The Guardian: “String theory: how to make an acoustic guitar – in pictures”

MIA Member Rosie Heydenrych, an artisan luthier, has been making acoustic guitars by hand for about a decade and has her own business, Turnstone Guitar Company. In this interesting article published by The Guardian, she shows Christopher Thomond around her workshop in Newchapel, Surrey, and explains the guitar-making process…

Here is the article originally published in The Guardian, enjoy this great read!:

‘I started making guitars about 10 years ago. I’d been to university and was working in London. To establish yourself as a luthier – and build a reputation – takes for ever. If I’d given up everything else straight away I don’t think I would have made it financially. To make it work in the UK you have to build high-end guitars. Factories in the Far East and the US have got it down to a tee to service the sub-£1,000 market and we can’t compete with that’

A luthier is a designer, a structural engineer, an acoustician, a woodworker and machine operator, with business and marketing skills. Luckily, I studied business and marketing at university, communications in the charity sector. With all these skills required, it’s tough. Early on, there were occasions when I’d spend two days doing something and be further away than when I had started. I thought it was getting all too much and got fatigued and emotional. The learning climb is a steep one’

‘My templates are half the size of the guitar. I designed them myself but they are loosely based around the traditional model templates which are medium OM, smaller OOO and dreadnought, a bigger popular size. I have a small, medium and large. My medium is based around the Martin OM, my small is a small bodied and my large is a grand auditorium. The TG is a grand auditorium; the TM is similar to a Martin OM; the TS is the the model least based on anything traditional but is closest in size to what they used to call a parlour guitar’

Every couple of weeks, everybody I’m building for will get a picture of their guitar and I’ll try and explain some of the processes that I’m doing. One of the things the clients enjoy is seeing all the internal parts that you can’t actually see when it’s finished. They learn about the component parts of the guitar, all the different woods, and how it all acts together’

‘With acoustic guitars, the first place you start is with the woods on the outside, the soundboard, the back and sides and the ribs, which can be made from a variety of different species. The density and the properties of the wood all serve a purpose. For instance, a soundboard is normally a softwood, traditionally spruce or cedar, because they’re light but strong. The back and sides are normally a hardwood traditionally rosewoods. They’re very dense, they have a lovely ring and they give this gorgeous overtone’

‘Back in the day, I could only afford one plane. Doing a lot of processes with this plane, I learned how to make it work, how to sharpen and set the blade, how much wood to cut and the angle of the plane. There’s a whole load of skills to be learned, and when I first started out I had no idea and I struggled. This plane is a symbolic representation of blood, sweat and tears, but with it, a payoff in terms of the skills that you obtain’

‘The rosette around the sound hole is structurally there to support the massive hole in the soundboard. It’s also an opportunity for a luthier to do something aesthetically pleasing . You need a clean execution with no chips in the wood and really nice joins. If you produce good work on the outside, the hope is that the work is just as superior on the inside, the parts that you can’t see but which ensures the instrument doesn’t fall apart’

‘Traditionally guitar makers were often called after their surname, but I decided not to do that because my name is quite long and a lot of people struggle to pronounce it. So I named it after a bird, the turnstone, which I subsequently found is a migratory bird which can be seen on British shores’

‘Luthiers traditionally inlay their name into the headstock. I decided to carve a symbolic bird instead. I whittle away the surface wood to reveal different wood underneath with the layers creating the shape of a wing, with the V looking like the body of a bird. I could then use a different coloured veneer and the bird will look different, so with all the combinations I use, every single one ends up looking individual, which can be rather cool’

‘Using British wood has become my USP and my signature style. A lot of the orders I take now are for what I call E series models made out of English wood. I often use London plane, English sycamore and ancient Fenland black oak, which is 5,000-year-old oak and has naturally taken on the dark colouring from the carbon in the bog’

‘Traditionally, ebony was used on fretboards, so to see this makes it look traditional and yet it’s beautiful in its own right and as vibrant as any other guitar. I also get requests to use this wood on the back and sides because people just love the story and the fact it’s English sourced’

‘The sound is of profound importance. You can make something look good but if it doesn’t sound equally good people see though that pretty quickly. It comes down to how people play it, whether they use their fingers or a pick, but tone woods have character because of their density, the properties of the wood and the way that they reflect sound’

All photographs and interview by at The Guardian. The MIA has been given permission to share this piece featuring our member. 


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