Learning from drawings: An evaluation of six flamenco guitar plans

How do you learn to make a ‘Spanish guitar’? There have been a number of books over the years and at the heart of them is an instrument plan.

A milestone in Spanish guitar making outside of Spain came in 1954, with the publication in Guitar Review of a scale drawing of Torres FE26 by Theodorus M. Hofmeester (1897-1955). For the first time, the design features of the Spanish guitar were plain to see and widely available to guitar enthusiasts to study and copy. Hofmeester was an Architect and President of the Classical Guitar Society in Chicago. Although the authenticity of FE26 has been called into question,1 nevertheless, the drawing provided a useful level of detail for subsequent makers to learn and build from. Although published in the USA, Guitar Review had readers and contributors in the UK and the Hofmeester drawing laid the groundwork for subsequent DIY texts on classical guitar making in Britain.

Hofmeester plan of Torres FE26 (1954)

There is understandably a lot of emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ and ‘tacit knowledge’ in craft activities, with the use of books and scale drawings often overlooked. Guitar-makers don’t just do and their knowledge is not only intuitive. They observe, think, measure, study, plan and document their work.

In my survey of classical guitar makers in the UK, I asked ‘to what extent have you learned from the study of other instruments?’ Over 55% of respondents said they had learned ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’. Only around 5% said they had learned nothing at all from the study of other instruments.

At some point, sooner or later, the student luthier will either study a ‘historic’ instrument (by which I mean, a guitar by an acclaimed, often deceased maker, whose instruments are prized by players and collectors) or, more often, study a drawing of a historic instrument.

Locating an instrument by an important maker is not always straightforward. They may be commercially available for tens of thousands of pounds or held in private collections. Occasionally they are held in museums, yet in the UK, there appear to be just two Spanish made guitars based on the Torres design in publicly accessible museums. Equally depressing, classical guitars made in the UK hardly feature in UK public collections either.

So, the alternative to an actual instrument is to study a scale drawing. There are a number of places to buy such plans and the detail and utility of them varies. Below, I evaluate six plans for flamenco guitars made by three influential Spanish makers, whose historic instruments sell for unadvertised prices today.

In evaluating the six flamenco plans, I will be guided by the article written by John Ray et al. (2017) ‘A review of basic procedures for an organological examination of plucked-string instruments’. The ‘basic procedure’ represents the most comprehensive published methodology available for examining and documenting guitars and other plucked string instruments. John Ray is a well-established Canadian guitar-maker and author who has lived and worked in Spain since 1989.

My objectives in evaluating the six plans are to compare them to the procedures described by Ray et al., discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and highlight what can be learned from the study of them collectively. I believe everything I have to say is applicable to plans of other types of guitar and possibly other instruments, too.

The six plans are as follows:

A: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by David Merrin

B: Domingo Esteso 1934, drawn by David Merrin

C: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by Richard Bruné

D: Marcelo Barbero 1951, drawn by Richard Bruné

E: Santos Hernandez 1933, drawn by Roy Courtnall

F: Marcelo Barbero 1950, drawn by Roy Courtnall

Introduction to the drawings

On the face of it, the instruments are very similar, being Cypress bodied flamenco ‘blanca’ guitars made by Spanish luthiers between 1933 and 1951. In fact, there were personal connections between each maker: Santos Hernandez worked alongside Domingo Esteso in the Manuel Ramirez workshop, and Marcelo Barbero was hired by Santos Hernandez’s widow to complete the instruments he left unfinished after his death in 1943. Each maker is revered and any collector of classical or flamenco guitars would be pleased to own any of these instruments.

The plans by Roy Courtnall are CAD drawings made in the early 1990s with permission from dealer, Ray Ursell. The Santos Hernandez plan is also published in Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, which features an introduction to the maker and his work. The Barbero plan is not included in the book and includes no accompanying biographical notes.

By comparison, the plans by David Merrin are reproductions of hand drawings of instruments from the Granary Guitar collection in 2011. The Granary Guitar Collection is well-known among players and luthiers in the UK because the owner has held open days to visit the collection.

The Richard Bruné plan of the Barbero guitar is hand-drawn and accompanied by extensive notes on the provenance of the instrument. It was featured in American Lutherie #55 and regarded by Bruné as “the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century” because it was played by Sabicas on his album Flamenco Puro. Bruné’s plan of the Santo Hernandez instrument was published more recently in American Lutherie #73 and is a CAD drawing, again with accompanying notes on the plan and a related article in the same journal.

Basic Measurements for an Organological Examination

Ray et al. provide a list of measurements and features to document when examining an instrument, which I list below in order to indicate whether the six plans provide that information.

I am not able to reproduce the rest of Ray et al.’s article here, but can say that it contains various illustrations and images to demonstrate the procedure to capture this information as well as the tools required. It is a very thorough, practical guide on what to document and how.

I should also say that Courtnall, Merrin and Bruné did not necessarily set out to document the instruments for the same purpose as Ray et al. are proposing, and this evaluation is not intended as a criticism of their efforts, which I have benefited greatly from in my own workshop.

