Seth Naugler marks the positions of braces on the back of a guitar face he is currently constructing. Some of his methods of design are borrowed from other builders.
Milford luthier builds guitars from the ground up
Seth Naugler is indeed a Renaissance man.
As a pilot he flies 737s for US Air out of Philadelphia International. He has also been a carpenter, a computer programmer and has a physics background. But what he truly enjoys the most, aside from spending time with his family, is building acoustic guitars from the ground up.
It all started in 2005 when the Milford resident, a guitar fanatic since boyhood in the heyday of the Beatles, said he was looking to buy a factory-made instrument but couldn’t find some very specific features he was looking for.
“I started researching custom luthierie (guitar making), online and in books and I just got absorbed,” Naugler said. “I researched each step and I just loved the process.”
Since he was looking for something to do for retirement, and already knew how to handle a chisel and a block plane, he jumped in head first.
His custom guitars, which sell for anywhere between $2,500 and $9,000, all start with a single piece of wood for the top. While Naugler leans toward using a type of fir or Sitka spruce, his customers can choose exactly which type of wood they want. Soft woods are used for the top and hardwoods for the rest of the instrument.
Each lends itself to a different sound, he said, noting his fondness for a redwood body guitar he built that lacks overtones but gives off a dark, warm sound.
The guitar top, or soundboard, is actually made from two half pieces eventually glued together. The wood for that piece is sawed to a certain thickness, as is the back. A circular hole is cut for sound.
Once those pieces are complete, the sides are sanded and moistened, heated to 300 degrees and put into a mold to shape the body. At that temperature, Naugler said, they bend like a noodle.
Seth Naugler of the Finland section of Milford Township sits on his front porch trying out a custom guitar he just finished building. Naugler took up luthierie in 2005 after he couldn't find a factory-made instrument he liked. He said people appreciate the little nuances they can get from custom guitar builders.
The binding for the sides is completed and, once it is all put together, it is sanded, sealed and adorned with 12 coats of lacquer. The different pieces are then sanded and buffed to perfection.
Naugler’s workshop, in his circa 1815 remodeled barn, has a custom spray room with a state-of-the-art ventilation system. The space is also humidity controlled to maintain the integrity of the different pieces of wood for the guitars.
The guitar body is later outfitted with a pickguard and bridge, along with a decorative finishing called a rosette around the soundhole. Then the final musical components, including a neck and fingerboard, and head, home to the tuning keys, are assembled. The guitar is then strung up with steel strings.
Naugler noted his fondness for the little things, like playing with different jigs when constructing the guitar. A lot of love for the instrument, and ultimately the music it will create, goes into each piece.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Naugler said of his guitar building journey. “But luthiers all share everything they know. People have been tremendously helpful.”
One of two crafters' marks appears on each guitar Naugler makes; one is seen through the sound hole, the other can be found on the top of the headstock.
After a period of drying and hardening, the guitar is tuned. It then sits for another two to three weeks to allow for shifting before it is played and adjusted again.
The end result, Naugler said, is truly a unique center of sound. No two are alike.
“There are so many vari-ables that it (predicting sound quality) is like trying to predict the economy or the weather. Even if you make a guitar out of wood cut from the same tree the same day they still won’t sound identical,” he said.
While Naugler typically builds about four or five custom guitars a year, one of his pieces is donated annually to the non-profit group Dreadnoughts Unlimited, which raffles the guitar for a scholarship to Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp in Tennessee. There a needy musician can attend classes by world-famous instructor Kaufman on styles like finger and flat picking, songwriting and different instruments like the banjo, dulcimer and fiddle.
In his free time though, you will find him on a front porch swing at his home, camped out with his favorite guitar. Naugler is a bluegrass guy, but also enjoys other styles of music.
Naugler’s workshop, in his circa 1815 remodeled barn. The space is humidity controlled to maintain the integrity of the different pieces of wood for the guitars.
“It’s all about feel. It’s whether it feels good to you,” he said. “I have a simple formula. I build guitars I like and then I know other people will like them too.”
For more information, visit www.nauglerguitars.com.