When you have to box it all up it is amazing how many things it takes to build instruments. Hope to have the new house and shop fixed up and ready to go in a month or two. (The house gets priority)
Of course, this is just the ‘small stuff’. The bandsaw, thickness sander, etc. are yet to come. Moving the wood stash has also been a chore, but it was a good time to go through things and remember what is in the pile. Found some things I had forgotten about, and realized how much I had of certain things, like redwood for tops, and there are some great pieces of stuff which is still in big blocks (looks like firewood to be honest) that just awaits the saw.
The fellow who bought the ukulele I made and donated to the Baily Mathews National Seashell Museum was intending to give it to his grandson. However, he started to play around/play it and now does not want to give it up. (By the way, the sound and tone of this instrument, the first one I have made with a cypress top, is really good.) Anyway, he contacted me thinking about getting another instrument for his grandson, perhaps something with his grandson’s name inlayed on it.
It just so happens that of the most recently completed set of 6, two of them had dark rosewood headplates that would be great for additional inlay. It is much easier to inlay into a dark wood as any filler around the inlay blends in much more easily, and the dark color really makes the pearl ‘pop’. I could do the inlay on the headplate, and then re-finish just the headplate pretty easily. He decided on one of the two instruments, and then I proceeded as follows.
I have found a very handy internet site that will produce a stencil outline of entered text, in a wide variety of fonts. I can then take that font image (as a bitmap), put it into Corel Draw and convert it to a vector outline format which allows easy and accurate scaling and line thickness changes. So this is what we decided on:
The only change I made to the above was to move the to leading initials closer together. Doing this made the overall string shorter, which means I could make the letters a bit bigger and still fit them on the headstock.
The next step is to pick out what pearl is going to be used. This instrument has a red abalone rosette, so I decided to match that on the headstock. Also, the pink color of the pearl would go well with the color of the rosewood. I have a pretty big supply of red abalone pearl which I cut from shells. (You can see the process back on page 7 of this blog, from Feb 11, 2018) Red abalone can be either pinker or greener, and I wanted pearl without a lot of ‘texture’ lines since the letters are not that big, and I think lines/texture would distract. Also, these texture lines tend to be points of weakness, and some of the letters have some pretty thin areas. So I got out the box of red abalone pearl slabs, and sorted it by color and texture
To cut the inlay, I print out the text and then stick the paper onto the pearl with rubber cement. To get the placement of the text on the pearl right, I first position the text where I want it, then tape down one side. This gives me a little hinge, so I can rubber cement the paper and pearl, let it dry, and then close the hinge to stick the paper down in exactly the right spot.
The pearl is cut with a jewelers saw and a fine jewelers blade. The blades range from pretty fine to really really fine where you can only just barely see the teeth. The blades wear pretty quickly cutting the somewhat abrasive pearl (they are designed to cut metal) and you break a lot of them, but they are not that expensive. For these letters I used a moderately fine blade, since some of the letters have fine detail serifs. As you are cutting you want to go in an order such that you cut the fine delicate detail last to avoid breaking it off handling things while cutting other sides.
Text is interesting in that as readers we are very sensitive to how the letters appear across the ‘page’. Font designers go to great lengths to make things look right, and the human eye will pick up little inconsistencies. Because of this I want to make sure that the letters get inlayed aligned exactly correctly. My solution: when the letters are cut out I glue them down onto their image on a piece of paper with small drops of water soluble kids glue.
Then I take a small stick, and glue that onto the top of the letters, which are now held in exactly the correct places, with the same kids glue.
Putting the paper side down on a wet sponge releases the paper without dissolving the glue on the stick, so I get all the letters attached to the stick. Then I can put this down on the headstock and trace around the letters with a .3 mm pencil, to give me lines to cut out the inlay pockets.
Note: I looked at the above picture, and the leading “J” looked like it was tilted a bit off vertical. Was it just the camera angle? I checked the placement of the letters against a printed version, and sure enough the “J” had been glued down just a hair off vertical. Only a fraction of a millimeter off, but the eye picks this up. Text is an interesting thing as it relates to human perception. I corrected the position of the “J” on the stick.
To cut the inlay pockets I use a Dremmel router base from Stewart Mac-Donald to which I have added a couple of little LED lights for better illumination. Not pretty but works well. I cut the pockets with a fine carbide bit. You have to go slowly so as to not break the fine bit, but rosewood cuts much more easily than ebony. One thing I use which I highly recommend is a foot switch to turn the tool on and off. I can start and stop the router with my foot, without having to take my hands off of the router. When you are cutting a narrow area, and want to move the router, being able to pause, hold the tool steady, and turn it off with the foot is very safe and convenient.
Once all the pockets are marked I soak the stick & letters in water a bit to release the kids glue, and then inlay each letter individually. The pockets are cut out depth-wise so the letters are just a hair above the surface of the headstock, the letters are put in place, and small gaps are filled with some rosewood sawdust, and then the whole thing is flooded with thin CA glue to glue it all down. Looks pretty ugly at this point.
Then you sand off the surface, cutting down through the CA glue, and the pearl that is above the headplate, to reveal (this is always a fun part) the final inlay.
Now I just need to re-finish the headstock. Hard if not impossible to take a picture that conveys the iridescence of the pearl. The pink color of the pearl came out looking really nice against the rosewood.
