I am a guitar maker in Madison, Wisconsin who focuses on six and 12 string guitars from the early 1900's. This blog is a place for me to show some of the things I create, some of how I create them, introduce some of the characters who stop by the shop and who's shops I stop by. The blog is a little more user friendly and is easier for me to update than the Fraulini website.
I'll be heading to the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival this weekend with a new uke and some guitars. If you're in the area, come down and say hi. There will be a lot of great players there and it promises to be a good time.
I've been cleaning out my shop and clearing space for new guitars and equipment. I've pulled out some things to sell. If you're interested in anything, would like to see more pictures, or have any questions, please email me, todd at fraulini dot com.
Angelina 12 String- I made this guitar earlier this year to bring to summerfestivals. The top is Sitka Spruce, the back and sides are paduk. The neck is mahogany and the fingerboard and bridge are Madagascar rosewood. The pickguard is inlaid into the top. French polished varnish finish, Golden Age tuning machines. The lower bout measures 14 5/8" with a 26 1/2" scale. It is 2" at the nut and the action is currently set to 1/8" on the bass and 3/32" on the treble. It is lightly built and was intended for lighter gauge strings (.011"-.060"), tuned to C#. With my standard set (.013"-.066"), I'd tune it to A. It has a great sound. SOLD
Erma buit by my apprentice- My apprentice, Cyrus Brown-LaGrange, built this guitar in 2010. It is a copy of an Oscar Schmidt made Galiano. It has a red spruce top, birch back and sides, poplar neck, Madagascar fingerboard and bridge, Golden Age tuning machines, varnish finish. It is 13 1/2" at the lower bout, 1 3/4" at the nut. The action is 3/32" on the bass and 1/16" on the treble. It's a well made, great sounding little guitar.SOLD
30's Stella Decalomania Concert guitar- All birch with a tailpiece, 13 1/2" at the lower bout with a 24 7/8" scale. It is 1 3/4" at the nut. The action is 1/8" across the board. It is a sturdily made guitar, fairly clean.
1930's Slingerland Guitar- Made by Regal. Spruce top, mahogany back and sides. X braced, repaired top crack, replacement bridge, new frets. 24 7/8" scale. Great sounding guitar. The case was painted up by the original owner "Texas" Eddie Gabe of the Red River Ramblers. $700
1920's Bluebird Guitar- Most likely made by Harmony. All birch with a crystaline finish. Very clean and all original. 2 repaired back cracks. It is 12 5/8" at the lower bout with a 24" scale. The action is 5/32" across the board. SOLD
1920's Slingerland Decal Guitar- Most likely made by Regal or Stromberg Voisinette. Spruce top, birch back and sides. Painted fingerboard, replacement ebony bridge. 13" at the lower bout, 24" scale, 1 13/16" at the nut. Action is 3/32" on the bass and 1 /16" on the treble. New Golden Age tuning machines. 3 repaired top and 2 repaired back cracks. Plays well, sounds good. SOLD
1940's Harmony mandolin- All birch flat top and back with f-holes. Two repaired top cracks. Clean shape, all original. Action is 1/16" across the board. It is sound, plays well and sounds good. SOLD
The vast majority of the guitars from the time period that I focus on, from 1900 to the mid 1930's, didn't have pickguards, though some of the fancier ones did. As a result I haven't made that many instruments with pickguards. I have had an occasional request and I've put on quite a few clear guards which give added protection but aren't highly visible. I have been fascinated by pickguards though and the materials which they have been made out of and have been experimenting with them increasingly over the past year, even making some of my own faux tortoise material.
In the very old days pickguards were generally made from the shell of tortoises. I have a couple old bowlback mandolins with genuine tortoise shell guards and while it is beautiful stuff, it has many drawbacks, mainly that tortoises need to be killed in order to get it. It also fluctuates greatly with humidity and is prone to cracking and warping. It fell out of favor in the late 1800's, I'm not sure if that was related to some sort of tortoise conservation sentiment or to increasing costs. I assume it was the latter (These days it is highly illegal to make anything with genuine tortoise shell). As a result substitutes for tortoise were developed in the late 1800's.
Some of the substitutes were made from casein, a protein and bi-product of milk, others with celluloid nitrate. Pickguards on instruments tended to be of the celluloid variety and had their own drawbacks. First, they are highly flammable and I'm told that many of the plants that made it ended up exploding. I believe there is one plant in Italy that still produces the stuff. Second, it tends to decompose and can eat away at finishes. While many people still like to use it because it has "the look", it's a little less than ideal.
