After our attendance at NAMM 2019 earlier this year we decided to squeeze in a Taylor Guitars factory tour in Al Cajon California. Free guided factory tours are given every Monday to Friday at 13:00 (US time, except for public holidays). We were treated by Cameron Walt (responsible for new product launches) who took us through all the various wood storage and manufacturing sections involved in the building process. Described by some as arguably the most advanced guitar production facility on earth, hand-crafting is still employed where it makes practical sense. Before we get into all the details of what is machine versus hand-crafted, how they prepared for Andy Power’s new X-bracing and how important sustainability is for Taylor Guitars, here are a few pics of the visitor’s room, grounds and factory floor.
Cameron Walt: “Welcome, we’ll start over where the raw wood is. We get wood in from all over the world and different climates. So, San Diego, being a pretty moderate climate, tends to be on the dry side sometimes. We have to do some work with it to get that wood seasoned and acclimated before we can start building the guitars. Wood that comes in from tropical regions, obviously you’re going to start to lose moisture content. Dry out, warp, twist, do all of that. So, with our mahogany, for instance, a lot of it these days are coming in from Fiji. Sitka Spruce coming in from Sitka, Alaska. Koa wood from Hawaii. Those woods we want to make sure are stable before we start building the guitars.
So we’ve got pieces of mahogany from Fiji here, these will become neck planks. This is just a small staging area, we have a whole warehouse across the street. This is barely a day’s worth, these forklifts run in all day long. But the majority of the pieces we have are in the warehouse. Depending on the different wood, we’ll have to procure them up to a year in advance. So, the reason why we have certain models as standard models is that we know we’ll always get that wood. Others, like cocobolo it just depends on the shipment whether we can get that in, a limited number of sets. So sometimes we’ll do limited things for certain woods and just choose to not make them standard models. Some of the pieces the supplier pre-cuts for us. In the case of spruce, they’ll even go as far as cutting the tops for us and torrefication as well, if it is torrefied spruce. It just depends on the wood source. Some of the wood sources we can track all the way back to their geographic area where the tree stump was others not so much.
So what we’ll do is, we’ll bring the wood in here. We’ll cut them down into small enough pieces to start to season the wood. So, the first step being, we’ll cut them in and stack them up so that the air can circulate around them and then we’ll take those pieces and put them in a kiln. It’s going to draw warm air across the wood. It’s going to allow that moisture to wick out, almost to zero percent moisture content. It’ll streak, it’ll warp, the cells will lose moisture and what we’re doing is we’re trying to get all of that done so that it does all its twisting first and then we’ll rehydrate it, cut it straight again and then it will be stable. A tree does not grow straight up, it twists, so as soon as you’re cutting it’s going to turn in the direction of the way it’s growing. So that’s why we’re doing all this work, at least a couple of weeks’ worth of work, to stabilise the wood.
After that wood is in the kiln, we’ll take it in the next room, we’ll acclimate it. Some of these other machines here are used to stamp things down, straighten it. We’ve got a moulder back there, looks like they are sanding tops down there. All the loud noisy stuff in this room. When you walk in, you’ll notice the difference in the climate in this room. So, the entire factory has to be between 40 to 60 percent relative humidity, and that’s just to be able to keep things under control. This room in particular has to be 44/45 percent humidity, 73/74 degrees. It’s a very strict climate control and that’s because all the wood that comes out of the kiln, we’re using this room to rehydrate, acclimate that wood. So, all of these stacks of wood here have come out of the kiln in the last couple of weeks and they are going to draw moisture back in to about 3 – 4 percent moisture content, depending on the wood. And that takes at least a couple of weeks, so about a week in the kiln, a week or two in here and then it’s ready to build.
So over here we’ve got bookmatching. You’ve got your back or your top, what we’ll do is we’ll take one piece, lay it open, bookmatch that. So, you have a nice symmetrical back design or top design. Doing that here on these carousels, just to save space. This is something that Bob Taylor’s design team came up with. Most of the tools that are used to build a guitar we designed and build and maintain ourselves, a lot of the jigs, things like that. If you’re making your own guitar, your first guitar you make, you’re going to make your first set of tools to build your first guitar.”
