In this installation of the Bass Gear Magazine’s Luthiers’ Round Table, we get back to some of the tasks and innovations which every luthier must contend with. The Round Table Luthiers include (in alphabetical order) Sheldon Dingwall, Harry Fleishman, Vinny Fodera, Randall Wyn Fullmer, George Furlanetto, Mike Kinal, Kenneth Lawrence, Gerald Marleaux, Carey Nordstrand, Michael Pedulla, Roger Sadowsky, Pete Skjold, Michael Tobias, and Joe Zon, although not every luthier has the time and opportunity to respond to every question in each issue.

Here are the questions for the luthiers:

TB – What is the one task that you spend the most time on (e.g., fret leveling, shaping, joining, carving, etc.)?

Michael Pedulla – My gloss polyester finishes.

Harry Fleishman – It’s probably about equal between designing time and sanding! I love the designing; not so much the sanding. Since I don’t tend to do more than one of any design, thanks a lot, I don’t tend to use many jigs, fixtures, or CNC. Hand building leaves me with a lot of sanding. I try to make it a sort-of Zen practice; I don’t always succeed.

Pete Skjold – Above all else is probably the fingerboard truing and fretting, which encompasses fretting the neck, dressing the fret ends one at a time, then  leveling, re-crowning and polishing. There are other tasks that can take up extra time, like hand-staining the bodies, which requires some major time, if the color is something different.

Vinny Fodera – Although the largest proportion of my time is still spent on shaping and carving our instruments, I am increasingly focused on passing on what I have learned over the past 40+ years of building to some of the amazing young people that we have on our team. We continue to build in a very labor-intensive way that is focused on getting the very best that we can out of each instrument. Yes, we do use modern tools (like CNC and Plek), but there remains no substitute for the ability of an experienced set of hands to bring an instrument to a higher level and so doing these things (i.e. shaping and carving) and teaching other members of our team how to perfect these skills is what occupies me the most.

Additionally, as Fodera’s chief instrument designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about “what’s next?” or working on some of the highly customized commissions that we are fortunate enough to be asked to build. And, finally, a really enjoyable part of my work over the past year has been to lead up the creation of our “Masterbuilts.” These are four or five instruments per year where me and the team in the back of our shop get to build absolutely whatever we want … without worrying about commerce (and whether or not they will sell). For these, we get to 100% follow our “creative muse.”

Randall Fullmer – My biggest task, by far, on every guitar is sanding. Starting with the rough-shaping on each neck and body, I use a variety of rasps, but also a thickness sander, belt sanders, spindle sanders, orbital sanders and hand-sanding blocks, all with super-rough paper. I’m shaping, as well as smoothing the contours. With 60-grit paper, it goes fast and it’s fun, but you now have a million scratch marks that you have to take out. So, on to 100-grit, then 220-grit, and I finish off with 400-grit.  But it’s seldom so linear as what I just laid out.

I find myself hopping back and forth on different grits in different areas to make sure that I’m always removing the scratches of one grit by the next-smoothest grit. In other words, if I have deep scratches from 60-grit, I better get them out with 100-and remove the 100 scratches with 220. You can find yourself thinking you have everything at the 220 level, and “oh no, you don’t!” You find some deep scratches and must bounce back to 100 to get rid of those, before progressing to 220. And then on to 400, where I apply my first coats of finishing oil.

I have natural skylights and overhead fluorescent lighting in my shop, and it also has white reflective walls. I’m trying to get as much light as possible to really see those scratches. The real fun begins when I put on my first coat of finish. Guess what, there are scratches that didn’t show up at all until that beautiful finish went on. I use an oil finish that requires at least four coats. This involves – you guessed it – more sanding! I’m now at 600-grit in-between each coat. After my first coat, I must go back sometimes to 220 to eliminate scratches I didn’t see until the first coat went on. Then back to 400 and 600. Then more oil, where I had to remove scratches, and onto my second coat. After this, the sanding is really working the finish, mainly, more than the wood. By the time I’ve completely roughed-out a guitar to the point where I’ve waxed it, I have spent about half of my time sanding! I have moments on some guitars where I feel it will absolutely never end! But when the finish coats go on, topped off with a final coat of wax, and the hardwoods really glow and the grain really pops, I forget about all that sanding, and feel it was fully worth the effort.

