Drumroll Please…


Aha! F5 #001 is complete!

Aha! F5 #001 is complete!

They’re finished! In a mad rush, the last two weeks have included: lots of scraping, sanding, scraping, staining, sanding, brushing, spraying, more scraping, etc. After slugging (carefully) away at finish application, all of the setup was quickly accomplished. It was a mad dash, making nuts and saddles, getting bridge pins fit and installing tuners. Then, the glorious moment of stringing up the instrument and hearing it speak! Really, a truly, amazingly wonderful experience. I’m still glowing from it.

Some notes about the process:

We had some nifty gadgets to measure the finished top thicknesses after voicing, and to measure the film thickness of the lacquer before level sanding. The thickness guage is magnetic, whereas the film thickness guage is sonic. Very cool technology.

The mandolin was given a hand-applied “tobacco sunburst” a la Lloyd Loar-era mandolins. For colorant, I used Honey Amber and Dark Walnut Transtint dyes, using alcohol as the medium. After I was satisfied with the coloring, I brushed on several coats of 1 lb cut orange shellac, scuff-sanded, then proceeded with a handful of brushing sessions to build the body and color. In hindsight, I really should have mixed a 2 lb cut for the bodying, as the 1 lb took a long time to build. When I got closer to final thickness/color, I switched from brushing to a french padding technique until satisfied. I scraped the bindings, and have ordered some Super Blonde shellac flakes for a final topcoat next week. After that, I’ll go for french polishing technique to give it that beautiful luster. As is, it looks awesome, and should be alright to get a little break-in this weekend, as well as to be displayed at our end-of-year Guitar Show and Graduation today! I’m ecstatic to see all of our finished instruments, side by side.

I had some woes when the bone saddle of the guitar shattered after a few hours of string tension; it was very tall due to the not-yet-settled-in state of the guitar. It was worrisome to open the case and find shards of bone scattered across the guitar. I made a new one, which has held up so far.

Here is a photo recap of the last week:

Getting coats of nitrocellulose lacquer in our awesome spray booth

Getting coats of nitrocellulose lacquer in our awesome spray booth

I made some tortoise side markers for the mando

I made some tortoise side markers for the mando

initial amber stain

initial amber stain

The result of sunbursting

The result of sunbursting

Brushing Shellac wash coats

Brushing Shellac wash coats

The guitar's bridge gets glued on with nicely fit clamping cauls

The guitar’s bridge gets glued on with nicely fit clamping cauls


F5 Mandolin Binding, Wowzers.



Awesome stuff has been happening in the C. Miller lutherie shack lately, with the Arches F5 kit approaching completion. While we have completed the Finishing and Repairs classes, I’ve been burning the midnight oil working nights and weekends getting the mandolin kit further along.

For those unfamiliar with the F5 mandolin, it is a design that came into being in 1922, being a new iteration of Gibson Florentine mandolin designed by the virtuosic musician and sound engineer Lloyd Loar and Guy Hart, another Gibson designer. Taking cues from violin construction, Loar sought to create the ultimate mandolin at a time when the great surge of mandolin popularity was waning. While not a huge success when they were new, they have been coveted, envied, and oft copied ever since. Lately, I’ve been loving playing fiddle tunes on the mandolin, and have been craving a fine instrument to play. Not having the funds to purchase a handmade mandolin, I decided to put my fledgling capabilities to the test by assembling a kit.

The Arches kit is pretty impressive. With CNC’d top, back, and neck, it presented a reasonable amount of assembly tasks. One of the great features is that the scroll binding channels are already routed. This is a huge timesaver. I am so impressed with the beautiful design of the F5. Exquisite from every angle. I feel like I cheated by having so much completed for me, but I’ll surely build from scratch from here on out.

For those of you considering building a mandolin, you must know that F5 present a couple of special difficulties in building. Most frequently mentioned is that F5s are an absolute beast to bind. While the scroll is beautiful, it presents a 3-D puzzle to get bound. Each piece of celluloid binding (there is 17 pieces) must be heated and bent to shape, then carefully mitered and shortened to fit. There is plenty of trial and error envolved, but I think this attempt turned out pretty well. I will say that I was greatly assisted in this by a timely article on F5 binding in the quarterly journal of the Guild of American Lutherie, authored by an Oregon Luthier named Andrew Mowry. You should check out his gorgeous work at:


I’ve just finished installing the binding, next will be to fill any gaps with a slurry of celluloid and acetone. Celluloid, while flammable, is a wonderful material to work with. I think I enjoy the smell of camphor and acetone a little too much for my own good.

