Nk Forster / GUITAR BOUZOUKI / Stringed Instrument
NF – Yes it was, I cannot think of any other maker I would have rather learnt from.
When I started for Stefan in January 88, Stefan had a good reputation but his work did not command anything like the amount his work does today (a Model 1 guitar was £800!) and from the start the atmosphere was one of hard work.
I started at 7.30 and finished at 5.30, five days a week. Stefan was often there before me and always there for a few hours after. And he was there on weekends too. He worked 14 hour days, seven days a week for years.
My first duties were cleaning up, making tea and then I went on to sharpening tools and making backs. Next was bending sides and making necks. For the first couple of years most of my duties were based around making the bodies and doing the rough work for the necks and tops. And making the tea of course.
As far as machines – we had an Inca bandsaw, an inaccurate planer thicknesser and a router we used for about 2 or three jobs and that was it. No table saw, no pillar drill, no extraction, nothing. It was a very primitive workshop by modern standards. Most of the work was done by hand.
This is before guitar making was the big amateur business it is now so we were pretty isolated as far as building methods went. Stefan was self taught and so developed many interesting and sometimes odd ways of making, and it was many years before I knew any different which was good.
It was Stefan who developed the method of joining tops and backs on a sheet of chipboard using bent nails for pressure – I have a video of me doing this on my YouTube site and people seem to find it hilarious – but this is how I have done it for 20 years, and it works for me.
As I said, the instruments were not expensive, and the work was done by hand, so the idea was “Get it ready, and get it out” Doing things right the first time was very important, as having to redo things could mean the difference between making money on an instrument or not, so it is a good way to learn.
The current crop of luthiers and their apprentices do not work this way – so much of guitar making has been reduced to wood machining now, and my belief is that something of the human touch has been lost. A balance between working efficiently and quietly should be sought. But at the same time I understand that most customers neither know nor care about this.
As the years went by the instruments got better, the waiting list grew, prices rose and we got all modern – Stefan bought dust extraction, a belt linisher and eventually I bought my own table saw – my favourite machine for making. We made a Go-bar deck! By the time I left it was a pretty swish workshop.
We had our own rooms with the machine shop in the middle, and in the last few years I had a pretty free hand to get on with things, to work on the design and develop my own ways of the building process. As long as the standard improved, Stefan was happy to let me experiment.
TT- Innovations like your 3 piece, mixed rosewood backs?
NF – No, I can’t claim that, In 2003, Stefan and I built a guitar for a chap called Maurice Condie which was a mix of Cocobolo and Rio, and it came out sounding much more like Rio (another term for Brazilian Rosewood) than Cocobolo. A couple of years later I had a customer who didn’t have the money for Rio and was also concerned about its stability but still wanted a Rio sound, so I thought I would try mixing Rio with Indian, the results were great, and I have made many since – it is my commonest timber upgrade and rightly so.
No, most of the experimentation I did was technical stuff, to make the instruments more consistent, to eliminate building mistakes that often occurred early in the build that had to be compensated for later.
I also spent a lot of time thinking and working on the neck/body joint and the neck/head joint, both of which I have covered in my blog. And then there was the most important part – the soundboard. Early Sobells were just too stiff, they were heavily arched, heavily braced and every intersection of braces was linked.
Some came out sounding good, but they often lacked bass and felt too stiff. So we spent a lot of time experimenting and discussing the top, changing it to allow it to resist the pull of the strings and still sing.
But it got to the point where it was time for me to leave, I had too many ideas I wanted to try, and Stefan and I had spent too much time together. We attempted to set up a partnership where I would gradually take over the business but it didn’t work out. Time to go!
Which actually was the best possible thing for both of us – Being in business for myself is great – I’m doing the best work of my life just now, the sound of my guitars and Bouzouki still has that clarity and separation, but with a much fuller and rounder bass, the work is going well and whilst the aesthetic is still very simple, my guitars have a certain look about them which sets them apart from much of what is being made.
Some of the changes, like the binding and purfling are give the artist in me a chance to breathe, but others like the body shapes and the new bridge are plain old examples of form following function.
