Fraser Chute loves music.  He is a formally trained drummer, but he has also “dragged around” a steel string guitar for over thirty years.

He also really enjoys working with wood.  Over the years Fraser has built a number of things, including his own canoe.

Music took a bit of a back seat in Fraser’s life for a few years, but in 2004 he met his wife Cecile, and he credits her for bringing music back front and centre into his life. In 2005 he switched from “playing around” with his steel string guitar to taking Flamenco guitar lessons.

“I enjoyed playing but as I improved I wanted a better guitar than the one I had. Turns out prices for a really good guitar are outrageous. Then I saw an article about a 92 year old  man who had built quite a few guitars for his children when they were growing up. One of his children, Andrew Mah, is a world renowned Classical guitar player. That was when I had my epiphany – I could make my own guitar.”

Building a guitar isn’t quite the same as building bookcases or even a canoe. Fraser spent two years just reading and researching everything he could find on guitars and has bought and read most if not all of the best books on the craft.  Once he felt he was ready he started collecting the tools he needed.

“It took some time before I finally built my first Flamenco guitar. I started it in late 2008 and it took about a year to build it, a bit at a time. So it went from learning how to play Flamenco guitar to building my own guitar.   It is one of the most wonderful experiences to be able to do this.  And after I built and played it I realized – I know how to build a really good guitar.  And that was it – I was hooked.”

A scary picture of me.  I use a respirator most of the time these days.  I also have a big air filter the sucks the dust out of the air as well  as a dust collection system in place.

A scary picture of me. I use a respirator in the shop most of the time. I also have a big air filter the sucks the dust out of the air as well as a dust collection system in place.   Someone told me I look like Darth Vader.

Even though he already knew how to build a guitar Fraser wanted to study with an expert. In early 2010 Fraser took leave without pay from his job and enrolled in Sergei de Jonge’s five week guitar building course.  Sergei de Jonge is a world renowned luthier who lives in Chelsea, Quebec. Students come from around the world to study with him.  Fraser was only one of two people from Ottawa – the rest were from Denmark, France, Kentucky, New Jersey, Hamilton, Calgary, and Montreal. It was during this course that he built his first Classical guitar.

It was also when he decided to become a professional luthier.

If he was going to get serious about building guitars he needed more space and a permanent shop, so in the fall of 2010  he and Cecile started renovating their detached garage .

CRW_4559

CRW_4561“It had electricity and insulation but pretty well everything else had to be redone.  A new gas line was brought in from the house and a gas radiant heater installed to heat it. A new door and window with a new insulated ceiling and floor, a new paint job and I was ready to get the machinery in. Once the shop was done then came the task of building a solid workbench, shelves etc. to accommodate everything. The machines were delivered in 2011. It took the next year and a half to get it setup properly.”

The shop - after

The shop – after

None of this was cheap.  In addition to what he invested in the shop renovation, tools, and machinery there is the ongoing cost of the specialty woods, and all the other materials that go into a guitar. For example, tuning machines can vary from $120 to over $750 a set. It also takes a lot time – easily 150 hours to build a guitar to custom specifications and another 50 hours for the French polish finish, which is thinner and produces a better sound than regular production finishes.  French polish is only found on custom guitars because it must be applied one coat at a time.

But why go to all this trouble and expense when production guitars – lots of them – are so readily available?

Production guitars are manufactured and each model is assembled exactly the same way, regardless of the natural variations in the wood used.  Any unique characteristics in the wood can be lost during the process. The advantage is that there is uniformity –  all guitars made by manufacturer X will look more or less the same as the others of that model.  The disadvantage is they will not necessarily sound the same.  The other advantage is cost.  Guitars made on a production line are much cheaper to make. These days many of them are made in China, where production costs are even lower. The disadvantage is that a guitar off the shelf is made for anyone and everyone, which means it isn’t necessarily perfect for you. And while some of them have good sound, or even great sound, many may never be more than adequate.

Properly built custom guitars, on the other hand, will have a great sound, but they are expensive and time-consuming to make.  Because no two pieces of wood are exactly the same building a quality guitar means fine tuning and adjusting the top, neck, back and sides in order to get the optimum sound possible.  The sound comes from the combination of woods used (top, neck, back and sides) and the design of the guitar, and each combination can give a very different result.

 

Maple burl wood. Pieces will be used for the rosette or decoration around the sound hole.

Maple burl wood. Pieces will be used for the rosette or decoration around the sound hole.

Some customizations are obvious – left or right handed – full or 3/4 size?   Most customizations, however, are very much about personal preference. Some musicians prefer a mellow sound, while some want a really sustained sound.  Some players like a wider or narrower neck, a higher or lower bridge, a smaller or larger body, a cut-away, custom sound holes, and custom woods and inlays. To further complicate matters, no two guitar players play exactly the same music in exactly the same way.  Do you play with picks or are you a finger picker?  Do you want a high velocity of sound and a “punchy” quality because you play country blues, or a more balanced, warmer sound better suited to country ballads or folk.  The best wood for your guitar top may be Sitka spruce, while your friend would do better with cedar or another species of spruce.  The neck, sides and back of a guitar can be various types of wood, each potentially affecting how the guitar will ultimately sound.

