Learning Lutherie : The 02 James Sassafras

01/09/2010 11:38
 by Nick Bolan

    Lutherie is defined as the craft of making stringed musical instruments. That's a very simple way of putting it, to say the least. After my first experience with lutherie, I can tell you that it's a complicated and arduous process. It's also a very rewarding one.

   I really didn't know what to expect when I began the journey of building the 02 Sassafras with my father back in September of last year. I knew a little about wood and working with it from my construction experience, where we often build custom cabinets. Truthfully though, I knew very little other than the fact that you can basically make a fully functional and finished piece of furniture out of what starts as nothing more than some very raw lumber. So the concept of making a musical instrument out of the same sort of components was intriguing. 

    We were presented with the opportunity to build a commissioned guitar using some very zootalicious (excuse the luthier slang) Tasmanian Black Hearted Sassafras. Zoot is what luthiers often call their wonderful stockpile of beautiful unused guitar wood. The Sassafras certainly fit the bill, intertwining hues of golden amber, rich rusty scarlet, and burnished brown with sharp, striking figurations and markings. This is what would compose our back and sides with a fairly clear and straight-lined Adirondack Spruce making up our soundboard. We knew from the start that this was going to be one stunning guitar.

    Bending the sides is one of the very first steps to building a guitar, no matter how you do it. I was quite amazed to see how easily wood will bend without breaking with a little help from our friends water and heat. It wasn't long before we had the basic body shape of our guitar ready and willing to be prepped to accept the back. Now I can't go through every step (because there are just too many) but I can give you what I consider to be some of the highlights. 

    Bracing the back and top is certainly one of the most crucial yet least visible aspects of a guitar. Size and shape are very important here as well as configuration. Bracing is intended not only to give the wood strength and durability, but also to produce as much volume and tone as possible at the same time. This is indeed one of the many unsung heroes of the build. It won't get much adoration from the casual spectator when all is said and done, but with careful attention to detail during the process, quality bracing will ultimately lend immeasurable amounts of longevity and tonality to the instrument.

    Another valuable stash of zoot which we were happy to incorporate was a highly figured, rose colored piece of Australian Silver Oak. This was used for the rosette (which is seen being routed out above), the bindings, and a custom pickguard. I feel that the Silver Oak really offered an elegant contrast to the Madagascan Rosewood we used for the fingerboard, headplate, and custom bridge (captured below). The bridge design was truly a collaborative effort, not just between my father and I, but with approval from friends, family, and other luthiers. It was encouraging to hear that the design was appealing to others as well, as it's easy to sometimes get tunnel vision when creating, dismissing outside opinions.

    Truly one of the most challenging steps was carving the neck. Starting from nothing more than a cuboidal and rather rough piece of African Mahogany, we began to shape what would eventually become a guitar neck. From a band saw to rasps and planers, this can certainly be a long and painstaking process utilizing several different tools of the trade. However, I found it wasn't nearly as hard as some would lead you to believe, and certainly not worth spending thousands of dollars on a machine which will do it for you. Besides, where's the fun in that?

    Inlay work is another meticulous aspect which goes into every James guitar. Sawing tiny letters out of the Paua Abalone which we used for inlay is definitely not a task for the impatient. Your hands will go numb and your eyes will become tired from focussing, but it's worth it once you have your perfectly extracted piece seated nicely in its final position.


    After shaping and installing the bone nut and saddle, and seating the bone pins, we installed the black and chrome Gotoh mini tuners along with the LR Baggs I-Beam pick up. Of course there is the task of applying a finish to the guitar which has yet to be discussed, but it is a process unto itself and warrants its own article. All that's left now is to string it up, set it up, and tune it up before the long odyssey is finally complete. I will always remember the 02 Sassafras as my first endeavor into the field of lutherie. I learned many valuable lessons from the experience which I hope to put to use in future builds. I'll never be able to thank my father enough for allowing me to share in such a fulfilling and worthwhile process.