A: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by David Merrin

B: Domingo Esteso 1934, drawn by David Merrin

C: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by Richard Bruné

D: Marcelo Barbero 1951, drawn by Richard Bruné

E: Santos Hernandez 1933, drawn by Roy Courtnall

F: Marcelo Barbero 1950, drawn by Roy Courtnall

Each plan is a 1:1 scale drawing so where measurements are not explicitly given, they can be more or less found by measuring the drawing itself. All measurements in the plans are in millimetres.

The table below can be viewed more legibly as a spreadsheet here.

PartFeaturesABCDEF
Outline of top and backY (back reproduced from top)Y (back reproduced from top)Top onlyYTop onlyTop only
Outline of headYYYYYY
Internal bracingPosition, shape and dimensionsYYYYYY
Plate thicknessesTop and back, 2cm apartYYYYApprox.Approx.
Side thicknessesYYYYNY
Curvature of top and backYYYNApprox.Approx.
Main air resonanceNot included by Ray et al.YYNYNN
TopLength (L1), upper bout (L2), waist (L3) and lower bout (L4)Drawn to scale onlyDrawn to scale onlyYDrawn to scale onlyYWaist drawn but not recorded
BackLength, upper bout, lower bout and waistDrawn to scale onlyDrawn to scale onlyAssumed to be same as topDrawn to scale onlyAssumed to be same as topAssumed to be same as top
SidesLength, width at enough points to draw a profileYYYYYY
HeadLength, width at widest and narrowest points, thickness, slots; width and length and position; holes, ramps (where they begin and where they end)YYYYYY
FingerboardWidth at three points (nut, twelfth fret, and soundhole) thickness at four points, lengthYYDrawn to scale onlyDrawn to scale onlyThickness not recordedThickness not recorded
BridgeLength, width, height at back and front and wings, width of tie-block and back lip, is it arched? The angle of the string holes, is the valley cut below the wings? Record the saddle curve if it is not straightSaddle curve not recordedSaddle curve not recordedYSaddle curve not recordedSaddle curve not recordedSaddle curve not recorded
Scale lengthDouble the distance from the nut to the twelfth fret and record the extra length (compensation) of the bass and treble stringYYYYNo compensation recordedNo compensation recorded
StringSpacing at nut and saddleYYYYYY
PeonesShape and sizeNot usedYNot usedYNo shape recordedNo shape recorded
Bridge strapStrap length, height and widthNot usedNot usedNot usedYNot usedNot used
Heel capLength, height and widthYYYYYY
HeelShape (from the side and front) and measure inside and outYYSide onlySide onlySide onlySide only
BindingHeight and widthYYYYNN
Linings and reinforcementsGrain orientation, height and widthYYYYNN
NeckProfiles at first and ninth (or before the curve of the heel begins)Thicknesses at 1, 5, 9th frets. Profile at 5th.Thicknesses at 1, 5, 9th frets. Profile at 5th.Thickness drawn. No profiles.Thickness drawn. No profiles.Thickness only. No profiles.Thickness only. No profiles.
SoundholeDiameterYYYYYY
HeadstockAngleYYDrawnDrawnDrawn Drawn
WeightSpecifying with or without strings, pegs, etc.YYNNNN
FretsPositionsYYYYYY
RosetteInner and outer diameterYYYYYY
Neck/head jointYYYYNN
Neck/body jointYYYYYY
Neck angleNNYYNN
Neck reliefNNNYNN
Label informationYYYYNN
Rosette design and other inlay workPhotographs, materials usedYYYYYY
Misc. build featuresGlue squeeze out, plane marks, grain orientation, etc.Grain orientationGrain orientationNotes on build methodsPlane marks, grain orientationGrain orientationGrain orientation
Height of strings1st and 6th strings at bridge, 12th fret, nutNNN12th fret onlyNN
Wood speciesDocument all components, are they book matched?YYYYYY
General conditionDamage, restoration, wearNNYYNN
ProvenanceNNNYNN
OtherNot included by Ray et al.Annual growth rings for top. Fretwire width and height.Annual growth rings for top. Fretwire width and height.Golpeador info included
Table 1. Evaluation of six flamenco guitar plans adapted from Ray et al. (2017)

Discussion

As you can see, each of the plans provides a lot of detail for the guitar-maker and, from experience, I know that a guitar can be made with the information given in any single plan.

The evaluation reveals something about each author’s motivation and approach. Merrin’s plans are the most comprehensive drawings for the guitar-maker; Brune’s plans are also comprehensive and show more scholarly concern for the provenance and condition of the guitar – something which Ray et al. are concerned with, too. Brune’s plans are perhaps best seen as studies of the instruments, as well as workshop references. Courtnall’s plans are primarily intended for the workshop and provide suggested thickness ranges for top and back rather than specific numbers, recognising that each piece of wood requires an assessment of its own attributes. The layout of Courtnall’s CAD plans are clear and easy to follow.

No single plan meets every expectation of Ray et al.’s procedure for examination but it would not take too much additional effort for future authors of instrument plans to adopt their procedure in full. Merrin and Courtnall’s plans do not provide specific dimensions for the top and back outlines and they assume the back is the same dimension as the top. Indeed, it should be and for a workshop drawing, we do not need the back outline dimensions. Bruné provides back dimensions for the Barbero (D), probably because of the guitar’s historic significance and also because it appears the different top and back dimensions was intentional. Similarly for the neck relief on the Barbero (D) guitar, which is in fact convex rather than concave, or ‘negative relief’ as Bruné refers to it.

