So How Did You Learn To Build Guitars? Part One

I suppose every craftsman who pursues something that isn't specified in a four year curriculum somewhere has heard the above question.  I certainly have heard it over and over.   If I'm feeling flippant, (a frequent state for me), I'll toss off a quick "well, I pretty much figured it out for myself." That is really the truth, as when I got interested in building guitars, there were just a few books on the craft and nothing on the internet.  The only luthier I knew of was Moze who was doing beautiful work in his shop right in my neighborhood of San Diego.   I'd bought two or three guitars there but never had the nerve to ask him question 1 about learning the craft.

Along with the "how did you learn?" query I get the "can you go to school for this?"   Well, yes you can, these days, and I'm sure there is some terrific instruction at these schools but it would not have been in my wheelhouse as I've always hated school.   Kindergarten through high school and a few feckless semesters in a community college were the worst torture I have ever experienced, a grim and frustrating endeavor to be sure.   I know it's a character flaw but to this day even the idea of a casual workshop makes me want to get in the Mustang, grab first gear and let that V8 take me from zero to outta here as quickly as physics will allow.

I'd been playing guitar for some time and had fallen under the spell of good flattops, but gradually realized that I was more interested in the how and why of various guitars than I was in playing them.  I knew I had to keep my chops up enough to properly evaluate and demo instruments, but what kept me up at night was the nuts and bolts aspect of guitars in general and American style flat top acoustics in particular.  I'd always had a mechanical bent since childhood.  I loved tools of all sorts and a quirk of fate supplied a father who was of the same persuasion, plus he just happened to be a sales manager at a huge tool distributor in L.A.

The decision came casually enough, one afternoon I announced to wife #2 (of 3) that I was going to build a guitar.  The response from the blessed bride was one of derision with more than a trace of outright hostility.    Well, that was all the incentive I needed and no, I don't miss #2 a bit.

Once I declared my intention I bought all the books I could find on steel string flattops.  Jim Williams, David Russell Young, Irving Sloane and later Cumpiano and Natelson.   These guys all knew how to do it and all had markedly different methods for every aspect of the craft.   I read, re-read, and thoroughly digested the material and came up with a synthesis of these approaches that I though would work for my beginning status.  I was lucky to have a small workshop area in my garage where I could leave projects without needing to clean off the kitchen table every evening.

Although I was quite accomplished as a mechanic, my experience had all been with cars, motorcycles, and firearms.   I disliked woodworking and was hopeless at anything like carpentry.  An inauspicious beginning, indeed.  Undaunted, I decided to hedge my bets a little and start with a kit of materials to save some of the steep learning curve for subsequent tries should #1 prove successful.   I bought a kit from Martin that was based on their splendid M-36 which was a guitar I had wanted to own anyway.   Frank Finocchio at Martin set me up with an M-36 package.  Once I had the materials, I needed tools.   What I had, helped me rebuild engines and transmissions but was of no use on guitars.  I quickly put together a good starter set of chisels, scrapers, clamps, and the like, and I had no more excuses.  It was time to do it.

Over seven months of evenings and weekends (I was working full time as owner/operator of a photo lab) I put that puppy together.  After 25+ years I still vividly remember the last agonizing day or two not knowing whether It would be tolerable, a disappointment, or a disaster. After string-up and set-up, all was well.  That first piece sounded terrific, played easily, and did not look too bad at all considering I knew less than nothing about quality guitar finishing.

Part Two will be along shortly.


R.I.P. Bill Collings

Three days ago a customer sent me an e-mail with the news Bill Collings had passed away.  For those readers unfamiliar with the name,  Bill was the man behind Collings Guitars of Austin, Texas.

For most of us involved in building traditional American acoustic guitars the instruments from Collings shop are exemplars of quality and consistency.  I've never owned a Collings but I have handled, played, and worked on hundreds of them over the last 25 years and my impression of perfection has remained unchallenged.   A few minutes studying the inside of a Collings box with an inspection mirror will humble any craftsman.  They are that good.  Personally, I think they're the best.

