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Thread: Luthier Secrets

  1. #1
    Resonate globally Pete Jenner's Avatar
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    Default Luthier Secrets

    Recent threads prompted me to post this one.

    How many of you luthier types have secret building techniques you wouldn't reveal to anyone - even on this forum? Did you develop/discover them yourself or learn them from another master?

    A friend who builds banjos and uilleann pipes recently gave me a great tip for doing MOP inlays. I sensed from the way he told it to me that it was more or less a trade secret so I won't reveal it here even though most of you are probably aware of it. I usually rely on Dan Erlewine for handy tips, like the recent one where he fits a small plane iron in a drill press to cut binding mitres.

    I'm not asking anyone to reveal their secrets but if you feel like sharing, who am I to stop you.
    The more I learn, the less I know.

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    Troglodyte Michael Weaver's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    The thing about "trade secrets" is that If they are secrets you will never know about them... or, if you know about them they are not trade secrets.
    Bart McNeil

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    Resonate globally Pete Jenner's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by bmac View Post
    The thing about "trade secrets" is that If they are secrets you will never know about them... or, if you know about them they are not trade secrets.
    What - never know they exist or never know the secrets?
    The more I learn, the less I know.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    It is the end result that matters, not how we get there. The end result can be examined, tested, measured and studied until all about it is revealed. Some luthiers may have techniques that they don't want to reveal, but those are just part of the path to the end result and the same can be accomplished by other means. In other words, there are no secrets in a finished instrument, it's there for all to see, and since any method that gets us there gets us there just the same, what good are secrets?

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    I rarely get the sense that luthiers are in cut-throat competition and would not share their techniques. It is not like magicians who have the ultimate tricks that their act is based on. Then again, I don't know. If you share you special secret technique does that mean you can't use it ever again? Strange concept.
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    Registered User fscotte's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    I think the biggest secrets, and rightfully so, is the tendency not to reveal graduations, especially for the back plate. The reason being, that's where the sound is, and due to the back plate's oddly shape (normally thicker near the heel, less thick near the tail), you can find an assortment of ideas on how to get the proper response from the back - I know of two people here who carve a minimum area all the way around the back plate, which is contrary to "standards", but they get good results.

    The top plate is more easily discoverable as far as grads are concerned and they are well published. Deflection results and/or tap results are also more easily discoverable with the top plate, to test any theories on grads. The back plate, not so much - which means it is harder to get to a proper thickness/stiffness ratio. Therefore, something which takes harder to learn and discover, the greater the potential to keep it secret.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    It is the end result that matters, not how we get there. The end result can be examined, tested, measured and studied until all about it is revealed. Some luthiers may have techniques that they don't want to reveal, but those are just part of the path to the end result..., what good are secrets?
    A fiddle maker friend of mine has said exactly that.

    He went on to say that secrets provide no real advantage. The best of the best are not the best because of some secret knowledge, but because of a greater hand eye coordination perhaps, or greater sensitivity to the interaction of wood and sound, greater patience, more accurate eye for wood, or form, or better technique, or better able to imagine the consequences of particular techniques, or just many more years experience. My friend says he could know everything that so and so knows, and still not be able to make fiddles as nice sounding as so and so.
    Having something to say is highly over rated.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    The luthiers I know talk on a somewhat regular basis with each other. We're not in cut throat competition, to my knowledge. Quite the contrary. I believe this forum is evidence that pretty much everything we know is freely shared. Knowledge is one thing; the ability or desire to actually do something is another. As to plate graduations and so forth, every piece of wood is different and therefore the actual graduations are going to vary. Another builder will graduate a particular plate one way from the way I would do it. What we hear inside our heads guides every one of us on our own path. I think that may be secret even to ourselves but we act on it. Scientific measurements are all well and good, but we're not dealing with a consistent material.

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    Registered User fscotte's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Dale I really don't agree with that.

    A good piece of slab cut sugar maple will be generally carved within the same grad specs as the next. I recently checked the back grads on my 98' Gibson A5 which has slab cut sugar maple, and bingo, they almost look identical to Loar specs. There are exceptions of course, but it's one reason you'll see very little info on back plate specs and arching profiles.

    If those things are readily made available by our esteemed luthiers I'll be the very first to be jotting them down.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    It's funny. I have found that the better and more experienced the luthier, the more willing they are to share their experience and knowledge (just read the daily posts here). In the end it's the inexperienced ones who feel that they have competition nipping at their heals and don't want to help anyone. Great luthiers are not are not great because of secrets, they are great because of their knowledge gained by years of experience and there isn't really any competition that matters.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Good answers as I expected.