Cameron Walt: “Over here we’ve got the lasers, cutting the shapes. This one right here just got done. So, a lot of what we’re doing to employ technology is for consistency and quality. We’re doing anywhere from 500 up to 700 guitars a day depending on the season and to be able to make cuts using lasers within a thousandth of an inch is super important for consistency’s sake. If you’re going to do all that cutting by hand, you’re not going to get 500 A+ cuts every single time. Being able to use lasers, and other CNC machines, allows us to ship let’s say 40 or 80 guitars to a store and every single one of those guitars are going to play exactly the same way in terms of intonation and feel. They’ll look different and sound different, because of the woods and the models and the variations there. But playability is very consistent. 200-watt lasers burn right through the wood. They will leave burn marks, that’ll get sanded off later on. And then we’re also using these to cut small parts like the bridge plates and these shins for the necks.
(A question is asked about wastage). A relative amount (goes to waste). You’re woodworking so it’s the nature of cutting stuff off of wood, but we’re trying to consume the whole tree as much as we can. We have a wood recycler that comes by every two or three weeks. Picks up a shipping container full of wood and that gets recycled into particleboard and other things. I know the larger pieces go down to Tijuana where there’s an orphanage or some organisation that builds toys out of them. But compared to other industries, the guitar industry uses a small amount of wood. Maybe 150 logs of spruce every year between us and Martin, Gibson and all the other brands. And that’s enough for one 8-hour shift for a mill that does toilet paper, that’s like one day’s worth and we use all that for one year. One mahogany tree can have enough wood for 10 000 to 40 000 guitars and we did 160 000 guitars last year. So, it gives you an idea of not a lot of logs. But we’re high profile, the public looks at us to kind of set the example for sustainability, so we take that very seriously even with the small amount of wood we do use.
And what’s also going on here is matching rosewood sets. Backs and sides need to match up with each other. Mahogany is a little bit easier because there is more consistency in the way the grains are. But rosewood, you get all sorts of widths of grain, colour variations and things like that. (The pieces) are book-matched, the backs are book-matched, the sides are book-matched but from kind of different areas of the tree. So even within one tree you are maybe going to have more greys in the rosewood here and more purple over here, so it’s important that the backs match up to each other. There’s a whole grading system that we do. Rosewood is notorious, sometimes you just got to set the backs aside and wait for the sides to come in. Sometimes we really have to plan ahead with the shipping of rosewood, because there’s a lot of CITES stuff going on. Recently with our government shutdown, there was a lot of permits back-ordered. But we do have alternate woods available, like copafera, that’s a little bit easier to ship internationally. So, we’ve chosen to use that on the 200 series and some of the more entry-level guitars. We’re moving high volumes of guitars, so if we’re going through the effort for rosewood, let’s make sure it’s a higher-end model because there are less units of those than the 200 series. We have teams in place that are constantly looking out for, especially with the CITES paperwork, it’s a lot of planning ahead.
This is our inlay area, so they’re putting the inlay on a guitar. It can be a mix of different woods, different plastic fibres, abalone shell, paua shell, it depends on the series. It kind of fits in like a jigsaw puzzle, so that it is all channelled out. We use up to, I think, 6 or 7 types of different glue depending on the material we’re glueing in there. When Bob Taylor first started building guitars, he didn’t have an abalone supplier he could use, he didn’t have a phone number of a supplier, he wasn’t plugged into the whole network. So, he dove off the coast of La Jolla, the beach here and caught his abalone. His first 2 guitars were that abalone that he caught himself, and then I think there’s one guitar that’s like half abalone caught himself and then he had found a 1-800 number on the back of a banjo building book, and called and they supplied the next half. Our abalone comes from farmed abalone, we get some from the Australia – China Sea area and then there’s also more sustainable abalone projects going on in Baja California recently that we’re starting to get from as well.”
Cameron Walt: “So this is Buffy 3 and Buffy 4, our second or third generation buffing robots. I think it is our third generation now. The first ones were very linear, you can see these are very smooth. They are using pneumatic suction to hold onto the body of the guitar, they can do about 80% of the buffing on the body of the guitar. We’ll see where the bodies are assembled in another building, but again it is about the consistency of quality. We can do all this by hand but if you’re doing 100, 150 guitars by hand every day you are going to have a lot of variety, and buffing especially take a lot of time. It’ll do the insides and cutaways as well, I don’t think a Florentine cutaway, I don’t think it does that. It won’t do the necks, that’s all done by hand. Like I said, it’ll do about 80% of the buffing and then it gets finished off by hand. It just depends on the model too, not all of them get the high gloss finish. The satin has one big base coat and then the gloss gets I think two thinner base coats, but by the time it gets glossed, it goes through a few different processes. But even though it just takes a couple of minutes to have the robot buff, it can take a couple of hours to prep that wood. Filling it if it’s porous, staining it, things like that.
