Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Martin Behind The Scenes Tour

I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to enjoy a 'Behind The Scenes' tour of the Martin Guitar Factory at Nazarath, Pennsykvania.
The tour was the highlight of the trip, but I had an alternative motive for the trip . . . to stock up on various parts needed in the learning/building journey I'm taking in the world of personal guitar construction.

This was a fantastic experience on many levels, not the least of which was the opportunity to meet the people I've been connected with for the past three years.  The Martin family of employees follow what I believe is essential in maintaining a truly successful business . . . they treat ccustomers like guests in their home.  Thank you all for such a wonderful time, especially Gail Ventin, the guru at Guitar Makers Connection.

This is the most expensive tour I've ever enjoyed.  Not because of the price, but because no one can leave the Martin factory without buying way more toys than you can imagine.  You cannot buy guitars -- that's left for dealers --, but there's plenty of really cool accessories, clothing, historical reading material, parts, supplies and geegaws to satisfy the most pationate in the guitar world.  And, the museum is so interesting -- 182 years of the finest guitars made.  Yes, we were really there.

Please excuse the photo quality, I was shooting through glass with existing light (they ask visitors not to use flash photography, because it distracts the workers on the factory floor), and we were crusing around in the midst of people creating a massive variety of instruments.

Vintage tools of the trade.

Hand-on work goes on throughout the factory, just like in the old days, but the tools and work stations are modernized. 

This lady is carving top braces.

This guy is gluing back panels together on a special tensioning device.

Here, the finishing touches are being hand placed on the heel of a classical neck. Necks are roughed out on a CNC machine and then hand finished.  Notice the really cool neck jig the guy is using.

A fingerboard getting special attention in the Custom Shop.

The ribs of a guitar in a mold, where heel and end blocks are glued into position, and the lining is glued in place and prepared to accepth the top and back.

Not all work is done by hand anymore. Robots have reeplaced some of the process.  This is the initial polishing segment.  The guitar body is held by suction cups on the robot arm and moved automatically through the process. Final polishing is always done by hand.

A small sampling of the hundreds of guitar bodies waiting for final assembly. 

The original Nazarath Martin factory, which is now the Guitar Makers Connection.

The new factory with more than 200,000 square feet of production space produces about 240 guitars a day to be enjoyed by people like me. You really need to take a tour to experience the full measure of the work that goes into the creation of some of the finest guitars in the world.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

More 'Pickin'!

The second of two vintage Kay guitars that my friend Tim had for me is the most interesting, and completely original.

Kay Kraft Venetian-Style Arch Top Double Cutaway Acoustic Guitar

When Tim (my 'picker' friend, (whom I introduced in the previous post) presented this guitar as a an option for my collection, he couldn't possibly know how excited I was over this rascal.

In the early 1930s when the Depression was in full swing and many instrument makers were barely surviving, the Kay Musical Instrument Company contracted with Stromberg-Voisinet, a violin maker to build a deluxe arch top acoustic instrument with an adjustable neck and other innovative design features. Sorry folks, Taylor Guitars didn't invent the bolt-on guitar neck. This bolt-on adjustment is so simple and effective you don't need a technician to perform a neck reset. You can do it in about three minutes . . . loosen the strings, reach in through the sound hole, loosen the giant wing nut, adjust the neck up or down to adjust string action, retighten, and you're done!

I could continue with information about the Kay company and its history, but all that info is available online if you're really interested. I just want to introduce my 'new' vintage guitar.

This 80+-year-old Kay Kraft Venetian Arch Top Style A six-string acoustic guitar is completely original, right down to the neck adjustment sticker visible through the sound hole and the blade-head screws holding the original three-on-a-stick tuning machines in place (note the original tuning keys are not bent or broken).

Notice the shape of the headstock, which is so stylized to match the shape of the body, which was way out in front of its competition in the day.

The gold-leaf enhanced mother of pearl-style headstock overlay carries the Kay Kraft logo.  It's a little faded, but it's in better shape than I and most of my friends, and we're a decade younger.

