Looking back to move forwards: 2014 in review

The end of a calendar year is always a special time for bloggers; lists of favourite albums to compile (the excellent Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless, is my top lp of 2014 in case you were wondering), the experiences of the past 12 months to be reviewed, and lessons learnt to be catalogued.

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Laurie, my black guard Telecaster type build

2014 was a rich year in terms of experiences and achievements. I completed two projects off my bucket list; Laurie (my blackguard Telecaster type guitar) and the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. The subscriber list to this blog tripled, and I had over 10,000 hits in 12 months (small fry for some, but a significant increase on 2013 readership levels). There was also the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course with Chris Schwarz, and two articles published with Furniture & Cabinetmaking Magazine. Please understand, I’m not recounting this to brag (lord knows that my year was positively uneventful compared to some) but simply to collate the experiences of the past 12 months. This was a pretty good year.

But actually, something far more important than all of the above achievements and experiences happened last year. Something which I never would have expected, and 2014 is the year in which woodwork changed completely for me. Not because I learned endless new skills (although I did learn plenty of new techniques) or because my woodwork improved dramatically (although it definitely improved). But because of what I found in the course of writing this blog and attending the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course.

What did I find, you ask? In a word, community.

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Derek Jones of N.E.W, fellow luthier Sue Johnson, myself, Chris Schwarz, and Paul Mayon of N.E.W

To be honest, when I started writing in August 2013 I didn’t really think that the internet needed another woodwork blog.  And for the first few months I happily hollered into the void of the internet, not expecting the void to holler back (let’s ignore any pithy quotes by Nietzsche, OK?). Anyway, woodwork by its very nature tends to be a solitary activity, so that’s all fine. But slowly over the course of 2014 I discovered, and then became overwhelmed by, the sense of community created by makers, tool manufacturers, and writers. The willingness to share information, discuss experiences, and most importantly, to encourage and inspire each other, is life affirming and oh so valuable.

My 2014 was touched by countless people involved in the craft, and I do hope that a failure to mention anyone is not taken as a lack of gratitude. But particular mention must go to Chris Schwarz (without whom I doubt many people would be reading this blog), Paul Mayon and Derek Jones of New English Workshop, and Jamie Ward of Warwickshire College, all of whom were generous with their time and knowledge far beyond what would have been reasonable to ask of them. Also on the honour roll are Chris Kuehn of Sterling Tool Works, Mark Harrell of Bad Axe Tool Works, and Jason Thigpen of Texas Heritage Woodworks, who not only make some of the best tools going but have been incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging, and are top chaps with whom I very much want to share some beers (definitely in 2016, if not before). And by no means last, in terms of fellow bloggers, Anne of All Trades (for my money the most important hand tool blogger after Chris Schwarz). I am genuinely indebted to each of these people and am endlessly grateful for their encouragement and friendship over the past 12 months.

And you know something? When people talk about their fears of the craft dying out, I know that things are going to be ok. Not because there isn’t a lot of work to do to preserve traditional skills and the many woodwork crafts. But because under the stewardship of the people named above, not to mention the rest of the community of woodworkers, I am sure that the skills and desire to build, is safeguarded for another generation.

And so even though I am physically alone in the workshop, the events of 2014 mean that whenever I am working I know that I am connected to both the craftsmen (and women) that went before me (that all important idea of heritage) and the present day international community of woodworkers.

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My Anarchist’s Tool Chest, as the final coat of lacquer dried.

So what does 2015 hold in store? The year is less than a day old, and yet it is already shaping up to be a full one. First up is a new workshop, as we complete our move from the West Country to Birmingham, and I am looking forward to fitting out a new workshop to be the space I’ve been dreaming of for the past 7 years (or as close to that dream as practicable). In terms of projects, now that the Anarchist’s Tool Chest is complete, my main focus is going to be on the parlour guitar build I started writing about in early 2014. Expect to see plenty of details on this here blog as the build continues. But I am not going to neglect my journey into joinery either – with the new house comes the need for new furniture and I am planning to build the riveted strong trunk from Chris Schwarz’s Campaign Furniture book, along with a pair of Roorkee chairs from the same book. In July I will return to Warwickshire College to attend Roy Underhill’s Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson course, and you can expect the blog to feature daily updates from the class. And hopefully also more articles in print.

