|Observations of a Martin guitar kit|
Hardy Menagh 2/9/2014
This review is in no way intended to be critical of C F Martin & Co. or their Guitars.
It is intended to be an honest appraisal of one kit purchased from the Guitarmaker's Connection.
This information was accurate at the time I wrote it but things do change with time.
Your experience may be different.
Guitars I've Built
At the start of the 1980s, with minimal experience building other stringed instruments, I built three steel-stringed guitars. The first two were made entirely from luthier supply house wood and parts. I used a home-made thickness sander to thin the rough-sawn top, back and side wood to thickness. The sides were bent around a copper pipe heated with a propane torch. I used Irving Sloane's Steel-String Guitar Construction book as a guide but also went my own way with some aspects of the designs.
My first build was a basic Mahogany and Sitka Spruce dreadnaught. It was unrefined and had some esoteric aesthetic features but was quite playable and didn't sound bad either.
The second, a Rosewood and German Spruce herringbone dreadnaught was the best of the three guitars I made around that time.
Those first two guitars wandered away from me but I still possess the third one, a roughly 00-sized 12 fret, slot-head with D side depth. It was assembled from mostly odds and ends that I had accumulated, including some found materials.
The back and sides of this third guitar are of Koa wood, not expensive in 1981. It's topped with lower grade Sitka and has a classical guitar rosette. In the neck is a used truss rod from a cheap flea market electric guitar.
I learned a lot about how not to build a guitar from number 3. Its main virtue was that it cost very little to build but it also had good volume, pleasant tone and quite a bit of "personality" (like that nice girl your aunt wanted to fix you up with).
Several years after building number 3 and using it for gigging, camping, letting friends engrave the top with misdirected flatpicking and numerous all-night jams, the repurposed rod broke inside the neck.
The procedure should have been to pull the fretboard off and fit a new rod. I had laminated the neck from leftover Mahogany interior trim, found in the attic of a turn-of-the-century house on Staten Island. I wasn't sure what would happen if I applied heat and moisture to it so I just continued to play the guitar with the gradually increasing relief.
Eventually, the bow in the neck made playing it problematic. The guitar then sat for years of Northeast US winters in an unheated, unhumidified room, in an old cardboard case that didn't close tightly. Probably in sheer defiance, it refused to suffer any ill effect.
Recently, I decided number 3 might deserve fixing if I could avoid putting much time and money into it. I pulled the well-worn frets and sanded a slight lengthwise arch in the fretboard. I guessed at the amount it would need and varied the degree of the arch so that it was slightly more near the nut end. Then I refretted it.
Under string tension, the fretboard pulled up straight and the excessive relief was cured, at least for now. It was pure luck that I got it right.
I sure wouldn't recommend this procedure for a good quality guitar but it seemed appropriate to get this knock-around guitar to function again, which it does. In fact, it sounds surprisingly better than I remembered.
From the outset, a guitar that you made yourself has mojo that a factory guitar never will and it's guaranteed to keep on gathering more.
Buying a Kit
I had hoped to continue building guitars after the third one but life had other plans and until recently, it was not to be.
The desire to have a decent D-sized guitar again and a visit to C F Martin's Guitarmaker's Connection got me thinking about building a D kit.
During a sale, I ordered a Martin Rosewood D Herringbone kit.
If you've been considering a Martin or other guitar kit but the sketchy information about the kits on Martin's website has made an informed decision difficult, hopefully this will provide the information you need. I won't discuss the actual construction, since I'll be substituting parts and not building it to spec. You will find other builder's experiences with Martin kits with a web search.
What you get are nearly all of the parts and hardware necessary to build the guitar except for tools, jigs glue and finish.
A half-outline of the guitar body is drawn on the corrugated cardboard that the top is packed in. This is the only outline you get and you'll want to make a template from it.
