When Kerri and I met, the first things she immediately told me about was her passion for antique and worn furniture, and how she was planning to move to settle down in the French countryside someday later in life. What excited her about the Storyteller Guitar Project was that she could honor the tremendous influence her late friend Sandie (who had passed away from breast cancer) had on her musical career, and that she would be able to work with a guitar that would be passed down to her son Kai and future generations that actually told the story of Kerri’s life and love for music.
These four aspects shaped the way I designed the guitar – for example, I proposed to use reclaimed lumber to create something new yet “vintage”. Kerri loved the idea, and as a result, we went to look for lumber together. The riverbanks of the Seine river are a place that has a lot of meaning to Kerri and her duo & life partner Brent, and we did find some beautiful driftwood that I turned into the headstock veneer of the guitar.
The guitar body
The choice of wood for the body of Kerri’s guitar was not decided on for quite some time – until one night I had a lucid dream of fulfillment and peace – and it was about the school in France I had worked at after High School. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that I had just been given the ideal way to tell a story: One that in fact connects Kerri’s and my own love for France. Two days later I got on the phone with my old boss Ruth to enquire if by chance she had access to any wood from the village that I could use for this project. Turns out she did, and not just any piece of wood. The cathedral of St. Julien-du-Sault has an organ which was restored several times since the 16th century, and it turns out that Ruth’s husband Alain recovered some of the wood of that organ. They were happy to donate some of it for my project.
Planing this back to final thickness was a challenging task – because the oak is so old and incredibly hard. I had to interrupt the planing process numerous times to sharpen my blades, which were dulled very fast by the wood. Tap tones indicate that this back is much more responsive than I anticipated, and sounds much brighter and quick to respond than one would expect from oak.
Since the headstock veneer does not have to fulfill a structural role, I am able to use the wood we found on the riverbanks. It is quite “punky”, which is the woodworker’s term for wood that has a compromised cell structure due to rot or mold.
Incidentally, after playing around with the layout for the headstock, I came up with a grain orientation that in fact resembles a river – quite fitting for the origin of this wood.
This wood had to be infused with CPES (clear penetrating epoxy system) which is used in wood restoration. The pictures above illustrate the change in colour after the wood has been treated, and placed behind a paper template to decide on the final grain layout.
As the headstock inlay is getting finalized, I decided to complete a test rosette that features reconstituted stone for inlay. The lumbers for Kerri’s guitar have various sections of missing wood as I am working with ancient reclaimed materials. Finding an aesthetically pleasing yet unobtrusive method to fill these cavities is important to me, especially since the missing sections tell the story of the material so well. Instead of hiding these imperfections from the onlooker, I decided to use inlay in a manner that emphasizes the unique character of the wood. I filled missing sections of the wood with crushed blue reconstituted stone and a bit of gold leaf (which is barely visible).
The rosette was assembled on a wooden block which also doubled as router guide. After the rosette was completed, it was sawn off the assembly block and glued into the guitar top.
What we perceive as an “aged look” today can actually be the use of ancient techniques. For example, the use of sandpaper (in lutherie) is relatively new – and with its use comes the perfectly flat surface. Modern guitars are required to showcase a mirror finish; which doesn’t only mean the finish has to be glossy to the degree that it reflects a sharp image, but it has to have the same flatness.
Before the use of sand paper, surfaces were finished with a scraper blade. As long as the scraper blade is perfectly sharp and used with the proper technique, it can yield stunning results. However, it can accentuate the soft and hard grain in softer woods. I intentionally switched to the scraper blade for this guitar. You can see in the pictures below how the use of an old technique is our salute to the old-fashioned guitar if the late 19th century parlour guitar. For your reference, the surface on the left is prepared with sandpaper, and the one in the center is scraped.
Building the rim and liners
The oak sides were rather difficult to bend – the degree of aging of this wood was so advanced that it was completely unlike bending any other wood. This in turn makes me hopeful that the instrument will have a voice with nice sustain.
The liners you see in the pictures are an adaptation of veneered sides, and I am using a technique I learnt from my esteemed colleague Jeremy Clark.
Bracing the back
The material for the center strip is a part from the spruce top. The braces are fitted into notches cut into this strip, and they are hand-split from specialty spruce lumber, to ensure a maximum ratio of stiffness to weight. Each brace is shaped to a 6m radius, glued into place and the shaped.
Bracing and voicing the top
Voicing the top is a core skill of a luthier, and defines the tone of the instrument. I use a combination of techniques; starting with static deflection measurements and basic thicknessing, then mapping out transitions, and then bracing the top. Once all braces are glued, an extensive process of voicing begins.
The advanced voicing process at this point is a combination of measuring the FFT response of the top, the composition of tap tones in several regions, and its Chladni modes.