Miss Antarctica

In 1998, my old friend and client Henry Kaiser saw an acoustic guitar that I’d built at the San Rafael Guitar Festival, sponsored by “Acoustic Guitar Magazine” and held at Dominican College.  He loved the guitar, and a few weeks after the show, he called me up and asked, “On what continent has a record album never been recorded.”  I kind of stammered, and Henry broke in, “Antarctica!  And I think I know a way to get there and do this!”  He had found that the National Science Foundation which runs the American mission to the frozen continent give out several “Artist in Residence” grants per year, and no musician had ever applied for one.  Henry knew a couple of folks on the grant committee, and they assured him that if he submitted a half-way decent proposal, he’d get the grant.

Then I asked, “Will you go diving there?”  Henry has a Masters in Marine Biology from Harvard, and he taught scientific SCUBA diving at UC Berkeley for a number of years.  He’s basically certified as high up…or as deep down…as you can get.  Henry laughed, and said, “I’d probably just confuse the grant committee if I told them that I trained about half the American divers down there.  I’ll just go and see what can happen.”

Henry wanted to take down an acoustic “built with real wood”, and we both considered the making of this guitar to be an experiment.  We knew that the guitar was going to be subjected to some of the harshest climate conditions on earth with temperatures as low as minus 60 F, even in the Antarctic summer, and humidity levels would range from single digit percentages outdoors up to maybe the low 30’s indoors.  These are conditions which utterly destroy wood guitars. 

I wrote up a proposal for building the guitar which became part of Henry’s grant application, and Henry agreed to buy the guitar no matter what the committee decided, though we knew he had practically a dead lock on it.

I proposed to use high altitude, very slow growth Engelmann spruce for the top and equally slow growth Honduras rosewood for the back and sides.  The beautifully quartered grain is incredibly tight and even on the pieces I sourced from Todd Taggart at Allied Lutherie, and I just went with a gut feeling that wood with these characteristics would have the least problems with expansion and contraction due to humidity changes.  To further strengthen the guitar, I topped the back braces with carbon fiber, and put in my carbon fiber “flying braces” to support the neck block. 

The neck would be laminated mahogany and maple with 1/8” x ½” carbon fiber bars dadoed up into the underside of the fingerboard and down into the neck.  This makes the fingerboard itself a very strong and stiff structural element of the neck. 

The kicker was that I wanted to do my own version of the fully tilting neck design I first saw on 1890s “Howe Orme” guitars…instruments that proved to me very early in my lutherie career that a dovetailed neck joint was totally irrelevant to great tone.  I figured that with this neck attachment design, Henry could tweak the action very easily to suit his playing…and the climate…if need be. 

There were a few aesthetic tweaks, too.  I went with white binding around the body to represent the snow, white mother of pearl top purfling to represent the new ice, and then blue lines of purfling and a blue veneer peghead overlay to represent the ancient ice which turns blue from centuries of compression pushing all the air out. 

I went with really traditional finishes…”spirit varnish” (shellac + natural resins) for the neck, back, and sides…and French polish (shellac + walnut oil) for the top.  I figured that these materials would be the easiest to touch up should the guitar suffer any damage, and indeed the guitar did get dinged up a bit.  When I suggested going over the finish with some fresh French polish, Henry demurred, saying that the guitar had earned it’s scratches and dings.  I had no problem with this; I like to see a guitar showing it’s usage.

The guitar was a total success.  Not only were we very happy with the sound…it’s a loud and well balanced guitar with tons of sustain, particularly of harmonics, but also when the guitar came back from Antarctica, the action had not changed one bit.  There was no adjustment needed then…and none needed even now, some 20 years later.  

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