Guitar Building Primer
In an extremely abbreviated and cursory way, here is a look at the process of building a hand made custom flattop guitar.
After consulting with the customer about what they are looking for in the instrument the first time Bernie puts tools to wood is to begin shaping and thickness-ing the top and back. In his most recent guitar this meant making a spruce top with a cut-away and a cocobolo back. Cocobolo is a tropical wood similar to rosewood. (I plan on asking Bernie to tell me more about woods for a later post.) The top of a flattop is (you guessed it) flat, but the back is arched, so after it is carved down to the exact right thickness Bernie clamps it into a special mold and glues on the bracing. (Expect more on bracing later too.) Braces then go on the top too.
While this is all setting up, Bernie then makes the sides of the guitar – in this case out of cocobolo once again. After thinning them to the proper dimensions and trimming them to the proper width to match the curve of the back, he applies heat, steam and pressure to get them to fit the shape of the guitar. He then glues in the neck and the tail blocks, attaching the two halves. Then he cuts his unique sound port into the side and adds a binding to reinforce that.
Next, the luthier attaches kerfed binding strips to the inside of the sides and glues on the top, then the back. Always in that order because the top on a flattop is, yes, flat, and therefore it makes it more stable to set down when attaching the back. Next come the bindings that encircle the top and the back on the outside edge of the guitar. In the case of the newly finished Model 1887 No. 398, Bernie used his standard multi-laminate plastic body bindings. In order to put these in place he does the final shaping of the top and the back by cutting the edges just so, leaving the exact amount of under-hang, if you will, so that the binding fills it up perfectly ensuring a precisely smooth edge.
The neck is Bernie’s next order of business. Usually grafted together from two or more pieces of wood, he cuts it into a rough, squared-off version of the final product. He then cuts the dovetail joint that perfectly matches up with the neck block so that it tightens up and holds itself into place when pressed in from the top of the guitar. The heel and the headstock are then carved into their near-final shape while the back of the neck is left squared-off. Scratching, shaving, and sanding, he fits the tight neck joint in so that it squeezes into place at the precise angle needed to carry the tension of the strings and still keep the strings at an exact distance from the fingerboard. Speaking of which, that’s the next addition. Using the flat back of the neck, Bernie clamps and glues on the fingerboard in which he has mounted the frets and, in this case, inlayed pearl position dots. Only when this is set does Bernie carve the back of the neck.
Next, all the little details that really make a Lehmann stand out. Decorative soundhole rings, heel carving, unique headstock details; in short all the little extras are added. The list of these features is endless and, as noted in the previous post, can add weeks to the project. Model 1887 No. 398 includes a fancy soundhole ring and engraved inlays.
Bernie’s top-secret finishing process is next. He could say more about it, but then he’d have to kill ya. All we really know is that it takes many coats and days of sanding and polishing to get a guitar to look as good as does a Lehmann. This process is closely guarded for good reason: the finish on a guitar is not just for good looks, it also is the guitar’s main defense shield against you abusive strummers. The interaction of the finish with the wood also has an impact on the final sound of the instrument. The way it soaks into the wood can really change how the wood reacts to the vibration of the strings and therefore how it projects sound.
After the finish is applied and dried the bridge is attached along with the nut and the tuning machines. That’s when the guitar finally gets to be strung up for the first time. The guitar then needs a few days to settle into the tension of the strings, letting the joints get used to the pressure. Bernie sets up the guitar and hears its first words – I mean notes, then comes back to it over the next few days to re-tune and tinker before the customer comes back for the final setup and delivery.
Model 1887 No. 398 is sitting at Bernie’s shop as I write this, getting used to the tension of its first set of strings. Cool.