Always an exciting time when the bodies hit the finishing closet and start to get shiny. This is the spare room, can be closed off, and is pretty dust free. Still a bunch of work to do on the necks, but getting a good finish on the bodies always takes longer.
I got some spalted tamarind logs from a mango grower I got to know (also have some mango logs he saved for me) and it is pretty spectacular, but (I have not resawn most of it) it is probably going to be a bit too narrow to make a tenor. I’m thinking of trying a 3-piece back, like some older guitars. Something like a piece of curly koa as a center triangle, and black & white spalted tamarind for the other back plates and the sides. Like this:
As I build out the shop here in Florida, I have come across an unexpected benefit of setting up a second shop. I purposely did not bring down a number of jigs/fixtures that I have made over the years, with the intent of re-making them so that I do not have to carry than back and forth. In the process of re-making them I have had the chance to incorporate a number of improvements that I have thought of over time. There always seems to be something more important to do than re-make a jig is basically works, even though there are some aspects which are a bit of a pain, require more setup, and extra clamp here and there, etc. When you have to make them fresh, there is no excuse not to incorporate evolutionary ideas. I like my new jigs, and may re-make the ones up north when I get back there.
The binding is finished on all 6 instruments, meaning that it is installed, and things are all sanded down nice and flush so they all can get their first real coat of sealer, and I can get to see how things will really look under the final finish. Result – I am very well pleased by all 6 instruments. One tries to pick out binding that will work well with the back and side wood, but until it is all installed, and you get the first coat of finish on it, one never really knows. Particularly with some new binding.
I got some quilted sapele cut-offs from a place that saws guitar wood that was just big enough for me to turn into binding. While the ‘quilted’ nature is a bit subtle on the scale of binding I am very pleasantly surprised how well the red-brown color of the sapele goes with the sycamore back and sides. It is a really nice warm look. Could easily become one of my favorite bindings for a sycamore instrument, koa being the current top contender, again because of a rich warm brown color.
It is time to do the binding. This involves routing small ledges in the sides of the instrument for the purfling and the actual wood binding. To do this I have a router bit which takes one of a set of bearings, which are graded in exact small increments.
The first cut is a wide and shallow cut to establish the inside edge of the purfling. I take digital calipers and measure the thickness of the purfling and the binding. The sum of these becomes the size of the bearing I use. I made a new base for my small trim router which provides much more stability and place to grip with both hands than trying to use the small base which comes with the router. This wide base makes it easy to keep the router vertical. As you cut one cuts ‘down hill’, that is, from the outside of the curve toward the center of the instrument. Doing this, because of the direction of rotation of the router bit, minimizes the chances of chipping and tear-out. I do apply a layer of sealer to the instrument before doing the routing and this also helps minimize any chipping or tear-out.
Once this first wide and shallow cut (only as deep as the purfling which is thin) is made, then the bearing matching the thickness of the binding is used to cut the narrow but deeper ledge around the instrument. This leaves a two-ledge edge onto which the purfling & binding are glued.
The binding and purfling is pre-bent and is attached with some strong sticky tape. (I’m transitioning from orange to stronger brown tape here). You apply glue with a small paint brush to a couple of inches, press (hard) and tape down the purfling & binding, and move on to the next area. The tricky spots are the ends meet where you want the purfling and binding to meet with no visible seam.
I apparently was not, but I did not realize the error of my ways until I was looking at the pictures while reviewing the last post to this very blog. But first, a little humor.
“Luthier” is a French word that means “one who swears a lot”.
Now the specifics: If you look carefully at the previously posted pictures you will note (as I did) that one of the ukuleles does not seem to have a side sound port. But I put side sound ports in virtually all the instruments I build these days, what’s wrong? Well, I glued the top and back onto the wrong side of the sides. Since I put the sound port in first, this means that the port was on the right side of the instrument rather than the left! [insert luthier swear words here] What to do? I could just continue and make this a left-handed instrument, but I have only ever had one call for a left-handed instrument, so I did not want to do that. I briefly considered other things like putting in another sound port so there would be two, one on each side, but rejected all these ideas. The only real solution was to practice my ‘de-construction’ skills, meaning, take the top and back off the sides, and then glue them on the right way.
So I got out a syringe of water and an iron to heat things, a sharp knife for separating the seam, and went at it. Things went better than I expected, and in an hour I had both the top and back off, with no damage to either. Put back the blue tape with the arrow indicating the top, which is my usual practice to avoid just this situation (which I must have done backwards before), clean the edges up, and things are ready to be glued on the correct way.
-Crisis averted. Lutherie is a continuous process of covering up ones mistakes!
The bodies of the 6 ukuleles, 3 concerts and 3 tenors are all closed up, meaning that the top and backs are all glued on and the edges trimmed. Now comes a lot of sanding.
I sand the sides with a block to make sure that things are nice and straight and flat (across the side) so that when the router runs around to cut the binding channels things start out nice and flush. I sand things to 150 grit and then put on a coat of sealer before I cut the binding channels. I use CA glue as a sealer/pore filler, and a coat of this really hardens the surface grain which prevents chip-out when routing the binding channel and prevents glue from gluing in the binding from soaking into the adjacent side, which makes clean-up much easier. A lot of sanding, but things could be worse than working outside in the Florida breeze, listening to the birds, watching the osprey fish in the pond while sanding.