Acoustic Guitar Building ~ Summer Camp – On Sale Until DEC 26

An immersive experience in a fully equipped guitar building workshop… Build a beautiful acoustic guitar under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor. No experience necessary.   Questions? Please call us! 773-489-4830

The Aerosel project began back in the summer of 2010 after our Sonic Arboretum show at the Guggenheim in NYC. Part of that trip included a visit to Coney Island. Inspired by the beauty of structures like the vintage Cyclone roller coaster and remnants of the old parachute drop and other death-defying structures which haven’t been used for years, Ian set about creating an aerodynamic version of his horn speakers that would not only recall these inspirations, but take horn shapes to a radical new level.

Incorporating his beloved octagon, he set about making the new horns using dowel rods, fiberboard, and plywood – a method similar to building ‘stick and tissue’ airplanes from early aviation. He covered part of the first Aerosel horn in aircraft covering, tightly shrinking it across the horn’s vertical planes.

The resulting sculpture was to be the form for a mold, but it became clear that is was far too beautiful to sacrifice (as forms can be destroyed in the mold-making process). Hanging in the shop, the undulating horn captivated many people, including our dear friend Andrew Bird. Ian discussed various uses for the Aerosel horns and sent a movie of it to Andrew’s Lighting Designer, Ryan Murphy, who immediately saw the potential for shadow play on stage. In January, Ian and the Specimen crew began generating six new shapes ranging in size from 4 – 7 feet. The first two are going to Europe tomorrow as Andrew begins touring in support of his new album, Break it Yourself. The other four will join the US leg of the tour next week. It should be spectacular!

This guitar came in the shop for some repair work. It’s a nice Harmony Archtop, probably from the 1950s, but what makes it truly special are the numerous illustrations by some of the comic world’s most beloved artists. On the top side is a dinosaur by William Stout, there is also a “franken-monster” by Albert Feldstein (editor of Mad magazine), a curious creature by John Rush, a haunting female face by Ted Naife, and a Mariachi dude by Sergio Aragones.

The owner of this guitar kindly provided us with a complete listing on all the artists featured on his guitar. They are: Bob Burden, Alex Ross, Adam Hughes, Basil Gogos, Thomas Blackshear, Dave McKean, Mike Dringenberg, Mike Mignola, Dan Brereton, Arthur Suydam, Mark Carter, Ted Naifeh, Al Feldstein, Mark Brooks, John Rush, Dan Henderson, Barron Storrey, Steve Lieber, Tony de Zuniga, Paul Guinan, Sergio Aragones, Terry Dodson, Doug Klauba, Mark Schultz, Eric Joyner, Gary Amano, Ruben Martinez

Machining the neck pocket of one of my aluminum guitars is a true joy of mine (LOL). I use advanced digital technology, that is, I use my fingers to turn the cranks on the milling machine to achieve the proper dimensions. My mill is a 1940s Linley Pattern Maker’s Mill. It’s been mine for twenty years, and it’s still going strong.

Each neck pocket on a Specimen Aluminum is machined to precisely fit the neck heel of the actual neck going on the instrument. This arduous procedure may be somewhat superstitious (as opposed to using generalized templates) but it ensures a perfect fit and superior assembly on each and every guitar.

This guitar model is my Specimen Aluminum Esquire. With the neck block machining safely behind me, I can now embark on fitting the bridge and then “honey-combing” the frame to reduce weight and create a secret, internal beauty.

You can see images of the finished instrument here.

Back before the Sonic Arboretum opened, Time Out Chicago Kids ran a nice feature in their December/January issue. It gave Ian a chance to talk about how his childhood, specifically working alongside his Grandfather, influences his work.

Photos taken at Specimen Products during the building of the Sonic Arboretum Exhibit for MCA Chicago We were delighted that Time Out Chicago Kids reached out to us. The feature turned out very nice and Erica Gannett, who came out to photograph the shop for Time Out, took a series of lovely photos of the shop. Check it out!

Believe it or not these two Epiphone guitars are actually the same model: The Mighty Epiphone Olympic. The 1940s instrument on the left came in for a full restoration that required a neck set with a substantial revision to the neck geometry in order to get the bridge elevated enough to elicit some of the monster tone lurking within this box. This is prickly business with the traditional dovetail neck joint (still my favorite regardless).

Once the neck was set, it was completely re-fretted. The trapeze attachment plate had also exploded and needed to be re-fabricated. To do this, I unfolded the broken parts until they were flat and then made a new template.


I then cut the parts out of a sheet of brass and folded it and rolled it back up using the subtle persuasion of an anvil, a few small blocks of hardwood, and a ball peen hammer. Next I fabricated and fit a new bridge. It all went together well and once the instrument was setup it produced a great volume and gorgeous sonority.

We may never how the three on a side headstock morphed to a bat wing headstock on the more modern instrument on the right. This instrument had an unfortunate tuning machine replacement and had some chip-out on the headstock face which I drop-filled and buffed out so that vintage-style tuners could be re-fit.

After many months of hard work and anticipation, Specimen and Andrew Bird’s team of engineers installed the Sonic Arboretum at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday, December 5, 2011.