Carey Nordstrand – With regards to making instruments, the biggest time issue is probably sanding. On the basses with a lot of carving, you can add carving and shaping on the front end of the sanding thing. Beyond that, communicating with customers and managing the people that work here is definitely the biggest time sink, these days. That, and developing new pickups. I recently got a 3D printer, and that’s opened up a lot of potentially crazy and cool possibilities. And it takes me a lot of time to make the models and print them. Neat technology, but slow!

Kenneth Lawrence – Well, like most of us, sanding is probably the most time involved, when you add up all the sanding that has to happen. The majority of my finishes are oil and wax, so I have to make sure it is as perfect as possible, and that can be maddening (being OCD doesn’t help, either!). The tiniest thing will show up as you are doing the various oil coats, and especially if there is a stain, so it’s quite a journey to get to where I am happy with the results.

A close runner up for me is inlay work. Some of the complex designs can keep me involved for large blocks of time, and there are many steps getting through a project to where it’s done and I get frets into the board. Larry Robinson has been a huge inspiration and has been kind enough to give me some tips, etc, that have been a huge help. The fact that even he has those moments in a large project where he wonders what he’s gotten himself into is a help when I’m having those same moments of feeling somewhat overwhelmed. As with everything, it’s a constant exercise of, “How do I do this a little bit better or a little more efficiently,” and those incremental improvements really help to keep the enthusiasm up and the frustration down.

Pete Skjold – Randall, you bring up a good point about the sanding. I tend to subdivide the different sections on sanding I do, like the sanding of a neck and the sanding of the body, which has several subdivisions within it. I think I tend to think of it that way so I can handle the thought of what I will be doing, without thinking I will be sanding for eight hours, but sanding is definitely the most time-consuming task for me, as well, if you lump it all together.

Mike Kinal – My instruments are hand-built, so many of the tasks that make up the complete instrument must jive together. I do feel that one of the most labor-intense and time-consuming tasks would have to be the neck, frets, and fingerboard. This is the first thing a customer puts their hands on, so it has to be right.

Michael Tobias – Fret work. That is the absolute heart of the instrument. Creating the compound radius, leveling the board, fretting and dressing. But sadly, finish prep is the most time consuming. Finding those annoying scratches and swirls just after you apply color and sealer is the worst!

Gerald Marleaux – You know, all work need its time and some work we really love to do and others are not so nice, sometimes. I spend lots of time in shaping and sanding the neck and body, also. Preparing fretboards with the right compound radius needs more than 100 % concentration and is physically hard work.

Sheldon Dingwall – Being a CNC-centric shop, the cost of programming and tooling is way too high for anything that’s too far out of our wheelhouse. We’re upfront about that before the requests get too creative. The most off-the-wall request I can think of we’re working on right now. It’s an unlined fretless (fanned) 6-string, with no position markers, four flatwound and two roundwound strings. The clean look is really nice. I personally would need side dots, at the minimum.

George Furlanetto – Sanding is the most time-consuming task in the production of an instrument. With all the carves and curves, and dealing with large grain, it has to be done by hand, and about four times, with sequentially finer grits.

Joe Zon – Finishing would be at the top, along with neck construction. There is a lot of sanding and polishing required to get our finishes perfect; scratch-free and “water” flat. I like our basses to have a smooth, glass-like appearance, without any waves or dips to be seen from any angle, so we are very meticulous in how the bass is sanded and buffed. The process takes hours to complete. Regarding neck construction, some people seem to think because there is molding involved, necks pop out like cupcakes, requiring little to no work, which is the furthest from the truth. While the “shell” is molded, it has to be trimmed to dimension, the truss rod installed, fingerboard underlay, headstock cap and fingerboard bonded all in separate stages. The neck is then hand-shaped for proper feel, fretted and then painted. All these steps require a significant amount of time and hand labor.

Roger Sadowsky – The task I personally spend the most time on is truing fingerboards….I first pre-true them on a long belt sander and then hand sand them with both flat and radius blocks for both straightness and radius.

TB – Have you introduced new models in the past couple of years which represented a new direction for your company?  If so, what were they, and were there any unique innovations or difficulties involved in bringing them to light?

