Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hand Tools and. Power Tools

There is a certain something about using hand tools. If that sounds vague it's because it's hard to define what it is that brings such satisfaction. It's a feeling thing; once you've experienced it, words are unnecessary; until you've experienced it, words are inadequate. The tactile quality of working with wood is a large part of it. You pick it up, examine it closely to see which way the grain runs, then rub you finger along it to confirm the grain orientation. You become familiar with the wood this way, and begin an intimate conversation with it. Each piece of wood is different, but it wants to tell you its character. It wants to be cut a certain way, scraped and smoothed a certain way. (Below in the picture are some plane shavings on the floor from smoothing and leveling the neck)

If you listen to it and follow it's direction, it will yield willingly to you, like it wants to become something useful or beautiful. Pay no attention to its qualities, or ignore what it is trying to tell you, and each saw stroke, each chisel stroke, each pull of the rasp becomes a struggle. Like a recalcitrant child it won't give you what you want seemingly out of spite.

Give it the respect it want, and it accepts the push of the plane across its surface and willingly produces the fluffy curls that are almost too beautiful to consider trash. You feel the neck give way to a razor sharp chisel or well-tuned plane. You don't feel much from pushing a board across a table saw except perhaps relief when you see that you still have ten fingers.

Perhaps the most pleasurable part of building a guitar is the shaping of the neck. Famous guitar picker and bulding Wayne Henderson uses a power belt sander to shape his necks, but most custom builders that I know use hand tools--chisels, rasps, scrapers and spokeshaves. This is the process that most makes me feel like a craftsman; I'm taking a rectangular block of wood and sculpting into something that just begs to be held in your hand.

It takes skill to use hand tools, and most of the skill comes through experience. Lacking the experience and the skills that come with it, I turn to power tools to give me the precision that a fine instrument requires. Sure, sometimes it's just a matter of time. I have the skills to dig the truss rod channel out using a chisel, and this isn't something that requires a lot of precision, but it would take a few hours and a lot of sweat to accomplish it. And there is someone anxiously waiting to get their guitar. Now, I've told the people who have commissioned guitars from me (both of them) is to not be in a hurry, because I'm not. I can build it good, or I can build it fast, but I can't do both. Nonetheless, I have to respect the time issue. It takes a few minutes to set up the router table, rout the truss rod channel, and clean up. Less than an hour, and I'm on to something else.

My goal, however, is to build a guitar that looks great, plays great, and sounds great, and to do all three of those things requires absolute precision in certain areas, precision that my skill level with hand tools doesn't yet allow me to achieve. The scarf joint, for instance, can be cut with a back saw, then smoothed and leveled with a block plane, scraper, and sandpaper. But I'm not that good with a backsaw, and to overcome the resulting cut requires a great deal of planing and scraping--and a certain amount of frustration--before I am able to achieve a smooth and level joint ready for gluing.

Using a table saw and a special jig that I built myself, and it took me an hour from cut to glue up.

That was fun. I have enough frustration in my life. I'll always do it this way. I'm not a romantic when it comes to hand tools.

But thinning the the top, that's different. I realize that I neglected to mention that I was doing more than thinning the top--I was voicing it. After I first joined to bookmatched halves, I held the top between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand and tapped it with the middle finger knuckle of my right hand, and listened to the resulting tap tone. I haven't tapped enough tops to really know what I'm listening for; I'm just building up an internal vocabulary of tap-tones. At first, it's just a dead thump. After each round of planing I tap it again, holding it in different places, listening to the change in tone, listening for the lows, the highs, for how long the tones sustain and how fast they decay.

This is organic, and even if I could do it with a power tool like a wide belt sander, I don't know that I would. I want to be in touch with the wood during this process. I want to hear when it first makes a whoof sound when held by the edges and shaken, and when the tap-tones last slightly longer. Each piece of wood is different, and so these things happen at different thicknesses. It would be easy to just bring each top down to a uniform thickness and be done, but that doesn't respect the story that the wood is trying to tell. It's a feel thing. You know it when you hear it. Well, I don't, not yet, not thoroughly. But I'll never know it--feel it--if I don't listen, if I just bring every top down to a uniform .115".

So the bottom line is I will use power tools when a certain amount of precision is required for great sound, great playability, and/or great looks, and I will use handtools when I most need to listen to what the wood is saying.

Because the goal isn't to crank out as many guitars as I can, or to be able to say that my guitars are completely made by hand using hand tools. The goal is to create art--visual art, musical art, and tactile art. And my belief is that if a player is creating music on a beautiful instrument that they love to hold and touch and play, the music they create will truly be art as well.

Because it's all about the music.

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