To top it all off, I went wild and ordered a Bill James tailpiece with “The Miller” engraved into it. I was able to drive over to Bill’s shop in Maple Plain and watch the CNC do the engraving. I’m not ashamed to say that it is the coolest thing ever, and clearly the nicest mandolin tailpiece out there.

Next up will be to scape the binding down to level, clean up the body to ready for final sanding, glue in the neck, inlay the headstock with the lovely pearl flowerpot, install the fingerboard, tailpiece, endpin, fit the bridge and tuners, dress the frets, and string it up for final voicing before it gets a sunburst!





One of the space before mitering a piece of celluloid binding

One of the space before mitering a piece of celluloid binding






Build Complete, Bluegrass, and SNOW.

ivoroid cut by hand

ivoroid cut by hand











P1090275So, after 7 weeks of building, the dreadnought is together, fretted, inlayed, carved, and jsut about ready to be sprayed with lacquer. Unfortunately, we must first complete a finishing class before we will all cut loose in the spray booth. That means 7 weeks of practice sanding, color-matching, sunbursting, grain-filling, spraying, more sanding, etc. We’ll also have a Repairs Class, where we practice routing for pickups and necks in electric guitar bodies, make oodles of guitar nuts, and squeeze in some self-directed repair work. This will all of course be scrutinized by our stringent taskmaster, so I will be sanding my fingers to the bone! I’m pumped!

This past weekend the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association had it’s winter wingding at a big hotel just west of Minneapolis. A bunch of us old time musicians made our way out there, danced our hineys off, and played tunes to boot. I had a great time, hung out and played tunes with some great folks like Chirps Smith, Bill Peterson, and Clancy from Port Wing Donut Fame, not to mention the awesome Twin Cities crowd. I even got in some bluegrass and honky tonk while I was at it!

Next week is SPRING BREAK, and I’ll be living it up Midwest Style, going to a square dancing festival, skiing, hot tubbing, visiting luthiers (and saunas) from Northwest Minnesota clear down to Madison Wisconsin. Whee!

Pictures of Stuff!

With one week of Construction Class to go, I’ve carved the heel, set the neck (a careful adjustment of the dovetail joint considering neck extension height, centerline, and twist), profiled the headstock (complete with a vintage taper), drilled for tuners, and glued the neck in with hot hide glue.

Next up is to glue on the fingerboard, finish carving the neck, fretting, and oodles of sanding. I’ve got a pretty neat headstock inlay in the works, but I’m working out the kinks before I commit to it. I’ll give you a hint: it involves ivoroid sheetstock and is in the classic Gibson style.

This weekend I have the pleasure of attending the 7th Annual Port Wing Donut Fry in upper Wisconsin; it was a blast. Picture, if you can, a town hall built in the 1940’s crammed with children playing, a lengthy talent show, epic potluck, and thousands of delicious donuts being fried in freshly-rendered lard. A very tender Midwestern experience for me.

I also had the pleasure of staying at Sarah and Clancy’s homestead; a beautiful timber-framed solar-powered house. They even had a log cabin sauna. Wow.

And now for the evidence:

And more pizza!  These are bacon-goat cheese-beet-arugula-mozarella.  Best ever.

And more pizza! These are bacon-goat cheese-beet-arugula-mozarella. Best ever.

Tailgraft, binding, and plug cutters!




The tailgraft is in, the box is bound, and I made some nifty ivoroid position markers. So, you’ll notice that I have a thing for ivoroid, the grained celluloid so favored by the fretted instrument makers of the (first) golden age of American Lutherie. I’ve loved the look of ivoroid fret markers, but haven’t been able to purchase them. So, I made some.

For the 1/4″ markers on the face of the fretboard, I was able to use a commercial plug cutter to cut some out of ivoroid sheet stock. For the petite side markers, I took the example of Frank Ford at FRETS.com and fabricated a plug cutter out of brass tube stock. It made some nice 3/32″ plugs when chucked into the drill press. Sweet!







The bracing layout is in pencil, once the rosette is installed and soundhole cut


What a busy week!  With 9 hours per day spent between lecture and shop time, we have our hands full with our building schedule.  While we do have the benefit of jigs set up for certain tasks, such as sanding a radius into brace stock, otherwise we spend a bulk of our time learning how to carefully attach small pieces of wood together, then elegantly carving away much of the material we’ve just attached.  What remains is the guitar.

The bracing of the top is a great part of the artistry of guitar making and design. You would think that the soundboards of a guitar would be made flat and strong, right? What isn’t apparent when looking at a fine guitar, is how it has been engineered to withstand the constant pressure of the strings, not to mention made to sound good when played.


