James Ashborn

Innovative Entrepreneur

Circa 1850 James Ashborn guitar.

Circa 1850 James Ashborn guitar. All photos: M. E. Brune.

James Ashborn was born in England circa 1816 and came to New England in the late 1830s, for reasons unknown. He landed in the a small woodworking town of Torrington, 30 miles northwest of Hartford, Connecticut. Because of the area’s many mills, many woodworking shops were emerging. Torrington was primarily a wagon-making community, and had a plentiful wood supply, as well as ease of transportation. Due to the considerable amount of natural resources, including plentiful power from rivers that allowed for water-driven tools, Ashborn concluded that Torrington would be a perfect place to make guitars.

Ashborn had his shop in Torrington, but soon after start-up, he began selling guitars to the New York distributor William Hall & Son, whose name appears inside the instruments.

There is little written background about Ashborn, but given his training and skills, we can presume he was once either a clock maker, gun maker, or machinist. This is apparent due to the intricacy of his tuning machines, seen in several patents, and the fact that he seems to have applied a machinist’s approach to working wood. Ashborn’s shop was apparently quite advanced for its time, employing water-powered table saws, routers, and band saws. With equipment of this caliber, Ashborn produced as many as 119 guitars in June of 1844, and averaged 54 guitars per month. This is an astonishing rate of production, considering his relatively small number of employees, rarely exceeding 10.

Ashborn did not follow the conventional guitarmaking method of having only one person work on each guitar, nor did he take on any apprentices, as was customary. Instead, he hired woodworkers from the community and gave them specific tasks according to their expertise. For example, Issac Thorton was a polisher, as he claimed in the 1850 U.S. Census. A polisher applied varnish and was responsible for the placement of the bridge. Due to the difficulty and skill required by his position, Thorton was the highest paid worker in the shop, making $1.50 a day.

Ashborn’s design for the guitar was quite innovative for the early 19th century. Instead of making guitars fashioned after the typical parlor-style guitars, he made them in the Spanish style, by taking interior bracing cues from the Spanish while retaining the body of the English guitars. This included a fan brace pattern rather than the more common ladder pattern. Although Ashborn incorporated the newer Spanish bracing pattern, as well as the six-string configuration, he still used the body style of the English guitars, which were fashioned roughly after the design of Louis Panormo, one of the leading makers in England in the early 19th century, whose instruments were in turn inspired by Spanish models. The influence for the Spanish model may be due to John Coupa, a Spanish expatriate who was also partnered for a brief period with C.F. Martin.

The three guitars we had the privilege of studying are remarkably similar in measurement. Labeled William Hall & Son, 159 Broadway, NYC, they have the serial numbers 1673 and 2281. Both are model 4s, and 6017, which is a model 1, with estimated build dates between 1848 and 1869.

Surprisingly, all three have very close measurements. There’s less than 1/16″ variance in almost all dimensions among them, which is a stricter tolerance level than many contemporary mass-production shops require. Many measurements are exact on the three guitars, such as the depth of the sides at the butt, as well as at the neck. The uniformity of the measurements is an indication that Ashborn used jigs or fixtures to cut the depth of the sides.

Detail of head.

Detail of head.

Ashborn guitars have a very complex dovetail V joint for attaching the head to the neck (photo 1). The headstock was cut in roughly five steps, using some kind of tracing router, as suggested by the chatter marks on the inside ears of the pegbox. In addition to the complex head design, Ashborn made his own tuning machines in-house (photo 2). They’re made of brass, very much like contemporary machines, with worm gears, cog gears, and rollers (photo 3). The worm gears were most likely cut on a lathe. The tabs, which hold the worm gears in place, appear to be stamped. The machine plates seem to be cut and filed by hand, but machine-drilled to ensure accurate spacing for each head – an operation done on a dedicated three-head drill press. When the machines are removed from the guitar, there is a lot of side-to-side movement. The holes on the side of the head keep these shafts from moving, holding them tight against the side of the cogs, and acting as reinforcement for the shaft. The spacing and alignment of the holes is absolutely critical to the operation of the machines. The procedure used to cut the holes was most likely accomplished using a single drill press with a shaft going into a gearbox which in turn spun three drill bits in order to accurately drill the holes for the machines.

