Part 4: The Smooth & The Satin

Part four of a glimpse into how it happens… sanding and finishing, the smooth and the satin.

The final step of removing everything from the wood that doesn’t look like a guitar is to sand it smooth. Sanding is where some magic happens. Of helping hands we’ve had over the years, this is where most have contributed and I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am for all of them. I don’t sand the big parts. OK, I do when I have to… but that’s rare, because the body is one single four to five hour process that beats up the wrists and numbs the hands when I could be doing twenty other things and making huge progress at the work benches and I’ll gladly pay someone else who finds it a therapeutic and meditative process to do it before I pay myself for doing those twenty other things. For Captain Manyhands here, it’s like holding back the ocean to take a leak. So this is for the unsung heroes who have saved my time, hands, wrists, sanity, and enthusiasm – and have set me up for a nice satiny finish with their work for the past 20 years. You’d think it’s easy… until I send it back to you five times for spots you missed, cross-grain scratches, inconsistent curves, uneven lines, on and on and on. Not looking for perfection – but for a very high standard of handcraft, a deliberate and detailed look well on this professional side of “hand made” from the side of homemade plenty on both sides of this profession’s benches confuse it with. It’s not.

This was drilled into my brain by my friend Uncle Johnny, who let me use a corner of his backwoods workshop to build instruments once I got out here. More on him later, but he sanded some in the pre-company years before Birdsong went legit in 2004. It was then he trained Jamie, my then new wife… who is still without a doubt the greatest sander I have ever worked with. And I’ve fed work to local craftspeople who have been fantastic! I’ve also tried it with local craftspeople great at what they do but who – sanding bass guitar bodies, evidently - couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with instructions on the heel, thinking I was setting them up to take advantage of, that this was somehow an insurmountable task to get after, get right, and get done. No sir, my wife can do it in four hours and it’s perfect. I’ve seen it done in three. Your excuse for the past three days was what? So I’ve seen it all out here when it comes to sanding and I’ve had to go rescue bodies and have uncomfortable conversations. Most have been fantastic though, and of great help as needed, but their own work picks back up or they move on or their life situation changes; or for the folks that have been in-house with us it was school, career move or life decision time. Though I did have to reassign one guy because I’ve never SEEN another human being sweat like that, and that doesn’t work when you’re prepping something for finish. Believe me - there wasn’t enough bandana and sawdust in the world. I’ve seen some things, but I’ve still never seen anything like it. Seriously though, I really do thank them all wherever they are now and I made damn sure they knew how appreciated they were and still are. This could not have happened without their help.

The process? Take that body again. Start with rough grits and a random orbital hand held sander, working purely by hand in the crucial detail areas, being careful not to reshape the softer woods – merely refine, using your eyes the whole time and then closing them to feel with the hands just how smooth this curve is or the transition from that line is once it looks right. It’s got to feel right too. Johnny was the first place I heard the term ungraceful transition. “That’s (big meaty thumb tracing back and forth) kind of an ungraceful transition right there.” Proceeding, you work through finer grits the same way, until the entirely-by-hand fine layer, a damp towel wet-down to raise the last of the fibers, and the last layer of sanding. That’s how we do it – but regardless of exact procedure, when you walk into a guitar shop of whatever size looking to sign on and be a part of things, the first place they stick you is sanding. It very quickly weeds out those who are in love with the idea of building guitars from those who will actually sanctify as high craft the parts of it they do not love and get on with it, get after it, get it right, and get it done. The rest of it? You have to go through this room first to get there.

