Ambler Guitars Course March 2019 (part 1)

In 2018, I did my third six-day course at Crimson Guitars. While I don’t pretend that I’ve learnt all that I can from them, and I really like the people there, I felt that the potential for learning was reducing with each course – which is only natural. Through a chance remark on a Facebook post, I discovered that John Ambler, the eponymous owner of Ambler Guitars and whose work I admire greatly, was starting to give courses too. As soon as I discovered this, I signed up for one. I thought it would be interesting to see how another luthier makes guitars, to learn some new techniques.

For various reasons, the course itself was scheduled for March 2019. I had several months to make all of the arrangements and get hold of all of the materials. John runs the course with an all-in price including materials, but I wanted to pick my own.

My selection of woods for the build – I didn’t use the maple fretboard in the end

I took a black limba body blank, a ziricote top, violeta (or kingwood) fretboard and also neck blanks in rosewood and padauk (not shown above). I also bought gold hardware – relatively inexpensive parts mostly, since they can always be changed later and this build was (a) for me, and (b) already very expensive!

Day One

John suggested a simple design based on a Les Paul Junior. We discussed the options for the neck – I always like making laminate necks – and, in keeping with the simple design, decided on a three-piece neck of rosewood and padauk. I leave you to decide whether these were good design choices!

Gluing the bookmatched ziricote top together

I had a long trip to get from Brussels to Derbyshire, and I actually spread that over two days to allow time to visit a couple of timber merchants in England and do a bit of shopping. We started on Sunday morning – the course was seven consecutive days – and we started by preparing the top and the body, and getting them glued together.

Although the pieces of the body didn’t superficially look very similar, we discovered when we looked at them from this angle that they were indeed bookmatched. We decided to preserve this rather nice pattern on the end of the guitar.

See the pattern in the middle at the end – this is where the strap button eventually went!

Then we prepared the neck, cutting the pieces from my neck blanks and getting them nicely squared up and glued together. The last job for the day concerned the last piece of wood that we could use, i.e. the fretboard, which we sanded down to the right thickness and then we cut the fret slots, which John does using a table saw (an unusual method, but pretty quick).

The pieces of the neck, prepared but not yet glued up

Day Two

The second day began with unclamping all of the pieces that had been glued on the previous day. We cleaned them all up, and noticed a significant crack in the body which we filled with superglue and clamped up for a while (it didn’t cause any further problems). The top and body were prepared and glued together, and put into a large press overnight.

Then I designed my headstock, modifying a template that John had. I designed it on paper and then we made a template out of MDF from that. I brought the template home with me, and will definitely use it again on future builds.

Cutting out the template on graph paper

Then we worked on the neck, first squaring it up and then we had to make the scarf joint for the angled headstock. This took quite a bit of time, as it had to be very precise.

The two pieces of the neck, ready to be glued back together to create the angle of the headstock.

I spent most of the afternoon on a bit of a diversion. As you may have seen on other guitars, I use an oak leaf as my signature inlay, and I decided that this would be the only inlay on the fretboard. It took me about three hours to do this – here’s a picture late in the process, showing the inlay and the corresponding hole!

Inlaying…..fiddly work!

Day Three

Tuesday rolled around, and we started by gluing a ziricote veneer onto the headstock. The main task of the morning was to cut the shape out of the body, which had emerged from the press looking good. I used a band saw and then a router, with a template, but then made what was, I think, the only real mistake of the course…

See the router error on the edge!

Fortunately, this was fairly easily remedied by simply adjusting the body shape to make it a bit slimmer. We did the same on both sides of the body to preserve its symmetry, and in the end I actually prefer the new shape!

The arrows on the picture above show the directions in which I had to use the router in order to avoid potential chipping out of the wood. Most of the time you may be fine going all round in one direction, but this reduces the risk.

We also worked a bit on the neck, routing out the channel for the truss rod and then gluing on the fretboard. Lastly, I started preparing the control cavity.

Most of the wood was drilled out before the cavity was cleaned up with a router.

The remaining days are described in Part Two!