1900s Gibson Style "O" Archtop
My first archtop build was pretty much taken straight from the Benedetto book but it took so long to do that to be honest I wasn't really in any great hurry to make another, I guess though it was a case of never say never...Good friend Jeff knocked at my door and very kindly handed over a tome of a guitar book that he'd picked up somewhere. Over the following days I kept getting drawn back to the page displaying an ancient Gibson archtop guitar dating from the very early 1900s, I kept thinking of how interesting it would be to recreate one of these, and it wasn't long before the postman delivered a pile of wood, sometimes I can't help acting before thinking things through properly.
So many old guitars were built with very chunky neck profiles, more often than not this was because manufacturers didn't fit truss rods to compensate for the string tension, unfortunately this feature does make these guitars feel somewhat agricultural and not a particular joy to play. So I decided that my version of the guitar would have the luxury of a truss rod and a modern feel to the neck, other than that though I was going to attempt as accurate a copy as I could.
Here's one I made earlier...No! An original Gibson "O"
Oriville Gibson was a mandolin player and an excellent woodworker, he disliked the traditional bowl back mandolins and decided to completely redesign them and came up with the archtop and back versions somewhat like a violin construction, they turned out pretty damn good being louder and more comfortable to play. Around the same time guitarists were suffering from a lack of volume and many of them changed to tenor banjos to keep up with the band, Orville Gibson, using his new mandolin formula produced the first commercially available archtop guitar in 1902, the style "O" guitars continued until circa 1925 the upper bout scroll obviously paying homage to their mandolin heritage.
Well, enough chat I think and on with some build pictures..
This was the best I could come up with for a drawing, looking around the internet I managed to find some information and a few good images, an old auction listing and Gibson catalogue extract gave some overall dimensions, so working with these and a good quality almost head-on photograph I managed to scale the unknown dimensions, it's worth doing a bit of fiddling around eg in one instance I scaled a dimension at 182mm, well lets face it this is more than likely gonna be 6 inches ! Fortunately the scale length was listed so this is a good dimension to use for comparison and calculation. But let's face it without accurate original plans or a genuine guitar I was only approximating.
The first thing you MUST make is an accurate template, I prefer thin ply to MDF or hardboard, take your time and cut it out accurately and finish the edges nicely.
Next make a mold for the body sides, I made this from three 3/4 inch sheets, you only have to cut out and finish one accurately and then you can whizz around with a bearing guided router. When I started making guitars I did everything I could to try and avoid making templates but I've learnt over the years that it's such a benefit to do them.
This is the picture I found on the net of the anatomy of one of these guitars, you can see the solid block for the scroll and neck and also the simple bracing.
These are the neck blocks, the one on the right is full thickness but didn't cut completely square, it was only a fraction out but I decided to cut two half thickness ones and glue them together and at least start off with something that was square.
Right oh...A bit of experimentation to get the sides bent around this scroll, I knew that this was going to be a pain so I made the sheet metal jig on the left, and guess what it was a COMPLETE waste of time!! I ended up using the 22mm copper.
Having fun experimenting with this tricky bend, it wasn't fun at all! but at least I could see that it could be done.
Warts an' all, the sides bent and in the mold, apart from the scroll it's the same process as my previous archtop
The top wood, really close grained quarter sawn spruce, one half of the book matched wedges.
Jointed, glued and cutting the top.
This is where you need ALL your patience and there isn't a quick way of doing it, on and off it took me a couple of months to carve the top and back plate. I don't want to repeat the process here, take a look at my previous archtop build. You have to take A LOT of care. I also read up on tap tuning, watched youtube videos etc and you can glean a lot of information to help you carve a nice sounding set of plates I should add that there's a load of crap talked about it as well....BUT when you are carving the plates and you're getting to thickness you can definitely feel the plates vibrating more freely as you pass the plane over them, it is actually quite exciting. The Benedetto book gives some excellent information regarding rough thickness to start with and I wouldn't attempt to make one of these guitars without this book as a reference.
I'm skipping through this quite quickly, the braces are spruce and again with the grain in the quarter sawn direction. again size is as advised in the Benedetto book.
Believe me there's heap of work been done between there pictures, I honestly can't say how much time I spent on planting, scraping and sanding these plates, but I did end up being very happy with them.
...And the binding around the sound hole.
I was in a bit of a quandary about this, looking at the inlay on the original it really looks to be done by hand and not in a good way! so I decided to do something a little more accurate but in a similar design, so I used a commercial round hole rosette and cut it into sections and separated each piece with a thin maple veneer, I wanted to keep a hand made look but a little neater than the original.