    Ok don't laugh - here is the 'secret' about the inlays. Paint the back of the MOP white to make it really stand out.
    ...but I'm sure you all knew that.

    Perhaps there are more secrets among violin makers, especially when it comes to varnish formulas.
    The more I learn, the less I know.

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    Kelley Mandolins Skip Kelley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    I heard the story from an instrument/collector retailer that one builder when asked about his tone bar placement said he would sell that information to him. Can't we just look in the f holes was my thought. I found it funny.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    fscotte, the graduation specs you're talking about- yes, they will be carved to the same general specs. The final graduations are going to differ a bit. Back plate specs are going to be different from the top- the back isn't under the same direct pressure from the strings. There is more freedom there. I can't speak for other builders but I know my basic back profile is the same as my top. The graduations are different and actually after I hit the generally accepted guidelines, I fiddle with it until it's what I'm after. And I don't measure them and write it down. Perhaps I should. I do measure enough to know that I'm not going to go too thin and toss it into the waste bin.... That has happened.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    You want access to all of the secrets? Buy all of the volumes of the "Big Red Books" from the GAL, plus the issues of American Lutherie since the last included in the Big Red Books. At least that will get you the secrets up to the present. Someone will probably claim some new secrets soon. I daresay there are tips on those pages that a lot of secret keepers have never thought of.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Pete, actually I read many years ago of a similar secret re: inlays. Line the pocket with aluminum foil so light bounces around back there. These days (Shhhhhh......), we use LED's. Battery is hidden in the truss rod pocket.

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    formerly Philphool Phil Goodson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    If someone had a secret that they weren't willing to share, why would they tell you?????

    Just to make an enemy???
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Cohen View Post
    You want access to all of the secrets? Buy all of the volumes of the "Big Red Books" from the GAL, plus the issues of American Lutherie since the last included in the Big Red Books. At least that will get you the secrets up to the present. Someone will probably claim some new secrets soon. I daresay there are tips on those pages that a lot of secret keepers have never thought of.

    http://www.Cohenmando.com
    Not looking for secrets Dave - just a discussion about them.
    I subscribe to American Lutherie and have learned a lot from just two issues so far.
    The more I learn, the less I know.

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    Resonate globally Pete Jenner's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by Dale Ludewig View Post
    Pete, actually I read many years ago of a similar secret re: inlays. Line the pocket with aluminum foil so light bounces around back there.
    I painted the back of my last one with a white paint pen Dale. It did make a big difference.
    The more I learn, the less I know.

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    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by Pete Jenner View Post
    I painted the back of my last one with a white paint pen Dale. It did make a big difference.
    The top Neapolitan makers lined the pickguard pocket with gold foil so the tortoiseshell on top "glows".

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    We're veering off topic here, but I think if you lined the whole inlay pocket with reflective material, it might make the inevitable little filler material around the inlay more visible. Back to topic.... secrets.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    More like secrets of the trade. I only ran into it twice in my life. I was taking my classes to become a Novell networking engineer many years ago when the teacher explained that if we didn't show anyone anything we learned we would always have a job. The other time was the bicycle business when I asked an old repair guy named Garth to show me how his fork straightening technique worked. He had this piece of cardboard with lines on it. He told me he wouldn't show me because I'd go to work for the guy down the street and cut his prices. Instead I watched him straighten a few forks, then duplicated his card board when he wasn't working. I still use it when needed. I don't see this in lutherie although I guess it could happen. Frank Ford's www.frets.com would be the exact opposite of keeping information close to the vest. Speaking of Vest, I do recall Big Joe not disclosing his methods of distressing a mandolin, so I guess it does happen.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by fscotte View Post
    I think the biggest secrets, and rightfully so, is the tendency not to reveal graduations, especially for the back plate.
    Get your hands on a Hacklinger or a Magic Probe, and get your hands on lots of mandolins and you can know the graduations of every top and back. Make a test jig and you can check the deflection of every top and back.
    As I said, once these things are made, there are no secrets.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    ...As I said, once these things are made, there are no secrets.
    Perfect.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Luthier Secrets

    Violin makers are infamous for being secretive, but I've found it to be quite the opposite...
    The only "secrets" that I've run into have involved the nuts-and-bolts of laminating tortoiseshell for bow frogs, and certain wood treatments...

    I know a guitar maker who peppers his conversation with things like "then I'd have to kill you"...
    But looking at his instruments, you realize you really don't want to draw on his vast amount of acquired secret knowledge anyway...

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