In my own experience of building four flamenco guitars, using the Courtnall (F) and Bruné (D) Barbero plans, I thought it would be nice to have the weight and the main air resonance (Brune provides the air resonance but not the weight) These are both objective measurements that are easy to obtain and revealed to the maker with the finished guitar. They result from the maker’s overall creative effort, rather than any single detail on the plan and allow the luthier to compare tactile and aural attributes of the original guitar with their own. Merrin’s plans (which I bought very recently) include the weight and air resonance.

Beyond the six plans

While learning to build flamenco guitars, I have also been guided by the information provided by Trevor Gore, where he analysed the weight and resonance of six classic flamenco guitars. Where flamenco plans include the weight, we should be aware that older guitars are likely to have had wooden pegs rather than mechanical tuners, and if the pegs have been replaced by mechanical tuners, the published weight is around 100g heavier than it would originally have been. John Ray has a useful article on this.

In addition to the six plans for flamenco guitars, I have found Sheldon Urlik’s book to be informative because of the detailed measurements given on 82 “fine Spanish guitars” including 21 flamenco guitars. I have calculated the average measurements for the flamenco guitars in this spreadsheet for ease of reference and comparison. (On a separate worksheet there is also data taken from guitars for sale on the Solera Flamenca website). Looking across the average data for those 21 guitars, reveals the design attributes which make a flamenco guitar sound and feel like a flamenco guitar. They are very lightweight, the plates and ribs are thin, and the bridge is low. If you know anything about flamenco guitars, you knew this already, but the numbers really emphasise the importance of building within those parameters.

Having six plans to study is better than one, but not because the plans are significantly lacking. Having six plans helps you understand that the work of a single luthier will vary and that there is not just one way of making the same type of instrument. For example, it shows you that the brace does not have to be exactly that height, because on other guitars, it is a different height. Having six plans shows you that there is room to relax and work with the materials and not just with the plan.

Notes on a flamenco guitar (#5)

I finished another flamenco blanca guitar recently. It’s the fourth of this design and my fifth guitar.

Like the previous three instruments, it’s based on a Marcelo Barbero plan, has a Spruce soundboard and Cypress back and sides. It differs from the previous three by having an African Mahogany neck and Ebony fretboard. The particular piece of Mahogany was relatively lightweight, comparable to a dense version of Spanish Cedar, which I’ve used on other necks, such that I could hardly tell the difference. It was the first time I’ve used Ebony, too, having previously used Rocklite. The Ebony was kindly given to me by the luthier and author, Robert Welford, when I interviewed him for my research.

Shortly after I started working on this guitar in January, I bought Sheldon Urlik’s book, A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars, which is a superb resource for luthiers because, in addition to photographs and descriptive text, it contains the measurements for each instrument; not only the exterior dimensions, but thicknesses at 14 points across the soundboard (including the strutting design), 9 points across the back (including the bracing pattern), and the thickness of the ribs (both bass and treble). If that wasn’t enough, the dimensions of each instrument’s bridge is also given as well as the wood species for each component. Highly regarded luthiers, Richard Bruné, Jeffrey R. Elliott and Cynthia Burton examined and documented the guitars.

There are 21 flamenco guitars in the book (and an accompanying CD of Richard Bruné playing them), so that’s a lot of useful data to learn from and music to enjoy. I put a summary of it into a spreadsheet for easy reference and also to see what the average measurements were across 19 of the guitars. I excluded a negra by Fernandez and also a blanca by Fleta, which was an outlier in terms of its weight and the assessment of it states that it sounds like a classical guitar, rather than flamenco.

The average weight of the 19 guitars, dated between 1883-1988, is 1172g. 14 of the guitars have wooden pegs and those average 1165g. Guitars made in or before 1948, when nylon strings replaced gut, average 1110g. Guitars after 1948, average 1256g. Scale lengths range from 646-660, with most between 650-655. Average thicknesses are:

  • Soundboard around bridge: 1.82mm
  • Bass side: 1.43mm
  • Treble side: 1.47mm
  • Back 1.95mm
  • Bridge height: 7.82mm (this is an indication of saddle height (+0.5-1mm), which gives a flamenco guitar its characteristic feel)

Although I’m not advocating designing a guitar simply by numbers, they do consistently illustrate the build characteristics of a traditional flamenco guitar.

When I built my first flamenco blanca, I was guided by scale drawings and also the observations by Gore and Gilet, which I summarised as:

Based on their analysis of six vintage instruments, Gore and Gilet suggest that a good traditional sounding flamenco guitar will have an air resonance below 100Hz and a top resonance of around 180Hz (between F and F#) or around 190Hz (between F# and G). They suggest a bridge of no more than 15g, back and sides that are no thicker than 2mm and an overall weight of around 1100g. 