Michael Pedulla – I’ve been so busy filling orders for current bass models that I haven’t had time to design a new one, lately. I’ve developed several different bass models and have had unique innovations, they just weren’t in the past couple of years.

Harry Fleishman – The biggest difference, both literally and figuratively, has been my recent focus on the designing of large acoustic basses. They are 35″ scale, but asymmetrically shaped, and with a very large interior air cavity. Combined with a new idea I’ve been chasing – the side slot-port – they have a very loud, deep, “uprighty” tone. The scallops on the back make them feel like a much smaller bass, but they are still quite big. My goal, which I feel I’ve been largely successful in reaching, was a compact acoustic bass that played on a level field with an acoustic ensemble, not needing amplification to be musically useful in a small group. Of course, with amplification, they can be used in any setting. The third iteration (see attached) is my most successful, so far; it was snatched up immediately for a show at the Museum of Making Music called “LOW” that displayed and elucidated all the bass instruments from uprights to bass clarinets.

Pete Skjold – I have introduced three new models as part of the all new Quest Series. These are the most modern rendition of my most popular designs, which are now part of the classic series. The first is the Drakkar, which is a more sleek version of the Erskine Whaleback, and then we have the Firedrake, which is an update of the popular Skjoldslayer model. Finally, we have the Griffin, an update of the Off-set 92, which will be fully introduced the end of this year. These designs are the culmination of refinements I have made to my original design from 1992. The changes and updates since 1992 have come organically, as I would add a tweak here or there to modify the existing shape for functional purposes. This can sometimes be a problem to keep the original look and intent and identity. With the latest models, I basically wanted to round out the bottom of the body for a more sleek appearance, for those who were a little put-off by my more angular styles. But as always, as people embrace the new shapes, there are those customers who continue to support and love the other preceding shapes, so it is a win/win for everyone.

Jason DeSalvo (Fodera) – The past couple of years has seen us pursuing a really fun, two-pronged strategy of pushing the design envelope with our Custom instruments, as we explore various applications of our patented Hybrid instrument design, along with the introduction of our Standard Classic line of instruments, which has allowed us to provide our players with the Fodera tone and playability that they want in a more vintage-inspired look.

The challenges that we faced with these two “extremes” of our instrument line were completely different. With the Hybrid design, the thrust of our efforts have been about exploring different wood combinations and instrument dimensions, so that we can continue to gain an understanding of just what each change does to the overall tone that the instruments are producing. We have attached photographs of two “Hybrids” that have been part of this exploration.

For the Standard Classic instruments, we were challenged by wanting to offer instruments with more of a “retro” look, while not having them become either “me-too” or derivative in the process. For the vast majority of our 33-year history, we have been known for exotic wood tops, our own shapes and designs, loads of possible tone wood combinations and electronics and a very “boutique” look. So to keep the essence of what makes our instruments special and also have them be able to look at home on stages where the musical genre is more old-school or pop was a challenge. The response to the design choices that we made has been hugely positive, thus far! The biggest logistical challenge we have faced with building the Standard Classics has been sending them out for high-gloss, color paint work in a way that continues to allow us to predictably get instruments out the door on time. Even though the Standard Classics are completely built here in our Brooklyn shop (like all Foderas), we still haven’t taken the plunge with regards to doing our own glossy color paint work.

Randall Fullmer – I haven’t introduced completely different models. I have an increasing variety of what I’m called on to do. I have now built basses from a 30” scale to a 36” scale; 4-string to 8-string. At least a third of my basses are single cuts. Fretted and fretless, occasionally I do chambering both for tone and for weight reduction. But I mainly continue on a path of small refinements on practically every bass I build, to make them better and better, rather than a large jump to something completely different.

Carey Nordstrand – With basses, late last year I developed what I call a vJ Slim, which is a downsized J-style bass. I really like it, but I probably won’t make that many (stopped taking orders), so it’s not really a new direction for us. In pickups, I’ve got a new design called the Big Blade, which we started selling about four months ago. And we are just now going to release a Jazz-shaped version, which seems to really have people excited. I’m even developing a dual version for Justin Chancellor at the moment, and it’s turning out killer, so there may be Dual Big J Blade pickups in all the various soapbar shapes and sizes in the near future. But this ties back to the first question: it takes a LOT of time to develop and test all these different shapes and styles of pickups.

