Inside the Shop

Building a Santa Cruz Guitar

The construction of a Santa Cruz guitar begins with the selection and treatment of the various woods. Besides the inherent properties of strength and flexibility, the most critical factor in wood selection is its relative dryness. Some of the wood may be only a year old, while other pieces (usually German spruce tops) may be 40 years old. The entire shop has a controlled humidity, and regardless of their age, any new woods are left to acclimate for a period of time before being put to use.

Many of the early Santa Cruz guitars, from the mid 1970s through the early ’80s were made of flamed koa, a beautiful tone wood native to Hawaii. Richard was inspired to use it by the many Martin koa guitars made throughout the 1920s. Another hardwood common to early instruments and still popular at Santa Cruz Guitar Company is flamed German maple, which is a popular wood for the f model.

In recent years, rosewood has supplanted other hardwoods for the majority of Santa Cruz instruments. East Indian rosewood is standard for all models, except the Tony Rice Professional which has Brazilian Rosewood. Hoover believes that there is a distinct tonal difference in Brazilian rosewood that sets it apart from other rosewoods, although he feels that any combination of fine tone woods can be made into an excellent-sounding guitar. In keeping with top-flight woods for all aspects of the instruments, fingerboards and bridges of Santa Cruz guitars are ebony, which is also used for headstock overlays.

The majority of the tops are Sitka spruce, while German spruce is available on special order. Cedar is also used, and it’s standard on the FS model. Regardless of material, all tops are first rough-thicknessed to 3.5 mm. Then the rosette is inlaid and each top is further thicknessed and graduated by a special sanding machine that allows the thickness of the top to vary (the bass side is usually made slightly thinner to accentuate low-end response). Each Santa Cruz model’s top thickness varies slightly, depending on the desired tone and the type of wood. The Tony Rice Model, for example, uses a stiffer Sitka spruce, which can be graduated between 2.7mm and 3.2mm. As a general rule, stiffer tops, when properly braced, emphasize the treble and midrange response.

Bracing stock is chosen just as carefully as the top wood, with pieces of quartered Sitka spruce graded according to stiffness and density. The stiffest pieces are used to enhance treble response, while more flexible ones accentuate bass response. All Santa Cruz guitars have X-bracing, a time-tested pattern that has been in use for 150 years and has become the standard for steel-strung acoustic guitars. Within this general framework, the size and shape of braces for each model varies. For instance, because the FS model is designed solely for fingerpicking, all of the top braces are very stiff Sitka spruce, tapered to provide the most evenly balanced tone possible. When deeper bass response is desired, such as in the various dreadnought models, the upper legs of the “X” are tapered, but the lower legs of the “X” are scalloped, as well as the rest of the lower top braces.

The top braces have a radius or curve, as in the large transverse brace directly under the end of the fingerboard. This slight curve brings the top up to the plane of the fingerboard surface (the neck is canted back about 1.5 degrees). This procedure avoids a “hinged” look, and also facilitates playability above the 14th fret. The bridge-reinforcing plate on the top’s underside is a thin piece of maple.

Richard Hoover says, “I don’t like the idea of tension in a guitar. The reason our guitars sound older when they’re brand-new is that the pieces fit together and they’re not put together under tension. They’re built over a longer period of time. The guitar is a relaxed assemblage when it’s first made; it’s looser and it responds better.”

Santa Cruz employs an ingenious method of gluing the top and back braces that is borrowed from the technique of harpsichord makers. The fixture involves two large, square boards placed vertically about 4′ apart. The top or back is set on the lower surface and the braces are set in place with glue. Large, flexible wooden dowels are set on top of the braces and wedged under the upper board of the fixture. This allows using unlimited pressure without risking deformation of the top or back, which could occur if similar pressure were applied with an ordinary C-clamp.

The top, with its completed braces, is flexed and tapped (literally-the sound acts as an important guide) and then the braces may be shaved again to reach its ultimate sound potential. This same method is used on the back assembly. Sides are bent by steam on a heated metal form. Regarding side-bending technique, Hoover says, “It’s really critical that the sides are allowed to cool and dry completely before being taken off the form. This creates an absence of tension. We have the technology to bend a side, and it stays.” The bent sides are fitted directly into an outside mold to ensure symmetry, as well as the proper neck angle in the completed guitar.

Next, the end blocks are fitted. The neck block is mahogany, and the tail block is a 12-ply laminate of Finnish birch, which allows a wedged endpin to be inserted without the danger of splitting. Because of the back’s different acoustic function, its braces are pre-curved, and they give the back its domed effect.

The linings that join the top and back to the rib assembly are basswood, chosen both for its clean, white appearance and its acoustically inert nature that facilitates the diaphragmatic action of the top and back. The braces reinforcing the sides are wood instead of the more commonly used canvas or cloth strips, offering much greater protection against a long crack developing from a blow to the side.

In the next step, the top and back are glued to the completed rib assembly. The double-stepped binding slots are now cut, and the wooden inner purflings are combined with the hard, ivoroid plastic outer binding to assist the top’s diaphragmatic action. The binding is then glued and trimmed. When the top and back are braced and the body is assembled and bound, final tuning of the soundbox can be achieved by a slight thinning around the top’s perimeter.

Offering the most control and ease of variation, and producing the most artistic result, all necks are shaped by hand. Santa Cruz’ truss rod is a new design that allows the curve in the neck to be adjusted both forwards and backwards to correct any type of neck problem. It’s adjustable through the soundhole; many other guitars have their adjustment on the headstock, which tends to weaken the neck at the fragile neck/headstock junction, a point at which many guitar headstocks are broken.

After each neck is shaped, inlaid, and bound, it is fitted to the body. Its dovetail joint is first rough-cut on a machine for accuracy and then finished by hand. Once fitted, the neck and body are finished separately, so if the neck ever has to be taken out and reset, there is no lacquer line at the neck/body juncture to be broken. (When a neck and body are originally finished as one unit, this area is difficult to properly touch up after repairs.) The body and neck are finished in successive coats of nitrocellulose lacquer that’s sanded between coats, and each subsequent coat is thinner than the previous one. Richard explains, “We do it the old way, the hard way.”

Lacquer is, by its nature, a little thin and elastic. For a while, you’ll see the grain and pores. It doesn’t look like glass, like the finish on some of the less expensive instruments. Some of the bigger manufacturers have gone to the use of a catalyzed finish. It’s a lot easier to put on, but it’s also a little more damping to the tone and difficult to repair. People want to see a shiny surface, and it’s very difficult to educate them to the contrary. If they ask, ‘How come I can see the grain in the top when I hold it in a certain light?’ I tell them it’s because the finish is thin enough to sound good and durable enough to protect the instrument. But most important, it’s the right thing to put on.” The last point is characteristic of Santa Cruz Guitar Company’s philosophy of producing guitars to last a lifetime, and their constant planning for easy repairability.

Once the guitar is checked out, it’s strung and played by at least a few of the Luthiers. They compare their impressions, and then ready it for shipping to its ultimate destination.

* * * *

As you can tell, there’s a lot of hand work involved in the construction of Santa Cruz Guitar Company’s instruments. But how successful has the company been? Richard Hoover has had several offers to greatly expand his business and production levels. He says, “We’ll continue to build guitars at a comfortable level to maintain our quality standards. Naturally, our guitars are constantly being refined as we improve our methods of building, and through the evolution of tools, machines, and fixtures. The hand work will always take the same amount of time. In the future, we will continue to introduce new models and refine our products, and the quality level will always remain the same.


Santa Cruz Guitar Company