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Randall Harris builds his first guitar at William's studio

I built my grail - Coop
Date: Sat, 6 Jun 1998 20:03:38 -0700
From: "R. \"Coop\" Harris"

Saturday 6/6/98

Long post follows:

Sorry that it has taken me so long to post more about my guitar building adventure in Northampton Mass. with master builder William Cumpiano. My laptop computer was just too unstable. After writing a long and descriptive session the damned thing crashed on me, for the second time. So I decided to wait upon my return to SF. I got home late last night and am now ready to continue. Same caveat as before, if hand building your dream guitar or listening to me rant on about my experience doesn't interest you, you probably should skip the following:

First, let me say that the experience was all that I had hoped that it would be, and then some. I spent a total of 15 straight days working one-on-one with instructor and master builder William Cumpiano in his New England shop. The result of my labor and persistence is a stunning acoustic guitar that is the tonal and visual equal (if not better) of any other guitars that I have owned, including my Goodall GC and Santa Cruz OM. Other than a few almost imperceptable cosmetic blips, it came out clean as a whistle. I owe this great result largely to Bill Cumpiano who patiently and methodically worked me through virtually every step of the building process, giving me the encouragement to attempt what perhaps most beginners would be unwilling to try. Certainly a first building effort could be made easier by choosing more chisel friendly tone woods and lightening up on the purfling/inlay and bridge design. But since I had the guy for two weeks, and had traveled 3,000 miles to be there, I figured I might as well go for it and learn all that I possibly could. I came home confident that I could do this again with a predictably good result. What more can an aspiring hobbiest ask for?

I wholeheartedly recommend this project for anyone who has the time, focus, energy, understanding spouse and motivation but - Warning! This is not an adventure for the cash impaired. The cost is commensurate with the airfare, amount of time you need to pay for a hotel and meals while in Northampton, plus a minimum of 96 hours of William's reasonable hourly fee and of course charges for extras such as premium tone wood and high end tuning machines. Also, two weeks will net you a playable guitar but don't expect it to be final finished. Lacquer finishing takes at least another two weeks and so plan on doing the final finishing at home or pay to have William or someone else do it for you. If you pay someone else to finish the guitar, add a minimum $400+ to your total budget. I strongly recommend that you read at least once, twice is better, William's excellent book "Guitarmaking, Tradition and Technology" Our working plan pretty much followed the book's step by step approach.

Having already owned a number of 14 fret small bodied guitars, I decided that my first building project would be a 12 fret 000. I specified curly koa b&s and cedar top for tone woods. Vintage style pyramid bridge and fretboard of ebony, binding of flamed maple. Curly koa headstock overlay. Rosette and back strip of premium inlaid abalone. Top and back and headstock purfling of b/w/b and mahogany. No fretboard or headstock inlay. Abalone side dots. Gold Waverly tuners. 25" scale length. 1 3/4" nut and 2 1/4" saddle spacing. The guitar has a 15" fretboard radius with standard gauge fret wire. Bracing pattern is fairly standard, non-scalloped, forward shifted X. The guitar is lightly braced and voiced for light guage strings only. All in all a customized instrument that suits my taste, in a very classy package.

I took a total of 70 color photos which document the entire project. I want to put them on line and as soon as I find someone to host some space or figure out how to do it on my business web site. Advice is welcome here.

Having never really obtained any skill at woodworking, I was dubious of my potential. The funny thing is that the tools really want to do a good job if you just let them. My best results came when I relaxed, found the right angles and let the specialized tools do their thing. I cannot emphasize how important it is to have high quality hand tools that are kept at their peak performance. William keeps his chisles in extremely good shape and their sharpness really pays off. Instead of forcing them to cut they almost seek out their own line and slice right where you want them to go. There is no substitute for good eyesight, good hand/eye coordination and practice. I wish I had more practice time with the tools but fortunately I was a fairly quick study.

There is only so much that can be reasonably done in a two week period of time. Knowing this, Bill prepared free-assembly workboards ahead of time. He also joined the tops and fly-cut the rosette channels ahead of my arrival. Also, pre-cut or pre-prepared were neck block, tail block, rough dimensioned and glued up neck blank and heel, thicknessed but not joined back plates. Pre-assembled double acting truss rod. The side plates were pre-thicknessed and bent on a device of Bill's own design. I was thankful for this because the koa I requested is expensive and great skill is needed to master a bending iron on difficult wood. As a rank beginner, it would be quite easy for me to blow through at least two or three sets before I got it right. I would not be willing to do this. I did have some opportunity to try my hand at using the bending iron and I found it to be challenging but not overwhelmingly so. I think that if I could practice for a few hours at the iron I would have the confidence to bend my own sides at any future time. Bill's bending device worked well and still allowed us a chance to do some fine tuning on the iron so I don't feel cheated out of a learning experience.