A few luthiers have developed their own versions of faux tortoise, principally John Greven and his Tor-Tis materials. John has done a wonderful job of recreating the look of genuine tortoise shell, as well as many of the patterns that the Italian companies made from celluloid, which showed up on some of the great vintage instruments. The modern substitutes are made from material which are not volatile like celluloid, are more stable than either tortoise shell or celluloid, and are also much more environmentally friendly than the other two options.
A few years ago, after making a guard from some of the Tor-Tis material, my mind started to wander as to how one could go about making something similar. I thought about it for quite some time and had some theories going through my head before I started experimenting. When I finally did give it a shot I was pleasantly surprised, but my mind started to wander even more, thinking of patters, shapes, possibilities etc. I did quite a bit of experimenting before I was happy with what I was producing. I won't go into the process or the materials, but I would like to share photos of some of what I have produced and show how I've put it to use.
I've really enjoyed experimenting on this new front, and I look forward to making more guards in the future. In addition to protecting the finish and the top, they look great and really add to the personality of the guitar.
Shellac is the primary ingredient in the varnishes that I make and use. I dilute the shellac in grain alcohol and mix it with resins. I like working with shellac for several reasons, mainly because it is a natural product and is not harmful to my health like many of the other finishing options on the market. While it's not the toughest finish in the world, it's easy to repair and bring back to life, it looks great, and it ages wonderfully. A friend recently passed along this video on the harvesting and processing of shellac. It's fascinating and informative. Mr. Velji, who made the video, really knows his stuff. If you're interested in a good source for shellac, or on learning how to French polish, I would highly recommend his site shellacfinishes.com, where he sells a variety of grades of shellac, as well as a DVD on the process of French polishing.
I just finished a Francesca 12 string which is currently for sale at Brooklyn's Retrofret, one of the finest vintage guitar shops in the country. The guitar has a red spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard, Brazilian rosewood bridge, Stella repro purfling and a repro tailpiece, which I made. It was built with fresh hot hide glue and has a French polished varnish finish. The scale length is 26 1/2", with strings from .0013" to .0066", it is intended to be tuned down to B or C. It's a great guitar, the closest thing that you will find to an old Stella 12, for 1/4 of the price.
On May 1st, I celebrated seven years of self employment. I'm extremely thankful that I have a very patient wife and supportive family. I'm also grateful to the many customers I've had over that time. I really couldn't have done it without you all. I sincerely appreciate your support.
When I started this venture, many friends thought it was a little crazy to quit a fairly good job as a carpenter and project manager for a general contractor to build guitars in my garage and sell them online. People who knew about guitars thought I was crazy to focus on ladder braced instruments, and many luthiers thought I was crazy to French polish them and to use domestic woods and hide glue. Well, maybe they were all right, but I've had a great time along the way and not a single regret.
I've learned a tremendous amount in the past seven years, met many great people and built some fantastic instruments. I hope that the blessings continue for a long time into the future as there is much more I'd like to accomplish.
I recently finished an Angelina 12 string that I'd been wanting to make for a while. It was inspired by the work of Raphael Ciani and Antonio Cerrito, two of my favorite luthiers of days gone by. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to build it.
The top of the guitar is red spruce. The back and sides are mahogany. The bridge and fingerboard are ebony. The bridge pins are bone with a "French eye", very sharp looking. I had the tuning machines custom made by a machinist in Germany. He did a really wonderful job. They are beautifully handmade. I made the mosaic purfling about a year ago. It's made up of three pieces, a black and white checker, a red/white/green/ black diagonal checker, followed by another black and white checker. The guitar is assembled 100% with hide glue and the finish is a French polished varnish of my own recipe.
It's a joy to look at and to play. With the 26 1/2" scale, tuned down to B, it really puts out a lot of sound.
After having made a batch of purfling based on the stuff the Larson brothers had used, my mind had turned back to the Larsons and more specifically to my Ermida model, which is a copy of their Stahl Style 6. My Larson obsession renewed, I had to get an Ermida out of my system.
I had not built an Ermida in six years, during which time I've learned a few things and I wanted to put some of them into practice. When I made the first one, I made the best guitar I could at the time. I tried to make a faithful copy of the Stahl, and I think I did a great job. That said, there were a few things that I always wish I could have changed. So; Why put off until tomorrow what you could do today?
