While I have often said that I have never made the same guitar twice, and it is certainly true, as I learn more about how others approach guitar making I have found that there are common threads running through my work are are in very high contrast to the norm. These "common threads" themselves have something in common which, while not unique in the community, have given me some insight into my "difference".
As many luthiers mature into viable businesses, they move toward more efficiency in their building process. Not only in their tool use, but in fixturing and jigs, and in many case in the adoption of employees or apprentices, and increasing often in passing off tasks to computer numerical milling machines and their ilk. Once such a luthier has established their concept firmly and settled on a few designs, these methods are capable of repeating tasks very accurately and raising production numbers relative to the number of machines and or employees and shop space one imagines one needs. Using this kind of approach two people can (and have) been able to maintain a yearly output of as many as 100 very fine guitars a year. To put this in perspective, I currently can make between 12 and 14 guitars a year if I log 50 hours a week at the bench.
My lifetime average, last time I calculated it, was 10.9 guitars a year. This is because I have chose a relatively inefficient means of "production". I have very few fixtures of any sort, and build one guitar at a time, stock piling no parts larger than bridge pins and instead making every part from scratch as I require it. You might ask why I would do this? And I hope you do!
The answer is tied to my having never made the same guitar twice. My goal is not to raise my production numbers, but instead to raise the quality of my guitar. Every time. And, on average, my work has continued to improve piece by piece for my entire career. Not simply in craftsmanship, though that has developed beautifully IMO, but more importantly the tonal presence, projection, playability, and balance across the spectrum of the guitar's voice are where my ongoing frontier lies.
I am married to my work in a way which is probably not entirely healthy. I view each guitar as a marker of my personal progress as a human being. Of course I actually live my life in other ways, being still active in sports and having a family, for instance, but it is guitar making that is my central discipline. I think of this as potentially unhealthy because if I do decline significantly before my ultimate demise, it will probably be harder for me than it might have been if I were a slacker or less self judgmental. Oh well!
For the efficiency absorbed luthiers, I see each step toward repeatability is a step away from growth. I know that some will argue that they can easily change their design with a few keyboard strokes, but as time passes I see that very very few do so, at least not visibly. Because I do change my designs constantly, I know that every little change, if meaningful, requires other changes as well, often a great many. One tends to become comfortably with things that work, and to avoid rocking the boat. I personally would not be very excited to be repeating for the rest of my life what I was doing 25 years into my career, which was merely half way . . . so far.
But enough philosophy, I want to tell you something about what I actually do.
There is a great deal of bickering in the community about whether the glue makes a meaningful difference or not. I built with aliphatic glue such as Titebond type 1 until about 25 years ago. I first used Hot Hide Glue (HHG) because Eric Schoenberg asked me to for the work I was then doing for him. It seemed to me that there was an immediate uptick in the sound of the work, but then it always seems like that to me as according to my approach, there should be! This last year I made two guitars using titebond just to see. They both work very well, as expected, but there is a difference in the quality of the sound compared to any of the HHG guitars before or since that I have on hand. Talking about tone is frustrating as we have no common vocabulary, you and I, but I will try anyway. The missing thing is a kind of clarity, of more a transparency. You might not miss it at all until you identified it, and then it is the kind of thing that seem extremely important. Looking through a dirty window you can see the view and all the colors, but once it is cleaned the view in incomparably better.
Some say that HHG adds a lot of time to the process, but I do not find this to be true. If it does add time, it is on the order of an hour or two per guitar. I have never charged more for using it. As it happens I love working with the stuff. It feels serious. The smell is pleasant. It washes off with hot water completely and gives my old tooth brushes a second life.
Except for perhaps 5 guitars around 1970, I have always done my own finish. I started with a Cabinet Rubbing Varnish made by BapCo (rip) and learned to apply it with a sable brush. Around guitar number 40 I got a cheap airless stutter gun and got into Nitro Cellulose Lacquer as I learned that that was was the big boys did. Eventually I got the really good Binks equipment and a honkin' compressor and a spray booth, But I hated it, the finish process became some I dreaded as tedious and unhealthy.
