Just a 12-string beauty pageant

When Gareth was in the workshop a couple of weeks ago we managed to find time to do a photoshoot of Esmerelda as well as the Policeman’s Boot Bench. I’ve wanted to have set of high quality photos of Esme for some time, so was delighted to see what Gareth had done. One of the benefits of getting a photographer in to take photos is that they bring a fresh perspective and spot details or angles which you (as the maker) can often overlook. So it was with this shoot.

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Esmerelda – super jumbo sized 12 string acoustic guitar

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The body shape was inspired by pre-war era Gibson guitars, with a large rounded lower bout, tight waist, and small square shoulders.

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Inlay of morther of pearl, black pearl, gold pearl, green abalone, and red abalone, on cocobolo headstock veneer.

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The Indian rosewood fretboard is developing some nice character after a decade of playing

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Rosewood/ maple/ rosewood soundhole decoration, and cocobolo bridge, on European spruce soundboard

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Mahogany neck, with a rosewood grain filler, coat of shellac, and waterbased lacquer

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Indian rosewood back, with maple and rosewood binding to match the soundhole decoration.

Don’t fret, just keep slotting – the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw on test

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The new Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw

I find it hard to believe that I first floated the idea of a dedicated luthier’s saw to Mark Harrell three years ago, in many ways it feels like the conversation started much more recently than that. Slotting fret boards for guitars (and other fretted instruments) is one of the most critical stages of a build, determining whether the instrument will intonate properly. For all of the jigs on the market to help locate the cut at the correct point of the fret board, I’ve never understood why, or been satisfied with, the proliferation of cheap saws to make these most critical of cuts. And so I decided to reach out to the best saw maker I know and see if he was interested in giving luthiers a high quality saw which could handle fret slotting duties as well as other fine cross-cut work.

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That conversation ended up lasting two years as specifications were circulated, adjusted, and ideas tested. We welcomed good friend and fellow luthier Susan Chillcott to the conversation, and continued to work through exactly what the specification for a fret slotting saw would look like. A protoype arrived on my workbench in March 2016, followed by the first production model in August 2016. And testing continued.

This is a test (this is very testing)

The best way to really get to grips with a tool is to live with it and test it on real life projects and in as many different applications or circumstances as possible. And here is what I found interesting – although the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw was intended for fret slotting and other fine lutherie work, I’ve found myself reaching for it repeatedly for furniture work too. The depth stop was a real boon when cutting out the stopped dados in my School Box, and again came in handy when defining the tenon shoulders for the legs of my staked saw benches. So although this is marketed as a “luthier’s saw”, it is far more versatile than that, and is perfect for anywhere that a very fine furniture grade cross cut is desirable.

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The Primary Mission

And yes, it slots fret boards too. Far better than any of the cheap (read: disposable) fret slotting saws I’ve used in the past. Mark’s skill in sharpening saws is no secret, and the luthier’s saw has been sharpened to perfection. The saw has that familiar Bad Axe balance of aggression and precision, requiring only a couple of strokes to cut to the appropriate depth for fret wire, and despite the aggression it still leave behind a complete absence of blowout on the exit side of the kerf. In fact, this saw leaves the cleanest kerf I’ve seen on a fret slotting saw, by some measure. And that hammer-set kerf has been dialled in to deliver a 0.022″ kerf for most modern fretwire tangs. On a precision tool like this, getting the fine details right is the difference between a saw that works, and something that looks pretty but will stay on the shelf. Bad Axe have got all of the details right, and this saw is a workhorse which will stay in my tool chest until I’m ready to hang up my apron for the final time.

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Slotting a maple fret board

The open tote feels identical to my Bad Axe dovetail saw, and fits the hand perfectly with no hard transitions, flats or corners to cause fatigue, leaving you free to concentrate on the cut and not on the saw. Mark also did a great job on improving the plastic depth stop used by other fret slotting saws. The Bad Axe depth stop is substantially thicker than the plastic alternative used by other manufacturers, which gives a greater surface area to register on the workpiece, and instead of standard acrylic commonly seen, uses a Polyethylene polymer with a high lubricity. The difference is instantly noticeable – when you bottom out of the cut the depth stop glides across the work piece without catching or scuffing, preventing the saw from sinking deeper and leaving no mark on the work. The brass thumbscrews cinch down authorititvely and in many months of testing I never felt the deth stop slip in use.

