Frets Visits... St. Paul, MN:
Olson Guitars

From Frets Magazine
March, 1982
By Jonathan Mjos

Please pardon the photo quality on this page—I had to work from a photocopy, but I thought the photos would be of "historical interest" to some of you long-time Olson fans!

Jim in 1982 Adjoining a small music store in the Twin Cities of Minnesota is the workshop of luthier James A. Olson. Sharing studio space with Olson are harpsichord maker Daniel Henly, string instrument repairman Bob Murzyn, and (occasionally) dulcimer maker and store propietor John Henly. That hardly sounds like a description of a high-volume guitar manufacturing operation, and it isn't. In the three years that Olson has been doing business there (927 South Robert, St. Paul, MN 55118) he has produced fewer than a hundred guitars. But then, the idea of recording impressive production figures wasn't what motivated Olson to take up Iutherie.

Jim has been interested both in woodworking and in playing guitar for most of his life. "When I was younger " he recalls, "I would find a piece of wood and try to turn it into either birdhouses or race cars—or something. I took shelves out of the fruit cellar or I took braces out of my dad's workbench." Later Jim studied cabinetmaking for a year, then two years working as a repairer and restorer of furniture. The furniture work gave him valuable experi ence in duplicating parts.

Meanwhile, at age nine, Olson had been given his first guitar. Years of playing brought him to the conclusion that he was more talented as a woodworker than as a guitar player, and he decided to make woodworking his livelihood.

Today Olson works approximately 50 hours a week, usually producing three guitars a month. His basic line consists of a mahogany-body guitar, which sells for $895.00, and a rosewood-body guitar, which sells for $995.00.

Olson's guitars incorporate a variety of selected woods. The headstocks, necks, and heels are cut from a five-piece lamination of mahogany, maple, and rosewood. Ebony is used for headstock veneers, fretboards, binding (on rosewood models), bridges and bridgepins. Tops and braces are made from Sitka spruce. Besides offering the option of mahogany or rosewood sides and backs, Olson offers maple, and some more exotic woods, on request. Nuts and saddles are bone, while the standard inlays are mother-of-pearl. Jim does custom inlay work when it is requested.

To increase his efficiency, Jim uses power equipment in his building processes whenever feasible. He finds that his three most valuable pieces of equipment are a shaper, a bandsaw, and a 6" jointer. Next in importance are his Powermatic thickness planer and his Sears belt disc sander. Other sizable equipment in the Olson arsenal includes a DeWalt radial armsaw, a drill press, a buffer, a grinder, and a Sears 4" jointer. Jim's electric hand tools include a drill, a Dremel rotary grinder, a Rockwell Speed-Bloc, and a router.

Olson's backs and tops are made of two glued pieces of matched wood. Desired thicknesses for the backs, sides, and tops are achieved with the thickness sander. A Sitka spruce inlay strip fits into a channel down the center of each bach. A router, equipped with a template guide, is used for making the channel.

The three concentric channels for Olson's rosettes are formed simultaneously by a special custom-built circle-cutter that is held in a drill press. A combination of herringbone and white/black wood laminate purfling is glued into the center channel and black/white/black/white/black laminate purfling is glued into the inner and outer channels. To avoid breakage, Olson pre-bends the herringbone purfling for the center channel. To accomplish this, Olson soaks the purfling for up to five minutes in water, and then shapes it around a 1"-wide heated Watlow pad (Watlow Electric Manufacturing, 12001 Lackland Road, St Louis, MO 63141), which itself is wrapped around a wooden disk.


A custom-made circle cutter cuts
the soundhole and routs for purfling
rings in one operation.

After the purfling for a rosette is glued in place, and the glue has dried, Olson uses a hand scraper to level the decorative material to the surface of the top. Usually the rosettes are inserted after the tops are sanded.

