Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tis the Season to Humidify

This post may be a little late, but it's better late than never. This is the time of year that you really need to pay attention to your instruments. As winter settles in and the air dries out, it is very important to humidify your guitar(s).

Most guitar makers keep their shops at around 40%-50% relative humidity. Guitars built under these conditions will handle extremes on both ends of the humidity spectrum the best. That's not to say that they can survive unscathed. As humidity goes up, wood expands, which can cause glue joints to pop loose and wood to pucker. As humidity goes down, wood shrinks and things crack. Neither one is good, but drops in humidity are usually a bigger concern, especially during this time of year, when many of us live in cold climates and keep a heater going in our home. With a forced air furnace set at 70 F, humidity can drop below 15%, which is almost guaranteeing that your guitar will crack.

Your guitar will usually send you some signs that it is getting dry before it cracks. The first sign is that the fret ends start sticking out. This happens because the fingerboard is drying out and shrinking, but the metal frets aren't, so the ends will feel rough on the edge of the fingerboard. If you get a second sign that things are getting dry, it may be some buzzing that wasn't there before as your action will start to drop. I wouldn't wait for any second signs, I'd start to humidify the guitar as soon as I felt the fret ends poking out.

For maintaining humidity there are several methods. You need to figure out which one will work best for you. It's good to start with a humidity gauge so that you can tell what sort of results you're having. Because I have several instruments in the home and shop, I keep a room humidifier going in the shop and one in the house, in the room where I keep instruments. I set it so that it maintains 40% humidity. These humidifiers work great and in addition to keeping the instruments happy, they make the room more comfortable for me as well. They usually cost between $30 and $70, which is a bargain compared to getting a crack repaired or the unsettled feeling you get when your favorite instrument cracks.

Some folks like to use instrument humidifiers, like Dampits. These work well if you only have a few instruments and keep them in their case. You need to keep on top of them and make sure that they are charged with water. I used to use them regularly and occasionally do still, if I'm going out of the house with a guitar, but I currently have too many instruments to make them practical.

One friend with a wood stove keeps a big pot of water on top of the stove. He has a small place and it seems to do the trick for him. Not all of us have the good fortune of having wood stoves.

One word of caution, don't depend on humidity systems that are connected to a furnace, like an Aprilaire. These units use a large amount of water and don't necessarily do an effective job of humidifying the air of your home. In my mind, they are a false sense of security. I think that a small room humidifier will do a much better job, and use a lot less water in the process.

So, do yourself and your instruments a favor and start working on humidity control. If possible, get a humidity gauge and a room humidifier. If you're always on the go with your guitar, get an instrument humidifier like a Dampit (or even something as simple as a damp sponge or washcloth in an open plastic bag kept inside the case). You will save yourself a lot of headaches and heartache.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Guitars and tomatoes

My apologies for being delinquent on the blog updates. It's been a busy summer and things are just now starting to calm down.

My family and I spend our summers gardening and enjoying the outdoors. One of our goals has been to put up as much food as possible for the long winter. We kept three gardens this year one in the backyard, behind the shop, one at a community garden, and a large one out at a friends farm, intended for low maintenance storage crops like potatoes, onions and squash. We put up about 150 lbs of potatoes, 300 heads of garlic, 50 squash, a dozen pumpkins, 15lbs. of sauerkraut, gallons of tomato sauce, applebutter and jam. Next weekend we get a pig from a friend and I'll make salami, bacon and prosciutto with one of my brothers. That is when the fun will really begin. All of this hard work has given my mind ample time to wonder, or wander.

When I was a kid, my folks raised a lot of our food, which partly explains why I have the desire to do the same with my family. I also grew up next door to an apple orchard, and some of my earliest food memories are of going out and picking apples in the orchard. I always loved the apples from that orchard the best. They weren't always the prettiest things, some of them were downright gnarly, but their flavor could not be matched. They were three dimensional. An extravaganza of flavor. I remember at Christmastime, my uncle Frank, who was a fruit wholesaler in Chicago, would always bring a fruit basket that was full of the shiniest, most gigantic fruit that could be had anywhere in the world. I'd immediately set my eyes on the apples, a perfect candy apple red softball sized fruit with a high polish like they had been under a buffing wheel. I'd sink my teeth into them and be immediately struck with disappointment. Their texture was mushy and their flavor was nonexistent. They paled in comparison to the apples that we'd pick at our neighbor's orchard.