So I’m taking you to the neck department. Across the street is the large warehouse, I think we can hold up to 25 000 guitars if we wanted to. We’ll usually stock about a month’s worth of inventory for guitars we know tomorrow a store’s going to pick up and call for it. The rest are built to order, so in the case of left-handed guitars, we don’t stock a month’s worth of left-handed guitars. Usually, we’ll just start on that when somebody asks for it. Compared to other brands, it’s a pretty quick process to build. Standard models take about 14 days, and custom guitars are about 20, 21 days to complete. Part of it is also, our custom guitars, we make sure that we’re not overdoing it. We’ve got a menu of things you can pick from in order to customise your guitar. If somebody wants a really ornate inlay and stuff, it’s probably time to go to a boutique builder.
In our neck department, we have a bunch of CNC machines going. They are numerically controlled to profile the necks. So, the necks have to be completely straight. This is our new invisible guitar, it’s a prototype. Some of them haven’t even been sanded yet, you can see it starts as a blank there and it’s very accurate, within thousandths of an inch. Being able to have a nice straight neck, that plays into the whole playability and craftsmanship of the consistency factor. Here’s the process for building the neck here, starting with the neck plank and drilling out for the truss rod. These are the different fretboard inlays and you can see the ebony. You’ll start to see these on a lot of other guitar brands as well, you’ve probably seen some streaked ebony fretboards of other brands. We’re providing that for ourselves and also to a lot of other guitar brands and violin makers. We own the largest ebony in Cameroon. There’s not a huge demand for ebony wood. Ebony wood is very dense and it cracks very easily after a certain size, so you’re not going to see an ebony couch or dining room table. You may see ebony inlays on those, but it’s a very difficult wood to work with. Even for our fretboards, we have to experiment with different recipes because sometimes we’ll just get batches that crack. It might be that species or family of wood, so what Bob Taylor is doing right now is figuring it out, because we’re making 160 000 guitars a year. That sounds like a lot of guitars, but we have permits to cut more ebony than what we need. And a lot of times we can only get certain pieces and the rest, we’ll just have this excess. So, he’s doing things like cutting boards. Stella Falone is a kitchen woodcraft brand that we just launched. Those are actually violin fretboards that we’re cutting for those, excess pieces we are making into cutting boards. So just trying to be as efficient as possible with these woods and actually trying to create a demand for it. Because in the United States or globally we’re not used to using ebony cutting boards, or ebony chopsticks, I think there are salt and pepper shakers that he’s working on too. And so, we’re also using stuff for the guitar industry so ebony slides and even holders. Violin fingerboard backers that we’ve inlayed and used as guitar hooks, we’ve partnered with String Swing on those. So hopefully that will grow demand for that and that will keep Crelicam in business. That is a joint venture with Taylor guitars. Madinter Tonewoods was our Spanish supplier, and then actually Bob Taylor and his wife are also co-owners. They’ve invested a lot of their own money into it. It’s a very difficult project, doing business in Cameroon. It’s a very long process, very capital heavy.
Pretty crazy how smooth it can cut. They (the blades) are very sharp, I made the mistake one time of touching the blades, they are like razor-sharp bits and they sharpen them like every single day. It will hold up 21 or 23 different tools and it’ll pick and choose from what’s needed.”
Cameron Walt: “We can go in here, body assembly. What we’re doing, similar to the carousel you saw in the milling department, glueing bodies together. So, we have the sets of sides put in this mould here, we’ve got the kerfing on it so everything is set up. This is one of the new Grand Pacific guitars. Then we’ll put glue around this kerfing which kind of adds a quarter of an inch or so shelf to glue to. Then we’ll glue the top and back on and before it’s glued, we’ll actually sand this down at an angle so that you have that radius curve on the top and on that back, getting that whole guitar glued up on your tension and so that you can have that volume and projection that you need. They’re going to glue them up on these carousels, this kind of just spins around and puts glue on it. Different moulds for every single model. Because we’re mass-producing guitars, when we choose to build a certain model it takes us months sometimes to tool up.
A lot of people ask us, when is the Taylor ukulele coming, when is the Taylor Dobro coming? But the thing with that is because we are large, we either have to hand-build sets if we’re going to sell a limited run, or we’ve got to put the 6 or 9 months’ worth of effort into building new moulds, new programmes, all sorts of things if we’re going to build a new model. So we have to be very selective in the way we do it. Grand Pacific, we’ve been working on that project since March. I think they’ve finalised specs and everything in the summertime, and we’re building tools and kind of just finished a couple of months ago for the new Grand Pacific shape. We had to tool up for a brand new shape. So it’s a lot of work to get going, and then we’re building the first articles which are after the prototypes. Before the production model ship where we are making sure everything is working out, making sure the guitars are consistent one from another, make sure everybody is trained. It’s just a huge effort.