The bone nut is original and in perfect condition.

The 14-fret neck is in great original condition.  It's straight, and the rosewood fingerboard and frets show no wear. The ivory-color fretboard binding is in great condition, but it has slight distortion at every fret location due to shrinkage of the rosewood board. Pearl position marker dots are also perfectly in place with no indentation.

The original bridge/saddle and stainless tailpiece are original and in great condition.

I did install aftermarket Martin strings, because the 'originals' were well beyond their effective playing days.

As you can see, the body is in near perfect condition. There is finish crackle and tiny scratches on the top surface, but all the ivory-color edge and sound hole binding is tightly in place. Geez, the glue they used in the old days was really good. Finish on the back and sides shows the same finish crackle, and there is a small area of 'buckle rash', which suggests the guitar was played, but the fretboard suggests 'not much'.

Here's an image of the neck adjustment mechanism.  

And, if you look closely you can see the finish crackle, but there is never going to be a 're-finish' as long as I own this little devil. It's too nice to screw around with, and besides a re-finish would lessen the value.

The simple wing nut adjustment.

The adjustment assembly apart.  Pretty simple mechanism.

That's it for the presentation of the Venetian.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Check back for more new and exciting additions and changes within the boundary of TotalRojo Guitars.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pickin' and Grinin'!

My friend, local 'picker' Tim, messaged me a couple weeks ago about two guitars that he recently found on a vintage scrounge. He identified them as Kays and wondered if I'd be interested. You never know for sure about the condition of instruments found on a pic, but Tim is pretty reliable, so I had to take a peek, especially since my very first guitar a lotta years ago was a Kay acoustic.

I took one look and knew that I would be leaving with them. But, I couldn't let Tim know how enthusiastic I was. Tim is a very sharp cookie, and a damn hard negotiator . . . he knows what his stuff is worth. After too long dickering over price, I loaded those beauties up, before my buddy woke from his coma realizing I hasd picked his pocket.

Before I get to the good stuff, I'd like to introduce you to the Kay Musical Instrument Company, so you will have a more clear understanding of why I was excited about adding these guitars to my collection.

Kay was a musical instrument manufacturer of the United States in operation between the 1930s and '60s. Established in 1931 at Chicago by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer, from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet, which was founded as Groeschel Mandolin Company in 1890. The company initially manufactured only traditional folk instruments, but grew to make a wide variety of stringed instruments. Kay was best known for its mid-priced guitars, as well as its budget instruments.

 Kay Jumbo, which I'll introduce to you now.

This is how the Jumbo looked on day one. It was missing a few pieces and had seen better days, but not beat up. The tuning machines were worn out aftermarket pieces, which needed to be replaced. The nut was gone. The adjustable bridge was in a box, but it too needed help. And, the pick guard and tailpiece were missing. The greatest concern was a slight crack on the centerline between the bridge location and the back, but it turned out to be an easy fix. Overall, this is a very sound instrument. It just needed some TLC.

So what did I have?

A Kay Jumbo 14-fret archtop cutaway acoustic guitar. Maple neck with rosewood headstock overlay and ziricaote fingerboard. Position markers are unusually large, probably to match the oversize curley maple body with spruce top, bound with cream color binding.

Its called a Jumbo for a reason . . . the body is a bit larger than a dreadnaught or comparable-size guitars.

During the initial stage of repair, I discovered the headstock logo was a cast brass piece that when polished was quite nice, which lead me to add gold accessories -- tuners, strap button, pick guard mounting arm, and tailpiece attachment.

This photo taken in bright sunlight doesn't due justice to the beautiful deep rich color of the original rosewood headstock overlay, but the grain is clearly visible. Gold color Klusen style tuning machines match the logo. The replacement nut was hand crafted from corian. Purists claim nothing is better than bone, but corian works for the girls I go with.

You can't miss the boulder-size position markers in this photo, and it will be hard to get fingers in the wrong place while playing.

