Craftsman / Artist
The 1860s violin had a rough life. Through celebration and funeral, joy and woe, work and pleasure, countless songs found voice. Probably a trade instrument, sold to one of the trade musicians who supplied background, accompaniment, and main attractions before radio.
First to a right-handed player and later to a southpaw, a well-penciled calendar kept this fiddle busy for decades. At some point, perhaps in the 1920s, the peg box could take no more abuse. Donated to a church, and into a closet it rested, used as backup to the backup.
Neighborhoods change. The church moved. At their giant rummage sale this gem made its way onto a long folding table covered with relics. Purchased and sold yet again, changing hands from New England into the Keystone was a welcome destiny. This time not to play second fiddle. She is getting the full spa treatment!
Everything looks wrong for this wandering minstrel, but she has backbone and spunk. Incense wafts from the f-holes, Alma Pané informs me. Hmmmmm! Mystery solved? As I ream the peg holes to round, the intriguing smell released from its wood finally explained ~ ~
She’s getting peg hole bushings. I ream the peg holes back to round, insert and glue fitted boxwood peg hole bushings into the holes, and cut them flush with the peg box. Then the bushings get drilled and reamed for new pegs. A lovely experience for any fiddle, the excitement of momentarily returning to life as a violin! But those protrusions of extra bushing are not going to surrender placement without a fight.
Just in time, I discover Zona and their lovely razor saws. With this precision blade I’m able to safely cut within a couple hundredths of the peg box. Far less wood to slice away with my chisel. Papa always said, “Stick with what you’re good at”. I’m better at cutting wood than shaving wood, so there you go!
1860 nears completion. With D’Addario 4/4 Helicore Low Tension strings, 1860 will again be kicking up the hootenanny and serenading lovers, young and old.
LITTLE DEER ISLE, MAINE Generational downsizing had Jeff moving fiddles. In the right place, I acquired a Johann Baptist Schweitzer Copy of 1813 in rare good condition. Down the Eastern Seaboard the Baptist (bap•TEEST) was shipped. To Pennsylvania for mild refurbishment, strings, set-up, then further south to William in Georgia. Its stop-over proved to be more than a quick pat on the back. The pegbox was wonky.
While this instrument may have been made for 1:20 taper pegs, someone had later used modern 1:30 taper pegs. The new standard has provided superior tuning performance and pegbox health since its inception about 1900. This narrower peg, however, will not fit simply by “shoving it in as hard as you can”.
In a fog, flummoxed by ratios and angles, we turn to two of the best luthiers and mathematicians in the world for answers. The question, “What’s the difference?”
From Ontario: Basic trigonometry gives tan(angle)=rise/run. The angle is then inverse tan(rise/run), which gives an angle of 87.14 degrees. The compliment is 2.86 degrees. Thus, your 1:20 reamer is 2.86 degrees. – Charles Tauber
Not to be outdone, we’re gifted the link to a “Taper & Angle Calculation” program from a reader in Tatamagouche, the village in Nova Scotia. A 1:30 taper is scarcely larger, 3.33%
Closer examination reveals it is no big deal. With existing peg hole damage, it’s not even six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other. We’re saved the expense, for now, of an imported Old World specialty reamer. Bill is still waiting in Georgia; lead time leaps forward. My domestic Juzek 1:30 tapered reamer with three straight cutting flutes works perfectly. The Juzek peg shaver (USA production with some imported parts) produces both blisters and perfect pegs. A little pool cue chalk on the peg surfaces, along with D’Addario Kaplan Amo strings, completes the job.
Steve Fields played the finished restoration at Woodside Creamery Farm yesterday. He pronounces the effort, “Perfect!” Another All-Smiles-Day!
It all started in March while visiting Wintergrass, the Wilmington Delaware Bluegrass Festival. A fella had a mandolin of pure line. Shapely neck and smooth body. Her voice! Golden, well articulated, clear, and rich. Sharp when required. Clearly an effort from one of the best finishing schools!
