In this day and age when resources are precious it is important that those that work with natural materials treat them with the utmost respect.
To me part of this means buying materials from sustainable sources where ever possible and also wasting as little as possible. I always source timber with FSC or Rain forest Alliance certification where ever I can, meaning it’s from well managed sustainable forests, providing a sustainable income for the local communities. I’m also starting to use many more non tropical woods in my builds. So many beautiful timbers out there.
I am always glad to hear of new suppliers of sustainably sourced materials so if you know of any and wish to share, then please contact me.
I use a variety of woods for the bodies of my guitars, partially dictated by the tone and weight I am looking for in a particular instrument. Over the years I have narrowed it down to a few choice options I tend to stick with although I am always interested to try something new. It can be really exciting to stumble across a new wood, which can unlock different tonal possibilities.
My standard choices are –
South American mahogany – This is a wood we all know and love. Swietinia is the genus. This is the body wood of choice for the majority of single cutaway set neck guitars for the last 65+ years. These days the good quality stuff is getting harder and harder to find. I am always on the lookout for the perfect plank, a decent weight, with a nice grain pattern and a good natural resonance. I generally only buy FSC certified mahogany so I know it is coming from a sustainable source and the forests are being replenished. Occasionally I am lucky enough to come across some old stock mahogany that was cut many years ago before FSC certification was a thing, and this is often very nice quality wood. Or also even reclaimed mahogany that was once a piece of furniture or something similar. I’m always keen to snap up this old stock when possible, and give it a new life as an instrument that will be cherished for many years.
Spanish Cedar – It is neither Spanish or a cedar! Cedrela Orator is the genus. This is a wood that has been used for years in the classical/Spanish guitar making world, primarily as a neck wood, as it has an amazing balance of weight versus stiffness. It’s incredibly stiff given it’s usually light weight, hence making it a great neck material. In the electric guitar market it is gathering pace as a great alternative to the south American mahogany for both bodies and necks. This was popularised by the Finnish master luthier and friend of mine Juha Ruokangas. He spent many years convincing players to open their minds and try it in his guitars. I agree with Juha, it is a great sounding wood, and while it shares many tonal qualities with mahogany it also has it’s own character. I would describe it as a bit more airy sounding than most mahogany you find these days. A little bit of a faster attack and maybe a touch brighter. All in all it’s a very lively sounding wood and responds to your touch and playing dynamics very nicely.
Swamp Ash – This is such a great sounding wood. It’s use in electric guitars dates all the way back to the late 40’s when Leo was prototyping what we now know and love as the telecaster. Although often associated with bolt on neck, single coil guitars, it works just as well with set neck humbucking guitars in my opinion. It usually is light weight and to my ear, has a distinct tone and feel to it. It’s incredibly resonant, when you tap a piece you can hear it rings like a bell. It has a very fast attack to the note when you strike the string, but also a long sustain. I would describe it as a bit of a scooped tone, rich in both treble and bass and little less midrange than the either the mahogany or the Spanish cedar. I’m a big fan, and I think it works exceptionally well for the Nautilus design and it is the obvious choice for my Shoreline model.
Obeche – My newest discovery! I wanted to find something reliably very lightweight and available from an FSC certified sustainable source and I stumbled up on this lovely West African hardwood at my local timber yard. It’s incredibly similar to the best Korina or Limba in it’s appearance and density. I have now used it for both Nautlius and Shoreline models and it is a very versatile timber. It has sounded fantastic with all combinations of pickups and is very acoustically resonant. It’s a bit brighter than mahogany tone wise but still has a very nice sustain, and for the Shoreline models it’s a really great wood. It works very well with single coils. The Nautilus Juniors in Obeche are pure vintage bliss.
For the neck wood I am always looking for the balance between stiffness, stability and resonance. The neck is the most tactile part of the guitar, it’s how you first make your acquaintance with a new instrument, someone usually passes it to you and you reach out and take the guitar by the neck. You kneel down or perch your leg on something, and wrap your hands around the neck to get a feel. This is the moment when you decide… Yes.. lets plug it in, or no this ones not for me.
I am looking for woods that will stay straight and true over the years to come and also that will resonate in your hand right from that first strum. Again, similar to the body woods, over the years I have narrowed it down to what I like to use and what I know will give good performance. My standard choices are fairly traditional materials but I am always on the look out for new woods that provide something new tonally.
My usual choices are either mahogany or Spanish cedar for that warm smooth tone or a nice piece of maple works really well when you either want the visual impact of figured wood or a touch more brightness in the top end. I occasionally use a solid piece of Indian rosewood for a neck if I find a nice piece. It has a very unique tone, nothing else sounds like it. it is incredibly focused tonally, and the sustain is something all together different. So smooth. I personally love it, but it is different and therefore won’t be for every application.
Some claim an electric guitars tone is entirely dependent on the pick ups, as they are the part that interacts with the string and feeds the signal to the amplifier. While I strongly disagree that all the tone comes from the pick ups they are obviously a very important part of the guitars amplified voice.
The customer is of course able to specify the pick ups they desire in their guitar, and we are blessed these days with a wealth of amazing boutique pick up makers. I tend to use Bare Knuckle pick ups if the choice is mine, I know them well, know how they sound and how they respond in my guitars and I know which set to select for each model and what will deliver the tone that either I or the customer are looking for.
