Physical feedback

Saturday was neck carving day – I planned on spending some quality time at a workbench with a sturdy vice and sharp chisels, carving the heel of my guitar neck (that part where the back of the neck joins the body). I’ve actually got two necks built in parallel, but one has quite a bit of tear-out from some sloppy router work on the headstock, so that’s become my “practice” neck. Free-carving the curve of the heel will take some practice.

It was a bit frustrating at first. One book I’ve been following as a guide suggests using a very wide chisel for the broad shaping. Good idea in practice, but force = pressure x area. I have to use twice as much force on a 1″ chisel as I would on a 1/2″ chisel, and that means I’m more likely to slip (there’s a clean slice on the side of my index finger from both pushing too hard with the right hand and not remembering to keep the left hand out of the path of the tool). It’s also just bad form to “force” a tool – I just don’t have as much control. My chisels are reasonably sharp (although I could probably improve in the sharpening department, too), so I was surprised at how difficult this was.

I ended up eventually shifting to a narrower chisel, and life got a lot easier. There was still a lot of trial and error – the main shaping strokes are across the grain, which is an odd direction to pare wood. I eventually broke out my cabinet maker’s rasps (and boy, can I tell the difference between a high quality rasp and a cheap Big Box store tool) and learned how they work in this particular application. I got to the point of a rough shape with the practice neck, and then stopped to take a break.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Reading about the carving operation ahead of time was helpful – I knew roughly the order of operations I wanted to execute. But there was a lot I had to experience first hand – literally. The curve of the heel is concave looking from the headstock to the body, but convex looking up from the back of the instrument. Carving each of these with flat chisels took some thinking and experimenting. The wood also behaves very differently when carving across vs with the grain. In one of my first (too heavy) cuts I tore a good chunk out of the top of the fingerboard – had that been my “real” neck it would have been difficult to glue back into place without a cosmetic blemish.

I know this is glaringly obvious, but this sort of knowledge and skill can only be acquired through practice. Reading is helpful to a point, but what I found surprising is that after trying this for a few hours, I could re-read the texts and better understand the logic of certain operations. The book was quite clear, for example, about never carving along the curve all the way through to the end of the workpiece – that guarantees some tearing out (which I proved). Now I see why that advice was given, and through making the gut-clenching error myself the lesson has stuck.

This week looks to be a bit busy, but I’m going to try to carve out (no pun intended) one evening to return to the wood shop this week.

Meanwhile, the 30 day challenge continues along. I’m managing to average about 6 days out of 7 of solid guitar practice, and I’ll call that a win. I’m finding it’s a lot easier to keep up when I have a basic expectation of daily practice, and allow myself an occasional “miss.”  If I’d set a goal of every other day, on the other hand, I think it would have been a lot harder to keep up as a habit.  In an ideal world I’d probably adopt the same “every day unless there’s a good reason” approach to exercise, too. Maybe that will be Feb’s challenge…


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