I planted my first vegetable garden in my early 20's when I worked as a gardener on an estate, in exchange for rent. I had a surplus of tomatoes that year and I wanted to learn how to make sauce from fresh tomatoes. I went to a family reunion and figured I'd ask a bunch of old Italians how. Everyone gave me the same answer, "Why would you want to do that?" They all said that I should make my sauce from canned tomatoes. It would take me too long to make it from fresh ones and I wouldn't be able to get the consistency that I'd get from a canned tomato (I should add that many of these folks made gnocchi, a potato pasta, from instant potatoes, rather than the real deal, but, I digress). Being a respectful young person, I didn't question their logic. I made my sauce from a can and my few attempts at using fresh tomatoes fell short. Years later I learned how to make sauce from a fresh tomato, and I realized how wrong they all were. I can't say that my sauce is better than my grandmothers or any of my aunt's or uncles, that would be sacrilege, and if the Lord didn't strike me down, one of my siblings or cousins would. All I can say is that canned sauce lacks the same depth and intensity as the highly polished apple. With the fresh sauce, you can taste the sunlight and the earth. It is a transcendental experience.

These days I'm a tomato fanatic. I put in about 40 plants each year, hoping to beat any disease or bad weather that may jeopardize the crop. There is no such thing as too many tomatoes, so it is better to be safe than sorry. Our home becomes a tomato processing station during the late summer. When we have the time we oven roast the tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and spices and then pass them through a food mill to get some of the best tomato sauce that can be had. When they are really coming in, we simply stew them and then can them, and when they are really really coming in, we freeze them whole to use them later for stews, soups or sauces. We'll use up every last one before next year's start to come in.

I have found that I can't bring myself to buy a "fresh" tomato from the grocery store. If I did I'd face the same disappointment as I did with the apples when I was a boy. The grocery store tomato is not bred for flavor, it is bred primarily for shape, color and shelf life. It is nothing to celebrate. I'll wait it out, until I can pick my gnarly fruit from the vine and use it as I see fit.

What does any of this have to do with guitars? Well, that's a good question. People have gotten hip to good food and it is a good subject to draw parallels with. The best chefs realize that you have to start with fresh, good quality ingredients to make a good dish, and people are gaining a new appreciation for fresh local foods, supporting local farms and farmers markets. But, there is a learning curve to working with all this stuff. It's not as simple as going to the farmer's market, buying some fresh produce, bringing it home and everybody's happy. You have to learn to work with it, and your taste buds have to get used to the real flavors. Once that's accomplished, there's no going back.

Often times people stray away from traditional methods because they seem cumbersome, take too much time, and don't always get consistent results etc. Maybe that's true sometimes, maybe at times they lack patience. Certainly not all traditions are good. But the further we stray, we lose a lot of good stuff in the process. You have to first learn the traditional methods before you can say that they are a waste of time.

The more I dig into traditional methods of instrument construction, the more I learn. The more practiced my hands and mind get at working together, the better and quicker my work becomes. I learn about ingredients and methods from people who have kept these traditions alive, I find out which ones work for what I am doing and incorporate them into my practice. I've found that once you have these methods down, they are as quick and efficient as "modern" methods, and often produce better results. As an exercise into how quickly I could build a guitar using traditional methods, I recently made one in four days. From joining the plates to stringing it up. I cut no corners. I used all hide glue, hand cut the inlays and French polished the finish (which was a combination of bug excretions and tree sap dissolved in vodka). It is a great guitar.

In short, if you can learn to judge an apple or tomato using your taste buds more than your eyes, your whole self will thank you. If you can learn to judge an instrument with your ears rather than your eyes, you will reap the same reward. Presentation is important, but it is not the key.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Apprentice

For the past two and a half years I've been training an apprentice, Cyrus Brown-LaGrange. I met Cyrus almost twenty years ago, back when I used to play music on the street. His mother worked at the Farmers Market and he used to come by and listen to us play. Before long I was giving him music lessons in exchange for home cooked meals. Since then he has become a very close family friend.

A few years back, Cyrus and I were talking and he expressed some interest in building an instrument. I invited him out to the shop and started him out on a ukelele. I was impressed with his follow through and ability to stick with a project. Cyrus is a guitar player and understands how things are supposed to work and feel. He also has a natural gift for working with his hands, something that many people lack.