Building a full-size guitar that weights around 1100g narrows down the choices of tonewood and build decisions, such that you almost inevitably end up with a flamenco blanca with wooden pegs. For my fifth guitar, I thicknessed the soundboard to around 1.8mm, the sides to 1.5mm and the back to 1.9mm. The neck, strutting, bracing and end block followed the Barbero plan (a 1948 Barbero guitar in the book weighs 1185g, 134g lighter than my #5). The density of the tonewood I used is:

  • Mahogany neck: 514kg/m3 (640)
  • Ebony fretboard: 1258kg/m3 (955)
  • Indian rosewood bridge: 848kg/m3 (830)
  • Cypress back: 646kg/m3 (535)
  • Cypress sides: 642kg/m3 (535)
  • Euro spruce top: 446kg/m3 (405)

The density of a species of wood varies from tree to tree, but if I compare these numbers to the Wood Database (given above in brackets), the neck is relatively light and the back and sides are relatively dense. The fretboard is relatively heavy with the finished fretboard before gluing weighing 60g more than the equivalent Rocklite. Clearly the way to reduce the weight of my guitar to that of Barbero’s (1185g), is to select lighter examples of wood and to use wooden pegs. For comparison, guitar #3, built to the same design, has a relatively light Spanish Cedar neck (448kg/m3), Rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3), Ebony pegs and weighs 1189g.

My latest instrument came together in a relatively straightforward way. I roughly shaped the bridge in January; prepared the neck and joined the head in February, and did everything else over 16 days in April when I had some annual leave. A further week of French polishing in the evenings, a week of waiting, and then a day to fit the pegs and set up the guitar.

It weights 1319g. The neck and fretboard woods added a bit more weight (about +100g) and the geared pegs weigh 34g more than Ebony pegs, so taking that into account it’s very consistent with number 3 (1189g), which has a Rocklite fretboard and Ebony pegs. The body resonance is E +47 cents (84.7Hz), compared to F# -42 cents (90.3Hz) of #3. The lower resonance is probably because the soundboard is thinner on #5.1

I expect more experienced luthiers will look at all this fuss over weight and think that I’m overlooking the importance of a subjective assessment of the materials and an intuitive approach to the build. I agree, but having made only 5 guitars (each about six months apart), it takes more repeated practice to develop that tacit knowledge. It is happening though, as I noticed the difference in the soundboard flexibility for this guitar, the crystalline character of the Cypress, which David Dyke had marked ‘OLD’, and carving the neck with a knife was easier and quicker this time.

Looking back over my workshop notebook, I wrote that, “I still refer to Roy’s book but more for process-related guidance, rather than what I should do. When not what.” I blame my tools a lot, or rather my use of my tools: the circle cutter blade is “crap”; the tape I use to clamp the binding kept peeling away and I resolved to find a better method, and the method of how I constructed the rosette was probably no more effective than how I had done it previously. When things go well, I note that it’s usually because “I took my time”; it’s not that I need to slow down, but that I am learning how best to use my time.

The next guitar will be of the same design but using Cedar of Lebanon back and sides, Western Red Cedar soundboard, Bog Oak fretboard, Lime neck and Walnut bridge. It’ll be interesting to see how it sounds using mostly local wood.

Notes on Guitar #4

I finished making my fourth guitar just a couple of days before Christmas. It is, in many respects, very much like the previous two. It’s based on the same Barbero plan, has Cypress back and sides, and this time a European spruce top and walnut for the bridge, head veneer and bindings. It’s 650mm scale rather than 660mm. I built it for a friend, Andy, who heard guitar #3 and wanted one like it. The only instructions I received from Andy were to use mechanical pegs (I opted for Wittner pegs) and that he liked the square head shape of my previous two guitars.

Overall, I am pleased with the outcome as it is very consistent with guitar #3. The air resonance of #4 is 90.3Hz (F#-42 cents) compared to 90.2Hz (F#-44 cents) of #3, and the weight is 1247g compared to 1189g of #3. The mechanical tuners weigh an additional 34g over the ebony turners used on #3, so taking that into account, the overall total weight difference is just 24g.

I used hide glue for the first time which was difficult at first but became easier as I got used to it. It gels very quickly and needs to stay quite runny (i.e. warm) to achieve coverage over large areas. I didn’t feel confident enough using it to joint the top and back, nor to glue the bridge with it after having french polished the guitar, but I’ll definitely continue to use it for certain tasks such as making the rosette and gluing the linings, purfling and binding, when the quick grab time is useful.

My workmanship is slowly improving. Throughout the build process, I’m often reminded of David Pye’s concept of the workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty, whereby the use of jigs and machine tools can increase the the certainty of the outcome, compared to workmanship that relies more on hand tools, individual judgement and the maker’s skill and is therefore more risky. I work in a very free manner but a few more jigs and templates would be helpful and improve the accuracy of my work. When I interviewed luthiers in their workshops during the course of my research, it was very common to see a variety of jigs and a small number of machine tools. Machine tools are mainly used to reduce the labour required, whereas jigs improve the accuracy and consistency of the work. One of the reasons apprenticeships in lutherie are so rare is that machines have replaced the labour that apprentices used to be employed for. The labour time that I put into an instrument is of little consequence because I’m not trying to make money and I enjoy the physical and leisurely pace of work, but I do want to make some more jigs before I make the next guitar (which will also be a flamenco guitar for another Andy).

There was a point while making this guitar that I felt like I was achieving more autonomy in my work. I wasn’t constantly referring to the DIY books or previous notes quite so much and I am beginning to intuit what comes next in the process; not entirely – not like the luthiers I spoke to who have all the measurements in their head – but I’m experiencing a growing sense of taking the lead, rather than being led. As someone who only makes a couple of instruments a year, I think it will be a while before I fully embody the process of making.

