Ambler Guitars Course March 2019 (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1…

Day Four

The fourth day dawned….well, I don’t really remember how it dawned. It probably rained. I didn’t care as I was going to spend the day inside John Ambler’s workshop again.

Wednesday was a long and tiring day, mostly spent working on the neck. I shaped the headstock, which took quite some time to get absolutely right, and then installed the side dots. John has a small but very effective jig for this – basically it’s just a block of wood with a couple of holes drilled through (2mm and 3mm, depending on the size of the dots). This fits over the side of the fretboard, lined up with the centre line of the frets, and ensures that the dots are all drilled at a consistent position on the side of the fretboard. Since returning home, I’ve made my own copy of his jig, and used it successfully on my current build (the Pencil Tele).

The neck with the holes for the dots, and John’s highly complex jig!

I also carved the back of the neck, and we sorted out the shape of the heel and the neck pocket. Again, John has a pair of jigs for that – a tapered piece for the neck, and a large block with a correspondingly tapered hole for routing the pocket. These too have been copied since my return!

The back of the neck, nicely carved!

Day Five

I forgot to take my phone with me on the Thursday, so I have no pictures of that day. However, that wasn’t a big deal because as the course went on, the work became more and more detailed, and so the changes become less and less visible in photographs. Most of the day was spent on the frets, installing, levelling, crowning and polishing. I also finished the control cavity and drilled the holes for the tuners, and at the end of the day we glued the neck into the body.

Day Six

The penultimate day arrived and we had a lot to do, but things were looking good. The neck had glued in perfectly, and we started by making a cover for the control cavity. This was actually made from a separate piece of black limba that John had lying around, but it went very well with the pattern on my body. My guitar’s body, that is.

The back of the guitar with the control cover.

We spent quite a lot of time working out exactly where to drill the holes for the bridge and tailpiece, and then routing out the pickup cavities and various other little tasks. Then most of the afternoon was spent sanding….and sanding….and sanding! I sanded everything at 180, 240, 320 and 400 grits, and then the top and back with 600 grit. Most of this was done by hand, and it’s hard work.

We finished off by drilling the hole for the jack socket, and then applying a coat of oil. For these courses, when you don’t have time to apply multiple coats of a finish, John uses a very thick oil called Odie’s Oil. This is very expensive, but very good, and you only need a small amount and a single coat (although you can then add other products – they do something called Odie’s Butter which can go on top but it’s not necessary). The picture below was the guitar when it was prepared for oiling.

Ready to be oiled, with the fretboard protected

Day Seven

The last day saw the final touches. I started by buffing the finish and then installing the electronics and the hardware.

The electronics were simple – just a 3-way switch, tone and volume.

I also cleaned up the fretboard which had some marks from the tape and bits of glue. The pickups, by the way, are from Irongear and are a vintage-style humbucker in the bridge and an P90-style neck pickup. This is a pretty classic combination which I thought would be appropriate for this build.

We tested the guitar in John’s little demo room, and at the end of the day we bade farewell and I drove off into the sunset, to start my journey home.

The finished guitar – at least, the body!

Course Review

As a final addendum, if anybody is considering a course at Ambler Guitars, I can certainly recommend it. John really knows his business and he’s a very nice guy, and I enjoyed the week. He does some things in different ways from the Crimson guys, which is exactly what I wanted, and I got a lot of useful tips which I hope will help me to raise the quality of my future builds. Indeed, I’ve already seen some of the benefits on the guitar that I’m currently making at home.

The workshop is in a lovely area of the country, and I stayed in a small, 1-bedroom holiday home nearby that was a cheaper option than a hotel and suited me perfectly. In March, the price of the accommodation was quite reasonable, although I’m sure that increases dramatically in the summer.

Since the workshop is shared, it can be very noisy at times and I recommend taking earplugs or wearing ear defenders / closed headphones. You also need to remember to wear a dust mask at appropriate times – I found that John was a bit lax about these things, so you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for them if necessary, and wear them whenever there is noise or dust.

If you are taking your own materials, think about all of the little bits – screws and the like – that may be needed. John has some stocks, but they are not comprehensive and he didn’t, for example, have gold screws for my pickup mounts. I suggest discussing this with him before you go, to make sure that everything will be ready.

I also feel that this kind of course is best for two types of people. Firstly, someone who has never built a guitar and would like to do it just once for the experience. John can lead you through a build and make sure that you take home a great guitar.

Secondly, someone like me who has some experience but wants to see some different tools and techniques at work. In my case, I had already built ten or eleven guitars so I more or less know the process, but it was interesting to see a different perspective, and that gives me some new ideas.

However, if you want a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of building guitars, a week simply isn’t long enough. You can just about race through a single build (this was the same at Crimson and at Ambler) but you don’t have time to look at everything in detail and talk about lots of design options and different techniques etc. If that’s what you want, you need to spend more time – Crimson Guitars does three-month courses which are intended to do this, or there are various other schools of luthiery around the world that do courses measured in months.

Hence yes, I recommend the course, but – as with everything – you should approach it with your eyes open, and with reasonable expectations. I came out with a guitar that’s definitely the best one that I’ve built so far, and that’s all I could have asked for at the end of the day.

Me and my shadow!