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!

Making Nuts, and Neck Setting begins

Whew!  Week 5 just flew by, with our first two guitar-related assignments coming down the pike.  The first, the making of an elegant and refined guitar nut, takes approximately four hours of each day.  The Second, is the setting (or re-setting) of the dovetail neck-to-body joint that is traditional to acoustic guitarmaking.

Both operations require sharp tools and incredibly sharp focus.  I find that I spend much of my time peering through the lenses of my magnifying glasses (lovingly referred to as “geezer goggles”).  I actually experienced a moment of vertigo as I stood up, my awareness suddenly expanding to include a bustling room full of people, where before had only existed a .221″ thick strip of white Corian being carefully sculpted into something useful.

We’ll be graded on 5 different nuts, each time made from blank stock.  Each nut takes 12 distinct steps before it is finished.  I’m a bit of a detail freak, so I’m particularly excited about making beautiful examples.  The nice part about making several is that each one is carefully critiqued, so we are able to refine our technique.  Sort of anal process, but totally fun also.

The process of neck setting of an acoustic is something of an art.  I’ve done it before on junk guitars, knowing a very little about the process.  The results were okay, but no great shakes.  I knew I could do better.

As you can imagine, learning to do it correctly is blowing my mind.  The margin for error is less than 1/64″, and for the heel fit, as little as .002″.  We’re shooting for zero gaps, and zero slop.  When we take our chisels to wood, we are to take the smallest shavings possible.  It is very interesting, if tedious, work.

We have our African Mahogany neck mockups and a plywood mock heel block, with these, we can go through all the operations just like the real deal.  We use chalk and feeler guages to test for fit, and take precise measurements of neck extension, centerline, and twist throughout the operation.  Slow and steady, and pretty soon, we’ll be on our way.

Though we’re just getting started, we’re beginning to find a rhythm, and it’s interesting to think how much we’ll have learned over the next eight months.  Until next time.

-Chris

The Finished Product

The Neck Reset Mockup