January 16, 2011
Hand guitars use polymer clay and other alternative materials to create psychedelic designs
Hand Guitars was founded by luthier JP Thomas, a self-proclaimed “tinkerer” who learned about guitars by taking apart his first guitar—a late-’40s Sears-Roebuck resonator. Before long we was rebuilding friends’ guitars, and then he landed a gig at an L.A. music store in the ’60s. Twenty years ago, he left the States for Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and finally to Hawaii.
“While collecting old pickups, I decided in 2003 to build my own relic’d guitars to hear the pickups,” says Thomas. “As guitar production progressed, so did my enthusiasm for exotic materials from previous projects in Asia—such as coconut shells, bamboo, and cinnamon bark. In October 2009, I had one of those ‘aha!’ moments: I glanced over at a gecko figurine on my desk that polymer-clay artist Jon Anderson had given me 10 years prior, and I envisioned those patterns on a guitar. That flash literally catalyzed the entire Hand Guitars project.”
The polymer-clay aspects of Hand Guitars’ subsequent projects were designed, created, and controlled by artist Anderson, who has been working with polymer clay for 20 years. Anderson applied his three-dimensional artwork and processes to create two-dimensional graphics that would work on Thomas’ guitars. “I took knowledge from my glass-making techniques to help transform the clay designs into something thin, audio-transparent, and applicable to the shapes and contours of a guitar’s body,” says Anderson. The polymer clay is bought, designed, and molded in a soft, Play- Doh-like compound that is then heated to create a 3mm-thick cap for a guitar body. The resulting polymer clay is more like the acrylic on pickguards than its original, gooey, molding state. (Visit hand-guitars.com/node/71 to see video of Anderson’s polymer-clay work.)
Naturally, gearhounds will want to know how the polymer clay affects the guitars’ tone. “The tone of our electric guitars comes from the thickness of the neck, the quartersawn Canadian maple, the rosewood or ebony fretboards, the TonePros, Gotoh, and Hipshot hardware, bushings that are deeply mounted into the one- and two-piece bodies, the Duncan pickups, and the vintage, paper-in-oil capacitors,” says Thomas. “For us, I think it’s important that we started with guitars that players already understand. The current line of Hand Guitars are certainly reminiscent of all the guitars I have ever owned and appreciated, but my sole design objective was to create shapes that were suitable canvases for the unique materials that Jon and I create.”
The Telepath model shown above is nicknamed “KoKo” and it has a two-piece tropical ash body that features a 3mm coconut-shell mosaic cap. It’s assembled with a slender, C-profile Sulawesi ebony neck with 21 jumbo frets. Other appointments include a coconut-shell composite nut, Gotoh tuners, and high-quality, medium-torque 250k Bourn pots. This one is fitted with Seymour Duncan Vintage Stack Tele single-coils.
This Strat-style model features a two-piece tropical ash body that’s covered with Anderson’s voodoo-influenced polymer-clay art and loaded with three custom, handwound pickups. It has a slender, C-profile maple neck topped with a 21-fret maple fretboard. The nut is made from a coconut-shell composite.
The 25 1/2"-scale Tonero features a one-piece East Java mahogany body with a Polynesian tribal-style polymer-clay center panel and a, three-piece mahogany neck with a Sulawesi ebony fretboard that has 22 jumbo frets. The hardware includes a TonePros ATVII wrap-around bridge, a choice of Hipshot or Gotoh tuners, and a coconut-shell truss rod cover. This particular model is equipped with Seymour Duncan P-Rails, but several pickup options are available.
Pricing and Availability
Hand Guitar’s handbuilt, one-of-a-kind custom guitars range anywhere from $1800 to $3600, depending on the complexity of the design and how much polymer clay is applied to the guitar. More intricate polymer-clay designs can go for as much as $6000. “We’re open to just about anything you dare to dream,” says Thomas. Currently, Hand Guitars’ wait time is about three months.