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Unread 11-14-2007, 11:23 AM   #1
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Ron Thorn's take on CNC and timeframes etc. (interesting read)

This was taken from a thread a while back where someone questioned CNC vs "Hand-made" guitars and how much work it actually takes. Ron went a step further and even broke it down by how many hours he could spend on a typical guitar. Great read considering how many people have been discussing how fast or slow a custom guitar, body or neck "should" really take to build.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ron Thorn
I'm game.

First off, there is no shop, large or small, that is entirely CNC. It does not exist. I think most individuals would be surprised by what a guitar component looks like when it comes off a CNC. It is no where near complete, there is still plenty of hand sanding, fitting, etc.

Here's a break down of what I do with the CNC and "by hand".

CNC:
Fretboards - you asked "why
they've gone to the CNC and what aspect of things is better". The fretboard is so brutally important that it is ideal for CNC accuracy. I perimeter, slot, radius, and rout for inlays all in one set-up on the CNC. Than insures spot-on fret slot placement (VERY important to the quality of the guitar), consistent radii including compound radiusing, and inlays that are very tight and free of sloppy filler/gaps.
Total time on the CNC: 20 minutes

Necks - Once the blank has been bandsawn ("by hand") to an oversized shape the CNC will machine the neck carve, perimeter the neck and heel, shape the headstock, drill for tuners, rout for truss rod and rout for logo & purfling. This is done through 6 different set-ups.
Total time on the CNC: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Bodies - The CNC performs all cavity routing (top & back), neck pocket routing, perimeter, top carve, and bridge location holes. On a pivot style trem, such as a PRS trem, the location of those 6 holes must be perfectly inline to prevent binding of the trem during use.
Total time on the CNC for a body with carve top: 3 hours

Inlays - Production inlays, such as my Firesuns and "T" logo, are cut on the CNC for a perfect fit into the routes on the fretboard and headstock. I also "rip" my purfling strips on the CNC too.
Total time for one guitar's worth: 15 minutes

Components - I machine my own 1-pc. brass tremolos, pickup covers and rings, knobs, back plates, truss rod covers, and jack plates.
Total time worth: Approx: 10 hours.
Granted, all of these parts are "custom" for my guitars exclusively. I could purchase all of these parts from guitar supply shops but prefer to make my own.

None of the above times include any programming, set-up or material preparation...all of which are done "by hand".

_____________________

"By hand"
This term, I assume, includes feeding or pushing the component through a power tool such as a planer, jointer, drum sander, bandsaw etc.

Fretboards:
Pre CNC: The wood is bandsawn to an oversize thickness and feed through a drum sander to flatten.

Post CNC - The fretboard needs to:
Have the side dots drilled and glued in.
Inlays and purfling glued in.
Glue the board to the neck blank.
Level and true the board.
Fret and fretdress.
Total time "by hand": 13 hours for the above operations. My fret preparation (cutting to length, nipping the tang, grinding the tang), fret installation and dress is a total of 6 hours alone...no CNC for any of those operations.

Necks:
Pre CNC:
The wood is milled and rough cut to shape, using tracing templates, on a table saw and bandsaw before it gets to the CNC.
Post CNC:
Install the truss rod and filler strip,
blend the neck into the fretboard,
inlay logo and purfling,
final shape the neck carve to spec using rasps, spindle sanders and lots of elbow grease sanding then sanding some more,
gluing the neck into the body.
Total time "by hand": 8-10 hours easily.

Body:
Pre CNC:
Split top, joint edges, bookmatch glue together, sand to thickness.
Mill/sand body to thickness.
Locate and glue top to body spread then sand and drill locating hole for the CNC.
Post CNC:
Inlay purfling.
Drill for controls, side jack, wiring channels.
Radius back edge on router table.
SAND from 150 grit to 320/400
Total time "by hand": 10-15 hours depending on the wood species.