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There are many ways to slot a fretboard, and many jigs which claim to make life easier. I recently took the plunge and ordered a fret slotting jig from Tony Wright, an engineer and luthier of 28 years, and the brains behind Necx Products and Lakestone Guitars. This is the same jig as we used in Totnes, and is the perfect pairing for the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw. Most jigs rely on a guide board and locating pin arrangement to deliver the saw at the right location for each fret slot. This ties the user to just the scale lengths the jig manufacturer supports, and also requires additional cost (not to mention storing additional guide boards) if you want to build to a different scale length. In contrast, Tony’s fret slotting jig uses a vernier scale and a free moving carriage to move the saw along the fretboard, so any scale length can be cut without the need for additional accessories.

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The vernier scale enables the user to precisely locate the saw for each cut

As a combination, this really cannot be beaten. The fine gearing of the carriage assembly on the jig means that the Bad Axe saw can be positioned by increments of 0.1mm before making the cut. When you have an incredibly precise saw, you only get the benefit of that precision when you can be targeted about where it is deployed. Having moved the carriage to the right location the carriage locks down tight with a large brass knob, and the cut can be made. All in all, a fret board can be cut with absolute precision in little more than 30 minutes.

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The carriage locks down to prevent the cut from wandering

European Woodwork Show

I will have the Bad Axe Luthier’s Saw and the fret slotting jig with me at the European Woodwork Show next month, as well as a supply of fret boards. If you would like to have a go at slotting a fretboard do stop by and say hello.

The Luthier’s Saw is now on the Bad Axe website and is available for order.

Disclosure: I assisted Bad Axe in the design and development of the Luthier’s Saw, and my sole payment for that work is the saw pictured above. I receive no commission or payment based on future sales of the saw, and no payment  for writing about the saw. All content on Over the Wireless about the Luthier’s Saw is my own unbiased opinion.

Over the Wireless, over the air waves

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While I was at Handworks I was asked to take part in a podcast for the Modern Woodworkers Association. The podcast (MWA Issue 140) is now available for streaming here. My interview starts 40 minutes in, and Issue 140 also includes segments with Anne, Chris Kuehn, Colin Bullock, Jason Weaver, Jim, Peter Galbert, and Ryan Saunders amongst others.

So, if you want to hear me talk about the John Brown book, my favourite woodworking tools, what I think are the biggest difficulties for self taught woodworkers, why we shouldn’t be afraid of failure, and offend Garth Brooks fans the world over, then click through.

Ten Years on the Path

 

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Five years after my course in Totnes, I went back to visit the workshop and took the guitar I’d built on the course for a reunion with Phil – my tutor.

Exactly 10 years ago today I started woodwork for the very first time. I remember it clearly, because it was the first day of term at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking. As a former historian, I like dates, and I like origin stories. The tenth anniversary of my time in Totnes seems like a good opportunity to revisit my own.

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I had finished law school, and decided to take a year out before starting work at the Leeds office of an international law firm. Totnes was the ultimate destination for that gap year, although first I worked in the construction industry for seven months to save for the lutherie tuition fees. In hindsight, a guitar building course was probably an unusual destination for me – although I’d grown up watching my maternal grandfather building all manner of things in his shed, I’d never had much inclination towards woodwork myself at that point. And although the secondary school I attended had a brand new craft, design and technology block including several well appointed workshops, there wasn’t actually any shop class being taught when I was there. I imagine that is the same for schools across the country. So I didn’t have anything in the way of experience, or even a long standing interest, in woodwork prior to starting at Totnes. What I did have though was a deep fascination in the mechanics of how stringed musical instruments worked, partly from having played violin for many years. Also, the husband of my music theory teacher was a violin and viola maker, and every Wednesday evening when I would go round for music theory lessons I would see rows of violins and violas in various states of completion hanging in the front upstairs window. So building musical instruments was something I knew people actually did.

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Laurie – my ’59 Blackguard type build

The experience of seeing those partially built instruments came back to me years later, as I finished law school and tried to decide how I would spend the next twelve months. Totnes is renowned as being one of the best places in the UK to study lutherie, and I very happily signed up to the 2007 summer class. I knew the course would be rewarding and challening in equal measure. What I did not anticipate when I took my first steps onto this path, where it would lead. That twelve week class was an incredible immersion in handtool work (and you can see the course photos here), and a mindblowing introduction to lutherie. Designing your own instrument, starting with only a pencil and paper, then building it by hand, is almost indescribable. But more than that, it sparked a passion for making things with my hands that if anything, is even stronger ten years on.