In the past two and a half years Cyrus has built a handful of ukeleles and about ten guitars. He's turning into a very good luthier and his work continues to improve. Not long ago I asked him to build two copies of an old concert sized Oscar Schmidt made Galiano that I have. I wanted him to focus on getting the old look down and to hone his craftsmanship. We decided to do one in white oak and one in birch. I wanted him to build them very traditionally, using all hide glue, with a varnish finish and he did a really great job.

Both guitars have red spruce tops, poplar necks with modified V profiles (the oak one has a truss rod), rosewood fingerboards and pyramid bridges and Golden Age tuning machines. The oak one is a little warmer and probably a little more suited for John Hurt style picking, while the birch one is a little more resonant and a little more raspy, probably better for Delta style blues, or playing behind a fiddler. They both sound and play great, putting out a lot of punch for new guitars. They are both currently available so email me if you're interested for more details or pictures.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Birch 12 String

For the most part, I try to build my guitars like the old ones, but standards and expectations have changed a lot since the old days and I think that in order to sell guitars, the workmanship has to be a lot cleaner than it was in the old days. Not that I judge my guitars by the same standards as some of the small and medium shops of the day. When I look at a lot of the stuff that comes from some of the small and medium shops, it looks flat to me. It doesn't have the depth of the old stuff. So many modern builders rely on CNC technology that their instruments are more hand assembled than hand made. Some folks think they look great, but I don't see a lot of distinction between some of the high end American makers and some of the stuff being made in China.

Enough of the ranting.

Occasionally I have a desire to build something "like an old guy", build a great instrument but without the attention to details that is expected of the modern luthier. Don't worry about cleaning out every little bit of glue on the inside of the box. Don't worry about pencil lines on the inside of the box. Don't worry about filling every single pore in the wood, and push the limits in terms of the lightness of the construction. I had a very rough winter and needed something a little cathartic to distract me.

Pat Conte is one of my favorite musicians alive today. Pat plays both blues and old time hillbilly music equally well, and he has mastered a variety of instruments, including fiddle, mandolin, banjo and six and 12 string guitars. He's a great singer and interpreter of old music. I had talked to Pat a while back and he said he was interested in a BBQ Bob style 12 string. It seemed like Pat was the perfect fit for the kind of build that I wanted to do.

I started out looking really closely at the photos of BBQ Bob, trying to figure out if there were any details that I had missed from previous viewings. Judging from the shine on the sides of his guitar, it looked like birch with a heavily tinted finish. I had some nice flamed birch which I decided to use for the project. I also had some nice diagonal checkered purfling that I made last fall that would give the guitar the perfect old time look. For the top I picked the gnarliest set of red spruce that I have ever seen. The grain was very tight in the center, then turned to wide, then tightened up again. It had some irregular steps in the grain that gave a bearclaw effect, but was very close to being knots. I also decided to go for a poplar neck (not truss rod) with a flat fingerboard and very small mandolin frets. The old guitars had much smaller frets than they do now and were equivalent to modern mandolin wire.

At a certain point the guitar departed from being a straight BBQ Bob copy and took on a life of its own. I've been into the whale tail bridge lately and decided to go that route on this one, with six pins instead of 12. I also considered a "ebonized" maple fingerboard and bridge, but decided to switch to rosewood as it would be an improvement to the sound and feel.

For the finish, I used button lac, which is the rawest, least refined variety of shellac. It has a deep orange color with lots of impurities that add to the character. It's probably the closest thing to what was used on the old inexpensive instruments. I put a bright white binding on the guitar, and let the finish give it an aged tint and pool up in areas, something you always see on old instruments. I gave both the birch back and sides and the poplar neck a brownish red stain to simulate mahogany. I strung the guitar with my standard gauges, but with round core nickel strings instead of bronze.

I'm really happy with the way that the guitar turned out. I built it in about half the time I usually spend on an instrument, and because it was built so lightly and had such a light finish, it really roared. Every time I do a project like this, it gives me a little more insight into the past. I get to try out some different techniques and see if I'm on the right track in terms of what the old guys were thinking and doing. I'll look forward to doing more like it in the future. Plus, it went to one of my favorite players!

Thanks to John Heneghan for the video and to Frankie for being the test pilot and delivery man.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

So Long Pop.

After a long battle with cancer, my Father, Orlando Dominic Cambio, a.k.a. Champ, a.k.a. Fred, passed away on February 11th. He spent his last month in hospice, at his home, with is family providing much of the care. Three days before he died, he and my mom celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

My father was a brilliant man. He spent most of his life working as a mechanical engineer. He had 14 patents granted in his name and another 7 which were granted in the name of companies he had developed them for.