Kenneth Lawrence – As I mentioned previously, I’m constantly re-examining and tweaking existing designs, so I haven’t done an “official” new model in the last couple of years, but I do have some exciting new projects in the works. I have my own “21st Century” take on a J-bass (I know, everyone has one, but I’m hoping mine will be interesting) and I have a new, more acoustic version of my Chambered-Brase (chambered single-cut) that I’m really excited to do.

As to difficulties, the “J-Brase” has been a bit of a “tooth pulling” project that has been a long road, but it’s getting really close. Even though the timeframe has been a long one, I’m a firm believer in letting things happen in their own time. As a result, I have discovered directions that I may not have gone if I were trying to hustle things through.

Mike Kinal – I now offer a short-scale bass (30” scale), which I’m quite excited about. This really hasn’t changed direction, just gives the customer more variety in the music spectrum. I also offer some new archtop guitars, and within the next few months, will have a short-scale arch-top bass. I try to use materials that are readily available, so I don’t get hung up on meeting deadlines.

Michael Tobias – We have been working on the Saratoga series for the last few years. We recently started to offer a flat peghead from our original angled version. We have also been working on mitigating the traditional dead spots that appear on instruments of that design. After some experimentation, I think we have managed to relieve the issues by laminating a peg head veneer on the back of the peg head and inserting a small weight that changes the way the peg head responds and helps mitigate the weak spots.

Gerald Marleaux – Around about four years ago, we got a request from a player who wanted a flattened double bass which plays like an electric bass. After many different ideas and discussions, we started up with the first prototype. Every construction technique and wood combinations we tried were unusual for electric basses (it was a strange mix between acoustic and electric construction). At first, I thought we will never get a satisfied result with all this “construction fault.” In the end, I was more than surprised by how great this construction works. So, I really learned to be more open for new ideas, and we have to check everything in different ways. Now, it’s our new model, the Contra.

Sheldon Dingwall – All the time! LOL. I find the thought of the “next great idea” really energizing. However, my fail ratio is at least 10 to 1. I try to fail quickly and move on. The tricky part is to not get too emotionally attached to any one idea, because it blinds you to a simpler solution. Also, if you’re emotionally invested in an idea that fails, it really messes with your self-esteem. Just prior to focusing on basses, I’d come up with a guitar design that used an aluminum structure to connect the neck and bridge. The aluminum carried the string load, which allowed bodies of different tone woods to be bolted on as you wished. I was pretty emotionally invested in that one. I recall going from the feeling of “King of the World” to “Idiot” within minutes of stringing it up, the response was so bad. That same day, I saw the Novax® system on a Klein guitar and changed my course – kind of permanently.

George Furlanetto – Nothing new recently, but we constantly upgrade (in tiny increments) all aspects of our instruments, as new products come into the market, or as we develop a new system of production. The most recent “new” model was the introduction of the VF line, which is a lot more “vintage instrument,” in looks, feel and sound; in about 2005. The difficulty came in making them sound as vintage as possible, especially the 5 and 6-string versions. This meant choosing the right woods and finding the correct pickups. It probably took three years to get to a somewhat final design.

Joe Zon – One of the new models we have introduced is the Todd Johnson 632. It’s a 6-string headless bass with a 32” scale set-neck based on Todd’s original TJ Sonus model. While not a “new” direction, the interest in shorter scale and headless basses has given us cause to explore more possible offerings. We’ve also been developing a version of the Sonus that is chambered, with a “floating” top and back. The work on this model has resulted in a lightweight bass with great resonance.

Roger Sadowsky – Yes … in the last year, we have introduced our Single Cut 5-string bass and our Satin Series. The Satin Series was relatively easy, as they were existing models that we stripped down to build them as cost effectively as possible. The Single Cut took much more time, as we had to design the body, build prototypes and refine each one until we were happy with the results. We also worked with Nordstrand to design a special bridge pickup for the vintage-style version of the Single Cut. Even though we released the bass at 2016 NAMM, we are just now finishing the first batch of Single Cuts we began after NAMM 2016.

TB – What is your new favorite alternative wood (necks, bodies, or boards) that you have started working with (or working with more often)?

