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Builder Profile: Heritage Guitar

Builder Profile: Heritage Guitar

By designing and building small batches of handcrafted, high-quality guitars from solid woods right here in the United States, Heritage is able to pay attention to those crucial details that define a great 6-string.

Heritage Guitar has a history of going its own way. While other guitar manufacturers increasingly build their instruments in Mexico, Korea, China, Indonesia, and other places known for inexpensive labor, and in a market where computer-aided manufacturing is the norm and mass-produced instruments dominate, the team of craftsmen at Heritage do the exact opposite. By designing and building small batches of handcrafted, high-quality guitars from solid woods right here in the United States, Heritage is able to pay attention to those crucial details that define a great 6-string.

“You can instantly hear it if you are a professional, and usually you can feel it,” says Rendell Wall, a second-generation guitar builder at Heritage. Wall has been making guitars in this same factory for 48 years—26 with Heritage and the previous 22 with Gibson, where he worked in research and development. His father worked for Gibson for 37 years.

“One of our guitars that runs $3,400? You can go downtown to one of your cheaper places and find one that looks like ours—from a distance—for maybe a couple hundred dollars,” Wall says. But the similarities fall away quickly when you compare the feel of the neck, the sound, the materials, and the traditional construction methods.

If Heritage is starting to sound like a throwback, we’re only getting started. The building that houses the Heritage factory is almost 100 years old and is the former home of Gibson Musical Instruments in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Wall is just one of the many Heritage employees who have been building guitars for years in this same plant, some of them for more than five decades.

Jim Deurloo and Marvin Lamb, two of the Heritage founding partners.

All in the Family
To really get the entire Heritage story, you’ve got to go back more than a century. Kalamazoo is steeped in guitar history. It’s where Orville Gibson, inventor of the archtop mandolin and guitar, founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company Limited in the late 1890s. Production of Gibson musical instruments began in the factory at 225 Parsons Street (now the home of Heritage Guitar), in 1917.

It’s the birthplace of the Gibson F-5 mandolin, now-vintage Gibson hollowbodies, Les Pauls, and SGs that propelled jazz, blues, country, and rock music into our contemporary age and made Gibson an iconic American brand.

Lloyd Allayre Loar, the mandolin virtuoso and acoustical engineer for Gibson who’s credited with numerous mandolin and guitar design innovations—including harmonically tuned carved tops, violin style F-holes, tuned longitudinal tone braces, longer necks, adjustable bridges, and the design of the Gibson L-5 Master Model archtop guitar—trod these dusty floors in the early 1920s.

The Heritage-Gibson relationship goes further: Heritage uses many of Gibson’s original tools and production methods, and many former Gibson craftsmen now run the shop and business.

Marvin Lamb, a founding partner of Heritage Guitar, has worked in this same factory, originally as a Gibson employee, since May 31, 1956—but his connection is still deeper: His father worked here in the Gibson mill room for 17 years. “I own the last guitar [a Les Paul 30th Anniversary] built here in the Gibson factory,” Lamb says. He also has one of only five cherrywood Les Paul 20th Anniversary guitars, and a Les Paul 25/50, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the design and the 50th anniversary of Les Paul’s musical career.

But Lamb isn’t a musician. “I don’t consider myself a guitar player now. I’m a builder,” he says. “I was around guitars so much, I let up on it and lost interest in playing. Maybe that’s what it was—I was around so many guitars.”

A New Generation
In the heyday of the late 1960s and early ’70s, says Wall, Gibson had 175,000 square feet of production with close to 1,000 people manufacturing 500 guitars per day. In 1974, Gibson expanded, opening a modern manufacturing facility in Nashville. In September 1984, Gibson closed the factory in Kalamazoo.

In the spring of 1985, Lamb, formerly the Gibson plant superintendent, plant manager James A. Deurloo, and J.P. Moats, the quality control man, founded Heritage Guitar with Bill Paige and Mike Korpak (also former Gibson employees). “I could have gone down to Nashville, but I married a girl from here,” Lamb says. “I didn’t want to go. Our goal was just to make a good quality, original-type guitar as best we could, and stay where we were.”