When I look back at past ten years, what really surprises me is the breadth of my woodwork experience. If I’m being brutally honest, I always thought I’d have built a lot more guitars by now. But that is more than offset by the other experiences I’ve been lucky to have. Embarking on the class at Totnes, my focus was purely on the guitar before me rather than any wider view of woodwork. But in the years that followed, furniture projects started to catch my eye, and then I stumbled upon the wealth of historic information published by Lost Art Press. I’m still at heart a historian, and furniture building offers a synthesis of history and craft which satisfies both the hands and the mind. Although far from my mind when I first went to Totnes, woodwork has since become the main outlet for my interests as a historian. Nor did I expect woodwork to result in a writing career, either with Furniture & Cabinet Making, or the John Brown book with Lost Art Press. I suppose that what I’ve learned is to be alive to opportunities and to know when to say yes.

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Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

But when I think about what I’ve gained most from these ten years on the path, it would be the ideas of self sufficiency, and community that have been most important. Being able to (slowly) furnish my home with long -lasting pieces I’ve made myself, and also the strength of community I have enjoyed. The woodwork community has been a great source of friendship, encouragement, and inspiration. And so it feels very apt that only a week after my tenth anniversary of starting woodwork I’ll be flying out to Iowa for Handworks 2017.

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James McConnell, writer and curator of the Daily Skep.

Looking back, I’m very glad that a nearly-25 year old me took that leap in the dark down in south Devon. Because that first step has enriched the past ten years, introduced me to many wonderful people, and to ideas which continue to shape the way I try to live on a daily basis.

A Tale of Four Hammers

I don’t often write posts dedicated to tools. Not because I don’t love woodworking tools (I do – nice tools are one of the best things about woodwork) but because on the whole I’m more interested in processes, in how the tools are used and what they contribute to a build. But sometimes it is fun to do something a bit different, and after clinching the bottom and lid for the Apprentice’s Memory Box I’ve been thinking about the the relationship I have with my hammers. Most people, I’m sure, will remember the post when Chris suggested that hammers were as personal as “things you put in your nether regions“. And while most woodworkers save their superlatives for planes and saws, a good hammer can be a beautiful thing.

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My first hammer – a dainty ball pein hammer which used to belong to my Grandfather. She ain’t pretty, but she does the job.

There’s not much call for hammers in lutherie, apart from seating frets in their slots (for which I use a dedicated fret hammer). Sure, a hammer is a useful thing to keep around, but it isn’t what I’d call essential. So for years the only hammer in my tool box was a small ball pein hammer that used to belong to my grandfather. After decades of hard use it is unlikely to win any beauty contests, but for my limited needs at the time it did pretty well. To be honest I’m not sure I asked any more of it than gently tapping shell inlay into a cavity, or knocking in fretboard locating pins prior to glue-up, but it worked fine for those rare moments I needed it, and is still in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

It was signing up to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest class in 2014 that made me realise I needed a beefier hammer. That dainty ball pein hammer was entirely inadequate when it came to knocking in 6d nails for the bottom boards, or even the 4d nails I used to hold the top dust seal in place. So I dived into the boxes of tools I’d inherited from my grandfather and found a larger claw hammer. The sticker said Stanley, but I’m guessing the hammer was a modern product – it feels pretty unbalanced, the handle is far from comfy, and the face is perfectly flat. Not that I noticed these imperfections at the time. As I say, I was inexperienced in the ways of nail punishing.

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The small claw hammer by C Hammond of Philadelphia works like a dream when it comes to delicate work.

My first encounter with a great hammer came in late August 2015, just after the Apprentice was born. Among the gifts the Apprentice received from friends and family to celebrate being earthside, was a small claw hammer made in the nineteenth century by C Hammond of Philadelphia. This hammer currently resides in my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, on loan from the Apprentice (although it will be returned to her as soon as she enters the workshop). For driving headless brads and other small nails, this hammer is perfect – the balance is ideal for delicate work, and it instantly showed how lacking my other hammers were. It was a revelation, but one that meant I couldn’t go back to my Stanley hammer-shaped anchor. I needed a large hammer for driving nails into casework, particularly as I’d already resolved that 2016 would be the year I finally worked my way through the projects in the Joiner & Cabinet Maker.

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Up close – 8oz hammer by C Hammond

Unfortunately it is a long bus ride from Birmingham (U.K) to the nearest Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meeting, or most of Chris’ other suggestions to find a good hammer. So I decided that commissioning a blacksmith to make me a hammer to my exact specification would be the only way to go. The ideal opportunity presented itself when I started thinking about writing a follow up to the Dancing About Architecture article for Furniture & Cabinet Making. How could I put myself on the customer-side of the maker/customer relationship? I needed to commission something, but what? A larger hammer, obviously. I’ve admired John Switzer’s work for years, and knew that he could solve my current large hammer inadequacy. So we discussed a brief, including engravings of historic hammer patterns, and identifying all of my key requirements. Two months later, the last large hammer I will ever buy arrived from Beulah, Colorado. Like the smaller C Hammond hammer, the Black Bear Forge hammer is perfectly balanced and does exactly what I ask of it. At 16oz it drives larger nails with authority, the domed head reduces the risk of “frenching” the work, and the carved handle fits the hand just right.

