William Cumpiano's
String Instrument
Newsletter #14

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Questions, anyone? III

William R. Cumpiano 1999, All Rights Reserved

Dear fellow guitar enthusiasts,

Again, I’m too late, too busy and too distracted to compose a thoughtful newsletter, but I thought I might keep you folks interested with a few shorter but thoughtful replies to newsletter members for all to enjoy and profit, I hope:



I've tried to follow your book, but I am having trouble dressing the ends of the frets correctly.

The frets are abrading my fingers. It seems to be coming not from the last mm on top ( not the side of the neck ). I have tried several times to round these over as shown in the book, without success. I don't want to get to carried away - I am very satisfied with this guitar otherwise.

I am missing something as far as technique or understanding. Do you have any advice?

Alas, I can't tell what technique you're using precisely, or how the frets actually look when you're through with them. The best I can suggest is a few places learners usually fall short.

* Are your fret ends down completely? if the ends are not seated 100%, they will still feel sharp no matter how much you round them. Press down on the ends, observing carefully to see if they yield at all. A dot of super glue inserted at their ends while pressing down should secure them.

* If your file is too coarse, it will leave a coarse surface on the curved facets, and feel sharp. You need a super-fine file, the teeth almost too small to see.

* If the ends are too upright, i.e., not angled back sufficiently, you will feel them. Check to see if the ends are approaching 30 degrees back from upright. Beware of going to far, your outer strings will slide off the edges of the fingerboard if you get carried away!

* When you file the fret ends back (before actually rounding them), and impart the slant-back angle, keep filing until a small 1/32" facet actually appears in the wood fingerboard edge itself. This is actually moving the fret ends slightly away from the very edge.

* Wrap a small length of very fine sandpaper around your index finger, and then slide your hand gently up and down the edge of the fingerboard, as if you were actually testing for a scratchy edge. You will then be finely sanding away the scratchy edge.



I finished fretting my board today and left a number of crescent shaped slight indentations on the ebony board where the mallet slipped. Can these be steamed out? If so, how? Thanks.

It depends on how deep. If they're very shallow, some light scraping and sanding with fine paper will make them go away. If they're deeper, just puddle some water in them until it evaporates. That usually works to pop them out if they're recent. That may not work the day after, in which case wet the tip of a towel and press it down over the dent with the tip of a hot iron set to 1, or the lowest setting. If you try persistently, that should work to at least pop them out partially, in which case you can scrape and sand lightly to make them go away.



I've seen a lot lately about the Buzz Feiten tuning system and I'm wondering if you know the specifics of it. I've read the patent, which basically says to move the nut forward but beyond that I can't tell how to do the set-up or tune a "feitenized" guitar. Of course it's very secretive and they want to sell the "system". Do you think there is anything to it?.

I may come off sounding like an old curmudgeon, but I just can't advocate a system which relies on a shorter first fret interval. I participated in a guitar newsgroup discussion on the subject some time back, which included a knowledgeable advocate of the system. But it was hard to evaluate it because he "couldn’t fully reveal all the secrets." What makes me skeptical is that its advocates extol the system’s virtues as heatedly as the people on infomercials on late night television. Their argument that the system is such a fabulous fantastic improvement is a hard sell because the traditional system it replaces so rarely offends your ears. I may still be eventually persuaded, but I find it hard to accept such a fabulous, wonderful fix of a system that really ain't really broke.

The actual shortcomings of the customary way of fretting and setting up a guitar are born from the inherent problems of equal temperament: certain intervals must be stretched or shaved from "pure" to make all the intervals the same, "equal." All the intervals MUST be the same because of the existence of frets, which cross the entire string array and determine the intervals of adjacent strings simultaneously. So some people with extraordinary pitch sense can indeed hear the out of tuneness of a well made and well set up guitar. But the out-of-tuneness that mere mortals perceive are usually shortcomings in the fretting or set up of the guy, not the underlying system. The Feiten System does not and can not "cure" this. So where's the beef? Besides, although Feiten patented the system, he did not invent it. I've been hearing of systems involving a shortened first fret intervals since 1975, notably on banjoes.

My friend, the very knowledgeable guitarmaker Alan Chapman a fingerboard-shortening system to me some time back. He even explained it's logic so that I could follow it and nod my head, yes, it should work. Alan even went to the trouble of furnishing me a fingerboard cut in this way, and then instructed me how to modify my bridge-locating technique on the other end (sorry, I forgot how). I followed his instructions closely, and ended up with a perfectly good guitar with disastrous intonation, (i.e. as I would have guessed a FLAT first fret interval (remember that the first fret is closer to the nut than it should be now, so the vibrating string length now is longer and thus out of sync with the existing string tension/open string length relationship). To repair it, I had to shape a 1/32 shelf INTO the nut to extend the open string length and voila, my first interval improved. I regretted that sojourn into the system.

It turns out that there were flaws in Alan’s understanding of his "shortened nut" system which led both him and me astray. But recently he has learned of a system that he says works very well on nylon string guitars but requires some hair-raising fine faceting of that nut exit-points which only shortens SOME strings and lengthens others by corresponding faceting the approach points at the saddle. I’ll get back to all of you when I can fathom it. But it seems a lot of work to improve what so few are complaining about..