So plenty of things to build, skills to learn, and of saw dust to make. And a community to which I will continue to contribute in my own small way. This is going to be fun, and I hope that you, dear reader, will continue to come along for the ride.

Good Lord, Laurie

It’s taken longer for me to get round to this post than I would have hoped, mainly due to moving house and settling into a new workshop. The unpacking is finally over, and I’ll be back to making saw dust very soon. In the meantime, in my last post I promised a beauty pageant for the recently completed telecaster.

I can’t keep referring to her as just “the telecaster” though. Musical instruments deserve to have a name. A well made instrument (and I am talking about well made instruments, not mass-produced plywood guitars) has character, maybe even a soul. Musical instruments are not just a means by which a musician makes a sound – when you play a well made instrument you enter into a conversation with the instrument, with the instrument affecting your choice of notes and phrasing. It becomes alive. And all living things deserve a name.

Which is all a long winded way of introducing Laurie. Maybe she was named after Good Lord Lorrie by the Turnpike Troubadours (a constant part of my repatoire), maybe not. I have no idea where the names for my instruments come from,  but none of that is important, anyway.

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Birdseye maple neck and fretboard, with decal applied between coats of lacquer, bone nut, and Spertzal locking tuners.

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A close up of the dyed sycamour veneer between the maple fretboard and neck.

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The fretboard dots, and side position dots, are black Tahiti pearl.

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The black and white theme continues with the three ply scratch plate…

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…and onto the buffalo horn control knobs.

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The Gotoh bridge has adjustable, lockable, brass saddles for better intonation while maintaining that mid-50’s look.

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A close up of the tuners and the maple neck.

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As well as the birdseye figuring, the neck also has some lovely subtle flame, which a coat of amber shellac really brought out.

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Full back shot.

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The neck plate is engraved to match the headstock decal.

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A good looking blonde – the butterscotch colour work lets the grain show through.

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A Good Looking Blonde

After almost exactly 2 years (including a lengthy, wedding related, hiatus) the Telecaster build is now done. I need to do a final set up including tweaking the playing action and truss rod, but that can wait for another day.

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Yesterday, having waited for the cure time on the body lacquer to finish, I assembled the guitar.

Some of the hardware already had holes drilled from the trial stringing back in November, so for the neck and bridge installation was simply a case of screwing everything in. For the pick guard, control plate, and strap buttons however I first marked out the position of the screws using my Blue Spruce brad awl, and then drilled pilot holes using a Dremel. I appreciate that using anything battery powered is a departure from my hand tool only approach, but for some tasks a Dremel just can’t be beat, and the numerous small (2.5mm diameter) pilot holes I needed for the hardware was one of these tasks. Once the pilot holes were drilled, I then used a 10mm diameter counter sink bit in my egg beater hand drill to gently counterbore the tops of the pilot holes, so that the screw threads would not lift wood fibres.

Fitting the hardware to the body was a bit of a jigsaw. The position of the bridge was fixed by virtue of the scale length of the strings, and also the route for the bridge pickup. The control plate and pickguard however still had some room for movement, and it was important that they lined up with each other. My approach was to fix the pickguard first by reference to the neck and the bridge, and then slide the control plate in next to it.

The string ferrules on the back of the guitar were press fit, with the holes drilled just large enough to accept them prior to applying the lacquer. With the body lacquered, the holes were slightly too small for the ferrules to fit. This was intentional, as it ensured that there was no bare wood or gap around the edge of the ferrules. To fit them, each ferrule was placed over the appropriate hole, and then heated with the tip of a soldering iron just enough to allow the lacquer to melt and the ferrule to slide into the hole, before being wiped down with a damp rag to stop the wood scorching.