When you consider everything that goes into a top quality guitar it really isn’t surprising to learn that world-renowned luthiers charge anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 for a guitar. Fraser doesn’t think he will ever see that, but he does believe he comes very close to their quality.  His prices start at around $2,500

And while he wants to be successful, that really isn’t why he does this.

“I do it more because of my  love of music than for a business. I can spend hours just talking about guitars and music.  And I do spend hundreds of hours in my workshop, building them. I can get lost in my workshop; time just seems to stand still when I am working on a guitar.  I love making something tangible – thinking about it, planning it, then building it.  Building guitars scratches this itch because it includes all kinds of skills and it combines two of my passions.  I really get a lot of satisfaction out of it.”

To contact Fraser email him at fraser@chuteguitarworks.com or call him at 613 862-2731

 

 Building custom guitars – the story in pictures

 

This is the first guitar I built. It is done in the traditional Spanish way -  built on a soleras where the neck is built as an integral part of the guitar with the top down.

This is the first guitar I built – a Flamenco. It is done in the traditional Spanish way – built on a solera where the neck is built as an integral part of the guitar.


Building the mold that the classical guitar is built in.

Building the mold that the classical guitar is built in.

 

The sides in the mold that the body is built in with the end and hell blocks glued in.  There are braces at the waist that are only used during construction of the body. They are removed once the body is completely done through the sound hole.

The sides in the mold that the body is built in with the end and hell blocks glued in. There are braces at the waist that are only used during construction of the body. They are removed through the sound hole once the body is completely done.

 

This the back strip being glued on.  The braces are clamped with the use of the plastic/fiberglass "Go bar" sticks.  They are a flexible rod that bends and when braced against the top of the "Go bar deck" exert the pressure needed to clamp the different pieces when gluing them on to the top and back.

This the back strip being glued on. The braces are clamped with the use of the plastic/fiberglass “Go bar” sticks. They are flexible rods that bend, and when braced against the top of the “Go bar deck”, exert the pressure needed to clamp the different pieces of wood that are glued on to the top and back.

 

The back with the centre strip glued in place. Getting ready to install the back braces.  The braces are glued in place then they are carved down to the final shape.

The back with the centre strip glued in place. Getting ready to install the back braces. The braces are glued in place then they are carved down to the final shape.

 

The top bracing pieces being cut to size.

The top bracing pieces being cut to size.

 

The back ready to be glued on

The back ready to be glued on

The back braces on, carved and sanded.  The tape protects the back from scratches during the process.

The back braces on, carved and sanded. The tape protects the back from scratches during the process.

 

The kerfing glued on.

The kerfing glued on.

 

Gluing on the kerfing, the ledge that the top and back are glued to.

Gluing on the kerfing, the ledge that the top and back are glued to.

 

Gluing on the sound hole re-enforcement.  The two big back braces also are glued to this, which gives you the X brace lattice top bracing pattern, which is Sergei de Jonge's design.

Gluing on the sound hole re-enforcement. The two big back braces also are glued to this, which gives you the X brace lattice top bracing pattern, which is Sergei de Jonge’s design.

 

The top bracing system for a Lattice type system.  Sergei de Jonge's design.

The top bracing system for a Lattice type system. Sergei de Jonge’s design.

 

Close up of the notches before they are glued in place.

Close up of the notches before they are glued in place.

 

The top again

The top again

 

Gluing up the top braces using the Go bar deck.

Gluing up the top braces using the Go bar deck.

 

Another shot of gluing on the top braces.

Another shot of gluing on the top braces.

 

The top braces all glued but not carved to their final shape yet.

The top braces all glued but not carved to their final shape yet.

 

The braces carved and the top, other then some quick sanding, is ready to be glued on to the sides.

The braces carved and the top, other then some quick sanding, is ready to be glued on to the sides.

 

The back has been glued onto the side with the body still in the construction mold.

The back has been glued onto the side with the body still in the construction mold.

 

Gluing the end and heel blocks in.

Gluing the end and heel blocks in.

 

The classical top and back just before the top is glued on.  With this technique the box and neck are completed first then glued together via a dovetail mortise and tenon joint.

The classical top and back just before the top is glued on. With this technique the box and neck are completed first then glued together via a dovetail mortise and tenon joint.

 

Gluing small blocks on the back side to support the back braces before the back is glued on.

Gluing small blocks on the back side to support the back braces before the back is glued on. This is the first guitar I built.

 

The first guitar again showing the bracing etc.

The first guitar again showing the bracing etc.  Note how the neck is already attached in this method.

 

The top clamped while being glued onto the sides

The top clamped while being glued onto the sides

 

The setup to route the ledges for the purfling and binding to be glued in place.

The setup to route the ledges for the purfling and binding to be glued in place. Purfling is the decorative edge you see on more expensive guitars.