A few things about the Ermida model. First, it is named after my great aunt Ermida Fraulini-Gardella. Ermida was probably the fanciest of the seven Fraulini sisters. She was the first to leave the Missouri coal mining town where she grew up, heading for Chicago. She loved opera and spoke "proper" Italian. My family lived with her for a little while when I was a kid. I have very faint memories of her. My Ermida model is the only X braced guitar that I currently make. I named it after her because she was a classy trailblazer, characteristics she shared with the Larson's instruments.
Onto the Larsons, Carl and August Larson worked in Chicago from around 1900 to about 1940. They are thought to have made around 3000 instruments in that time. That's about 75 instruments a year, which is a very large number for a two man shop using traditional methods of construction. It is even more impressive when you consider the variety of instruments they made and that a number of these instruments were very ornate and some of the finest, most unique creations of that era.
While the instruments that I typically build are exercises in minimalism, structurally speaking, Larson's are on the other end of the spectrum. They are sturdily built and made to last. Some of their models have metal rods running from the end block, through the body and wrapping around the heel of the neck. They were some of the first builders to X brace their guitars, use laminated braces and to build tops and backs "under tension" (radiused in layman's terms). While the builders I am primarily influenced by built instruments to breathe and flex, Larson's built theirs to stay put. They are an exercise in rigidity. But, they still sound great. Just going to show you that no matter how much you think you know, you'll never figure it out.
For wood, I decided to use some old German spruce that I had. Its tight grain was very close to the stuff on the old Stahls I had seen. For the back and sides, I had some Madagascar rosewood that I had been wanting to use on something special, and I figured this was the perfect project for it. Another thing that I wanted to do was an inlaid pickguard. I have been experimenting with making pick guard material and this was a chance to put some of it into practice. The guitar was assmebled 100% with hide glue. For the finish, I French polished a spirit varnish as that seems like the closest finish to what the Larson's would have used.
The guitar turned out wonderfully. With the purfling and the pickguard it looks great and the sound is fantastic. It's loud, full and extremely present. It's not quite as bright as an old one, but I have to confess that I did build it a little lighter. I couldn't help myself. I'm looking forward to hearing it as it opens up.
My friend Tony Klassen is a guitar collector turned builder. Tony has been collecting rare and fine instruments for about 30 years and he has a very intimate knowledge of some of the greatest instruments that have been made in this country. A number of years ago Tony started building guitars. Due to his insight into the old classics, he had a pretty good leg up on the competition. His company is Ark New Era Guitars. Check him out if you haven't already.
One of the things that Tony has set about doing is to make replicas of all the guitars John Fahey played throughout his career. He has made a copy of the Ray Whitley Recording King and most recently the Bacon and Day Senorita. His Senorita model is absolutely spectacular. In both looks, playability and sound. A great feat for a one man shop.
Among other things, Tony has a healthy obsession with the instruments of Carl and August Larson of Chicago. The Larson Brothers worked together from about 1900 to 1940, building somewhere around 3000 beautiful and very unique instruments. It was a Larson guitar that set Tony down the path which eventually led to instrument building. He has become the go to repair guy for Carl Larson's grandson Robert Hartmann, and has built many great Larson replicas for Robert.
Though not as devout, I share in Tony's Larson obsession. A number of years ago, my friend and teacher Wil Bremmer at Spruce Tree Music showed me a couple Larson guitars and lent me Robert Hartman's book "The Larson's Creation". I was really amazed at the amount of instruments the two brothers had made, the variety and the quality. As a result, Wil lent me a 1926 Stahl Style 6, as well as a 1929 Stahl Style 6, which I used to make my Ermida model.
On a recent trip to visit Tony, the conversation inevitably led to the Larson Brothers. From there, it eventually led to one of the purflings that the Larsons used. Being a fan of guitars of the early 20th century, I know a thing or two about purfling. I use lots of the stuff and have ordered it from most of the major suppliers. I've also made my own, a process which took quite a bit of figuring and is a lot of fun, though quite tedious. Anyway, I opened my big mouth and said that I could make a batch of the purfling for Tony. This was all true, I could in fact make the purfling, but it was also probably against my better judgement as it would require a bit of time and tie up a portion of valuable bench space in the shop. Nevertheless, it would be a good exercise and would keep my purfling chops up.
The vast majority of purfling in the old days came from Germany, where families honed there skills and developed tools to make really exquisite stuff. These days much of the purfling still comes from Germany, but there is at least one American manufacturer, Michael Gurian who is an incredibly knowledgeable figure and force of nature in the guitar building world.I started making my own because the dollar was down on the euro and it was a hassle to order from overseas and I didn't want to use any of the stock patterns that were available from luthier supply companies. My friend Federico Sheppard gave me the basic instructions on how to make it and I was off and running before long. I've made a handful of batches of purfling, some historic designs, some of my own design. They help to keep my instruments unique and give me a little more connection to them. They do require time to make though.
