When a Gift is Not Just a Gift.
Drew is one lucky guy! He has a family linage filled with playing music in bluegrass and gospel bands which instilled a love of guitar in him. Drew is also lucky to have Shopsmith’s Master Craftsman, Jim McCann as his grandfather. While Jim doesn’t play any musical instruments he does love to listen to music, especially when Drew is playing it. Drew’s passion for guitar struck a chord with Jim as he planned the perfect gift for Drew’s high school graduation. Jim says that there was never any question that he would build a guitar for Drew. The end of the story is that he accomplished his goal in a beautiful way, but let’s circle back to the beginning.
Creating a Wooden Guitar.
The challenge was not only the process of crafting something with absolutely no straight edges but also making it sound superb. Drew owns three other guitars, so Jim had a visual image of the high quality guitars Drew was used to playing. He decided on a reproduction of a 1940’s Martin style guitar, which he is slightly smaller than a standard guitar and would fit Drew’s tall, slim frame. To prepare for this creation, he called a few woodworking friends for some brainstorming and, as he does with every project, Jim began to research everything he could find on guitars. He turned to “Fine Woodworking Magazine”, which led him to a book appropriately called “Guitar Making.” He then went on to read “Making Clapton’s Guitar.” Jim ordered plans from the Stewart MacDonald company and then he readied numerous tools, including his Shopsmith MARK 7 which would become one of several close companions for the 4 months (300 hours!) it took to bring Drew’s gift to life.
A passion for woodworking began for Jim when he was about eight years old. In his dad’s workshop, Jim cut a point on a 2×4 and called it a boat! “I’ve been making sawdust for decades, but the learning curve on this project was high. There isn’t a straight surface on this guitar!” says Jim, who notes that it’s “basically a bandsaw project” because of the curves. “Nothing that I’ve made before has required that kind of precision.” Remember, the goal was to create a beautiful keepsake for Drew and for future generations, AND the sound quality needed to be exquisite. “There is not a straight surface on this guitar!”
A Little Help from His Friends.
Drew’s guitar had to be accurate to the thousandths of an inch. “Just 1/64” is a big gap,” says it’s creator. Jim knew that the assembly and then the finishing would be challenging, so he listed every single item required for each of the different varieties of wood. And then he planned for extra in case of error. He keeps some scraps from each of his projects, wrapped and labeled in his workshop. “You have to treat every piece and part like its own project.” Drew’s guitar contains about 200 “projects” that had to be built with accuracy.
Another partner in the process was the set of 36 violin clamps (18 per side) Jim crafted to hold the guitar while the glue dried. This was especially important when bending the edge banding into place. The options there are to bend it perfectly or break it.
Not all of Jim’s helpers in the process were human!
“I couldn’t have done this without my friends,” says Jim. His good friend Nick supplied him with the 100-year-old spruce used for the front of the guitar. The wood’s tight grain structure is the secret to the impeccable tone that the strings create when attached to it.
“The front piece of wood is the key to the perfect tone.”
With a plan in place, Jim turned to his tools. “You can do anything on the Shopsmith MARK 7, you’re only limited by your imagination.” But it’s most efficiently used when a woodworker is well organized. It has great capacity and is actually 7 of the most needed tools in woodworking all in 1 machine. It changes from a table saw to a drill press and beyond. With some careful planning, the table saw work can be done all at once before converting it to a drill press, etc. The Shopsmith bandsaw was the tool of choice to re-saw the front piece which started as a 1” thick, 30” long and 8” wide. The rough remaining surface was smoothed with the Shopsmith thickness planer and sander, and then with additional sanders at another friend’s shop. Jim frequently used the MARK 7 Disc Sander. He shaped the scalloped ribs with a chisel and a scooping technique he had to learn and perfect for the project. He made the ribs long and cut them to size. The router on the MARK 7 allowed him to cut exact-sized slots. To complete the tedious work of bending the sides, a technique of applying indirect heat with a hot pipe and stainless steel was used to coaxed the wood’s ligden to eventually soften to a point that Jim could form the desired curves. Fortunately, this portion of the project happened on a cold March day when Jim could keep the door to his workshop open to counteract the extreme heat from the pipe! Of course, there was no stopping when the laborious process of heating and bending wood began.
The MARK 7 Router allowed slots to be created in the head, and a 2016-07-26_10-31-30drill press fashioned the holes for the tuning keys. The head is actually the most expensive part of the project. The band saw was again used to make compound cuts in the neck, which is all one piece of wood. With the use of another friend Wes’ laser engraver, Jim’s name completed the gift!
Bringing it All Together
A self-proclaimed perfectionist who loves a challenge, Jim’s previous creations include his “goal project” – a grandfather clock which “took me to a new level” as well as a hope chest, jewelry armoires, a music stand and a “magic box.” With two musicians and an artist in the family, an appreciation of fine craftsmanship and detailed intricacies is not taken for granted. “I didn’t know how it would sound until I put the strings on.”
Timing is everything, and when Jim broke the G-string late on a Sunday, he sought help from the Guitar Center at the Dayton Mall. The expert repair man who greeted Jim when he walked into the store repaired the string that was applied too tightly and eventually asked if he could give it a little demo. He said the sound was fantastic. During final set up, Jim had to take the strings off three more times, but he’d remained calm at the store and observed the technique used by the expert and was able to replicate the application.
When one considers just what it means to pour THREE HUNDRED hours into a project, there’s no doubt that the “big reveal” would be an emotional experience. On the day of his graduation party, Drew was seated with his back to Jim when his grandfather placed the guitar, in a beautiful guitar case purchased by Jim’s sister Linda, into the young man’s lap. Speechless for only a few minutes, Drew immediately began to pick Kansas’ “Carry on my Wayward Son.” And then he played, nonstop, for 30 minutes! Drew’s other Grandpa Ray, a lifelong bluegrass musician, says that Drew’s graduation gift is the finest guitar he has played, a supreme compliment in Jim’s eyes. Drew has been invited to join his friends’ band, not because his guitar looks good but because it sounds so great!
Jim’s sister, Linda, created the label inside Drew’s guitar
Reflecting on this labor of love, Drew’s song choice is interesting. . . a song about exploration and seeking a higher level of understanding. Another hit by Kansas is “Dust in the Wind” which could have been Jim’s theme during the process, but this Guitar Man would tell you that he gets by “with a little help from my friends.”
Jim’s Tips for New Woodworkers
- Make something with a purpose!
- Dream BIG but start small & build your skills
- Be persistent.
- Learn techniques to make 2, 4, or 6 pieces the same size. Exactly the same size!
- Have a long-term goal.
- Plan for mistakes.
- Figure out how to prevent future mistakes.
- Remember that ANYTHING is possible.
- Dream It! Build It! Share It!