When bending sides, Olson places the wood in water and raises the temperature to the boiling point. After three or four minutes, the wood is removed and is clamped to a simple wood-and-aluminum mold covered by a heated Watlow pad. Once heat and clamping pressure have forced the wood into the desired shape, the electricity to the pad is shut off, and the wood is allowed to cool. About half an hour later the wood is removed from the mold.

Olson is especially careful to make sure that the grain of the wood in each neck runs perpendicular to the plane of the fret board. He makes a five-piece laminate block of the woods selected for a neck, and from each block he saws two necks complete with headstock and heel. He uses his thickness planer quite often during the process of preparing the neck wood for lamination. Once the necks have been rough cut, the shaping process is completed with a shaper, various chisels, a rasp, a hand scraper, a sanding belt, and sandpaper.

Headstocks are formed entirely by the shaper, and a special Olson-built fixture holds the necks individually while the dovetail tenon of each heel is shaped with a router. With a few adjustments, the same fixture is then used to hold the guitar's body while a dovetail mortise is cut in the head block.

Braces and bridges are contoured on the shaper. The wood for the particular part being fabricated is clamped to a template made of high-density particle board (from an old counter top). The template rides against a collar beneath the shaper's cutter, producing a part that duplicates the contour of the template. More than one template is often necessary to form a particular part.

A special fixture (made by Jim and draftsman/designer Bob Steele) is used to glue top braces to tops. The same fixture, which is adjustable, is used to glue tops and backs to sides. Expansion-type clamps made of wood, a threaded rod, wing nuts, hex nuts, and nut couplers are part of this fixture. The extremities of the top braces are shaped after they have been glued to a top by moving them beneath the blade of the radial arm saw.

About a year ago, Olson built a fixture for gluing the back braces to the backs. A back is clamped in position over four curved supports (prepared on the basis of a 15' radius), by means of two De-sta-co clamps. The braces (which also are curved to a 15' radius) are positioned between guide pins on the side of the fixture and are then clamped by means of more De-sta-co clamps. The guide pins accurately position the braces and prevent them from moving when clamping pressure is applied. The same expansion-type clamps, used to apply pressure to top braces, also are used to apply pressure to the center area of the back braces.


The back brace gluing fixture.

A bottom-of-the-line Sears 4" jointer with knives ground to cut an 18"-inch radius, is used to form the arch in the fretboards. A fretboard is held by double-coated tape and by a wedging action in a special carriage that rides on runners against the fence of the jointer. Cutouts on each end of the jointer knives allow the runners to pass over the knives (as the fretboard is shaped) without cutting the runners. Both tables of the jointer are adjusted so as to be in the same plane (so only the curvature is cut without thinning the fretboard stock).

To locate and saw the fret slots easily and accurately, Jim uses a custom-made fixture; a dovetail saw that cuts a kerf width of .020" is supported between eight ball bearings and two wooden blocks on a special carriage. (A similar device is available from the Luthier's Mercantile, Box 774, 412 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448.) The carriage moves along a slotted bed, which provides clearance for the saw blade, and is pinned in place at various locations to ensure accurate sawing of the fret slots for a fretboard based on a 25-11/32" (plus compensation) scale length.

Binding is made from a bent side that is sawn into thin strips on a bandsaw equipped with a high fence. "I used to bend the binding in individual strips," Jim says, "but the problem is if you saw the strips first and bend them they twist." Jim uses his belt sander to get a smooth gluing surface before cutting each strip. Successive strips are cut alternately from one side then the other. They are sawn approximately 1/16" oversize to allow for trimming after they have been glued in place.

For the finishing process Jim sprays from 12 to 16 coats of lacquer on each guitar, usually using a Binks model 69 spray gun connected to a pressure pot and a Sears compressor. (For sunburst finishes, a Binks model 15 touch-up gun is used.) Necks and bodies get their finishing separately.

According to Olson, the most important qualifications for being a successful guitar maker are a love for the craft of buildng instruments, and the patience to do meticulous work. "You've got to love what you're doing," he says, "or you get tired of it."