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William Cumpiano's
String Instrument
Newsletter #12

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Hang in there!
Some advice and reassurance to aspiring makers.

William R. Cumpiano 1999, All Rights Reserved

I suspect that most instrument-making hand-builders have always been more than a bit jealous (and maybe even a bit resentful) at the way the large factory firms have always been able to command the lion’s share of the guitar-buying market. For years, many of us have had to struggle for the fickle attention of those few guitarists who remained unimpressed by the extraordinarily persuasive ballyhoo, shameless claims. image-manipulation and artist-endorsement ploys spread throughout the media (and which echo compliantly inside the large music stores) by the large firms about their mass-produced instruments.

The irony is, however, that many of us builder-technicians have had to correct, on a daily basis, the consequences of the bad judgement, failed design and shoddy workmanship of these same factory instruments. We are dismayed at the customer’s passive resignation when told that they must now pay for the downside of mass production.

Indeed, what is most ironic is that such resignation is rare when customers of hand-made guitars spot a tiny rub-through or a little dot of glue squeeze-out, or other such oversight, and then proceed to nail luthiers to the wall for their sins.

That, perhaps, is as it should be. Yet it all seems so unfair when luthiers are nonetheless forced to peg their prices to the price-ceiling of the factory lines, and not to the amount which the luthiers need to survive and prosper as they make these things at the slow, deliberate and careful pace that such strict standards require. It is interesting to note that professional violin-making luthiers, who largely don’t have to compete with a mass-produced product (and whose instruments are far smaller, less complex and require less expensive materials than guitars) commonly command five to ten times as much in fees their equally-experienced guitarmaking counterparts. If you want an excellent (new) hand made violin by a highly-regarded, expert maker, be prepared to pay $15,000. If you want an excellent hand made guitar by a highly- regarded expert maker, be prepared to pay between $3-5,000. Figure out why for yourself.

But I digress. Perhaps, once they’ve shelled out their hard-earned cash, customers find it far easier to hold the luthier's feet to the fire because there they are, the actual makers, in the flesh, standing right in front of them. On the other hand, large factory instrument-makers are more effectively shielded from their mistakes behind their sales staff, the store managers, the warranty restrictions, and a battery of lawyers on retainer. All these stand between the new-instrument buyer with the non-operative truss-rod, the misplaced bridge, or the new guitar in need of a neck reset—and the individuals whose mistakes, bad judgement, or greed actually caused the problem.

Not for us, though. Rather than complain that we are a much abused, dying breed, we should take note of some heartening new developments in the market. A book published by a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveals how the market is increasingly turning to small production handcraft and losing its unquestioning loyalty to large factory mass-production.

The book, "Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge," resulted from a study of American manufacturing trends. According to that study, the decline of American productivity and losses to foreign competitors is a reflection of "dinosaur strategies" such as the continued adoration of mass production.

Mass production has, until recently, insured the preeminence of American industry. Jobs became increasingly specialized and innovation in machinery was substituted for the skill of workers. A hierachy was created, putting great distance between the person who designed the product and the person who assembled it, and both of them from the buyer.

As it did during the Industrial Revolution, mass production largely wiped out all other forms of production, such as craft-type manufacturing. At present, luthiers represent the few who remain, trying to recall, recreate and relive a bygone past.

True, mass production insured that things could be made cheaper by less-skilled workers, but it resulted in a reduction of the quality and variety of products available in the marketplace. This systems has worked fine, as long as store-bought meant status and people wanted precisely what their neighbors had. But things have apparently begun to change, and in a big way.

People now want products that suit their individual taste, needs, and self-image. We as luthiers are poised, as a group, to best supply this hunger for variety, and although the large firms are taking note and are beginning to diversify their lines (witness Martin’s recent "new-guitar-model-of the-month" policy), we are best equipped to offer the unique and the one-of-a-kind better than they. For example, I am now fairly busy producing, among other things, wedge-shaped guitars specifically for people with guitar-induced shoulder injuries, and classical guitars designed specifically for jazz and steel-string guitar players.

