PAPA JACK'S WORKBENCH
This was my grandfather’s workbench in Baden, PA. Papa Jack Skeehan worked for the American Bridge Company in Ambridge, PA, for fifty years, designing much of the equipment used in building bridges and skyscrapers all over the world. Now, I'm using his workbench to make "Skeehan Custom Guitars."
I started using his bench and vice at five years old to make Viking weapons. I was fascinated with the Vikings, probably because of a movie I had seen. I would take 10 inch nails, pound them down on the anvil, and then grind them sharp and into shape for spear heads. I would then bury them in the backyard to no avail, hoping they would turn green. I didn't know about patinas at that age. Who knew that over 50 years later I would be making relic guitars using patinas and a lot more.
It starts with the right wood
I learned something about wood when I was selected to work for three weeks in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee during the summer following my junior year of high school, building horse barns and repairing hiking trails 4,000-5,000 feet up. We occasionally stopped at a furniture shop high in the mountains to watch fifty woodworkers running lathes. They were creating some of the best furniture available, using mostly black walnut wood, grown right there. I managed to buy a piece of black walnut for $7 that measured 2" x 8" x 3 feet and managed to get it on an airplane back to Pittsburgh. I hoped to make a guitar out of it, but I didn't have the tools and had a lot of excuses why I couldn't.
I am a big believer in sustainability as well. Many of my guitar bodies are made of paulownia. Paulowina is known as the “aluminium” of the timbers because it is light and strong. It is also extremely resonant and makes a great body. You can learn more about this green wood here.
Wet sanding is a process of mixing mineral spirits and some type of oil. I prefer Tru-Oil, which many people use on their rifle stocks. All wood has pores, some larger than others, and no matter how much you sand, you will still see small pores unless you go over the surface with wood putty. And it is very difficult or virtually impossible to match the wood putty to the wood on the guitar you are making. But when you use wet sand, it starts to form a wet gunk that will fill in the pores.
After wet sanding for a while for a while, I stop and leave all that "gunk" on there and let it dry. You will see that that gunk has filled some of the pores. I then dry sand a little, because that gunk has dried hard and is raised a bit above the wood. Once the surface is level, I start the sanding process all over. I find you don’t want to rush this process.
I attach the guitar body to the neck cavity with a piece of wood and four bolts and then do a wet sanding every day, or every three days depending on the desired finish, for around two to three weeks. As you go through this process, the wood starts to show itself to you and impress you. My first piece of Sapele mahogany I got I felt was so ugly that I thought I would never buy from that source again. But as I wet sanded this piece, I was totally amazed what was revealed before my eyes. I was astonished at how beautiful this piece of wood was. I wasn’t the one that did it. It was the wood. It even has a superficial hairline crack at the bottom, which could not be seen until the final process. Now it is a beauty mark. My Mahogany & Roasted Birdseye Maple Neck Guitar is for sale and I think it’s one of the nicest pieces to date.
COMPONENTS & ASSEMBLY
The neck is the first priority
Now it was time to make my ultimate guitar. When I start to think about designing a new guitar, the first priority is the neck, since I usually design my guitars around the neck. I started picking out and buying only the best wood I could find and then shipping it to a great neck maker. He still builds them by hand and doesn’t use a CNC machine. Most guitar bodies and necks are made by computerized machines, so I believe that the real art to making guitars now is getting the raw unfinished, unpainted, guitar bodies and necks and making the best guitars possible. And I buy only the best wood available.
In my eyes the best wood is hard Western Maple, preferably Birdseye, then Tiger, Fiddleback, then Curly. I prefer curly, tiger and mostly birdseye maple necks and try to get the 4AAAA & 5A Birdseye. Sometimes I will use a one-piece rosewood neck when I can pick out the wood in person. Once I find and buy the wood and have my neck, I make sure it is free of any coatings and start to put a couple of coats of Tru-Oil on it. I hang it up to dry and sort of cure. Once that is done, I begin to think what kind of guitar I am going to design around it.