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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Luthier: Part XIV- Conclusion

It has been a few long months now since there has been any update on this project. For several of those, the fret markers were on order, but now that they have arrived, it's finally time to bring this project to a close. I posted the first part of this process a year ago last week, although the work began even about a month before that. For all it has taught me, I will be sorry for the experience to finally be over. Going into the build, I had no knowledge of building instruments, how to play guitars, anything about the design, construction, or acoustics, or even really how to use many of the tools which became common to my hands along the way. While there are several things I would have done differently now that I know better, the result has been satisfying for the expectation I had before I began.

This final post will cover my approach to the fret markers' inlay and a few final photos of the finished piece. Although nothing terribly difficult or exciting, it would be a shame to omit anything at this point. By now, it has been so long that I do not quite remember what they are made of, but it is of some natural shell material as far as I know. They have a slight iridescence to them when they catch the light just so, and serve as a nice contrast to the ebony of the fretboard. Certainly, they are a step above the bits of masking tape I had used in the interim.

First, I sorted the markers by size and roundness. I need seven of the lot, and there were only eight that were within a tolerable range of the 3mm holes drilled to inset them into. 

And here I'm referencing the drilled diameter a final time. It is within 3/100mm of the markers I set aside, which is close enough for me.

Next up, I set the bit with a depth stop. Although I tried to find a flat bottomed bit of this size, the points are spaded just enough that the holes will require a little finish work. So, I used the outer edge as a reference for how deep to drill, then set a collar on the shaft to act as a mechanical stop when the proper depth is achieved. I decided to use the lowest drilled depth as the set height because I do not want to have the markers inset below the surface of the fretboard by any amount. This way, I can slowly flatten the bottom to a depth that perfectly accepts the slight variance in height of the markers.

On a scrap bit of wood, I drilled a test hole to see if the stop needed any adjustment and get a general feel for the process. Because I am using a mechanical drill, there is little danger of over drilling or burning  a ring into the wood from friction of the collar.

Close, but still a little shallow. The marker sits about 1/5mm proud of the surface, which is perfect. The bottom of the hole is conical, so it is very easy to pare away small amounts of the high points until everything sits flush.

Now onto the actual fretboard. This was an extremely nerve wracking process, as any mistake here is on quite literally the last step in the process and perhaps the most visible and most difficult to correct. More, the location of the markers is directly over the truss rod, so there is a chance of catastrophic failure in the neck if the tension slips somewhere along the way.

To place the markers, I measured the distance between the two flanking frets and halved it, using the calipers to scribe a centreline  off of each fret to double check centre. From there, I did the same thing but across the width of the neck to ensure it was in the exact middle. For each of the markers, the dimensions were different, because the fret spacing changes as does the width of the neck.

And here is the moment of truth.

Once drilled, I chose a specific marker to pair with the hole. Changing it later would result in imperfections in the fit, as they are all slightly different. Using the smallest chisel I have, I slowly cut away a flat platform for the marker to rest on.

Leaving it there temporarily so as to keep track of which marker goes to which hole, I moved onto the next, then repeated the process for the 6 remaining holes.

On the 12th fret, I placed a double marker to signify the octave fret. Spacing them was a bit of trial and error, adjusting by a few fractions of a millimetre until the size of the markers balanced the width of the neck and the spacing between them.

Once all seven holes were drilled and cleaned, I used a small amount of the same hard PVA glue to hold them in place.

In the above picture, the 7th marker placed two below the 12th fret pair was not yet in place, as the frets became too close together for the drill collar to work properly. After the others were affixed, I went back and carefully did it freehand.

A day later once the glue cured, it's time to begin cleaning the ebony of all the marks left behind by the inlay. In the end, I only went to 600#, as the grain of the ebony is porous enough that the 1500# made no difference.

Using a variety of hard sanding blocks, I sanded between each of the frets until satisfied with that particular grit, then moved on to the next.

