Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Reflections on Guitar Building

When I started actively looking at moving, I stopped at Southeast Community Technical College to get a feel for the possibilities (for me) in that program if we moved to Red Wing. Luckily, I hit a day when David Vincent was working on course preparation and he spent a couple hours with me showing me the facilities, talking about my experiences at McNally Smith, and my experience with tools, shop equipment, and guitar repairs.

David also described the first year of classes and when he told me about “GTRB 1400 Intro to Tools,” I admit that I balked at having to take a basic hand and power tools class after a lifetime of tool-using. Since I wouldn’t be able to get in to the program for about a year, David recommended that I consider the cabinet-making class in Winona just to get my woodworking skills up a bit. So, I did. That was a pretty awful class, but it did show me how much I didn’t know about power tools I thought I was fairly familiar with.  I really didn’t want to take “Intro to Tools.” David made it clear that skipping that class wasn’t an option.

So, I signed up for all but one of the classes a first year student takes in the fall of 2015. I didn’t take the Electric Guitar Design class my first year because I wasn’t yet convinced I wanted to build an electric guitar. After three weeks of “Intro to Tools” I wasn’t convinced I was going to be building any sort of guitar. David’s class was kicking my ass. It turns out that my personal quality standards weren’t even close to good enough for a luthier.

To start, we all had a list of fairly expensive tools to buy. Four Canadian-made chisels for about $120 for the set, were on the list. You’d think that if you paid that kind of cash for a couple of pounds of steel they would come sharpened by the manufacturer. You’d be wrong. There was also a 4” plane on the list. It cost about $70 and it also needed sharpening. We spent about a week (it felt like a month) learning how to properly sharpen these tools. In the end, I was able to create an edge that would easily shave the hair off of my arm. The factory edge was far from that sort of edge.

IMG_7887For example, this sanding stick. It’s about 10” long, with a prescribed taper, different on both sides, and two different radiused sides, also prescribed by Mr. Vincent. I worked on that stick for days and, after three weeks, didn’t feel I was any closer to getting it right (+/-0.002” for all specified dimensions) than I was when I started. Everyday, for a couple of weeks, I wrestled with myself and my failure to be able to do the work to David’s standards. I was not that far from the edge of saying, “Screw this. I’m retired and I don’t need eight hours a day of failure.” Then, I got it. All of a sudden, I was not only getting the assignments but I was bringing in work from  home and doing it to my new workmanship standards.

2016 SETC Guitar Show (8)In the end, I did pretty well. I made the Dean’s list and, even more importantly, I made this guitar. Yeah, I know it’s a long ways from a Gibson Hummingbird, but it is exactly what I wanted to build, including a fairly individual semi-V shaped neck that I LOVE.

Also, I have a trio of super-sharp planes—from a 6” 1950’s Stanley to a 24” Stanley/Bailey that found in a Red Wing garage sale for $10 (with two new 7” saw blades tossed in for good measure) that I turned into a terrific manual joiner.

Occasionally, in my 68 years, I have learned things that if I’d have had them in hand when I was young would have made a world of difference in my life. This first year at Southeast Community Technical College was full of that kind of experience. I’m not kidding when I say that I think every kid who doesn’t know what he or she wants to post-high school ought to seriously consider the Southeast Tech Guitar Bulding and Repair Program. You will not be the same person after you’ve experienced the high standards this school and these instructors set for you.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.