The back and sides have the brace locations marked on them. I strongly suggest you use a straightedge to transfer the bracing patterns to paper and draw around the outlines of the individual braces. Since there are no plans included, it's a good idea to make your own. If you sand through the marks or damage something and need to remake it, this is all you will have as a guide.
You do get a booklet of guidelines and suggestions of how to build the kit, written by luthier/designer, artist, archivist, writer and Martin personality, Dick Boak. One of his first suggestions is that you seek other sources of information about guitar building. I agree, although if you are fairly skilled in this sort of work, the booklet might be sufficient to walk you through it.
It's interesting that the guide booklet has a picture of the kit contents which seemed to include a set of plans at one time but they aren't mentioned in the booklet or listed in the parts list.
A first-time builder may feel overwhelmed by having to choose between different methods of construction from various sources. If that's the case, I suggest you get the Irving Sloane book I mentioned in the first paragraph and use it as a guide for everything except the neck joint, which is inherently different. You can often find it used on Amazon.com and half.com for around US$30. Sloane's practical methods are especially appealing if you'd prefer to buy a bunch of inexpensive "L" hooks instead of a lot of expensive clamps.
As with anything, the more you educate yourself the better your results will be.
C F Martin & Co is not in the business of producing kits. The major wood parts in Martin kits are factory rejects, byproducts of guitar manufacturing. You might know this if you've visited the Guitarmaker's Connection in person but this fact is not mentioned on the website or in any current Martin literature that I could find.
The kit parts can produce good instruments but were judged to be unsuitable for use in Martin guitars, usually for visual reasons. The defects may include but are not limited to, small solid knots, grain runout and/or discolored wood. Some of these blemishes won't show in a finished guitar but some will.
You also won't necessarily get only parts that were intended for the model of Martin guitar the kit appears to represent. For example; You might assume the Rosewood Herringbone Dreadnought kit could produce the equivalent of a Martin HD-28 but both the top and neck in my kit were destined for more economical Martins before being culled. They differ markedly from those on a Martin HD-28.
The top in the kit I received, has a short, dark grain line on one side but is otherwise a good grade of dense, rigid Sitka. It also has a herringbone rosette installed which is not a feature of an HD-28 but I've always thought it should be. This top was probably destined for a D-16GT or D-16RGT before the defect was spotted and it was handed off to the Guitarmaker's Connection.
The back has some wide light pinkish-orange grain near the middle of each bookmatched panel. This was deeply stained a matching Rosewood color on the outside where it would show. It's perfectly camouflaged and probably will still be after finish sanding. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if the lighter grain was left as is. You don't often see interesting figure in quarter-sawn Indian Rosewood but it's not what the usual consumer expects to see.
The Martin 3-piece neck (the one with the visually awkward headstock wings) in my kit, had severe grain runout. The grain crossed diagonally completely from side to side in about 14". Fearing that this might cause a twist or other dimensional problems to develop, I got authorization to return the neck for exchange. You have 30 days to do this, if a part seems really unacceptable. Be forewarned that it may take some time to get a replacement part sent to you.
I could find no defects in the sides other than the white mineral deposits you sometimes find in the pores of some hardwoods, especially Rosewood and Mahogany. A stained filler usually makes these unnoticeable.
A few pieces of the brace stock had slight grain deviations but nothing that would make them unacceptable.
The X-braces as supplied, are fully shaped and notched. The resultant gaps would not be my first choice for this important joint. You're likely to see this in other company's kits as well and you might assume, in at least some Martin factory-built guitars. There was also a 3/64" gap between the joint in the X-brace parts I received. You could fill the gaps with some shaped spruce wedges and a thin shim but I'll opt to replace these parts from stock and shape them after they're glued to the top. It's also easier to clamp unshaped braces.
The neck block had one small solid knot that would not be visible inside the guitar and some minor grain runout. I could find nothing at all wrong with the tail block.