A few of the markers had slight areas of concern that needed to be addressed, whether proud or recessed by a hair's width, so the rough grits helped speed up the process significantly. In the end, everything came out dead smooth.

The next step was to re-string the thing and finalise the placement of the bridge. This dramatically effects the tuning when playing anything other than a completely open chord. The bridge acts as a constraint for harmonic length of each string, so it being forward or backward of where it is supposed to be, the pitch will be either sharp or flat when playing off any of the frets.

Fortunately, it is a fairly simple process to figure out. The short of it is, the 12th fret needs to be half way between the nut (neck) and bridge (body). Put another way, the length of the strings needs to be twice as long as it is from the nut (neck) to the 12th fret. 

After a few slight adjustments, it's all set. If I come back later and install a set of pickups (some technical challenges involved that may prohibit it), I will mark a line on the body itself to ensure that the harmonic length is exact and easily repeated when the bridge is removed and replaced.

And that's it. A year is both an incredibly long time and incredibly short, considering the constraints of where this project was born.

This is the first real time I have worked closely with wood, the tools, and the skills that draw the two together. As is likely evident throughout the 13 other posts of this project, there is much that I do not know, much that I have learned, and much that I will be able to use going forward. This instrument, although I largely have no idea how to play it, represents something of a great step towards a direction that holds a profound personal meaning. Perhaps one day I will return to world of the luthier, in either to create similar instruments or others that I know little about beyond the allure of their sound and their past. And until then, it's time to learn the other side of this craft and make music.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Silent Kingdom

There lies about the land a poetry which defies words- transcends them- which bleeds the heard before a single word is spoken. And in that silence, whether together or alone in the world and sharing only the company of a wayward mind, the land spreads its reach and embraces the soul without repose. Therein endures the power of a forgotten kingdom whose presence cannot be understood until it is felt. Witnessed. Lived as a shadow beside so staggering an existence as presides over this land.

Tranquillity, pure and absolute, greets every turn of the foot and lure to the eye. It enters upon the mind so wholly that anything bound to imagination is shattered as a pale illusion to the true beauty of what rests in that perfect wilderness. For it holds a vastness of unfathomable proportions. Both in monoliths that tower over the valley, the things which grow between, and the thrill of excitement which cannot help but be set free for the knowing that no amount of time can exhaust its coming.

At times, and I would have lied were I to sat that it was not every moment, every view and breath and sound taken in, each spray of water thundering down impossible heights and bald faces of the mountains and sprawling meadows, at times I am called a gentle reminder that I have been too long away.

Unfamiliar sounds and scents awaken a primeval corner of the spirit which has known all along that this is a home that transcends walls and roads. For here the land is wild but not impassable. Brought to silence, but is not unquiet. Veiled in a pure and resounding blackness, but it is not dark. Embraced by the cold, but not uninviting.

It is impossible through pictures and words alone to capture the beauty of such a place. Rather, it is one of those experiences- no, awakenings- which might come once in a lifetime, but if by grace comes twice is no less diminished by its first libation. 

Colour returned to the landscape, shades I had all but forgotten to the arid south. Vibrant shades of green, deep and lush, as the trees and grasses and mosses grew out of every habitable slope and shelf. Places where life has no business growing  but finds its way all the same. It was the return of these colours in shades and hues which have by months escaped me: dreams of changing seasons.

As night falls and long shadows become resolute, a thousand thousand worlds unveil the twilight sky. Each one so far and old and different from our own, yet each filled with that same sense of kindred mystery and longing for what lies ever a stride beyond our reach. And so I sat and watched on the edge of the world as the sun slid below the crest of a distant ridgeline to reveal a crepuscular explosion of mingled twilight.

Yet even so, life's subtle curiosities return with the sun's arrival. Things small and unassuming, easy to overlook in a land where bald granite domes jut thousands of feet into the sky like so many broken giants' teeth. The birds and the flowers, lichens and mosses, acorns and needles and insects of a thousand kind. Each of which has somewhere in the vastness of the world found its place, and for so many of them that place was one.

