Tom Sands has gained a reputation amongst collectors and players as one of the world’s most brilliant modern day luthiers. He’s not afraid to make design waves at the high-end of the acoustic guitar market, it’s where he excels. Tom produces extremely desirable acoustics for reasons that range from the purely aesthetics within handpicked tonewoods, body designs and metal inlays, to the practicalities within superb tone, play-ability and construction.
“I was seriously into wood at school,” says Tom, “I had some woodworking machinery and was building all sorts of things like furniture, chairs and tables in my dad’s garage from any bits of wood that I could get my hands on. One of my friends at school was a great jazz funk bass player and asked me if I could show him how to build an electric bass for his final project in design and technology. Up until then I hadn’t built any sort of instrument, so we bought the cheapest second hand bass we could find, just to see how it was put together.
We picked up some wood from a yard which we thought was walnut but turned out to be African Paduak and set about building a bass. In a few months we’d made an electric bass which looked pretty good, elaborately carved with scrolls, this was my first in-road into Lutherie.
Moving on from school, I studied product design at the Glasgow School Of Art and in the summer months I came home and worked with a local guitar luthier called Jim Fleeting, helping with repairs in a room no bigger than a broom cupboard in the back of a music shop in Ripon.
Once I had graduated from Glasgow, I worked for a number of cabinet makers, honing my woodworking skills to the highest level with chisels sharp enough to shave with, and I did this happily for about 6 years. I did however find myself falling out of love with the furniture making scene and decided to rediscover the craft of guitar making which I had more of a passion for.
I decided to go on a pilgrimage of sorts and sent my portfolio to guitar makers all over the world, including the legendary Ervin Somogyi in California. He liked what he’d read and offered me an apprenticeship. I was delighted. I didn’t have a grand plan at that stage, I just followed the thread as it unravelled.
Ervin has several tests that he lays out for potential apprenticeship candidates, one of which he simply called the cube test. He presents you with an obscure shaped piece of wood which is actually lots of pieces of mahogany glued together. With just sandpaper, a file and a scraper you have to turn this hodge-podge mahogany shape with multi directional grains, into a perfect 3 inch square block which wasn’t easy using just basic tools.
Ervin is of the same stable as myself where you think you can pretty much teach anyone anything, as long as they have the right attitude. The cube test wasn’t assessing my craftsmanship and problem solving skills so much as looking what I was like under pressure. He was pleased with my work as he offered me an apprenticeship with him and I stayed for two years, returning back to the UK in 2017.”
You’re body styles and fine appointments are slightly diverse from the norm, not enough for anyone to say they’re off the wall, far from it. Would you say your guitars are a mix of modern and traditional designs?
“I currently have three different models”, Tom explains, “Keeping the names as simple as possible, they are the S, M and the L, Small, Medium and Large.
We are in what has widely been accepted as the golden era for boutique or bespoke lutherie, so the challenge for me was how do I set myself apart, how do I create something with lasting value that speaks of my own styling sensibilities, and create something that isn’t confusing?
So my S,M, and L models represent my passion for automotive, architecture and contemporary product designs, whilst still paying homage to my Somogyi training and background, with little nods here and there within the aesthetics that make them my own. Surface finish, texture and colour are very important design tools that I use, my philosophy or objective is to turn the guitar into an object which is more broadly desired.
It’s the little nods and details that are important like the use of copper inlays for example, which I’ve been experimenting with for the last four years and it’s gone through various different applications. I was actually into rose gold which was a fad at the time and appearing on consumer products like iPhones and hifi speakers, but as an apprentice, I didn’t have that kind of money to spend on rose gold, so copper was my best bet, although there were barriers I had to overcome, like denting and tarnishing.
On my very first instruments when I was an apprentice, I was using enamelled copper, which is really cool. I’d cover it in glass powder with pigment in it and then fire it in a kiln. The glass particles would melt creating an enamel finish over the top which has a beautiful colour and texture. So I started to embrace it and play around with patinas, and oxidising and using lots of chemical washes to bring out the cool colours, and it worked quite nicely.
I was also using a French polish on the guitar bodies which meant that I could inlay the copper and leave it exposed and then the French polish could be applied by hand and seal the copper which in turn would be recessed below the surface of the soundboard or the face of the headstock. So while the French polish finish was perfect with copper inlays, it wasn’t so easy when I was asked for lacquered finishes.
The main hurdles here were the fact that when you spray lacquer over an inlay that’s recessed below a surface you lose the definition of the edges and it’s not easy to buff. After many nights experimental I realised that I could cast it and put resin over the top which would dry clear, then it would look like glass. This new concept allowed me to concentrate on polished copper and experiment with etching to create those cool geometric patterns that you see within the rosettes.
