The guitar in concert. It sounds terrific.

The guitar in concert. It sounds terrific.

Warning: This blog post is completely self-indulgent. When I write a blog post, I try to think about the reader and what they might be interested in. While this might be interesting to someone thinking of doing something similar, I openly admit it’s pretty much just a memo to myself about a terrific instrument and the hard work my father put into making it an heirloom. So, sorry about that.

My father has a talent for woodworking, and has made a number of very impressive pieces of art and furniture for various members of the family. Once, after presenting me with a beautiful butcher-block cutting board, he asked me if I had any requests. I did, but I didn’t want to ask. I held onto that request for about a year, until a friend showed me a guitar he just bought from Carvin guitars, a beautiful archtop electric.

Finally, I asked him how he’d feel about making me a guitar. He was understandably hesitant, but he quickly got enthusiastic when I told him that I could get the parts from Carvin and he could concentrate on the woodworking (though in the end he did the assembly as well).

We talked some about woods and colors, and I put an order in for a Carvin Bolt, maple and maple, with a rosewood fretboard. I had been thinking about this since I put together my cheap Telecaster copy, and I knew that I was going to have shell out some bucks for good components this time around. You won’t really save much money with a Carvin kit, but you can order up exactly what you want and the quality is very good.

I put my order in sometime in October and the guitar arrived on Christmas Eve. The components and work were all top quality, though there was a bit of fretboard missing (must have splintered off when they fret slots were cut) and Carvin had to send me a new neck, but that turned out to be a minor thing.

My father took the guitar back to Vermont with him, and I had my photos to work from. I tried out a few variations, finally settling on a stripe pattern that carried over the shapes from the pick guard and the guitar itself. My father and I had several conversations about the placement of the initials. Originally, were were going to go for putting them on the lower bout because that was the largest surface to work with. In the end, we moved the initials much closer to the waist because the bout is largely obscured when one is actually playing the instrument.

My father began to transform the idea to reality, and this is where the real work began. He first duplicated the guitar body out of pine so that he would have a test blank to work with. He then began to rough-cut the inlay pieces so that he could work out the exact size and shape. He had ordered up two types of rosewood for the inlay, Indian and Brazilian. The latter was more figured and also matched the neck a little better, so we went with that.

We went over a few iterations of the design, settling on some stripes that were not quite zebra pattern but flowed around the pickguard. The monogram was the hardest thing, finding something with just the right feel. I had to do a lot of stretching and morphing in Photoshop to get it just right, but at least I wasn’t the one who had to cut it out of a thin piece of wood and set it into a hole chiseled out just so. You can tell when you look at that cursive monogram that the guy who picked the font wasn’t the guy doing the inlay work!

The next few steps of the process were pretty much a blur to me (again, as I was several states away and not actually doing any of it!), but it was essentially the long process of cutting out the shapes from the inlay and laying it into the guitar. I take it that, with the very notable exception of the monogram, the process was pretty straightforward. That is, except for the stripe that ran over the upper bout. The upper bout on the Carvin, as it is on the Stratocaster, is beveled so that your right arm rests comfortably. This presents quite a challenge for the inlay, because the inlay is not thick enough to cut down, and if you don’t want to make multiple pieces you must force the inlay to bend to position. I really have no idea how hard that is to accomplish, but I do know that the rosewood we were using was both stiff and brittle, so I imagine the process took more than a little soaking and clamping.

The biggest challlenge, it seems, was the choice of finish, as the hard polyurethane that worked so well on the maple refused to adhere to the rosewood. This necessitated some stripping and some time spent on Google to find a finish that would work equally well on both types of wood.

The greatest part about this project (and, in the end, the most important part) is that when it all came together the guitar sounded fantastic. This, of course, had nothing to do with the inlay or the many, many hours of labor put into making it look great. Luckily for me, Carvin makes a good kit. It’s not a particularly inexpensive kit (with options, it cost me more than an off-the shelf Fender standard Stratocaster) but it would have been a waste to have that much care and effort put into an instrument that wasn’t going to sound very good. Still, I really didn’t know what I had until the very end, when I set it up and began to play.

So, you were warned: this was a pretty self-indulgent blog post. Sorry about that. If you’re a guitar tech nerd, maybe you got something out of it. Or, if you’re thinking of trying this yourself, I hope you got some encouragement (and a warning not to cheap out on your components). If you’re wondering how the guitar sounds, come out and hear it at one of my gigs. It’s also featured on my recordings that have electric guitar.

Update: I started this blog post in 2013, but it sat in the “drafts” folder for a few years. The guitar still plays great, and still looks and sounds like a million bucks. Carvin guitars now seems to have been acquired (?) but the kits are still for sale here: Carvin / Kiesel guitar kits.