It’s probably not too far of a stretch to say that most guitarists at one point have pondered building their own guitar. The definition of “building” can vary from creating a Frankenstein out of several guitars and spare parts to buying a body, neck and electronics and assembling one, to all-out, hand-crafting one from start to finish. Back when I was in high school in the mid-‘80s, I took on my first build by assisting with some of the smaller tasks and handing off those results to the real builder to finish off my guitar. The tasks were basic: planing and cutting the body shape as well as some sanding. Back then there was no Internet, the woodshop class had no templates and information was scarce. Nonetheless, I had been bitten by the builder’s bug. Companies and people were making these instruments and I wanted in! Sadly with my poor woodworking skills and lack of knowledge (and tools) I wrote it off as a pipe dream and settled for watching The New Yankee Workshop and marveling at all those wood clamps Norm had in his shop. The dream was shelved until late 2009.
Several months ago I was reading a copy of Premier Guitar (yes, I read it religiously) and noticed an ad for the Phoenix Guitar Company. Having seen the ad several times before, I looked up their website and found that they were just a couple of miles from my house. I dropped in, introduced myself to the owner, George Leach, and we got to talking. He mentioned that twice a year they (George and his partner Diana Huber) hold a small class that lasts about 15 weeks (every Saturday from 8:30am to 5:30pm) and the 5-6 students build their choice of a variety of acoustic models ranging from nylon string classical to grand auditorium steel string guitars. Intriguing me to no end, I pressed on and found that they were starting the next class in March. After a talk with my editor it was agreed upon that I, Steve, the non-woodworking and mechanically declined was going to build his own guitar…finally. But what kind of teaching method could they use that would make sense to me? How could I actually do this without making a complete mess of a beautiful stack of wood? Was I really going to walk out at the end of class with a playable and quality instrument? These questions all weighed heavily on my mind even though George assured me that everything would work out in the end. As I write this first installment I have already completed six of the Saturdays and am happy to say things are looking really good! Lets back up and I’ll start from Day 1.
A month before class began I went into the shop and chose my model and wood types. Since I’d never owned a nice classical guitar it was an easy choice, especially considering I already have a great Taylor GS and ‘50s Gibson J-50. There were several classical models at the shop and after playing each of them I decided to go with a rosewood back and sides, and an Engelmann spruce top. With the woods picked out and the fingerboard width chosen (standard 2” width) I just needed to pick up some ear and eye protection since the Phoenix Guitar Company provided all of the other necessary tools.
Day 1: Sides, Top and Back Preparation
The first day began with introductions to my fellow classmates (Carlos, Tim, Rob, Mike and Don) as well as some background information on the class and how it came to be. Since 2001 they have been teaching two group classes per year and also offer one-on-one classes 2-4 times per year. Diana was actually a student of the first class but has helped teach every one since then. The one-on-one classes take place over the course of a couple of weeks while the group class lasts four months. I was curious as to what type of teaching method they’d use especially since lectures in high school weren’t the best way to get information across to me…I was a lab guy. Fortunately George and Diana read my mind and the class is very hands-on with mini-lectures and demonstrations interspersed to explain the current step. It’s also nice that they put a high degree of importance on shop safety and proper technique because no guitarist wants to lose a finger or a hand!
Back to class, we began with bending the sides of the guitar. The process was actually rather simple, or rather made that way by the use of benders and their expertise. We sprayed the rosewood (or mahogany in the case of Don’s guitar) with a water bottle and prepared them for the bender, which is the shape of half of the side of a guitar. With a heating pad on it holding it in place the side was clamped down and set aside for a short period of time. Removing the side from the bender it was put into a wood mold, which also held the previously bent bottom bout. Waxed paper kept the glue from sticking to the mold and spring clamps held the sides in place while we glued on the head and tail blocks.
With the sides drying we took our pre-glued tops (some steps are done ahead of time for expediency) and began working on inlaying the rosettes. In my case the rosette is one piece so George helped out with the tricky step and routed the top to fit and glue it in place. After it dried I spent some time scraping the top to remove any excess glue, then handed the top over to Diana who ran it through the sander to achieve the appropriate final thickness (between .080 to .090). I traced the shape onto the top and made a second line on the outside of the outline and rough-cut the top to shape. With the top ready I used a plexiglass template to trace the bracing pattern onto the wood and began rough cutting my braces.
25lb. weight holds the rosette in place on the raw top.
Onto the back. If there is one thing I’ll take away from this experience it’s that wood glue is incredibly strong and sets a lot faster than you might imagine. With such thin pieces of wood I didn’t expect the glue to hold the back together so easily. Using what looked like three boat dock ties, we put a bead of glue on the back pieces and joined them together with these rope and wood clamps. Within 45 minutes, the back was dry and ready for scraping, thickness sanding and basic shape cutting. After that I cut and glued the back center strip on packed it in for the day…until I realized there was more time available so I moved onto Day 2’s first steps.
Using what are called go-bars (dowels) we supported the sides while still inside the mold to ensure the sides stayed in place during later steps. The next step was to glue the braces onto the top and go-bar them to let dry. With the top laid upside down and each brace glued in one at a time, I used up to three dowels to hold each brace in place. The station that allows this has a piece of heavy plywood held a couple of feet above so the dowels exert a downward pressure on the braces. It wasn’t hard to do but looks really impressive with them all in place. That officially ended my first day.