Even when I’m not turning into the drive, I always slow down when I drive by the mailbox. I slow down to just admire it. And it usually causes me to reminisce at least a bit.
It’s made mostly of sheet metal – copper, stainless, brass. We had ‘em all at hand that evening. The weightier parts – concrete base, heavy angle iron cross-piece skeleton through the middle – were added by Jim. Jim’s also the one who decided to make it so you could actually strum the thing like a real guitar. Put real tuners on it and fashioned some stainless bridge pins outta some machine screws too. The weight, the tuners – all that stuff was added after Jim decided it would be a mailbox.
The mailbox is a replica of a Martin D18. My Martin D18.
Jim and I grew up playing in our dads’ sorta bluegrass band. That’s what people’d call it today. "Bluegrass". We didn’t so much think of it that way. We thought we were playing songs. You know? … like Lula Bell and Scotty or the young Hank Williams or maybe even the Sons of the Pioneers. At least, we allowed ourselves to think that when we were at the top of our game.
But we played a bunch of fiddle tunes too. Mostly I guess ‘cause Jim’s dad was a fiddler and my dad clawhammered a banjo. ‘Least he did ‘til he heard Earl Scruggs and learned to finger roll the thing. Well, nowadays when folks hear fiddle tunes they just suppose a bluegrass band. So that’s what we were. A bluegrass band.
Jim was (I think) 10 when he joined his and my dad in the band. Jim was what my mom called “precocious” on mandolin and I’m just guessing here, but I’ll bet Jim hadn’t played for two years when he was already the best player in the band. I was also 10 when I got to join ‘em. Beings as I was a year and a half younger than Jim, that meant that I and Jim were playing dances and stuff when we were darn young – 10 and 11 – if my figuring is right.
My dad owned a sheet metal shop back then. Well, actually, he still owns it and runs it. Does a heck of a business too. Even with most folks and heating companies and the like able to go to the local Home Depot and get ready-fashioned duct work and all, there’s still just no end to the custom pieces, flashing, decorative copper work….stuff like that that keeps dad busy.
Anyways, the band always practiced in dad’s sheet metal shop. It was sorta central to Jim and his dad, and Charlie who played upright, and even to the occasional other we might have join and leave for a time. The shop was in town. And the shop had the room for all us and Charlie’s bass too. Acoustics were pretty cool too, in their own echo-y way. There wasn’t hardly a strip of fabric in the whole place that could damper down our sound. It just rang through the place like all get out.
So, anyway, getting back to the mailbox…
One evening at the shop, while the band was taking a break, I laid my Martin on a work table that was mostly covered by a sheet of 20-24 gauge copper. It wasn’t like anyone planned it or anything. It’s just one of those things you just do without a whole lotta thought – and in this case, without a whole lotta words either.
Jim picked up a grease pencil that was laying next to his coke bottle and started to trace the outline of my D18 right onto the copper sheet beneath it. Well, I picked up the Martin and me and Jim stood there for a second or two admiring the outline. So next thing I do -- like I said, without any real plan -- I took some side cutters outta one of dad’s rolling tool boxes and started to work on cutting that outline out of the copper. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking. Maybe a silhouette to hang on the wall or something. I don’t know. We were a music family and we were a craftsman's family. And I just suppose that the craft idea just makes you do stuff like cut stuff out and start creating.
Pretty soon dad’s looking over my shoulder and watching what I’m doing. Seems he got the next idea, ‘cause next thing I knew, dad walked over to the stock bins. After leafing through a few sheets, he pulled out a sheet of brass that was just about the same gauge as the copper we’d just cut out. It came out of the bin with its top edge wobbling and its trailing edge dragging the cement floor. Dad always said that that wobbling, sometimes crashing sound that sheet metal makes when it bends and pops against nothing is the sound that thunder makes when it’s born. Now that I think about it, dad says a lot of things like that. I wonder how I’ll ever know when senility has set in.
Dad laid that brass sheet on the worktable and had me trace the already cutout copper guitar silhouette onto it so I could cut the same shape out of the brass. While I did that, dad got a brazing rod out of the galvanize bucket where he always kept a handy handful of them. Next thing he did was measured my Martin’s soundhole, got the radius, took the brazing rod over to his bending tool and dialed in the proper circumference so he could bend the brazing rod into a perfect circle that was nearly the exact size of the Martin’s soundhole.
