Name:

Mike Sankey

Location:

Ottawa, Canada

 

I've been building and repairing guitars for 14 years. Each one is crafted individually, slowly, by hand. I give my instruments names, not serial numbers, because every one is unique. I like to maintain a modern and functionalist aesthetic, showcasing the natural beauty of local woods. Hopefully you'll enjoy them too!

 

 

Saturday
Apr052014

New Guitar: "Pebble"

Introducing Pebble. This is a smoothly contoured headless guitar that rocks hard, yet plays as soft as butter. It's a simple, robust instrument that's a real players' axe. Clic on the pic to read more...

Friday
Mar212014

New Guitar: "Spur"

In my continual quest to create a perfect modern interpretation of the archtop guitar, I present to you my latest: "Spur".  It has some unique features like one-piece wraparound sides, a stereo output, and of course that knee rest. Click on the pic to read more...

Saturday
Mar152014

Stay Sharp

The first thing I was taught about woodworking was how to sharpen a knife. At 7 years old, I just wanted to make a wooden boat, a plane, a toy sword, and I wanted to do it Right Now! To my disappointment, my dad gave me a small knife, a demonstration of how to sharpen it, and the admonishment that until it was sharp, really sharp, I wasn't making anything at all.

I'm not alone. Although I didn't realize it at the time, this is the same treatment given to beginner apprentices the world over, from medieval europe to Japan, since time immemorial. Sharpen the masters' tools for a few years, and maybe one day he will deign to let you cut wood. It is as true as it has always been that the quality of a craftsmans' work is only as good as the quality of his edge.

I got to be pretty good. I had been using modern synthetic Japanese waterstones, which make short work of even the hardest steel, and can be persuaded to leave an excellent edge. But they need to be soaked in water and routinely need to be flattened as they wear, so they're a bit messy. Worse though was inconsistency- sometimes I could get a great edge, sometimes I couldn't no matter what I did. This was an issue of my technique. You can't buy your way out of it. So when I stumbled across these pages by Brent Beach I could see a better way.

Finally someone had taken a rigorous scientific look at what actually takes place at the edge when sharpening woodworking hand tools. In a craft driven largely by adherance to tradition, or else by "persuasion by anectodote", it was long overdue, especially in light of the great advances in materials technology that was beginning to filter down to artisan-scale and amateur woodworkers. Chisel blades can be made of exotic pressure-sintered alloys that stay sharp 10 times longer; abrasives have become so advanced it's hard to believe that I used to simply rub a piece of steel against a fancy rock. In my workshop, the stone age is (almost) over.

So here's my setup that I use for plane and chisel blades (knives and gouges are still in the neolithisphere):

I use an inexpensive 12"x 18" granite surfacing plate as my substrate. Even though it's only B (workshop) grade, it's extremely flat and precise by woodworking standards. Instead of sharpening stones, I apply adhesive-backed diamond abrasive film in four grits. These are light-years beyond anything else out there- the diamonds cut through any steel (and even tungsten carbide) quickly, the mylar backing film is accurate and tough but ever-so-slightly resilient, and the particle sizes are incredibly fine and closely graded.

Drawing fron Beach's research, I know that it is important to maintain very consistent angles while honing the edge. This simple jig sets the projection of the blade while it's in the blade holder:

This blade holder is rather short; because I don't want it to ride onto the abrasive sheet (which would change the angle and possibly damage the sheet) I attached them sideways. This keeps the roller of the holder clearly on the granite surface. To carry away the swarf (that's the term for the fine powder of metal that comes from abrading the blade) and keep the abrasive from clogging I simply use unscented baby oil. It's also viscous enough that I can tell the condition of my edge by looking at the trail left by the blade:

Probably the key point of Beach's research is the importance of creating a microbevel on the back of a plane blade after honing the front. Only by doing so is one able to completely remove the worn-down edge and create a truly sharp blade. I found that the back side of my blade holder was just high enough to create a perfect 1.5 degree back bevel:

That's just the first step, the 15-micron sheet, referring to the size of the diamond particles (0.015mm). After that I reset the blade in the holder to obtain a 2-degree-higher front bevel angle (and thus a very slightly higher back-bevel angle) and hit the 3-micron abrasive. Following another blade projection adjustment is the 0.5 micron abrasive, and finally one last blade adjustment and 0.1 micron abrasive film (just for perspective, that's smaller than the wavelength of visible light!). If the blade edge is good and just needs to be sharper, I would skip the 15 and start directly on the 3-micron. Chisels get a similar treatment, though they are polished flat on the back rather than beveled.

