Monday, September 28, 2009

More Neck Work...Oops!

If the neck were to be attached to the body perfectly perpendicular to the top, the strings would be too far above the frets at the lower end of the fretboard, down around the 14th fret where the neck joins the body.  Angling the neck back very slightly--one to two percent, lowers the strings enough to make it playable.  However, the top has a very slight radius, so some material must be removed from the heel area just to bring the neck angle to 90 degrees, then a slight bit more to achieve the final neck angle of 1-2 percent.

This is easily if not quickly done with some sand paper.  It's tedious because I have to sand, bolt the neck on, place a straightedge on the neck and measure the gap between the straightedge and the soundboard at the bridge location, take it off, sand some more, rinse and repeat.

It's further complicated by the fact that both edges of the heel must be flush against the guitar when the neck is attached.  If not, it not only looks bad, but because the neck will rock a bit it's impossible to measure the gap accurately.

I worked on this the week of September 14; I really want to have the neck attached and the fretboard glued on by the time I went away for the weekend on a Walk to Emmaus.  (If you don't know what that is, well, I'll have to make that the subject of another post.)

It's an artificial deadline, self-imposed for whatever reason.  And I found myself pushing for it even more as I took time away to work on the den painting project which ended up also involving staining a hundred board feet of chair rail.  (Prep, sand, stain, sand, stain again.  A week away from guitar-building.  Grrr.)

Well, I had no problem sanding down to a decent neck angle, but for some reason I couldn't get the edges of the heel flush to the body.  I sanded and sanded and it didn't seem to do anything.  I worked late on Monday the 14th, and it just wasn't working.  I'm usually reading in bed by 11 p.m., and Pam came out to find out why I was still working at 11:30, and in my frustration I snapped at her.

Well, one of the reasons I got into guitar-building was for a release from stress, not to cause frustration.  I have found that when I get stuck on a problem, it's best to leave it alone for a while.  Put the tools down, turn off the lights, get a good night sleep and tackle the problem the next evening.  That time away helps my brain to sort through the problem and see it from a fresh perspective.

I had passed that time a couple of hours before.  I knew the solution was simple, but I couldn't see it.  I was determined to solve it that night, but nothing I did made any difference in the neck joint.  That was both puzzling and frustrating, but I plowed on.  And on.  And on.  Mainly because of a stupid, arbitrary deadline that I put on myself.

Snapping at Pam showed me that I was past my limit.  She quietly left me alone.  I worked for a couple of minutes and finally gave up.  Turned off the lights, went in, hugged my wife and apologized and explained that I was frustrated because I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong with the neck.

She's a good woman and had already forgiven me.

The next evening I went out, got my engineers square, found the high spots, sanded them down, and attached the neck.

Perfect fit, perfect neck angle.

See?  Going to bed and letting the brain work on it during the night worked.

So now it's time to glue on the fretboard.

Uh-oh.  In sanding I tried to avoid the front of the heel where the fretboard is attached, because that would reduce the neck angle, but in trying to level the heel I ended up sanding some on the front.

Not just some, but too much.  Now, instead of joining the body at the 14th fret, the fretboard joins at the 13 1/2th fret.  Which looks like crap.  It's  a cosmetic thing, but looks matter.  To me, a guitar is as much a visual work of art as it is a musical work of art.

But it's not just cosmetic.  Moving the fretboard down also moves the bridge location down, and the bridge is strategically located on the lower bout to create the greatest amount of movement on the top.  By moving the bridge, I'll change the sound.  I'm not sure what it will sound like--I'm guessing some of the low end will be robbed, and undoubtedly some volume will be sacrificed.

Unacceptable.  And now I realize that I have to make another neck.

At first I'm really upset with myself, but strangely, after a few minutes, I'm all right.  Relieved.  I'm not going to meet my stupid deadline, and it was a stupid deadline.  There was no need for it, and it didn't help the process, it impeded it.

And I find myself kinda glad.  There were some aspects of the neck that I wasn't quite satisfied with, and now I get to fix those things.  I already have another neck blank, so I just have to order a few small parts like another headplate and some more bolts.

Oh, and look at that last picture again.  You can see that I installed the pearl position markers?  Looks good, right?  If you play guitar, you might have already caught my mistake.  There are two position markers at the 12th fret, which is traditional (the 12th fret marking the octave), but the next markers should be on the 15th and 17th frets.  I've put them on the 14th and 16th frets.

I actually laughed at myself.  So, what the heck, I'll order another fretboard.  No big deal.  Glad I caught it.  Gotta do it right.

So I closed up shop, went inside, took a shower, got a book, a cup of coffee, a really good cigar went out on the deck and had a relaxing evening with Kobi the Wonder Beagle.