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago December 2011Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago December 2011During the first week of the exhibit, Andrew used the third floor balcony off the museum’s main atrium as a perch from where he could create new compositions specifically for the exhibit and the museum. It was thrilling to witness his creative process and see museum visitors reacting to the exhibit and the music. After the compositions were recorded, Neil Strauch (engineer extraordinaire) and Andrew manipulated the various loops of violin, guitar, and whistling sending them to specific horn speakers, shifting the sounds around the museum’s atrium creating a spatial phenomenon that is both beautiful and provocative.

The exhibit is open to the public until the end of the month. Do check it out….it is something to behold! Below is a slideshow of photos from the first week of this exhibit.

We are making the final push before installing the Sonic Arboretum at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago next Monday. This week we’ll be completing the final stages of French polishing the horns, testing the system and installing the remote control unit for the XL Janus spinning horn speaker. It’s getting pretty exciting around here!

Chicago Magazine features Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic ArboretumChicago Magazine features the Sonic Arboretum in their December 2011 issue.

What a day! The photo shoot for this feature began at 8:00 am when Saverio Truglia and his crew loaded in an intriguing assortment of equipment, props, and even a smoke machine!

Shot back in September on location in the building where Specimen Products is located, Saverio pulled out all the stops creating a moody garden scene using our horn speakers, astro-turf, fake rocks, and mysterious lighting techniques. We wrapped up around 3:00 pm – just about the time when Ian’s feet were going numb.

This was perhaps the first time Ian has ever worn makeup. Oh, wait! There was that one time he painted himself green for a Shrimp Boat show.

You can see the Chicago Magazine article here.

Ian Schneller on stage with Shrimp Boat at the Lounge Ax, Chicago

With little less than one month before we setup the exhibit at the MCA Chicago, work on the Sonic Arboretum is in high gear. We have a great group of people working away at assembling, seaming, dyeing, french polishing, sanding, carving, wiring and just about every other “-ing” you can think of.

With the help of photographer Shane Welch, we are creating a photo journal. Here is a little slideshow for you.

It is with great pleasure (and a healthy dose of relief) that we are sending out into the world this brand new web site. A lot has changed at Specimen since the old site went up back in 1999(!):

  • We moved
  • We now build lots and lots of horn speakers and hi fi tube amps
  • We started the Chicago School of Guitar Making
  • The old site was formatted for a Commodore 64
  • We have more grey hair

For the past few months we have been pouring over gigabytes of images, dusting off old photographs, and ironing wrinkly magazines. We had fun reminiscing about the old Division Street shop , those early days of guitar making, and the amount of work that our little shop has produced over the years. It was an especially poignant process given that it will soon be Specimen’s 25th Anniversary!

BEHOLD the new Specimen site. Have a walk through a quarter century of guitar making, amp experimentation, and horn speaker evolution and let us know what you think.

This old Silvertone archtop guitar was purchased for the owner by his mother when he was a boy. A while ago one of the long internal top braces popped loose, rendering the instrument prone to collapse. Luckily, the strings were loosened and no serious damage was incurred. The brace was still bouncing around inside.

Normally, a repair of this nature would supersede the value of the instrument, but the sentimental attachment and the fact that it is such an early Silvertone (and a beautiful round shouldered jumbo cutaway) prompted the owner to have me proceed with the repair. This meant that the back had to come off so that the brace could be glued back on. The neck also needed a reset. Someone had attempted to repair the neck with a drywall screw and putty at one point. I gouged out the putty and managed to remove the screw. The neck was then steamed out and the real work could now continue.

First a body mold needed to be made to keep the body from potato chipping when the back was off. I really like the shape of this instrument so I didn’t really mind making a body mold for later use. I used two single edge razor blades as sharp little wedges to coax the binding off. One was oriented vertically and the other horizontally. This slow and painful process took an entire day.

Now the seam of the back joint could be separated and the back removal complete. Inside I found a veritable Tut’s Tomb of various hair balls and insect specimens from an era gone by. I felt like I was trespassing into a hidden place.

I used my bow clamp fixture to glue the brace back on. While I was inside I took the opportunity to fortify a variety of other somewhat dubious looking joints.

I realized when it was time to reassemble the guitar there was no way I would be able to register the back and binding separately. This meant the binding had to be glued to the back BEFORE the back was glued onto the guitar. Fair enough, this could be done. Then, to my horror, I realized that far from potato chipping, the body had corseted! It was too narrow at the waist. I would need to put a spreader bar inside if I was to get the back to register properly with the sides.

With plastic wrap around the ends of the spreader bar to prevent potential glue drips from making it permanent, I tied a length of string to it and fed it through an f-hole, hoping I would be able to remove the bar after gluing the back on. I was lucky and everything went back together well and the spreader bar came out easily enough. From this point it was just a straightforward neck set.

The instrument sounds and plays wonderfully. Another old war horse brought back from the grave.

This new Super Luddite model has a book-matched, flame maple, carved top with a chambered body and glued-in neck. It also features three P90 pickups and a unique circuit.

You can images of the finished custom instrument here.