The first model Heritage produced was the H-140, a solidbody, single-cutaway electric guitar that was introduced at the NAMM show in the summer of 1985. Now, with 20 employees, Heritage creates between four and six guitars per day and has a lineup of 25 models, including several solidbody electrics. But most of the company’s output—as well as its reputation—is based on vintage-inspired, archtop electric semi-hollow and hollowbody guitars.

Rim bender with guitar-shaped mold.

Natural Selection
“It starts out with the wood selection,” says Deurloo, who began his guitar-making career in “white wood”—making and sanding necks and guitar bodies—for Gibson in 1958.

Heritage buys spruce for guitar tops from Fred Tebb and Sons in Tacoma, Washington. For most of their necks and solidbodies, Heritage uses pattern-grade tropical American mahogany—chosen specifically for its smooth texture and straight grain—supplied by Newman Lumber Company in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The curly maple comes primarily from the Great Lakes region. “We want it music grade,” Deurloo says. “It has to be clean and as figured as we can get it.” The “figure” refers to the grain pattern, which could be flame, bird’s-eye, or another grain pattern. Heritage sources ebony and rosewood fretboards from Luthiers Mercantile.

Heritage craftsmen begin creating their handbuilt hollow and semi-hollowbody guitars by cutting and bending strips of maple to form the sides, which are known as rims. The maple strips are first sawed and sanded down to .095". Next the rims are soaked and shaped over one of several molds, depending on the model, and then steamed until all the water is removed.

Rim assembly for a double-cutaway.

“That mold that you see is really a stove. It’s gas fired,” Deurloo says. “I get that hot enough that when you drop water on it, it turns to steam immediately. So you bend the rim as hot as you can, and then it takes maybe five to eight minutes to form it and dry it out, so it holds its shape.”

Using clothespins, the maple rims are then fitted with mahogany linings.

To bend the rims, the maple strips are secured on the front of the mold, also known as a platen, and bent all the way to the back. Foot pedals are used to press the wood to the mold and keep the rims under pressure. To bend cutaways, the wood is soaked overnight to make it pliable enough to take the sharp curves next to the fretboard.

Front to Back
The rims are then attached to a solid softmaple center block, which adds stability and tone. This block is notched to accommodate the electronics, volume, and tone controls. The rim assembly is then fitted with a mahogany lining and corner blocks, which provide a gluing surface to attach the guitar’s top and back. Standard rim widths are 1 3/4" and 1 5/8", and the guitar bodies range from 16" to 20" long, and 13 1/4" to 16" wide.

“The rim assembly looks kind of like a little airplane kit,” Wall says. “You’ve got a head block, tail block, you’ve got rim lining, a few stays, and corner blocks that add support. We put the top and back on the blocks and then glue them together.”

Freshly pressed laminated curly maple guitar back. Notice the imprint of a double-cutaway.

The tops and backs of many Heritage hollow and semi-hollowbodies are made of laminated maple. “Basically, we make plywood,” Lamb explains, “using curly maple veneers for the inside and outside over a basswood core.” The wood grains are crossed, which adds strength and stability, and the three sheets are glued together and put into a die press, nicknamed Bulldog, which is powered by a 20-ton jack. Once the plywood sheets are seated, “registration” holes are drilled into the wood, which help seat and center the wood during other building processes, such as the installation of “the patch,” which fills the concave portion of the guitar tops and backs to provide a glue surface for the center block. Bulldog then stamps the domed shape of the hollowbody into the wood. The fronts are chosen for their grain patterns, or figures, and then matched and numbered with backs.

Left: Using clothespins, the maple rims are then fitted with mahogany linings. Right: The Ferris Wheel.

Solidbodies are formed from two joined boards. The pieces are glued together and then held tight in a rotating rack, nicknamed the Ferris Wheel, until the glue sets in the center seam. The wheels can be turned to accommodate many bodies and save time, effort, and space. The bodies are then planed to the appropriate thickness.

Left: Heritage’s custom carver. Right: Fretboard saw.

