Guitar Design & Theory Weekend Seminar

The student’s main goal in the Guitar Design & Theory Seminar is to produce a functional blueprint of an original instrument design. This blueprint will contain all the relevant design parameters needed to construct the instrument in its entirety. This class is a pre-requisite to our Electric Guitar Building Workshop.


This seminar is formatted to be part lecture, part demonstration and part hands-on work. In addition to providing a demonstration of drawing a full-scale blueprint, this seminar also includes in-depth lectures intending to educate the student to expertly manipulate every required variable of stringed instrument design. In this seminar students create their own functional blueprint on pre-formatted blanks. The drafting techniques explored use traditional pencil and paper on a drafting board. No particular drawing skills are required. Enrollment will be limited to 8 students per seminar.

Lecture topics include:

  • design tradition and historic examples
  • originality
  • aesthetics
  • proportion and balance
  • ergonomics
  • neck pitch, attachment and geometry
  • headstock and body design
  • truss rod systems and installation
  • selecting appropriate materials and hardware
  • electronic circuits and control layouts
  • carving
  • finishing

Completing this seminar will prepare the student for the exciting prospect of starting the actual construction of an instrument. Those who are ready to move forward can then enroll in our Electric Guitar Building Workshops and begin building their instrument using their blueprint.

This seminar welcomes both the traditionalist and the experimentalist. Whether the student chooses to design a reproduction of a traditional/classic instrument or chart new territory, the emphasis will be on designing a supremely-functional and long-lasting instrument of beauty.


See photos from previous sessions of our guitar building workshop and our Student Gallery showcasing students with their finished masterpieces.

Workshop Materials and Supplies

A variety of blueprint blanks with different scale lengths will be available for maximum diversity. Blueprints are pre-formatted with various scale lengths for guitar, bass, mandolin, ukulele or other types of stringed instruments. Each student will receive full-scale blueprint blanks to work with and drafting tools/materials to use in class. Students will enjoy working at specially-designed drafting workbenches. Useful handout materials will also be provided.

Recommended Pre-requisites

Previous experience is not mandatory, however we strongly recommended that students have completed our Guitar & Bass Setup & Maintenance Course prior to enrollment in this seminar.


Just finished! Ceiling-Mounted Spinning Double Horn Speaker

One day about a year ago I received a call from Jack White. He inquired about a Janus spinning double horn speaker. He said that he wanted me to turn it upside down and hang it from the ceiling. After a long pause, I said it would take a little engineering. He suggested I embark on the project.

Below is more detailed information about the building of this newest Specimen including photos and a slide show of images taken during the building process. You can see more images of the finished Specimen here.

Original Janus Double Spinning Horn SpeakerCeiling-Mounted Janus Double Spinning Horn SpeakerWell it did take a little engineering, quite a bit actually. I quickly realized that not only was I grappling with the typical rotational forces, I was now defying gravity right above people’s heads. The prospect of a sharp-edged spinning projectile hurtling through space and chopping off someone’s head was terrifying to say the least.

To ease my conscience, I decided to fabricate all the support structures from half-inch steel plate instead of the aluminum I used on my other models.

Posing another engineering challenge was the diameter of the shaft. The Janus Horn Speaker features a half-inch shaft which is appropriate for the horn throat diameter, but I needed to drill through it and install a cotter pin of some description in order to hang it safely. My other Janus Spinning Horn Speakers rely on gravity to seat the bearings, instead of having to defy it and hang. Half-inch was the maximum diameter I could use for the shaft. Any larger than would obstruct the sound passing through the horn’s throat diameter. What to do?

After quite a bit of research I decided that key-less bushings were the way to go. One of them properly torqued is good for eight hundred pounds of thrust. If I added a backup bushing in case of failure, I felt reassured enough to go with it. With this stumbling block out of the way it was time to solve some aesthetic issues.

I was having a fundamental difficulty with the idea of simply inverting the Original Janus Horn because mounting a box on the ceiling just didn’t seem right. Coincidentally, I had started doing research on ceiling fans for my living room. After looking at scads of nasty designer fans I settled on the Hunter Original— a heavy industrial-looking fan with oil bath bearings. Very impressive. Then it hit me. Of course! The enclosure for the Specimen Ceiling Horn would be cylindrical. I made a cylindrical form out of laminated MDF and used 1/8″ thick bending plywood to create a custom 3/4″-thick cylinder. Once this was done I was on a roll.

At one point, I had mentioned to Jack that a cable controller might be a little awkward coming down from the ceiling and that I could look into a wireless system with a handheld controller. Careful what you wish for! Luckily, Blaise Barton from Joyride Recording Studio has expertise in such matters and made me a custom transmitter and controller. In spite of its ultra modern, etched board, surface mount, micro processor technology (essentially the opposite of the Specimen ethos), the unit has worked flawlessly and is a wonder to behold. I am very happy to have it on board (pun intended).

