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A Tour of the Gibson Acoustic Shop in Bozeman, Montana: Part 4

June 9, 2011
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We’ve followed along the path various pieces of wood take to become a Gibson acoustic guitar. We’re finally ready to leave the woodshop floor and cross the hall to the finishing areas. At this point, the guitar body and neck are fitted and glued, the assembly has been sanded, and if it’s a mahogany or rosewood guitar, filler has been applied (and sanded).

The finishing area is physically separate from the woodshop for various reasons. One is that woodshops are dusty by nature, and that’s generally not helpful when you’re applying finishes.

Gibson uses nitrocellulose lacquer on its instruments. There are newer and more durable finishes, but lacquer has historic and tonal qualities not really available with other types of coatings. There’s a lot of painstaking hand labour involved in this process.

First, the binding, rosettte and tail decoration are taped off. Any colour coats are applied, and then the taping is removed and the colour scraped off the masked areas. Any required touchups are done and the guitar is put in a rack for inspection. You may notice writing on the instruments – these are approval initials and they build up as the instrument progresses.

Now we move on to the clear coats. Seven coats are applied and between coats, the instruments move on a conveyor into a drying area. Standing in this room is a bit like being in a kinetic scultpture.

Once the clear coats are applied and the lacquer has cured, the finish is wet-sanded and the top is buffed to a gloss. There’s still some work to be done, but the bridge has to go on, and so just the top is buffed at this point. There are two large buffers, for up to four grades of buffing compound. This is most definitely skilled and careful work – it’s quite possible to have the buffing wheel grab an edge and rip the piece out of your hands.

The bridge is set onto the top, using the two pins you see, and the finish marked and lifted off. Then, the bridge is glued on, clamped and set in a rack.

Next the instruments move to the buffing room. All the approval signatures are buffed out! Again, this step requires care and intense attention. The wheels spin at high speed and can catch and accelerate a guitar to a remarkably high speed – and an abrupt stop – in a very short distance.

We now have a nearly complete instrument. It still requires tuning gears, saddle and bridge pins, and these all go on in the setup room. Finally, when it’s approved for shipping, it gets a label, which is prepared on a cutting-edge print device.

The guitars are inspected once again, slipped into a case, and placed in the shipping room. And, it’s time to step outside and have a look at the scenery across the street.

We’re not done just yet; you never know what might be in the shipping room.

One member of our tour group noticed an unusual ostrich-hide case and asked what was inside. Here it is; at this point, you won’t see this model, or any other images of this instrument, anywhere else.

In our next installment, we’ll have a look inside the Custom Shop.

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