A Guitar Journal

These pages chronicle a project that began early in 2001.  You can start from the beginning by reading the introduction below, and following the "Continue" links at the bottom of each page, or you can click this "Road Map" link  to see a pictorial table of contents.

I am a novice builder of musical instruments. I work a desk job, going to meetings and writing e-mails, and most of all, talking on the phone. I seldom see the results of my efforts in any tangible form, because they are mostly intangible to begin with. Therefore I like to involve myself in creative things when I can. I've built two mountain dulcimers, a hammered dulcimer, a mountain banjo, an autoharp and a travel guitar, but as of the beginning of this project, I had never built a full-size guitar. These pages chronicle the project from its inception to sound samples of my bad playing on the guitar I built. 

I worked on it mainly on weekends; my workday and commute combined leave no time for it on weekdays. I've tried to post photos and descriptions of every step and misstep that I take, in hope that it will be something for me to look back on and possibly of help or at least interest to other first-time builders once it's done. Occasionally I got carried away with the building and neglected the camera, but for the most part I snapped everything. I certainly described it all, even for the few small parts when I didn't take pictures. 

I followed Cumpiano and Natelson pretty closely, and I I've tried especially to explain how I worked out any part that was not entirely clear to me from that mostly extremely clear book. 

The entries here and on following pages were written as I went along. I've edited a little as time went by, for clarity and continuity, but what's here is primarily my descriptions recorded right after the steps were done. 

Prologue

February 16, 2001 

At this moment, I'm awaiting the delivery of a big box o' wood that's going to become an OOO-sized  steel-string guitar, if I'm able to make it so. It's the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream that I first had back in the late seventies--to build a guitar! I guess it seems like dithering that I took so long to get around to it. 

The initial inspiration for this quest came while I was trying to do anything rather than be what I was at one time: a law student. I learned a lot of mathematics during the three years I spent getting a Juris Doctor degree. I performed in and directed several plays. I became interested in computing, something that rescued me from the legal profession eventually. And I bought a book by Donald Brosnac, Steel String Guitar : Its Construction, Origin and Design, from Panjandrum Press.

This book, now out of print, but widely available used or on remainders (there are two copies in my local public library), shows step-by-step how to go about building a slightly unconventional steel-string guitar. I didn't know at the time it was unconventional, of course. I learned that later. What the book showed me was that it was quite reasonable to expect that a person of some persistence and skill with wood could make a steel-string guitar. There was no necessary expensive or massive tooling, though factories might use such things. Guitars of high quality were made by individuals in the days before electric hand tools or stainless steel. At that time I owned a cheap guitar made with expensive machinery -- one of the paradoxes of manufacturing. I dreamed of having a Martin or Gibson, but my financial priorities dictated otherwise. The wish slumbered for  more than twenty years, while I moved from place to place and did different things, never really settling in a place or a time in life when I felt comfortable setting out on such a project.

Today,  I could go and buy a Martin or Taylor or Breedlove or even one of the very high-end  steel-strings by individual makers, but in the back of my mind there has always been the thought of the satisfaction and pleasure I would get from building my own -- a satisfaction that would probably be permanently deferred were I to buy a really good guitar. While I love the process of making things, I couldn't give that much dedication to a project that would only give me something inferior to what I would then already have. I also would feel a twinge of remorse at spending so much on a guitar for a merely intermediate player. If I make it, I can make it as good as I am able and have a guitar I wouldn't consider myself worthy of, were I to buy it.

I searched around for materials, focusing primarily on Luthier's Mercantile International and Stewart MacDonald. I settled on a set of "boxed materials" from LMI. This is a discounted collection of all the materials for a single guitar, though it's not a "kit" in the sense that nothing has been done for you ahead of time: the sides aren't bent, the fingerboard isn't slotted, and so forth. For example, the "neck" in this set of materials exists as part of a 3"x3"x30" solid block of mahogany, which also contains several other parts of the guitar. Not being a glutton for punishment, I opted to pay for the back, sides, and top to be thickness-sanded to close to final thickness, and for the two pieces of the top and those of the back to be joined before shipment. Apart from that, this is as close to raw materials as I could get without felling trees. 

February 26, 2001

The boxes have arrived. Here they are, shown by my front doors for scale. They are both marked Fragile, and the wide one in back looks pristine, but the long one in front seems to have been bounced a few times on both ends, as you can make out even in this picture. I know the sides must be in this box and I'm concerned that my first piece of work on this project may be the effort of sending them back and getting new ones. I take several photos of the damaged part of the box. 

But when I open it up, everything is intact. The top and back plates are packed sandwiched between two sheets of particle board and the bigger box is loaded with potato-starch packing popcorn -- the kind that dissolves in water. All is well. The only problem is that one of the clamps I had ordered along with the material has been tightened down so hard that the screw-thread is bent and unusable. I'll send it back. 

Back to Welcome                ContinueCopyright 2001, 2002 Stephen Miklos