Notes on guitar #3

My third guitar is a 660mm scale flamenco blanca and like the last one, it’s based on Courtnall’s Barbero flamenco plan, with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Like the previous two, it took me about six months to complete during evenings, weekends and holidays. I was asked to make it for Rob Johns, my guitar teacher, who liked the previous instrument that I had made for myself. As it happened, I loaned him #2 for much of the time I was working on #3, so it was nice to deliver his guitar and have my own back.

The back and sides are cypress, the top is engelmann spruce, the neck is Spanish cedar with a rocklite fingerboard, and the bridge is Madagascan rosewood. It differs slightly from #2 in that the back braces and end block are spruce, rather than Spanish cedar and the previous fingerboard was rosewood. I tried to advance my decorative skills a little more with #3 by making and inlaying a red/green/white purfling and back inlay that carries onto the heel. The rosette is a copy of a Barbero rosette. Overall, the workmanship is an improvement on the last guitar although not at the level I am satisfied with.

The sound of the instrument will change as it is played in, but first impressions are very satisfying. My hope is to make flamenco guitars that have similar characteristics to the sound of this wonderful Siguirilla, played by Paco del Gastor. Turn up your speakers and listen to the first minute (or more!)1

My guitar has a very punchy ‘cut’, decent bass and clear trebles, and just a little sustain – more sustain than the previous guitar. Notably, the instrument is very loud. I’ll try to get a recording of it after it’s had a few weeks of being played.

Weight

The overall weight of the instrument is 1189g compared to 1119g for #2. I deliberately chose a pale, lightweight piece of cedar (with graphite rod and beech peg bushings) for the neck (448kg/m3) and adjusted the thickness of the back, sides and top according to the % difference in density compared to #2, but it still ended up being 70g heavier. The rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3) is around the same density of some rosewoods. The back and sides (626kg/m3) are 1.8mm and 1.6mm respectively, and the top (424kg/m3) is 2.2mm around the lower bout gradually moving to 2.5mm in the upper bout and 3mm around the soundhole. The very low profile rosewood bridge (980kg/m3) weighed 16g with the bone on the tieblock attached. The bridge measures 6.1mm in front of the saddle with 1.7mm wings.

My obsession with the weight of the instrument is partly because of the success of the previous guitar in terms of how it sounds and the weight of that instrument was influenced by an observation in Gore & Gilet’s books on the characteristics of classic sounding flamenco guitars, which they observed were around 1100g. My obsession with weight is also because without the cumulative intuitive knowledge, based on the experience of making dozens of instruments, I’m relying heavily on the basic material properties of the wood that I can easily record and adjust. For my next guitar, I intend to measure the stiffness of the wood as well as the density.

Tap tone

The body resonance of the previous guitar is 92.189Hz (F#2 -6 cents) and a top resonance of 191.78 (G3 – 38 cents). The new guitar has a resonance of 90.17Hz (F#2 -44 cents) and the top is 191.78Hz (G3 -38 cents). Almost identical. The body resonance on #3 guitar is in the middle of two fretted notes (F and F#) which is the ideal place for it to be so as to avoid ‘wolf’ notes.

Action and saddle height

In addition to the weight, another technical consideration was to improve on the action for this guitar because I ended up re-fretting guitar #2 to eventually achieve what I wanted. First, I looked for what data I could find and compiled a spreadsheet of 55 flamenco guitars, recording the saddle height and action at the 12th fret. The data came from the Solera Flamenca website. Here’s a summary of the data:

  • Mean action and saddle height: 2.66mm and 7.78mm 
  • Median action and saddle height: 2.6mm and 7.8mm 
  • Mode action and saddle height: 3mm and 7.6mm 

I realise that the data on each guitar is not necessarily how it left the workshop, but reflects the set up by the seller. I’m also assuming the data is accurate because people are spending large sums of money to buy instruments online and unseen, so when they receive them, the set up needs to be as described.  I believe the action on that website is recorded with the bass E string.

Data on the weight of those guitars is not often recorded but looking at the weight of 16 cypress guitars from famous makers, the numbers suggest that Gore and Gilet’s sample of six guitars of around 1100g were slightly lighter than average: 

  • Mean = 1200g 
  • Median = 1210g 
  • Mode = 1290g 

The scale length across the 55 instruments is consistent: 

  • Mean = 655mm 
  • Median = 655mm 
  • Mode = 655mm 

The nut width is pretty consistent, too: 

  • Mean = 52.9mm 
  • Median = 53mm 
  • Mode = 52mm 

I was interested to see whether there was anything characteristic about the set up of older instruments.  

  • For the seven pre-WWII guitars, the average action is 2.5 and saddle height is 7.6mm.  
  • For 28 guitars up to 1969, the average action is 2.6 and saddle height is 7.8mm.  
  • For 13 guitars made after 1980, the average action is 2.8 and saddle height is 8.1mm. 

Again, the action and saddle height may have been adjusted and it’s quite possible that the nut and saddle have been replaced on some of the older instruments, but there does seem to be a trend towards a slightly higher saddle and action.

