Review of Building the Steel String Acoustic Guitar

This is a reprint of a full review of Building the Steel String Acoustic Guitar. Written by guitar and ukulele luthier and author John Calkin, it originally appeared in American Lutherie #145, Spring 2022.

Last updated: June 03, 2022



Book Review: Building the Steel String Acoustic Guitar

[Originally published in American Lutherie #145 , Spring 2022]

by John Calkin

Copyright © 2022 by John Calkin and American Lutherie

These days, I’m left wondering if there are any mysteries left concerning the construction of the steel string acoustic guitar (hereafter just called “the guitar”). There are plenty of variations, of course. Some builders have written books about their own take on the matter, and they have developed fan clubs among builders and guitarists who are convinced that those individuals have nuanced the guitar to its final configuration of sonic performance. I am not one to say that they are wrong. But consider that among the most desirable guitars out there are those made by Martin and Gibson in the years before World War II. This has as much to do with rarity, collector value, and nostalgia as it does tonal value, but the “prewar sound” remains a goal for many builders.

Fortunately, those guitars may have no secrets other than age. And fortunately for novice guitar makers, their construction is forthright and easily understood. Also fortunate for the first-time builder, R.M. Mottola has written a book just for them. Mottola’s versions of the Martin OM and Dreadnought guitars do not promise to be exact copies at all, but they are, as the saying goes, close enough for folk music, and any changes in construction practices were made with only the novice builder’s success in mind. Mottola has coached a number of people through the building process in his shop, and as a careful and thoughtful observer he has discovered how to make the job easier for them while maintaining the tonal integrity of the instrument.

This book is truly a lap-full, 8½˝×11˝ and 503 pages. The luthier-to-be should scan it well before buying either tools or supplies, and read carefully the portions about tonewood and finishing, since the author’s thoughts run counter to long-held conventional ideas. The author places no particular value on rosewood or mahogany as guitar woods, though neither does he try to talk the luthier out of using them. Rather, he considers native species to be just as suitable for guitar use. They are money-saving as well as sound ecological choices. His demo guitars are constructed of walnut and cherry. And as for finishes, Mottola has settled on two: a wipe-on oil varnish, and a brush-on waterborne lacquer. Spray finishing is not addressed because the gear is expensive, has its own learning curve, and doesn’t avoid the tedious process of leveling and polishing the finish at the end. These choices were made in the best interest of beginning woodworkers, to increase the chances of a successful building experience, which is the goal of the entire book.

A book review may not be the appropriate place to make a stand about traditional values where guitars are concerned. But it is very likely that those yearning to be luthiers have been exposed to a host of articles and videos that deal with guitar lore. Any firm thoughts collected about the necessity of using rosewood and/or nitrocellulose lacquer for creating the most captivating sound of a guitar should be set aside during the initial stages of learning to build them. Learning to work the wood is the all-important item on the agenda. Adding expensive wood and tools to the list before the woodwork is even begun is only going to create apprehension as the work goes forward. Of course, any beginning luthier who is also an experienced woodworker of another sort is welcome to use that experience toward the completion of their instruments in whatever way they sees fit. The newbie, however, is encouraged to follow the book.

The matter of experience that a new maker is expected to have is always an issue for anyone who writes about creation with wood. Mottola is no different. Though he encourages the use of hand tools, he realizes that they have their own learning curves. His instruction utilizes the table saw and other power equipment, but he doesn’t have the space to explain their use and safety procedures to someone who has newly acquired them. It is up to the readers to see where their own skills fit into the woodshop scheme of things, and use the information that Mottola provides for both sorts of operator.

Whew — back to the book! As a reader initially peruses the book, it is possible and likely that they will collect a list of necessary materials and desirable tools to acquire. Mottola makes this easy by providing a boxed list of the same for each step of the building process, such as sheet stock for building the molds and quartersawn (and thinned!) tonewood from a reputable dealer. A box or bucket of various scraps will also be useful for making the jigs and helpers that are created as needed to aid in an accurately made guitar.

The next stop after a deep scan of the book should be https://www.LiutaioMottola.com/books/steel/Annex.htm#plans. The online annex is an important part of the book. There is a main menu, but this stop will take you to correctly sized, printable templates for many parts of the guitars, without which the builder will be set adrift to make them up on his own — not a task I envy. Included are some useful tools that can be printed and glued to card stock or thin wood, such as a string-height gauge. Most of the templates can be printed out on any office printer, but the full-size guitar plans should be saved to a thumb drive and taken to a print shop. It has been years since I have done this, but Staples printed plans for me for $7.00 per sheet, which I thought was cheap. Whatever the current cost, two sets of plans should be printed because one will be sacrificed as work continues. There are several online annexes, and all should be checked out while you are there.