After installing the transmitter, circuit board, motor, fittings, and silver-foil backed sound-deadening material, the inside of the Ceiling Janus was really starting to look a little like the lunar module.

Instead of relying on wood screws alone to attach hanging components, I used long, 1/2″-13 stainless steel bolts running up through the whole assembly. This ensures that the unit will continue to defy gravity.

The threaded rod and clevis used to mount the unit to the ceiling was not visually inspiring, so I embarked on a modular carapace to enclose the whole upper unit. A bit of whimsy here resulted in a rather interesting onion dome. Following the format of the octagon, I created a single section of the carapace carved out of wood. I then made a mold of this and layed up epoxy into it. Repeating this process seven more times produced all the sections for the carapace. These eight sections were glued together and lacquered in alternating black and white colors.

One of the last steps was to install portholes around the cylindrical main body. I decided to use screens normally found on National/Dobro guitars and swaged them to hug the radius of the cylinder. This allowed for ventilation and I thought it might assist with the telemetry.

Last week, we delivered the Ceiling-Mounted Janus and successfully installed it in its new home. For having just a six-inch speaker, the Ceiling Janus sounds like a psychedelic Twin Reverb! It is a wonder to listen to.


Ukelele Building Workshop

Build an ultra-portable, precious, and functional object of desire!  Construct an acoustic ukulele (tenor or soprano) from a superior kit. Ukuleles are enjoying a renewed popularity and these kits can produce instruments of supreme quality.  Most of us are familiar with budget ukes of disappointing quality, but when complete these ukes will bring an instant smile upon first strum.  There is simply no comparison between the volume and tone possible with the ukes made from these kits and the store-bought factory models.

No previous experience required!

See photos taken during the October 2012 Seminar.

Tuition includes class fee, full ukelele kit, use of a dedicated guitar work bench and all the necessary shop supplies to complete this project.


This seminar covers all the basics of guitar making, just on a smaller scale instrument. It includes lectures, demonstrations and personal assistance from the instructor. The school has created special fixtures and a streamlined process to help facilitate the build.

Tenor UkuleleStudents have the choice of building either a Soprano Ukulele (13-3/4 scale length) or the slightly larger Tenor Ukulele (17-3/32 scale length). The building process is the same for both sizes.

Both of these kits include:

Solid mahogany soundboard and back

Bent solid mahogany sides

Shaped neck (requires final shaping and sanding)

Slotted inlaid rosewood fingerboard

Shaped rosewood bridge

Spruce braces and linings

Traditional tuning pegs for Soprano / Geared tuning machines for Tenor

Nut, saddle and soundhole purflings

Fretwire and strings

After completing this workshop, students should be knowledgeable enough to continue studies in the art of guitar making on their own using all the experience they gained from this workshop.


Workshop Materials and Supplies

Each student is provided with their own ukulele kit. These kits use top quality woods and produce instruments which can rival even the greatest luthier builds.

Ukulele Building Weekend Seminar at the Chicago School of Guitar MakingThe seminar fee includes the kit, plan, tuners and all required tooling and supplies. Each student will work at their own fully-equipped workstation. These specially-designed workbenches were created by the school expressly for guitar building and repair. Useful handout materials will also be provided.

Ukulele Finish

Students may elect to apply the finish on their own outside of class using French polish or other wipe-on and spray techniques. The school can also professionally finish the instrument in nitro-cellulose lacquer. If the student chooses to have the school finish their guitar, the student is welcome to help with this process and learn some techniques along the way, or the instrument can be finished entirely by the teacher.

Student Feedback

Here is what students from the last Uke Building Seminar had to say about their experience:

“The Uke Building Class was a great experience from beginning to end and I would highly recommend it!”

“My favorite parts of the seminar were Ian’s good humor, patience and willingness to share his tips and experience. I also really enjoyed access to the incredible shop space, excellent tool selection and being surrounded by Ian’s projects.”



This seminar will be taught by Ian Schneller, owner/luthier at Specimen Products and principle instructor at the school. Since opening the school in 2005, Ian has taught more than 2000 students how to build and repair guitars and build tube amps. Read about instructors here.


New Acoustic-Electric Guitar: The Amontillado Luddite

The quest for an acoustic-electric instrument that sounds great and is useful on stage without troublesome feedback has puzzled luthiers since the PA system was invented.

The focus of this newest Specimen instrument is on electric output while still yearning for lovely acoustic tone. The instrument will join Specimen’s Luddite line as “The Amontillado.” It is made with bent sides and traditional bracing, but with NO sound hole whatsoever. Once the guitar’s chamber is sealed off, no one will ever again see the splendor within. Only the electric signal will escape to see the light of day.

