Tucked away in a nondescript, sun-drenched industrial park in El Cajon, California is one of the most technologically advanced manufacturing facilities in the country. Guitar building is a centuries old tradition, yet in this facility there is a sense that mere tradition is not enough. Here, surrounded by precision cutting lasers and robotic arms deftly rotating complete guitar bodies under perfectly measured jets of sprayed lacquer, it’s just the beginning. This is old world craftsmanship remixed into 21st century precision. We’re talking about the Taylor Guitars factory, to which The Music Zoo was recently invited for a guided tour. Join us as we take you through what goes into making a perfect Taylor guitar.
All guitars start life as an awkward pile of wood. The pile you’re looking at here is a stash of premium Hawaiian Koa that represents about $300,000. You read that right: that rough stack of lumber there has a price tag about the same as the median home in nearby San Diego. Hawaiian Koa is a hugely desirable and scarce guitar building wood. Only Koa trees growing on private property may be harvested, and of those trees, only a small number are good “guitar trees”, the right size trees to produce wood suitable for becoming a guitar top, back, or sides. Naturally, the price of premium Hawaiian Koa is steep. Getting the right woods to build Taylor guitars means that Taylor must deploy a team of wood scouts around the world on missions to find good guitar trees of all species. They’ll hike miles into the jungles in South America, trained to look for tress that have no lower branches until a certain height, to peel back the bark to look for figuring and color. Having no logging machinery available in the jungle, locals cut the trees down by hand and the logs are floated down the river where they can be picked up and shipped back to the states. It’s a practically 19th Century start to the journey that contrasts strongly with the precision and automation we are about to see.
The tour was given to our group by the man himself, Bob Taylor. We were a little surprised when we were handed wireless headsets, and Bob wore a microphone around his neck so we could hear him above the noise of the machinery on the floor. A simple yet high-tech solution to a problem; our first hint at the Taylor approach. Bob started building guitars by hand 35 years ago using very traditional methods. As the demand increased for the guitars, Bob had to find ways of meeting this demand while retaining the quality for which the guitars were known, and he found the answers in technology. Where many manufacturers may be slow to embrace new technology, Bob has done the opposite, and ultimately has not only made his processes more efficient but arguably made the guitars even better than if they were still all made by hand.
This is the first step in building an NT neck for a Taylor guitar. Here, the peghead board has been glued to the neck shaft board. The original NT neck had a finger joint. Taylor redesigned this joint recently for a more aesthetic look which creates a rounded and almost invisible seam between headstock and neck. By cutting a curve into both the neck and peghead boards prior to gluing them together, this rounded seam becomes the end result when the neck is ultimately milled down to its final shape. This joint serves to reduce wasting wood (versus a one piece neck) and also makes the neck stronger in its most vulnerable location (so the headstock doesn’t break off).
The peghead/neck joint has now dried, and the neck heel blocks (to be attached to the neck later) have received their hardware for mounting to the guitar body. Note that the necks have also received an initial carve at this stage.
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