Going to San Diego to make a guitar

January 16, 2011

Sunday morning, well, last Sunday morning…. I woke up as early as I could. Friday night we had a performance at the San Dimas Klatch which was extremely energizing and I was so keyed up, I stayed up very late, Saturday night we stayed up late again having another marvelous night at home with friends. The chirpy little phone wake up call was not the most wanted sound, but I had purpose. I was on my way out on a trip.

A trip!

Not geographically that far, but experience wise I knew it was going to be something else. I was heading down to San Diego to Sam Radding’s shop. Sam builds guitars. By hand. By soul. He has that gift of making things, building them, knowing them before they exist in the physical realm.

Sam had built my travel guitar back in November. I had found him on the web when I was looking for a suitable instrument both for stage and motorcycling.

When I had picked up the Go Guitar Sam had build for me back in December he had asked me if I was interested in learning how guitars were built and that we could build an acoustic lap steel.

This is where I was heading.

I was excited and nervous all at once. I got up, made coffee, eggs and toast, packed up the bike and headed out. This is also the first official trip on Beowulf the BMW.

I got there swiftly. The BMW eats the miles, eats the road. It has great power when needed, like when you want to get away from a cluster of cars, it will hit 90+ MPH in a flash and leave everyone behind without strain.

I arrived around 1 PM. Sam came out to the curb where I was taking gear off. He said: ” I did not believe you were actually going to show up until you did.”

Sam is an intensely interesting person. Dedicated, passionate, funny, sparkly, curious and determined. His career as a guitar builder started when he was in his teens. He had gone with a friend to a local guitar store looking to buy a guitar. They had located the object of their desire and asked the salesman for a deal as they were just a bit short of money. The salesman did not want to discount the instrument they were coveting so Sam said as he was leaving the store : “I guess I’ll have to build one” to which the salesman replied to in a rage : “ YOU DON’T BUILD GUITARS! YOU BUY THEM IN A STORE!!” That was the spark that started a career.

the shop

We started on the instrument on Monday. I walked in the shop a bit nervous. I do sculpture but it’s all hand tools. Chisels, hammer, file, sand paper… and tons of time. Years even.

Sam on the other hand has refined his craft into an efficient system of dedicated machines, tools, jigs, molds so that one step flows into the other as efficiently as possible.

the pattern for the outline of the lap steel guitar

First we had to get the front and backs of the guitar. Sam had already picked to pieces of spruce for the top and oak for the back. I had to use the band saw, table saw and hack saw and I must admit to feel very inadequate with these loud, powerful, potentially finger eating tools. Sam is hovering like a hawk making sure I don’t leave my finger tips on the blades.

cutting the sides

Sam sanding the back pieces

the mold to bend the sides on

bending the wood

the bent sides are then clamped to cool and dry

gluing the back halves together

some tools of the trade

guitar molds

The day went on with me gradually relaxing in the environment, getting a feel for wood, machines and work flow.

At night, it was guitar fest. Sam has a number of instruments at home and I got to play around with a bunch of them, chat, laugh and get to know the delightful Jean (Sam’s partner)

I went to bed my head full of new concepts, experiences and viewpoints. I shared some of that with Leo who was full of wisdom that night.

Leo talking about the meaning of life

friendship, he said, is the most important thing...

Tuesday morning,
well I have to admit, I am NOT a morning person but I am making giant efforts to be operational before 3 PM… Coffee is the first order. Jean and Sam take me for breakfast at a really nice coffee shop called the Living Room. Eclectic furniture, art on the walls home baked goodies, and… a full fledged espresso machine. A waitress walked by with a plate of bacon eggs and home made bread about 1.5 inches thick. I was sold. I got a triple espresso and the egg breakfast. We chatted for a while. The sun shines, I am sitting with these two shining beings in this cool place and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

gluing the back to the sides

We get back to the shop and back to the guitar. Today Sam has to put the finishing touches on a mandolin that is going to be picked up by its new owner and we have to get the sides and body of the guitar together.

