Mike Vanden builds an L-5 style guitar
Image above showing Martin Taylor (left) and Mike Vanden courtesy of Adam Bulley
“I started building archtop mandolins in 1979 using Gibson designs as a starting point,” says Mike Vanden. “Over the next few years, I made a lot of F-5 style mandolins but I had always been interested in building archtop guitars as well.
“I built my first archtop in 1983 using the 17-inch L-5 as a basis, and built around 25 guitars in this style. In the mid 1990s I decided to concentrate on my own designs including the Martin Taylor Artistry and Cadenza models.
“Having researched the history of Gibson mandolins, I was aware that the first L-5s were designed by Lloyd Loar, who was also responsible for the F-5 mandolin. These early L-5s had a smaller 16-inch lower bout and looked fantastic but at the time they didn’t seem to be particularly popular as a mainstream ‘jazz’ instrument. Today however, they appreciated as great instruments when played acoustically and in late 2014 I decided that a new model, inspired by the 16-inch Loar L-5, would be my ‘winter project’. I found Paul Alcantara’s website, http://www.prewargibsonl-5.com and contacted him. He was able to give me all the info I needed and it was a joy to build an instrument based on such a classic design: a non-cutaway acoustic archtop with no pickups!!”
Mike Vanden has been building archtop instruments for over three decades and players of his guitars and mandolins include Martin Taylor, Mitch Dalton, Dave Pegg, Mike Oldfield and Simon Mayor.
Mike on building The Rialto Model
This picture below shows the front of the guitar mounted via plywod fixture on the bed of my CNC milling machine. I start by rough machining the front and back, leaving enough material on the inside to allow adjustment of the thickness at a later stage. The outside arching is finished by hand using violinmakers’ planes.
The contour of the front and back arching together with the size and positioning of the f holes play a part in determining the final sound of the guitar.
You can see the neck with the truss rod installed. Both the truss rod and anchors are fabricated from stainless steel.
Two 8 x 4 mm carbon-fibre reinforcement strips are positioned either side of the truss rod ready to be epoxied into the two routed channels. The curly grain of figured maple weakens the timber and this procedure strengthens and stiffens the neck considerably ensuring long-term stability while adding little in the way of weight.
Here we have the finished front before it is glued to the rib assembly. The final thickness of the front depends on the type of spruce used and the stiffness of each individual piece.
On this particular guitar I used an X brace in place of the parallel braces found on Loar era L-5s. The braces are carefully fitted and glued to the front and are left oversized to allow for final tuning.
The Loar era L-5 has one of the most beautifully proportioned headstocks I have come across. It’s an absolute classic! My version is tapered and cut at an angle – a small detail, but one that is important to me!
The headstock veneer is ebony and the binding is grained ivoroid. The inlay is a new design that I cut from mother-of-pearl, abalone, malachite, and coral.
The holes for the Gotoh SE510M tuners are machined and ready to be reamed to correct size. I intend to fit an ebony truss rod cover, which will be recessed into the headstock veneer.
Here’s the assembled body complete with black/white ivoroid purfling. It’s sanded to 180 grit and ready for the neck mortice to be cut. I always fit the neck to the body before I complete the final neck shaping and sanding.
It is essential that the neck is attached to the body at the correct pitch as this will determine the height of the bridge and together with the angle of the tailpiece, will determine the pressure of the bridge on the guitar’s top. I like to aim for a finished bridge height of 25mm with a medium string action.
The body is now complete. The binding has been scraped flush and all of the surfaces have been sanded with 180G. It is at this point that I make any further adjustments to the thickness of the front and/or back.
The size of the f holes can be adjusted to fine-tune the body resonance.
The next stage is the neck to body joint. I aim for a neck angle of 3 degrees and a finished bridge height of 25mm. After completing the neck to body joint I hand carve the neck to the desired width and profile.
Here’s a back view of the guitar. The pieces of maple used for the back, the sides and the neck are cut from the same log so that they match.
Once the assembly is finished, I leave the guitar for 10 to 14 days to let the timbers settle.
I then finish the fingerboard to a 16-inch radius and install the frets.
Having completed the fretting, the whole instrument is sanded to 360G ready for spraying.
Fret leveling is done just before the final setup, about three or four weeks after the last spray coat.
I use a mahogany fingerboard support on sunburst instruments. It’s more stable than figured maple.
Here’s the back of the guitar ready for the colour spray.
To get a nice vintage sunburst I apply the colour directly to the instrument without a sealer coat.
It’s tricky to get an even graduation, particularly on the spruce front.
This picture shows the front before any lacquer coats have been applied.
Notice how applying the colour straight on to the wood really highlights the figure.
This is the back after two coats of lacquer.
The bindings have been scraped clean ready for additional lacquer coats.
Notice how the sunburst highlights the figure on the ribs and neck.
The spray is now complete. The guitar will be left for two to three weeks for the lacquer to harden. I am pleased with the front, which has a nice even sunburst
The headstock inlay is made from mother-of-pearl, abalone, coral and malachite. I like to fit Gotoh SE510 tuner, which in my opinion, are the best available. Smaller tuner bushings match the guitar’s vintage appearance.
The bridge is made from Macassar ebony, with polished stainless steel adjustment wheels and posts.