To get an appreciation for the artistry and science that go into making a modern-day acoustic guitar, we take a look inside a music instrument icon
How many million guitarists pick up an acoustic guitar and use it to perform, compose, practice, teach, or simply to relax in a single day? But most of us never really stop and think about how the guitar in our hands was actually transformed from a tree into a musical instrument.
To get an appreciation for the artistry and science that go into making a modern-day acoustic guitar, I spoke with Chris Wellons, Vice President of Manufacturing for Taylor Guitars, based in El Cajon, CA. I felt like I was back in school as Chris walked me through the process of how Taylor builds their acoustics – finishing and shipping 600 instruments a day (140,000 annually) at their two manufacturing plants.
The main Taylor plant is in El Cajon, and a second plant in Tecate, Mexico makes many of their entry level guitars. A lot of time, effort, and passion goes into ensuring that every Taylor guitar is beautiful and sounds great, and with proper care and maintenance, will be reliable and playable for a lifetime.
“It all starts from the tree,” Chris says. “We source wood from all over the world, including Central America, Africa, and Alaska. We work hard to educate our suppliers on what it takes to qualify as a ‘guitar tree.’ Most mills take all the wood available from a grower and cut it up. They look at the sheer quantity of wood, purchase it and find uses for it. It’s estimated that guitar makers use less than 1% of all the timber that is harvested worldwide, so we are a small segment of a large industry, but one with very specialized needs. At Taylor, we are committed to finding environmentally responsible growers and the types of trees that best meet our needs.”
Wood grain and milling
While responsible sourcing plays an integral part in Taylor’s operations, quality grain is equally important. “Decisions about the wood we acquire often center on grain structures,” Chris explains. “For instance, when we look at koa wood, we often start by selecting logs and splitting them to see the face and determine what the grain pattern will be from a particular log. Then we can determine how to keep the figure and grain patterns exposed so as to give a guitar the maximum quality, strength and beauty. Our goal is to build heirloom-quality instruments, and to do that, carefully selecting and milling the lumber is essential.
“Once we’ve acquired the wood, we look at the raw material and lay out various guitar shape patterns against it and ask ourselves, ‘What would fit that piece of wood?’ Of course, we’ll need a guitar top, back, and sides to make one of our acoustic instruments. Once we’ve decided how best to use a particular piece of wood, we re-process it through our milling process, which involves kiln drying the wood to shrink the cellular structure.”
Humidity and moisture content
“From there, the wood goes to our acclimation room, where the temperature and humidity are stable year round. How long it stays there varies on the wood’s moisture content; ideally we want it to be between 6-10% moisture content before it’s ready for the next stage. The acclimation time can vary between two to six weeks. You have to remember that we are working with a living, breathing piece of wood. If the wood is too wet, it will eventually begin to dry, shrink and crack. That’s why throughout our entire building process, we keep humidity at a constant level.”
Once fully acclimated, the wood pieces selected will make their way to the laser room where on one of three lasers, a guitar top, back, and sides will be cut. Using a fiber-optic laser and computer programming to cut the shapes out, the laser machines provide accuracy down to 1/1000th of an inch. Once completed, the guitar top and back make their way to a different building for bracing, another detailed process.
“We bring the wood that has been selected for the top to our bracing area which has fans constantly blowing stable temperature and humidity-controlled air across the wood. In the case of our Sitka spruce tops, we have a certain weight and measurement as our goal, and by exposing the tops to this environment, the wood may both shrink and lose weight, or it may grow. Twenty-four hours in this room is the minimum, but it may take two or three days before the top is fully stabilized and all tension has been released. Then we’ll glue the bracing to each top and back before it joins its sides to create a guitar body.”
Shaping the sides
Meanwhile, the guitar’s shaped sides have been undergoing their own transformation from flat pieces of wood to the curved sides via special machines that bend and heat the wood to 300ºF. This shaping process, which takes only a few minutes and requires very little moisture, molds the wood into its final body shape. The existing moisture content in the wood, combined with the heat, will change the cellular structure of the wood when bent. It’s then placed in a cooling form to hold its shape. This along with the tail, heel block, and kerfing will make the sides rigid.
