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.
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36 thoughts on “How Taylor guitars are made”
I have visited the Taylor Factory 3 times in the last 15 years. I own 5 Taylors. I also own 5 Breedloves. Each serves a different purpose and none play exactly the same. For fingerpicking I love my Breedlove Oregon Concert (Myrtlewood). It sounds best with a light touch and is a sensitive guitar. My Taylor 414ce is bright and has a proud projection which is great when playing with a full band. I love all guitars. I am an amateur luthier and one thing that I have noticed on all guitars when I get them home. Regardless of price, they all need a good set-up. I’ve yet to find a neck that was perfectly adjusted. Purchase a professional straight edge and lay it on your fret board and you’ll see what I mean. Take it to the music store and you’ll be surprisingly disappointed. Most need to be tightened get the slump out of the neck. It amazing how well the guitar plays when the neck is set properly. I’ve found brand new plekked Gibson guitars that needed adjustment straight out of the store. There is a huge environmental change for a guitar that leaves the factory, spends six months on the floor of a music store and then ends up in your car, bedroom, practice space etc. I adjust my necks when the seasons change. Set-up isn’t guaranteed just because its a Taylor or Gibson or Guild. However, I have found that the higher end guitars are easier to set up. But if you own a guitar you should expect to have set it up occasionally. Don’t store it by hanging it on a wall. Keep it in its case and make note of the humidity it’s exposed to. A dry or conversely a wet guitar will not maintain its setup well. A guitar should ideally be maintained around 40% humidity. Yep! Spend 20 bucks on a hygrometer and throw it in your case. http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/80359. Oh! Don’t do a fret level until you’ve stabilized the humidity, and adjusted the neck first. That’s the quickest way to need a re-fret. But after you got the neck stabilized, by all means do get a fret level done. Most new guitars need one. Have a pro do it. It’s worth it.
For my 66th birthday, the crew @ Dave’s Guitars in LaCrosse, WI had a perfect 326ce shaded and faded top with mahogany top and sapele back and sides. After owning two maple Kottke models, the difference in tone and voice was so apparent that this particular axe was whispering “Vintage Gibson & Martin” without some of their inherent problems. The neck is a joy to play and has truly improved my joy of learning new material after four decades as an acoustic guitarist. So pleased with this soulful jewel.
Excellent article explaining production of Taylor Guitars. Having owned series 400, 600, 800 and 900 of the Taylor selections the quality blending of aesthetics and tone is superb. My latest Taylor purchase is a 2008 Koa GA Limited and the beat goes on forever and the party never ends! Thank you Taylor Guitars for your care in selection of wood and modernization of construction techniques.
When I was a younger man, all I heard about was “Martins, Gibsons & Guilds oh my !”.
I swore that not ONE of them could make a decent jumbo 12-string that you could keep at concert pitch and not develop neck & bridge problems within a few years. When Leo Kottke and the Taylor crew came up with the Kottke Model, I finally got the answer to my prayers. I was the first guy to order a MAPLE Kottke 12 with a 3 piece back and everyone that has ever heard it or worked on it at Dave’s Guitars here in LaCrosse, WI swears its the best acoustic 12 string they’ve ever heard.
I’m still not worthy of it, but check out the website @ http://www.yankeemedicrecords.com and listen for your self !
Cool. Was an interesting article.
Awesome. Thanks for sharing.
I started off with a big baby Taylor, now i have 3 six string models and a fab old 12 string dreadnought. i have played all kinds of guitars but i believe Taylor’s are the very best and i love the expression system i find it easy to use and i never get feed back .
I agree to disagree.There is a difference between high action and bench pressing 250 pounds to make a F barcord.I’m just saying when you pay more for American(made) it should be right-right off the wall! And yes I love (Taylors) for sure.Breedloves-Gibson-Martin-Fenders but,when thiers 5 of the same kind hanging on the wall together and only 1 is good something ain’t right.So I guess I’m just picky as hell.Bought a Taylor today.Thank you very much.
The day I bought my 614ce i played alot of different guitars martin, Gibsons fender’s,but the tone that came from the taylor sold me.now im saving for the T5
Love my 614 there is none like it for ease of play and tone
I have been a week end club musician for about 39 years now. I had a regular job in a sawmill and I retired after 38.94 years with the company. In that time I worked in the clubs to supplement my income. For twelve of those years we even had a family band with three of my sons. At a family gathering after my retirement I was presented with a check from my kids to buy a good guitar. I opted for a 615 Taylor that was set up just the way I like. I am very pleased with the sound and playability of the instrument even though I had not been impressed with the guitars before that time. The neck, fretting, and sound did not impress me, but from the first time I picked up the 615 it felt right. I did have to spend about four months getting used to the easy feel of the neck and the response of the strings and sound. I get great compliments now when I do a concert, last March it was even in the hands of one of my heroes, Jim Ed Brown in a concert we had in Kennewick, WA, I was even invited to play guitar with him on one show. My friend Joni Harms uses it when she visits to do concerts in my area; she has a 615 Taylor also. We have concerns about flying with our instruments so Joni uses my guitar rather than fly with hers.
There are so many great guitars out there and great luthiers that I have run into at the Cowboy gatherings and concerts that it was hard for me to choose a top of the line guitar. At this time I own about 30 instruments but the Taylor 615 is my baby.