Paint:
Prep, mask off, stain, seal, color, top coat, lots of sanding in between, lots of sanding after, buffing...the list goes on. No CNC for these ops.
Total time "by hand": 28 hours if all goes right the first time...it never does.

Assembly:
Installation of components (tuners, pickups, bridge, etc), wiring, cutting the nut, set up.
Total time "by hand": 6-8 hours

The above is only visually productive acts, not including ordering wood and components, e-mails, shipping, and just plain running the business.

_______

So, if we deduct the custom components and use off the shelf bridges, pickup rings, etc. The average total time is:
CNC: 5 hours, 20 minutes.
"By hand": 69 hours, 30 minutes.

I consider my shop to be fairly state of the art, I have a large HAAS CNC for the woodwork, and 2 smaller CNCs for the pearl inlay work. The only additional automated CNC-type machinery would be a Plek and a robotic buffer. I could see that only reducing the "by hand" total by a couple/few hours at most.

Not mentioned would be a custom one-off inlay that I, or my father, would do "by hand" with a jeweler's saw and a mini router. The time spent on that could be from 45 minutes to 100s of hours depending on the design.


However small in comparison those 5 hours, 20 minutes seem...they are VERY important to the outcome of the guitar. Accuracy and consistancy are unmatched. There are features, such as my double offset purfling, that just can't physically be done by hand. Fretslots accurate to within .0005" of an inch...heck, the wood will expand or contract more than that by the time I turn the lights off in the shop at the end of the day...but it's good to know they are as accurate as can be.
Inlays that are gap free and clean are important to me. I'm not a fan of filler and I don't want that to be a part of my product. Even with hand cut and routed inlays, I feel we are one of the best at making them tight and clean.

Can I build a guitar with out a CNC, sure.
WOULD I now if I didn't have one...I doubt it, because I would always feel the guitar isn't as good as it can be WITH the help of a CNC.
There you have one take on it from a CNC builder.

Ron Thorn
Thorn Custom Guitars & Inlay

"Powered by HAAS...and loving it "


So there you have it... calculate up all that time PER instrument (heck, someone calculated out how much Ron makes per hour just based on one guitar and it was shockingly low ) and then multiply it by how many orders someone like Chris Woods, Mike Sherman or Ron Thorn is looking at and it equals a huge headache with very little money made from it. They truly do their job for the love of it. Plus another thing to consider is that Ron has been using CNC for several years and has an engineering background so he is faster than most luthiers just starting out with one or using a smaller setup. Hope this helps to clear up some misconceptions about how "easy" it is to use a CNC and how little time it must take using one. Ron said he would take using CNC over "totally handbuilt" (which is a term that makes me laugh a bit, because if you're using machines like bandsaws it's STILL a machine ) guitars any day, so keep in mind that even though it's a time-saver once you get it down, there are still a TON of things that require a lot of hands on attention after the CNC part is completed.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 11:31 AM   #2
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I always find the "it's gotta be totally handmade" argument crap. Ever try and intonate a pre-CINC guitar? It's a friggin' nightmare, in most cases.

Truth be told, the overall quality of guitars is much higher now than it's ever been, and extremely accurate machines play an important role in that success.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 11:46 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by eaeolian View Post
I always find the "it's gotta be totally handmade" argument crap. Ever try and intonate a pre-CINC guitar? It's a friggin' nightmare, in most cases.

Truth be told, the overall quality of guitars is much higher now than it's ever been, and extremely accurate machines play an important role in that success.
Exactly. However great the benefit in time-saving and accuracy is, there is still a TON of hand work involved so it's not as simple as "throw wood on table, bolt down, press button, completed product." like some people suggest or believe. There is a TON of work that goes into these guitar necks, bodies etc.! My hat is always off to guys like Ron, Mike and even guys like Chris (who are a bit behind but still doing it regardless) because there is a ton of work involved and many people often take that for granted. No cookie cutter guitars yet fellas!
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Unread 11-14-2007, 12:04 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by eaeolian View Post
Truth be told, the overall quality of guitars is much higher now than it's ever been, and extremely accurate machines play an important role in that success.
Very true. I think back to the '80s, and almost anything below a top-level guitar (Gibson, Fender, Jackson, Kramer USA, etc.) was total crap. There was certainly nothing like the Schecter Diamond Series back then. And even those guitars and the Korean Ibanez have come quite a ways just in the last few years.

