Archtop Guitar #51 156

Completed January, 2016

(click any of the thumbnails for a higher-resolution photo)


This archtop boasts a one-piece sugar maple back and a red spruce top, and was inspired by the restoration of my father's archtop guitar. Rather than a traditional cutaway, I've gone with an expanded beveled edge in the cutaway area that provides perfect playing ease in the upper registers and a good dollop of flair, while retaining the traditional look on the back. All is topped off with Waverly tuning machines. Since I've been a flattop picker for most of my life, the sound will take some getting used to (though it will be a pleasant task). It's loud on loud, with great enunciation -- every single note is crisp and clean. The tone is balanced and surprisingly warm, despite the volume. Here are a few sound clips; please overlook all my errors.

This guitar was for sale, but I've sold a number of my personal instruments, so I'm claiming this one for my own.


Construction Photos

Since I don't have a formal plan for this guitar, I begin by sketching lines from several instruments that I particularly favor. Some calculations of bracing angles and bridge placement are part of the planning process. A 17"-wide piece of superb curly sugar maple will provide a one-piece back, and a billet of fine red spruce will form the top. The top billet is sawn in half and the edges are jointed. The surface is warmed with a heat gun, and the plates are joined with hot hide glue.

The maple back is cut to shape. Since this is wider than my sander, I'll have to level the edge by hand. The center is scooped out a bit so that only the edges stand proud. The edges are then leveled with a straight edge and coarse sandpaper. The glued-up top is cut to shape, and the edge thickness is defined on the router table.

Shaping begins with planes, then graduates to scrapers and finally sandpaper. The maple for the back is infinitely more difficult to carve than the spruce, so I begin by moving as much wood as possible with a power plane.

As on the top, I progress to planes and scrapers. There's still work to do on the outside of these plates, but they're taking shape. Oops: when I built my infinity adjustable external form, I didn't anticipate ever building a guitar of this breadth. Consequently, I have to make a dedicated external form.

Since this is most likely a one-off project, I bend the sides over a hot pipe, rather than creating a bending form. It actually feels good to exercise some of the early lutherie skills such as free carving and side bending. The sides are constantly checked against a template as they're shaped, then placed inside the form to cool and dry. If this back were European or bigleaf maple, I'd simply hog out the excess wood from the inside of the back with a plane. This is super-hard sugar maple, however, and coaxing shavings from it is akin to persuading chunks of an anvil to leave the homeland. With a Forstner bit I drill to a depth stop until the bulk of the interior is gone, then smooth the surface with a plane.

Final thicknessing is marked with small holes drilled to predetermined thickness; a wine cork serves as a non-marking stop. The head block also forms the base for the cutaway bevel; it's roughed out (the thickness will be refined after the top is installed) and glued to the ribs. Kerfed lining is cut, and the lining and the tailblock are also glued to the ribs.

The rib profile is marked on the top, and a graduation map is created. Thickness-marking holes are drilled. I have cradles for most of the instruments I build, but this one is off the scale. A quick-and-easy holding form is created from wine corks. The interior of the top is hollowed with planes.

Final graduation of both top and back are completed with scrapers and sandpaper. The f-holes are marked and cut. The x-bracing is perfectly fit to the back, then glued in place with hot hide glue.

The f-holes are bound with the same black-white-walnut scheme that will be used on the body. The f-hole bindings are scraped flush inside and out with the top. Full-length side reinforcing strips are installed around the rim; a small mahogany block fills out the kerfed lining where it was cut away for the strip. Hot hide glue is applied to the edges of the top and the sides, then allowed to dry.

As the two pieces are clamped together, a jet of steam reactivates the hide glue. When the entire perimeter is clamped, it's again allowed to dry. The body is removed from the external form, and the top is tuned by shaving and shaping the x-bracing while both flexing the top to judge stiffness and by analyzing on a computer the sound the top gives off when excited with a felt-covered hammer. The back is also analyzed, and its tap tuning is adjusted to a good tonal relationship with the top.

When I'm satisfied with the tuning, I trim the edges of the top flush with the sides. Binding and purfling channels for the top are cut. Only the purfling is recessed into the cutaway area. The walnut binding and multi-layer purfling are glued in place. A perfectly quartersawn piece of mahogany is glued up to create a neck blank.

The bindings are scraped level. The neck blank is squared, and the truss rod is cut. The heel is cut at the proper rake angle. A neck extension block is fitted to the top and temporarily pinned in place while the neck dovetail is cut with a specialized jig.

Hot hide glue is applied to the mating surfaces of the back and side, then allowed to dry. A label is created and glued inside the instrument. The sides and back are clamped together, and the glue is reactivated with steam.

The overhanging edges are trimmed flush with the sides, and the back binding channel is routed. Walnut binding is bent over a hot pipe to perfectly match the recess. The binding is glued in with hot hide glue and held with tape until dry. An ebony fretboard blank is sanded to a 16" radius.

The fretboard is cut to profile, and a recess is cut for the purfling lines. The purfling is glued into the rabbet. I've chosen a "hollow block" fretboard inlay. The pattern is laid out on the neck, and a recess is routed for the inlay.

This page has gotten rather large, so I'll continue this project on a second page.


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