My workshop is quite small. I’ve developed a system where I use specially designed plywood worktops that clamp into a pair of Triton Superjaws – for each new part of construction I swap the worktops around. Today I had my shooting board in one Superjaws and a jointing table in the other, which is what I do when I’m joining two panels along the centreline to make a back or top plate.
Sometimes the joints fit together like magic, but today wasn’t one of those times. I was putting together the top plate for my new baritone guitar and getting no cooperation at all from the pieces.
I was considering sending them to stand in the corner until they were ready to behave respectfully.
“King Canute,” said a voice from behind me. I spun around. Siting on the shooting board was a small female personage with gauzy wings. She was wagging her finger at me. She was impossible, so I didn’t see her and spun back again.
“Tried to turn back the tide by ordering it not to wet his feet,” said the fairy. “Thought that words could make the world behave itself.”
I turned back to her slowly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Yes you do.” She looked around my workshop. “Messy,” she said.
“Well, at least it exists,” I said cleverly.
“Whatever. Don’t you like want to know why I’m here? I’ve been watching you make a mess of that top joint,” she said. “I’m the Top Joint Fairy.”
“Never heard of you. Any relation to Tooth?”
She was tapping her foot. “Do you want some help or not?”
“You’re not mentioned in Gore & Gilet.”
“Like, daaah! They can actually make good top joints, so I didn’t need to help them. Now you…”
“I do a pretty good job, I think.”
“I do a pretty good job,” she mocked. “Is that what you like think guitar making is about? Hit and miss – good one day, horrible the next?”
“What do you know about it?”
“I was around when Orpheus got the idea of popping a tortoise and stringing it up. Okay, so maybe I’m, like, a minor deity” – she made inverted commas with her fingers – “but I’ve seen more top joints made than you’ve had hot dinners. I know when someone’s making a hash of it.”
“I’m not making a hash of it,” I whined. “Look, I’ve got a shooting board and a jointing table. I’ve got a sharp jointing plane, and another one with sticky sandpaper on the bottom for the fine work. I had to send away to Stewmac for the sticky sandpaper. And I got a flat steel fingerboard leveller and stuck sandpaper to that too…I spend hours…sometimes the wood just won’t behave…”
The Top Joint Fairy was examining her fingernails, as if there might be some tiny flaw in their perfection. I was boring her.
“Whatever,” she said. “You’re missing the point. I, like, wouldn’t be here unless you’d already done all that.”
“So what am I doing wrong? In your opinion.”
“Whoah, touchy! I’ve like got a simple technique that’ll allow you to get it right every time without all the fiddlefaddle you get up to. Put a slight concave curve in the fitted edges.”
“Is that all? I learned that in high-school woodwork! It doesn’t work very well with wide, thin panels because they don’t bend together when you clamp them. And I know all about what Gore & Gilet say about the risk of the joint opening from the ends if it isn’t slightly concave to start with.”
“So let me like finish, Einstein. Put a slightly concave edge first, so that the ends are together and the middle is like very slightly apart, maybe a hair wide. Then, to get a perfect fit, ease off some wood at each end until the joint becomes like invisible. It works every time. Use your sanding tools very gently and the joint like disappears when you glue and clamp it. The panels don’t have to bend – the grain at the contact points crushes a tiny amount under sideways pressure. And there you have it.”
Okay, I didn’t really get a visit from the Top Joint Fairy. But this method works, so I may as well have.