Then, while cleaning out my now extensive steel locker full of finishing cans and bottle, I found a half a quart of my old BapCo varnish. 25 years later it was still liquid in the can! So I bought a new brush and finished a guitar with it. A really fascinating process, but it took about 4 times as much time as the Nitro process I had learned to hate. I didn't care. I started trying various brands of modern varnish and settled on the Behlen Rockhard for a few years. As the EPA had their way with things Rockhard got reformulated noticeably a few times, and became wrong for me, and I went hunting again. I have now been using a product made by Ace Hardware (who knew!) that seems like the best yet for my purposes. We have been going steady for about ten years.
I no longer use a brush, though I would if asked. I use all that fancy equipment I have and get better results in a little less time, which is great, but the better results is the real point. I am able to maintain a really consistent coat thickness at between 3.5 and 5 thousandths of an inch on my finished work, and a fellow can be proud of that in a world of 8 to 10 thou lacquer finishes.
Varnish has the advantage where weight is concerned, it is lighter by volume and there is less of it. And it has another advantage that is less obvious. It is less stiff as a film. Nitro, as well as the more modern UV and catalyzed cure finishes, add structure to the plate of a guitar. This is great because it is much more difficult to damage such a surface with a pick that it is with a softer varnish finish, but it has the downside of adding structure to that AAA grade top (you did spec that, didn't you?) that has been whittled down to the optimum strength for the job it must do, making it not only overbuilt compared to the ideal, but NOT the high end tone wood that is ideal for the job. And that you paid for.
No worries, the factory, whether 2 workers or 600, probably didn't whittle it down all that close to the ideal anyway, it is the experienced one man shop who can excel at that.
I use a fixture for cutting my fret slots. It is a clever thing that can cut any length between 24 3/16" and 26 1/4" string length and up to 28 frets. It is infinitely variable. I am amazed that I thought of it, but it is not complicated. It is ideal. My other fixture holds the guitar while I rout the binding ledges. It too works with any size guitar I have made. It is not so clever.
I do not use molds to hold the shape of my guitar, instead I do what some violin makers call "building in the air". Ironically, I do use a mold when building a violin, but that is another story. Discarding the ubiquitous female mold guitar makers tend to use means symmetry is less assured, and that bending accuracy and general craftsmanship must be raised to higher level to create at least the illusion of bilateral symmetry. Alternatively, asymmetry becomes an option to explore, and if you have followed my path you know I have risen to that challenge as well with my JB series.
Throwing over molds is one of the more easily seen facilitators of lack of repetition. One size or shape of guitar is then as easily made as another. It is simply a matter of drawing a template onto the inside of a guitar top plate and then filling in the details. once the template is establish, the bracing can be drawn as well, right onto the top. I have no patterns at all for that, which allows constant growth of my structural concept. It is easy to vary the relationship between the top thickness and the brace structure to manipulate the sound of the guitar and to allow for variances in the structural integrity of the materials. No two tops are the same, even when cut from the same billet. While some of these differences can be measured, sensitive and experienced hands can learn to feel them, and no amount of measuring tells the measurer what to do about the difference. It comes down to personal mastery in the end.
Some call them Tentalones. Both words are Spanish and describe an alternative to linings, the reinforcement between the top plate and the sides which allows the purfling channels to be cut without the top being separated from the sides.
Peone means "little thing", I am told, and I use them in almost all of my work. They are little spruce blocks hand placed which fix the bent sides in relation to the top. Typically, there are 124 of them in my OM proportioned guitar. It takes about an hour and a half to set them in place. They are not all the same size which may matter because that distributes the stress line their inner extreme represents in a relative haphazard or "fractal" manner. Or I may spend too much time at the bench rationalized my style. Actually, the peone as an integral part of the Spanish guitar making tradition and has informed a great deal of my process.