In the journal, American Lutherie, Richard Brune discusses flamenco setup and writes:

“Originally, all Andalusian Torres models had a low action, about 1/8″ or considerably less between the 12th fret and the string. In the 20th century beginning around the 1930s and continuing after WWII, due to the influence of Segovia and other classical players who were playing larger halls, the standard ‘classical’ action began to increase, culminating in the impossibly high actions seen on Ramirez instruments from the 1960s to the present. However, action is always a matter of individual preference. Many modern flamenco players use a very high action, as did Ramon Montoya for precisely the same reasons, to avoid buzzing. More important is the consideration of neck angle and setup with negative, neutral, or positive relief (back bow, straight, or up bow) which greatly affect the ‘percussive’ quality of the traditional flamenco guitar. Corollary to this is the height of the strings above the soundboard at the bridge, which again was always very low for all Spanish instruments until the advent of nylon strings in the 1950s. This relates to torque on the top, which directly relates to how thin the top can be made, and how lightly it can be braced. Again, traditionally the Spanish guitars were all very lightly constructed, but since the 1930s, beginning with Hauser, classical guitars have gotten thicker and more substantial, with higher actions, taller bridges, and heavier bracing.”

Brune, R. (2000) American Lutherie #61.

So, with all of this in mind, I wanted to more accurately design the action and saddle height into the build of guitar #3, aiming for a saddle height of 7mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.5mm, which I know Rob would appreciate. Just as importantly, I wanted the string height at the 1st fret to be as low as possible, too, without the open strings buzzing. This involved setting a neck angle of 1.5mm into the solera, tapering the underside of the fingerboard slightly between the 12-19th frets to fit the angle, and gluing the slotted fingerboard onto the neck. I then made and temporarily fitted the finished bridge, nut and saddle and planed the top of the fingerboard until a straight edge was 3.5mm above the surface, which would result in action of 2.5mm above 1mm fretwire. I also had to take into account the 2mm dome of the soundboard (which collapses to under 1mm without string tension using my chosen bracing pattern) and anticipate the amount the strings would pull the soundboard upwards. This put me in the region of where I wanted to be so I had enough room to make adjustments to the saddle and nut when the instrument was finally strung up. The finished instrument has a saddle of 7mm and action of 2.5mm, as I had planned.

Golpeador

Although a seemingly trivial thing, the golpeador or tap plate is something that I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out a method for fitting. There are basically three methods: using self-adhesive plastic sheets from luthier suppliers; using blank plastic sheet (0.15mm) from craft suppliers, cutting it to size and shape and gluing with white PVA glue; or using epoxy rather than PVA. I’ve tried the PVA and epoxy methods before on mine and other people’s guitars and prefer the epoxy method that Aaron Green outlined. The PVA never dried thoroughly for me, whereas the West System epoxy bonds slow enough to get all the air bubbles out and position the plastic perfectly, and then dries hard to produce a nice glassy tap. I like this approach, also, because it feels like the fitting of the golpeador is part of the build process – something I make – rather than an accessory that I fit. Incidentally, gluing the golpeador didn’t change the overall air resonance of the guitar, whereas gluing on the bridge lowered it by about 70 cents.

The next guitar

My next guitar will be another flamenco blanca but this time using non-tropical and local wood. Flamenco guitars are traditionally made from cypress because, as Richard Brune argues, it is the only suitable tonewood native to Spain and was therefore cheaper to produce instruments from. In the mid-to-late 19th century, when the Spanish guitar design was established by Antonio de Torres, most players were Gypsy flamenco players who required cheap, loud, percussive guitars to play in the cafes. The flamenco guitar is therefore basically a folk instrument and I want to see what I can produce that is faithful to my own context. I also want to see what a Western red cedar top will sound like using the same Barbero design. The back and sides will be aromatic Cedar of Lebanon, which is light and strong and looks similar to cypress (the set I have is 503kg/m3 and comes from a tree cut in the UK). The neck will be lime from the UK (545kg/m3), the fretboard will be English bog oak (922kg/m3), and the bridge (630kg/m3), bindings and head veneer will be English walnut. The WRC top I have is 347kg/m3. I’ll report back in 6 months!

Rob Johns playing guitar #3. “It sounds fucking great, Joss”.

My Flamenco guitar

I recently finished making my second guitar, a ‘flamenco blanca’, or a traditional, lightweight, nylon-stringed guitar made from Cypress, Spruce and Cedar. It largely follows Courtnall’s 1950 Barbero plan, but with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Studying the three plans offered a great deal of information about what makes a traditional flamenco guitar sound the way it does and the different design choices available to the maker.

I also studied Gore and Gilet’s books for any references to flamenco guitar design and found their analysis of six vintage flamenco guitars to be extremely useful. It gave me a couple of key design goals: to build an instrument that weighs around 1100g and with air and top resonances within the ranges they identify.

Finally, I wanted the sound of the instrument to be very dry and percussive with a loud, short, ‘cut’ when appropriately played. I also like to hear the strings buzz under the control of the player. This video of luthier, Richard Brune, playing a 1970 Manuel Reyes guitar has been a constant source of inspiration:

I built this guitar for myself, wanting to learn to play flamenco but not having an instrument designed for that style of playing or sound. The first guitar I made, a contemporary classical design, is completely unsuited to flamenco. As Gore and Gilet write in their book:

“The flamenco ‘cut’ is provided by the high mobility of the top, which contributes to high excursions of the soundboard and the necessarily low sustain relies on air damping and energy diffusing into the low mass sides and back via an impedance matched top and sides junction; exactly the opposite of our objective for all other types of guitar.” (p.1-91) 

Based on their analysis of six vintage instruments, Gore and Gilet suggest that a good traditional sounding flamenco guitar will have an air resonance below 100Hz and a top resonance of around 180Hz (between F and F#) or around 190Hz (between F# and G). They suggest a bridge of no more than 15g, back and sides that are no thicker than 2mm and an overall weight of around 1100g. 