The grain of the original ziricote fretboard is pretty visible here, but again the bright sunlight has over exposed the image. Ziricote is a very dark wood and there is, in my humble opinion, no wood in the world with a more interesting grain than ziricote.

Original jumbo frets are in good shape, so I polished them and they were good to go.

The finished top is really classic Adirondack spruce, which is evidenced by the wider grain and the age of the guitar, which as near as I can research is the early '50s. The 'f'-hole design is really clean and provides a nice sound. I crafted the pickguard from a sheet of rosewood to match the headstock overlay, and the gold attachment bar and screws match the other accessories. The original adjustable bridge was in pretty good shape, so it made things a little simpler. But, the original metal tailpiece was missing, probably used to prop up geraniums in some old gal's flower pot, so I hand crafted a special design from ziricote to match the fretboard.

Ideally, the tailpiece should be able to move (hinge), so I added a gold color cabinet hinge for an anchor at the back of the guitar. The hinge is smaller than the original mount, so original screw holes are visible, but that's a small item that has no effect on sound . . . and, sound is what it's all about, right!

This shot of the body shows the cutaway, binding, and grain of the curly maple sides and arched back.

She wasn't very good looking when I brought her home, but she cleaned up well . . . I think I'll let her hanging around a while, or until someone makes an offer I cannot refuse.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

It was bound to happen!

Last weekend, I shipped a cigar box guitar to a customer in Oregon. I really didn't want to sell it, but the buyer was persistent and so complimentary of my work that I caved in.

I've shipped dozens of guitars and amps all over the globe, by USPS Priority Mail, without a single mishap.  So, when asked by the postal clerk if I want insurance, my first reaction was, "Naw, I've shipped these things to the far reaches of the planet without a problem."  She said, "You sure?" Once again, I caved and bought insurance.

This is a photo of 'Sweetness', the three-string guitar. . . the one I should have left hanging on the wall.  I especially liked it, because the Cohiba box produces a great sound acoustically, and the handwound TotalRojo magnetic pickup gave it a rich and brilliant voice through my amp.  And, it looked good and felt good to play.

This is how the guitar arrived at its Oregon destination.

I was careful to wrap the guitar in bubble wrap and to fill the box with 'peanuts', and to attach 'fragile' stickers on all sides.  I guess I should have included stickers that said, "Please don't run over this box with your Gawddamn truck!"

Oh, well, I'll now wait to see if the insurance coverage works.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Let Me Introduce 'Fiorella'

'Fiorella', little flower, at least that is what my Italian guide says she is, just left my shop.

She is a dreadnought acoustic guitar built on the same platform as the other dreads I've created.

The body is exotic bocote wood sides and back with sitka spruce top and African mahogany binding. Internally, 'x' bracing is spruce. Mahogany 14-fret neck with pearl inlay position markers. Custom multi-wood headstock overlay with recessed tuner nut pockets and embossed 'T'; soundhole rosette; tailpiece inlay, heel cap and back accents; and special flower-design wood inlay at the base of the top. The bridge is polished rosewood with corian saddle, and abalone inlayed ebony bridge pins. Grover tuners tension Martin Marquis strings over a corian nut.

The headstock overlay is designed with eight specially hand fitted pieces of exotic wood (rosewood, zebrawood, yellowheart, wqalnut purpleheart, redheart, and mahogany).

The soundhole rosette is also a custom design of nineteen specially hand-shaped pieces of exotic wood (zebrawood, rosewood, walnut, bocotte, purpleheart, yellowheart, redheart, maple, ovangkol, bloodwood, and mahogany).

This photo of the back shows the unique grain of the bocotte wood.

The heel cap and extension inlay are also created from individual pieces of exotic wood.

The exotic wood inlay at the bottom of the back matches up with the end cap inlay, which also matches up with the position of the inlay at the base of the top.

Ebony end pin with abalone inlay.

And, finally, the 'little flower' rose inlay, which is created from twenty-one individual pieces of exotic wood glued together into one piece, appears to be inserted into the top of a vase created from rosewood and purpleheart.

Guitar Building is a Real Learning Experience

I've learned so much since embarking on this
guitar building journey in 2010.