Beyond aesthetics, most of what gives an individual guitar its "mojo" is the tonal property of the wood, not whether it was made using machines or hand-carved by elves. I'll take a guitar made to exacting tolerances using sophisticated machines, thank you.

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Unread 11-14-2007, 12:09 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jacksonplayer View Post
Beyond aesthetics, most of what gives an individual guitar its "mojo" is the tonal property of the wood, not whether it was made using machines or hand-carved by elves. I'll take a guitar made to exacting tolerances using sophisticated machines, thank you.
In most cases, that accounts for some of the price difference, as well - I remember pictures of the Hamer and Jackson factories from the '90s where there was an entire pallet of wood that was the "reject pile".

I find myself wondering if Jackson still rejects that much wood...

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Unread 11-14-2007, 12:12 PM   #6
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Great post - I hadn't seen that before. I have an interest in one day building guitars - at least for my self and that was so very insightful.

I have run service and production businesses in the past although not something like a guitar building shop. Based on the hours that Ron lists to produce a single guitar I would say no less than $4500 just for the labor - not including a single component or piece of material. The fact that his operation is out of California probably you can probably multiply X1.5 or 2.

It just cracks me up when these young guitar players want to go the custom route but don't have custom money or custom patients. I mean if your not serious leave these guys alone so that the people that are serious can be serviced.

I think you're very correct in saying that most smaller luthiers do this because they love their job and love the creation of a musical instrument.

I was talking to a guy on this board that I was considering buying parts from Warmoth because I liked the idea of putting the guitar together myself. So I showed him which body in general I was interested in - I think it was about $600. He said I was crazy and paying that kind of money (too expensive). I understand Warmoth is not doing things with anywhere near the complexity of Ron's stuff but based on what Ron says about body construction and paint - I'm thinking that's a smoking deal.

I think part of what hurts custom builders on their pricing is how inexpensive some really decent guitars have become. Meaning mass produced guitars. You can go buy a decent fixed bridge Ibanez for $300 so why does this luthier want to charge me $300+ just for a simple unfinished body? They have no concept that the $300 Ibanez is built by a workforce that gets paid next to nothing. It's built in a building that costs next to nothing. The employees are not offered insurance and 401k's. The woods are no where near the quality tone woods that most luthiers use. The components are bought on such a mass quantity that they get the deepest discounts. How can a luthier who purchases 15 floyd roses trems per year compare with a company that purchases 1500 - or in Ibanez's case makes a licensed product which again is made overseas in sweat shops for penny's on the dollar.

A buddy of mine told me this great story - he's a pro musician. When recording his first record the engineer/producer asked what he was playing. He had some of the higher end Ibanez models. To which the producer replied that they had the tonal qualities of a coffee table. My buddy was kind of offended he thought they were pretty nice guitars - although he has since shifted to Conklins which he gladly waits a year to get made.

Thanks great stuff.

Last edited by DslDwg; 11-14-2007 at 12:43 PM. Reason: addition
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Unread 11-14-2007, 12:40 PM   #7
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One of the things that drew me to Taylor guitars when I was looking at acoustics was the "best guitar we can make" philosophy. At the time, if a person could make the part better than a machine, then a man made it, if a cnc machine made a better part, a machine made it.
Great post....Thanks...
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Unread 11-14-2007, 02:18 PM   #8
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One of the greatest post I've ever read. I hope now everybody can see how looks luthier's work and how many luthiers have to devote to make great guitars and sell them with not so high prices.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 03:08 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by eaeolian View Post
I find myself wondering if Jackson still rejects that much wood...
One would hope so. There has to be some reason it takes them two years to build a guitar.

