of a guitar. The back of a guitar is slightly curved, so the bracing needs to be curved to create support for the inside of the guitar.
I ruled up straight edges and used a hand plane to shave the mass off the strips.
I then used the belt sander to take some more of the bulk off, and design bracing to fit in the back of the guitar mould.
This was finetuned sanding by hand to get a curve. You want the bracing to sit very snug in the mould so minimal stress is put on the guitar when binding the bracing.
This concludes day 1.
It’s super exciting. I can’t believe how quickly it comes along. Time just flies.
If I didn’t have to go away touring and gigging, I could get the guitar done super quick. But thankfully Chris is very flexible and relaxed about timing and I’ll be working on this guitar into early next year.
I can anticipate building such a beautiful guitar. It’s a feeling I can’t quite put into words. If you’ve ever been contemplating making a guitar, get into it, do it, don’t keep putting it off.