Another week out the shop

This week was in two halves: a trip to Helsinki for vacation, and then spent in a field with 2000 fellow nerds at EMFCamp. Hopefully I'm now back in Cambridge for a bit so will get more time to do actual building, but this last week has had some quite interesting guitar moments in it, so here's a look at those.


One of the things I haven’t done much of is meeting proper luthiers to understand how it is they work and build things. I get a lot from talking to people online and watching youtube etc., but there’s still something about just having a conversation with someone practiced in the art of whatever you’re interested in that means you learn a lot very quickly.

In Cambridge I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Matt from Fidelity Guitars, who makes wonderful solid body electrics, but that’s the only one I’ve met. Additionally, I’m actually getting the urge one day to move away from the constraints of solid bodies into at least semi-hollow and carved toped guitars, just to move in a direction that is less common, and as part of that I’ve been wanting to meet people who 

Thus, whenever I travel anywhere I always check to see if there’s any local guitar builders. In Helsinki I spotted Lottonen, who not only builds guitars (mostly beautiful acoustics), but also makes archtops. So, out of nothing I dropped them an email explaining who I was and asking would it be possible to visit and take a look at how they made things, and very kindly Juha Lottonen agreed, and so I delightedly found myself on the last day of our Helsinki trip going over to Lottonen’s workshop to see how they did things.

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Juha was very kind and generous with both his time and knowledge, explaining to me how they made their arch top guitars, showing me around their workshop (which is quite different to the community workshop I work in terms of tool availability), and in general he answered my questions on how they approached things on their guitars.

It was a humbling experience: talking to Juha I learned a lot, all the while I was aware that I’m there keeping him from doing actual work, so I was doubly appreciative not just of the knowledge he shared but also of the time he gave me. One of the things we discussed towards the end is how generous with knowledge the guitar building community is, which is certainly true. I only could get started on this because of people like Crimson Guitars and Highline Guitars and many others posting tutorials and explanations on youtube, and from the help I’ve had over time from people online, and then both Matt and Juha. 

I’m trying to do my own little bit to share back with this blog, and by helping people at Makespace whenever I can. I think the guitar community understands that it’s not the knowledge that sets people apart, it’s the execution of that knowledge and the attention to detail and the care and attention. As such, we’re happy to share what we know, as it’ll let us see other people make cool things and we’ll one day benefit from the return favour.

Anyway, it was a wonderful way to spend some time with someone so knowledgeable. I just hope I can do the learning justice at some point in the near future.


Related to the topic of sharing knowledge is EMFCamp. EMFCamp is a bi-annual festival of all things geeky and nerdy and maker-y, with about 2000 attendees (so I was told, I didn't count them all) and lasting two and a half days. There were talks on three stages running all day; regular workshops on things like electronics, metalwork, and knitting; a race track for home made racers running events throughout the weekend; and lots of groups set up their own villages around specific topics in the camp site (e.g., amateur radio, different hackspaces, and so forth). 

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I last went to EMFCamp in 2014, and it’s come along a long way since then. Whilst I understand the organisers struggled with being let down by suppliers this year, as an attendee I wasn't particularly aware of this, and had a great time. In particular I liked how there was room to just chill out more between talks and events - the weather was good and you could just sit on the grass, under a tree, or in a small geodesic dome (it is that kind of event). I got to catch up with people who I’d not seen for a while, and meet some new friends. I had a guitar with me so occasionally I'd just sit down, chill out and play, and pass the guitar over to others to play if they stopped by.

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I saw some great talks: building physical models of landscapes from LiDAR scans, making electronic music with open source software, and the trials of entering robot wars (I actually know the team who did this, but it was great to learn more of their struggles despite the brave face they put on it). The full list of talks and the videos of them are available here.

I was also giving a talk this year, on the topic of how to get started in a new domain: how to try and prevent yourself getting overwhelmed, and how to pull yourself through when things go wrong. Basically trying to encourage people who’d seen something cool at EMFCamp that they wanted to do but thought they couldn’t do to give it a try. You can see the talk here if you’re at all interested.

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(Sorry there's not a better picture - I was incredibly nervous about talking to such a large audience, and thus forgot to try and get someone to take a picture of me on stage).

At the heart of the talk is just a few simple rules that I’ve applied to learning to build guitars to try prevent myself getting stuck and giving up. Mostly this is around doing just a little bit out of my comfort zone on each guitar, knowing that I’ll eventually get to building my own custom designed guitars from scratch one day, but if I try that on the first guitar I’ll get overwhelmed and give up. I also have made sure I’m part of a community - both the local Makespace community and the wider guitar builder commit via things like Instagram, both of which help you get knowledge, inspiration, and support on the days when things go wrong.

It seemed to go well, and afterwards I met some people who said that it had resonated with them: that they’d wanted to get into various things but felt overwhelmed or unsure how to get started and the tools. The best reaction though was from a chap at the Newcastle makerspace who is has made his own pickup winding machine, and gave me an example of his work, which was very kind of him.

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We have a chat and hopefully at some point I can find time to visit Newcastle and have a go at pickup winding (most likely to learn just how hard it actually is :).