According to the same study, the world is coming around to what we always kinda figured: if you put your heart into your work; put excellence foremost among your intentions; keep a close watch on your checkbook balance; and hang in there, the world will beat a path to your door.

BEGINNER’S MIND

The other crucial necessity to better survival chances in this difficult business is an appropriate attitude. I learned this from the greatest living guitarmaker, Manuel Velasquez, who told me, in his seventies, that he considered himself a "student of guitarmaking." Here he was, after almost fifty years of guitarmaking, in his mind no more than a student. I realized the man had survived and prospered because he still had a beginner’s mind, and was not at all interested in whether he was or was not a "master."

The old Zen masters called a "beginner’s mind" the attitude that your knowledge is never sufficient or complete, and thus you must be perennially receptive to receiving a lesson at any time and from wherever you are and whatever it is that you do. So "beginner’s mind" is essentially a posture of humility towards what it is that you are trying to master--to accept that you are ignorant, essentially--and you are a student who is striving towards a state of lessened ignorance—rather than toward a state of mastery. Without a beginner’s mind you can’t master anything.

Alas, during my twenty-year career of teaching people guitarmaking, I've run into quite a few guitarmaking aspirants who were quite entirely devoid of this critical mindset. Rather than being concerned whether they could meet the demanding requirements of the craft, their concern is whether the craft was worthy of their time. They were also often unwilling to fail, or to come up lacking in any way. They expected to jump directly to "master" without going through all the cumbersome and time-wasting in-between "amateur" or "beginner" stages. The long, drawn-out process of learning was appropriate for ordinary folks, but apparently not for them..

My experience has been that these students were invariably, and inevitably chastened or "broken" by guitarmaking: a strict teacher which countenances no egotism. Anyone approaching guitarmaking like it was some kind of supreme personal test invariably flunks. You have to go into guitarmaking expecting to come up short at first and grow into the craft slowly and humbly. If not, it WILL break you.

BLUE SPRUCE?

I just glued the top on one of these guitars I am developing. The top wood is a very beautiful piece of Blue spruce. With excellent grain patterns and strong medulary rays, it exhibits a nice tap tone. I’ve looked and looked, but I have not seen anything on Blue spruce. Any thoughts, Bill? Any experience- based reason why I shouldn’t be so impressed with Blue spruce?

Just about ANY coniferous softwood of adequate size has been used at one time or another for instrument tops. The old European violinmakers and guitarmakers actually used plain old  pine—although the old-growth stuff that they had access to was probably far better than the quick growing junk that you find in the lumberyard nowadays. So we’re referring to several hundred types of softwoods that yes, can be deemed "suitable" for guitarmaking. Whether "Blue" spruce is appropriate or suitable or not, the answer is yes, I can say that even without ever personally having used Blue spruce. Whether you have used it enough to ascertain which particular samples, and of what stiffness and thickness to use, in order to make a beautiful-sounding guitar—well that's another story...and your job. In a word, pretty much any spruce is theoretically useable. It's what you do with it that counts.

The trouble with common names is that they are regional and variable. I am not a botanist, who would know all the common names of a given tree, or all the common names of all the spruces in the United States--or Europe for that matter. Better to tell me the latinate name (the scientific name, usually in Latin) if you know it. I know precisely which spruce is Picea Sitchensis: its Sitka spruce, Picea Englemanii is Engleman spruce. Picea Excelsis is Bavarian (or "German") Silver spruce. But each of these has other common names, one of which could, indeed, be "Blue" spruce. For example, Picea glauca is also known variously as White Spruce, Canadian Spruce, Eastern Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, Skunk Spruce, Cat Spruce, and Engelmann Spruce--incorrectly!

