Thursday, February 26, 2009

12 String Tailpiece

I recently made up a batch of 12 string tailpieces for some guitars in the current batch, so I figured I would document the process. The tailpieces I make were slightly modified from a tailpiece that came off of an old Stella 12 string. The guitar was an early 12 string (teens era) and the holes for the ball end strings were a little too small to accommodate modern strings. I made the holes a little larger and widened the overall dimension of the tailpiece in order to have sufficient material in between the holes. In the old days strings came with either ball or loop ends. The old tailpieces were set up to use either loop or ball end strings. These days loop end strings are obsolete, so the posts for mounting them are, for the most part, decorative.

I put in quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to make tailpieces, but I figured it was an important element that I wanted to include on my guitars. I had a very limited budget, so farming the job out to a metal shop was out of the question. I worked extensively with my dad, Fred Cambio, on the design of the tailpiece. My dad mapped out the original 12 string on Solidworks and we went over some of modifications together. After the modifications were setup, I had a die made that stamped out the embossed portion of the tailpiece. I stamp the tailpieces out of brass. That was the material that the original ones were made out of, partly because it is easy to work, partly because it is easy to plate.

After the blank is stamped out, the rest of the process is hand work. I use a jeweler's saw to cut the silhouette of the tailpiece, and I drill out all of the holes on the drill press. I've developed quite a few jigs and fixtures for the drilling portion of the process as the drill press can grab ahold of the brass blank and do some real damage to your hand. I learned this the hard way.

After the holes are drilled, I use a jewelers saw to cut slots in the ball end holes. On a side note, the jeweler's saw that I use belonged to my great grandfather. I don't know what he used it for, but it was in his toolbench, along with some carving tools. I had been using a new jewelers saw, but it did a poor job of holding the blades. This saw is over 100 years old and continues to do a great job.

After all the holes are drilled, I use a countersink on the back side of the holes for the loop end posts. When the posts were turned, we left a little extra material on the portion that goes through the hole. The extra bit of the post that sticks through the back side is"skwedged" over with a hammer. "Skwedging" refers to the process of smashing the brass on the post so that it fills in the countersunk portion on the backside of the blank. I hope that all makes sense. After the post is set, it won't move. This is that same way that the old posts were set, and it is that same way that old tuning machines were made. I've repaired gears on old tuners using the same technique.

Once the posts are set and everything is filed and slotted, the final step is to bend the tailpiece in a metal brake. Everything is then polished to a high gloss and then it is sent off to be nickel plated.

I have thought about having the tailpieces laser cut as it can be difficult to dedicate a day or two to making them, breaking the rhythm of production, but that would limit the possibilities. As things are currently set up, I've made six, nine and 12 string tailpieces. I've also made left handed tailpieces. One of the things I appreciate about the old tailpieces is the variety that they come in. I feel that the more handwork I do, the more that variety will be reflected in my work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Stoneman Auditorium Galiano

I mentioned the copy of Ernest Stoneman's Galiano that I made, but realized that I haven't explained the guitar yet. Here goes:

Ernest Stoneman was one of the earliest people to record country music. He came before the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and actually had a hand in setting up the legendary Bristol Sessions. Stoneman played guitar, autoharp and harmonica, he was a great singer and songwriter. His real gift was as a bandleader. Stoneman assembled the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers and the Pilot Mountaineers, among others.

Besides being one of the pioneers of country music, my other fascination with Stoneman was his guitar, an Auditorium sized Galiano. I was first introduced to the guitar by Kirk Sutphin, who asked me if I had ever come across a similar one. That started five year search to figure out exactly what it was that Stoneman played.

Galiano was a brand name of guitar that was used by several builders, among them, Antonio Cerrito, Raphael Ciani, Giuseppe Nettuno and Antonio Grausso. The Oscar Schmidt company also made guitars under the Galiano name, but these guitar don't differ much from the other stock models that they made. The guitar that I've played for the past ten years is actually an Oscar Schmidt made Galiano, which has a Galiano label pasted directly over a Stella label. I'm not sure where Galianos were marketed. Likely it is a generic name referring to the Gagliano family who made violins and mandolins in Naples, and was used much like the Stradivarius name was used on inexpensive violins.

Stoneman's guitar was made by one of the smaller independent shops, most likely Antonio Cerrito's or Raphael Ciani. The whereabouts of his actual guitar are unknown. His daughters told me varying reports, that it had been backed over by their car after forgetting to pack it after a gig, and that he sold it during the Depression. Hopefully it will someday surface.