Throughout my time making this guitar, I kept an eye on the weight and density of every piece of wood, as well as the overall weight as it came together. The soundboard is made from Engelmann Spruce, thinned to 2.5mm in the lower bout area. The bridge is Madagascan Rosewood, weighing 15g, the Cypress back and sides are 2mm and 1.5mm respectively. The beautifully figured fretboard, head veneer, binding and pegs are all rosewood. The finished instrument with strings and golpeador weighs 1119g, has an air resonance of 88.15Hz (F2 +16.62 cents) and a top resonance of 189.76 (F#3 +44 cents). 1 Here’s a graph of the tap tone data:

And here’s the finished instrument.

I’m pleased with the outcome and the instrument sounds as I had hoped it would. Of course, the workmanship could be improved and I made a number of small mistakes along the way that needed rectifying, especially early on. The main thing I wish I had rectified in the build process is the saddle height. I had drawn out the guitar beforehand to determine the string height and neck angle and opted for a flat (no angle) neck, a scale length of 660mm and no fretboard tapering. I calculated that I could get a saddle height of 9mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.25mm.2 However, the finished setup is a saddle height of 10mm and an action of 2.25mm.3

The whole experience made me realise that although it was my second guitar, it was in fact the first guitar I was making on my own without direction and supervision from a teacher. In craft work like this, the experience of having to think for myself, face my own errors of judgement or execution and learn how to correct or live with my mistakes, was part of the process of learning, as well as a useful source of humility. Even with all of the detailed plans and scientific information at hand, I still had to rely on my own intuition and relatively inexperienced feel for the wood and tools. Fortunately, I’ve been asked to make the same guitar for someone else and so have the chance to improve on the same design.


New directions in my research: How do luthiers learn their craft and teach their tradition?

Over the past six months, I’ve been making a classical guitar. It’s been a really wonderful experience and perhaps the most satisfying educational experience of all, to have learned a complete process of making that results in an instrument that I can use and enjoy. I’ve learned how to make a concert-level instrument, one-to-one with an experienced luthier, teacher and author of the established reference book on the subject, Making Master Guitars.

A desire to ‘work with my hands’ has been a recurring impulse over the last decade or more but circumstances hadn’t been right until recently. For the last two years, I have been receiving tuition from Rob Johns to learn how to play the classical guitar and earlier last year I began to notice a series of new instruments pass through my teacher’s studio. They were experiments in a new structural (internal) design of concert guitar that he and luthier, Roy Courtnall, were co-designing and I was privileged to be able to play them each week and discuss their musical attributes and craftsmanship with Rob during my lesson. Then, one day in the Spring, it occurred to me that I had to make a guitar for myself – there was no question about it – I lived just minutes away from a highly regarded luthier/author/teacher whose guitars I’d been playing for several months. From that point on I started to make the arrangements and borrowed £5000 to pay for it all: tuition, tools, wood and a thorough clear-out and refurbishment of my garden shed workshop. From July, I visited Roy’s home and spent, on average, a day each weekend working in his workshop on my guitar. 26 days (over six months) later, it’s now finished and I’m planning my next one – this time on my own. I documented the process thoroughly the first time around, and with that experience and his book, I feel a mixture of excitement, apprehensiveness and sufficient confidence.

My first guitar.

Apart from learning to make a guitar, I also learned from Roy something about the tradition of classical guitar-making in the UK; enough to make me want to find out more when I wasn’t in the workshop. Again, I found myself in a rather unique position, being taught one-to-one by a luthier who was the author of a standard reference book on the subject and who established the UK’s premier guitar-making course at Newark College, just a half-hour drive from where I live. Roy was an autodidact who had carefully researched and beautifully written a book for other autodidacts; he had established a formal, accredited programme of lutherie within an institutional setting, and was now teaching one-to-one in the style of a traditional apprenticeship.  When I started to look around, I found that one or more of these three approaches were typical for all classical guitar-makers. Here’s a list of UK luthiers I have been compiling and a corresponding map I am plotting.

This preliminary research has identified what we might think of as three categories of ‘vocational training’: Self-taught (at home), one-to-one (in a professional workshop) and as a group (in an institutional setting), or rather:

  1. autodidacticism (where individuals learn alone by trial and error with the use of published books and instrument plans);
  2. an apprenticeship model (where a student works one-to-one with an experienced luthier for an extended period of time); and
  3. college programmes, where cohorts of students learn as a group on accredited and non-accredited courses.