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Unread 11-14-2007, 03:45 PM   #10
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Very informative post. Thank you for sharing.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 05:08 PM   #11
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Thanks for posting this. I hope everyone reads it and understands how much is involved in custom building instruments.

For anyone interested, I don't have a CNC (yet) simply because I can't afford to set one up at this stage. Like Thorn my interest is in accuracy and repeatability. I currently use the next best thing - CNC cut templates and jigs. The wood aspect is fairly efficient and accurate using this approach, so given the opportunity my first steps into CNC will be for custom components like bridges and pickup parts. Thorn's time estimate sounds pretty close to how long I spend on a guitar - if everything goes smoothly
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Unread 11-14-2007, 07:01 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dpm View Post
- if everything goes smoothly
This is soooo true! If anyone has ever tried to build an instrument or anything for that matter, stupid shit always happens. You could plan and engineer as long as you want and something doesnt fit, or physically work out.

You could set a cut / sanded guitar body on a piece of carpeting so it won't get hurt, but behold, there was a woodchip embedded in the carpeting which has now dented your work...do you get a wet rag and a soldering iron to pull it out? do you get some filler? how long does that take to dry, resand etc. did you want a trans finish?...now you cant. It is not easy to do, and thats a huge part of why over a year now, I've only called Rob at KxK like twice. He's got a lot of shit to deal with without me bugging him about work to do.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 08:34 PM   #13
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I read it on Project Guitar. Awesome information.

Back to da 'hood (sevenstring.org)
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Unread 11-14-2007, 08:48 PM   #14
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Great read, thanks.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 09:33 PM   #15
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Yeah, I'm a process manager/engineer at a laser cutting firm, there's no way you're going to convince me that precision can be maintained by hand. We can maintain a .0005" tolerance across parts.
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Unread 11-14-2007, 09:33 PM   #16
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I read it on Project Guitar. Awesome information.
Ron wrote up the post on the Gear Page, he doesn't post anything on Project Guitar Frank!
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Unread 11-15-2007, 09:47 AM   #17
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Thanks for that mate!

CNC Machines are such a help. I just wish i had one when i was building guitars.

Two guitars + 1 month + no-CNC + all hand = long bloody month!
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Unread 11-15-2007, 11:42 AM   #18
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Not mentioned would be a custom one-off inlay that I, or my father, would do "by hand" with a jeweler's saw and a mini router. The time spent on that could be from 45 minutes to 100s of hours depending on the design.
This is the one place where I'd draw the line. For me, elaborate inlays are more of an "art" thing than an "accuracy" one. If I'm paying to have a dragon knitting a kimono while listening to his ipod and smoking a cigar on the fretboard of my guitar, then I'm not doing it because I want a cool design, I'm doing it for the artistry. CNC for something like this is cheating, I think - it's like using a photocopier and then framing it and hanging it in an art gallery. I don't get it.

for simple dots or trapezoids or sharkfins or something, whatever. But if I'm after an "artistic" inlay, then I expect it to be art, and for me that means human, not a machine. It's all about the soul of the artist expressed across the fretboard, and not how tight the tolerances can be.

Everything else, I agree - if it makes the guitar more functional, then so much the better. It's just, inlays aren't, past the point of simply locating ones' self on the fretboard, about function.

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Unread 11-15-2007, 12:27 PM   #19
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I never complained that since C. Woods had a CNC machine, that my guitar should have been completed by now. Im complaining that while other guitars are being cut, he should be assembling my guitar and packing it up.

My guitar is far past the CNC phase. There's no reason why I shouldn't have it by now.


