Name:

Mike Sankey

Location:

Ottawa, Canada

 

 

I've been building and repairing guitars for 17 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!

 

 

Wednesday
Apr132016

The ultimate luthier's vise

An essential part of my workbench is this modern patternmakers' vise:

As you can see, it can hold odd-shaped parts at unusual angles, making it a lot easier to carve the complex three-dimensional shapes that guitar are made of.

It is based on original designs by Joseph Emmert, and patented way back in 1919. Like so many others, Emmert Manufacturing went out of business in the 1970s. Lee Valley Tools developed and sold an improved, canadian-made version for a while, but now it too is unavailable and highly sough after. The one that I use is an inexpensive reproduction made in the far east. I doubt it is as precise or sturdy as the real thing, but it works.

You can see why these are so useful: the whole vise can be pivoted from vertical to horizontal orientation, and rotate 360 degrees. I use this feature all the time to hold necks at a comfortable angle for carving with a rasp and spokeshave. The jaws open 13", and the outer one can be quickly skewed 5 degrees left or right to hold wedge shapes, like the bodies of some of my ergonomic electric guitars. An auxiliary insert can hold pieces at up to 20 degrees of skew. And by flipping the face 180 degrees, I have a set of small jaws perfect for holding nuts and saddle blanks while they're being shaped.

 

Truly this is the ultimate luthier's vise.

Monday
Mar282016

Restoring a Russian 7-string guitar

Until Beatlemania hit, the default type of guitar played in Russia was quite different to those used everywhere else. The Russian guitar has a long and distinguished history almost entirely unknown to modern western musicians. And I've got one.

By the end of the 18th century, the 5-course double-strung guitar of the baroque period was becoming rather unfashionable. Whether this was due to the social upheaval of the era's anti-monarchist revolutions or simply because of improvements in string-making technology, I couldn't tell you. But it happened quickly, and for a brief period there were competing versions of what the guitar would be: 4-course, 6-course, 5-string, 6-string, or 7-string.

One especially influential musician in Russia, Andrei Sychra, favoured seven strings, tuned DGBdgbd'. Far from being a cultural dead end, the music was widely heard and appreciated across europe until the Russian revolution. The particular style of the early russian instruments may even have proved a decisive influence on Johann Stauffer's famous scroll-headed guitars, and not the other way around.

I bought this particular guitar in 2008, from a pirate vendor selling his wares (mostly old plumbing and electrical odds and ends) from a card table by the streetcar tracks, just beyond the "official" market, in Odessa, Ukraine. It was in rough shape, but for 70 Hryvnas (maybe $15 at the time) I couldn't resist. I put some strings on it, but it has basically stayed in its original unplayable state ever since then. Time to rectify the situation.

This guitar was made in a soviet factory, a product of the planned industrial economy. It displays no echoes of greatness. To be fair, for 8 rubles 50 kopeks, nobody expected it to. There were two official quality levels of guitar, and this was the lower one.

Still, it has a top made of solid wood. Spruce, pine, fir, who knows exactly what. Not bookmatched, but joined so well it's hard to tell. The back and sides are a plain grade of birch plywood, all treated to a perfunctory sunburst finish. The bindings are dyed or toasted solid wood, while the neck is carved from a monolithic chunk of beech. It's been dyed and painted black, like the bridge, which charmingly uses a piece of brass fretwire for the saddle.

The fretwire is brass, and surprisingly beefy. If only they'd made it with barbed tangs; I pressed and glued in the many loose frets. The neck is where we see the ancestral influence shared with Stauffer's guitars. Not only is the neck japanned black, the flying fingerboard extension is identical. And is that an action adjustment mechanism in the heel?

No; it's the neck attachment bolt. "The", as in, there's only one, and an odd flat rhomboid nut:

That explains a lot about why it was so unplayable. The bolt also had a square head- fortunately, it fits perfectly to a standard drum tuning key (probably no accident). It would be a shame to lose that funky aspect of the guitar, so I've got to find a way to keep the bolt while drastically improving the neck/body joint. I also don't want to glue the neck in; there's no bone saddle, so I can't file it to fine-tune the action. And again, I don't want to lose the fretwire saddle, since that is also part of the charm of the instrument. Some sort of adjustable neck joint is essential.

The neck is already inset into a v-shaped mortice in the the neck block, so I decided to do a version of David Schramm's adjustable neck for classical guitars. First I need to cut a slot in the heel:

This fits over a corresponding extension at the top of the neck block mortice. Instead of carbon fibre, I used bone:

This prevents the neck from sliding upward, while acting as a fulcrum to allow it to rotate very slightly forward or backward. The main mortice holds the neck in alignment in all other axes. That single bolt is now only under tension, acting opposite the strings, and can be loosened to raise the action, or tightened to lower it. I worried that pulling back on the neck could inadvertantly turn the neck into a giant whammy bar, but it turns our the tension and friction in the system are high enough that it doesn't happen at all. I think it's pretty clever.

Strings, setup, and here it is in action:

Now all I've got to do is teach her how to play seven strings tuned to open G...

Friday
Nov202015

New Guitar: "Veracity"

Introducing my latest ergonomic electric guitar, Veracity. Clic on the pic for more info...

Friday
Oct302015

New Guitar: "Daphne"

Is there any instrument more beautiful to behold than a well-fettled archtop guitar? I think not. Introducing Daphne. Clic on the pic to see more...

Wednesday
Sep162015

The one that got away

I hate to rush. But when a guitar has to be done in time to fly to a Vai Academy session, a good photo session is the first casualty. The second is a sound recording session. So the Tyger got neither, but it did get a good workout from its new owner right out of the gate. Clic on the pic to learn more...