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Guitar building tradition and innovation in Healdsburg, California
CFox Guitars
© Frank Ford, 1/23/01; Photos by FF, 12/14/00


Who is this man, and why is he smiling?

Charles Fox, and he's president of the guitar company that bears his name. He's playing the first notes on a new guitar in the setup room. He calls it "spanking the baby." That's the front office way back behind him, by the way. If you'd like to see more photos of completed guitars, please take a trip to Healdsburg, via the web:


I spent the day (December 14, 2000) at the Charles Fox guitar factory in Healdsburg. Charles and I, along with most of the staff, spent hours discussing some of their plans for new models. For "show and tell," I brought along my collection of vintage and contemporary guitar tops.

Even though they were filling orders and preparing for the big NAMM show in Anaheim a month later, Charles felt that the discussion of traditional designs warranted having his crew present to listen and contribute. It's a small, growing company, and there's a lot of overlap in responsibilities. As you'll see in the following photos, Charles and vice president Jon Lee both spend time "on the line."


Life begins in the mill room, where raw materials begin to take shape. Here, wood is machined to size, tops and backs are sanded to thickness, parts are fabricated. Unlike the rest of the factory, his room has no climate control because the completed parts will spend time "seasoning" in the main assembly rooms.


After they are formed on the shaper using conventional pattern duplicating fixtures, braces get a final touch of hand sanding.


Here they are, ready to become part of a guitar top.


 Bridges, too, get their share of finish sanding by hand.


This big tray has a lot of strips which will get slotted to become kerfed lining. I had them hold the tray away from the saw at an angle so you could see them more easily.


The kerfing saw is a converted radial arm saw, fitted with an arbor and a stack of five blades. One pull across the tray, and you get five cuts in a couple dozen strips.

By the way, this is one of a few flash pictures I had to take where the light was unfavorable for my digital camera. I think flash really freezes things and makes them look lifeless, so I avoid it wherever I can.


A simple hold-down device connected to a foot pedal keeps the strips from "floating" upward as they are cut. This kind of simple but effective safety system is important in any kind of power wood working!


Now, let's take a look at these unusual linings. There's a kerfed section which is rabbeted to receive a thin filler strip.


When the kerfed strip is bent to shape, the thin filler fits precisely into place. It may seem as though this is a lot of effort to waste making the kerfed lining look pretty, but that's not what's important here.


Glued in place, the filler strip acts as a cap preventing the kerfed strip from bending. That means the rim becomes incredibly rigid as soon as the lining is applied. I tried bending one of these rims and was really surprised at how strong it was.


If you think the lining is unusual, take a look at this neck block! CFox guitars are assembled with a mortised and bolted neck heel. If you ask me, this is one of the best methods available for construction because it allows for easy neck removal, and is about as strong as a glued dovetail. Notice also, the "foot," designed to carry some of the load to the back to help keep the block rigid over time.


I don't know of any other builder who uses an assembled neck block like this one. Charles explained that with the extra rigidity of the foot design the grain needed to run fore and aft, rather than sideways. With the neck block grain in that direction, the bolts would not have been well supported, so he set about designing a block which has favorable grain in all directions.


Parts are made using a shaper and a series of duplicating patterns, and they fit together tightly.


Two pairs of toggle clamps provide quick and easy clamping for glue-up.


A couple of tapering cuts on the outside edges give the neck block a trim look. The block takes a quick trip to the finishing room for a few coats of sealer and lacquer, also just for appearance.


In place, the foot of the block butts right up against the upper back brace, which also helps carry the rotational load, making the neck-to-body joint all that much more rigid. The finish on just the neck block really draws attention to its innovative design.


Earlier I mentioned "conventional pattern duplicating templates." Here's a back wall with a bunch of them hanging, ready to participate in the neck making process.

And here's one on the shaper with a neck blank. The hose connected to the back of the fixture provides vacuum, holding the blank firmly in place as it is shaped.

Some neck blanks ready for subsequent operations.

The peghead is glued to the shaft of the neck by a traditional "scarf" joint.

Neck blanks pass over a pair of small table saws, each one dedicated to only one cut. This one cuts only the slots for carbon fiber stiffeners that lie alongside the adjustable truss rod. Notice that the cut is guided by a rail in the center of the table. The neck block has already been cut for the truss rod, so that channel makes a natural guide slot.

Here's the neck so far. Side profile is roughly cut on the shaper, peghead is joined and flattened, truss rod and stiffener slots are cut.

This big press is used for laminating the peghead veneer. As I toured the shop, Charles reminded me of the importance of keeping the tooling simple and geared toward the level of production. He refers to the fixturing in his factory as "second level," meaning that it is basically the one stage ahead of that used in an ideal individual luthier's shop. Almost all the parts come from local hardware stores rather than big machine supply catalogs.

Now for another shaper job. The peghead shaping template has a rubber gasket and a vacuum connection to hold the peghead tight and locating pins to align it precisely.

Passing over the small shaper cutter, the template rides on a ball bearing and the cutter blades trip the peghead exactly to shape.

Tuner holes are drilled from the back of the peghead using a different kind of aligning fixture.

Underneath the fixture, there's a little guide template with a series of notches to locate the tuner holes. The notches fit right up against a pin in the drill press table. To align the holes, the operator simply slides the template up against the pin. That way, there's no need to lift the fixture and fumble to find the locating hole in the bottom.

On an adjacent drill press, the tuner holes are drilled again from the front. This time it's just to countersink the tuner washers.

Check this out. It's a depth gauge attached to the drill press quill that stops the drill when it touches the surface. That way, the countersink drill goes to exactly the same depth regardless of the thickness of the work piece.

Same kind of depth gauge in use here, too, as holes are drilled for inlay dots. By the way, that's our old friend, Todd Taggart taking a photo of me taking a photo of him taking a photo, etc.

OK, time for everybody's favorite CFox shop-built setup, the neck shaper. This is what's often called a "deadhead" belt sander, because the belt goes around stationary corners rather than pulleys.

The rough neck block is held in a special carriage, which has rounded end pieces. The ends fit up against vertical guides outboard from the sanding face. The rounded section at the peghead has a smaller diameter, so as the neck is pressed against the sander, the appropriate amount of material is taken off the length of the neck.

The result - a very nice contour indeed. In fact, by adjusting the shape of the rounded guides, the contour of the neck can be controlled to any appropriate cross section. And, all the sanding scratches go with the grain. (The sample in this flash photo is scratched across the grain because it's just that, a demo sample.)

Before and after shaping on the sander.




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