21 Apr The art of Cândido Jacob Luthier
There are crafts that are more than just the work of an artisan’s hands. They are art, singular and of excellence, born of hands that know, that are masters of a complex craft that transforms wood, steel, varnish and other materials into sounds that capture us, that captivate us.
In the early afternoon of this already long winter, we immersed ourselves in the art of creating stringed instruments, in the craft of Luthier with Cândido Jacob. Among woods, molds, saws, varnishes and glues, and so many other materials, we visited the studio of this luthier who revealed the art behind his craft, the passion that drives him to build unique, unrepeatable, genuine guitars. Each guitar has, as a whole, the elements created by Cândido Jacob (except for the metal parts, such as the frets, on the guitar neck). Each piece of wood is bought by hand, because testing its vibration is absolutely essential. Every tool is aligned, ready in the right place for the moment of use. Each glue and varnish prepared in good time. Each design accurately traced and its mold worked flawlessly. Each step in time. Each movement by the hand of someone who knows. All done in a studio in Coimbra, in a space where silence is only interrupted by music. Silence that is the premise for only the guitar to be heard. Cândido Jacob Luthier is a growing master of guitar making.
How does a luthier describe his profession to a layperson?
A luthier is a builder. A trade that is dedicated to the construction and repair of stringed instruments. That’s it. As simply as possible.
And if you were talking to a musician, how would you talk about your work?
In the same way. Most musicians don’t know how a guitar works. I didn’t know myself before I started building, after I’d had a few problems with my guitars. Few guitarists know how the instrument grows, many don’t even know what a luthier is, they even think that, in my case, because of the way it appears on my website, it’s a nickname. I usually explain why a certain piece is in a certain position and the answer is “I never noticed…”. So, yes. I’d say it like a layman.
Guitars, violins, violas, cellos, double basses, violas da gamba, guitars (and there are so many that I cut them off in the description), lutes, archiards, thorbas, mandolins… anything with strings is your universe, I think.
Which one(s) do you order the most?
In my case, I’m dedicated to guitars, but not all types of guitars. What I’m commissioned for is based on what the customer sees me doing, which is steel-string guitars. Guitars more geared towards blues and folk. The classical one I built, for example, I did it just to start learning how it worked, otherwise I wouldn’t have started with a classical guitar, but I had to. It was simpler and it was the right thing to start with.
Which guitar was the most complex to make, or are they all complex in your style?
Most complex… Well, I made an Archtop, which is a jazz guitar, with an arched top, carved, sculpted… so to speak. Yes, this is the most complex to build, the most difficult for me, not least because I’ve only made one (laughs). Then they all have their own degree of difficulty, their own characteristics… And I’m actually experimenting with a lot of things at the moment. So each guitar ends up being a challenge with its own degree of complexity, because I’m creating something entirely new.
Can I ask you to briefly describe the basic creative and construction process, which is almost transversal to all of them?
From drawing to tuning. I confess it’s something I see as a superlative art… creating an object that will envelop me in sounds
First, the drawing. Then the mold, which for me has a problem. As I make different guitars all the time, I have to make several molds, always making a new one. This is followed by calibrating the wood, i.e. placing the wood at a specific thickness and it all depends on the type of wood it is. It could be, for example, pine (which in terms of resistance and sound conduction is the best and the lightest – density / lightness / sound conduction and resistance is superior) or cedar (it doesn’t develop as much as pine, it’s more fragile to work with and has a warmer sound, not suitable for all guitars), or… just to give you a brief idea of how important the choice of wood is, because each one has its own sound characteristics. Next steps, all the gluing of the wood, gluing of the harmonic bars (bars that end up balancing the sound of the top, let’s say that if there were no harmonic bars the top would end up vibrating randomly, without limit; they hold the top in place in order to give it resistance and, at the same time, limit the vibration by controlling it), both on the top and the bottom. We enter the stage of the sides, which are bent to give the guitar its shape and, once the bars have been carved into the top and bottom, they are glued together to form the case. The case is closed!
The next step is to make the contours, the neck, the head, everything is joined, glued, sanded… then you have to calculate the height of the bridge (on the top, where the strings end), calculate the correct distance for each, varnish, work the bone to make the lashes (passage from the neck to the head), put on tuners, frets, strings and start playing.
I tried to synthesize (laughs).
Essential objects for building a string instrument? What are they called and what are they for? As you know, I’m the laywoman…
Wood is the essential base. Planes – I only have three – some people have forty, but they’re enough – chisels – for roughing out or opening cavities – saws, a good sharpening stone, and… There are so many and I use almost everything.
Any more cartoonish names?
Uhm… a cutter – a tool for cutting into the top and bottom in order to fit specific contours, it’s similar to a marking tool, but it has a blade for cutting – then all kinds of tools that locksmiths and carpenters use as protractors; a good knife; a caliper – it’s the only way to control the small thicknesses I work with, it’s also called a thickness gauge -; clamps, a good Japanese saw – which cuts very well even without hurting the wood; rasps – for roughing; files; lots of sandpaper? and much more.
The process we talked about earlier takes time. Is there a certain amount of time to build each new piece?