The guitar is being created using Flame-maple back and sides and Sitka spruce top. It will feature a slotted headstock, bolt-on neck, and a new “vertebral” neck block made of Linden wood. It’s shaped like a neck vertebrae in order to accommodate the large heel of the bolt-on neck. Below is a slideshow of photos taken so far during the building of this guitar. We’ll keep posting photos all throughout the process. Stay tuned!

You can see photos of the completed instrument here.


New horn speakers created for Columbia College exhibition

Columbia College commissioned Specimen’s Ian Schneller to participate in a special exhibition titled Material Assumptions: Paper as Dialogue. For the exhibition, contemporary artists were asked to create new work using abaca and cotton paper handmade by graduate students of the college’s Center for Book and Paper Arts.

The horn speakers we usually make using recycled newsprint, baking soda, and dryer lint yield surfaces that are ruddy, organic, and wild like an untended garden. By contrast, the handmade paper fabricated for this project is so pure, white, and structurally profound that Ian chose to use it to create a pair of Hornlet audio horn speakers that are pristine, stripped down to the lines, and completely naked. Only hand-pulled paper can come close to this organic purity. It is similar to working with porcelain versus terra cotta or stoneware. Naturally, it seemed fitting that the bases for these paper horns also have a quality of purity or transparency which is why Ian chose to use thick acrylic sheets. “It is a little bit eery to listen to them and realize visually to what extent the internal volume of air plays a role in sound production. I think of them as a “full disclosure” version of the Hornlets.” -Ian Schneller

These one-of-a-kind Hornlets will be on display along with newly commissioned works by 11 other artists as well as work by artists-in-residence at Dieu Donn, a New York-based non-profit artist workspace dedicated to the creation, promotion and preservation of contemporary art in the hand papermaking process. The exhibit opens June 15 and runs through August 11. For more info: Material Assumptions. Below is a slideshow of photos taken during the building process.


Spinning Aerosel Horns at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater

[O]n a beautiful night in May, Andrew Bird and his band performed at Chicago’s esteemed Auditorium Theater. On stage with him were six Aerosel horn sculptures we created in January.

Throughout the performance Andrew’s lighting wizard, Ryan Murphy, dazzled the audience by casting an amazing array of colors, textures, and shadows onto the Aerosels as they gently spun around moving to the music. Below is a slideshow of photos taken at the show. Pure magic!

Designed to be suspended from ceiling, the Aerosels created for Andrew Bird range in height from 5 to 8 feet and will become available after his 2012 tour. We will be posting more photos, descriptions and prices soon!


Specimen Aerosel Horns on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

[O]n Monday, April 30, 2012, Andrew Bird appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! performing two songs from his newest album. With him on stage are two of the four Specimen Aerosel horns he is touring with and his Specimen Janus spinning horn speaker. Mesmerizing!


Devoted fan and his Hornlet tattoo

Yesterday we received an amazing email from Felipe Bravo who lives in California and has been a big fan of Andrew Bird and Specimen for more than a decade.

Specimen Horn Speaker tattoo

He spoke of how much the Sonic Arboretum inspired him and of a tattoo design he had been contemplating for a couple years.

On March 30th, Felipe sat down at Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo, California, and with the help of tattoo artist Jake Schroeder, made it real. This is his first tattoo!

We at Specimen are flattered beyond words.


Blake Mills plays the Specimen Tiple on tour with Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple returned to the stage at SXSW last week. Her first tour in 5 years, she is backed by a quartet of amazing musicians including Blake Mills who is also opening up for Fiona on this tour. Blake plays Specimen’s Electric Tiple, a 10-string instrument about the size of a baritone uke.

The Tiple was made out of a sense of curiosity and enchantment with the concept of double-triple-triple-double courses and until Blake called its fate remained uncertain as it is a rather bizarre instrument. I’d like to suggest that Blake’s mastery of the negative space in his music has contributed to his ability to tame this crazy thing. A lot of players just ‘rip the licks’, but Blake has a special talent to integrate rather amazing runs and chord bends into the music. It’s like the sounds are underneath and not on top of the song. He certainly put it to good use at the show we saw in Chicago last Sunday. So far the tour is receiving rave reviews: Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune

Video of Fiona Apple’s SXSW show on the NPR stage at Stubb’s BBQ


Specimen Spinning Aerosel Horns touring with Andrew Bird

Last week Andrew Bird kicked off his US tour at SXSW playing a sold out show on the NPR stage. For this tour, Specimen created several spinning Aerosel horns that Andrew has incorporated into his stage show. The horns are completely handmade in our shop using the ‘stick and tissue’ method, which is similar to building vintage airplanes. Check out our Blog Post and see photos taken during the building of these spinning beauties.

Photos courtesy of How’s My Living
Below are You Tube videos shot at the SXSW show in Austin, TX and in Atlanta, Georgia.


Aerosel Horns Taking Flight

[T]he 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!