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Get better to be the best.

Someone once told me that guitar making is a craft of making jigs, jigs, and when you think you have them all, you make another. At first, I wasn’t comfortable with this idea. I just wanted to make one guitar. Now that I’ve made a hand full of stringed instruments, and now exploring a world where I make many in a year, I finally understand the jig making business. It’s about repeatability. High quality over and over again.

I thought about buying a CNC machine – for those of you who don’t know it’s a computer numerical controlled router on an XYZ axis, basically a machine that does everything. Although, reflecting on this, if I did this, it would be manufacturing, rather that guitar building. The whole attraction of guitar building is the fact that I can use my hands. Hands on tools, hands on sandpaper, wood, glue, shell, you name it. We are lucky to have hands!! And we should take care to keep our hands too! So the idea behind jig building is to not only create repeatability but to keep our hands safe, keep the guitar safe from mistakes, yet still maintain the high quality hand-crafted allure.

I enjoy the time that it takes to build a single guitar. I now enjoy the time and challenge it takes to make jigs. There is a great deal of creativity and ingenuity that goes into jig fabrication. I remember a visit to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of art back in 2014 and can always visualize the exhibit “Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F Martin”. The display of his early guitars, tools, jigs was breathtaking, inspiring, and educational to say the least.

Christian Frederick Martin, was the founder of the great American guitar firm C. F. Martin & Co. He was the son of a cabinetmaker in Markneukirchen, Saxony, Germany. There were restrictive guilds in his home town, hence, Martin moved to the United States in 1833, settling first in New York City and later moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania to start his craft in America. Martin took elements from the Spanish-style guitar and incorporated from that tradition his own Viennese style of instrument construction. The result was an innovative form of the guitar, a style and methodology that would become important as a basis for other American makers of the instrument. When I’m off this planet, I hope to have my handmade guitars and jigs on display as Martin did, so a new generation can continue the hand-crafted guitar legacy.

So, I’ve embarked on a neck angle jig. This is probably the most important jig a luther can make. I prefer a bolt on neck. It’s easily adjustable, a tremendously stable connection – no glue required. That said, a bolt on neck requires a mortise (basically a pocket routed into the body where the neck meets), and a tenon (a protrusion of the heel end of the neck that goes into the mortise), then barrel nuts and t-bolts are used to fasten the joint together.

I don’t want to get too technical on the description of the jig, however, I do want to get into what it’s done to my confidence as a luthier. For most luthiers, the neck to body joint is the most nerve wrecking. Its where things can go very wrong. After all, it’s the most important joint. If the neck angle towards the bridge is wrong, off the center-line, it may render the instrument non-playable, or unable to produce proper sound. The guitar would be useless.

As I build the jig, I know that future builds will be that much better. Let’s face it, I’ve basically winged the neck to body joint and came out lucky every time thus far. I am removing the element of luck and ensuring a proper joint for all guitars I build.

The guitars I build will look beautiful – no doubt, worthy of putting beside other art in your home, but most importantly, they need to be playable and they need to exceed the sound quality of guitars that are manufactured. That is my standard and that’s also my name that’s on the guitar.

-- Cliff

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