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You'll find at the Gibson custom shop one or more old school pro heading each team and working on every guitar. For example, Richard Ickes, he joined Gibson in 1973 in Kalamazoo where he was taught the painstaking process of carving beautiful tops for hollowbody archtops such as the L5 and L4. These days his role is more varied as the Dean of the wood shop but he continues to carve tops using the very same machine he was trained on back in Kalamazoo, In fact this machine has been used since the 1930′s but was originally powered by steam. It requires manual adjustments to fixtures to get the correct radius, curves, and thickness of individual tops, and it has to be guided by hand during carving.
Richard Ickes Dean of the Wood Shop
There are separate stations for the neck, binding and fretboard, each with a specialised team working the very particular specifications of each guitar, as any well-versed gibson player will know, the neck profiles from the late 50′s through to the 60′s varied. When recreating a neck profile for an era exact guitar such as an R-8 or R-9, this has to be smoothed and sanded to the correct dimensions by hand.
Meet Lenny Henderson…
Lenny's got some serious carving skills. Using a giant sanding belt he carves those luscious Les Paul curves with perfect precision. “This job does require a lot of hand/eye coordination. I have to make judgement calls constantly about how the surface looks and feels, and make sure the belt gets applied properly. If I make a mistake, there’s no doing this over. So I need to really know what different models look and feel like. Being a player gives me perspective.”
- Lenny, we salute you.
Binding is laid into “rabbet” channels and glued by hand, once seated the body is carefully wrapped in white strip cloths, and left to set.
One of the main trademarks of a Custom Shop guitar are the extra long neck tenons, in keeping with vintage design. These are fitted into body cavities and glued in place. The Neck Fit department is fronted by Patrick Keeter, “People think that everything is automated in a shop like this, but the truth is it’s all messy and hands-on, and that’s the way it needs to be to do it right.” Another aspect of Keeter’s job is check all of the guitar build so far, so he assess the quality of the neck, fretboard, binding and body work.
It’s also where your Custom guitar gets it’s transponder inserted into the neck joint. This nifty little device protects your guitar from all sorts of unfortunate circumstances, it’s a pill-sized oblong chip marked with a distinct number. The guitar can be tracked through the manufacturing process, can be used to foil potential counterfeiters that may try and sell it as an original vintage piece and it can be scanned to reveal the guitars owner to prevent it being sold on after theft. Gibson originally started doing this with R-9′s back in 1999, but since 2000 they’ve gone into every single CS guitar.
Next it’s off to the Plek. Jeff Renfro aka “the Plek master” runs the two machines, which originally were only intended for the Vintage Original Spec range, however according to Plek master Jeff they provided such great value for money for the customer that every single CS guitar now gets treated to a little Plek magic. These machines are capable of adjusting, levelling and dressing your fretboard to an accuracy that us mere human’s, alas, cannot achieve. Each guitar has it’s own individual software template, and it can peel off as little as a thousandth of an inch from the nut. They can be used to fix warped necks on vintage guitars, but it’s an aftermarket cost of roughly £179 for a run through the Plek, so it does add that much more value to your faithful CS steed.
After the guitar’s been plekked to perfection, it’s off to the paint room for a top notch finish.
So far it may seem like a man’s world over at the CS factory, which is certainly not the case as it would all mean nothing without these two wonder women. Meet Wanda Marshall and Marsha Carr, they’ve been “scraping” for Gibson for 22 and 33 years respectively. After the finish has dried it needs to be removed, by hand, from the binding. They don’t use any edging or alignment tools, excess finish is seamlessly removed using small sharp edge blades which are drawn over the binding to reveal perfect ivory and ebony stripes. It takes them about 30-40mins to scrape each guitar. I bet these talented dames have learnt some sharp skills over the years. Following a thorough scraping, the guitars get several thin coats of nitro-cellulose lacquer and all VOS guitars get treated to an extra special proprietary process for that incredible 40 year old well cared for look, including steps for staining, wet-sanding, and hand-rubbing.
Final Assembly is the home of Randy Russell…
Men lock away your wives and hide your daughters, because this guys got a barnet that would melt even the coldest of hearts. Once the electronics are installed, every guitar has to be played and approved by 25 year veteran Randy, this curly haired musician and songwriter is the last measure of each Gibson guitar, and he’s not just a pretty face either, he’s an astute gentlemen “You’ve gotta love playing guitar to do this job” – classic Randy.
If this blog wasn’t enough, and you really want some excitement today, have a look at Gibson’s totally nineties video tour of the Custom Shop.