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How C.f. Martin Makes A Top

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I've been working at C.F. Martin for some time now and my duties have been in the machine shop. for the most part, my primary goal is to build tops. I thought some might be interested in knowing what goes into making a spruce top.

1 Person one receives shipment of rough lumber in book matched lengths around 10 to 20 feet

2. Person two cuts boards to length, stickers and stacks the book-matched tops on a pallet. (approximately 1000 tops per pallet. )

3. Person three places the wood in a kiln and dries it if the lumber was not dry before it came to us (in most cases it is) Person places pallet in the acclimating room, where it stays for no less than 30 days.

4. Person four sands the tops to a rough thickness (approximately .350-inch) with a very large sander. Person 5 (a catcher takes them out and stacks them back on the pallet. Once both sides are rough sanded, the pallet is placed back in the acclimating room until needed.

5. Person 6 takes 200 book-matched tops and places them on a cart. That person double checks that each top is accurately book-matched and checks the wood for defects. We use a clear template to ensure any imperfections are either cut out or hidden.

6. Person 6 takes the book-matched tops and then preps them for gluing. Each set is rough joined, one side of the top is notched for the CNC and then the top is run through a finish joiner. Before the top can be glued together, you must place the tops edge to edge on a table with a light running down the center. If you cannot see light through the joint, the top is ready for glue.

7. Person 7 applies glue (Tite Bond) to the edge of one side and then places the both sides of the top in a clamping press. Downward and sideward pressure is applied to the top for 20-minutes (the machine is capable of 14 tops at a time. After 20 minutes, person 7 takes the tops off and places them in a stack. After two hours, they can go to the next step.

8. Person 8 sands the glued top down to the final thickness (both sides) to remove any steps in the wood due to the gluing process. Keep in mind, the tops are not cut out, the lumber for the tops are sanded to thickness. Once sanded, person 8 enters the tops into inventory to notify the next person in the process.

9. Quality control inspects the tops for any defects such as cracks, sap and gaps in the joint. They mark out which side of the wood will be the top and then draw the shape of the guitar, where they want the top cut out. They receive a final grading and then are stacked until an order is received for a guitar of that grade.

10. Person 9 places the top onto a laser CNC machine and cuts out the shape of the top

11. Person 10 places the top in a machine that cuts out the rosette cavities

12. Person 11 glues and installs the rosette.

13 Person 8 gets the rosetted tops back and then completes a final sanding to cut down the rosettes flush with the top of the guitar.

14. Person 12 cuts out the sound hole in a drill press and then sends the tops back up to QA

15. QA inspects the tops and then sends them to bracing.

16. The bracing is glued onto the top and depending on the type and quality of the top, the bracing is then hand carved to thickness.

Optional step (if there is a cut away on the guitar, it's placed in a machine and cut out now. This is not done when they initially cut out the top (Don't ask me why)

17. The top goes to a CNC machine where the locator tabs on the sides are cut off so the top can be installed.

18. The top is glued onto the guitar

19. The top is cut so binding can be installed or the top is radiused if no binding is to be installed

Some other notes, Martin no longer uses ebony. Instead, they use a composite material made out of fiber, epoxy and formaldehyde. It's very life like but yet, it's still plastic. They still use ebony on historic guitars though. I worked over time today cutting up blanks for bridges and fret boards out of this stuff. Machines very nice but still... not the real deal.

If you think this is a lot of steps for a top, I could go into the steps for the neck making process, assembly process and just about every other process and you'd quickly see that Martin likes long processes.

There are only two or three people in the entire company that could actually make a neck with a spokeshave. The ONLY guitars made that way are one-off prototypes where they cannot use the normal CNC'd necks or for thre "Authentic" series guitars that cost 110K. BTW, Don't hold me to it but the only thing "Authentic" about the Authentic guitars is the wood used, the way the neck is made and how the bracing is made. Otherwise, most if it is still CNC'd

Martin makes all of their guitars except for the X series in the USA. The X series are made in Mexico, along with the strings.

The only thing Martin does not manufacture on their own are the tuners and electronics. They cut their own wood, binding, bracing, pick guards and purfling.

Martin produces 200 guitars (standard and custom) daily and plan to increase that number to 225 next year. They consider Taylor Guitars their only "Real" competition.

Yes it's true, famous people show up all the time and take tours. Anyone can take a tour of the shop if you wanted. I've yet to see any really famous people though.

The acclimating room is approximately half the size of a Lowes home improvement store and stacked full of goodies

What's the best thing I've seen so far? Well, they have a huge stack of reclaimed mahogany taken from a Tibetan Monastery that was standing for over 500 years. They have had it in the mill for over 6 years and Chris Martin still has not released it into production. The Mojo that wood has.... well, you can feel it when you stand in front of the pile.

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Wow! Thanks for that. I know there are a lot of big, big Martin fans that might not find that information so novel, but I sure did. I was particularly fascinated to hear that they use Titebond (Original, I assume?) to glue the top together. What do they use when they glue the rosette and braces? Do you know what they use to glue on the bridge?

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I'm not sure about the bridge. However, it's original Tite bond for the neck, bracings and rosettes, bindings, backs and fretboards. Good old fashioned super glue for the position markers on the fret board.

I was also a bit disillusioned when I found out about the ebony but the inside scoop is, the owner of Taylor bought up the ebony supplier and if Martin wants ebony, they have to go through Taylor to get it.

I know one thing, that wood does not come into the mill if it doesnt have all of the necessary paperwork! That's for sure!

Edited by zyonsdream
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Good read! I'm about to begin construction of 2 O-28 style (ala Ian Anderson) guitars. I have the molds and will make some changes/mods along the way. I'm basically taking a bit of info from here and there (Kinkade's book, Robbie O'brien and internet, ie. you et al.) :D for guidance. I got a good start in the materials and tools, resawing my own maple and spruce, got the right sized moulds and a bender. Feel free to expunge any more bits of info if you want, barring any secrets that CF Martin & Co. covet, I wouldn't want to see you get in any trouble. :D But I'm interested in how they get such a BIG sound out of such a little guitar like the baby martins etc. I'm assuming its a combo of thin tops, scalloped bracing and lightweight bridge. But I know there is a line somewhere where strength and stability are compromised.

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