The Harmony Cartoonist

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.

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Machining the neck block of a Specimen Aluminum Guitar

[M]achining 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.


Time Out Chicago Kids features Specimen

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!


Epiphone Masterbilt Olympic

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.

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The Sonic Arboretum is Alive @MCA Chicago

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 2011

Andrew Bird and Ian Schneller's Sonic Arboretum Exhibit at MCA Chicago December 2011

During 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.


The Sonic Arboretum – 1 week to go!

[W]e 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 grows their own Sonic Arboretum

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.


At Work on the Sonic Arboretum

[W]ith 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.


Welcome to our Glorious New Web Site

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.


Electric Guitar Building Workshop

The main objective of the Electric Guitar Building Workshop is to provide a set of sequential tutorials that will guide the student through the guitar building process. During the course of these workshops, students will build their own electric guitar completely from scratch using raw materials and the time-tested techniques of the instructor. Students will learn how to shape their guitar’s neck and body, install the truss rod, and install all hardware.

NOTE: For this session of the Workshop, students can signup for one or more of the classes during the workshop period. Sessions meet Saturdays, 12:00 – 3:30 pm and are $140 each.


Once students have completed the Guitar Design & Theory Workshop and have finished their instrument’s blueprint, they are now ready to begin building their instrument. The length of time required to build an instrument depends on the complexity of the design and the student’s abilities. These workshops will be offered several times throughout the year and students can enroll in as many as they need in order to complete their instrument. Formatted to be an “open shop time”, these workshops enable students to progress through the building process at a pace that is comfortable and allows for individual attention from the instructor.

During the workshops students will observe numerous demonstrations on various aspects of the building process. The timing of these demonstrations will be depended upon the needs of the students so that workshops can be personalized to match where each student is within the building process. Following is a list of some of the procedures that will be demonstrated:

  • transferring patterns
  • making templates
  • preparing body blanks
  • preparing neck blanks
  • carving
  • sculpting wood using rasps and hand planes
  • neck shaping
  • binding
  • truss rod installation
  • fretboard preparation
  • neck setting (making mortise and tenon)
  • routing for neck and hardware
  • pickguard making
  • proper gluing techniques
  • tool sharpening
  • correctly locating bridge and other hardware
  • bridge making
  • special hardware fabrication (e.g., knobs, pickup rings, tailpieces)
  • finishing

This is a not a kit assembly workshop; students really build their own instrument. This workshop gives students creative control over the guitar’s design, shape, finish, and performing quality. Whatever color or type of finish the student selects will be executed in nitrocellulose lacquer under the watchful eye of the instructor. At the end of the process students will have a wonderful creation that fulfills their own unique vision.

Our goal is to provide an enriching environment for the burgeoning student with many opportunities for exposure to various techniques and skills.

Whether the student chooses to build a reproduction of a traditional/classic design or chart new territory into an unknown realm, the emphasis will be on making a supremely-functional and long-lasting instrument of beauty. This workshop welcomes both the traditionalist and the experimentalist.


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

Workshop Materials and Supplies

The school provides each student with custom workbenches and all tools needed to build their instrument. All building materials such as body and neck blanks, fretboards, truss rods, pickups, nuts, bridges, and any hardware can be ordered through the school or the student can elect to source these materials for themselves. The instructor is available to guide students through the selection of any of needed materials and can order parts at a discount when possible. However, for those wanting boutique parts, many of these items are only available as custom orders and best left for the student to order directly from the maker.

Mandatory Pre-requisite

Students must complete the Guitar Design & Theory Workshop and have a finished blueprint before they can enroll in this workshop.

Recommended Pre-requisites

We strongly recommended that students have completed our Setup & Maintenance Course and the Fretting Workshop prior to enrollment in this workshop.

While prior knowledge of woodworking and shop tools is helpful, the instructor will be on-hand at all times for assistance or to carry-out machining procedures for those students with less experience.


Silvertone Archtop Guitar – Brace Repair

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.

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