As a material, copper is so easy to work with, it lends itself to wood in that you can cut and plane it, and the amount of workability is determined by its thickness.”
Some luthiers will build an acoustic guitar totally from the customer’s tonewood choice, whilst others will only work with their favourite tonewoods. What options does a Tom Sands customer have?
“I’ve built guitars from a wide variety of the available tonewoods over the years, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Whatever I use it will be the finest example of that species I can find. I’ll sit and discuss this with a customer and say that they have to trust their own ears, as what I may hear, could be completely different to the sound they have in their head.
For the back and sides I’m kind of open to anything really that the customer wants, as I feel the vast majority of my sound is coming from the top, while the back and sides just give a little bit of the tonal colour and aesthetics. My tops are pretty much standard though. I use Swiss alpine spruce, it’s the wood I’m comfortable working and which brings out the best sound of my guitars and it’s also a beautiful pale white colour. I am looking to use other tonewoods, especially alternative timbers that are not endangered, or woods which have come from salvage”
There are some excellent local woods available, are any of these on your list?
“Oh sure, I’m keen to try bog oak for example. Oak that’s been submerged for thousands of years, turning jet black, English walnut is also excellent. I just find wood as a medium, so interesting to work with, a fantastic material. I have a lot of trusted suppliers at this point who will send me 10 tops for example, and I’ll know that they’ll be pretty decent sonically. Not all tops are created equal though, so the tonal properties can vary.
It’s not all down to the visual aspect either, sometimes a top may look mediocre but when you put some braces in there, it sounds awesome. I’m still sticking close to the style of voicing I learnt from Ervin, I’m using thin tops with low bracing. All my acoustic guitars are lightweight and very resonant whilst strong enough to withstand the pull of the strings. I’m also trying new things like different body styles but keeping within my apprenticeship training and using the standard Martin X-brace, but instead of using a couple of tone bars I’ve got a lattice brace behind the bridge plate.
A model without cutaways and inlays with take me about 200 hours to complete, longer if there’s a lot of fine appointments involved. I’m working on a commissioned order for an acoustic baritone which has the working title of ‘The Kitchen Sink’ as it has everything on it including a 27” to 28 ¼” in scale, fan-fret ebony fingerboard, copper inlays, arm and rib bevels, more or less every option that I offer. I’ve only just finished the wood work, and judging by how much work there is to do, this guitar will easily exceed 400 hours.”
Individual luthiers have their own tried and tested methods for the final coating, do you prefer thin or thick finishes or again, grant the customer’s wish?
“The acoustic guitar is a complex issue, and personally I think to try and attribute tonal qualities with one variable to another, is a fool’s errand. It’s so cumulative. I think there’s definitely a difference between say, a French polish finish, which is microns thick, compared to a lacquered finish which can be anywhere from 7-12 thousandths of an inch thick.
A lacquered finish does deaden the soundbox somewhat and can often raise the resonance frequency by a semi-tone. But as with all these things it’s a trade off, the French polish finish for example has a more open, immediate airy response, then again this is fragile and doesn’t offer any mechanical protection like the ultra deep, mirror gloss lacquer. When it comes to tone wood choices, as I mentioned I have my favourite timber for the tops, but after that I think a lot of it is psychosomatic.”
There are many sources for acquiring guitar building materials, woods, hardware and tools. Do you source the internet to shop around?
“I’ve purchased from Tonetech Luthier Supplies since day one, having know Bill Quinn from the beginning, he’s special. When I moved back from California after my apprenticeship with Ervin, my first trip was to see Bill at the shop and pick up my various sundries, things like fret saws and chisels and I still get my I get all my specific lutherie consumables from Bill, fret wire, bridge pins etc, it all arrives with next day delivery.
I also bought some beautiful old Brazilian mahogany he had that had come out of a staircase, quarter sawn and very dark. I still have quite bit left and it’s been going into all my guitar necks for the last two years. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Like most luthiers, I’m always on the lookout for tonewoods to work with, and I’ve been very lucky to have acquired some gorgeous mahogany from the famous tree that’s been documented many times ‘The Tree’ having been discovered in deep in the rain-forest of Chiquimula in 1963.
It was over 100 feet tall and 500 years old when it was cut down, it landed in a ravine and had to be processed for use from there as it was too big to remove. It’s been used for furniture as well as acoustic guitars and the latter have sold for tens of thousands of pounds. The quilt in the figure is like nothing ever seen before in other pieces of mahogany, almost like tortoiseshell. I’m lucky to have this and as yet it, I’m undecided what model to use it for, it’s so rare and beautiful that I might just make a special heirloom instrument to keep in the family….we’ll see.”
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