October Meeting: Guitar Kits with George Vondriska
Guitars From a Kit by George Vondriska
The October Guild meeting was held in the wood shop of Andover High School. George Vondriska spoke about building an acoustic guitar from a kit, and brought several kits and completed guitars.
George has built a lot of guitars from kits, alone or with a class full of guitar builders making as many as 20 at once. Some group project guitars have been donated to Guitars 4 Vets (guitars4vets.org) to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). George explained that a vet who takes twelve lessons gets to keep the guitar, and that music is a great help to them.
George brought the following kits: Grizzly - $90; U.S. Guitar - $225; U.S. Guitar - $300; Renaissance - $399; and Stuart McDonald - $425.
He said that with guitar kits as with most things, the higher the price, the better the kit. Solid wood makes a better guitar than laminated materials (plywood), and the less expensive kits have more laminated materials. The better kits have better materials overall and require more assembly. For example, the Grizzly kit has a pre-assembled body while the Renaissance and Stuart McDonald kits are all separate pieces.
Important design features also vary between kits. The neck on the Grizzly kit is aligned with dowels and glued to the body. The neck on both U.S. Guitar kits is bolted on, the neck on the Renaissance Guitar kit has kerfs in it for the sides, and the neck on the Stuart McDonald kit is dovetailed in place.
In each kit, a steel truss rod inside the guitar neck helps resist the pull of the steel strings. In contrast, classical guitars use nylon or gut strings that do not pull as hard on the guitar, so these guitars have no steel truss rod in the neck.
George explained that the fret board needs to be crowned after it is glued to the neck. This makes the centerline of the fret board slightly higher than the outboard edges. The crown can be set to a 12”, 16” or 20” radius with a radius block and sandpaper, working from 80 to 400 grit
Each kit’s fret board comes grooved for the frets. The pre-cut frets are pressed into the fret board, not glued. It’s a delicate operation, and a special tool called a fret press can be a big help. There are also specially ground side cutters to trim the frets.
George said that he always uses yellow carpenter’s glue for guitars and Duco cement for the banding and purfling. He usually finishes a guitar with three coats of catalyzed lacquer, although once he used ten coats, and has also used shellac. He tries to stay away from custom guitar building tools, which are available through Stuart McDonald but pricey. He uses blue painter’s tape to secure the sound board (top) to the body during assembly. Jorgensen F-style clamps will also work, as will spool clamps, which are easy to build in quantity. They require two pieces of 1” dowel with holes drilled through them, a machine screw with a wing nut, and some washers and pads.
George’s overall theme was that it’s one thing to build a guitar as a woodworking project, but another to build a functional musical instrument. The essence of a guitar is that it has to sound good. It has to play well. The builder has to get certain things just right.
For example, the distance from the strings to the fret board cannot be too great or the guitar will be hard to play because the guitarist will have to press down too hard on the strings to press them against the fret board. Too small a distance and the strings will buzz. The tension in the truss rod has to be set right to keep the strings parallel to the fret board and sound board, because it controls the amount of bow in the neck. The location of the bridge (where the strings are raised above the sound board near their bottom ends) is also very important. If it is positioned wrong then even if the strings are tuned correctly, the guitar will not produce the right notes when played. The tuning pegs have to be installed accurately to keep the strings aligned.
George said that it’s possible to exceed the capabilities of the Grizzly guitar if you play well enough, another argument for spending more for a better kit. But a novice woodworker and guitar player would be better off with the simpler Grizzly kit.
If it has always been your dream to play screaming electric guitar then you can also get electric guitar kits from the same manufacturers. They also make electric bass guitar kits.
For further information George Vondriska can be contacted at The Woodworkers Guild of America, wwgoa.com.
George closed the show by playing Johnny Cash’s song Folsom Prison Blues, a first at a Guild meeting and a hard act to follow.