I love my Taylor 514! Great sound and good pick-up. It does feedback with the monitors if I have the volume up too high in the onboard preamp, so I keep the volume in the middle when I’m onstage, and turn the volume up in the PA instead. Regarding the action adjustment upon buying an instrument, well, I’m a fingerstyle player (no pick), so super low action and light guage strings are perfect for me. But many players only use a pick, and they need a higher action and heavier strings than I do. So I totally understand why even an expensive guitar will require some adjustment when I buy one. (Maybe that’s why it’s called a Taylor.)
I’m a big Gibson fan but your article has piqued my interest so I will go look at a Taylor acoustic.
Excellent article about an excellent guitar company. I own 6 Taylor guitars and each one is different. Can’t stand Martin gtrs. Too inconsistent! Over-rated. Taylor Rules[my opinion].
Excuse me I ran out of room on the last comment.How many of you have bought a 3 or 4000.00 dollar acoustic only to have to pay a guitar tech 50 bucks to make the action low enough to play decent.For that amount of money it should be right,right off the wall! Just call me stupid again and if you don’t agree cause I’m starting to wonder myself? Thank you very much anyway and have a good day! Randy Hammonds.
Hmm….never has happened to me!! I own a few in that price range…I am a die-hard Taylor gtr. player!! Love ’em!!
I couldn’t agree more
There are several reasons why they do not put the action as low as possible at the factory. 1. Loss of tone, because of lowered angle of the strings across the bridge saddle and other tension-related results. 2. Different people have different playing styles. If you only play rhythm in the first few positions, then you want a lot of tone and don’t need super low action. 3. As a result, if you put the action super low from the factory, then anyone that wants to strum with some balls will have to pay $100-$150 on their new guitar to buy a new saddle, have it set at the correct height and set up.
Yes we all have different playing styles-I know but I think you know what I mean and yes I love Taylors! I said nothing about super low action just playable action and come on 150 for a new saddle when it should be right the first time.Oh well at least were talking guitars. I don’t mean to sound so negitive so have a good day-Blahblahbalh. A friend of mine has 37 guitars-He says I’ve never met a guiter I didn’t like. Wish I could say that! Thanks for the balh.
I think if your buying a guitar in that price range the shop should adjust the action to your liking for you but it is very individual and it is possible to adjust the guitars your self if you prefer ?
Well I’m sorry! But,I’ve been looking at a lot of models the last three months in the 1000.00 range and I’am not a happy camper! The last several years it seems the quality has dropped.Even on the more high-end guitars.I’ve been playing for 35 years and a lot of these models just don’t stay in tune very well.Come on Taylor-Martin-Breedlove-Gibson.Made in America,Mex,Kor,China.Whats the difference.Just call me stupid.
Hey Chato thanks I needed that! But just to let you know I have 2 Taylors-2 Martins- 2 Gibsons-3 Fenders-1 Yamaha-to many to list and I love them all! And yes Taylors are like find wine! They get better with age.So thank you very much from one stupid to another.Sorry I just had to say that.
I HAVE A 335CE TAYLOR GUITAR AND I LOVE IT WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THERE PICKUP SYSTEM.I DONT LIKE THAT SYSTEM BECAUSE OF THE FEEDBACK IT GERERATES.TAYLOR GUITAR IS TOO GREAT OF AN INSTRUMENT TO HAVE SUCH A POOR PICKUP SYSTEM.RALPH
Taylors are beautifully made and play like a dream. Their “voice” is a bit brighter than that of most Martins…
Taylor: Greatest guitars to own and play; greatest people to do business with. I own two T5’s because I couldn’t decide which sound I lke better, spruce or maple — so I got one each. No, I’m not rich…I just saved like hell for them.
Considered buying a classical style Taylor about 10 years ago, but some genius decided they should be built with a separate headstock dovetailed into the end of the neck, and no way would I pay $1350 for a 2-piece neck! Just asking for trouble, especially in a humid climate. Glad they went back to a neck cut from one piece of wood, as any decent guitar is made.
Actually it’s a 3 pc. neck.The dovetail joint is much stronger than a 1 pc. neck could be.They also get more necks from the same amount of lumber.There just isn’t an unlimited supply of mahogony left anymore.Anything that makes it go farther is a good thing.We had a guitar with a 1pc. neck and it broke.We have a bunch of Taylors in the house and have not had any issues with any of them.
That’s right. A good A-R glue that is weatherproof, as most are, is stronger than the wood it’s holding together. Using the 2-piece idea at the head/neck area allows you to avoid grain runout in the headstock: where the grain runs out of the surface of the head is where the wood will break. For anyone who is interested, check out the book “Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology by Coumiano & Natelson. There is an excellent discussion of this very issue. Also, go the the website: http://www.cumpiano.com
I love Taylor guitars. I play one and sell them at my store Front Porch Music as well. There is no better builder and company making guitars today! Visit me at Frontporchmusic.com
Wish there was a video of the process with the article.
Try the 714 with medium gauge strings…..no warmer acoustic sound in the world.
I owned a James Paul Goodall, more than twice the price of the 714CE. The Taylor blows it away, and the onboard expression system is unbeatable..
Pretty interesting. I own four now, and I swear I will never buy another one… maybe.