About two months. I’m never really 100% dedicated to a piece I create because repairs come up and customers need the guitar within two or three days. Then I stop building to repair the guitar, sometimes three or four guitars come in at the same time and it’s usually a few days’ break where I dedicate myself to the repair, slowing down the process of building an original guitar a little.
Any musicians you can name for whom you’ve made a stringed instrument?
I made a guitar for Mr. Volcano and there isn’t really a name for anyone else I know. I made a stompbox for Frankie Chavez – but it’s not a guitar. Well-known, with a musical project, I don’t have any names to give you. I do a lot of work for guitar teachers who don’t have the visibility of a well-known musician.
When you create for professional musicians, is there creative freedom or do you just stick to the requirements and don’t give your signature any rein?
To date, I’ve never been limited. They’ve always asked me for a guitar tailored to them, the musicians, but they’ve entrusted me with the job with total creative freedom, no holds barred. For now, of course. The day someone comes along who limits me a little, I’ll try to create an instrument where there is common ground between me and the musician.Claro que se um músico quiser uma guitarra com um determindado tipo de som e formato, é o básico, mas em toda a componente estética, que faz parte do meu trabalho, das guitarras que saem do meu atelier, é a minha parte. A musician asks for a shape like the one I have here, but a little smaller, with a different headstock and that’s where my creative process comes in, always with his help when I ask him how he would like to see a certain detail, how he would like the guitar to look, sometimes this is the most complicated part.
I’ve been asked for guitars with plastic contours and painted in a certain way, and I’ve rejected the order. It’s not part of my image, my work, my developed technique where everything is done by me, by hand, working with the materials in an ancestral way – I’m talking about the glues and varnishes, for example, which I make myself here, in the studio, I don’t buy anything made; like the bone I use, for example, in the easel… I go to the butcher to get it, I bake it, I prepare it… I’ve had people ask me to paint with cellulose paints and varnishes and I can’t, I don’t do that.
If I look at an instrument somewhere on stage, is there any element that makes me say… this is Cândido Jacob’s masterpiece?
All my guitars have a wooden logo glued to the inside of the guitar.
The question I could have asked you at the beginning, but which I’m asking now, on the way to the end. Why become a luthier here?
Firstly, because it fascinated me. Ever since I started looking into building a guitar, I was amazed by the whole process. I started looking for information on the internet, watching videos, websites and I became more and more interested. Then, as I’ve already told you, the problem I had with a guitar and taking it to a carpenter created an even bigger problem (laughs). So I decided to dedicate myself to this art. At that time, I met Fernando Meireles (Luthier) and got in touch with him. He said yes straight away, that I could go to his studio to learn the trade. I was there for a year and a half. Then I went to Paris to learn from another luthier and my passion grew more and more. It’s a craft, but it’s also a great passion.
What’s behind the Luthier? I’ve heard that there’s a background in another area, other interests.
I have a degree in Art History with a specialization in Contemporary Art and Criticism, and that’s when I decided not to work in the field of Art, (laughs) not to dedicate myself to Art. I still worked in a gallery for two years, but it wasn’t the kind of job I wanted or liked. I learned a lot at Galeira 7 in Coimbra, but it wasn’t the future.
And is it possible to be a luthier in Portugal with a positive balance?
Yes, you can be a luthier in Portugal with a positive balance. It’s a challenge, it’s a certain isolation from a lot of things, a craft in which I work alone, on what I like, what I’ve idealized. Apart from this, I do set up art exhibitions, it’s true, there are other knowledge interests that remain. Contemporary Art has always been an area that I really like, but it’s more of a part-time job.
Your profession appears as violeiro, guitarist or luthier. Why do we use the French word more and not the Portuguese one? Has it fallen into use like so many other terms in so many other areas? The etymology of the French word derives from Luth (lute).
Violeiro, I believe, is a term more commonly used in Brazil. Luthier, perhaps because of the universality of the word. It’s a loanword that’s pleasant to the ear and ideal for better associating with the trade.
Is there a contemporary Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), Guiseppe Guarnieri (1698-1744) or Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) who is a reference point for you?
There are at least three people with whom I have the most contact, two of whom I learned the art of being a luthier from. One is Fernando Meireles, whose work I admire. He is someone who continues to pass on new knowledge to me every time I go to his studio, who continues to inspire me and, above all, I started learning this art with him. Then there’s someone else, also with exceptional work, Ludovic Barrier. He’s a Frenchman, my age, who I learned from in Paris and who makes absolutely fabulous guitars. Finally, Andy Manson, an English luthier, internationally known for his work, not least because he has built guitars for names like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (Led Zepplin), and as he lives in Portugal, he allows us to be close and friendly (a friendship I also have with Fernando and Ludovic). Manson’s work is unique and very much in line with what I do in folk.
Who would you like to create a stringed instrument for, a dream?
(Laughs). There are so many. It’s difficult, but… I’d love to make a Weissenborn for Ben Harper, a musician I’ve listened to since I was a kid and who made me learn to listen to and love this kind of guitar, this kind of sound. I’d add Keziah Jones, José González and, if they were alive, George Brassens and Elliott Smith. And Nick Drake, who made me fall in love with the acoustic sound.
The complexity of an art that is a craft where the hand, talent and passion are the essential tools when creating a guitar.
Text in Portuguese by Sara Quaresma Capitão
(Published on March 10, 2016 at mutante.pt)