Having said that, one of the spruce varieties known as "Blue" spruce (there may be others known as Blue spruce) is native to the Rocky Mountain region and thrives at high altitude--as do all the very best soundboard woods. The advantage of this provenance is that trees that grow at high altitudes grow verryyyy slooowly. Thus the annual rings grow very close together. I haven't used Blue Spruce, but when I looked it up and found this out I gather that all things remaining equal, it is probably quite beautiful, with many fine, thin lines, and it may tend to sound a lot like Picea Excelsis, a smooth refined sound--as opposed to Red spruce, which grows fast and looks almost striped, the rings are so large and far apart. Red spruce is hard and stiff as the dickens, and gives the guitar more of a hard-edged, raucous, banjoey sound. At least that's to my ear.

SOUNDHOLE PEARL INLAY PROBLEM

[I just glued in soundhole pearl and noticed on the underside of the top a depression in the wood] for just about the whole circumference of where the shell is.-Perhaps a vacuum formed under the shell when the moisture and air dried out of the glue and the wood was then drawn inward from the back? Does this pose any potential problems?

It depends, of course of how thin the "web" of wood that's left under the shell. If it's tissue-paper thin, yes you may have a structure problem there. I can't see it from here, so I can't say. But what most luthiers do is to put a "graft" of wood under the rosette. If you're worried about it, make a "donut" out of 1/16"+ spruce and glue it right under the rosette, and round off the sharp edges. That’s what the great Spanish luthier Torres did in the last century. Maybe he had the same problem as you.

 PERFECTION

It is just like you said - learning the process is more important than the first results. But I still try for perfection as much as possible with things like this. It is just part of who I am to try to do my best, whatever that may translate into.

Don't try for perfection at this stage. Believe me, you will burn yourself out and end up hating what you obviously love. I've seen it time and time again. Try to be as diligent and thoughtful as you can, keep notes of your mistakes so that when you come up to the same point on your next guitar you can skirt it. You have to develop yourself as a long-distance runner, not as a one-time sprinter. Perfection will come with perseverance. One student I knew who was trying for perfection got hung up in sanding smooth every single kerfing chip. He's long since out of the craft. "Perfection" ruined it for him. Work slowly and deliberately, thoughtfully. Don't flay yourself mentally when you make a mistake or something bad happens. Just pick yourself up from the god-awful mess you’ve made, say to yourself "I must make a note not to do that again." and go on to the next step, of the hundred or so that remain.

BENDING SIDES WITH NON-TRADITIONAL WOODS

I have semi-successfully bent the first of the sides for my guitar. Semi-successfully because it seems difficult to get both edges to bend the same, and the wood tends to "bubble" out at the center, and it requires very hot temperatures to bend this rather stubborn ziricote. You actually have to leave the wood on the bending iron for 15-20 seconds or more before beginning to feel it plasticize. The surface is a little (just a little) bumpy from over and under bending, re-bending, straightening out, etc. and it isn't quite dead on the template line, yet. Also I had some minor splitting which doesn't seem to be worsening (thank God...) as yet.

I'm not familiar with bending ziricote, but some woods (indeed, most tropical hardwoods) are very, very difficult to bend. I hope you haven't chosen one of those as your first side-bending experience. That will burn you out in no time, since you probably will blame yourself for something that a more experienced person will just avoid. Mahogany, Rosewood and Maple bend very well, especially rosewood, and for some reason most guitars are mahogany, rosewood and maple.

CURLY SOUNDBOARDS

Hi Bill. I hope you can help me. I am in the process of building a steel string guitar using curly redwood for the sound board. The wood is very curly, and I know it's not the best type of wood to use tone-wise because of the lack of stiffness relative to a straight-grained piece of wood.

Its just as stiff. But its weaker.

However, it is so striking in appearance that I'm going to take a chance and see how it turns out. I have since heard from a person that attended this year's GAL convention that some builders have experienced curly redwood rupturing across the grain, parallel to the curl under the tension of the strings.

