Challenging Myself: Why I Made a Guitar to Celebrate My Birthday

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The Pearl inlay surrounding the guitar I made in the summer of 2014.

As I approach a giant milestone birthday, my friends and family have asked me about my plans. On the past two big birthdays, I've had my closest lifelong friends visit the Adirondacks to help me celebrate, because the Adirondack Mountains is the place I love the most. This year, I wanted to do something different, but I wasn't sure what. Then it came to me. Since I started playing guitar just two years ago and have come to love guitars, I decided to challenge myself to make a guitar to celebrate this milestone.

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Cutting the boards for the side of the guitar.

Making a guitar seemed like a giant challenge and something I'd never do on my own, and that was the attraction. I simply wanted to push myself, as my way of celebrating. I also thought about it a lot and knew it was so far out of my routine that I'd probably never do it. I didn't want to keep thinking about it, and I knew that if I didn't tell others of my plan it would be a lost dream, so I started spreading the word to a few friends, knowing that I'd be embarrassed if I didn't produce.

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Bending the wood with heat.

The problem with making a guitar was that it was bound to take time. I had no idea how to build a guitar or where to do it. Plus, I wasn't sure I could pull it off and run my business simultaneously. How would I find the time?

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Putting the bent edges together to form the guitar body.

Of course, I also had to find someone to teach me to do it. And I didn't want just some homemade guitar, I wanted something special, something with an incredible sound, something visually stimulating, a world-class quality guitar, which meant I not only had to find a top luthier (guitar maker), I had to find one willing to take on a student who knew nothing about making guitars.

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Clamping and glue to keep the kerf-lining in the guitar

My research led me to a lucky break. My criteria required a top guitar maker, a top inlay artist, someone willing to teach, and someone who could teach me in the summertime, when things are a tiny bit slower. Though I was willing to go just about anywhere in the world for a couple of weeks, my research lead me to Tracy Cox, who lives just about an hour away from our family summer place. So rather than taking a couple of weeks off at a time, I was able to build my guitar one day a week until it was done, which made finding the time much easier. I took Wednesdays off and worked really late on Wednesday nights and Thursdays to catch up. Tracy has a reputation as a top guitar maker and inlay artist who has worked for Martin Guitar in its custom guitar and inlay department.

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Sanding the edges to the proper radius. Guitar tops and bottoms have a slight bow.

I won't bore you with the sordid details of guitar-making other than to say I'm happy I had previous woodworking experience, which sped my progress substantially. My teacher made me do everything. He showed me how to do something once, then it was up to me to do the rest, though I have to admit there were a couple of critical cuts that intimidated me and that I asked him to do because I knew that if I blew that cut, I'd have to start over or would ruin a priceless piece of wood.

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 Braces to glue in the interior braces on the top.

Though the process was difficult and challenging each of the six days I was building my guitar, the hardest part was choosing what kind of guitar I wanted. I had to select body style, and woods for the front, back, sides, fretboard, and neck. Plus, I needed to pick a neck length and thickness to work with my unique hands and playing experience.

 

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The unique pieces of wood I'm about to glue together for my guitar neck.

 

Three years ago, at our Convergence conference, a guitar player, Bert Keely, was playing a 1938 vintage Gibson guitar. I fell in love with the sound and the worn, vintage look. Further, my friend Rick Wilson plays a 1956 Martin guitar, which is aged-looking and has a rich sound and a deep bass. I'd also played a Collings guitar belonging to a friend, and, loving how easily it played, I wanted that in my guitar. Was it possible to combine the best of all those guitars? It appears so.

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It all starts here. This piece of wood will be shaped into the guitar shape and make up the back.

Tracy took me through a wood selection process. As he flipped though some rare pieces of wood he pulled out a vintage top for a "Triple O" Martin body style. The top had been reclaimed from the Martin Guitar factory in the 1940s or 1950s. "That's it," I said. "It's already aged." Aged guitars tend to sound the best, and this top had been aging for 60 or 70 years, which was bound to give it a special sound along with its wonderful patina. Tracy said, "I've been sitting on this for a long time, waiting to give it the right home with someone who appreciates true vintage." But it was so rare that if I screwed it up, there would be no other top like it again. No pressure.

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The body and the neck, almost ready to put together.

The guitar-making process involved lots of cutting, planning, measuring, sawing, routing, carving, sanding, bending, clamping, and drilling, and at the end of the six days, I had produced a fabulous guitar. We strung it up with Martin Phosphor Light strings, and the sound was magical. In fact, several highly accomplished musicians had a chance to play it when visiting the shop, and each one wanted to buy it from me. The special sound comes from the aged wood and the technique Tracy taught me to craft the bracing on the inside of the guitar.