Part of my nature is I get bored easily – making the same guitar over and over would drive me mad, experimentation is the thing which has held my interest in guitar making for all these years and continues to do so. You can think about design all you like but the only way to find out is to build.
TT- When you say, great results with the rio and indian, do you mean mostly sounds like rio? With these do you have indian rosewood sides too?
NF – Yes, sounds much more like Rio than Indian. The sides are Rio, the back is a narrow central strip of Rio (around 2-3″) and outer wings of Indian. I have no explanation why the sides should have such a profound effect, but they clearly do.
TT- You mentioned that you’ve made a lot of discoveries since the first interview…
NF – The short answer is – I’m not telling! It is common for makers, amateurs in particular to share what they know or at least what they think they know, but this can lead to lots of people making similar guitars. The reason why people want my work and are prepared to pay the price I ask is that my work is not like that of most other makers.
By ignoring what you may read or be told and thinking for yourself it is possible to come up with new ideas and a different sound. – a better sound. Sound is a by product of design – one maker I know with an excellent scientific background describes sound as an energy loss to the guitar.
If you consider the architecture of the guitar and the nature and direction of the forces that act on it, and design accordingly you make a guitar that is unconventional to many but that sounds clearer and fuller than much of what is on offer.
This may sound all wrong – surely sound should come first – it still does, but I approach creating a wonderful sound from a different angle – one of creating a logical construction which will liberate the sound from the materials.
So the discoveries I have made in recent years about the soundboard – what it is I want and how I go about getting it shall remain secret. But basically it is about soundboard shape and thickness.
TT – Most folks would like to know a little about the thought and the process behind your guitars...
NF – Ok, I’ll tell you about a minor discovery and how it came about.
When I worked for Sobell, we built very dry – the fire was always on and the dehumidifier was always running. One of the results of this was the backs used to deform when they left the workshop in an odd manner – the back would swell except at the waist where the short back strut was. You would get a sort of rollercoaster effect. Didn’t look nice.
So to counter this I suggested slanting the waist bar to lengthen it and made it shallower, the idea being to make it more flexible, that way the back would swell uniformly. A little bit more work but it worked. I asked “What reason shall I tell customers”, and Stefan laughing said ” The sound, always the sound!” But we never really bothered to think any reason up – if anyone asked, I’d change the subject.
I still do this on my guitar as I too have the fire on and the dehumidifier running all the time, Then a year or two ago I decided to lighten the third back strut too, to make the whole thing more flexible. The result was one of the things I have been working towards for some time – more bass.
So now if anyone asks about the slanted back strut I can honestly say ” The sound, always the sound!! “
This is a good example of how I work – I follow my intuition, which is informed by the work I have done before, I try to honestly observe what I have done and I don’t waste too much time thinking about clever theories. Guitar making is a practical subject not just a theoretical one.
To some extent the sound my guitars make is a by-product of the thought I give to the structure. So I work on the architecture and see what comes out.
Nigel says” My Model D is NOT a Martin copy – you can flatpick on it, but basically this is a Dreadnought shaped fingerstyle guitar – this guitar has depth, seperation and clarity”
TT – Apart from the usual construction discoveries, what new models are you working on Nigel?
NF – Well, I’ve just finished the trial run for my Anniversary model (pictures on the blog) And I am very pleased with it. The guitar is roughly OM sized- a 14 fret cutaway version of the Model B. It is a new shape with rather fuller hips and a higher waist than my Model B and has my new larger, lighter bridge.
The top is Italian Spruce and back and sides are Indian/Rio mix. The sides are best dark Rio and the back has a central panel of Rio and outer wings of Indian. The colour of the sound is much closer to Rio than Indian so it just shows you what a contribution the sides make.
Many of the current theoretical models of how guitars work rely on the sides not being part of the equation – the theories go into great detail about how the top and back work, but introducing the sides into the equation complicates things beyond most folks understanding.
