A Sound Occupation

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This article is from Issue 12 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Skilled luthiers coax full, rich musical notes from mere wood. Gerald Sheppard discovered his knack for doing so, left his day job behind and became an expert builder of high-end guitars.

Complex mathematical equations 

 sometimes result in beautiful, naturally curved lines when drawn on a graph. And sound waves mimic sine waves, revealing the numerical underpinnings of the ancient art of music. Given the close relationship between music and mathematics, the ideal architect of musical instruments should be exacting with shapes and measurements but still possess the creative soul of a musician.

Gerald Sheppard embodies both traits. A musician and  luthier from Kingsport, Tenn., he crafts exquisite guitars prized for their equally beautiful sound. His musical career began early in life, at age 15. But he took up building guitars just 14 years ago, and has already reached a level of craftsmanship many lifelong builders still covet. 

Professional fingerpicking guitarists are his usual customers. For about $7,000, each can expect a finished instrument that precisely fits the musician physically and enhances his or her playing style. Whether a musician plays with a bluegrass band or sings folk music, has long or short fingers, is particularly tall or wide, prefers to sit or stand, bites his fingernails or not – all these details affect measurements and wood choice when Gerald builds a custom guitar. 

“If you look at a guitar as a tool of the trade, your instrument is designed to produce the type of music you play, as effortlessly, as nicely, as possible,” he says. “There is a combination of factors that come together to do that.” Those factors include overall size of the guitar, spacing between strings and between frets, and woods chosen for the instrument’s top, sides, bottom, neck and internal bracing. 

Gerald had earned a degree in industrial technology and spent 30 years overseeing factory assembly lines. So how did he learn the best way to bring all the elements of lutherie together?

“I had never done any woodworking at all, other than make a bookshelf or a speaker cabinet or something like that when I was in college,” he says. “But back around 1990 or 1991 I kind of got an idea that I would like to build an instrument.” That he had played guitar himself for 40 years and appreciated fine instruments motivated him. He desired to build something he could be proud to play. “So I did that. And it was a tough job. It took months and it about killed me. I would make mistakes and sweat about it and get all upset.”

Although he had digested a number of books on building guitars, he struggled through his first instrument by sheer force of will.  

“You know, out of adversity comes challenge and out of challenge comes growth and all those positive-talking things. But by the time I got done with that guitar I didn’t want anymore challenges.” 

As a musician, though, the finished project made all his frustrating hours of effort seem a worthy investment. “Being able to string it up and play it was the real payoff. I’ve still got that guitar, and I can pick it up and play it; I can see where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.”

TONE WOODS PROVIDE DISTINCTIVE SOUND and amazing beauty. These guitar backs feature flamboyant ziricote, figured koa and Brazilian rosewood.

A FLORENTINE CUTAWAY is an available option on Sheppard guitars. This model has a western red cedar top and flamed koa binding.

Choosing tone woods

When a guitar is played, vibrations created at different frequencies by plucking or strumming the strings resonate in the guitar’s body and emerge from the sound hole. The listener hears the response of the wooden guitar body to the vibrations. Tone woods, as they are called, exhibit qualities of density, hardness and grain tightness that dictate the tone produced by the guitar. Mahogany, for example, would not produce bass notes as deep and rich as most rosewoods, but mahogany is more responsive; that is, the notes “pop” from the sound hole more quickly. Dark, dense ebony provides a lot of bass, but is less resonant than many tone woods; its notes fade more quickly.

The top, or soundboard, of a guitar is usually formed from a species of spruce, cedar or redwood. “It’s always a soft wood, and — this is interesting — it’s almost always from the northern hemisphere,” Gerald says. “The backs and sides are almost always from the southern hemisphere.” 

Wood for soundboards of most musical instruments, including pianos, is taken from light-colored Alpine conifer trees which grow in places like Canada, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. This part of the instrument affects the volume, response and brightness (concentration of sound energy toward the temporal center) of notes played. 