It started with browsing through a magazine on a lazy day, wondering what I would do next.

I'd renovated our newly acquired 69-year-old home, so that project was rapidly winding down.

Don't get me wrong, I have never been short on hobbies (distractions), but I do get bored occasionally doing the same thing.

My hotrod building days were over. I gave the '55 Chevy to my son Jay, and the '27 Model T Ford pickup to son Joe. All the specialty tools and unusual parts were sold quickly in a 'gear head' yard sale.  Lying under a rig wrenching on it isn't for an old guy, especially not this old guy.  I didn't realize I belonged to such a rabid group, but hotrod fanatics don't hesitate to load up the goodies and geegaws.  The first guy to show up bought $1200 bucks worth of Muncie tranny parts, and it got better as the day rolled on.

Painting duck decoys is a lot of fun, but after while I ran out of carved species blanks, and I do not like to duplicate original artwork.  So, I moved on to flatwork to hang on the wall . . . for a while.

Sixty years of pinstriping cars, motorcycles, jackets and old milk cans had produced some really interesting adventures, and I met a lot of cool rod & custom builders, too.  I still keep my hand limber, 'cause I never know when a guitar creation will need a little paint slung at it.

Yup, it's been a real learning experience, this new guitar building adventure.

After reading the short blurb about the wonder of creating playable guitars from cigar boxes, I was hooked. I had to research this. I like doing artsy-fartsy stuff and I like music, so off I went to the electronic library - Google.  What I discovered was incredible and the creative examples I discovered on CigarBoxNation, CigarBoxGuitarsAustralia, and HandmadeMusicClubhouse stimulated in me a desire to proceed.

Off I went to visit my local cigar officianodo, Suzy Soprano, the owner of City News.  Oh, ya, she had just the ticket, an empty Arturo Fuente Hemingway cigar box. Oh, man, I'm in business! The box hinges were on the wrong side for this to work, but that was soon fixed.  I won't bore you with details here, just search this site for the first guitar I built and you're there.

I've just finished number 100 . . . five years later.  It's not a CBG (cigar box guitar), it's a full size dreadnought acoustic.

Yes, as I said, I get bored. I could never have worked in a factory pumping out the same thing every day, which is why I move around in the hobby to find a niche that works for me at the time.

 So, what have I learned, really?

I've learned that I can build a very nice looking and great sounding guitar.  As my son says, "It's art with strings" . . , which is the way I want it.

It's not been easy, I've taught myself through a lot of reading and doing. Early on, basic shop tools were all that was required to make a CBG.  Building solid body six-string guitars took a little more skill and acquired knowledge.  But, building full size acoustic guitars is a whole 'nother deal. The tools required to build a dreadnought are a major consideration -- buy or build.  I chose to build everything I could.  Not because I couldn't buy them, but because I wanted the satisfaction of creating my guitars from the ground up.  There's a little bit of me in every guitar I build. There are are posts on this site which show the tools I've made, so I won't bore you with further details.

I've learned some things about myself, as well.  I want my guitars to be individual one-of-a-kind creations. I want the wood to look like finely finished furniture, not like a slick piece of plastic dropped from a mold like a hundred others churned out of a mass-production facility in a day. I want the wood grain to show and the oil finish to have the aroma of a hand produced piece. I want the shape of the headstock to match the end of the fretboard and bridge, which all should match the natural contour of the body. I don't want to hide small imperfections that on close examination disclose that the guitar was hand made. And, most important to me is that each of my creations sound rich, have great resonance, and long sustain, and that they bring a smile to the face of the player.

I'm a guitar builder.  I'm not a luthier,  I've not earned that designation, but perhaps if I can maintain good health, continued interest, and the passion continues, I'll ascend to that lofty perch.  But, if I don't, it's OK, because I know it's all relative.  I appreciate and I'm inspired by the encouragement I receive from the people who own and play guitars I've created.  And, because of their support, I'll continue to enjoy what has become such a great and rewarding avocation.  Thanks you.