It might seem a little laborious, but in fact takes very little time. The diamonds cut so fast, and because of the multi-bevel nature of the system very little metal has to be removed, so if a blade is in good shape it only takes 5 or 10 strokes on each sheet. The oil can be wiped up with a rag and the stone simply covered to keep out dust, and there's no fear of hidden water droplets causing rust on my tools. I don't have to flatten my stones- when the abrasive films wear out, it's a simple matter to peel one off and apply a new one. Of course, all this wouldn't matter if I didn't get good results. I'm very pleased with them, but you can judge for yourself:

Tuesday
Jan212014

A Customer Review

As a craftsman, I strive to build the perfect guitar. There's no such thing of course, but I can at least aim towards that ideal by looking at my work with a critical eye. I'm clearly biased though. The only way to really see what I've done right and done wrong is to ask players and customers: how could I make my guitars better?

The owner of Ulma was kind enough to send me this thoughtful review after he'd had a chance to play it for a while. Is it perfect? No- but I'm really trying. Here's exactly what he had to say about his Sankey Guitar:

"The motivation for getting this custom guitar was the ergonomic body shape, which is not currently in production as a standard guitar. After three months, it is, in general, working well for me. The 15 degree wedge profile of the body tilts the fretboard toward my eyes, reducing the need to slouch over to look at my left (fretting) hand. In addition, it makes my left wrist straighter on open chords, which reduces fatigue.
"The leg cutout, combined with the thick cross-section of the body below the neck, positions and stabilizes the guitar while sitting, eliminating the usual jostling I have while playing an electric guitar while seated. The one part of the body I would change is the contour above the neck. My arm tends to slide toward the bridge end of the guitar due, I believe, to the convex shape. In order to anchor my right (strumming/picking) hand, I have to clench my bicep. (If you have any tips on how to get around this, please let me know.) From a design standpoint, if I was to respecify the guitar, I would ask you how this part of the body should be shaped to improve this situation. My first thought would be a straight, Flying-V type top (see sketch). I am reasonably certain this would be an improvement, but having missed the mark on the first try, I would want to consider more options.
"The neck/setup was the most pleasant surprise on the guitar. Easily the most comfortable neck I have tried, I can play barre cords for a long time without thumb fatigue, and yet there is no buzz. I will need to go through a full year of weather changes before I know for certain, but the neck seems also to be very stable in response to temperature and humidity changes.
"The electronics/pickups are dead quiet with no input, and go from warm, pleasant tones at low output to an excellent vintage overdrive at full range. The two knob setup, one tone and one volume control for both pickups with a bridge-both-neck selector switch, is simple and intuitive. I was concerned that I might miss having separate controls for each pickup, but this has not been the case so far, and I like the convenience of being able to switch between pickups and have the output level roughly the same.
"Dealing with you, both before the contract and through the build, far exceeded my expectations. Email replies were prompt, thoughtful, detailed and easy to understand, even in cases where I asked a lot of questions. No detail was left to chance. The neck shape discussion where I photographed my left hand on a guitar neck in fretting position, and you actually built a few neck shapes was well beyond what I could reasonably ask for. I would not hesitate to commission another instrument from you."

 

Tuesday
Jan072014

New Guitar: "the Black Swan"

I've somehow become something of a specialist in electric guitars with modern high-performance features. Features like headless ergonomic body shapes, complex wood laminations, multiscale fretboards, more than six strings, advanced electronic components... On this guitar, I got to do them all at once. It was an extremely ambitious and audacious project. Click on the pic to see how it worked out...