And what the hell is with this small-assed Quick Reply box

POOF!
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Unread 11-15-2007, 01:05 PM   #20
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This is the one place where I'd draw the line. For me, elaborate inlays are more of an "art" thing than an "accuracy" one. If I'm paying to have a dragon knitting a kimono while listening to his ipod and smoking a cigar on the fretboard of my guitar, then I'm not doing it because I want a cool design, I'm doing it for the artistry. CNC for something like this is cheating, I think - it's like using a photocopier and then framing it and hanging it in an art gallery. I don't get it.

for simple dots or trapezoids or sharkfins or something, whatever. But if I'm after an "artistic" inlay, then I expect it to be art, and for me that means human, not a machine. It's all about the soul of the artist expressed across the fretboard, and not how tight the tolerances can be.

Everything else, I agree - if it makes the guitar more functional, then so much the better. It's just, inlays aren't, past the point of simply locating ones' self on the fretboard, about function.

I'm going to disagree with you there Drew. Inlay looks WAY better when it has little to no filler. If someone is paying $2-500 for a crazy inlay job, well I don't know about you but for me I want it to look absolutely perfect. No filler, no gaps. I have seen very few guys do inlay as well as Ron and Pops do, regardless of the fact that they use CNC. They only use it for the ROUTING part. All the pieces are cut by hand so THEY have to fit perfectly as well. I've seen Pops do it with my own two eyes and that is NOT something you can do without a great deal of skill. To belittle it to "photocopying" is a bit insulting IMHO, if you've never tried it or seen it done I suggest you check out what it takes to do a job that tight. Look at the "Eagle" fretboard inlays Ron did on one of the guitars. That one took 2-3 years in the build process because the inlay was so labor-intensive. You have to understand that the details going into the inlay goes down as far as the INDIVIDUAL feather. The art comes in where they can make all those hundreds of pieces fit seemlessly and finding perfectly color/figured pieces of inlay for each part. I don't do it for a living so I'm not insulted personally, but having seen how much work goes into that process even with the help of CNC makes me wonder why you would post something like that. Here's some of what I'm talking about:










Also, keep in mind (and ask Dave or Misha about this as they have seen it in person) stuff like my neck heel signature is all done by hand, no CNC involved. All I'm saying is that you're making it out to be way simpler than it truly is. There is a TON of artistic value in the inlay that Ron and other CNC users produce IMHO.
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Unread 11-15-2007, 01:43 PM   #21
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We can agree to disagree. For me, for something that I consier art, it's as much the act of creation as it is the finished product. I don't consider computer programming an "art" the same way hand inlaying is.

For me, I guess it's the little imperfections that add value to it, that make it human. Then again, I'm not the sort of guy who'd want an eagle on his fretboard either.

The photocopier bit was an analogy, by the way, not a personal dig at your favorite luthier.

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Unread 11-15-2007, 01:45 PM   #22
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Word up.
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Unread 11-15-2007, 01:51 PM   #23
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It's not that I'd never buy a guitar with a CNC-cut inlay - it's just that, if I was paying for a premium inlay anyway, I'd also be willing to pay a premium to have it done by hand.

Then again, my taste in guitars is pretty utilitarian, function before form. My #1 criteria for an inlay is that it should allow me to know where I am on the fretboard, at a glance, without having to think, if somehow I get lost. I never really look at the front anyway, just the side dots - the CST taught me that - but still it's a security blanket thing.

But for all the functional aspects of building a guitar, then absolutely - a CNC machine is the way to go, in the hands of a competent luthier.

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Unread 11-15-2007, 09:36 PM   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by HighGain510 View Post
Ron wrote up the post on the Gear Page, he doesn't post anything on Project Guitar Frank!
A quoted that and put it on the CNC vs handmade thread.

Cnc vs. Handmade - Project Guitar Forum

I deem your answer false

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Unread 11-15-2007, 09:56 PM   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by skinhead View Post
A quoted that and put it on the CNC vs handmade thread.

Cnc vs. Handmade - Project Guitar Forum

I deem your answer false
Ah, see but BILL posted that. He's not RON THORN... Bill just linked to the post Ron made. Ron didn't post it over there Frankie! I at you and deem you ultimately false!
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