This is interesting enough in itself, but then I was listening to the radio while in my refurbished workshop and there was a programme that discussed some recent research about ‘endangered crafts’. I wondered where lutherie stood on the list and found that it was deemed ‘currently viable’. That was a relief, but a number of issues relating to education and training have been identified as threatening the tradition. These include the difficulties of continuing training after completing a college course; college education only prepares individuals for further on-the-job training and self-directed learning. Securing such a position after college is difficult because it’s often not economical for experienced luthiers to take on apprentices/trainees; luthiers struggle to make a living and cannot afford to be spending time teaching someone as well as providing them with an income. Consequently, the traditional apprenticeship model is now very rare. Also, college courses are at risk because the numbers of students required to make them financially viable means that they are closing or accept too many students which, according to Radcliffe, has a detrimental effect on the quality of training.

Reading more broadly, I learned that according to research by the Craft Council, since 2008 there has been a significant decline in the number of young people studying crafts at school and in further education; there are persistently low numbers of formal apprenticeships; there has been a rapid decline in the number of craft-based HE courses; and there has been an increase in BAME students and non-UK domiciled students studying craft in HE.

So, I am embarking on a relatively new area of research for me. Of course, there are some, mainly conceptual, continuities with the work I have been doing on ‘Student as Producer’ and the pedagogic relationship; craft approaches to technology in higher education; non-alienating forms of work and ownership of the means of production. My work on co-operative higher education will continue, but as part of the Co-operative University Forum and Co-operative Higher Education Network.

In terms of my new focus, there is a range of related literature but no academic study of the teaching and learning (i.e. development and transmission of the tradition) of lutherie in the UK has been undertaken. I am interested in the history, but also very much on the different contemporary modes of lutherie education, the variety of pedagogical models, syllabi and institutional and non-institutional environments where the teaching and learning takes place.

A variety of classical guitar making books for the autodidact.

The questions that I have in mind are:

  • How has the experience, knowledge and skills (i.e. craft) of classical guitar-making in the UK been transmitted since the early 20th century? Can a ‘genealogy’ of luthiers be established?
  • What has been the role of colleges/institutions in the education and training of aspiring luthiers? What are the current risks and challenges that such institutions face?
  • What is the contemporary experience of lutherie students on formal programmes of study? Who are they? How are they taught? What are their motivations and aspirations? What challenges do they face after graduation?
  • What role has autodidacticism (i.e. self-taught luthiers) played in the development and maintenance of the tradition of classical guitar-making? What can we learn about the experiences of autodidacts and the literature (e.g. books, magazines, internet forums) that they draw upon to teach themselves.

A. P. Sharpe (1957) The earliest English-language book for making classical/Spanish guitars.

Clearly it will require a study of historical data and literature (archives, books and trade magazines) to understand the 20th century history of UK classical guitar making, how the knowledge and skills of the craft has been transmitted, the role of institutions, and who the significant teachers have been up to the present day and the reasons for their significance.

The historical research will inform biographical research of luthiers who are still working or living, with an emphasis on how and from whom they learned, who they may have taught, and further issues relating to the teaching, learning and transmission of the craft.

A third part of the research will be a case study of the guitar-making course at Newark College.  The aim here is to understand the nature of teaching and learning in this setting, the design and content of syllabi, and the issues and challenges of lutherie education in an institutional setting.

Well, that’s the initial plan. While you’re here, why not watch a fascinating film of José Romanillos, one of the most important luthiers of the 20th century, making a guitar in Wiltshire in 1980. He taught himself with a 32 page book by A. P. Sharpe, published in 1957, which is very modest by comparison with more recent texts, to say the least.

Update: I am maintaining a bibliography here.

Making a classical guitar

There is an update to this post here.

I am new to guitar making (I play a bit) and am being taught one-to-one by Roy Courtnall, author of Making Master Guitars. I expect it to take 20-30 days in total and have so far spent just four days with Roy. My time permits only one or two days a week working with Roy so it won’t be finished until early next year. It will be walnut back and sides, cedar neck and a lattice spruce top.

Needless to say, it’s a fantastic experience and education and I am documenting it as a reminder of my learning; what to remember, look out for, and to do when I come to build a guitar on my own. I intend to publish a separate blog of all the photos (there will be hundreds!) with descriptions and cross-references to his book when the guitar is complete. Click on the image below to see some highlights or follow this forum thread where I post updates at the end of each day.

Find out what happened next…

Day 1: Gluing the neck to the head

Learning to listen

For the past six months, I have been learning to play the (classical) guitar. I played electric guitar for a couple of years when I was a teenager and have tried to return to playing a few times since then. This time, I have the benefit of a superb teacher who has reminded me (now from the point of view of being a student), how inspiring and encouraging a teacher can be who still finds enjoyment in what they teach and wants to pass that excitement and curiosity onto others. I am approaching it as an education in music, with the guitar being the instrument through which I hopefully come to understand and appreciate music more fully. It seems to be working.

I am not studying towards particular music grades, but it is interesting to see what pieces of music are aligned with each grade. The piece below is one of the select few to be included in the syllabus/repertoire for Trinity’s Performance Diploma. It is for the Fellowship level (FTCL), “equivalent in standard to a postgraduate course at a conservatoire or university.” I really like a number of pieces on the FTCL list, but Sonata for Guitar, Op. 47 (1976) by Alberto Ginastera, stands out as a current favourite. The video below is interesting because it shows the complexity of the score as the music is being played. I may never be able to play something as difficult as this, but that’s not really the point. I’m learning to listen as well as play and compose, and that has already opened up a new world to me.