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Making lots of guitars in the Northwest
Tacoma Guitar Co.
© Frank Ford, 7/7/01; Photos by FF, 7/6/01, also by Bryan Galloup & Julius Borges, as noted

This photo is from the Tacoma Guitars Web site.

Only a few years old, the Tacoma Guitar factory has become the third largest volume produce of acoustic guitars in the country. I took a side trip with some G.A.L. members during the convention in July to visit the plant.

Here's our little group, left to right: Dan Erlewine, Annie Prefontaine, me, Julius Borges and Bryan Galloup.

Our guide for the day, and prduct development manager at Tacoma Guitars, Terry Atkins. Terry is a player, and passionate about guitars (aren't we all?)

Like many other builders, the folks here at Tacoma reserve some of their most interesting materials for special projects. This koa guitar makes a fine impression when visitors walk into the office.

This is a big industrial building, and all the wood processing and manufacturing takes place in one huge room.

The owners of Tacoma guitars operate a sawmill and a piano soundboard factory in adjacent buildings, so there's no lack of heavy wood handling equipment. In fact, they actually manufacture their own big band saw blades from raw steel stock, cutting the teeth, hardening, etc.

It's not exactly quiet in here, but the high roof line helps mitigate the typical industrial woodworking noises.

Heavy lumber comes in here at the far end of the building to be cut into neck blanks, backs and sides, and the various other guitar component parts.

This is a view back toward the guitar assembly area. Sixty woodworkers, instrument builders and finishers make nearly 50 guitars a day here!

Once they are cut to dimension the backs, sides and neck blocks are stored for a while to acclimate before use.

It takes a tall fork lift to get up there, and entire pallets of wood are used every week.

Here's one of the infamous robot wood munchers, hard at work making bridges. This computer controlled (CNC) machine works to incredibly tight tolerances, and automatically carves intricate parts, changing its own cutter heads and bits as required for the individual job. It takes a skilled programmer and operator to keep this big fellow running smoothly. Four of these machines run full time, making bridges, necks and interior components such as neck blocks and braces.

The backs and tops are "jointed" on a simple old fashioned shaper. This is the kind of job that could be done with precision on the CNC machine, but a hand operator can do just as good a job much faster.

The quality of the joint is checked on a light table to make sure the parts fit tightly.

Nobody seems to know how old this glue-up fixture is. It's monstrously heavy and solid - one of those old time tools that was really built to last!

Check it out. Heavy as it is, the entire assembly rotates smoothly on a big axle. The operator steps on a foot pedal to release it, and turn it to one of four work surfaces.

Right behind, there's a big rack of joined tops and backs, ready to be sanded to thickness.

This Timesaver sander makes quick work of the job. Fast as the pieces are loaded on the moving belt, they plop out the back end, reduced to uniform thickness for their respective instruments.

Soundhole rings are routed on these two mill-drill machines. Notice the big safety guards. I'll bet OSHA likes them!

The cutter head. There's one for each soundhole pattern.

A braced top. Notice the big black patch. This top is one with the unique Tacoma teardrop soundhole shape, and the black material serves as interior reinforcement for the delicate spruce.

Here, some brace material is being finished up on a belt sander. The basic shapes were cut on the CNC, and the sander cleans up and bevels the edges.

Some of the tiny interior braces, such as these back reinforcement strips, are cut by a computer controlled laser.

Braces are sorted for delivery to the appropriate work stations.

Some glue for the top braces of a "conventional" style guitar.

Braces are located by means of simple jigs and templates, and then the top is closed on the vacuum press. In the low vacuum, water is extracted from the glue, and atmospheric pressure squeezes the parts together. Vacuum gluing is the way to cut down on clamping time without sacrificing quality.

I particularly enjoyed the side bending area. Tacoma makes lots of different instruments with different body sizes and shapes, so there are lots of side bending rigs. This one is for mandolins, which have a complex shape and a one piece side that is bent all at once on this heated aluminum form.

But, the cutaway guitar bending operation is the most exiting. Just look at this fancy aluminum rig.

Hanging above the heated bending form is a water container.

To ease the sharp bends, water is released into the hot mold, exiting as steam through these holes.

That's a sharp bend, so the side gets a "prebend" before it goes into the hot bender.

Basically folded over a hot roller and protected by a steel sheet, the side gets a "J" bent in just the right place.

Then the side will fit into the mold without breaking.

As the sides pieces are run in, the wood is heated from both sides and held rigid as it accepts its new shape.

And, out comes that steam!

Cutting the side to exact length can be a tricky job to do by hand, so Tacoma has a special cutoff machine right at hand. The freshly bent side clamps right in place,

and the entire mold section slides past two nasty looking carbide cutoff blades.

Gluing the neck and end blocks in a Papoose.



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