Steel Trappings

Andy Volk

Bill Hardin - Part 2

August 18, 2016 • Andy VolkInstruments and Luthiers

This article is about the career of luthier Bill Hardin, from his early days with Dobro to the founding of Bear Creek Guitars. It's a fascinating read for any Weissenborn fan.

Music journalist and published author (as well as keen Weissenborn player) Andy Volk has graciously given Steel Trappings his permission to reproduce his in-depth profile article he authored several years ago. Andy is an award-winning Boston-based television producer/director, writer, designer, musician, and the author of several books including Guitar Dreams where this article appeared. Andy is also a contributing writer toThe Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar as well as various online venues. His publications can be viewed at his website, Volk Media Books, at Copyright © by Andy Volk.

Hardin's days of hitting the swap meets and the flea markets in search of 25 or 50-dollar Hawaiian-style guitars began to pay off. He remembers finding quite a few at affordable prices, but they invariably needed repair. "The first one I took apart was an old Kona," Hardin recalls. "It was X-braced. It was what I would consider kind of a crudely made guitar but it had some pretty refined bracing in it for a steel string guitar — especially for its day in the 1920s."

Repairing old guitars also taught Hardin how Weissenborn had constructed their hollownecks. "There are certain things you won't know about them until you take them apart," he explains. "One of them was that they reinforced the whole neck with some kind of wood, usually spruce. You can't really see this by looking in the soundhole. The interiors were pretty crude, with saw marks and lots of glue dripping everywhere. And almost every brace in them was loose after all that time. Most of the ones I was picking up at flea markets and thrift stores were definitely beat up. So they were very crude, but they somehow held together."

The Hilos were ladder braced and there were some differences in the Weissenborn bracings in the early years, but by the mid 20s, they had a pretty refined X-brace with three struts coming off of it and a couple of transverse bars across the bottom, similar to what Martin uses. It was definitely a strong bracing pattern and it seemed to be the one to go with."

Anyone who has spent sometime around acoustic steel guitar players knows that they consider the original Weissenborn instruments to have a special magic unduplicated by other instruments. Endless late-night arguments have raged over whether it's the quality of the koa wood, the body design, the rope binding, or simply their age that gives some of these instruments their unique, yet hard-to-define mojo. Hardin has little patience for metaphysical explanations.

"They weren't all great and they actually weren't all the same," he says. "You get some of the old Weissenborns that have a top that's maybe .150" thick or even more, and then you'll get one that's maybe .080" thick. And they really didn't select wood. It was whatever was running through the mill — some of it highly figured, some much less figured, and some with patches all over it. They all sounded different to me. Some of the magic of them is mainly the age — when you get a good one that has the original hide glue construction still intact and a shellac finish on it. The ones that sounded really great had all the original bracing intact. The neck angle also has a lot to do with how the guitars sound. The ones that I liked would usually have a little bit of a negative cant to the neck and fairly high action."

With his own line of hollownecks, Hardin looked for ways to improve on the original design. He reinforced the necks on his Bear Creek models and, gradually, found that increasing the thickness of the bracing and the top improved their tone. "I use a little bit thicker top than what someone would use on a standard Spanish or steelstring guitar," he explains. "With koa especially, if I get the top around .110" — about .030" more than I would do on a Spanish guitar — it gives me more sustain, more punch to the instrument. In the early days, I was maybe going a little thinner on my tops. If anything, I learned I like the koa a little fatter, especially for a steel-string guitar. It also gives the player a lot more versatility. They can play it in some higher tunings, with the strings at higher tension, without worrying about it."

One of the interesting cosmetic features of the early Weissenborns was the use of rope binding made of alternating light and dark shades of wood. Hardin is amused that some modern luthiers haven't yet figured out how to efficiently construct it. "I've seen people put all the individual little pieces together," he explains. "I learned how to do it one day at Dobro by looking at a guitar that came in with some rope binding on it — I think it was actually

Don [Young] and me sitting there — we were just looking at the guitar saying, "How would you do this? We came to the conclusion to lay it up in a big slab and then slice it off at 45 degrees into big strips. The thing I learned was that, without a backing on the binding, it was real difficult to work. Early in the Bear Creek days, I learned the trick of putting a little backing on the binding when you're sticking it on and then routing that off afterwards was the key. You could get some really intricate, small rope patterns without having to use the more chunky-looking rope."

Hardin feels the rope-bound guitars sound better but can't really explain why. "It could be the actual weight of the rope around guitar," he ventures. "They'll definitely take a hit. I've dropped guitars with rope binding and there will be a little smashed edge off the rope and maybe pieces falling off of the rope but the guitar itself won't be damaged. If I were to drop a guitar with solid rosewood binding, the body of the guitar would take the hit. A lot of the old rope bound guitars are missing pieces of rope here and there but it looks like the segmented binding protected the guitar."

Next: Bob Brozman



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