To adhere the braced top and back to the guitar sides, kerfing is glued in place around the sides’ outer perimeter. Kerfing refers to the width of the cut made by a particular saw blade, as kerfing is partially sawed wood which allows it to bend yet retain a stable base to glue the guitar together. “Afterwards, we’ll glue the tail and heel block that will be attached to the top, back, and sides,” Chris adds. “The sides are like a speaker, the rim has to be very rigid and the guitar top is like the speaker cone, it amplifies the guitar’s sound.”
The next step in the process is to hand rout the guitar body before adding the decorative binding and edges to it. After this step, it’s waiting to mate with its neck.
“Our guitar necks start as a 4×4” board and get close to the nominal size of the neck via rough milling. Then we have days of staging during which we will remove some of the material to get closer to the final neck size,” says Chris. The process of carving the neck to its final size is done in stages as the luthiers patiently let the neck “move.”
Wood has a tendency to release tension as it is cut. Perhaps you’ve experienced this if you’ve ever sawed a board at home and noticed it changed shape slightly after it had been cut. Once the wood is cut, and tension is released in the wood, the luthier lets the neck rest and become stable before milling it again. “We repeat this process until we have the right size and shape and a stable piece of wood,” explains Chris. The careful handling and assessment of the wood that goes into this process adds time and expense. “We could build a guitar faster, but we won’t. We want to maintain a high level of quality.”
According to Chris, one of the first major innovations to the acoustic guitar in the past hundred years is Taylor’s New Technology (NT) neck. “The NT Neck is a three-piece bolt-on neck system,” Chris explains. “It’s a better quality neck that is easier to play and adjust, and it increases our yield from the woods we use by 50%.”
Before the neck can attach to the body, it will go through a finish process during which the heel is glued onto the neck, then the neck is carved, and finally, it’s sanded smooth to touch. The neck also goes through precision cutting and stabilization, which includes fly-cutting each neck to establish a flat, parallel surface so the neck can be machined and a fretboard glued on; binding the neck and fretboard; adding the decorative plate at the top of the neck; adjusting the radius of the fingerboard; and inserting the frets.
Finishing and assembly
Next up is the finishing process. Taylor uses a polyester UV finish. The process starts out by rubbing paste filler into the pores of the wood to seal it, and then the finish is sprayed on. It takes about thirteen seconds to cure the UV paste filler and finish before the parts are ready to move along. Using the paste filler keeps the polyester UV coating from penetrating into the wood. Both the body and neck now have a high gloss finish and are ready for final assembly.
“As part of our final assembly process, we pocket the top of the guitar body on a CNC (computer numerical controlled) machine, which is very precise. This creates space for the neck to be joined to the body. Once complete, the neck is attached with three bolts, two from the heel to the heel block, and one to attach the fretboard to the body. We use a shim system to adjust the neck angle to the angle of the bridge, and then set the neck angle to ensure the action is not too high or too low. From here, we’ll add the tuning pegs, electronics, the pick guard, and anything else the guitar requires. Then we’ll string the guitar, tune it up, play it to test all the electronics, and when it passes every test, we’ll put it into its case, box it and transfer it to shipping. From beginning to end, the guitar-building process averages about 15 days.”
Taylor welcomes visitors for a free factory tour at its factory in El Cajon, California, Monday through Friday at 1:00 p.m.
Exotic woods are a finite resource and some are becoming rarer, so sustainability is a factor when it comes to guitar making. Taylor Guitars recognizes it has a responsibility to the environment to be conscientious stewards of natural resources. As a result they became a founding member of Greenpeace’s MusicWood Coalition and an active partner with GreenWood Global, a non-profit organization that empowers indigenous, forest-based communities to support themselves through sustainable forestry practices. Late last year, Taylor also invested in an ebony mill in Cameroon, to further ensure a legal, sustainable and ethically harvested supply of that rare wood for the musical instrument industry.
Keith Hatschek is a contributing writer for Echoes and the author of two books on the music industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry. He directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA.
Special thanks to Chris Wellons and Chalise Zolezzi of Taylor Guitars for their assistance in preparing this story.