Flat to the untrained eye, the top (front, usually light-colored spruce), top braces (the sculptural reinforcement glued to the underside of the top, mostly hidden from view), back, and back braces are a much more complex system than first meets the eye.  Modern guitars are built “under tension”, meaning that the top and back plates (the major sources of sound from the instrument) are forced into a subtle arch during construction.

The plates are first sanded flat and fairly thin.  Next, the sturdy spruce braces that are to be glued inside are given a radius usually between 15′ and 25′.  When glued to the top and back, these braces induce arch into the thin plates.  This creates a stronger and more resonant structure.  It is also a fair amount of work.

One of the wonderful clamping tools we use in the shop is called the Go-Bar Deck.  The deck consists of two plywood plates held about four feet apart; the assembly to to clamped faces upward, and flexible shafts are bowed between the part being glued and the upper plate.  This allows one full access for glue cleanup, fine control over clamping pressure, and and inexpensive alternative to using deep-throat clamps.  Best of all, it looks way cool.


Once the braces are attached with hot hide glue, they are profiled and scalloped prior to final voicing.  This is a major contribution to the fine, nuanced sound of a hand-built guitar.  For a first-timer, it is also laborious and time-consuming.  The 1930’s Gibson design I’m using has 14 bracing components.  Each has a purpose, and each must be precisely fitted and shaped for the best result. 


Meanwhile, back I’m listening to old reggae favorites and having nightmares about my chisels not being sharp enough. In other news, I’ll be taking a trip down to visit friends in Viroqua, Wisconsin this coming weekend. While I’m down there, I’ll be participating in a wonderful radio show sunday evening.  Styled after the great old-time radio barndance programs of the 1930s, the Driftless Radio Barndance is loving variety show played live in a gorgeous tobacco wharehouse-turned-bookstore in Viroqua.  You can expect some fiddle music, some fine country harmonies, and plenty more. You can listen in live streaming around 7pm this Sunday February 3rd, 2013.


And what is possibly the most beautiful book store in the whole world:



2013 Building Begins!


Boy howdy!  While this week I’m missing out on my favorite possible thing, the Portland Old Time Music Gathering, I am back in the midwest kicking butt on lutherie projects!  In class, we’ve begun building our acoustic guitars. My hopes are high for a busy semester, where I will build a dreadnaught guitar in class (a la 1930’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Radio Grande”); continue at home the build of the O-18 Claro Walnut and Red Spruce guitar, and the Arches F5 mandolin kit.  Hopefully I can squeeze in some repairs, snoshoeing, square dancing, and finally, get this awesome honky tonk band rolling (we’re called The A-11s).

I’m feeling so excited about the week’s work, that I’m gonna go ahead and give the blow-by-blow:  By the end of the first day, my #1 Adirondack Spruce top was jointed with hot hide glue; templates cut for body and neck profile, and the layout work for a headstock template and workboard. Day two and three, I stayed the master-multitasker thickness sanding, profiling, and doing rosette layout for the top; jig up and shave down celluloid binding strips for the rosette (more on that in a moment), finished the workboard, finished templates, and managed to sneak the #2 Adirondack top in to get it jointed and glued; I’ll bring this one home to thickness with hand planes—the old fashioned way.  Each day this week, I’ve been excited to get home and work on the F5.  So far, I’ve got the top kerfing, levelled, and am waiting on fresh instructions from the maker of the kit.

I’m really excited about the rosette.  Wanting to stick with the ’30s Gibson aesthetic, I wanted a black-white-black rosette ring.   I had noticed a local supplier carries vertical-grained celluloid binding.  I struck on the idea of tortoise/ivoroid/tortoise binding in play of fancy herringbone or some such readymade rosette. I wanted somethin’ special. I went ahead and ordered the binding and hoped that it would look as nice in reality as my mental picture.  Literally the next day, I walked into a Minneapolis boutique guitar shop to find that my idea was far from groundbreaking—somebody else already does it!  But it looked great, so…

Celluloid is an early iteration of plastic; created in the mid-19th century, it was often used on musical instruments in place of ivory during the 1920s through the late ’40s; the first Golden Age of American Guitars.  A highly flammable combination of nitrocellulose and camphor, celluloid plastics today are rare; as far as I’ve heard, the entirety of celluloid production these days comes from Italy.  While a bit harder to come by, I think grained celluloid (ivoroid) and tortoise shell celluloid are lovely trim. 

A few words to explain the jointing of tops.  I had heard and read about the importance of a perfectly top joint, so it was great to finally do it! 