The fretboard and bridge are slotted and pre-shaped Richlite, a durable but heavy and tonally dead composite material with a uniform consistency somewhere between wood and slate. I purchased Ebony blanks to make replacements for these parts.
If this is the first guitar you've built, using the Richlite parts may be attractive if you don't feel confident about making these parts from wood or don't want to pay the premium for pre-made ones. Be assured that Richlite has a long history of being tougher than wood and some players prefer it for fretboards for that reason. A good tonal compromise would be to use the fretboard as supplied and buy a preshaped Ebony or Rosewood bridge.
The saddle appears to be Tusq (a molded bone-like synthetic). The unslotted nut is hard plastic. I'll be replacing these parts with bone.
The hardware package includes Martin's Two-Way Adjustable Truss Rod and a set of Schaller, or Schaller-type, enclosed tuners with the C F Martin logo on the covers.
Also included are a set of standard Martin light 80/20 bronze strings. These basic strings are a good choice for initial setting-up since their life may be significantly reduced from being repeatedly tensioned and untensioned while you make adjustments. Also, your new guitar won't begin to sound its best until its had some playing time. You can switch to higher-end strings like Martin SPs for your second or third set when the difference will be more apparent.
Are Martin's Kits a Good Value?
This is a somewhat subjective question. Compared to the superior quality of other kits that are available, if you have to pay full price, I'd have to say no.
At current full prices, compared to the kits offered by Stewart MacDonald, for example, you will save less than $9 on a Martin Mahogany kit and less than $62 on a Martin Rosewood kit. However, Martin occasionally puts their kits on sale at 10% to 15% off. If you have a Martin Owners Club membership, you might get a further discount, as I did. As I write this, the MOC is being revised so that might or might not change.
Temper the following comments with the fact that I don't have any first-hand experience with StewMac Kits. They have a good reputation and I'm taking them at their word.
When comparing value, be aware that the StewMac kits include unblemished AAA grade top, back and side wood, feature wood fretboards and bridges and real bone nuts and saddles. They also include full-sized plans, a bracing template, step by step instructions (which you can download free from the website even if you're building a Martin kit, hint, hint), a DVD with video instructions, a cardboard pseudo internal mold and live help if you need it.
StewMac kits don't include tuners or strings, perhaps due to there being such diverse personal preferences for these items. As mentioned, I feel that you should do the initial set-up with inexpensive strings. A basic set of Gotoh, Schaller-type enclosed tuners will run about US$35 online. A set of trendy Waverly open-gear tuners will cost quite a bit more and there are lots of good tuner choices in between.
Martin kits don't include the thin spruce stock for reinforcing the sides of the guitar but there's a suggestion about the relative size the reinforcements need to be.
In other words, considering the guidance and the quality of the materials you get, there's not much savings unless you can get a Martin kit on sale. Even then, you might feel that the extra cost of a StewMac kit is worth it for the unblemished parts. This will be especially true if you feel inclined to replace some of the more economical Martin Richlite and plastic parts with better ones like those that are already standard in the StewMac kits.
Martin's Laminate Kits
I haven't mentioned the Martin High Pressure Laminate kits yet, because I have no experience building a laminate guitar or working with HPL. It's possible that for the significantly lower price, a beginner could use a Martin laminate kit to learn guitarmaking. Your first guitar is likely to be at least slightly less than perfect. Why use expensive materials?
When finished, you could give it to a budding young guitarist or other deserving person. You could then go on to make a fabulous second guitar with a solid wood kit or your dream guitar with the wood from a supply house.
To sum it up, if you've never built a guitar, the plans, templates, written and video instructions and live help alone, that come with the StewMac kits are likely to be worth any extra cost. If you already have some experience, the Martin kits may be attractive at sale prices if you are content to build them as supplied and some visible defects don't bother you.
So, stop reading, buy a kit, start building and keep playing!
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The author has no connection with any of the businesses mentioned in this review
and was not compensated by anyone in any way for this article.
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