To a reviewer’s tired eyes, Building the Steel String Acoustic Guitar is written in excruciating detail. However, this is exactly what the new luthier needs. It’s the only way a writer can approach standing next to the newbie as the guitar comes together. For instance, nine pages are dedicated to making a nut, plus two more pages later in the book during setup. Granted, there are many photos; the book is lavish with photos. The nut is a tiny thing that a pro can finish in half an hour, but it’s a good indication of the care used in writing the book, since if the nut is wrong, the guitar won’t play correctly. Ninety-eight pages are used to build the neck. I’ve owned several guitar-making books that were shorter than that. I’m sure that you get the idea.

Speaking of the photos, the book is not printed on glossy paper. There is a photograph here and there where the detail is lost in the poor contrast of the picture and a bit of staring and interpretation is needed to augment the text. You will get it, though. There were times when a photo further down the line worked better for me and the idea clicked into place. But I was trying to speed through the book to get to the review. As the builder, you won’t be doing that, I’m sure.

It’s good that the book opens with making the neck. It is real lutherie work using honest hardwoods. But right after that comes the creation of the body mold with stacks of sheet stock and a big mess in the shop. It is unavoidable, but the new luthier who isn’t grounded in cabinet work is likely to feel that that’s not what he signed up for. Too bad! Try to remember that it is all lutherie work, regardless, and that ending up with a fine guitar requires some sweat and a good attitude all the way through. A solid mold is what I have always used in my shop, but Mottola also offers an open-frame, rather skeletonized version of the body mold that uses a bit less material and ends up somewhat lighter than the solid version. Since the loaded mold is a large and heavy item that will be moved around a fair amount, as well as flipped over numerous times, the open-frame version may be the way to go. There will be plenty of time to dwell on it as those pages are considered. The mold is made with the same accuracy as the guitar, and since it may be used for years to come and many more guitars, it deserves the luthier’s patience and tender loving care.

As long-time Guild of American Luthiers people will remember, Mottola is an engineer, and he approaches side bending as an engineer. The sides are a series of various arcs and straight lines. He has them marked as such on his plans and suggests that this portion of the plans be cut out and glued to the mold. He also suggests that when the tonewood is ordered it should include three or four orphan pieces of the same side material as the guitar, sanded to the same thickness as the sides of the guitar. This is practice material. Though the side material can be cut to the necessary width of the guitar, it is left rectangular for bending and tapered toward the heel later. Each side — beginning with the practice pieces — is bent in segments according to the plan. A segment is bent to fit the waist, followed by a straight section on either side of it, followed by various other curves to fit the upper and lower bouts. Though it sounds like the sides are bent in facets that will show later, this is not the case. It makes so much sense that I’m surprised that I’ve never seen side bending explained like this before. Mottola believes that most people can learn to bend wood over a hot iron, and that the additional expense of thermal blankets and complicated bending machines only make sense for the production builder. It’s true that skill at hand-bending will build a sense of confidence as well as set the luthier free from equipment that afterward will only seem like a crutch. He even suggests that the new luthier should break an orphan side during bending to see how strong the wood really is. With care, it can be bent and unbent at will until the proper shape has been achieved.

Another item that the author has done away with is the radiused workboard. His sides are tapered on the back in a straight line, then sanded flat to receive the back with a large piece of sheet stock covered in abrasive paper. A mild arch is added to the back as well as the top via shaped bracing according to the templates included with the template download on the annex. The builder is free to add dished workboards later, whether shop made or purchased. But for the purposes here, it is enough to put a mild arch in the plates to help protect them from shrinking and cracking during changes in the humidity the guitar will have to live in.

Bracing the plates and fitting them to the rib assembly, or garland as Mottola calls it, is pretty straightforward, though covered in the same kind of detail as everything else. Once the body is removed from the mold, it is bound using no gimmickry other than a router equipped with a special bit. The wood bindings as well as the purflings are shop made. The job is also explained using a gramil and chisels to cut the rabbets for the binding, for those who wish to remain as machine-free as possible.

The finish work commences after the neck has been carefully fitted and attached to the body. It uses two bolts for attachment, but the fingerboard is also glued to the body before finishing.

The chapter on finishing was one of the first portions I read upon receiving the book. “How is he going to make a convenient job out of that?” I wondered. Which was the wrong question, since only the simplest finishes are convenient. Instead, he chose several coats of a wipe-on oil varnish, which actually works well on closed-pore wood varieties. It doesn’t form much of a skin, but it shows off the wood nicely, sheds water, and can easily be renewed.

For a more elaborate finish, Mottola chose brush-on waterborne lacquer over waterborne pore filler, carried out in enough coats to permit leveling with fine abrasive and hand polishing. Though he recommends satin finishes to make the work easier, either finish can be rubbed to a low sheen without too much trouble. Since specific brands and types of finish may disappear as manufacturers and environmental laws dictate, no brands are mentioned in the book. However, they are mentioned in the online annex where the author intends to keep updated information.

If R.M. Mottola had not been forced into comfortable exile by the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m not sure the world would have seen this book. It had probably been cooking in his mind for some time, though, and I’m glad for that. This is not a coffee-table book full of gloss and wishes. It’s a book that should spend its life in the shop getting smudged and dog-eared. It is too useful for a life of leisure.

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