Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Fix

When I decided to get into guitar building a few years ago, I started by learning as much as I could about the process.  One of the things I did was to purchase and watch a DVD on building a steel-string guitar by Robert O’Brien.  O’Brien studied luthiery in Brazil and worked there for a number of years before returning to the states.  He now lives in Boulder, CO, where he runs the guitar making department at Red Rocks Community College.  (This school has an amazing School of Fine Woodworking in which building stringed instruments—violins, mandolins, banjos, and classical, steel-string, and electric guitars is a major part.)
About a year ago I had a question about a guitar I was finishing, so I went to O’Brien’s website from which I emailed my question.  He very graciously replied almost immediately, and invited me to join his online forum on which other builders post questions and answers to problems, pictures of their recent successes, and other things related to luthiery. 
Robbie, as O’Brien is known by those who know him, recently posted a picture of his latest classical guitar which shows the bridge—the part of the soundboard that holds the strings—in its proper position but with about ¼” of unfinished wood showing in front. 

 The bridge is glued on after the finish (in this case shellac) is applied and buffed, so before finishing you must carefully measure where the bridge will be and mask this off with tape before applying the finish.
Here’s what happened in Robbie’s words:
“I measured and masked off the bridge a couple of weeks ago. I did the FP (French Polish—a method of applying shellac by hand) and let it cure. Yesterday before going to class, I once again measured, centered the bridge, removed the tape, checked everything etc. I then went in to class and was going to do a demo on how to use a vacuum jig to glue on a bridge. I once again had the ruler on the centerline and the bridge in position. Gregory then noticed that the bridge had been lined up at 662mm instead of 652mm!!! Yikes!!! How did that happen? Well, it so happens that they put the numbers 650 and 660 really close together on these rulers! I looked at the 650 and must have then neatly lined the front edge of the saddle slot with 660. Not only once but twice!! Once when masking off and once when removing the masking tape!!”
He had to scrape all the shellac off using a razor blade followed by sandpaper, measure correctly the bridge location, mask it off, then do the French Polish all over again.

I emailed Robbie and admitted to taking perverse satisfaction in knowing that someone as skilled and experienced as he can screw up, because I screw up all the time.  It’s very satisfying when a process works the way it’s supposed to in guitar building, but that’s a satisfaction I don’t experience near as much as the frustration when it doesn’t.  It seems inherent in any creative process that perfection is not only elusive but near impossible.  There are always things that aren’t going to go right, either because each piece of wood is different, or, mainly, because each builder is human and prone to making mistakes.  When one is made, the luthier is confronted with this decision: can this be fixed, or do I need to start over again?  Starting over again is, in some ways, the easy thing to do.  It’s a blunt instrument.  Trash the wood, get a new piece, and do it right the next time.  Fixing a problem requires more skill as it is often very fine work, but more than anything it requires creativity.  You have to look at the problem and envision what can be done.  When executed properly, the builder is the only one who can tell that a fix has been made.
Obviously, fixing a problem is to be preferred to starting all over again, as long as the end result is an instrument that is beautiful to look at, play, and listen to.  Robbie was able to fix his problem, and the result is a stunning instrument that yesterday sold for over $3,000 within hours of going on sale.

In the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 God used the blunt instrument of starting all over again to fix the problem of human evil, violence, and sin.  And it didn’t work.
The Incarnation is God using his creativity to fix the problem.  God became human, suffered the brunt of humanity’s violent evil, and won.  None of us would have come up with this plan.  It’s ingenious. 
And if each of us will submit to his incarnational plan, the result, both in our lives and in the world, will be stunning.

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