They are built in the UK by people who are passionate about their work, using the finest components and aiming to deliver the best performance possible. I like them very much. However if you wish to choose something else for your guitar I can certainly discuss it with you. I also have had some great experiences with other makers such as TV Jones, Lollar, Häussel, Novaks and more, so if you have a specific idea for your guitar please let me know.
Good hardware can make the difference between a good guitar and a great guitar. It has to be reliable and deliver top level performance day in day out. The majority of my guitars use fairly traditional hardware, at least visually, but I carefully select each component to be the highest build and sound quality.
For my tune o matic or wrap around style bridges and tail pieces I tend to use either Tone Pros, ABM, Schroeder or Gotoh 510 as I have had excellent results with all of them. These companies make premium quality hardware and have some thoughtful additions built in. The aluminium tailpiece’s I use definitely have a positive effect on the tone as well as being light weight. I think they help with keeping the liveliness and sustain in the string.
For the Shoreline bridges I tend to use the Gotoh Wilkinson designed WT3. Fully intonatable bridge with 3 brass saddles for an authentic look and tone.
And for machine heads my personal choice are the Gotoh 510 super machine heads. The 18.1 ratio provide very stable tuning and a nice smooth action to the gearing, so tweaking your tuning just right is nice and easy. I have used these tuners on almost every guitar I have ever built and have never had anything but fantastic results with them. I think they look great too, really capturing the best of modern engineering with timeless styling. Of course if you have a personal preference for your guitar feel free to let me know and I’ll do my best to accommodate.
A well cut nut is another very important detail of a great guitar. The material used has a big effect on the tone of the open strings, and also the tuning stability of the guitar as a whole. I use a specially treated bone nut on my guitars as standard. It has been carefully selected for even density and strength, and is then treated with a kind of grease solution that is absorbed into the bone and permeates evenly throughout the piece. This treatment adds built in lubrication to the bone making it possible for the strings to pass freely through the slots and keeping your guitar in tune. It also gives the bone a beautiful vintage appearance. To my ear this material is the best sounding I have come across and is really nice to work with but If you would prefer another material please feel free to ask.
The fret work on a guitar is one of the most important aspects when aiming for ultimate playability. It’s a dark art and takes years to master. You must pay exceptional attention to detail, and learn to feel your way around the frets. It starts from making sure the fret slots are cut perfectly, and to the exact right depth.
I spent years cutting fret slots by hand using various templates and jigs, but these days I prefer to use the CNC machine. I know it will give absolute consistency to the cutting of the slots, both in position and in depth. It also allows me to rebate the fret slot slightly from the edge of the fingerboard similar to a bound fingerboard, which in turn means you won’t suffer from sharp fret ends if there is a little bit of movement in the moisture content of the fingerboard over the years, or if you are traveling through different climates. The devil is in the details.
One the fret slots are cut and the fingerboard has been carefully radius’d then it is time to seat the frets in the fingerboard. It’s very important the fret is sat nicely in the slot and follows the radius of the fingerboard evenly. You have to think about what the fret is actually doing, it is transferring the energy and vibration of the string into your instrument. A great guitar is all about harnessing as much of the strings energy as possible and feeding it in to the wood and the pick ups. This is how we get sustain, attack, resonance and the character of our guitar.
Once the frets are in it is time to level and dress them. I do this process by hand using a selection of diamond coated files. When the frets have gone in evenly then the levelling process should be fairly straight forward and yield good results. The dressing of the frets is a multistage procedure. After levelling I start by bevelling the fret ends, this must be done with precision and care. An overly beveled fret end can lead to the strings slipping off the edge of the fret and will cause the player all kinds of problems.
After bevelling the fret ends just the right amount, I then turn my attention to the rounding off of the fret ends. This is a crucial bit and something I take pride in doing. A nicely rounded fret end is a thing to behold! It means the neck will feel really comfortable and with a kind of played in feel. I want the player to feel as free as possible to express themselves when playing one of my guitars, the instrument should be a conductor of creativity, with no obstacles.
Then finally it is the re-crowning and polishing of the frets. Again using diamond coated files I crown the tops of the frets very carefully to give good intonation and a smooth feel when moving up and down the fingerboard. I finally polish the frets all the way down to 8000 micro mesh to get a really mirror shine on them for absolute fluidity for the player.
Although not technically fret work I believe the rounding of the fingerboard edges is also incredibly important to how natural a guitar feels when you first pick it up. I’m always looking for that familiar old friend feel. No sharp or hard edges. It’s the small things that sometimes make the biggest difference.
I currently outsource my spray work to get the impeccable quality I require. I hope to soon build spray facilities into my workshop and do it in house, but for now I am very happy to work with really professional guys who do a superb job and completely understand where I am coming from as a maker.
As standard my guitars are finished using either a thin polyurethane lacquer or an aged nitro cellulose lacquer. I have chosen this as the standard as it is possible to apply the lacquer very thinly which I believe allows the wood’s natural resonance to ring through.
I also offer an all natural organic oil and wax finish applied by hand. This is a very tactile finish and offers protection for the wood in terms of sealing it, but it is a finish that will wear quickly. Ultra desirable for some… wrong choice for others!
However if you wish to have your guitar finished in any different manner this can be discussed further.
I use Hiscox cases, made in the UK. They are very light weight and extremely strong and durable. They fit my models snugly and provide excellent protection. I have used them on various tours the world over when working as a technician and they have never let me down.