We had No. 7 jointer planes set up on shooting boards, set to remove very fine shavings from the spruce edge being jointed.  The tops are held together over a light table, and are checked for good fit.  If any light shows through, even the slightest line, then you must decide where the problem area is, and work the whole piece over once more on the shooting board.  Once the joint appears perfect, it is glued and clamped flat in a fixture—Voila!   The first major step towards building a guitar!Image


A Winter Night



Home for the holidays; Good marks in all classes, finished with assignments with time to spare.  After four fret jobs, I’m ready and excited to do some complex real-world refrets.  I’m on the lookout for promising apprenticeship opportunities; I’m visiting all of my favorite musical instrument shops in SF Bay Area, working on my 1956 Chevrolet Wagon, and eating great Mexican food.  Now, for a visual recap of the last month or so.


The polished fingerboard of Fret Assignment #3


My Crafters of Tennessee dobro gets a checkup, a shimmed saddle, and nice polish


Study Young Men!

New experiment: bacon/beet calzone/galette

New experiment: bacon/beet calzone/galette

Archtop Update, Pizza Pie

Time for some skillet licker pizza:  bacon-spinach with grated nutmeg, cooked up in the trusty Griswold #11 skillet.  YUM.


I’ve kept myself busy, refining my fretwork in class, rehabilitating the archtop at home, and getting in some great tunes and square dancing in the Twin Cities over the weekend.  My friends Bob and Julie had a great house party, with Old Time tunes in the kitchen, Cajun upstairs, Quebecois in another room, and so on!  We stayed up ’till almost 5am singing ballads and sea shanties…what a blast!  It was just what I needed.

As for the archtop, I’ve had my hands full attending to the most heinous faults: filling 19 holes in the headstock with mahogany plugs, installing the correct bushings and redrilling for the Golden Age reproduction tuners, and rebuilding the dovetail joint.



When I steamed the neck out, I discovered that this beautiful guitar was put together rather haphazardly.  The dovetail joint holds the neck onto the body, maintaining the correct extension height and resisting the pull of the strings.  In this case, the dovetail pin on the neck was badly gouged (it appeared to have been assembled that way).  With this much material missing from critical surfaces, it is no wonder why the neck had pulled away from the body.

I decided to rebuild the dovetail.  To do this, I chiseled away the gouged sections, leaving nice square and flat surfaces to splice in fresh mahogany.  Although this work will be hidden inside the headblock of the guitar, it is nice to know there is clean, respectable work in there.

Next step will be to carefully fit everything back together.  As the joint fit was rather poor to begin with, some careful shimming and carving will be required.  I can’t wait to hear what this guitar will sound like with a correct neck angle and solid neck-to-body connection.  Fun!

P1080589 P1080591

The Archtop Gets an Overhaul

Is it any wonder that I’m obsessed with hand-rubbed sunburst finishes these days?  Out here beside the Mississippi, each sunrise and sunset has been spectacular.

In the last week of class, we have begun working on prepping fingerboards, hammering and leveling frets, and setting up electric guitars.  So much attention to detail, hours upon hours of focused work, then bring it on home to get some more bench time.

Tonight, I took a break from fretwork in order to mix up a batch of hot hide glue. While the hide glue was gelling, I went ahead and steamed the neck out of my beloved old checkerboard archtop.

This 15 1/4″ plywood archtop was given to me by a family member a couple of years ago. She had bought it from a pawn shop, having fallen in love with the checkerboard binding and violin-like F holes. When I first saw it, it emerged like a swan from it’s bird-poop encrusted chipboard case. It was in a sad state, with awful replacement tuners, the bridge badly out of place, and a cornucopia of typical setup and structural issues.

At the time, I performed a quickie setup, put some Golden Age tuners on it, and fell in love with the percussive bark, with it’s undeniable class and verve. Ever since, I’ve looked forward to giving it it the complete overhaul it needs to truly shine.

So I hooked up my trusty stove-top steamer to a basketball needle, heated and pulled the 15th fret, and drilled a 5/64″ hole (actually, several) for the steaming operation. It took about 15 minutes for the steam to penetrate the old hide glue dovetail joint.

There was a lot of poop-brown old hide glue inside of the dovetail (although it wasn’t doing a great job of holding the heel in place as it was intended). It looks like Kay/Harmony didn’t worry too much about having fresh glue for their joinery.

Once everything was apart, I cleaned out all the goo, and clamped everything flat so that it won’t potato-chip with all of the moisture from the steamage.

Since everything came out looking fine, I expect that after a few days to dry out and settle down, I can start trimming and shimming the dovetail back to angly goodness. Along with the reset, this puppy is getting a refret, new bone nut and hand-made adjustable ebony bridge. This poor man’s jazzbox is finally getting the royal treatment it deserves!