The final job was to solder and fit the electronics. It’s been a long time since I’ve wielded a soldering iron in anger, and despite being a relatively simple circuit, this was the longest part of the job. The electronics were soldered outside of the body, as there is very little room in the control cavity, before being hooked up to the pickups and the control plate screwed in place. For this guitar I opted for a 4 position selector switch (instead of the usual 3 position switch found on genuine Telecasters) with the 4th position placing both pickups in series, for a quasi-humbucking tone.

After all that, I got to play her. And despite needing that final set up, she sounds great. The Bare Knuckle Pickups really twang (this is a mid-50’s spec blackguard, after all) and the chunky boat neck profile feels surprisingly comfortable. I’m looking forward to getting to know this guitar better.

A full photo shoot will follow in the next entry.

The end is nigh

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Don’t worry, I’m not prophesying the coming apocalypse. But the Telecaster is now within a week of being finished. I flattened the lacquer on the neck last week and buffed it to a high gloss, and the colour work on the body is now done. Once the lacquer on the body has cured I will install the hardware, do the final set up, and finally after 2 years work, play her for the first time.

Today I spent a couple of hours preparing for the final assembly and set up next week, the main task of which was refitting the neck to the body. Prior to spraying the lacquer, the neck was a perfect fit for the neck pocket, with very little wriggle room. Which is as it should be, but meant that the build up of lacquer, particularly in the two corners, meant that the neck no longer fit as it should. This did not given me any cause for concern – photos of vintage Fender guitars show paint dribbles in the neck pockets, and I had anticipated needing to spend a little time cleaning the pocket up. Half an hour of easing out the build up of lacquer from the walls of the neck pocket with 320 grit paper soon had everything fitting nice and snug once again.  I suppose that I could mask off the walls of the neck pocket in future, although you do want some lacquer on the top corner of the neck pocket so as not to have an abrupt transition to bare wood, and so some sanding to remove the worst of the lacquer build up is always going to be necessary.

Having got the neck fitting snuggly, I re-drilled the body stringing holes and screw holes for mounting the bridge, to clear them of lacquer so as not to foul the screw threads.

I will write more fully about the finishing process (and some lessons learnt on this build) separately. But for now I’ll leave you, dear reader, with a picture showing the lovely grain on the swamp ash body showing through the butterscotch blonde lacquer.

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No lacq-of spray-cess (apologies for the pun)

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Despite the lack of a real update of late, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the workshop spraying lacquer on the Tele build. The last coat went on the neck a few hours ago (12 coats in all) and it will now hang for 2 weeks before I flatten the lacquer and buff to a high gloss.

The colour work on the body (a lovely mid-50s butterscotch blonde) is taking longer, but all being well the guitar should be ready for playing in mid March.

Breaking Radio Silence (and a brief update)

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Breaking Radio Silence (and a brief update)

Despite not having written anything here for 2 weeks, I’ve been quite busy in the workshop. This is the second weekend of spraying lacquer on the Telecaster build, and things are starting to come together. The headstock decal (pictured) was applied after the third lacquer coat on the neck, and has just been sealed under coat 4. Another 6 coats of lacquer to go and the neck will then be done.

A Somewhat Heath Robinson Spray Booth

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It’s been a busy few weeks since Christmas, including being Best Man at my best friend’s wedding on Saturday.

I did however manage to get a brief hour in the workshop yesterday to get things set up in advance of spraying the lacquer for the Telecaster build.

Having tested the compressor and airline equipment I then erected a small freestanding greenhouse to use as a spray booth. Given that my current workshop is a 1950s prefabricated garage I stand very little chance of keeping it entirely dust free while spraying, but the greenhouse should provide a clean space in which to hang the guitar while applying the finish over the next couple of weeks.