Harry Fleishman – I’ve used Port Orford cedar for several necks and really like the feel, smell, and weight of it. It is similar in density to Spanish cedar, so it needs a finish to be resilient, but it feels great in the hand and has a nice high resonance, which, combined with carbon fiber, gives a very light neck that doesn’t compete with any of the bass resonances. I’ve also been slumping two 1/32″ layers of paper-based phenolic to a pre-curved neck, instead of using ebony or other hardwood. I’m only doing this for fretless boards, because it would defeat the purpose to slot into it, but it adds a great deal of longitudinal stiffness to have the two pre-curved layers glued over the pre-curved neck. Another benefit is that the paper-based phenolic is nearly bombproof. I used this in the early ‘80s for the Bassic-IV, but stopped because of the toxicity of the dust. Since I now pre-curve the layers, there is virtually no dust, so no dust hazard. As for bodies, I’m still thoroughly convinced of the tone of ultra-lightweight bodies. My favorite woods are spruce, cedar, and King William pine. I use either a thin veneer or a cap to protect the softer tonewood, but it is really the soft wood that is giving me the feel and tone I love.

The AntiGrav proto shows the slumped fb’s. The markers are only about 1/128″ deep, so they don’t really affect the stiffness, significantly. The body is King William pine (actually an Aussie cedar), the neck Spanish cedar. The pickups, RMC and Fleishman. The drop D, a work in progress. The Big Bass is the 35″ scale behemoth. You can see the side slot port and the scallops in the photo. The little thingy on the back of the neck is the indicator for the thumb position normally associated with the upright joint at the fifth.

Pete Skjold – I am always looking for alternatives to conventional woods and exploring what is available for possible combinations. The wood is what really got me interested in building in the first place. Probably from reading those old Tobias bass catalogs with all the woods I couldn’t pronounce (thanks, Mike!). My latest body wood that I have been very pleased with and finally started using (about four years ago, for a chambered body bass I was prototyping) is obeche. It is very light, but the grain is very tight and similar to African mahogany, and it produces a great tone. It is very lively and resonant. My latest fingerboard wood that I have been working with that I have had good success with is marblewood, which in some ways is similar to wenge and bocote. It is focused and has a great treble response, which is not to bright or brittle. As for neck woods, I have followed suit with several others and adopted hard ash as a neck wood. I think the first person I saw use it is our own LRT Michael Tobias. I have had great success with it when I use it with certain combinations. It is very alive sounding, and it, too, is resonant, which works well with my chambered catacomb models. I still need to take my bamboo prototypes to the neck level, as well. That should be interesting!!

Jason DeSalvo – A tonewood / spec combination that we have been really loving over the past year has been to use a chambered walnut body with a 3-piece red oak neck and an ebony fingerboard. Late last year, we built a custom Monarch with these woods, and all of us really loved the results. When paired with a set of Fodera / Duncan Dual Coil pickups, the tone we are getting is this really complex and unique blend of vintage and modern. Think of the warmth of a great ‘60s J-bass with a more articulate, percussive aspect to the tone, and you get the idea. Earlier this year, Victor Wooten asked us if we could work together on a new Monarch so that he can explore some different tones. When he came to the shop and demoed multiple different instruments, his choice for his new Yin Yang (from a tonewood perspective) was – you guessed it! – chambered walnut with a red oak neck and an ebony fingerboard with Fodera / Duncan Dual Coil pickups. So, this is a sound that the world will be hearing a lot more of!

Randall Fullmer – At one time or another, I have used something like 32 different hardwoods. I have been pretty adventuresome in trying many combinations. I have tended to settle in to a degree with certain woods that I find to be more predictable and versatile (wenge and eastern rock maple for necks being my main “go to” woods, as an example). And then, of course, I’m also working to the players’ liking, since everything I’m building these days is custom and pre-ordered.

One wood that I used two years ago as a neck wood for the first time was black walnut. I have used black walnut for the body, as well as claro and claro burl, but not as a neck wood. It was very successful both in tone and weight. I found that it had a rich complex character to it that I wasn’t expecting. I have used it several times since, and I’m really pleased with it.