In making a copy of the guitar I worked off of photos of Stoneman with the guitar and gained clues off of the different angles which he was holding the guitar in the photos. From the photos, I was able to deduce that the guitar had unstained maple or birch back and sides, a dark binding, probably rosewood, the same fingerboard inlays which were used on some of the fancier Galiano and Oscar Schmidt guitars, a bound fingerboard and headstock. I had many conversations about the guitar with ace remastering engineer and co producer of the Stoneman set, Chris King.

I also gained a lot of information from old guitars in making the copy. I had an Auditorium sized guitar made by Antonio Cerrito in my collection. I compared the measurements of this guitar with the guitar in the photo and came to the conclusion that, while the woods were different, they were nearly identical in size and shape. In determining which woods to use, I looked at several different Galiano, Cerrito and Ciani guitars. Maple, rather than birch, seemed to be the choice on some of the fancier guitars, along with a rosewood binding and a German spruce top. The fingerboard and bridge were ebony and I just needed to figure out the neck wood. I went with mahogany as it is more stable and much easier to carve than maple.

For some of the details of the guitar I had to use intuition. I had the patterns for the fingerboard inlays from some guitars in my collection and had worked them out for other guitars that I had made. I had a rough idea of what the purfling looked like, but I wasn't able to find any that matched so I used something that had a similar motif, although it lacked the colors and intensity of the original stuff.

The very distinct bridge took a very long time to figure out. I did several sketches and tried to deduce the size and shape from proportional measurements taken from the photos of the guitar. It took a whole day of measuring, sketching, comparing, starting over, before I felt comfortable with the look of the bridge. it took another day to figure out how I was going to make it, and actually pull it off. I was so excited when I finally had the finished bridge in my hand and realized that I had nailed it. So excited that I fumbled the bridge, dropped it on the floor and the inlaid dots on the tips busted off. I was flabbergasted. I made a second bridge in a quarter of the time and was very careful in my handling of it. I finished the guitar with a very light French polish.

The finished product was really extraordinary. One of the best guitars that I've made. It had an extremely well balanced sound from the treble to the bass, with a nice depth to the tone. It was loud but still managed to maintain the clarity and dry sound that old guitars have. My friend Smitty became the lucky owner of the guitar and has been loving it ever since.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Eventful weekend

This past weekend was quite eventful. My old friend John Hasbrouck came up to play a gig and visit. John and Matt Gandurski make up the world's only all left handed resonator guitar and mandolin duet. The Northside Southpaws play a nice variety of rags, waltzes, tangos and bluegrass and put on a refreshing show. John has does a great job on the mandolin and Matt has really put in his time learning how to second on guitar, but is still able to insert a nice fill every now and then. The Southpaws were playing at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse . Another old friend, Joel Paterson, was playing a gig down the street and stopped by before the gig. Catfish Stephenson was also there. The five of us reminisced about guitars, music, recording etc. It was great to catch up with old friends.

After the show John, Matt and Catfish came back to the shop for a late night jam session. It was nice to listen to everyone play. I spent most of the time talking to another friend, Bruce, a former machinist, about better ways to make a 12 string tailpiece. It's official, I am now more of a luthier than I am a musician.

On Sunday I finally was able to connect with Hank Sapoznik. Hank is a fantastic musician, author, scholar and producer of CD compilations on Charlie Poole, Ernest Stoneman, Murder and Disaster ballads, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I'm not yet aware of. Hank is in town teaching a class on Jewish music at the University of Wisconsin. The class sounds like a great one.

Hank was kind enough to include the copy of Ernest Stoneman's guitar that I made in the Ernest Stoneman box set. Hank came with his dog Stinky and also brought some fermented and smoked sausages from his friend and cohort Mark Rubin. Mark had sent the sausages up from Texas and Hank was very generous to share them with me. After catching up over sausages and coffee, Hank and I headed out to the shop to look over guitars and talk about building a tenor guitar for Hank. The project sounds like a fun one as Hank has no specific idea of what he wants, other than a tenor that is loud. I get to play around with the aesthetics, which is always fun.

I'm hoping to get together with Hank as often as possible while he's in town. We have a jam scheduled for next weekend. It's supposed to be warm out, so maybe we'll get to fire up the grill.