Off we went to see where she was born, meet her parents. The York Pennsylvania studio of Bluett Brothers Violins. Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE) proudly shows me around his latest, a clean F-body mandolin with intricate headstock, the violin in progress, a few guitars from earlier years there for a visit.
Chris has been making instruments his entire adult life. It takes more than skill and an understanding supportive wife. It takes dedication and respect for the craft. Born into every instrument. A tradition he proudly supports through an active apprentice program. Chris Bluett, carrying the torch.
His world is clay. But to us, he is rock. Rock Star of the pottery world Jim Sudal continues to amaze. While other artists rest at their benches, content to watch understudies handle production and reproduction, Jim continues to design and produce.
Careless for my own safety, I venture another visit. Pushing into hordes ten deep, from screaming jumping teenagers to powdered octogenarians, I secure two tables for local friends. Perfect for the patio, outside or in.
A few wall tiles completes my purchasing experience. There is something for everyone. It is always a pleasure giving my hard-earned money to Jim. Because he earns it!
Jim Sudal Ceramic Design 7037 E 1st Ave Scottsdale
There is always a story behind the story. Smells of clean sweat and grass at twilight on the ball field. Echoes of Widow Baxter next door reciting her daily Rosary. Seeing the bent man uptown most days as he stops to gaze wistfully at an old mansion just off Main Street.
Every guitar tells a story. One glance at an old guitar speaks volumes. Years later, a few strums can recall times past. Adolescence. High school. Slow afternoons at the feed depot. Waiting for an infant’s birth, dropping your guitar by the fence to run inside at the newborn’s first cry.
Even before high school, I knew my cousin’s Gibson was special. It sounded better than guitars on the records he played. Jeff claimed he bought his guitar from Keith Richards; Aunt Joan said it was her father’s guitar.
The clocks’ century hand has now completed a quick four decade sweep. I find myself before a WALL of Gibsons! At the finest music store this side of Planet Earth, Acoustic Vibes Music. Some of these sound exactly like Jeff’s guitar. But that was years and years ago …. How did Gibson make a new guitar sound like an old guitar? Investigation time!
Repeated visits to AVM, I enter Room Gibson and sample each of twenty-two on display. A plush Cadillac with the sleeper screaming motor, the soft cowboy crooner, a punchy piece that looks 80 years old … and sounds it! The Vintage series Gibsons receive a proprietary Thermo Cured top – well worth 25% more. No doubt, Gibson has made an amazing return to top-flight build quality from near bankruptcy in the 1980s.
After playing all these guitars, to which do I return? An unlikely mating for a man convinced a smaller-bodied short scale acoustic would be his one and only guitar love. The Super Jumbo body of the SJ-200 is a perfect fit, with curves in all the right places. The SJ-200 Vintage has the tone I can grow old with.
The SJ-200, like all my favorite artists played from the ’40s to now. Now with a premium Vintage top. The Adirondack red spruce top is Thermally Aged giving the look and sound of a seasoned SJ-200. The SJ-200 Vintage is my pick!
Tight body, no doubt. In the silent Gibson Room, I can feel the guitar coming to tune via harmonics between adjacent strings. As tones oscillate closer toward unison, Gibson build quality becomes unmistakable. Solid guitar, solid tone. With sound so clear, so crisp and exact, you’ll think you’re in a studio atop two million in equipment, recording your next Platinum Record. The one that should have been.
Ray Whitley went to Gibson in 1937. He asked Gibson to create their biggest acoustic guitar. It was given the name Super Jumbo or J-200.
Wartrace, Tennessee Stephen Gallagher’s 2002 GMC Duramax ignored the horse trailer behind it. 368,000 miles, and just getting started. Another customer delivery for Mr Gallagher. Grandson of J.W. Gallagher and heir to a guitar-making dynasty, Stephen splits his time between family, horses, pushing livestock with Waylon, and building some of this country’s finest guitars.
J.W. Gallagher, with only a 7th grade education, was the smartest man in the country. When the Army gave him an intelligence test in the 1930s his result was so high the Army gave it to him again. J.W. scored perfect the second time. He went on to spend his military hitch learning everything he could about everything. Engines, construction, woodworking, machinery, everything.