Carey Nordstrand – been enjoying okume lately. It’s what I used for my copper-covered bass, and it sounds great. I also used bubinga and wenge for the neck and fingerboard on that bass. I’ve always loved wenge, and I have an MTD that Mike made for me that has an all-wenge neck. It has a tremendous punch and growl to it. Not a shy or subtle wood, at all. I also love making all-maple basses, for some reason. The vJ slim I mentioned above has a solid quilted soft maple body and a one-piece maple neck with a maple skunk stripe. I know the common perception would probably be that that bass would be unbearably bright, but that’s not the case, at all. It’s super punchy and growly, and I just love it for that.

Kenneth Lawrence – I’ve always worked with a variety of unique woods and really enjoyed the different working and sonic qualities. That said, I still very much like the “standards” for the bulk of the body and necks. What I’m most excited about, though, are the tempered/torrified woods. I’ve done a fair amount of research/reading on violins and some of the wood treatments that happened with them, plus what happens to woods over time. When the acoustic guitar builders started “baking” their spruce tops, I was very excited about the possibilities of what that would do to bodies and necks (to the point of trying to bake some body blanks in my home oven … didn’t really work, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing; plus, it stunk up my house!). Well, I had to wait for 20+ years, but now it’s happening and it’s very exciting!!

Aside from that, I, like Pete, have some bamboo that will be in a bass or two, depending on how it goes.

Pete Skjold – Ken, that is awesome you are going to use bamboo and that you use the torrified wood. The bamboo I use is slightly carbonized, which is a similar process, and it seems to make a good bit of difference. Very cool!

Mike Kinal – Since I play professionally, I like to try out a number of wood, pickup, and fingerboard combos. Over the last while, I’ve been using roasted maple, with stainless frets, and found excellent results as far as stability and tonality. I like the clarity and snap you get with stainless frets and titanium bridge saddles.

Michael Tobias – We have been using maple, ash and wenge for a long time. I have not looked for another neck wood for a while. We have been using more roasted maple blanks lately. The process of torrefaction (roasting, toasting, baking) makes the neck dimensionally stable. Mixing the roasted board and non-roasted neck, or vice versa, makes a very nice combo.

Gerald Marleaux – We have been using Dibetou as body wood for many years. I never saw this wood in other instruments. It sounds so great, and it is great working with this wood. Okay, it looks ugly, so it always needs tint. Four a few years, we have been using softer maple for necks (it’s grown in our area), and our basses sound much better than in past … more punch, more open.

Sheldon Dingwall – All the time! LOL. I find the thought of the “next great idea” really energizing. However, my fail ratio is at least 10 to 1. I try to fail quickly and move on. The tricky part is to not get too emotionally attached to any one idea, because it blinds you to a simpler solution. Also, if you’re emotionally invested in an idea that fails, it really messes with your self-esteem. Just prior to focusing on basses, I’d come up with a guitar design that used an aluminum structure to connect the neck and bridge. The aluminum carried the string load, which allowed bodies of different tone woods to be bolted on as you wished. I was pretty emotionally invested in that one. I recall going from the feeling of “King of the World” to “Idiot” within minutes of stringing it up, the response was so bad. That same day, I saw the Novax® system on a Klein guitar and changed my course – kind of permanently.

George Furlanetto – We are experimenting with torrified woods, currently, for bodies and necks. They seem to be a little lighter in weight, more stable and sound a little crisper.

Joe Zon – We are heavily into composites, because of the benefits they offer. That said, we are exploring some new alternative materials to see what effects they have on the tonal qualities of our instruments. As for wood, I have designed some new internal structures for a series of wood-neck basses that I think will offer greater stability and performance than graphite or metal rods, yet retain a traditional tone.

Roger Sadowsky – Our new favorite fingerboard wood is African blackwood. Very dense like ebony, but with a beautiful grain. Unfortunately, it is also a Dalbergia, so it falls under the new CITES II restrictions on rosewoods. Our new favorite body wood is torrified swamp ash … it has amazing color. And our new favorite neck wood is torrified maple.

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Tom Bowlus
Editor-in-Chief, Tom Bowlus, surprised his parents by riding home from grade school on his 10-speed with an upright bass. Thus began a life-long love of all things bass… After writing reviews in 18 issues of Guitar World’s Bass Guitar Magazine, Tom founded Bass Gear Magazine in 2007. If there is one thing Tom loves more than playing all kinds of cool bass gear, it’s telling people about cool bass gear!