Why are instrument cases black, absorbing sunshine, & heat?

I don't know why they're black; I've wondered about that myself. But let me speculate a bit with you. As far as "absorbing sunshine & heat" I think the heart of the matter is that most instrument luggage companies really don't take responsability for owners leaving their instrument cases out in the open sun, where that could be a problem. I think that's probably fair: any color case left in the hot sun, in a car trunk in the summer, or in any kind of "greenhouse" situation, will cause a hazard, and thus it really should be the owner who should watch where the case is left. I think it has to do more with what the industry considers sturdy, moisture resistant, inexpensive and convenient to apply, than with thoughtful design. The facts as far I as know is that the case company that I deal with: Harptone Mfg. Co. in Brooklyn NY offers it in zillions of coverings, from alligator hide (probably fake) to tweed. And if you don't specify anything, they default it to black tolex, the standard stuff.

The makers warranty says avoid excess heat. Who makes white cases, preferably lined with heat-reflecting mylar? Possibly O-ring sealed, such as Halliburton or Pelican camera cases. Hopefully affordable?

I think those requirements are mutually exclusive. Good design is usually very, very expensive. I haven't surveyed the entire case scene because I'm perfectly happy to supply my guitars with good, sturdy five ply, arched top and back plywood cases, and then caution my customers as to what situations to avoid. This is for "ordinary" musicians who don't do a lot of heavy-duty schlepping.

Now musicians who do heavy travelling is another matter. I simply don't advise customers which cases they should or should not buy, just like any other guitar company, because I can't anticipate how extreme their usage environment is. I simply point out that their warranty will void out if the instrument is exposed to excessive heat, moisture or dryness. I simply advise that usually, the more you spend on a case the more travel protection it supplies, but that a guitar will fry in any case, no matter how expensive, if put into a sealed up car in the hot summer sun for over half and hour. Especially a black car.



It turns out that my lead for fingerboard oil (Euphonon Co. in New Hampshire) was a stale one. Gurian doesn't make his "organic" (i.e., no silicones) fingerboard oil any more, which is the ONLY one I would recommend. All the other brands are simply not good for the guitar, period. I'm going to get to the bottom of this and find out if anybody out there is making silicone-less fingerboard oil. Keep tuned.

2/2/99: Michael Gurian offered me his "secret" formula, if I wanted to pick up and run with his very good Fingerboard Oil. He even offered me his remaining drum of cocoanut oil, one of the ingredients. I’m tempted but am juggling one or two too many balls already...maybe next year.



IF the interior surfaces were lightly finished with something like tung oil, teakwood oil, etc., would environmental stresses (humidity) be reduced?

It is a notion that appeals to the "common" sense, isn’t it. I get asked this frequently. But it would take some pretty difficult double-blind testing to prove or disprove the contention that sealing the interior of the soundbox is good for environmental stability or good or bad for sound. Suffice it to say that nobody in the field, at least none of the most experienced guitarmakers, are doing this. I know of some very experienced makers (i.e., Stewart Mossman) who started off finish their guitar interiors and then abandoned doing it. What can we make of this? Maybe, that there just isn’t a compelling case for finishing the interior of the guitar.



In your book you talk about using colored sticks for making rosettes. I see that LMI is now selling them but I'm wondering if there is an efficient way to make them from sheets of veneer. (maybe some kind of sanding Jig??) If not, does anyone sell them other than LMI, they're quite pricey.

Yes. Make a new wood or aluminum "throat" of the correct thickness for your table saw (throat=the oval plate that covers the hole where the blade comes out). It should completely cover the hole. While the saw is on, slowly raise a smaller-diameter, fine-tooth saw blade, so that it emerges through the throat. It needn't protrude more than a 1/4-inch. The idea is that the throat totally surrounds the exposed portion of the blade. You can now saw thin strips very efficiently by setting the fence, as long as you secure a piece of scrap onto the fence with a "lip" that effectively catches and presses the veneer flat onto the table while you're sliding it across the blade. As long as the hand that feeds the veneer is snugging it against the fence BEFORE the blade, and not AFTER the blade, your strips come out even and accurate.

I hear tell that Albert Constantine & Sons makes a small blade gadget that is supposed to slice veneers into strips. I haven't seen it. In any case, you have to use veneer made from diffuse-porous woods (maple, holly) instead of grossly open pore woods (like oak for examplt) or the small strips will disintegrate when you handle them, since many woods have pores which are larger than the necessary size of the strips.



Is there any reason why pearl or abalone isn't used as rosette material on a classical (Nylon string) guitar?

Who said it wasn't? True, you don't often see it on top of the line traditional classics. And there may have been a time since the late forties when the term "classic guitar" was coined (to refer to the Spanish guitar) it was deigned that politically-correct "classics" should include no pearl in the rosette; but before then, and more and more often today, you DO see pearl in nylon string guitar rosettes. You see it quite often in Spanish guitars all over Latin America. Certainly nineteenth-century Spanish and European nylon-string guitars were covered all over in pearl and abalone. Pearl away! But let classic restraint be your guide.