Frustrations of civilisation and its burdens slowly melt away as the land becomes untame, worries as the land grows wild. It is a transformation that becomes a transformation, a change instilled by change; it is, in a word, one which feeds the other, and the other back again until nothing remains but the deepest calm and wonder.

Nature's hand sculpts the rock with precise care, tends its greeneries with unfailing devotion. By wind and water and ice and the gradual passing of time, imperfections simply cease to be. What seemed a fault crumbles away to reveal a gleaming face. What once was burned returns to ash and breathes new life where life fought only to survive. What looked to be the scars of man upon those hills in time consumed them, returning to a gentle peace undisturbed.

Inservile thought fades from the heart and that little which remains does so without the fiery temperament which in its former life struck vehemence at even the fairer city winds. A nomadic life has become of me- not by habit or by choice but by circumstance alone- and has left nowhere a home but for places I have never lived or those long since moved away in whom only the fond memories remain. Yet here at the heart of it all something wakens. Something that beckons the spirit and uplifts the soul. That same spirit which dances about with a musical lyricy unbound by the constraints of an industrialised civilisation.

Out in the wilds there is nothing but to find new and fantastic meaning for things with which you have lived your entire life a nebulous idea yet without ever truly understanding.

I'll see you where the roads meet.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Engraved Wire Inlay

Chasing, engraving, and inlay, as techniques applied to metalwork, for a long while have given me great hesitation to begin learning due to their demand for precise tools and the diminutive scale of the work. Earlier this year, a good friend of mine showed me how he approaches fine wire inlay and, as with a surprising number of things, once you understand it many of the mysteries and reservations disappear.

As with anything, the tools come first. For my approach to inlay, I needed to make a few simple chisels, gravers, and planishers. All out of ,25" square O1 tool steel, ordinarily I would have forged them but in absence of a shop they were all ground to shape.

The dimensions were a bit arbitrary and trial and error, the only really important part being the edge geometry. Overall, they are 4" long with a gradual taper on one end to 1/8" over 1,5" to the original thickness, then again tapering to a point in the other end over the remaining 2,5".

From left to right, there is a graver, which actually chisels out the material you are inlaying into, leaving a small groove cut into the surface. Then there is a chisel with a steeper angle which I use to undercut the groove, turning its geometry into a slight trapezoid rather than a rectangle. Next is a square faced chisel that I did not use much, but is helpful in smoothing out the bottom of the groove and scraping off the paper of the pattern. Finally, a polished round faced punch that drives the wire into the groove, spreading it into the channel and expanding it so it locks into place.

Next up, you need a pattern of something to engrave. Above is the sketch of the design, fitted to the shape of the sanding block whose face I am about to inlay. Tight turns and intersections at odd angles are a little more difficult, as well as small areas of relief, but with a careful hand it is certainly possible. This project is the first thing I have ever engraved and inlayed, so it will hopefully give you and idea of the learning curve (which, once you get the feel for it, is not that steep to produce a passable result).

Now, transfer the design to the thing to be inlayed. I first tried sketching directly on the metal's surface, but it did not work as I expected, so I re-sketched the pattern onto another piece of paper and adhered it to the steel. This  was more helpful than I expected, giving the graver a softer surface to bite into before beginning to cut the steel. I forgot to take a picture of the piece without any work on it, so here's what a piece of the un-engraved surface looked like.

Onto the actual engraving. I started each cut by holding the graver almost straight up and down, hammering lightly to establish a cut by which to begin the channel. Everything in this process is done with light hands. My chasing hammer is only 4oz, and there is never any real 'swinging' involved. More, it is the falling weight of the hammer with a slight flick of the wrist. Once the cut is established, I lower the angle of the chisel slightly and continue to tap with the hammer, forming a chip as the graver cuts the metal. I should note here that it is important to anneal whatever you are working on so you can actually cut through it. This block is mild steel, and although the tools are hardened to about 58 Rockwell C, the softer the surface the better.