So if you follow this line of thinking it makes sense to laminate sides or stiffen them with large linings like the walls of a snare drum. -it physically takes the sides out of the reckoning. However just because an idea makes sense, it does not mean it is right.
You can produce a decent guitar this way but it is not the only way. I cannot give you any reason why the sides should contribute so much but I have made many of these Indian/Rio mix guitars now and it happens every time – the guitar sounds much more like Rio than Indian.
The next step is to build the Anniversary Model, and other than upgrade the timbers to Rio back and sides and my 1930’s German Spruce, I’ll pretty much do everything the same. Only problem is it looks unlikely I’ll be able to get the guitar done this year as I’m pretty booked up, so it will have to be my 21st Anniversary Model rather than my 20th.
TT – I heard you were building from Panamanian Rosewood – it’s pretty new on the scene- how does that compare to Braz or indian?
NF – Apparently Panamanian Rosewood is Dalbergia tucerencis, which is the same as Cocobolo, but believe me this wood is not like Cocobolo. Visually it is nice but fairly broad grained and the colour varies from yellow to pink. When sprayed it goes a deeper, richer shade of whatever it started off as.
The main difference from all the other Rio substitutes is it is light – very light and compares with the best Rio. It rings like Rio when tapped but works a little like Cocobolo but not as crumbly. When you chisel Cocobolo, it behaves in a rather odd manner and lumps can fall of even with the sharpest tools. Panamanian does not do this but it is more awkward than Indian.
Basically in a blind test, if you handed me a good set of Rio and a good set of Panamanian, the only way I would be able to tell them apart is the smell – it smells more like Camatillo – the weight, tap ring and stiffness are very similar. When you build with it the sound is very rich and full, and adds a fullness to the bass, more so than the other Rio substitutes but still, not a s much a s Rio.
As far as I am concerned there is a pecking order for back and sides tonewoods, with Rio at the top, Rio/Indian mix next, then Panamanian, Camatillo, and then Honduras and Cocobolo together. But it is always worth remembering that there is nothing wrong with a good set of Indian, and it is more stable than all the others – a significant advantage if ever there was one. .
Elegance, precision and beauty
TT- How about your pick of the topwoods? I know Stefan usually only uses Euro, maybe adirondack…?
NF – I have become rather obsessed with getting good Spruce in the last few years and I have LOTS! For most of my guitars I use Italian Spruce, For Mandolins and Citterns I have a huge stock of very nice light Czech Spruce. though I have recently bought a lot of Swiss and German stuff for Citterns too.
For my more expensive guitars there is some very fine grained German and Swiss, no better sounding than the Italian but it really looks the part, and I recently bought a lot of good Bearclaw Spruce too from a German dealer, but my “special” stuff is German Spruce which was felled in the 1930’s. Rather good as you can imagine.
I do have some Adirondack Spruce for guitars and Mandolin but have never had time to use it yet. Though I have made a couple of guitars with very fine grained Caucasian Spruce (Picea Orientalis) which is very interesting stuff. It cuts like cheese yet is really rather stiff, and very light.
TT – Could you give us a run down of your current line up and wait times??
NF – Waiting time is around 8 months. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Apart from the orders which are all guitars I’m working on a new model of arch top mandolin, and a new design for my Citterns and Bouzouki. I hope to have them ready by Christmas.
So just now I am building 4 bodies – I make four at a time up to the binding stage then separate them and do one at a time until they are finished. On my bench just now is a Panamanian Rosewood Model J, a cutaway Panamanian Rosewood Model C and two Indian Rosewood Model C’s. The Model C is by far my most popular Model.
N K Forster Guitars, UK
I was born in 1970, in Hexham, Northumberland. After leaving school at 17, I began my apprentiship with well regarded luthier Stefan Sobell. I worked for Stefan until January 1990, then returned two years later and remained until November 2003.
Training followed a traditional path
Choice, Materials, Design, Craftsmanship
Those looking to commission a custom built instrument have never been faced with more choice. When I began my apprenticeship in 1988 the market seemed far less cluttered. Nowerdays, magazines are full of similar looking luthiers