A close-up of the ledges. These are cleaned with a chisel by hand before the binding and purfling are glued in place.  I am also setup to do this another way as well or totally by hand.

A close-up of the ledges. These are cleaned with a chisel by hand before the binding and purfling are glued in place. I am also setup to do this another way as well , but usually I do it totally by hand.

The binding strips bent to shape before gluing.

The binding strips bent to shape before gluing.

 

I use tape to clamp the binding and purfling in place while it dries.  This must be tight so there are no gaps once it is dry.  A traditional way of doing this is to use one long piece of rope that is wrapped around the whole guitar as it is tightened.

I use tape to clamp the binding and purfling in place while it dries. This must be tight so there are no gaps once it is dry. A traditional way of doing this is to use one long piece of rope that is wrapped around the whole guitar as it is tightened.

 

After the tape is removed.  The next step is to use a scraper and remove the excess glue and to get the binding flush and square with the sides of the guitar body.

After the tape is removed. The next step is to use a scraper and remove the excess glue and to get the binding flush and square with the sides of the guitar body.

 

This is a picture of the end of the guitar.  This is the first time that I did the binding and purfling pattern that is on this guitar.  A very tricky thing to do since the pieces are very small, must meet at 45 degrees and must all glued at the same time.  Well worth it though, it looks great.

This is a picture of the end of the guitar. This is the first time that I did the binding and purfling pattern that is on this guitar. A very tricky thing to do since the pieces are very small, must meet at 45 degrees and must all glued at the same time. Well worth it though; it looks great.

 

The neck can be done in one piece but there is a lot of wasted wood.  This is a scarf joint where the wood is cut at the appropriate angle, the one piece flipped over then glued on to the neck to get the headstock for the tuning machines.

The neck can be done in one piece but there is a lot of wasted wood. This is a scarf joint where the wood is cut at the appropriate angle, the one piece flipped over then glued on to the neck to get the headstock for the tuning machines.

 

The excess pieces cut off before starting to carve the neck.

The excess pieces cut off before starting to carve the neck.

 

Gluing the scarf joint together.

Gluing the scarf joint together.

 

Gluing on the headstock veneer.

Gluing on the headstock veneer.

 

This shows a 1/8 x 3/8 strip of graphite that has been into glued with epoxy into a routed channel to help with stiffness of the neck and help prevent warping pf the neck in the future.

This shows a 1/8 x 3/8 strip of graphite that has been glued with epoxy into a routed channel to help with stiffness of the neck and help prevent warping of the neck in the future.

 

A jig used to drill the holes for the tuning machines in the headstock.

A jig used to drill the holes for the tuning machines in the headstock.

 

The headstock after the string slots have been completed.

The headstock after the string slots have been completed.

 

The neck and body

The neck and body

 

A guitar troji or guitar vise, used when scraping the sides, sanding and other guitar body finishing processes.

A guitar troji or guitar vise, used when scraping the sides, sanding and other guitar body finishing processes.

 

The neck and body completed and being finished with a French polish.  This is the way that Sergei de Jonge taught us.  The advantage of the dovetail mortise and tenon joint is later on if the guitar needs a neck reset it can be removed to work on it.  The traditional Spanish way makes this very difficult to do.

The neck and body completed and being finished with a French polish. This is the way that Sergei de Jonge taught us. The advantage of the dovetail mortise and tenon joint is if the guitar needs a neck reset it can be removed to work on it. The traditional Spanish way makes this very difficult to do.

 

A mock up of my label

A mock up of my label

 

A finished Flamenco guitar.  The back and sides are made out of Cypress, a traditional wood for Flamenco guitars.

A finished Flamenco guitar. The back and sides are made out of Cypress, a traditional wood for Flamenco guitars.

 

My first Classical guitar built during Sergei de Jonge's five week course in spring of 2010.

My first Classical guitar built during Sergei de Jonge’s five week course in spring of 2010.

 

This is me on the last night of Sergei de Jonge's course.  This was a magical night. After all our work we finally strung up the guitars we had built.  Only than can you tell what it will ultimately sound like. Someone snapped a shot of me as I heard my guitar for the first time.

This is me on the last night of Sergei de Jonge’s course. This was a magical night. After all our work we finally strung up the guitars we had built. Only then can you tell what it will sound like. Someone snapped a shot of me as I heard my guitar for the first time.

 

 

Copyright © JD Cottier

All Photos Copyright © Fraser Chute

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March 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses

  1. Marianne DeVito

    Fraser & Cécile – is there anything you CAN’T do?
    Congratulations on your most recent accomplishment… you will NEVER cease to amaze.

    Reply
  2. art maw

    I have built many things but what you are doing is an art form
    well done you are a very talented craftsman and artist
    Plus I think you should buy shares in the clamp manufacturing company

    Reply
  3. Jennifer

    I have another friend who has been building guitars for years. I never realized just how detailed the process is. You must really have the passion for it. Thanks for sharing. Next time I see my friend I’ll be sure to mention this. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it as well.

    Reply

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