He always said that an engineer who didn't know how to use a hammer or a wrench wasn't worth much. He practiced what he preached. He was a great mechanic, cutting his teeth on his first car, a Model A Ford, at the age of 12. He built a few hot rods in his teens and twenties before getting his engineering degree. He always worked on his own cars to keep his mechanical mind sharp. I remember when I was a teenager, he disassembled a Fiat transmission, cleaned it, replaced some worn bearings and put the whole thing back together again without ever looking at a manual.

When I was a kid, my folks bought an old dairy farm. My dad refurbished the whole place, and in the process honed his skills as a carpenter, mason, plasterer, plumber, electrician, and architect. When I was working as a carpenter, I remember being impressed with his abilities as a self taught trim carpenter, not to mention the fact that he had shaped many of the mouldings and trims in our home.

My folks were a little to old to be hippies and went back to the land before it was a movement. In addition to four kids, they raised chickens, ducks, geese, lambs, steer, a few ponies and a couple of horses. He kept bees and we made cider in the Fall. It was a great way to grow up and I'm grateful that my folks had the courage and abilities to make that leap.

I should also add that, with four young kids in the home, my father made the very bold move of becoming self employed. He worked as a consultant for over 30 years. He could have made a much more comfortable living had he stayed with one of the companies that he had worked for, but it was more important for him to spend time with his family.

My father was proud that I eventually ended up making guitars. He always liked the fact that I played music, though I'm not sure he could relate to it. He could relate to working with your hands, building something that was well thought out and honing your skills as a craftsman. I had the good fortune of working with him on making the tailpieces that I'm using now. If it hadn't been for his contributions, I never would have been able to pull it off. I remember taking the plans that he had drawn for the tailpiece to the machine shop that made the die. Four machinists surrounded me and asked, "Who did your plans?" I wasn't sure what they were getting at so I asked, "Why, is there a problem?". "Not at all. They're beautiful," was their reply.

My dad was the tech guru of the family and the day after he passed away, my computer died. I had lost all of my photos, business records, email contacts etc. After getting over the major frustration that this entailed, I realized that he had taken the hard drive with him so that his Luddite son would be forced to get a little more tech savvy. With the help of my brothers and a couple friends, I was able to recover the lost files, replace the hard drive, reload the drivers and get the computer up and running again. In two short weeks I finally feel a little bit of competence when it comes to computers.

I can't say enough about my Dad. He was a really great man. Never talked down to anyone, never gossiped. For the most part he was very quiet, and when he did say something, his words were very measured and they cut to the chase. He provided all of his kids and grand kids an example to live by.

So long Pop. And Thanks.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I've been in the process of finishing guitars and have been thinking a lot about finishes lately, so I thought it would be appropriate to write a little on the subject. I'll try not to get too geeky or technical.

Finishing is the most tedious part of the guitar building process and I'd consider it the most frustrating. It seems like, at any moment, things could go terribly wrong. That's one way to look at it. You can also look at it as the most rewarding as things seem to come to life. The finish brings out the grain and figure of the wood and adds depth and character.

There are all kinds of finishes on the market today and most guitar makers use types that they spray on. Some use water based finishes, some used catalyzed lacquers, some of the folks who build traditional style instruments use nitro cellulose lacquer. Nitro Cellulose lacquer became popular in the 30's and remained the main finish through the 1980's. It goes on very nicely and each coat melts into the next. It flows out nicely and gives good color to the work. The downsides are that it cracks over time and it is extremely toxic and flammable. I have used lacquer in the past but have stopped, mainly because it makes me physically ill and I don't want to have anything that is that combustible in the shop. I also don't want to blow the exhaust fumes all over my neighborhood.

I'm always trying to figure out the ways that the old guys did things, and finishing is no different. From working on a wide variety of pre 1935 guitars, it seems like most of the old builders used varnishes or shellac. These finishes were applied either with a brush, or by a process called French polishing (which is a lot like spit shining a shoe).

Shellac is a resin which is secreted by a bug called a lac beetle. Folks in India and Thailand collect that resin and process it and turn it into flakes. The flakes come in a variety of colors, ranging from a very blond amber to a brown orange. The flakes are dissolved in alcohol and that is what is used as a finish. Shellac is great for a variety of reasons. First off, it is completely non toxic (I usually add the flakes to 190 proof vodka, Everclear). Second, it provides wonderful color to your work. It can turn a fish belly white spruce top into a beautiful pumpkin color and make things look instantly old. Third, it dries very quickly and is easy to apply and work with. Finally, it is very easy to repair, as long as you know what you're doing.

