Part 2: Going Blank!

OK, so last week was the loooong post on inspiration – now we get to the perspiration! Once there is a design to build, it goes onto some plywood to be a template. Whether it will see model status or I just need one, most of the time it gets drawn here first to see it in real size and get the curves just right, to make sure it’s in proportion to itself and to the general size of the other models - because we know those work, fit where they need to and feel right. There’s no right or wrong curve, just what looks right to the designer’s eye – and my eye has a very specific thing it’s looking for when it comes to flowing lines. I’ll stand the template piece up against a shelf and walk by it for a month if I have to, stopping every now and then to erase and redraw an inch of that body until it says “Right, this is it.” There will be variation and it may even change again, but the first steps onward are toward “great,” not “good enough.”

I still use some original Birdsong templates, or revised ones from after subtle changes. Every now and then the hand craft nature of the way we do it means (for example) a horn might be slightly different by the time it’s done, the little variations in each step adding up, and sometimes you look and think “That’s the prettiest horn tip ever.” And you make a new template that has that one. I have literally stacks of body templates from my years of building, going back 22 years. I’ve probably actually only built maybe 50 models. On the SD Curlee side of things I have some original aluminum body templates from 1975 and a bunch of plywood from years and models that followed. I look at those as museum pieces; I look at the ones from my history like a book of pictures of times and trail heads. “Oh wow, that was ’97 and I was going to…” “Hey look, the guitar line I wanted to do in 2003!”

OK. So it starts with plywood. What wood will the body be? In my world the neck is almost always going to be maple (we’ll talk necks next week) with either maple or rosewood board. But the body? I can’t list all the woods that have been used or the reasons. Some are better to work than others, some end up contributing a little bit in a great way toward tonal desires, there’s weight to consider, and of course which visual flavor and how plain or wild the grain is. Other times a client may have fond memories under a cherry tree, or I might look at a piece and see some combination, a visual or sonic recipe to craft. The body wood has influence, but mostly by its characteristics – soft lightweight woods generally accent this and attenuate that, denser woods will bring out this other thing and behave differently in this frequency range. So it’s a seasoning in a big sonic soup. But in my experience, woods of similar density will bring similar performance ingredients – they don’t know what name they have been given. And I don’t even have to either, honestly. Occasionally I find what I call “Corner boards” where I shop, random stuff in dusty corners, and based on suitability I’ll just add it to the pile. If the wood guy doesn’t know, we call it hickory or maple and on the ticket it goes. Here it becomes (insert a few notes of low, ominous cello) “Mystery wood.” Once it’s figured out what wood or woods will make up the body, it’s time to prep the planks for cutting into blanks.

Standard woods we get in long planks at a little more than half body width, sometimes full body width for one-piece bodies. That’s getting more and more difficult to find. For builds I know will be multiple pieces with laminate stringers etc., I use different criteria for selecting the wood stock. I get in my ’74 Dodge pickup or ’83 Ford van and go to my source warehouses and pick out the big planks by hand. They still talk to me. Surprisingly, the folks there still do too! More exotic woods I order in and come on a big brown truck, and local Texas woods I saddle up and head off to rural mills in the hills or in search of a RWG – a Rural Wood Guy. These characters out in the Deep South woods, they’re stories for another time. But they know more about the woods they know than anyone you’ll ever meet.

For the basic 2-piece we’ll talk about to keep it simple, once the plank is back at the workshop I’ll do some order of cutting down and planning to body thickness. I’ll then lay out the halves using the body template of the model this wood will become. Once I’m happy with the grain orientation and how the center joint will look, it goes on in Sharpie and we commit to the cut. That’s big – some of this wood is not cheap. And the process is not for the faint of heart. To make a sculpture you can stand intimidated by how to make this thing look like a bird, or you can get carving and cut away – very carefully – everything that doesn’t look like one. It’s already in there; you have to free it. If this wood can’t stay a tree, then it’s been handed to me to WORK. So after measuring twice, on it goes in ink. “To the bandsaw, Robin!” The more rustic planks out of the mills and the wood hunters’ back yards… heck, sometimes their FRONT yards…well, sometimes I start those builds with a chainsaw.

So now, cut out of the plank are body halves. But they’re not cut to final shape yet – they’re cut so the wood’s side edge (what will be the center joint when the halves are brought together) is straight, and the outer curves of the body shape are cut with extra wood left on there for flat spots when possible, for clamps to go up against. Let’s back up a minute – when laying out bodies or body pieces to get out of a plank, you either go by grain or feature, where you use the best looking sections – or by maximum yield on a more plain, more straight grained piece, where you nestle the curves of the drawn halves into and up against each other to get as many sets (bodies) as possible out of the whole plank. That can be some tricky cutting too. Sometimes on the more rustic woods you’re just working around huge cracks or holes or bark to get what you CAN out of the structurally good sections. Sometimes you can cut around the pieces leaving blocky areas that clamps will grip nicely during glue-up, and sometimes there are other solutions. Cauls are wood pieces cut to fit against the curves of body shapes on one of their sides with the other left flat – again for the head of the clamp to grip. Sometimes the wood gives you two rectangular halves to glue into a blank, nice and simple. Ideally though, you are thinking a step or two ahead while you mark it to cut and don’t make the steps to follow more difficult to execute. You set yourself up for the shot. I can’t tell you how much all of this relates to life and business, and how much of both has been taught to me by the steps of building an instrument.

Then, the surfaces to be joined go across a jointer so they’re perfectly flat, smooth, and square, and the body halves are glued and clamped. Every woodgnome has their favorite clamps – for me they’re little red Besseys to keep the two glued halves’ edges from slipping out of surface alignment and long orange Jorgensens to clamp the halves together. I like to put the glued body blanks (now they’re blanks, not planks – the first stage of guitar body vs. the final stage of tree) in the Texas sun when possible for a few hours while the glue sets up. The next day, off come the clamps, any glue squeeze-out is shaved off the center where the halves are now one, and the bandsaw cut this time is to the line we traced on with the body template. Some time on the oscillating spindle sander to smooth those curves free of blade marks and bumps and that body goes over on the routing bench with the next few that are waiting for routing too.

I don’t like to waste wood – the leftovers from the blank-making process and body cutout can become center pieces or stripes (“stringers”) for future bodies, pieces of woodcraft, slices that become control cover plates and other trim pieces and covers for builds to come, boxes of cutoffs put aside for other craftspeople who use smaller pieces, or offerings that engage all the senses in their blaze of glory in an evening campfire. In the case of natural (untreated for insects) mesquite or pecan, you can cook over it. Or soak it and grill with it. The chips and sawdust woodshop sweepings go out on the paths or to friends who compost.

Next week we talk necks and routing into sanding. Stay tuned! And crank up The Cars… I mean I get it, I’m old enough for the singer of the cars to die. But I can NOT be old enough for the singer of The Cars to be 75! RIP Ric Ocasek, your music will crank out of my old 6x9s until it’s my turn on the shore. The rest of you, go DO something. Go make something happen! Go get started on an intimidating project – by the time you’re done you’ll know how to do it. It’s one thing to survive the weekend – you go LIVE some of it. Let the good times roll.

Listening to: Eddie Money, The Cars, Keith Richards Main Offender, Springsteen autobiography audiobook.