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My 16oz hammer from Black Bear Forge. The last hammer I will ever buy – it is simply that good.

It is easy to look at something as apparently simple as a hammer, and to assume that all hammers are born equal. Afterall, it is essentially a chunk of metal on the end of a stick. But that would be to gravely underestimate the blacksmith’s art. Poise and balance are as important to hammers as they are to ballet dancers, and having had the privilege to use great hammers, as well as hammer-shaped objects, it seems to me that a great hammer wants you to get out of the way and let it do its job. I can clinch nails with my Black Bear Forge hammer till the cows come home, and never feel the slightest fatigue in my hammer hand or arm. A poorly balanced hammer on the otherhand requires steering and fighting in order to drive those nails, and tires you out faster than it should.

None of this is to to say that my perfect hammers are yours – Chris was right when he said that hammers were intensely personal. But making the move from a big box store hammer might just be a revelation. And if you can’t find a secondhand hammer you like? Well, there are some very talented blacksmiths out there…

Carnival of Sorts

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When I was 14 I fell entirely in love with R.E.M. Not the big hits (“Man on the Moon“, “Everybody Hurts“, or “Losing My Religion“) although those would come later, but the southern gothic of their earlier work on the I.R.S label. I still count “Reckoning” as one of my all time favourite albums. Peter Buck is one of the main reasons I first picked up a guitar, which means that R.E.M are one of the reasons I build guitars and furniture today. It is, I think, no coincidence that the first guitar I ever built was a 12 string. I never realised at the time that this would be the destination the path lead to. I’m not sure that 14 year old me had ever considered any form of woodwork, let alone building guitars. And listening to “Murmur” on loop is probably not the obvious starting point to building staked furniture or hanging out in Karl Holtey’s workshop. But this is where it all began.

Because ever since I first heard the opening chords to “Carnival of Sorts” my dream guitar has always been a Rickenbacker 360, just like Peter Buck plays. Then I saw footage of Jeff Buckley playing “Vancouver” on a Ricky during the Mystery White Boy tour, and and James Iha playing Ricky for “1979“, and of course Lydia Loveless toting a blue Ricky for that incendiary live performance of “Really Wanna See You“. And the deal was well and truly sealed. Sometimes you just have to listen to the universe when it speaks to you.

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Last week, 20 years after I first fell in love with R.E.M, this Rickenbacker 360 arrived. In the 2007 “colour of the year” limited edition blue burst – my favourite Rickenbacker finish, and also one of the rarest. I spent the weekend jamming through R.E.M song after R.E.M song, breaking off only to play my way through my favourite tracks of “Grace” by Jeff Buckley. Simply put, this is one of the finest guitars I’ve ever played. The level of perfection achieved by the luthiers at Rickenbacker (and unlike many production manufacturers, Rickenbacker still make their guitars largely by hand) is staggering. Yet the guitar retains a lot of soul – this doesn’t feel sterile like some high end instruments can. I now know what I’m chasing with each of my guitar builds.

But more importantly, this guitar represents an important link. It connects the 14 year old who spent countless hours trying to decipher those early R.E.M records with only the cover art and liner notes to help (this was pre-internet, after all) with the craft I pursue today. The instrument currently before me represents everything that made me take the first step onto the path of building things with my own hands, and also the future. What can I create with the Ricky, and how can it inspire me when I’m at my workbench? These are questions that I can’t wait to answer.

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Prying open my design eye

I have a confession to make. When it comes to furniture, there are gaping holes in my design vocabulary, and my understanding of furniture design is not as strong as it is for lutherie. This is only natural, given that my entry point to woodwork was building acoustic guitars, but it is far from ideal.

I’ve been thinking about design a fair bit recently, and have been working on prying open my design eye – to expand my design vocabulary both in terms of how I approach working up designs, but also how I interrogate the designs of others. The Dancing About Architecture series (which you can read here and here) are part of this train of thought, and I hope to write more over the coming months about design. When I talk about design vocabulary I don’t mean the nuts and bolts or practicalities of making furniture – dovetails, mortise and tenon etc. Instead, what I mean by design vocabulary is more the form of a piece, the lines, proportions, materials and stylistic elements which give shape and character to a piece of furniture.