The downside to shellac is that it doesn't hold up to water. My response to this downside used to be, "Don't get your guitar wet." I have since learned that some folk's sweat can cause the shellac to get a little rough, and occasionally you are caught in a rainstorm, in a foreign country, with a guitar, and despite the fact that it's in a case, it can still get wet and the finish can get damaged. It can also be difficult to find the materials needed to repair a shellac based finish in a foreign country. How do I know this? It's a long story and I'm not going to get into it now.

Shellac does eventually harden and become more resistant to alcohol and water, but that takes a very long time. Like 20 years.

Varnishes come in two different kinds, spirit based and oil based. Spirit refers to alcohol and technically speaking, shellac is a spirit based varnish. Usually though spirit varnishes are shellac based with other resins added to them to make them more flexible, and heat or water resistant. Spirit varnishes can be applied with a brush or by French polishing. They dry very quickly and you can apply several coats in a short period.

Oil based varnishes are not as quick to dry as spirit based varnishes. As a result they need to be applied with a brush (some folks apply them with a spray gun), and more time is needed between coats. The up side to this is that the varnish flows very nicely and it also provides more protection than a spirit based varnish.

For a long time I French polished my guitars, first with straight shellac, then spirit based varnishes. This was very time consuming but it was perfect for working in a small shop with no ventilation and the results were terrific. As I gained more experience, I started looking into different options that provided a little more protection. I briefly used lacquer, but as I said, it made me sick and I didn't like the thought of using something that toxic.

I've always been curious about varnishes but there is very little information out there on varnishes and the whole subject is very intimidating. I had heard about some guitar makers using "varnish", but upon further inquiries realized that they were actually using polyurethane. I have never been crazy about polyurethane, the depth and color of the finish doesn't appeal to me, neither does that fact that if you sand through a coat, you get "witness lines".

I started to talk to some of the mandolin builders who use varnishes. Both Don MacRostie and Lynn Dudenbostel were extremely helpful on this front. Both Don and Lynn recommended alkyd resin oil based varnishes. Don sprayed his, Lynn used a brush. I should add that I did my first instrument work when I was 19. I rebuilt an upright bass with an old violin maker. When it came time to finish the bass, he recommended that I use Pratt and Lambert #38,an alkyd resin varnish. I did a competent job on the bass and it has held up through all sorts of conditions, playing on the street, in touring bands and now it is exposed to all my kids can dish out. It's held up wonderfully. It's funny to thing that after all that experience and research I've come full circle.

I had read somewhere along the line that the folks at Gibson used to use oil based varnishes, applying several coats, and then French polishing shellac over the top. I started trying this technique out and it works beautifully. The shellac adds to the depth of the varnish, it goes on really quickly and builds up a beautiful shine. So currently that is what is working best for me.

So, for all of you out there who are guitar builders, either professional or hobbyists, I encourage you to give varnish a try. It's not nearly as difficult as it seems and you don't have to wear a space suit to brush it on. In most cases you can get some good stuff at the local hardware store, and you can't match the beauty of it. If you have any questions, send me an email and I'll try to answer them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New Craig Ventresco CD

I'm always excited when I hear that my friend Craig Ventresco has released a new recording as he is one of my all time favorite guitar players. Imagine my excitement to hear that his latest CD, "Craig Ventresco Plays the Guitar", features a guitar I made for him a year ago. Finally a chance to hear him put it through the paces!

Craig is probably best known for playing guitar on the soundtrack to the film Crumb. He should be known for being one of the most talented guitar players in the States, playing in a traditional vein, but in a style that is all his own. He's a really fantastic player and I regard him as highly as the greats like Blind Blake and Lemon Jefferson

Craig's past recordings have focused on Ragtime and popular music from the early 1900's. His latest "Craig Ventresco Plays the Guitar" focuses on classic blues and jazz. Besides the guitar tracks Craig plays ukelele on a couple, and one features Meredith Axelrod on vocals.

It's a great CD and I encourage everybody to get a copy. Drop Craig a line at his website

Here's a video of Craig and Meredith performing Terrible Murder Blues at the West Coast Ragtime Festival.