By then I was done cutting out the sheet of brass. With some careful measuring, dad figured out the exact placement for the brazing rod ring and hard-soldered it in place. Then he cut out the interior of that ring and peened the sheet brass around the rod. Without really explaining what he was doing, I and Jim kinda figured it out.
Dad had already turned a corner on the project. In his mind – and now me and Jim’s – the project quickly went from making a useless copper guitar silhouette to making a probably just as useless metal Martin guitar. I’m glad “useful” isn’t the final word in value. But we figured out that, first of all, Dad had picked brass because brass would make a top that looked a little more spruce-like to the more mahogany-colored copper back and sides. And second of all, the reason dad went to the trouble with the rod, the soldering, and the peening, was ‘cause the sheet brass wouldn’t be thick enough to really look like a wooden top when you looked into that soundhole. Peened around the rod it did.
Dad set Jim to work with a piece of paper and pencil – having him run the pencil over the paper over the pickguard to get a tracing of its outline – kinda like you take rubbings from a gravestone. And just like you don’t have to see through the paper to get the letters off of a stone – the pencil rubbed over paper laid over the stone picks up all that detail – Jim was easily able to get a perfect outline of the pickguard. Once he did thatdad set him to work cutting a pickguard out of some stock that was much thinner than the more structural gauge sheeting of the guitar, but not quite copper foil. Dad generally used the stuff for a better flashing on small copper roofs – like the kind he might fabricate for a cupola or over a bay window.
Jim ended up cutting out three of those copper pickguards ‘cause each time he tried to use the crimper to create a little beveled edge and some dimension to the pickguard, he’d run the crimper’s sharp edge and roller right over the pointier end of the pickguard -- the part of the pickguard that’s up by the fretboard -- and ruin it. On his third go-‘round he finally crimped all but that point with the crimper and then took the pickguard over to dad’s bench and finished the point with a hammer and the horn of dad’s anvil.
In order to finally make this decidedly flimsy pickguard have some strength, a small plate of heavier gauge copper was soldered to the inside – the side that ended up against the guitar. This way both the crimped edge of the pickguard and this ‘filler’ plate would be in contact with the top, making the whole thing sturdier, and giving more surface with which to fasten the two.
The pickguard all shaped and fabricated, dad set Jim to work with a torch, showing him that by lifting and dodging and moving the torch around on the copper, he could create a random pattern that might look just a bit like the tortoise shell pickguard.
When I look at that pickguard today, much of the pattern from that night is still in the copper, despite the years of weather and oxidation. I asked Jim about that and found out that he comes out and sprays automotive lacquer on the guitar top every year or so. I guess I shoulda figured.
Anyways, while Jim was busily making the pickguard – and it must have taken him the better part of a couple hours – dad and me started working on the sides. This kind of metal bending was done around dad’s shop nearly every day, but it still required a bit of planning ahead. For instance, to make the distinctive D18 look, dad decided that you wouldn’t just fasten the top to the side and be done with it. If you did that, it’d not look like it had binding or that black/white/black decorative binding that surrounds the top. So, while dad took the measured length of side and folded a fake binding into the topline and bottom of them, I went to work stamping four lengths of 24 gauge stainless, each the length of the top’s circumference and about a ¼ inch wide. I then did two more of those in copper, but the last one I left with an “L” folded into it.
By the time I got all that steel and copper cut, dad had the sides fabricated with the outside appearance of binding rolled into them. Together we rolled the curves into the sides. And with the bender set to those curves, we took that stainless and copper I cut and bent them to the same curves. They would become the b/w/b/w of the top binding, once all of it was joined to the side and then to the top. Having that black line of fake binding right alongside the top not only made the overall look more convincing as a guitar, but it also covered some of the ills of having cut the top – in a relatively crude manner – with side cutters.
Metal’s an interesting material. You can sorta stretch it to make compound bends, but there’s a trade-off in doing a lotta that kinda bending. To make metal sorta stretch two ways at once, it sorta fatigues the metal and you don’t often get the strength and result you thought you might in the end. And you also end up with the need to re-cut surfaces you intended to join to something else because you don’t know exactly where in the sheet that stretch is going to be taken out of, or where stretching might lengthen pre-cut ends.
So when dad started working on the neck of the guitar...
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