I've seen non-curly redwood fracture the way you describe, on a guitar. It just had a lot of run out. The bridge flew off with a piece of top still attached to it!

My question is are there precautions I can take to minimize the chance of experiencing such a rupturing event? It will be a parlor-sized guitar, about 13.8" across the lower bout, and will have a 12 fret neck with 24.5" scale. I am considering leaving the top thicker, and possibly using a double X bracing pattern (like the old Gibson). I have one more piece of the redwood, and would like to build a jumbo steel string with a longer scale - do you think that would be foolish?

I'm an old-timer who learned guitarmaking at a time when the only soundbox woods to use were rosewood, mahogany, maple and sitka/german spruce. I'm still behind the curve, now everybody's using just about anything. So I'm at a loss when someone asks me my expertise about, say, Blue spruce or Ziricote or Bunga Bunga (just made that one up). I'm compelled by my having been sorely misled when I was a neophyte, to just own up to my ignorance (few people can do that, and are perfectly happy to mislead you, just so you won't think them ignorant). Ignorant isn’t so bad. Denying it is.

No, I have no experience with curly redwood. Redwood, however shares a lot of qualities with Pacific redcedar (which I know somewhat more about). It is much stiffer and lighter...and therefore weaker than spruce. It is frightfully prone to splitting if you flex it to much, or subject it to shock. Now if you add curly (read: very short) grain, you have a recipe for cooking up a booby trap, by my reckoning.

That is my view. But I think you should continue with your "experiment" but the plans you have (small size, thicker cross section, beefed up understructure, larger bridge patch) all add up to a precious, or jewel-like sound, which you may find disappointing for its toy-like quality. On the other hand you could proceed by using it precisely as you would with any ordinary top material, but just keep a short scale, beef up the size of the bridge patch, and specify only light gauge strings. The result will probably be a far more satisfying instrument, which indeed may break if it is dropped or knocked. But any guitar will break if dropped or knocked in the right way. So the eventual owner has to be aware of the trade off, and treat the instrument like he/she would fine crystal, as opposed to glass or plastic. Does a crystal goblet maker guarantee his crystal against breakage?

 THIN TO BEND?

I am about to build a cutaway steel string in sitka spruce & Rio Rosewood. It is to have a venetian cutaway. In your web page regarding cutaways, you mention that you locally thin the area of side prior to bending to assist bending. Just how much do you thin the side by in this particular operation (I expect that my sides would be 2.4 - 2.5mm thick)?.

I always get "venetian" and "florentine" confused. Presumably it is as a continuous curve rather than a two piece which comes to a point (my colleague Ivon Schmukler calls that "a bar fighting guitar").

It is not necessary to thin out the sides if the cutaway curve is no tighter than the curve at the waist. If it is, it does help to thin the area up from the inside of the curve. First of all you should be bending your sides at less than the 2.4 to 2.5 mm (.09 - .10") that you specify in your message. Chances are you're having problems already at that thickness. Better to bring your sides down to 2.1 or so (.08"). Remember that the

very act of curving a slat ADDS structure and strength to it.

For cutaways, mark the slat where the center line of the cutaway curve will be (use a compass to mark off one-inch increments on your template line). Scrape the side down for about 2" on either side of the mark, to about 1.5 mm (.065") but only if you are trying for a very tight curve.

By the way, this will just better your chances. There is no substitute for practice and experience to insure foolproof results. So if your expensive side breaks (you're not supposed to be using expensive hard-to-bend woods for your first tries anyway) don't say I misled you!

GUITAR PROPORTIONING

I intend to design a small bodied steel sting guitar, about the same size as 00 Martin. What consideration to size and placement should I take?, is it just a matter of scaling down the braces to suit the top and back?.

Precisely. It's all a matter of proportion. A scheme that works well at one size will work bigger and smaller as long as everything increases or decreases proportionally.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the invaluable assistance that your book has been and hoping that my questions are not too long winded for you to answer,

Nope. It's my pleasure to help you guys out.