The Machine Of A New Soul

I never tire of beauty, particularly in women and crafted objects, and I never tire of intelligent solutions to old problems. You won’t find any gorgeous chicks in the above-linked video, but there’s craft and thought aplenty. Tim Sway is a musician and artist who applies modern thinking and machinery to the traditional art of guitar making, and applies it properly. What I mean: Most of the mechanized guitar-building out there is designed to imitate hand processes: Gibson, for example, now uses a CNC to cut the body blanks that were cut by pantograph-style saws in the Seventies and sawn by hand in the Fifties.

Sway, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to replicate human processes with a machine. He creates new processes that work the way the machine works. Here’s an example: Fretboards are traditionally cut with hand saws and chisels, then inlaid with mother-of-pearl or some other material that is cut in a separate process. This is never a perfect process so then you use filler to make it right. Sway uses a CNC end mill to cut out the inlay patterns, then fills the resulting holes with epoxy. This is messy, but running an end mill over the mess levels everything out and creates a perfect inlay.

That’s the craft of it. Here’s the art: On the airplane fretboard, the airplanes are oriented to create single overlapping side dots where a traditional guitar would have a separately inlaid side dot, and oriented to create double overlapping dots at the octave marks. This works because the CNC machine shapes the hardened epoxy precisely the way it shapes the fretboard.

It should be mentioned that the airplane fretboard is destined for a 29.6″ scale bass to be played by my son. That’s not the only piece of original thinking in this particular instrument, and I can’t wait to show it to all of you when it’s done. One interesting part: it’s almost entirely recycled, both in the industrial sense (the fretboard is Richlite, a post-consumer waste product) and in the local-craft sense (the wood is all sourced from existing doors, tables, and recovered flooring). That’s not the way I’d prefer it; I like my Paul Reed Smith Private Stocks with their mammoth inlay and woods that haven’t been legal to harvest for fifty years. But Sway has his own set of ethics that he applies to the process.

My long-time mentor, Edward Tomarken, has often written and spoken about his desire to reconcile the academic division between the arts and the sciences. What Sway is doing here, creating art with a soulless machine, is just the beginning of what can likely be done with such tools. It’s usually the case that the artist doesn’t appear until well after the tool does; the Fender Precision Bass existed for about fifteen years before anyone started to play it near its potential, and another ten before anyone could envision it as a solo instrument. The Avid CNC router hit the scene twelve years ago; think of Sway as its first James Jamerson.

9 Replies to “The Machine Of A New Soul”

  1. Avatarjawinks6500

    Very interesting thanks! I can only afford mass market Fenders and entry level Gibsons. And the wife cut me off. Maybe someday…

  2. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    Quite amazing what a cartesian machine can do with a little bit of calculus, and that router is just a 3-axis machine. Industrial equipment is up to 7.

    Between my embroidery machine, 3D printers, and lasers I have more machines running G-code than Windows. To be fair, I do use Windows computers to control the above G-code machines. It’s a lot easier than using a punched paper tape reader like similar machines used to.

    As cynical and pessimistic as I am about America’s prospects, because of tech like CNC machines, 3D printers, and lasers, and the ability to market to a worldwide audience through the internet a lot of ideas that would have been stillborn 30 years ago can at the least progress to proof-of-concept stage and beyond.

  3. AvatarI COME IN PEACE

    I thought this guy looked familiar – he had some of his guitars/basses for sale on Reverb at some point. Kinda got that folk-art/recycle approach, reminds me of what Steve Wishnevsky is doing with his Wishbasses.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Still does — I think what he’s making for my son will be the most expensive thing he’s ever made, and it’s still under two grand.


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