I already feel much more at ease. One of my tasks is to make curfing, the partly sliced pieces of wood you see lining the insides of acoustic guitars. One of the many little tools that make the job a breeze is this hand made contraption that moves the wood at precise intervals to be cut on the band saw. I love the ingenuity and simplicity of this thing… and it gets the job done.

the contraption that pulls the wood to the blade


Then the curfing has to be glued to the guitar’s sides. I get to handle glue, which I constantly pour too much of out.

At some point Salomon showed up. Salomon was working in the yard next door cutting, trimming and cleaning up the property. He was wondering what we were doing.

Salomon's visit

We conversed and laughed with the help of three languages, Spanish, English and French. He was absolutely blown away by the sight of a finished guitar. I had gotten one of Sam’s beauties from the house to show him. Then he tried to play it and Sam said to me : play something and I did. Salomon’s expression was one of wonder and joy.

Music. And people’s souls’ rise above the dust and the dirt of life.

A bit later, the new owner of the Mandolin showed up. He was excited. Sam wasn’t quite finished so I went back inside the house again and got some guitars to play around with until the Mandolin was done.

the happy owner of the brand new mandolin and Sam

A beautiful instrument indeed.

I continued with the curfing, then it was time to look at the back of the lap steel and put on the braces. C-clamps. Lots of them. Never saw so many. They have life to them, the metal shows wear and time like someone’s face.

gluing the curfing to the sides

Sam at work

The last task of the day was to put together a rosette. I wanted to have a pretty one, not just a circle. We elected to do one with Zebra wood which would become the theme of this lap steel guitar. First we had to use a router and make a circle around what will be the sound hole. Then line the perfectly routed circle with a thin black and white strip of wood on both sides. Cut the stripes, glue them and put them in place with little blocks of wood.

the binding sets inside the rosette's sides

I almost messed up big time on the outside strip, which gave my heart a stop when I realized that the wood was not spread out evenly leaving a gap. Ahhhh!!! I did my best to fix that but I wasn’t sure if that was going to be OK.

To be a total beginner, inexperienced with either wood or power tools or guitar making and boldly go and build a guitar was at times a bit of an overwhelming task. I tend to want to do things “perfectly” and I can really get bent out of shape if I am below par.

got up earlier still : 7:45. That’s early for me. I felt pretty proud. But Sam and Jean had already been up and about for a while, so I still looked the night owl that I am.

It’s time to put the zebra wood into the rosette now that the binding was nice and dry. I had to sand, cut then finely sand the outside edge of the little crescents of zebra wood so they would fit perfectly in the routed track on the guitar top. My previous day error with the binding was fixed without too much trouble. Sam was fine tuning everything making sure everything was as it should be.

piecing up the rosette

As the rosette dried we sanded the now glued sides of the guitar. With the glue dried up, we sanded the top until completely smooth.

Unbelievable… it is really shaping up. It is really going to be an instrument…

after sanding

We then glued the back and it’s braces to the sides… then we started to work on bracing the top. The braces turn out to look like art to me. I love them. We glued the top on and here it is…

the braces clamped and glued in place

sides, back, glued together

the braces

glued and clamped and drying

the bare body of the lap steel guitar

After eating dinner we go back to the shop to undo the clamps and we now have, at the end of this day, the bare body of a guitar.

I wish I could stay. I have to go back. Meetings tomorrow, life calls. I’ve been disconnected from the Internet and the phone since Sunday. It feels good but I know the world will come a knocking soon. I got changed back from sawdusted clothes to riding clothes : long johns, wool shirt, leathers, heated vest, balaclava… it’s a pretty cold night so I bundle up. I start the bike that has been silent since Sunday and let it warm up nicely. Last hugs and good byes I am on my way.

On the Freeway the lines in the cement remind me of the lines I cut in the wood. The way they stretch and intersect at angles… My head is full of this whole adventure. Playing the guitars, Sam’s inquisitive questions, Jean’s amazing smile and spirit, the smells of wood, the glue on my fingers, the perfection of the system that makes wood become music.

It feels good to ride. Beowulf again eats up those miles like a hungry beast. I ride in the night. Take a deep breath. What an amazing three days. I am so glad I took the chance, rode down and plunged.


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