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Wet Inlay

Wet Inlay

by John Calkin

Originally published in American Lutherie #66, 2001 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013



In my infancy as a luthier I didn’t have a lot of skills, but I still wanted my instruments to be different from any others. And I wanted them to be fancy. That might have been a combination headed for disaster, but I discovered a few tricks that let me achieve my goals while I simultaneously learned to build instruments worth owning and playing. One of those tricks was wet inlay. I loved the look of guitars draped in abalone trim, but I was sure the work was beyond me. Shell was also way too expensive for a project that might be botched and tossed in the dumpster. Tonewood was nearly out of my reach; there was no way I could invest in cut shell, too.

The road to settling on turquoise trim was roundabout. I went to college in Colorado, where silver-and-turquoise Indian jewelry was everywhere. Most American turquoise is mined in Arizona, and the surrounding states have a strong turquoise culture. From a jewelry-making class, I learned that the blue stone is pretty hard, requiring lapidary equipment to cut and polish it. And not only is the good stuff fairly expensive, it’s pretty boring. Quality turquoise is a one-dimensional shade of blue with no grain or color intrusions. Eventually I realized that the jewelry I admired the most was the cheap stuff, chips of turquoise mixed in a clear matrix of some sort, ground flat, and polished. I was pretty sure I could do that to instruments. I could see into a future when turquoise-trimmed instruments would be my famous trademark.

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They Eat Linseed Oil, Don’t They?

They Eat Linseed Oil, Don’t They?

An Adventure in Austrian Lutherie and Gastronomy

by Stephen Frith

Originally published in American Lutherie #77, 2004 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



Last year my wife Sherrie and I took a working holiday in Austria. We met up with a small group of guitar makers to harvest some of the best European spruce available. The excursion to the sawmill of Christoph Kolbl in Aigen was organized by Tobias Braun. The picturesque town of Neufelden (Photo 1) could inspire many peghead designs. We began by gathering at the Hotel Mühltalhof for dinner, a nightly experience lasting two or three hours.

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Reinventing the Celluloid Tortoise

Reinventing the Celluloid Tortoise

by Henry Stocek

Originally published in American Lutherie #61, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013



Celluloid is a dinosaur, and making it is a disappearing art. Only musical instruments and ping-pong balls require it anymore. Yet it is the only plastic that can resemble organic materials, have a beautiful depth in its look, and be sliced into thin sheets that remain stable. Acetates and resins still cannot achieve the look and remain stable at the thicknesses required for pickguards.

Its composition is very simple: cellulose soaked in a nitric acid solution and plasticized with camphor. Cellulose is derived from the cell walls of any plant. Cotton used to be the source of the cellulose used to make celluloid, but I think wood is the main source today because it’s the cheapest. In 1846, it was discovered that if cotton was soaked in a nitric acid solution, they got nitrocellulose. With a lot of nitric acid, it becomes an explosive — gun cotton. The Navy shoots big guns with this even today. With a less acidic application, the nitrocellulose is a nonexplosive stuff that can be molded into solid shapes, although it is very brittle. About 1860, John Wesley Hyatt accidentally discovered that by adding camphor, an aromatic paste from an Asian tree (think Vicks and mothballs), the nitrocellulose became a moldable solid that did not get brittle. Hence, celluloid. Today, solvents like acetone and alcohol are used to blend it. It’s cooked under pressure once the color composition has been established. It is an approximate science — more art and intuition than exactness. Hence the difficulty in achieving a tortoise pattern and color that come out right.

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Router Trimming Attachment

Router Trimming Attachment

by James Gilbert

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #135, 1980

 

This attachment plate is used on the Dremel Moto-Tool in place of the regular router base plate. The other end is drilled and slotted to fit the Sears router attachment part #25731. The Sears attachment is used for laminate trimming. It has an adjustable slide and a roller guide to follow contours easily.

The full size drawing below could serve as a rough template for cutting and drilling a piece of 3/16" aluminum.

The only modification that I have made to the manufactured units is to drill an extra hole in the Sears attachment for securing it to the base plate. This way it can still be used on a regular router.

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Cleaning Shop, Part 1

Cleaning Shop, Part 1

by John Calkin

see also,
Cleaning Shop Part 2 by John Calkin

 

Anyone who has entered the field of lutherie in the last 25 years will have a difficult time envisioning the lutherie scene when we Old Farts came up in the 1960s through about 1985. There were very few books available, and useful magazine articles were scarce. Tools and jigs had to be made in the shop. Previously owned instruments were used; there were no vintage instruments until George Gruhn began telling us there were. A few small outfits sold tonewood. There were no mega-suppliers like today.

When I slotted my first fretboards I saved the sawdust in 35MM film canisters to use as wood filler. I saved every scrap of precious hardwood I encountered. My life as a luthier packrat had begun.

I had my own shop from 1980 until 1997. I started with dulcimers and added hammered dulcimers, electric guitars, flattop mandolins, bouzoukis, resonator guitars, bowed psalteries, banjos, ukuleles, and acoustic guitars. Each instrument required separate molds, benders, wood, workboards, jigs, and often tools. I was able to move quite a bit of stuff when I changed states, maintaining my status as a packrat, but my bad habit exploded when I hired on with Huss & Dalton. I worked there for 19 years, and many scraps from the more than 4000 guitars and banjos we made came home with me. As the years went by I spent less and less time in my shop, yet the collection of stuff continued to swell. Seriously, the concrete floor began to fracture.

I knew other packrats well enough to notice the signs of the disease. As their collections increased, the old stuff was buried under the new. Yet in their minds they not only thought they could remember it all but how and when it would all be used. They were pathetic. When I finally realized I was avoiding my shop because of the clutter, I had to face the fact that I was one of "them". I began tossing bits and pieces but the shop looked the same. I backed my truck up to the shop door and threw in all the obvious dross, but the next day I couldn't tell the difference. The second load contained enough rosewood and ebony to tilt my truck slightly sideways, not to mention sections of old-growth redwood 6x6s a friend had given me that I was eventually going to jig up to resaw into quartersawn soprano ukulele tops. Parts of my shop saw daylight for the first time in 20 years. I'm still not done, but I think I've lost my rank as a first-class packrat. I'm down to third-class, maybe.

So what was all that stuff? You'll have to wait for Part 2.

Both photos by John Calkin.

see also,
Cleaning Shop Part 2 by John Calkin