I really didn't want to go to all the fuss of making clamping cauls to attach the sides, back and top and I don't really know how successful they'd have been around the scroll and lower pointy bout. I don't know but I must have had my "cleaver hat" on that day, what I decided to do was to clamp the sides in the mould and then make these little plywood clampy things around the edge and they worked an absolute treat! far better than using a clamping cauls or those spool clamps as the sides are held square and firm as well.
Here's the sides clamped in place.
Doesn't look much but here's a guitar shaped box!...The grain on the maple back isn't exactly triple A grade but I'm afraid budget dictated that but as the build progressed the plain look really grew on me.
I guess it's time to start working on the neck, mahogany and pretty standard stuff.
Roughly shaped neck with the truss rod rebate cut and also the fretboard slotted, although it looks like ebony the fb is actually rather more reddish than the picture suggests and is a Madagascan wood that's pretty close to Brazilian rosewood.
The dovetail, cut with a simple plywood jig as per my last archtop.
Doing the binding, this picture gives a better view of the fb colour.
Looking a little like a guitar now! It's such a fiddly carve around the neck that I really wanted the neck glued in place to finish everything off. pressing the frets in again was pretty standard stuff as in most of my previous builds.
Cutting the binding rebate on my router table with this crude jig..I REALLY want one of those overhead router binding jigs.
AT LAST now it IS looking like a guitar...Lots of sanding still to do though and plenty of work on the re curve area. Getting close to gluing the neck in place, obviously a key point in the build, EVERYTHING regarding gluing the neck in place has to be spot on, you have to line it up in plan and side view such that the centre line of the neck matches the centre join of the top and the neck angle has to give you about one and a quarter inches string height at the bridge, it's quite a fiddle but has to be right.
Here's the neck fit from the back, like I said earlier I really wanted the neck in place before finishing off carving these awkward shapes on the top and back.
The headstock, notice the modern bi flex truss rod, totally out of keeping with this age of guitar but I would be very hard pushed to use any other type of rod in a guitar neck, the only time I wouldn't is if originality was paramount. Bi flex truss rods are far superior not only because they can adjust the neck in both directions but they put far less stress into the neck and are a doddle to fit and could probably be removed without removing the fretboard.
The headstock finished, ugh to be honest I have never much enjoyed inlay work, I did try with this but it was a disaster so this is a cheat in some respects, I actually printed these on white decal paper with a pearl type colour for the text, it wa still quite a fiddle to make it look nice but I'm really pleased with the result.
The tailpiece in the main is a cheepo ebay purchase with the string anchor discarded and I made the tortoise shell front, it's a sandwich of black plastic on the back and the tortoise shell on top, the metal hoop sits in a hook shaped groove in the plastic so it should be ok to withstand the string tension.
Quite a distance further down the road so to speak, probably about a week of sanding actually. I decided to string it up and see what it sounded like before moving on to finishing, I kinda thought if it was crap I could continue carving but it actually sounded ok.
Since this was my own build and not for a customer I didn't want to spend an age on it, I know this sounds like shoddy work but there were a couple of reasons, in the main I wanted it to look like an old guitar anyway but I have got quite a lot of other work to get on with!
The finish is cellulose, I applied stain directly to the wood and sanded it until it looked a bit worn and then sprayed with tinted lacquer.
The bridge is carved from ebony, the general opinion is that on a purely acoustic guitar one piece bridges are best, I guess they're exclusively used on the violin family of instruments so that's probably a good argument, although I may well experiment with different designs, some people say that bridges with a large footprint work better and others say that thinner lightweight bridges work better, it doesn't take too long to make them so it will be interesting to hear the difference.
Stating the obvious this is a very old design guitar, archtop guitars at best have a niche following and are pretty much solely used by jazz guitarists, they have been developed over the years and all generally now have the neck suspended over the body, "F" holes and more refined bracing all of which contributed to an improved sound. With this in mind I wasn't expecting this, let's say archaic design, to produce a great quality sound, that wasn't really the point of the build.
Well, I'm going to leave it here for now as I think it will be a good idea to let the guitar settle-in under string tension and have some playing time before any final adjustments. So far though I'm pretty pleased especially with the colour and overall look of the guitar, the sound is definitely on what I'd call the nostalgic side, I wish I had more experience with archtops so I'd know what is good or bad!