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More clamping!

The second tough decision was the rest of the finish. I wanted some high-end appointments, but I wanted to keep the vintage feel while making it my own. I also wanted to represent my muse: the Adirondacks. So we made this an Adirondack Guitar. Tracy taught me how to do inlay work with mother of pearl, so I trimmed the top edge with rare blue pava shell from New Zealand and carefully placed the pearl next to tortoiseshell bindings. I also inlaid birds for the fret markers, which involved my cutting out birds in mother of pearl and then routing out the exact shape. This was pretty intimidating because if I messed that up, I'd have to take the neck off and rebuild the guitar.

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Placing the back on the body of the guitar.

I drew out a special design for the headstock, which was the view from our family Adirondack camp: our mountain, our trees, and our lake and its special Idem sailboats, which are over 120 years old. Tracy cut that inlay for me because I wanted some of his inlay work on my guitar and it was more complicated than I was probably capable of without some more practice. The trees in the inlay are Brazilian rosewood, the mountain is Madagascar rosewood, mahogany, and koi wood. The water is dyed pearwood, and the sky is mother of pearl. Best of all, the sail is ivory that came from fossilized woolly mammoth tusk. This ivory is very rare, but legal.

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Inlay on the headstock. The view from our Adirondack camp. 

I should also mention the rest of the wood in the guitar. The back and sides are Chechen rosewood, the fretboard is McCassar ebony from Sulawesi, Indonesia. The neck is made up of local Adirondack cherry, plus some very special reclaimed wood that came from a 19th-century mahogany church pew and from a door from the USS Maumee, which was used from 1968 to 1971 in the Navy's Operation Deep Freeze II, where it was used to transport fuel supplies to McMurdo Sound at the South Pole. The Maumee was the largest ship to visit Antarctica, and was led into the ice pack by icebreakers. I was drawn to it because the Maumee river was one of three that flowed through my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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The neck of my guitar came from a reclaimed door in this ship the Maumee. Maumee is the river, which goes through my hometown of Fort Wayne.

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You can see the woods I used in the neck: Cherry, wood from the reclaimed ship door, and wood from a church pew. I used vintage tuning keys.

Birthdays don't always have to be about parties and gifts. Though making this guitar was a gift to myself, it was the creation of something special and irreplaceable that had personal meaning for me. Challenges and doing the impossible have always been important to me, and I wanted to challenge myself and stretch my brain while doing something with my hands to commemorate this milestone in my life. I've created a family heirloom, and now I have a guitar that has a very special sound, created by the rare guitar top and woods that are unique to my taste. I'm very pleased with the sound and the appearance. The inlay of the Adirondack scene will live on as a reminder of this special place in my life and the lives of my family.

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I did the inlay on the neck using Adirondack birds as the fret markers. I cut them out in pearl, routed the shape in the neck (frightening!) and then laid them in and glued them.

Life is about making and creating special moments and memories. If I just got a guitar as a birthday gift or bought one for myself, it would probably not be remembered years later. I can barely recall what I got for my last birthday. I'll never forget this birthday and the special experience of building a world-class guitar. And I've used this as a special chance to teach my kids about stretching and challenging yourself. Through the process I have a great appreciation for what goes into creating a custom guitar, and, spending many days with a master guitar maker and inlay artist, I made a great new friend as well.

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Pearl inlay of my signature on the neck.

I've had a lot of hobbies over the years, including woodworking, photography, collecting antique radios, and painting. Each had their season. And though oil painting landscapes and portraits is my current passion, it was nice to step away and try something new. Will inlay and guitar-making become my latest obsession? Probably not, but I'm glad I challenged myself to do something out of my comfort zone, and I might inlay some custom frames for my paintings at some point. This guitar-making experience has indeed been a unique way to celebrate a milestone and gives me a new story to pass along to my friends.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is set your mind on something you percieve as an impossible or difficult goal, share it with others so you're forced to make it happen, then find a way to do it. Though I have plenty of challenges in my life, work and family, I needed a different kind of challenge, something to push the limits of my ability. I wanted to try a new kind of art, which in this case was making an incredible-sounding guitar.

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 A coat of sealer, then some gun stock oil gave my guitar a perfect vintage feel, especially with this 60-70 year aged spruce top.

 

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Tracy Cox, master guitar maker and inlay artist was very patient to spend six days with me, pushing me to my limits and making me do most of the work on my first handmade guitar. The end result was an unbelievable sound.

By | 2014-08-28T18:53:51+00:00 August 28th, 2014|Uncategorized|9 Comments

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