Necks and Other Body Parts
Heritage solidbody guitars are cut with a band saw, then the domed tops and bottoms are shaped using a carving machine conceived by Deurloo. The pattern to be traced is placed in the bottom wheel, and the wood to be shaped is placed on the top wheel. Both are then spun, and as the arm on the bottom traces the dome of the pattern with a ball bearing, the arm on top duplicates the curve and carves it into the guitar’s top. When the arm gets to the center, a micro switch turns the machine off.

“It’s a simple device,” Lamb says, “but it’s pretty neat, you know? It’s almost like a duplicator, a pantograph machine.”

To remove grooves from the router, the guitar bodies are then passed through a belt sander before the necks are attached. To cut fret slots in the fretboards, Heritage craftsmen use a small swing saw, also known as a fretboard saw. The fretboard is seated, and then 22 blades swing across the board, simultaneously cutting the fret slots. “It’s all laid out—perfect to the thousandth,” Wall says. “It’s a time-saver.”

Left: Ray Noud installs the inlays and then frets, binds, and finishes the fretboards. Right: Custom-built fret press.

After the fretboard has been routed for inlays and fret markers, Ray Noud chisels the corners to seat each mother-of-pearl inlay and glues them in with epoxy, which he tints with the wood dust from each neck. He then finetunes the curve, or radius, of the fretboard by sanding to achieve a 12" radius. “I can tell a lot by where this curl lands,” Noud says, pointing to the wood dust on the fretboard.

Next, after the frets are cut from a spool, glued, and tapped into the fretboard, it’s put into a custom hydraulic press. Inside the fret press is a “shoe” to match the 12" radius on the Heritage fretboard. The fretboard is laid into a tray, which self-centers within the shoe. The craftsman then hits a button and the hydraulic press raises and simultaneously seats all the frets at the same height. The press reaches full pressure and then releases. Finally the fretboard is removed and set aside to dry. “We used to do it by hand, but that’s archaic, really,” Wall says.

Left: Freshly cut five-piece maple and mahogany necks. Right: Truss rods are inserted into “bendy straws” to keep the glue off them, tapped into the neck and covered with a strip of maple.

In addition to setting the frets more quickly, the fret press does a much better job of leveling the frets, Lamb explains. “It’s very difficult to press frets in one at a time and get them fairly level. If they are not level, when you go to do your fret filing, you have to take more off of one than another to get them level.” After the fretboard has been fretted, binding is applied and the fretboard is ready to be attached to a neck.

Rather than using computer numerical control (CNC) or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs to produce necks, Lamb carves most of the necks himself and then “rolls” each of them individually, shaping the neck’s profile on a belt sander. “All guitar players like something a little different,” he says. “If they specify what they want, we’ll get it to that thickness and feel: cheeky, less cheeky, C-shaped, D-shaped.”

Heritage creates three standard neck constructions for their guitars: A five-piece curly maple neck with a 25.5"-scale ebony fretboard and 20 bound frets; a one-piece mahogany neck with a 24.75"-scale rosewood fretboard and 22 bound frets; and a one-piece mahogany neck with a 24.75"- scale rosewood fretboard and 20 unbound frets. The five-piece maple neck is constructed with three pieces of curly maple sandwiching two strips of mahogany. Inside is the truss rod, which is seated and covered with another strip of maple.

“Why five pieces? That’s kind of an artistic thing,” Deurloo says. “It’s traditional but it also develops the feel. When you introduce a glue line between two pieces of wood, it introduces stability.”

Another notable feature of Heritage guitars is the severe angle of the headstock. All Heritage necks have a 17-degree headstock pitch, which aims to enhance sustain by increasing string tension at the nut. “We do it the old way,” Lamb says. “We take a block of wood and get two necks out of it—the bigger the angle, the wider the block has to be.” Many other manufacturers cut the necks with a smaller angle so they can use a thinner piece of wood and increase the yield from each block, he explains.

Top-Left: The neck center and angle are measured and set. The tenon and mortise are covered in Titebond glue, the center and angle rechecked, and clamped until dry.  Top-Right: Arnold Hileski checks the neck pitch of a Heritage Kenny Burrell Groove Master. Bottom-Left: Heritage guitars are bound, then the binding is secured with ropes until the homemade glue is set. Bottom-Right: Custom jazz guitar with spruce top, curly maple back, rims, and neck, Heritage floating humbucker pickup, and finger tailpiece, which eliminates feedback by varying the pressure on individual strings.