Slept like a baby.  Took the guitar with the bad neck still attached to Emmaus and used it as an illustration that we are all in the process of becoming what God wants us to be, and sometimes that involves getting rid of something that's not working right, like a bad neck that will interfer with the music God wants to make in our lives.  Something like that.  You had to be there.

Friday and Saturday I worked on a new neck.  The guitar will be better for me having made a new neck.

I know I am.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How To Build a Better Guitar

It is not my habit to read books twice.  There are some that are deserving of a re-read, but there are so many books that I want to read the first time, and so many that I know I’ll never get to in my lifetime, that I generally can’t justify to the time it takes to read something twice.
However, a friend of mine, knowing my interest in guitar-building (he’s actually next in line on my waiting list) gave me a copy of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument for my birthday.  He was hoping that I hadn’t read it yet, and was disappointed to find that I had.  Nevertheless, I was happy to have my own copy since I originally read a library copy two years ago.
The book was on the table the other day, and I picked it up and started browsing through it.  Before long I had read most of a chapter, and enjoyed it ever bit as much as I did before.  So, what the heck, I went to the Introduction and started reading from the beginning.  By the end of the week I was done, and glad for the opportunity to visit an old friend.
There was one episode in the book that I recalled having struck me the first time, and it still does.  The author, Allen St. John, recalls a conversation he had with T.J. Thompson, a world-class guitar builder and repairman.  They were talking about “magical” guitars—guitars in which everything works together perfectly to produce a transcendent sound and an instrument that plays effortlessly.  Guitars that are beyond merely great—they’re truly magical.  St. John asked Thompson what makes such a guitar.
“It’s a freak thing.  It’s a combination of, I guess, about six hundred things.  And it’s hard to say what’s more important than the other.  It’s the amalgam.”
“What would be number 1 and what would be 597?”
“I can probably answer that,” Thompson said.  “Number 1 is…” T.J. paused for eleven more seconds.  “Number 1 is the state of mind of the person building the guitar.  Actually, this could be 1 through 20.  When people ask me how to build a better guitar, I always think and sometimes say, ‘Be a better person.’  You can’t keep your personality out of the work.  It’s impossible.”
“If you’re rigid or you’re distorting reality it goes into the guitar.  And when you play it, it comes back out.  It’s disturbing,” he continued.  “I used to believe that but I never had any proof of it.  But I’ve played enough handmade guitars and then later met the maker.  Sure enough, it’s inseparable.”
I hope every builder gets a mulligan on their first few guitars while we’re learning the craft, otherwise I’m in trouble.
That’s striking, isn’t it?  Wood choice, body shape and size, bracing patterns—these are the things most identifiable as shaping the sound of a guitar, and they would probably be high on Thompson’s list—but apparently no higher than 21.  
Want to build a better guitar?  Be a better person.  It would be much easier if it were a technique for shaping the braces, but no; in St. John’s words, “You need to be a better man to build a better guitar.”
I don’t want to get too preachy or pedantic here—I think most of you are smart enough to see the implications and draw the proper lessons from this.
But I can’t help myself. 
Your work reflects your character.  There.  I’ll stop there.  Whether you’re a teacher, a bricklayer, a systems analyst, or a secretary, your work reflects your character.  If you paint, write poetry, landscape, or build guitars, what you produce reflects your character.  You fill in the blanks.
One final thing, again because I can’t help myself: take hope, because you are God’s workmanship.  His work reflects His character.  Sin cannot destroy that in you, it can only hide it.   But it’s still there.
So, on my best days when I’m allowing God to have freedom in my life, on those days if I happen to be working on a guitar, then I’m building something of the character of God into that instrument.
I don’t know how many of those days there actually are, but it makes me hopeful to think that there may be a little bit of the character of God coming out in the music of a guitar that I built.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Neck Heel Shaping

Shaping the neck heel--really, all aspects of shaping the neck--is one of the more satisfying aspects of guitar making. You're working with hand tools, and it's a very tactile experience. On a very basic level it's sculpting, and you do feel a bit like an artist.

The process starts with designing the shape of the heel cap. Since I have to cover part of the mortise plug, this heel cap is going to be a wider than normal, which means that it's also going to be a little taller to maintain proportions.

To ensure symmetry, I draw half of the heel cap off a center line. It's going to be about 1" high, and about 3/4" wide, so the drawing is 3/8" wide off the center line. I connect these two points in a pleasing curve, cut it out with a razor knife, and transfer that to the neck.

I really don't want the entire length of the heel to be 1" thick, so I'm going to give it more of a round sweep like you would commonly find on a classical guitar. I draw this on the side of the heel block and cut it out on the band saw.