So far, prying open my design eye has involved two strands – the first is to improve my furniture design abilities, while the second is to expand my design vocabulary. In terms of the first strand, I’ve just finished reading the excellent By Hand and Eye by Geo Walker and Jim Toplin, and am about to delve into the worked exercises in By Hound and Eye by the same authors.This element of my design education is something I’ll write about at more length separately.

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By Hand & Eye and a bottle of good single malt got me through the dark winter months.

For the second strand, I’ve been trying to absorb as many different forms as I can, and my focus throughout this design self-education is deliberately aimed at furniture. Because I came to lutherie as a musician, and as an avid music lover, I have to a good degree internalised an understanding of guitar design as well as the cultural connotations of those designs (although there is always more to learn). I fully understand why I respond to different guitars – why  I consider the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster to be the finest production guitar ever made, why the Rickenbacker 360 is to me pure perfection, or what it is about the two-tone green curves of a Gretsch Double Anniversary that I find achingly cool.  In stark contrast, because I have come to furniture building much later, and without those decades of cultural absorption, I feel I know a lot less about furniture design and the associations (or cultural baggage) of those designs. And because at this point I’m interested in internalising furniture forms rather than construction techniques, I’ve been ignoring joinery and construction methods, unless these are part of the express form of the piece.

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When I designed Esmerelda I drew on over a decade of playing guitar and being an avid music lover – the tight waist, small square shoulders, and rounded lower bout echo pre-war guitars by Gibson, while the internal bracing reflects more modern practices. 

What has been interesting about the process so far is that as I have cast around my net to research and absorb furniture I’m not familiar with, I’ve found it much more useful to look at designs of pieces that I find challenging or aesthetically uncomfortable than I have to look at furniture styles I respond positively to.

For instance, I know that I like campaign furniture, 17th century carved oak furniture (as popularised by Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander), Greene & Greene furniture, and I’m on the verge of building my first piece of staked furniture. Oh, and Windsor rocking chairs, because to be tired to rocking chairs is to be tired of life. That seems like a reasonably diverse base from which to start. I could probably, at a push give some explanation for why these furniture styles appeal. With campaign furniture, I like the clean lines, the robust feel the pieces evoke without being hulking, the practical solutions to the issues of withstanding tropical climates and being portable, and of course the beautiful brass hardware. My grandfather was a Major in the Indian army during the Second World War – he was the most recent in a line of Scottish working class men in our family who became professional soldiers and who served in the Indian sub-continent. So I also find an emotional resonance in campaign furniture.

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Campaign furniture is one of my favourite forms – this piece really resonates for me.

But when I look at pieces I like, I find it hard to dig too deeply into what appeals about the form. In contrast, when I find a piece that challenges me or which I find uncomfortable, I find it much easier to critically approach the form and ask exactly what it is that I do or don’t respond to. When I started this exercise I did what countless woodworkers before me have done, and took a broad survey of Arts and Crafts furniture. And actually, because Arts and Crafts was such a broad church, this has provided me with an excellent starting point to approach a rich tapestry of different design languages., because European, British, and American designers found a bewildering number of ways to apply the central tenets of the movement. So the survey then becomes a way to examine how a central design philosophy can be used to create wildly diverging pieces (seriously, contrast Rennie Macintosh with Gustav Stickley, and then contrast them both with Greene & Greene).

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My take on the finest production guitar ever made – the Fender ’59 Black Guard Telecaster

I think this is an interesting and valuable exercise – it is all too easy to stick with the comfortable and the familiar, which from a design perspective can be a mistake. Because if you have a small design vocabulary then not only might you be missing out on something that would completely re-frame your experience, but also there is a danger that your work becomes an echo chamber in miniature, constantly repeating the same limited motif or design elements. That is not to say that as makers we have to actually build in many different styles – there is absolutely nothing wrong to dedicating your work time to just one style or furniture form. But having a wider frame of reference, and internalising a variety of furniture forms, gives a richer understanding and more diverse array of design options at the workbench or drawing board. And if nothing else, that wider vocabulary may simply allow a maker to articulate why they prefer the furniture forms or styles they focus on. Which is no bad thing.

My design vocabulary is starting to grow, and I want this critical evaluation exercise to become a regular and sustainable part of my experience as a maker. Which means constantly looking at different furniture forms, including those that are more removed from my current sphere of experience, both in terms of more historic forms (because history will always be a powerful lure), and also non-Western forms. Time to look up some Japanse furniture forms I think…