Collings headstock binding.
A Florentine cutaway with mitered binding.
As builders, we tend to take certain things
for granted. When I give a shop tour, I’m
often struck by what surprises people most
about making guitars. Usually, it’s the complexity
of the job. Other times, it’s something
most people don’t really think about.
Take binding, for example. Binding a guitar
can be an elaborate, yet under-appreciated
task. I’ve had visitors remark that they
thought the binding was “painted on” and
voice surprise at the difficulty of doing a
proper job. Binding has been used on guitars
for centuries, and initially it served to reinforce
the top and back plates on an acoustic.
Binding these plates with a strip of material
helps prevent cracking along the open-grained
edges. Beyond the practical considerations,
binding also provides an opportunity
to enhance the instrument’s look.
Binding also allows the builder to add
purfling or extra rows of decorative material.
To visually express their attention to detail,
luthiers have long adorned their pieces with
stripes on tops, sides, necks, and headstocks.
Martin Guitars has a history of using
abalone and mother-of-pearl purfling on
their premium instruments to differentiate
them from their lower-priced siblings.
Wooden bindings are usually found on high-end
acoustic instruments, but their use on electrics is
growing. Woods most often used for bindings
are rosewood, maple, and ebony, though koa,
boxwood, and holly are favorites too.
Cellulose-based bindings are found in a
multitude of colors including white, black,
ivoroid, and faux tortoise-shell. Ivoroid was
originally developed for piano-key veneers.
Although it was introduced as a cost-saving
substitute for real ivory, ivoroid is now associated
with premium guitars. Manufactured
in Italy, these cellulose bindings are formed
in a solid block that weighs more than 300
pounds. Layers of tinting are added to create
patterns like the ivoroid “grain.” The
large block is shaved into sheets, which are
then cut into strips. Various combinations of
contrasting layers are laminated to create
either a striped pattern when they’re cut in
one direction, or a checked design when cut
in the other.
As plastics became more sophisticated, guitar
manufacturers turned to such materials as
ABS and Boltaron because they were more
stable and inexpensive, and they came in a
multitude of colors. This is the typical white
or crème-colored material we associate
with 1950s Gibsons or the ultra-bright white
bindings that became popular in the 1970s.
In the case of solidbodies, the binding was
mostly decorative, but Gibson also used
bindings on the fretboard edge that transitioned
over the fret ends. This protected the
player’s hand from sharp fret ends, which
can be a problem when fretboards shrink
during periods of low humidity.
As sales skyrocketed during the guitar
boom of the early ’60s, manufacturers felt
that binding guitars was too time consuming
and investigated ways to streamline it.
Leo Fender, the most efficiency-minded of
all, practically eschewed it completely. Stan
Rendell, who was Gibson’s president in the
1960s and ’70s, once showed me a complete
Les Paul Custom headstock binding that
was injection molded, including the black
purfling stripes. This piece only needed to
be glued to the headstock, yet it gave the
impression of a multiple-layered binding job.
Similar parts are used for f-hole bindings on
some factory-built archtops.
Another fascinating variation is masked (or
mock) wood binding. This is created in a
process that uses a tape strip to block the
application of tinted paint or stain to create
the appearance of binding. In a modification
of this technique, a maple top can be
stained with a dark color so that its edge
can be sanded to remove the stain. This is
a purely cosmetic design that is beautiful
because the “binding” features the maple’s
figure or curl.
Today, big factories use computer numerical
controlled (CNC) machinery to cut and pre-miter
binding pieces that are then assembled
in pneumatic fixtures before being
glued to the guitar. Industrial lasers that look
and operate like oversized desktop printers
cut complete bindings from flat sheets. If
past masters could have had access to CNC
mills and lasers, you can be sure they’d have
used them. The fact that they didn’t is one
of the reasons collectors and aficionados
value their work today. Of course, not everyone
likes instrument binding, and there’s
no denying the clean and stripped-down
look of a Telecaster. Whether or not you like
binding, the next time you inspect a bound
guitar you’ll have to respect the effort and
tradition behind it.
Noted designer, builder, and player Jol Dantzig founded
Hamer Guitars, the first boutique guitar brand, in 1973.
Since then, he has worked or recorded with many of the
most talented and famous names in music. Today, as the
director of Dantzig Guitar Design he continues to help
define the art of custom guitar.