Now I use a chisel to begin shaping. Mahogany is hard wood and dull tools are danger, so first I take some time out to sharpen my chisels. Then the neck gets clamped and the wood starts flying.

I stay outside the lines, because I'm just roughing it out now. The final shaping will take place when I shape the rest of the neck, after it's attached to the body and the fretboard is glued on.

After this I drill the holes in the tenon for the brass inserts, and, well, insert the inserts. It takes longer to do than to explain, but it's not worth explaining or showing pictures. Here's the final result:
I wick some thin-viscosity super glue around the inserts to make sure they won't work lose in the end-grain.

I measure and drill holes in the mortise and check it all out. It takes some work with a round file to get the holes to where the bolts can fit into the straight into the inserts, but it gets done.

And here's the guitar with the neck attached for the first time:

I say "with the neck attached for the first time" because it's going to go on and off many times as I get the neck angle right, and that's a trial and error deal. A few hours work, but all of one paragraph when I post about it.

For now, I'm just going to enjoy the fact that it looks more and more like a guitar.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mortise and Tenon

The traditional way to join the neck to the body is with a dovetail joint and glue. This is a very strong joint, but complicated to execute and makes re-setting the neck a fairly big job. Every steel-string guitar at some point in its life is going to need a neck re-set. The constant pull of the strings over many years results in the neck being pulled forward, toward the bridge, which raises the height of the strings over the frets resulting in high action i.e. it makes the guitar harder to play. The only thing to do is to loosen the glue, detach the neck, re-establish the proper neck angle, and glue it all together again. Fortunately this doesn't have to happen very often. To illustrate, my Yamaha is over 30 years old and shows no signs of needing a re-set. It doesn't hurt that I use light or extra-light string which exert less pull than heavier strings.

There are a number of different options, but the one I have chosen to use is a combination of mortise and tenon and bolts. The only glue I use is on the fretboard extension, so when a re-set is necessary all that will need to be done is to heat the fretboard extension to loosen the glue, then unbolt the neck.

To cut the mortise into the body I use a router with a template bearing and a jig which holds a mortise template.

Here's the jig:

You can see the centerline on the body centered on the template opening. This is very important, as you, unfortunately, will see.

The bearing of the bit rides against the template and the bit cuts into the body and heel block.

It's kind of scary to cut into your body, but you gotta do it. I cut just a little at a time, as I don't want to overheat the router.

When it's over I inspect the opening, expecting to see a perfectly cut mortise.

Crap. I used a few cam clamps to hold the body to the jig, but I don't want to clamp it so hard that I crack the body. Unfortunately, while I was cutting the body shifted and the mortise is cut off the centerline.

I hate it when that happens. So now, instead of going on to cut the tenon, I have to plug the cut and re-do it. I forgot to take some pictures to show you, but you'll see what I mean in a minute.

I trace the off-center mortise onto a block of mahogany and use the table saw and band saw to cut a plug, then glue it in the mortise. After it dries I'll cut the mortise again.

This time I clamp some 1" dowels to the jig at both waists which prohibits any side-to-side movement. I re-draw the center line and make another cut. This time it works fine. Here you can see the mortise, and you can see a little bit of the plug. See how far off-line it is?

Fortunately this is going to be covered by the neck heel, although I'm going to have to make it a little wider than normal to cover the plug.

Now it's time to cut the tenon. I draw the lines for the cut on the neck block, and use the table saw to make the cuts. I'm cutting the width of the tenon here, and next I'll turn it on its side and cut the cheeks. I undercut the cheeks a bit to make sure there is a good seal against the body.

I use a chisel to shape the round end of the tenon, and I'm done. The tenon will receive inserts into which I'll screw some bolts from inside the body through the heel block, and that will hold it tight.

Next up is to carve the heel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Birthday Jam

I have a friend, Laura, that I've known since 7th grade, and our birthdays are just five days apart, so soon after moving to Frederick 14 years ago we instituted the annual Larry and Laura Birthday Bash. Sometimes Pam and I would go to her house, sometimes she would come here, and sometimes we'd meet at a restaurant somewhere in the middle. (She used to live in Westminster; now she lives in Glenville, PA, about an hour from Frederick.)

Four years ago she married Paul, who is a really good guitar player, way out of my league, but it's something we share. So now the birthday bashes include guitar playing and singing.

I also have another friend, Tim Quigley, who lives in Hedgesville, WV, who is also a really good guitar player. We'll get together and play, but, once again, he's out of my league. Or I'm out of his. Whatever.

But he and Paul are in the same league, and I've always thought it would be cool to get them together, so this year I proposed that we expand the annual Larry and Laura Birthday Bash to include a couple of other friends. We'd meet in the middle--at my house--and I'd grill steaks, then we'd go out on the deck and jam.