This is our binding area. Nice way for the guitar to look the part and have nice protective binding, that could be half an hour’s worth of work to two hours, depending on how much decoration you’ve got going on round the outside edge. Glue is taping it down to let that set. Once that sets, I’ve mentioned the top and the back being glued up under that radius and the curvature, that means the binding, if you’re glueing binding on, that also needs to match that. So, what’ll happen is after that has been glued and set, then they’ll put it on one of these stands here and they’ll scrape it down, scrape the binding so that everything is nice and smooth. They’ll use belt sanders, see that big belt sander right over here, that’s one that Bob Taylor built in the early ’70s, still using that thing every day, custom build sander. The neck will be cut down 6 or 7 times, everything is built larger. It’s much easier to take things off than add back on.”
Cameron Walt: “So here we are, V-class bracing over here. This is the famous V-class bracing and you guys have these in your stores now right? So my job at Taylor is new product launches for marketing. When Andy (Powers) developed this in March 2018, he came and showed it off. He’s walking into the office just holding a grand auditorium and we were all okay, what is it? And he’s like “it’s a new bracing system”. And everyone in marketing is like, oh okay. How do we sell bracing systems? It took us a while to really get into it. We had multiple meetings with Andy. He got so scientific in some of those meetings and we were just like, what is going on? But basically, after he taught us, we got the principles of what is going on and were able to craft the messaging. I think people, even though it is a very scientific approach to talking about a guitar, I think customers get it. They’re excited about it and it actually does work. Our concern was making sure that it doesn’t sound like marketing hype when we launch the new bracing system, but yeah, it’s been revolutionary. And it’s actually the Grand Pacific guitar, you know the dreadnought, his first use of the V-class bracing was in a dreadnought shape, but we made a conscious decision to hold off on launching a new shape and new bracing because we wanted people to kind of tell the difference in a grand auditorium shape, which is a very popular Taylor shape.
What’s going on with the V-class is, this looks really simple, but I know there is actually some really difficult things that we’ve achieved through CNC’s going on, especially with the bridge plate. I don’t know if they have training set up for V-class repair. But we’re happy, V-class has been very successful, it’s all out Andy to hone in and kind of EQ the entire soundboard just by what he ends up doing, tweaks to the V-class guitars. He’s going to do some bending for us. Kevin is doing a demonstration on side bending for us. So these, we do 5, now 6 body shapes at Taylor. So we just added a Grand pacific. It’s a step one, step two process. Step one is going to be bending the waist of the guitar, the biggest bend and then they are going to put the upper-lower bout bend in step 2 there. Depending on the wood, it would have to be a fast or a slower bend. I know woods that have a lot of variation in them and the grain can tend to be fragile.”
Kevin: “And this one’s wrapped in paper because it’s rosewood, so it’s very oily. So I’m not spraying it with water because it’s got enough moisture content in it combined with the oil that’s naturally in the wood. We already go through a process where we take out most of the moisture in the wood, so we don’t want to add any that’s not necessary to make the guitar successfully. It’s also wrapped in paper to help absorb all the oil that secrete out of it. The paper also helps to keep its shape, it traps the steam that comes out of it, combined with the oils and sometimes we would’ve used water depending on what type of wood we’re working on. So it does help keep its shape once it’s been cooled.”
Cameron Walt: “So there’s a heating element inside there that it’s bending against. Heats up to about 320 degrees Fahrenheit, so that’s what allows it to bend. Using automated benders, we have this down, where we don’t have to soak the wood in water or anything like that. But back before these were automated, Bob Taylor had a bucket of water he would soak the wood overnight in and then he had a metal rod with a BBQ starter attached to it that would heat up and then he would have to bend it by hand. It was, I think, his least favourite thing to do when building a guitar. So, hence all the wonderful technology we now employ to do that. It’s impressive, he was saying sometimes you would crack every third or fourth piece he did by hand, so it allows for a higher yield. If you matched the sides to a back, you don’t want to break those pieces, then you would have to start all over again.
So, now he’s going to do the second step. The side pieces have a cutaway, there’s one side that’s shorter.”
Kevin: “Yeah the short side, is actually the cutaway side. There is a slight bit more material on the side than what is needed. On a cutaway version, we’ll sort of feel where the neck pocket is going to be, there’s a little bit of material on the cutaway side that comes up, we’ll cut that down. We install a cap right there, so it creates a seamless joint at the top. But for the most part, these are non-cutaway so they are perfectly sized. We don’t have a separate setup for the Florentine, right now we’ll build our Florentine 100% as a non-cutaway.”