PERFECTIONISM is a Gerald Sheppard hallmark. Here, he checks for the proper bow in a guitar top.

The wood for the back and sides of an instrument should always be taken from the same tree, and many different tone woods are used. One species of choice is rosewood, found mainly in South America and Africa. Building with dense and waxy rosewood results in a full, resounding low end. “It’s like turning up the bass on your stereo system,” Gerald says. Costly because of its rarity, rosewood frequently brings the added advantages of beautiful grain and color. Even more expensive, African blackwood is so dense and tight-pored it looks “almost like glass” and carries a remarkably deep low end. 

Gerald assists his clients in choosing the right tone woods, in addition to the guitar’s body shape and measurements. “I can help them design a guitar in the shape and the size to get the tone, the feel and the playability that they want. A lot of that comes from my experience of playing for so long and trying to understand the instrument in general.” He prefers customers with high expectations and extensive musical experience, since they challenge him and often teach him something new. “The easy customers are the guys who don’t really know anything about guitars and they’ve got a lot of money and they want something pretty. A lot of [guitar makers] like to work for people like that — although sometimes their expectations are almost too great. Or they don’t know what they got when they get it.”

Gerald’s wife, Melanie, says his perfectionism and artist’s sensibilities serve him well. “He’s excellent at organizing his time. He’s one of those people, if you’ve got five minutes, you can get something done.” It’s true Gerald has mapped out his building procedures in flow charts. But the structure doesn’t sap his creativity. “He’s got an eye for seeing the details in art, the things people don’t ordinarily see. If there’s a picture hanging on the wall, he notices if it’s crooked. He notices the composition of a photograph.”  

Professional musician Al Petteway said that because Gerald is a guitar player himself, he “really knows what to listen for. A lot of luthiers are more craftsmen, and they can make some beautiful instruments, but they might not know how they should sound. I’ve played a lot of guitars, and his are some of the best ones out there. He just builds an incredibly focused, beautiful-sounding instrument.”

Gerald can build 12 guitars a year at his standard of quality, and he doesn’t want to do more than that. His backlog of orders runs through 2009. 

Building a business

For all the grief his first guitar had caused, Gerald knew he had built a pretty good instrument. “I showed it to an experienced instrument maker who told me yes, it’s really nice, and it’s even sellable. Well, I hadn’t even thought of that.” He kept that first guitar, but has sold every one he’s made since then. He insists building was the original goal; selling was an afterthought and a necessity. “You can’t invest four or five hundred dollars in materials and just leave it sitting in a corner somewhere.” 

So he made the rounds of local guitar shops. “When I first started building instruments, I was nobody. Music stores didn’t even want to talk to me. They have real estate on the walls, where the guitars hang, and each space can be worth several thousand dollars a year if the right guitar’s hanging there.” Selling locally, with local advertising, just wasn’t working out. He tried placing an ad in a mass-market guitar magazine, the kind “for kids who think they’re going to be rock stars.” They clearly represented the wrong market for Gerald’s hand-crafted instruments.

“I started looking at high-end guitar shops that had these $1,500 to $2,000 Martins. They were good, but they were mass-produced. I realized I was going to have to build a guitar that was as nice as those if I was going to sell them for anything near that price. So I kept refining my techniques until I got better and better, and eventually my guitars were even better than those.” 

Finally catching on, he found similar luthiers advertising in magazines like Acoustic Guitar, and followed suit. “I figured out how other makers were marketing; they were selling to affluent men over 40. I realized I was going to have to start making all-wood guitars, use exotic woods, refine my craftsmanship and make them all the same. That took some years to figure out.

“At the same time, the Internet was coming in, and everyone kept saying, ‘You need to get a Web site.’” He built one himself (sheppardguitars.com) and bought a good camera, periodically converting his shop into a photo studio. 