Slingerland, the percussion company, asked J.W. to set up a guitar production line in 1963. J.W. had a history of reproducing any bit of woodwork necessary; he promptly cut a dreadnought in half to figure it out. J.W. soon applied a second element, that of physics – sound and vibration. He went on to build his own line of acoustic guitars.
J.W. Gallagher never intended to own a large guitar-making concern. Family lore has it that 1,000 units was his goal; he had so many other interests, he once plainly told a customer a special order guitar was not done because there was a river full of fish nearby just waiting to get caught.
But continue and prosper it did! The famous Doc Watson received a Gallagher early on; in 1974, Doc made a request for a different shaped neck. The result is a guitar named after him, and a Gallagher best seller.
What brought on my new fascination with Gallagher guitars? After spying an image of James King on the D’Addario twitter feed, I ask the bluegrass circle of his attractive guitar. Turns out, Gallagher guitars have been nearby all my life, as close as my turntable and stack of Doc Watson records! I had to find one of these guitars …
We visit the finest music store west of our Atlantic seaboard, the inimitable Acoustic Vibes Music. Jeff Looker has two Gallagher guitars in stock, including a Doc Watson model. Over several visits I become acquainted. First impressions? Very solid. Durable. Not a dainty boutique guitar; rather, built for tone, year after year. Decades of on-the-road touring? This is the guitar you want. Reminded me of an old Gibson I played years ago …
A guitar of persuasive warmth, the Gallagher is a picker’s delight. A clear, mellow bass, uncluttered of unpure tone, accompanying a punchy upper end. As J.W. Gallagher’s website puts it, you get a deep bottom end perfect for playing those hard G runs. Which I love ❤ to do! From Tyler Grant, flat picker extraordinaire, the Gallagher is a perfect country guitar … not pop country, but an old country blues.
I begin with a typical bluegrass rhythm, an alternating bass in front of a strum. With clear full tone, the room disappears, I’m on stage, the Gallagher is doing all the talking.
“Gallagher is a builder in the great tradition of independent luthiers, that were way ahead of their time. Before Taylor and Collings and Santa Cruz hit the map, Gallagher was building guitars that rivaled the mainstays of Gibson and Martin. Notables such as Doc Watson were early adopters of the Gallagher “mojo” that still provides an appealing choice for guitarists around the world.” – Jeff Looker
With little keeping me from a custom Gallagher order, I email 3rd generation Stephen Gallagher to enquire, “Can you make a 000 short scale Doc Watson model?” I’m surprised to get a call back so quickly, not about the order, but with additional information for this article. Thanks, Stephen!
A few tidbits: On the headstock is a stylized “G” for Gallagher? That Olde English G came from the Shelby Times Gazette newspaper … pre-internet. The Gallagher headstock design is called a French Curve. J.W. was looking for something original. This simple design spied on an obituary spawned another weekly installment of American Toolbox!
At the time, it was unneeded by me. In a drawer it sat until my decades-old wallet was deconstructing. Out of the drawer, loaded with a thin stack of plastic and business cards, with cash folded between, this Bosca became the perfect minimalist wallet. Fine leather, super thin. Easily a $90 bifold card case.
But when this “wallet” can no longer take daily abuse, I find it is no longer manufactured! Bosca now does all their assembly in Asia. Thank you, no. My American cash is more comfortable in an American wallet.
Michael Hicks Design
Within the orbit of American Toolbox the right craftsperson enters. Michael Hicks Design, starting up his leather craft business in ernest, listens to my needs. Offers multiple combinations of the finest ¾ oz Horween Chromexcel horse leather. Sends a couple sample card cases for comment. In no time, the finished product. How timely!
The USA-made Bosca, no longer available, gave a final rip along the seams mid-week. Without hesitation, my gear slipped into the Hicks. A perfect fit. This card case / wallet will work forever. Plus, it is completely recraftable. Like my Aldens.