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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

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Early Engelmann

Early Engelmann

by Jan Callister

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 10 #3, 1982, updated 1993 and Luthier Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1997



In 1975, while completing my third guitar, I became very interested in the interplay of the different woods and their significance in the construction of a guitar. Most beginning guitarmakers, I am sure, have had the same interest. However, I questioned the use of European spruce as the most esteemed tonewood. Why didn’t our own domestic spruce wood have the same qualities? I began researching the literature to gain information on our own domestic spruce and its use for musical instruments. I found some references concerning Sitka spruce, mainly short paragraphs relating to tonal characteristics of violins. I couldn’t help wondering if the Engelmann spruce from the forests on the mountains just east of my home near Salt Lake City might have possibilities for guitarmaking. My research revealed hints that Engelmann had been used successfully by a few violinmakers as far back as the 1900s. A local industrial arts professor noted for his knowledge of woods, however, told me that Engelmann had no merit as a tonewood. Undaunted, I continued my research and found positive confirmation of Engelmann’s tonal value from Peter Prier of the American Violin Making School in Salt Lake City, Sam Daniels from Jerome, Idaho, and some records of R. Peter Larsen who had built over 100 violins in the late 19th century and said Engelmann was “superior in tone to Italian wood.”

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’Way Down Upon the Amazon River

’Way Down Upon the Amazon River

by John Curtis

from his 1986 GAL Convention talk

Originally published in American Lutherie #10, 1987 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



There are many South American exotics that are perfectly viable species for instrument building. It’s hard to get luthiers to go along with that, however. Everyone wants perfectly-quartered Brazilian rosewood.

The reason I mention alternative woods is that the true Dalbergia nigra, the Brazilian rosewood that luthiers love and would sell their cars and dogs for, is getting to be very hard to find. We at Luthiers Mercantile found this out the hard way a few years ago, in much the same way that the Martin Co. did. You have to pay for the wood up front, which puts you at great risk; you just have to trust the person you are buying from.

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Osage Orange: American Gold

Osage Orange: American Gold

by Ted Davis

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, Volume 12 #4, 1984 and Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars, 1998



The greatest classical guitars are made from Brazilian rosewood and European spruce, true or false? I am sad to say, the usual answer is “true.” Did you ever wonder why? Does Brazilian rosewood possess some magic component which causes it to respond to musical excitation? Is the same true of European spruce? Or is it perhaps that circumstances during the 18th and 19th centuries caused the old masters to use wood that was available? If Torres had been an American, would the classical guitar have been developed using some American wood for back and sides? If the old masters had had access to some of the rosewoods that today’s luthier does, would we today still be led to feel that Brazilian rosewood possesses some mystic element? Would we still look down our noses at a classical guitar if its back and sides happen to be yellow instead of brown?

In my search for native American wood suitable for great classical guitar back and sides, I stumbled upon Osage orange or bodark, as it is sometimes called. This wood grows in my area of East Tennessee, not abundantly, but it is available if I do my own felling, bucking, and milling. It has most of the desirable qualities of Brazilian rosewood and is in fact vastly superior to rosewood in one important quality: Osage orange is almost unaffected by changes in humidity. How many old Brazilian rosewood guitars have you seen that weren’t cracked? Think too of the impact this could have for violin and lute pegs.

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Some Alternative Lutherie Woods

Some Alternative Lutherie Woods

by Tom Ribbecke

from his 1992 GAL Convention workshop

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



My name is Tom Ribbecke and I’m on the staff of Luthiers Mercantile, pretty much the technical guy there. What I’ve brought to this presentation is based on my years of building and repairing guitars along with my four years at Luthiers Mercantile. I’m not a botanist or scientist, no more than any of you are... except for the botanists and scientists who are here. (laughter) I know there are many here as I caught Nick Von Robison’s workshop earlier today. So when I was asked to do this presentation, I thought, what could I do to focus on the alternative woods situation which is pretty much on all our minds these days? I’ve brought woods which have come up in my discussions with customers, things that we sell, and just about anything I could get ahold of on short notice.

When I look at materials, and people present them to me, I see things in blocks and 1" thick material and it’s hard to make judgments on what will sound good. Most guitar makers, like myself, like to hold, fondle, mutilate, and bang on the material in dimensions that are appropriate for the guitar. So this is what I’ve brought — woods of many species that could be used or considered for guitar building in appropriate sizes and thicknesses. I’ve brought some things that are commonly available, some not so available, and some which might be considered exotics. Many of these I’ve lacquered — usually with a lacquer gun in one hand and a phone in the other. The lacquer will give you an idea of the color of these materials.

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