Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Have you ever wondered why guitars have binding on them? I have, because, you know, I am a luthier, and I spent the better part of today adding pearl around the top of a Koa 0-42. I assume the reason for the traditional ivoroid wrapped around a guitar body is there because it protects the instrument from damage to the sides, and it also covers up any issues that may make a perfect fit of the top and back impossible. I am less sure about the ornamentation such as herringbone or abalone that winds around the top next to the binding other than the increased fanciness it provides.

I was thinking it might be interesting to read about how I go about adding binding and purfling on my guitars. If that doesn't sound interesting to you, go ahead and skip this post. I will try to write something more witty and entertaining for you next time. For folks interested in the construction of a guitar, this is a pretty interesting, albeit difficult, process that isn't always appreciated since it is not the most glamorous task in the guitar shop. (Just wait till I get to finish work.)

My dad has a silver, clunky router that looks like it was manufactured in 1978, maybe earlier, sitting in the top trough attached to one of the carpeted benches that snugly clamps guitar bodies ready for work. This router is special and is only used for the sole job of routing around guitar bodies to make space for binding and purfling. It has black electric tape wound around the orange cord where it emerges from the machine because it has twisted into frays from overuse. I worry every time I use it because I am pretty sure that this time will be it's last trip around a guitar, but it makes it every time, wheezing and overheated as it might be.

In order to get perfect binding on a guitar, you first have to cut the perfect groove. As badly as I hate adjusting, and testing, then adjusting again, that is what it takes. After several short runs on a test block of maple or spruce that I find behind the bandsaw, I finally get the right depth for the binding. Then, I route the space for the purfling, adjusting the router to cut less from the sides and more from the top.

After the groove is cut, it is time to glue on the binding and purfling. I prefer to use wood binding usually, so in those cases I use wood glue to attach the pieces, but this Koa 0-42 I am currently working on calls for ivoroid binding, so Duco cement is the best adhesive for that material. Along with the binding this guitar also requires that I add abalone around the top. In order to do that I have to fit a strip of three black and white stained maple lines on either side of a strip of teflon that is later removed and replaced with abalone. The most frustrating thing ever about the teensie tiny lines is that one of the black lines is thicker than the other, but not very much so it is just about impossible to figure out which is which. And it is important because the thicker line always sits next to the abalone. It is not always evident which line is thicker so I spend a significant amount of time checking and rechecking the lines before I glue them to the body. Just about every guitar that requires me to glue on these lines fills me with anxiety until I scrape down the binding flush with the guitar top and see for sure that I passed the test.

Can you tell which line is thicker?

With 42 and 45 style guitars, the purfling also runs around the neck and into the soundhole rosette. Now, I just want to tell you that this task took me all day today so I now understand the reason my dad typically prefers not to make guitars with such ornamentation. After measuring and routing the space, the dreaded tiny black and white lines must be perfectly joined together with a 45 degree mitre joint. So, on top of making sure the lines are siting the right way, each one must fit perfectly together. That is eight, count them, eight dreaded tiny lines that must line up around the neck and flow around the body. This work reminded me of a tedious surgical procedure, you know, minus the stress of potentially killing someone. After the lines are glued in, the teflon is removed and abalone must also be perfectly joined together. While struggling to match the lines, I asked my dad, "Is anyone seriously going to look this close?" "Yep." He answered.

The first work I ever did on guitars was putting the abalone in the space around the body when I was visiting during breaks from school. I remember enjoying that, but I never had to do the difficult mitre bits. I would snap the thin abalone strips into the space between the black and white lines with a satisfying click. I remember when my dad let me put the inlay into the guitar he was making for Eric Clapton, and while I knew it wasn't the most difficult job, it was still so great to be offered the position. I am glad I was provided that opportunity, because the feeling I had doing that, my dad trusting me to do satisfactory work, has been something I constantly strive for now in my current work as a luthier. And I have to do all the jobs these days.

Look what I did today! 


  1. Love this. Thank you so much for sharing. It is apparent that you are quickly rising to the level of expectation that so many have of your father. Beautiful.

  2. You did great! Just beautiful.

  3. Really beautiful work. Mitres with tiny purfling strips are one of the more difficult tasks of guitar building but you executed it flawlessly. You keep getting better and better.

  4. Wow, fascinating stuff. I can only imagine how many dozens of hours (or hundreds) it must take to feel comfortable doing such intricate work. The finished product looks fantastic though!

  5. Lovely work elle, looks fantastic. Just wondering, how do you cut the channel for the purfling around the fingerboard? Would love to know, cheers.

  6. I mark the fingerboard and remove the neck, then use a router and a jig clamped onto the body to go around that mark. Then I use a pocket knife to whittle out the edges. Thanks for reading!!

  7. (Look what I did today!) . . . Wow! . . . That would win top prize in any competition!