The necks are joined with a simple mortise-and-tenon joint, which offers better support for the fretboard than a dovetail, Lamb says, because the tenon, or “male” part of the joint, extends further into the guitar body. “If you don’t get the proper fit and angle, then nothing works. We don’t seem to have a lot of problems with loose neck joints. It works.”

Binding and Hardware
Heritage guitars are bound with ABS plastic. Craig “Curly” Spink (who has been with Heritage for 11 years, but has also worked as a carpenter and trained to be an art teacher) first bevels the edge of the binding so it lays closer to the guitar body. Then he lays glue into the bevel and secures the binding to the guitar body with strapping tape.

To follow the curve of a cutaway, Spink increases the binding’s pliability with a heat gun and then wraps the guitar in rope overnight until the glue sets and the body can be sanded. He makes his own glue by dissolving shavings and leftover bits of the ABS plastic binding in acetone. When it dries, the glue is invisible.

Heritage includes a variety of pickups in its lineup, including their own Heritage Pickups, Lollar P-90s, Seymour Duncan ’59 SH-1, TB59, and SH-55 Seth Lover humbuckers. Seth Lover and Walter Fuller, both former Gibson employees, are credited with designing and developing humbucker pickups and creating the Patent Applied For (PAF) pickup that Gibson Musical Instruments introduced in 1955.

“We’ll also install any pickup that fits our routing,” Lamb adds. Most Heritage guitars sport Grover tuners and TonePros bridges and tailpieces.

Left: Patrick Whalen shows a freshly painted, almond sunburst Heritage H-555. Top: Ted Beville scrapes the bindings to remove shading and sealer before clear coat is applied.  Bottom-Left: Millennium Pro, customized for Wendy Kells Brown with abalone knobs and ebony tuner buttons. Bottom-Right: Ebony tuner buttons for Wendy Kells Brown’s customized Millennium Pro.

The Finishing Touch
As is every preceding step in the creation of a Heritage guitar, the finishes are done one at a time and with painstaking care. “We don’t do anything that’s not in nitrocellulose lacquer,” Lamb says. “That’s the old-fashioned way, again. When the guitars age, they get lacquer checks.” Of course, he adds, that’s just what happens to high-quality vintage guitars from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Patrick Whalen, a local artist who has been with the company for four years, and Floyd Newton, who painted the original Gibson Les Paul goldtops in the early ’50s, shade and finish Heritage guitars.

“They are such incredible pieces before they even get up here,” Whalen says. First he applies the shader and then rubs it into the wood with alcohol to make the wood grain “pop.”

The guitars are then shaded with lacquer and sealed. The bindings are then scraped by Ted Beville, who has been scraping bindings—first for Gibson and now for Heritage—for more than 40 years. Lamb notes that the job requires incredibly strong hands and wrists, as well as excellent hand-eye coordination. “Most guys will slip and be into the wood, and there it is—a repair,” he adds. Next, the guitars receive four applications of clear coat and are then allowed to dry for 10 days before they go in for buffing.

Almost a third of Heritage guitars are custom built to specification—from the ornamentation to the hardware and pickups— and almost 80 percent of the business is for export, Deurloo says. “More than half of that goes to the Orient: Hong Kong, China, and Singapore. That’s the developing market. Germany and the Netherlands have always been pretty strong for us, too.”

Lamb says he’s not anticipating any major design changes and that new models are released whenever an idea takes hold, such as the Millennium Pro, which was shown at the 2012 NAMM show.

“We build as fine a guitar as there is in the world,” Lamb says. “We put a lot of tender, loving care into our instruments. We’re not mass-producing them. We only run small quantities—that is where we put our quality.”

That quality is the cumulative result of a highly skilled team. “Every guitar we build has a little different feel because they are all handmade,” Deurloo says. “Each time a person does their part of the process, it adds individual character to that particular guitar. The sum of the people who contribute to each step—that’s what makes our guitars.”