Back to the Larson purfling which I had offered to make for Tony. The first matter of business was to determine the pattern for the purfling. Tony provided me with some very detailed photos of purfling from an early Stahl guitar and we went back and forth emailing our takes on the pattern. It turned out that the mosaic portion in the center of the purfling was made up of a repeating pattern of 27 veneers. The veneer that I work with are generally 6" wide and 36" long, so if you can imagine half a deck of cards of those dimensions, you can get an idea of where I was starting.
After laying out the pattern of the veneers, I glued them up into a long block. After the block was glued, I slice it into a bunch of small angled pieces. I then glue those angled pieces into a long block, off of which I can slice thin cross sections which will become the mosaic portion of my purfling. After each slice, I glue a piece of veneer back onto the mosaic block, which will serve the dual purpose of acting as a border to the mosaic and will also hold the mosaics together while I scrape them to the proper uniform thickness. It is an incredible amount of gluing, slicing, scraping and waiting. The reward is that you end up with a pretty good pile of purfling which you can't get anywhere else.
After I had made up the first bunch of purfling, I ran a piece down to Spruce Tree Music to compare it to the stuff on Wil's old Stahl. The result was right on the money and I wish I had taken a picture. I was more than happy.
I'm keeping enough of the stuff to make a couple more Ermidas and I'm sending the rest down to Tony, figuring that he's doing such a great job on the Larson end of things, I can fulfill my curiosities by asking him. I'd just like to get a couple more out of my system first.
A few years ago, a friend in Italy turned me onto the guitars of Luigi Mozzani. Mozanni was a virtuoso guitar player who eventually began making guitars, harp guitars and mandolins. There is alot of great information on Mozzani and his instruments on Gregg Miner's fabulous site, harguitars.net. Here is a link to the article on Mozzani.
One of the shapes that seemed to be very inspirational to Mozzani kept popping out to my eye. A double cutaway, which I eventually learned was referred to as a "wappen", or shield guitar. The shape seems to have been developed in the early 1800's and used primarily by luthiers in Vienna and Munich. Oftentimes the soundholes were places on opposing sides of the fingerboard. I think that the reason for this was to create a larger sound board, something like what Francisco Simplicio did with his D hole guitar.
After returning to the Mozzani article several times, I found myself making drawings of a six string wappen guitar. I think harp guitars are cool and all, but I hadn't heard any music played on them which really inspired me (That has all changed now of course, but I'm not going to get into that here). I figured that a six string would be much more practical for my purposes. While I liked the idea of the soundholes on the side of the fingerboard, I initially opted to for a more standard soundhole placement. Eventually it evolved into an oval soundhole, partly to get a little more soudboard.
Originally the wappen guitars were on the small side, around 12" at the lower bout. I wanted to go a little bigger, so I kicked it up to a 000 size, right around 14 3/4" at the lower bout. I also pulled the waist in a little tighter and put a bit more of a curve in the cutaway. I wanted it to be easy and fun to play, so I opted for a 24.9" scale length.
I finally had a period where things calmed down a bit and I was able to put a little time into building a prototype. There were a few little challenges along the way, but it went together fairly quickly and smoothly. I was very anxious as to what it would sound like. Initially the sound was a bit off. In the first day or two, it sounded like someone was sitting next to me, playing exactly the same notes that I was. As the days went on and it got more playing time under its belt, it really began to open up. It started to get louder and the sound looser. I was very pleased with how it was turning out.
Reactions to the new guitar have been mixed. As a friend in Texas put it, "Man, that new guitar is f*%@!ed up", Others have remarked that it looks like a Selmer Macaferri. As it turns out, Macaferri was the star pupil of Luigi Mozzani and he incorporated some of the same elements into his designs. I've had a couple friends who are great players come to the house to check out the guitar. They are initially a bit reluctant toward the unorthodox shape, but they are quickly won over by the sound and the feel. While the cutaways don't allow for optimal access up the neck, they do allow you a little more room to work. Overall I'm very pleased with the way that the guitar turned out. Pleased enough to make it a regular model, and to name it after my great grandfather. I'm looking forward to getting it out into the world and hearing what other folks think about it. I'm sure it will continue to evolve as I make more of them, but for now I'm glad to have resuscitated a great design from a bygone era