A cool guitar built by Antonio Torres in 1888 is up for auction at Brompton’s. The top appears to be made up of at least three unmatched pieces of spruce. If you look closely, the joints and grain lines in the spruce are angled about 6° from the centerline of the body. The back is also made up of three pieces; the center is a strip of rosewood with mahogany wings to make the width of the body. The description says that the sides are also rosewood.

I don’t point out the irregularities of this guitar to throw stones–Torres’s guitars always seem to be effortlessly built. The headstock on this guitar is perfect in its simplicity, and the solera or body shape couldn’t be more elegant. He built outstanding guitars using materials that probably wouldn’t be used in a fine instrument now, and I love how he worked around narrow soundboard and back materials, for instance. This guitar was built with human ingenuity, and the irregularities make me love it all the more.

See Brompton’s listing for larger photos and a video of the guitar being played. (It sounds great.)

Because I like a challenge, I decided to apply a transparent sunburst to the top of the walnut orchestra guitar (serial number 16) that’s just a few weeks from being completed. I wanted to show off the beautiful grain of the Adirondack spruce top, so I chose to use reactive dyes to produce the color without the opacity of applying colored finish. Generally speaking, dyes enhance the grain while color coats, like colored lacquer, dry to a colored film that’s more like a lens.

Applying dye directly to wood can be pretty dangerous: the surface preparation needs to be perfect (no oily finger smudges, no glue smears that didn’t get cleaned up thoroughly) and the application needs to be close to perfect. The dyes can be dissolved in water or alcohol; alcohol is quite a bit more forgiving because it dries more quickly. (The longer the dye stays wet and active, the stronger the color. That’s why tie dye t-shirts look the way they do.) Because it dries quickly, you can mix the dye to a much weaker strength and apply more coats, making it easier to control the blend. Also, alcohol doesn’t raise the grain of wood like water.

To get a rich color that responds to a variety of lighting conditions, I ended up using a series of four dyes. I first lightly dyed the entire surface with a golden yellow. Then I began creating the burst with a peachy toner around the edges. Next, I further refined the edges with mahogany-ish tone, with the final edge treatment a reddish walnut color.

I masked off the herringbone body purfling and rosette rings with a liquid frisket from my watercolor kit before I began, and the results are very crisp.

I’ve made nice progress on a 14-fret auditorium and an orchestra guitar, both made of lovely air-dried walnut. What’s the difference between those models? Mostly scale length. The bodies have the same shape, but the top bracing has been shifted accordingly. (Here’s a comparison graphic of my model sizes.) I used a different rosette and purfling design so that I wouldn’t mix them up at a critical moment.

This pair also uses a hybridized bracing scheme that relies on the X-brace for the overall structure but uses a Torres-inspired lower fan in the belly area. I’ve been very happy with the guitars I’ve built with this scheme, and on this pair I’ve even trimmed down the lower legs of the X-brace a bit more because the fan structure does a nice job of resisting the torque of the strings on the bridge.

The bodies are in good shape, and the necks are well under way. I hope to have these guitars finished in early June. The price will be $2600 for either guitar.

I have been enjoying playing my new classical prototype…a lot. The sound is a very good match to my taste, with a woody, full midrange and sparkly, fat trebles. The basses are solid and loaded with tone. Most importantly, the sound is consistent throughout the range and the instrument sounds great in quiet sections and even better when driven hard.

A short sample of the guitar’s sound.

In considering construction decisions for this Cavins classical, my primary inspiration was the guitar sound on the incredible Scott Tennant album “Guitar Recital.” The album was an instant favorite for me (thanks to my guitar teacher, who introduced it to me), and the sound of his guitar captured me right away. I’m sure that Scott Tennant could make any guitar sing, but I understand that the instrument on the recording was made by Miguel Rodriguez.

Since I knew I wanted a crisp, woody bass, I chose a stiff Engelmann spruce top and braced it using a very lightweight seven-fan bracing layout. To reinforce the midrange and trebles I chose red maple sides and back (in my steel-string experience, it produces lush trebles). The very lightweight black walnut bridge contributes to the percussive, lively attack. The fingerboard is Honduran rosewood, and the binding, end wedge, and other trim are black walnut. The sample audio was recorded while the guitar was strung with Augustine medium tension strings, although “hard tension” La Bella 2001s are an even better match for this guitar. I incorporated a sound port in the upper bout, and I’ve really enjoyed the immediate and transparent feedback that it provides the player.

As usual, our artist-almost-in-residence has outdone herself with beautiful Ozark flora- and fauna-themed tuner buttons for the Mermaid. The tuner buttons were engraved with exacto knives and the engraving filled with archival ink, with a tiny pen.

Four down, one to go!

Just in time to ring in the New Year, the mermaid banjo was strung and ready to play.

Rear view of banjo pot with partial internal resonator
The all-wood rim produces a warm, yet crisp sound with lots of depth.

She’s surprisingly resonant, with just the balance of tone with percussion we’d hoped for.  Bluegrass banjos, with their hard resonators and snare-drum-tight heads, tend to be brash and sharp; old-time banjos tend to err in the opposite direction, with large pots and loose heads to create a sound that’s more thump than tone. Amber had chosen this pot in the hopes of a goldilocks-like compromise between the two that would suit her light, melodic clawhammer style. Continue reading “Mermaid Banjo Splashdown”