Cameron Walt: “Compared to the Venetian, the Florentine is a small amount. Right now we’re scheduled for 145 guitars a day and we might do 5 Florentines during the week.”
Cameron Walt: “So after he’s done bending they will cool off in these moulds here and then they’ll get kerfing, which we saw downstairs that’s used to glue the back and the top on. We’ll head back to the final assembly and finishing department. So this is a big Sitka spruce log, and like I said we use about 150 or so logs a year, not just Taylor but the entire North American collective of guitar builders. Other uses for Sitka include framing for houses, so a lot of construction, toilet paper for the same reasons it’s good for a top, it’s strong yet flexible.
So every new employee at Taylor, even if you’re not in production, if you’re an accountant, janitor, systems person, marketing, you’re going to go through your first week of employment at Taylor’s, actually building a guitar. So you’re going to spend a couple of days studying, also on saw safety and all that stuff and then you’re going to shadow people that are building and participate in building. So you’ll understand start to finish everything that goes into building, and that is just kind of a philosophy that comes from the top down. So that we can all make decisions with that in mind, so if we’re a buyer and we’re buying a supply of wood or whatever, we can know the consequences of our choices in those positions and how it affects production.
So Andy Powers’ workshop is down there, Bob Taylor’s office down there. In the process for coming out with a new model, Andy will build them by hand and he’ll do a few different prototypes, take them around and get our feedback. And whatever he chooses is the final version, that’s what he takes to the tooling department there and they have to figure out how do we make 30, 40 a day. He’ll use the resources of the factory when he’s building prototypes, sometimes it’s easier to have a side bender do it than bending by hand. But if it’s a new shape and he doesn’t have a side bender to use, so he’s doing some of that stuff by hand too. So to finish off and things like that, he’s going to use what is existing.
This is our finish department. The process before the buffing robot. They are going to put guitars in there and use electrostatic application, which is just a fancy way of saying there’s electricity that’s running through the finish. Allows it to evenly distribute, kind of like a magnet, around the body of the guitar. After it’s sprayed it will go into a UV oven. It’s going to be hit with a UV light and that’s what allows it to cure. It takes 13 seconds for each base coat to cure. But it takes a couple of hours to prep it before it’s ready to do that, and that’s all done by hand. They used to use the lacquer finish, back in the early times when we started, it was like furniture spec, so it didn’t have the same quality consistency as what was needed for instruments. So sometimes, they would get a batch of finish and they’d find out that it was flaking or it had a tinge to it. But they wouldn’t find out until it cured, and it can take weeks for the lacquer to cure. They’d have to hang them in racks above the factory and let them cure. So you’ve built guitars for weeks with the same finish before finding out you have to refinish all the guitars. So using this kind of setup is a lot more efficient. In the State of California, you can’t use lacquer finish in mass anymore, so it’s reserved for your hobbyist builder. The big guitar companies now either have to change their ways so we’ve changed to this other polyester-based finish or other manufacturers we know use furnaces to burn off all of the solvent, bad emissions before it gets released into the atmosphere. That in itself is a whole other thing, it’s just in California, so builders in other states, depending on their laws, can get away with a different finish. We’ve just switched the way we’ve used our finish.
We used to spray it by hand, now having it automated like this is a lot more efficient. So this is where they are preparing to go into the finish section, like I said, a lot of handwork has to be done, filling the wood, staining the wood. So this is the final assembly setup, the guitars are build bodies and necks separately up until this point. There’s a wall that has all of the spacers used when we bolt the neck on. Got our fancy string holders there too. And then everything is inspected by the person that built it and then it’s sent to a final inspection and it comes back if something is off. They have to rework it, it’s very rare that we have major problems here, it’s not like we scrap guitars. Usually, anything major is caught in that department before it makes it over here.
So, this is where they are finally stringing everything up, making final adjustments, setups are done here. And then inspected in the final inspection bench and then if everything passes it gets send across the street to the warehouse, we put it in the case that we’ve made for it and then it is shipped to the guitar store. We make all of the cases, I believe the gig bags, if we don’t make them all yet, there’s a push to try to make them all ourselves. Tecate, Mexico makes the hard cases. Really the quality in Tecate made stuff has really gone up for all the brands, not just Taylor, I mean the amount of technology they can achieve now, the communication that’s improved. For Taylor itself, we have the same managers in Tecate as in El Cajon. They’ll spend days here and days in Tecate, so the consistency is there and the quality. Just a difference in materials, generally.”