As the channel is cut, maintain an angle on the graver that allows it to move forward without either driving deeper into the surface or coming up and breaking out the chip. It takes a little of practise to feel what is right, and being able to maintain a proper angle. As for the depth of the channel, I cut only about ,5mm deep or so, which is deep enough to easily catch with a fingernail but not so deep that the wire to later be inlayed (I am using 20ga sliver) disappears beneath the surface of the engraved face.

Finally, at the end of each line, cut straight down on the terminus to form a square corner instead of an upswept slope. Then, come back as though you are going to continue cutting the groove but at a steep angle so the end of the lines are all undercut.

Once all the lines are engraved, come back with the wider chisel with a steeper angle (or if you are really in a pinch, you can use the same graver as what cut the grooves, but I find the face to be too narrow) undercut the groove at a very slight angle. This cuts down into the corner of the channel and raises the edge up slightly to form a trapezoid shaped channel. Doing this is what allows the inlay to stay in place, and too shallow or steep of an angle will cause the wire to fall out.

With everything cut and undercut, it's time to bring in the wire. A fully annealed wire is important, as any firmness to it will make this process difficult and unpredictable. Originally, I experimented with bronze that I thought was fully annealed but turned out to be half hard and as a result was completely unsuccessful. After annealing, it was much easier to work with and overall successful.

To begin insetting the wire, take a squarely cut end and press it down into the channel, holding it there with the polished punch. A light tap forces it down into the groove, but too hard and the wire bends a into a corner which may cause the inset bit to come out when you begin setting the remainder of the length.

Once the end is firmly in place, work the punch across the length of the groove using overlapping blows. I tend to use several passes of light taps to set the wire down, and once it feels set into place, I return to the start and use heavier blows to force the wire as far into the groove as possible. Then, using overlapping blows again, work forward to lock everything into place. Using repeated passes of heavier blows causes the wire to expand forward more than you might think, and can cause it to unseat from the groove.

It should go without saying, but bend the wire to the shape of the line you are following.

When determining how long to cut the wire, I tend to work in sections a few inches long, leaving it connected until the last possible moment. This prevents cutting too long or too short for the line being inlayed, and prevents me from needing to worry about how much a particular length will expand. For smaller lengths like the marks on the forehead of the engraved face, I cut pieces just a hair short and inlayed them without the remainder of the wire attached.

When approaching sharp corners, I use two separate pieces instead of trying to work the wire around the bend.

Notice how the wire expands over the edges of the engraved groove and makes the lines thicker. There are techniques for raised wire inlay which this is addressed, but for this method, the lines will all return to their original width. As a result, they will be sharper like on the left of the above picture which has not yet been inlayed.

Once the entire face is inlayed, here with sliver and a copper X in the centre, it is time to bring the surface down to a plane again. I could have done this in the pitch pot as well, but I did not want to foul the pitch with silver and copper filings.

Unsure of how firm the wire is set in the face, I did not want to use the belt sander to make the face flush again. Also, this is more controllable and does not risk grinding through the inlay entirely.

Light draw filing removes any unevenness from the insetting, revealing the character of what the final design will be. If that is the look you desire, you can stop there, but the wire is still proud of the face. So I continued to file down until even again.

The original surface was both hot and cold blued, making one of the blackest patinas I have ever done. I thought it would be a good contrast to the silver, so I went back with the cold bluing oil to darken the places in the steel touched by the file.

A quick coat of Renaissance wax to stay off rust, and it is done. For a first project and experimental approach to similar techniques, I am quite satisfied with the result. Since this sort of thing better lends itself to explanation through demonstration rather than pictures and words, I will update this to explain and answer whatever questions might arise.