Friday, November 14, 2008

Cutting Edge

Everything starts somewhere, and in the guitar program, that somewhere is four-week tools and materials classes. Materials is, as you might expect, a course on many types of lutherie wood, from acacia to willow, as well as some discussion of adhesives and abrasives. However, the bulk of time during that first month is devoted to tools, which is itself divided into two concurrent portions.

Power tools provides an education in the basic safety and usage of several common wood-shop machines: planers, jointers, routers, sanders, saws and drill presses. The program's tool shop is equipped for nearly any step in the process of creating a guitar, from the jointer and the planer for preparing rough lumber, to band saws for cutting curves, to routers and drill presses for creating hardware and control cavities. Of particular note are the table saws; the larger, workhorse saw contains an innovative safety brake that drops the blade under the table if it contacts skin, and a second table saw that's better able to handle thin blades is used exclusively for cutting fret slots.

After we passed the safety tests, students were given a number of tasks to improve our acumen with the machines. We made bench hooks, guitar-neck rests and nut-and-saddle holders for use in later guitar repairs, and we created mock-up scarf joints and truss-rod channels.

The counterpart is hand tools, which centers on preparing all of the valuable tools the students have purchased for the precise work of lutherie. There is discussion of safety and maintenance, and of safe use of the power grinders used to prepare chisels; but most of the class is elbow grease and a few flying sparks.

We set about flattening water stones so they could, in turn, be used to flatten plane blades and chisels, and then we moved on to cutting out and beveling scrapers. We also made sure the planes themselves and even our rulers were appropriate flat and straight, since any problem with them would be multiplied in anything we made with them. Our spare time all the while was put into removing machining marks from our burnishers, and then polishing them and shaping handles from wood. Some of the final steps constituted honing chisels and burnishing scrapers, bringing them to a fine cutting edge.

Those first four, frenzied weeks weren't terribly difficult--classes are designed to bring everybody up to the same speed--but the level of dedication and discipline required meant that some of the steps became frustrating and always challenging. Regardless, the foundation they provided has already proven invaluable to me; I can't imagine trying some of the repair work we've been doing without the well-prepared tools or the attention to detail I took away from tools class.

- Jon