Over the two week session not neccessarily in this order I: shaped and carved all of my own braces, cut, joined and trimmed the top, trimmed the sides, trimmed the back, inlayed the back strip, sanded, carved the neck, carved the pyramid bridge, sanded everything, assembled the entire body, routed and inlayed for all binding and purfling, installed kerfing, glued up the entire structure, sanded everything, fretted my board, inlayed side dots, sanded, fitted top and back to side plates, inlayed rosette and back strip, set neck, made nut, made saddle, set bridge, filled the finished piece and then finally sanded again before sealer coat was applied. Lots of sanding and resulting fine dust is inhaled. You would be amazed at how many colors of snot the human body can create.

There were no procedures that I didn't enjoy. There were some that caused more frustration than others however. Binding the headstock turned out to be tough because there were four mitered corners that had to be precisely cut and inlayed. This is exacting and frustrating work. Even though I tried my hardest and concentrated fully, I was still unable to make every mitre perfect. This means aligning 5 or 6 tiny, almost microscopic white and black vinyl purfling lines to meet at 30 degree mitre corners in an unbroken pattern, without losing any of the lines. This just aint easy. The purfling isn't perfectly true nor is the super thin mahogany that I inlayed in between the purfling lines. The frustration comes when you have done everything right and then arbitrary circumstances take it out of your control. Fretting was a blast. Much easier than I thought it would be. Inlaying abalone rosettes and back strip was also fairly simple, just tedious. When the body is about 75% finished and you have 60-80 hours invested in it, you become very aware of just how vulnerable the work is to mistakes and accidents. The farther along I got, the more paranoid I became about leaving anything ojn the bench that could accidently scratch the top or otherwise ruin the work. Obviously the focus becomes very intense about this time. I really enjoyed carving braces but got real nervous when I had to feather the brace ends down to the cedar top to within 1/100th of an inch with a razor sharp chisle. One bad move and I would trash a lovely cedar top.

Speaking of cedar tops - I don't think that I would recommend cedar for a first project. It's just too soft. It dings and dents when you look at it cross eyed. No matter how careful you are there are going to be slips and these often result in nicks or scratches that live with the instrument for life. I am fortunate in that I only suffered through a few of these tiny dings. Spruce is harder and more forgiving and probably a better choice for novices - just my opinion.

William built a lovely twin to my guitar on the same bench (it's for sale). He would demonstrate a procedure and then i would try to emulate the procedure. 90% of the time I worked on my guitar alone. If I asked for help he would step in and try to correct an action I was taking. Sometimes it was just showing me a different way to hold a chisle or plane, other times he would actually work on my piece to correct a skewed angle or something. He was quite respectful of me and my work and no matter how badly I was doing he would be most supportive. If Bill thought that i would benefit from a brief lecture about the relative merits of his methods, we would stop and he would procede to explain in great detail why something was the way it was. Amazing how much of luthiery is experiential and how much luck is involved in the final product. Cumpiano knows that if he does something a certain way it will probably end up with a predictable result. He is the first one to state however that he cannot always tell you why that result happened, only that it does. I like his style very much. He is easy going yet very serious about his work. He doesn't take himself or his considerable knowledge all that seriously. Cumpiano respects the traditions of luthiery and integrates them to a high degree in his course work, But he also recognizes the benefits of modern aids such as routers, band saws, etc. He did not hesitate to use a power tool if it would give him an edge in precision or time savings. No FADAL or computer controled carving here though. All braces are hand carved from split billets. All necks are hand carved as well. Mine came out great, much to my shock and amazement.

By the end of the two week period I had felt like I had given birth. It is an intense time, with a few moments of terror but generally just great fun and enormous focus. It was the perfect vacation for me. I didn't think about work once during the daytime. The feeling of stringing up your hand made guitar for the first time and playing those first notes is sweet indeed. I came home ready to build my workshop and with considerable knowledge about tools, which to buy, which to pass on. I also came home knowing that its going to take me decades of learning and building. I find this challenging and exciting. As soon as I can find a way I will post my photos onto a site which hopefully will bring my great adventure into focus for all of you. All the best.... Coop.