Gerald had a comfortable job in Kingsport with Eastman Chemical (formerly Eastman Kodak). He designed manufacturing facilities and was charged with improving the overall quality of items produced on industrial assembly lines. In the 1980s, when Japanese companies were outpacing American companies by producing higher-quality products at lower prices, Gerald was part of a movement toward raising standards for American products and keeping pace with foreign markets. “I had 30 years with the company where I worked. But I got so hooked on making instruments and studying about it, I found myself thinking about it at work. It was almost out of my control. I was meeting more and more people and getting much more reinforcement in this world than in my day job. It was an honor to have my job, but after 30 years, it was not doing it for me, and instrument making was.” In 1993, he left Eastman for good.

THE BRACING INSIDE A GUITAR must be light but strong, and curved to allow the free flow of sound waves. AN INLAID ROSETTE adds a craftsman’s touch. GERALD BEVELS THE EDGE of a headstock which he’s inlaid with the Sheppard logo and signature rose. 

THE HEEL CAP and binding on this guitar are of African blackwood. The body is Brazilian rosewood, one of the finest tone woods available.

Building a guitar

Working from home did not mean working less. Gerald puts in considerably more hours, 60-80 a week instead of the usual 40-50 at his former job. Building a guitar is time- and labor-intensive.

“The first part should go relatively fast, like building a house,” Gerald says. The guitar body can be “framed up” quickly. First thickness the top, back and sides to less than 1/8" with a drum sander. Cut the sides to shape on a bandsaw and start them through the bender. Gerald actually built his own “universal side bending machine,” a wood and metal contraption with three 250-watt lightbulbs and a timer. Water-soaked wood is slowly cranked through it and molded to a wooden form, then allowed to dry over a couple of days. Meanwhile two bookmatched pieces of quartersawn wood are glued together in the exact center to form the top, and another two to form the back. Quartersawn wood has vertical grain and a high strength-to-weight ratio. 

“What you’re trying to do is build it as light as possible without it flying apart,” he says. “If it’s lighter, it will respond to the strings better. If it’s too heavy, you lose tone.”

That’s where the bracing comes in: the unseen art on the inside of the guitar body. Wooden braces must add strength without interfering with sound waves; that’s why they are curved in places. With the addition of head and tail blocks and a lining, the body can be glued together in a mold. The inside of the guitar requires no finishing, which would add extra weight but little aesthetic or protective value. However, Gerald says the neatness of the inside of the body is a good indicator of craftsmanship; no self-respecting luthier would leave rough edges or splinters, even in the dark.

Now comes a tricky part: cutting binding and rosette channels just .05" deep. “That’s a tough, delicate job. One of the scariest parts of guitar building,” he says. Binding is a strip of wood around the edges of the top and bottom for protection and decoration; rosettes are ornamental rings around the sound hole that might be inlaid with abalone, wood or both.

The fingerboard, the long portion of the neck over which the strings are strung, demands ebony on finer instruments. Frets are pressed into it with an arbor press. At the top of the fingerboard is the headstock, which could be ebony or another wood. Here, holes are drilled for tuners, to be fitted after the guitar’s parts are finished. 

“As you get closer to the end, you start seeing how it’s going to look. You can see if your risks paid off.” But it’s also the most nerve-racking part, when one slip can undo a month’s worth of hard work. “Doing the final details of the guitar is when you don’t want anybody in the room with you.” 

Gerald highly recommends that beginners use a kit from a reputable supplier. “They take care of a lot of decisions for you. They pre-bend and thickness the sides. Although, the parts of a kit are still very much like lumber; it’s not just assembly. There’s a lot you’ll have to learn.” Guitar kits cost about $500, and Gerald estimates most first-timers will have to spend an additional $150 in tools, such as a number of cam clamps. The good news is this: “That same guitar would probably be $2,000 as finished, if it came from a factory with a brand name on it.”

