Ricky Claffey has been building guitars for over seven years, having studied instrument making at college in Glasgow. He then went on to learn the tricks of the trade from master luthiers Bill Kelday and Paul Hyland, and he now has his workshop in Thornliebank, Scotland, producing custom builds and undertaking repair work.
As a maker, where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m not one for drawing sketches or meticulously planning things on paper, I prefer just to stand over the bench, look at the wood and visualise the possibilities. In addition, anything that’s been hand crafted inspires me, and not necessarily guitars – anything that’s taken a lot of skill and practice to create. I live in Glasgow where there’s a lot of beautiful architecture and craftsmanship all around. It encourages me to push my talent, develop my skill set and make each instrument better than the last.
How did you come to make your first guitar?
It was when I started college. The first part of the year was all about developing hand skills, learning how to sharpen plane blades, chisels and knowing how to use them properly, knowing how to get the best out of your tools, making a few jigs. Then I spent about five months making my first instrument, which was an OM with cherry back and sides and an Englemann spruce top. I’ve got it hanging in my living room and it’s a really nice memory of my first build.
You build both guitars and ukuleles – what’s your favourite instrument to make?
Guitars, without a doubt. The ukuleles came about through a friend who wanted a uke built for her boyfriend. It turned out a lovely little instrument and it was great to build something a little smaller. The principles are essentially the same but it’s nice to step away from the guitars from time to time and build little ukuleles.
What is your preferred style of guitar?
Probably the small-bodied instruments – OMs, 000s, parlours – because they’re more comfortable to play for me, personally. I prefer the tone they create and I like guitars with curves. I’m not a massive fan of standard dreadnoughts. The modified dread I make has the tight waist of an OM and the lower bout of a dread, so it’s a versatile guitar to play, as well as being nice and curvy.
Tell us a little bit about your medium jumbo – you employ a slightly different take on the standard bridge design?
The guitar is actually inspired by an American luthier called Randy Muth who builds beautiful flat-top guitars. I loved the look of his archtop-style bridge/saddle/tailpiece system and wanted to experiment on one of my own guitars, and because this system makes the strings go up and over the bridge like an archtop guitar, it accents the monopole vibrational pattern, where the soundboard pumps up and down like a piston, creating a different sound and, of course, a different look. So I elongated the bridge to be in proportion with the rest of the guitar. Installing a standard-sized bridge would have looked odd, as there’s no need for bridge pins.
Your modified dreadnought has some mother of pearl inlay on the fretboard, yet your other models don’t feature this…
That was a custom build where the customer asked if I could inlay their initials into the fretboard, which I was more than happy to do. If I’m building a guitar on spec then I might inlay abalone, mother of pearl, diamond, or dot fret markers, and I always inlay 2mm abalone dots onto the top of fretboard as that’s one thing people always tend to want.
Do you prefer to keep your instruments free from superfluous aesthetics?
Yeah, it’s down to the customer’s taste, but if they ask my advice or if it’s an instrument I’m making on spec, I go for a simple elegant look where the tonewood is the star of the show. I like purfling to match rosettes and strive for clean lines that define the shape of the guitar.
Any plans to build other body shapes?
Yeah, currently on the bench is a parlour guitar with a 12th fret body join that I’ll be adding to my range of body shapes. So that will bring me up to five body shapes, each of which I really love to build.
Do you have a preference for a particular wood, or wood combination, for you instruments?
There are a few wood combinations that I love. Firstly, I use ebony binding quite a lot because I’m a big fan, aesthetically. It takes lacquer really well. For back and sides, I’ve used a variety of tonewoods but the rosewoods are definitely great to use. For tops, I really like Englemann spruce because it matures as the guitar ages and the guitar player can really influence the sound of the guitar with their style of playing.
Do you use any native timbers?
I’ve used Scottish sycamore before for backs and sides. It was a lovely instrument, had a lovely flame to it that was very pleasing to the eye. I will definitely be going down that route again, it’s always great to source local timber.
Some woods are becoming very scare. How will you go about sourcing ecologically forested wood?