Once the body is sanded and either picked up, dropped off or handed over, it goes right back into the green shop where a handling/hanging stick is screwed into the neck pocket for use during the finishing process. I call it a neck stick. It seems like just a meaningless strip of wood, but there is no such thing as meaningless in my workshop. It is a temple. It is a place where tradition, where the work of my teachers, where the craft of my being, once alive wood, service to and through the music gifted to me, where all these paths have converged to fill the world with music and moments that bring beings together with good vibrations. You don’t have to see a guitar as anything more than a hammer, you don’t need to believe in dharma, you don’t even have to like what we do. But you do have to understand that this is what it is to me, and this is where it all goes down – right here. So while there is ball busting and levity and bad puns and practical jokes and fart humor, this is our stage – hallowed ground. There is no such thing as meaningless in here when it comes to the tools – which are talismans, the process – which is ceremony, or the results – which are sacred, which is us deliberately spending ourselves through disciplined craft into this tool of creation we have the privilege of manifesting. We weren’t gifted to cure disease or raise the dead or feed the hungry – this is as close as we get. So these sticks? There are a couple still in use from Birdsong’s first workshop… there is one of Uncle Johnny’s from when I showed him how to turn his wood art into guitars (while he was showing me how to turn my guitars into wood art)… and the rest? I made them from pieces of his workshop after he died. Not from in it, OF it. The most humble of hanging sticks in here are cut from the bones of my mentor’s workshop. Take a moment and think about that. You should hear the stories about the lives in and fingerprints on some of the tools in here… it’ll raise the hair on your arms. Meaningless is an abstract concept in a garden.

Finishing. We go for satin, and it gives us sometimes more and sometimes less. But it’s never going to look like it was dipped in plastic, if for no other reason than to me wood should not look like plastic. It was my friend Uncle Johnny again who showed me the finish he used on his woodcraft, itself a variation on LTV (linseed oil, turpentine, varnish) used in antique furniture restoration. Since that time, ours has been a variation on that. We use the same finish on the neck as the body, but fewer coats. Let’s look at the body… after blowing off and out any remaining sawdust, the first coat of hand rubbed oil goes on very quickly – I mean elbows flying or it’ll leave run stains in the wood – and that grain pops in a wonderful display of what is hidden in the natural world, how deep such beauty goes, how completely non-dependent on our being able to see it for it to be there this beauty is. That somehow our perception of something is its only validity. Horseshit. “This is when the wood comes back to life,” he told me… but more on him later. The initial coat holds within it a sermon of some kind on how sudden striking beauty is to be enjoyed, but enjoyed while still moving toward the goal – do not veer, do not be disturbed by it, do not abandon yourself to it. Keep composure and perspective on what you are doing here. I really want to rub it on sloooowly and watch every bit of figure deepen and become three dimensional in its refraction of the bare light… lose myself in it… but no, that will not bring us to the result we want. Its beauty is never lost on me – however quickly the moment must pass. Suddenly the oil is on it, it’s in it, wicking into the wood, and I rub until it’s warm. I do not use gloves. I want to feel this. And I want the wood to feel my skin. This is where I spend myself on my craft. This is an exchange, this is a working with, a dominion - not a domination. Those are not the same thing either.

After application and rub, it hangs in the rack. A short time later (much less if it’s 110 degrees than, say, 70) it gets un-hung and wiped of the excess finishing oil. I wipe it with T-shirts that we enjoy until they aren’t worn anymore. Most clothes with any life left get donated – but there is no shortage in the world of old T-shirts and, for ones that mean too much and maybe hold memories I can’t just let go of, here is our ceremony. They give their last in service to musical instruments that will outlive them, so spreading this joy out into the world as little drops within greater ripples of communion. After that ceremony, they are just rags; and in this, they are my teachers.

The finishing bench is a rebuilt workbench my long departed uncle Pat had in his basement back in Massachusetts - I remember it from childhood. I has long served since coming to me, being a repair bench in my first music shop and the original wiring bench in the first real Birdsong workshop. Depending on the piece of wood and the build, anywhere from two to ten coats will be rubbed in, wiped off, left overnight to cure, then buffed with super fine steel wool and blown off for the next coat. Once it looks and feels right, we have a hand rubbed oil finished neck and body. They are about to become one, and that one’s time in the green shop is complete. We take it from there – literally – next week for assembly.

Thanks so much for being on this journey with us! Have a great weekend. Make a moment.

Listening to: early acoustic RL Burnside, Count Basie, and a lady in a dream told me to listen to Brahms, so I’ve been feasting on Symphony No.4 in E minor.