Gerald on his finishing technique:

“My finishing process is a little bit unique in that I use a waterborne lacquer. Water-based finishes are something a lot of woodworkers avoid. It’s one of those things where you ask someone if they like anchovies and they say no. And you say, ‘Have you ever tried them?’ And they say, ‘Well, no.’

“Waterborne finishes are getting better and better. Once you learn how to use them they're fantastic. The problem is, water-based finishes don’t bring out the color and the warmth of the wood nearly as nicely as solvent-based finishes. 

“There’s a brand of epoxy called System 3. One version of it is hardener & resin that you mix up. It's pretty thin stuff. You put it on with a squeegee and rub almost every bit of it back off. Then you let it dry and do it again. It acts as a pore filler and makes the wood pop out beautifully. It’s a very thin coating, because you rub most of it back off. It might be a half a thousandth of an inch … not like it’s been finished at all, but you still have that beautiful color in your wood.

“Another problem with a water-based finish is certain woods, like rosewood, it doesn’t stick to very well. Rosewood is really oily and full of wax. When you put this expoxy on, it not only warms the finish up and allows you to fill the pores, but it makes the water-based finish adhere to the guitar much better. It actually provides a little shield that sticks to the wood on one side, and sticks to the finish on the other.

“Applying the finish is similar to the way a car is painted. Most furniture that you see in a store has a satin finish, maybe sprayed on. Guitar finishing is quite different. It’s sprayed on in a series of four or five coats over half a day. Then you wait maybe a week and sand it almost all back off. 

“You might do that four or five times until you build the finish up above the pores. Once you have the finish on, and leveled down with 400-grit sandpaper, move up to 800, 1000, 1500, then use a liquid rubbing compound and a buffing machine And you spend hours buffing out all the scratches until you can actually look at the lightbulb on the ceiling in the back of your guitar and read ‘60 watts.’”

Becoming an expert

In 1997, a series of events propelled Gerald’s career forward, starting with a phone call from the owner of a Nashville guitar shop who was interested in seeing one of his guitars. The shop dealt only in fine hand-made instruments, not Martins and other mass-produced guitars. Gerald had been selling his instruments for no more than $1,200. “She called me up and said, ‘This is a really nice instrument. I think we could charge about $3,500 for it.’ I just about hit the floor.” The guitar sold within a month. 

Encouraged, Gerald took one of his instruments to a national guitar show. He braved a public critique in front of a panel of expert instrument makers. “They were celebrities to me,” he says.

Before him, one luthier had been admonished for a bad neck joint. The next had problems with his finishes. Gerald waited tensely for the criticism to flow . . . but none came. “I’m tired of new guys like you threatening to steal my client base,” one panelist joked. Members of the panel told the other builders to see Gerald about their neck joint and finishing problems. “Here I was, a new guy, and people lined up to talk to me. I was giddy.”

In many ways, that show marked the beginning of Gerald’s professional guitar-making career. Since then, he has been refining his lutherie techniques and attends guitar shows yearly. He has even earned a spot as the staff instrument builder for Guitar Week at the world-renowned Swannanoa Gathering. He has clients throughout America and in Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Australia.

And he has never looked back to his office-bound life. “It’s a no-brainer that I’m at home, watching my son grow up, enjoying family life. I also get to work with people who are some of the finest musicians in the world,” he says. 

“All in all, he’s a lot happier,” Melanie says. “He likes not being in that box that industry puts you in.” 

Even though he now works longer hours at a more physically demanding profession, the satisfaction of his craftsmanship and ongoing education more than compensates.

 “When you build a musical instrument, especially a guitar, you embrace it when you play it,” he says. “You hold it very closely; you’re almost intimate with it. It gives back to you and responds to your touch. And you know you’ve done something to help other people really enjoy life.”

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is a full-time student at Ohio University and a contributing editor to Woodcraft Magazine. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, cooking and reading. She lives in Athens, Ohio, with her fiancé, Matthew, and their dog and two cats. 


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