Laura and Paul were agreeable, and so were Tim and his wife Karen.

Then things grew. Pam suggested another couple, Shannon and Jill, come over. Well, they don't play the guitar, but we love their company, so that's cool. Then Angela said that she and Matt were coming home for the weekend and would be there Saturday night. And since they were coming, I told Austin that he and his girlfriend, Ariella, were invited.

First I ran all this by Laura, since it's her birthday too, but she's cool.

So instead of six steaks, I got twelve. Had to get another grill so we wouldn't have to eat in shifts.

We had a great time, just like I envisioned it. We ate, we laughed, and we played and sang. All my friends who have heard me refer to each other finally met and now know who I'm talking about.

Angela made the cake:

Here's a pic of the pickers. Tim's the one with the shiny head, and Paul is facing us. Laura is next to Paul, partially obscured by the umbrella pole.

Big-time fun. A good way to celebrate a birthday, a good way to celebrate friends.

More B-Day Pics

This is how I found my car after church on Sunday. Angela had fun.

So Monday morning I Windexed the windows, drove to church and spent the first 1/2 hour cleaning my office.

My birthday sure is a lot of work!

The Politics of Bible Translation

On September 1st the board of Biblica (formerly The International Bible Society) issued a press release announcing their intention to release an update in 2011 of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. The press release stated that this would be the first update since 1984.

This is curious, because in 2005 Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was published as a revision of the NIV. “Revision” is the word that Bible publishers use to differentiate it from being merely a new edition of the old translation. A revision is a new translation from the original languages which uses the same translation philosophy and seeks maintain much of the original while updating the translation. Revisions are necessary because scholars develop new understandings of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, there are better manuscripts available, and because the English language continues to evolve.

So what’s the difference between a revision and an update? The latter would seem to be some tweaking of the translation, or word or a verse here and there when new understandings are developed, while a revision involves more wholesale changes. The press release for the 2011 NIV, however, makes it clear that this is to be a revision, not just some tweaking.

So why not just call it a revision like everyone else? The answer may be found in the fact that there is barely any mention of the TNIV in the press release. It is referred to one time: “The 2011 NIV will represent the latest expression of the CBT's translation work. Previous expressions included the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV and the 2005 TNIV.” And that’s it. Elsewhere you can find out that Biblica plans to discontinue the TNIV. They are distancing themselves from it.

The NIV is geared toward the American evangelical market, which, if you are going to sell Bibles, is the market to shoot for. Evangelicals buy Bibles, lots and lots of Bibles, and think nothing of dropping anywhere from $60 to $100 on a top-grain leather bound Bible.

And evangelicals hated the TNIV. Well, some did anyway. The Willow Creek Association sent every pastor in the WCA a copy; that’s how I got mine. And I like it. It’s the one I use at home for my devotions. It’s a good translation, and very readable.

But other evangelicals didn’t. Specifically they didn’t like the use of gender-inclusive language; they thought it was caving to the pressures of political correctness. In his letters, for instance, Paul would often address the church with the word adelphoi which is the word for “brothers.” The King James translates it as “brethren.” But Paul is clearly addressing the entire church, not just the men in the church, so recent translations, including the TNIV, have rendered it “brothers and sisters.” So which is the correct translation? Well, both are and aren’t. One gets the word right and the sense wrong; the other gets the sense right but hedges on the word.

See, translation isn’t math, where 1+1=2, always. Words are dynamic, meanings change from context to context, meanings evolve with usage. Bible translators have to decide if they are translating into British English or American English, because they aren’t the same.

Anyway, conservative evangelicals went nuts about this. Well, male conservative evangelicals, anyway. Maybe they were afraid people would stop using masculine pronouns for God, even though we know that when God made humans in his image he did so as “male and female.” (Notice the use of masculine pronouns just then?) I don’t know why. But James Dobson, Charles Swindoll, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and many more voiced their objections, loudly and vehemently, using their radio broadcasts to warn people away from the TNIV.

These guys aren’t Bible translators. Their focus is on other things, and it should stay there. Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary (a very conservative seminary) states, "The group that objects to the TNIV does not reflect a majority of evangelical New Testament scholars. In fact, most of these individuals have no translation experience."

But people listen to these guys, and so no one bought the TNIV. And now Biblica is coming out with an “update” of the NIV, and I’m sure it will have nothing that will challenge the beliefs—and prejudices—of prominent evangelical leaders.

But when the average Christian goes to read the Bible, shouldn’t they have a reasonable expectation that what they are reading reflects the very best scholarship out there? Accuracy, readability, scholarship—all these should be considerations in a Bible translation. Market share and catering to Christian radio hosts should not.