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INSIDE: GIBSON MONTANA
The story of a wood shop.
Author Jim Harrison, a longtime resident of Montana, once wrote, “Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy... or they become legend.” In Bozeman, Montana, where Gibson acoustics are made, there is crazy, and there is legend, and one cannot exist without the other.
At Gibson Montana in Bozeman, Sue makes pickguards. That’s what Sue does. All day, every day, from notebook-sized pieces of nitrocelluloid–a substance only available from a single supplier in Italy and no place else in the world, shipped to Gibson by boat in large blocks, which are later cut into sheets and passed to her to carve, by hand, to perfect shape, additionally hand-engraving and -painting ones for models like the Hummingbird Vintage and SJ-200 Vintage.
Sue is just one of the little over 100 people who make up Gibson Montana. Like all the highly specialized experts working every day in the Bozeman facility, Sue listens closely to that inner voice, the voice that demands it be done by hand every time, always reminding her to strive for quality over quantity.
Sue, like her colleagues, is a legend, but in this day and age many would probably call her crazy, and that’s what makes Gibson Montana what it is: a group of artisans dedicated to the old-fashioned, the slowly hewn, and the “crazy,” living by the belief that for a guitar shop to truly excel it must be a woodshop first, and in any wood shop the hand is the most important tool.
The Bozeman facility is designed much like the Nashville Custom Shop. A wealth of tech monitors the environmental conditions as well as the build process to maintain optimum quality in all stages of construction.
Humidity, of course, is a primary concern and is closely regulated. A system of alarms, including cell phone alerts, notify employees when the humidity is anything other than optimal, and a custom system installed in the ceiling creates the same rain, or fine mist, as in the Nashville facility, keeping it consistent at all times.
Also much like the Custom Shop, the Gibson Montana facility is divided into two sides, one crafting necks and the other bodies, both working simultaneously on hand-sanding and hand-shaping the next and newest in a long line of masterfully built Gibson acoustics
On the body side of the facility, teams are hard at work hand-selecting tops and backs. Book-matched, or cut into two pieces and then glued together so that the grain is mirrored down the center of the body.
Once the glue has set, both the top and the finished back hit the thickness sander, where they are rough-sanded down to the appropriate thickness. Rosettes are then laid in and the tops and backs are cut to shape.
At this point, traditional, hand-scalloped X-bracing is hand-cut to match the top’s particular shape and installed. For vintage and period correct models (with the exception of the Hummingbird) authentic hide glue is applied to secure it, just as it was when these guitars were first released.
While they’ve been commonly referred to as “flattops” since their introduction, Gibson cuts all the acoustic guitars they currently produce with radii. A true flattop is, well, flat, meaning the top has a radius is 0’. A Gibson features both top and back radii. The top is cut to 28’ and the back 12’, so when cutting the bracing it too must be cut to a 28’ radius in order to perfectly fit the hand-carved and -sanded top.
These radii are enormously important to the signature Gibson acoustic tone, as every single piece on a Gibson acoustic guitar is designed for tone. The radius creates tension in the wood and tension creates clarity note to note. Gibson builds this tension into each one of their acoustic guitars for this reason.
This doesn’t mean a true flattop’s lack of a radius, and thus tension, will make it sound sub-par, of course, but it does mean it will never sing quite like a Gibson.
While the tops and backs are being prepared, additional pieces of wood are soaked and then set into hot presses. These presses draw out the moisture, bending them into the correct “rib” shape. These ribs will be bound together, and to the top and back, becoming the sides.
Head- and tailblocks are adhered to the ribs and the sets are placed into a body mold where the glue bonding them is given a chance to cure, and curfing, or small strips of mahogany, are installed on the inside edges of the ribs to increase the surface area for adhering tops and backs.
Once the rib set is bonded and out of the body mold, it’s taken to the parabolic sander, where the edges and curfing are shaped to the angle of the corresponding top or bottom radius. The top and back are then glued to the rib set and the guitar’s binding is installed.
While the individual pieces of the body are all being cut, bent, treated and assembled, on the other side the all-important necks are fashioned and prepared for setting.
Gibson strongly believes that every component of an acoustic guitar influences its tone, and should, so every aspect receives the utmost attention to detail, ensuring that the proper qualities are present across the instrument. Gibson places a special emphasis on the neck.
Whether it’s a hand-selected, one-piece mahogany neck like on the venerated Hummingbird, or the multi-piece, bonded maple neck you’ll find on an SJ-200, all Gibson necks are first rough-carved on a CNC, and then slowly hand-sanded to shape. This gives each one its own unique feel, even from L-00 to L-00, and J-45 to J-45. No two will feel the same, and each will speak differently in the hand of every player who holds it.
A cavity is cut in each of these necks for a truss rod and it is installed.
The peghead is then shaped and either prepped for decals or cut for headstock inlays, which are installed.
While the peghead is being cut, the fretboard is also carved for inlays, which are hand-laid, sanded and cleaned. Fret slots are carved with a C&C and wire is cut and also laid in by hand.
Every neck in the Gibson facility that is deemed suitable for use is set into a completed body with hot hide glue. No exceptions.
Gibson shuns all other bonding materials because none of them vibrate in the way that true hide glue does. When hide glue is applied and a neck is set, the glue seeps into the wood of both the neck and the body, and when it cures it crystallizes. The bond it creates extends deep into the pores of the wood, and because hide glue is a natural substance rather than a poly or epoxy it is free vibrate with it, enhancing the neck’s ability to communicate with the body and transforming it into yet another component that not only influences the articulation and intonation of notes, but the resonance of the guitar as a whole, as well as the colorization and expression of its tone.
When the hot hide glue has cooled and cured, the dovetail joint is sanded, cleaned and thoroughly examined. If the joint is solid and properly crafted, the complete guitar is ready for the spray booth.
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