Some Thoughts on Construction...

There’s certainly no consensus among luthiers that there is any one magic formula for building a great sounding, looking, and playing guitar. There are more great guitars being built right now than at any time in history, both by individual builders and by some of the smaller shops, but many variables in construction techniques, bracing patterns, etc. exist between them.  I absorb as much information as possible, then choose what makes sense to me, based on my own observations as I build, and thinking back to the many vintage guitars that I’ve owned. I truly feel that the guitars being built today by the individual luthier, and even some high-end factory guitars, will in time outshine most of the Pre-war classics.


  Making guitars involves a learning curve that really never ends. One has to be observant, objective in evaluating ones own work, develop a discerning ear,and take both praise and criticism with a grain of salt. With each guitar I build, I learn that there are seemingly infinite layers of complication. There are always more things to improve in construction, no matter how simple the task.

  I currently build about ten guitars  each year, in batches of two to four. My goal is to emulate the fit and finish of the best small factory guitars, while adding the “soul” can only be had by a hand-built instrument. Every aspect, from wood selection, trim, neck size and shape, to finish options and set-up can be tailored to fit your personal needs. The dilemma faced by the guitar maker is how to build a guitar light enough to sound good, yet be strong enough to hold up to the stress of string pull. I try to achieve this by bracing lightly, usually a somewhat modified Martin scallop, and achieving strength by building on radiused forms, creating a slightly “domed” top and back,  and by careful engineering of the joinery. Generally, I use Red Spruce  bracing for all my soundboards, regardless of what wood species that the soundboard is. The one exception to this is the upper transverse brace (right above the sound-hole). For this, I make a composite brace of Red Spruce, with an inner layer of carbon fiber sheet. This helps to support the top where it receives the pressure from the string pull. I tap-tune my tops, shaving the bracing until the sound “opens up”, something the larger shops rarely do.

I  use hot hide glue for all my interior bracing, bridge plate, and bridge. This most ancient of glues dries harder, and sticks better than any modern glue, but must be used properly to achieve a good glue joint. I did many side by side tests with other glues in order to confirm the many good things I’ve heard about hide glue.


"00" model 13 fret short scale

I believe that strength and rigidity are a virtue in the back and sides, so I put a number of side reinforcement braces on my guitars. I feel that this helps to prevent the bleeding off of acoustic energy from the top plate, and creates a more “focused” sound. To the same effect, I also use basswood  lining for the top, an acoustically dead material, to help prevent transferring energy from the top to the sides.

My necks are Mahogany, with a 2-way truss rod accessible from the sound-hole. I attach my necks with a bolt-on, mortise and tenon system, which has been well proven by many high-end builders and factories. My instruments are finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, taking care to spray only enough to create a thin, lustrous coat, then buff and polish to a high gloss.

To sum up, I take a holistic approach to construction, with many small details adding up to create something that is truly much more than the sum of it’s parts. Although no two guitars sound the same, the great ones all have one thing in common- a certain responsiveness, the feeling that they “come alive” in the player’s hands.

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© John Needham 2013