I did not know Bill beyond a few hellos when he came to visit a shop in Carlsbad, California where I ran the repair department for many years.  In 2004 I had occasion to be in Austin for a few days and the shop owner suggested I stop in to visit the Collings factory a few miles south of town.  The boss called Steve Mc Creary, Bill's right hand man, and arranged my visit.

A few days later Steve greeted me at the front door and began to show me around the rambling arrangement of work rooms which have long since been vacated for a better facility.  The old shop was not particularly impressive but the work being done in there was and the overall vibe was redolent of confident mastery. 

After 20 minutes or so we entered a hallway and ran into Bill.  Steve reminded him of who I was and Bill graciously offered to guide us around the rest of the shop.  Passing through a large space with a roll up door I felt like I'd walked into a hot rodder garage.   A couple of street rods were parked there obviously in the process of serious gearhead surgery.   I recognized an engine and transmission combo, mentioned it, and was treated to a huge smile and an utterly transformed Bill Collings.   He began to riff on his cars, especially one he was building for his daughter.   Being an unrepentant car guy myself I joined in and we carried on for a half hour and likely could have gone on for some time.

The tour resumed and finally it was time to go but that interlude in the "garage" with Bill was the highlight for me.   A serious craftsman's calling and quality orientation were so obviously a major component of the man but often it's the hobby that illuminates the soul.

Bill Collings passing is a huge loss.  I wish I'd known him better.

A Different L-00

Current Build; L-00 Style "Weirdo"

June 22, 2017

A guitar that I'm affectionately terming The Weirdo is nearing the final stage of assembly.   This one is an L-00 Style in most of its specs and actually the only off-beat aspect is the client's wood choice.

The customer is a busy performing musician with here in Prescott.  When we began talking about his new guitar it became obvious that he isn't preoccupied with traditional ideas of how a flat top is supposed to look.  He likes a smaller body instrument and responded enthusiastically to an L-00 type guitar I have in the shop. 

Neck shape, nut width, string spacing and pick-up specs were easy to settle on but he was vexed by wood choices.   After much discussion of conventional soundboard and body combinations he settled on flamed maple for the back and sides and Honduras mahogany for the top!!   After seeing an old Jack Straw all mahogany 12 string that I recently re-acquired from a fellow in Austin he was entranced by the look.   I've been a fan of mahogany soundboards forever and have built many guitars from Slope Ds to OMs to 000 12 frets and even some 12 strings with Honduras tops.   Every one has been a winner.   I could come up with absolutely no reason it would not work well with maple so off we went.   The only disclaimer I could throw at the client was "well, if you ever need to sell it the wood choice will make it a bear to unload."   He responded simply, "I'll never sell it."  I sure like a confident customer.

Here's a pic below.  OK maybe it's not weird.  It's beginning to grow on me.  There are many more pictures of the build process on our Facebook page.   

See ya later......

Newly Revised Website And Blog

Well, after about three years with the same website and zero revisions it dawned on me that the thing had become worthless.  Sometimes it takes me a while to respond to this stuff.  Here we have a refreshed and streamlined site with the same overall look and most important (to me anyway) an interface that a semi-normal computer user can make changes on in a fairly simple manner.

The Jack Straw Guitars Facebook page has been receiving plenty of attention of late and now with this new site and blog I have another venue to tell you all about guitars according to me.  In other words everybody is entitled to MY opinion.

Thanks to Molly Kirby Robson for converting the previous website to this new platform.  Molly, by the way, is my wife Kat Kirby's talented daughter and designer of the wonderful graphic identity of our old shop in San Diego, Tecolote Guitar Works.  I still have a few logo T shirts and the like from that shop and they still look splendid.   Molly, you're a peach!

So, welcome to the new website/blog.  Come back often.