It all started in 1894. Orville Gibson is busy working in his home woodshop in Kalamazoo, Mich., when he stumbles upon a novel instrument. Orville takes the carved, arched top shape of the violin and uses it to transform mandolins. He designs two fresh mandolin shapes: the scroll-body F style and the teardrop-shaped A.
From there, the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd. is formed in 1902, and the first electric Gibson guitar is introduced in 1935.
The music world has never been the same. Les Pauls, Flying Vs, Explorers, SGs and other styles have forever changed the musical landscape.
Here’s a quick look at how a Gibson goes from trees to guitars and for a complete look at how Gibson guitars are made, go here.
1. Gathering raw wood materials
Raw materials that make up the electric guitar include mature hardwoods such as maple and mahogany for the solid body and neck. Wood density and weight have an effect on sustain and tone. Other woods used can include ash or walnut.
2. The rough mill
The construction of a Gibson guitar begins at the rough mill, where the wood is kiln dried and tested for moisture content before processing. Workers select and cut the wood into body-sized billets and neck blanks. During this phase and in the factory, a special, overhead irrigation system spritzes water into the air on-and-off to keep the air consistently at the right conditions. This ensures the wood is preserved at the highest quality.
3. Shaping wood into the perfect instrument
In the rough mill, a band saw operator selects the graded wood and pre-cuts it to the shape of the guitar whether it is an SG or a Les Paul. Then it is taken to a series of computer numerically controlled (CNC) saws and routers , where billets are cut into finished SGs. For flame top maple, billets are cut down the center and book matched to offer the classic center seam look of the Les Paul Standard. Then it is glued to a mahogany back and off to the CNC saws and routers.
4. The flawless cut
Highly trained workers start the neck cutting. During the careful cutting process, long blocks of wood called neck blanks become carefully shaped into the correct sizes depending on the model then a rosewood fingerboard will be added before it can be sanded to the final shape.
5. At the factory
While the workers are making necks the fingerboards also move through the factory, and inlays of mother-of-pearl, abalone or acrylic are glued in. Talented workers install the frets, laying the wire into the grooves cut in the fingerboards along with any binding or other special features.
6. A hands-on approach
Starting with the body line and neck line each manufacturing department at Gibson USA has its individual quality control staff to ensure that each stop of the guitar-making process is completed to perfection.
7. 24/7 quality control
While most of the guitar-building happens during the early shift, many operations are very time consuming and require extra time and staffers are on hand 24 hours a day to ensure the process goes smoothly. In the body line staffers rout a channel along the edge of the guitar to inset the binding, this channel is called a “rabbet” .In the channel we place vinyl stripping inlaid by hand and the guitars are trussed up with cloth strips to hold the binding together. During this process, as with every part of the guitar-making progression, quality control is key, and guitars are checked and tested to ensure the upmost quality.
8. Smoothing it out
Overnight, the glue hardens and adheres. After the glue solidifies, it’s time to sand marks out of the guitars. First, a smoothing process takes place via a large belt sander. Experienced staffers smooth out the guitars, paying careful attention how a Les Paul, Firebird, SG, Flying V or other Gibson guitar should look and feel. The sides are smoothed down, and quality control does the final check. Next, the neck is fitted onto the guitar body and hangs about a half-hour to dry.
9. Technology first
Technology plays a significant role in routing the guitars’ bodies for tailpiece holes, the bridge and the pickups, as well as fret-filing, with computer-controlled routing and a machine called a PLEK helps to ensure the most consistent results. Then, more handiwork takes over, with the guitars getting a rubdown with 280 grit sandpaper before the coat. Mahogany bodies receive a layer of pore filler, since the wood is porous and needs to have its grain evened for the paint room. After another quality check, the guitars head to the next phase, to get its burst, design or solid-color finish.
10. Finishing the job
Next, the guitars head to the paint shop where they receive coatings of hand applied paint. The binding is sprayed over with paint restored to its original look by scrapers. Then it’s on to an electrostatic rod that prompts lacquer to adhere while moving along a conveyor hitched to the ceiling. Hundreds of sparkling guitars hang at the end of the line, each one drying overnight.
After drying they are taken down and hand sanded again to level the finish. Following a final coat of lacquer, the guitars dry for four or five days. Lacquer, paint or wood filler that may have gotten onto the frets or fingerboard is taken off by careful sanding and polishing. Buffing gives the guitars their glossy shine. Finally, the guitars get their electronic innards – everything from pickups to wiring to robotic auto tuners – and become complete instruments.
As always, quality control is key. Each step of the guitar-making process includes a quality control phase, and that’s especially important at the end. Final quality control has a staff of about a half-dozen people checking the instruments to ensure perfection.
For a comprehensive look on how a custom Gibson is made, go here.