February 2002 Meeting

Ervin Somogyi Leads First Annual "Masters Class"

Our first annual Master Class was held at John Timblin’s home in Arlington. We were honored to have Ervin Somogyi as our guest. Ervin has been making acoustic guitars for over thirty years and is widely acknowledged as a modern master builder. The topic of the class was a step-by-step look at how to evaluate and select tone wood for use as guitar tops.
The course started at 9:30 Saturday morning and went well past the dinner hour. On Sunday we once again started early and concluded in mid afternoon. We had 19 members attend. At the end of each day's sessions the members were able to sort through a selection of Sitka Spruce tops that Chris Jenkins had LMI send us. LMI sent us nothing but primo sets, no doubt because they knew that Ervin was our presenter and didn’t want him seeing any junk tops. Over seventy tops were purchased by our members at the very reasonable price of $19 each.

Ervin started the day by discussing the nature of wood. His syllabus broke down the tone wood selection process into a series of simple question and answer steps. Each exercise involved examining sets of wood that he had brought for the process. In fairness to Ervin I cannot reproduce his questions here, but just as an example here is one of the early questions.

Examine plates #5,6 visually. You may pick them up, but don't flex them, tap them, etc.
What three qualities or properties can you identify by just holding the wood and looking at it?
Are there more than three? More than ten? More than twenty?
List as many as you can.
I personally came up with five characteristics.

This is Ervin’s answer to the question:
What kind of wood?, quarter sawn?, length and width?, grain fine or coarse?,
thickness?, knots?, dark grain lines?, run out?,
even grain distribution?, oxidation patterns?, wood coloration?, medullary rays?,
grain density or tightness?.      
Absence or presence of: light reflectance or chatoyance?, cracks or fractures?
Texture: fibrousness or smoothness?, even thickness?
Stability:Absent or present, weight?, cupping?, warping or bowing?, grain straightness?,
wood density/hardness?, generaly pleasing?, highly figured?, rectangular?,
good book match?, grain clarity?, contrast.  
Wow! That’s over twenty characteristics that Ervin looks for in a top.
After going though a series of exercises that involved touching, flexing, and tapping we went outside where there was better light to answer specific questions about several sets of wood. This is an example of the probing nature of these questions:

Examine plates #425, 421, 422 carefully, as though you needed to select one to build a guitar for a jazz player.
Which one might you choose? Why?
Which one would you reject? Why?
When asked to handle the teaching top sets, Ervin asked us to be gentle and not break the top. I am sorry to report that LINT now holds the record for the number of broken tops in a single day. Here is Ervin repairing some of our handy work
By the end of the first day many off us had gained new skills that made tonewood selection less of a mystery. Many stayed late into the evening to test their new knowledge on the Sitka tops from LMI.
Day two was devoted to Q&A on the prior day's material. Ervin presented a demonstration that showed that, contrary to popular wisdom, that only the lightest [least dense] blocks of spruce yield braces that are stiffer when quartersawn. If the wood is normal to heavy in density, this factor disappears and it makes no difference which way the grain runs.
There was a lively discussion concerning braces and top tuning. Member Mike Roach brought a top tuning jig that had been built in a Somogyi course. Shown here on the right.
We concluded the event with some LINT business. Don Chesser was elected president for 2002 by acclamation. Ervin was presented with an Ebony Monte Blanc style pen that was made by member Sandy Cheatum.
Members John Fitzgerald and Steve Mayo each showed recently completed guitars. Steve’s instrument is a walnut/cedar dreadnaught with Martin style scalloped bracing. Soundhole and fingerboard inlays are abalone. It is his first guitar "from scratch", actually the third one I've built. The finish is satin Tru-Oil. It’s it the first guitar he made a commission on!

John Fitzgerald's instrument is a classical acoustic/electric with cutaway and 14 frets to the body. The top is sitka spruce; back and sides are Indian rosewood; the binding, headpiece veneer, and rosette inlay are padouk. It was built for Dale Clark, lead guitar player for Max Stalling.

All in all the "Masters Class" was a terrific learning experience. We plan to make this into an annual event.

Comments on the 2002 Masters Class
by LINT Members

"I always take away from Ervin's presentations the idea of working with what you've got...making the most of what you have. But this time he went a step further in encouraging us to work with what we like. He said we'd make better guitars using materials we personally enjoy, or are drawn to. And of course, the encouragement then is not to let "conventional wisdom" tyrannize over your own selection process. (Remember this? e.g., if the top doesn't have 24 grain lines per inch, so what...? if my gut instinct says it will make a good top, go with the one that's got 6 lines per inch.) This to me is liberating!"
Steve Kinnaird

"I too am overloaded with information. I hope I will be able to convert some small amount of that information into knowledge. There was so much covered, it is hard to boil it down to one item. I will most remember the feeling that there is not a single right answer to selecting tone wood. Every piece of wood is a good piece of wood, depending on what you do with it."
Bob Langley

"'There are no bad woods, just improper applications'. The key is to know how to evaluate the wood for your purpose, and to know what qualities you want the wood to have. Then you can make adjustments to make the best use of that wood. I also liked how Ervin Somogyi tried to get us to discover for ourselves, rather than just give us rote instruction and lecture. That's the mark of a good teacher. I liked the discussion on the details of the many properties wood has, and how it behaves in our little corner of the wood world. I'm sure I'll be digesting and using all this information for some time. Glad I took good notes."
Steve Mayo

"Being able to hear and speak to someone with 30 years experience, as well as being able to identify certain physical as well as audible traits about soundboards. Also I thought the discussion about bracing, how, where, etc. was great. It was interesting to me about the discussion where using the braces in the flat sawn direction as opposed to the grain standing straight up really wasn't a whole lot different. I am sure many of us that have read Cumpiano's book, etc. have all believed that vertical grain was the only way to go for strength and sound."
Jim Whelan

"It's really hard to narrow the plethora of information down to a single most important thing that I learned. In terms of top selection I think it would have to be 'how to link a specific players style to the characteristics of a top that would perform best to that style'. Not that I would be able to do that after taking the class. But I'm at least aware it is something a master builder would be capable of doing. Other valuable insight I got from the class would be, how thin a top should be. I didn't occur to me that the factories overbuild guitars to cut down on maintenance and repair. Or that a very stiff top would need to be thinner than a not so stiff top."
Jeff Heath

“The technical skills we were taught at the seminar for evaluating and selecting tonewood will be invaluable to all of us. However, equally important I thought were Ervin's comments about hand built guitars. If we only aspire to build a Martin, Gibson, or Taylor, why build at all? The paradox is that we cannot build those over braced, muffled guitars better than the factories, given their years of experience doing it, and level of mechanization. However, we have the ability and opportunity to create guitars that are far superior in tone by applying care and knowledge to individual pieces of wood. What a wonderful thing!”
Chris Jenkins