That’s a scary subject. You have to put your faith in reputable timber merchants and know that they’re sourcing their wood properly. It’s interesting to keep up with the latest tonewood developments and there’s a lot of talk about sustainable, alternative tonewoods. I’m all for experimenting so who knows what I’ll be building with in ten years.
What are the construction methods and techniques that you favour?
These days I use moulds, as opposed to building the traditional Spanish way in which I was taught. I find it’s a lot more accurate, the body shape is completely symmetrical and I can build faster. On my latest instruments I’ve also started French polishing the insides of the box, just a few light coats because I feel it seals and stabilises the tonewood. It’s also quite pleasing to look at if you look through the soundhole as it highlights the bracing and the lining. Also, I voice all my soundboards and keep records of all my builds. Record keeping is such an invaluable process, just in case I ever need to recreate an instrument or remember how I got a certain guitar to sound a certain way.
Which type of heel joint do you use, and why?
I started off using the dovetail, which is a tried and tested stable and sturdy joint, but I now use a double bolt-on heel joint. Two bolts go through the heel and two bolts through the fingerboard so it’s incredibly sturdy and has the benefit of being reversible. It reduces a hell of a lot of weight on the guitar because it’s a butt heel join I use, as opposed to mortise and tenon bolt-on, so there’s no massive heel block in there to weigh the guitar down.
Tell us a little bit about the bracing pattern that you use in your builds?
For ukes it depends on the size. For baritone it’s a five-fan brace pattern and on the tenor, concert, and soprano it’s a three-brace fan pattern. On my guitars I’ve always used a scalloped X-brace pattern and I’m really happy with it. Pretty much all guitar makers I know use the X-brace system but we all do something a little different to try to create our own sound.
How do you go about getting a consistent thickness for the back and tops of your instruments?
Everything’s thicknessed by hand – backs, tops, and sides – using a sharp plane and constantly checking with a thickness caliper as I go. Doing it this way is time consuming but it allows me to be more in control and make subtle changes as I go. It is a pretty good feeling achieving a constant even thickness by hand. There’s one thing done by CNC on guitars – possibly the smallest thing on the guitar – which is my Claffey inlay. An American supplier cuts the mother of pearl, but I do inlay it into the headstock by hand. The benefit of doing everything by hand is that you can shape the instrument and its sound as you go. You’ve got a more intense relationship with the wood. When you’re running everything through a machine there’s no connection there, there are no skilled hands working the wood.
What’s the most enjoyably part of constructing a stringed instrument?
For me, it’s got to be bending the sides and binding. To be able to manipulate the wood with a little bit of water and heat is amazing. When I first started guitar building it was probably the most daunting process because you never think you’re going to be able to bend a flat piece of wood to the shape of a guitar, so it’s a great feeling when you master it.
Do you offer the customer a fitted pickup – which kind/style of pickup do you recommend for the best amplified acoustic sound?
Yes, a pickup is definitely an option and, generally, a customer will already know what they want. But, if it’s up to me, I really like the Fishman Matrix under saddle pickup because it transports the acoustic sound through the amp really well and it’s aesthetically discreet – there’s no big horrible plastic box on the side of the rib. I’m not a fan of those things!
What’s on the bench at the moment, and what’s next on the agenda for Claffey Guitars?
On the bench right now is a parlour guitar with mahogany back and sides and a lovely spruce top. This one will include a diamond volute with a slotted headstock. I’m aiming for a traditional parlour look but with my own stamp on it.
Over the next year I’m planning to develop three signature guitar models, named Vane, Lomond and Nevis. Basically, I’m designing what I consider to be the best guitar I can build someone for a certain price (Vane will reflect a lower budget and Nevis will suit a higher budget – if you’re familiar with the Scottish Monroes you’ll see where I’m going with this) and the only thing the customer has to choose is the tonewood and body shape they prefer. It’s for people who are perhaps overwhelmed at the amount of options involved in ordering a completely custom build. I’m also going to do the same thing for ukes – three signature Claffey models for three different budgets.
How long does it take for you to fulfill a custom build order?
It takes roughly 150 hours for me to build a guitar, and lacquering adds a month onto that. It depends what else I have on the go, but right now it’s an average of eight months from the time an order is placed to delivery.
Visit Ricky’s website for information on how to order one of his handmade instruments.