The neck-to-body joint on these guitars was previously thought to be another dovetail joint. But, after removing the fingerboard on guitar 2281, it was apparent the neck-to-body joint is a butt joint (photo 4), which is impossible to produce cleanly with just a few knives and chisels. To manufacture such a complex joint, Ashborn must have had access to advanced items such as cloth-backed sandpaper (possibly even long loops of sandpaper). The butt joint is made by putting the body and neck together with a piece of sandpaper between the two, and sanding the neck until it conforms perfectly to the shape of the body. Once the two fit together, a biscuit is inserted into a previously cut slot in the body and a corresponding slot on the neck, and the two are joined. Done properly, this joint is much more reliable than the more common (at the time) dovetail.

The necks of Ashborn guitars are quite interesting, as well. The profiles, widths, and lengths of the necks from guitars 1673, 2281, and 6017 are exactly the same. Not only are that, but they’re laminated. They have either a chestnut or butternut core, with a relatively thick veneer (roughly 1/16″ of an inch) of a tropical hardwood or Brazilian rosewood. It appears the Ashborn shop used a counter form as well as some strong clamps, and most likely a fair amount of steam and heat to coax the wood into the final lamination. Another possible method is the hammer-veneer method, which requires copious amounts of glue. After covering each side with hot hide glue, a wooden squeegee with a very long handle is worked across the surface, essentially aiming for an even distribution of glue in order to create suction between the two pieces. The work pieces are soaked in a water-glycerin mixture to relax the wood, which allows the wood to easily bend around curves and remain relaxed until long after the glue has set. The glycerin will evaporate with the water, leaving a piece that is firmly glued. Either method would be a daunting prospect to a shop trying to produce 100 guitars per month.

Each Ashborn guitar has exactly the same scale, meaning the fret slots were cut using the same jig. This process would most likely have been done on a table saw with a jig that incorporated pre-measured slots. Once completed, the fretboards were attached to the neck using small nails at the first fret, as well as at the 13th fret, possibly for positioning, but more likely to keep the fretboard from sliding around on the neck during the gluing process.

The sides of all Ashborn guitars were laminated using a thicker inner core of maple veneered with rosewood, a process most likely done on a custom-made press. Each component was pre-bent using the bending iron, or perhaps even custom-made charcoal heated iron forms, then glued together using a press. None of the instruments showed any evidence of bending-iron scalds.

Detail of the glue blocks

Detail of the glue blocks showing circular saw marks. This construction technique is typically Spanish.

Tops and backs were attached to the sides by individual triangular glue blocks cut on a table saw using a sharp circular blade, meaning the blade had no set (photo 5). The closely spaced glue blocks were more in keeping with a Spanish design rather then the usual northern European models.

The purflings are advanced even by today’s standards. Made from one large continuous strip that surrounds the body, they are a unique feature because at that time there were no suppliers that offered inlay material in such great lengths. This means Ashborn would have had to produce it in-house. The single-piece purflings have a mechanical advantage over the standard two-piece purflings, as they make the instrument much stronger.

The channels for the purflings are also quite innovative for the time. They are a “stepped” cut, meaning the channel around the perimeter of the instrument is cut in two thicknesses; the inner channel (shallower of the two) is less than the thickness of the top, while the deeper outer channel holds the one-piece bindings (photo 4). This method is difficult with a knife, so it probably was done with a router or some sort of revolving cutting/shaping device. The cleanliness of the slots is stunning, showing the Ashborn shop possessed extremely sharp equipment as well as suitable-revolution speed capabilities, so as to not tear the grain of the wood.

The guitars’ tops are a prime example of the lutherie techniques applied by the Ashborn shop. The thickness of each is slightly different, which means each top was individually brought down to thickness, rather than having the tops pre-sized. Wood is inherently weaker off the quarter than on the quarter. Ashborn’s shop apparently evaluated each piece of top material to determine where the grain fell. To compensate for the compromised strength of the wood, they made the tops thicker to make up the strength needed to support the torque of the strings.

Upon removal and close inspection of a mangled bridge on guitar number 2281, it was apparent there were many striations in straight, parallel lines over the entire piece (photo 6). One might hypothesize the striations were caused by bad repair work. However, upon comparison with Ashborn number 1673, it’s obvious the striations were, in fact, caused by a mechanized cutting device, as both guitars possess the same tool markings. Scrapers can leave the same sort of markings, but because the two bridges have the same dimensions, the marks were made by a router on a tracing copy (pin router) machine. A tracing copy machine uses a pin that mimics the shape of the router bit that slides over a form or identical piece.

On each Ashborn bridge, there are seven cuts; the valley (where the strings are tied off) was cut first, then the first top scallop on the edge of the tie block. This cut extended from the edge of the tie block to the edge of the bridge, but in pictures is only visible at the very corner. The next cut is the lower scallop, which also extends to the edge of the bridge. The fourth cut is the final scallops at the very edge of the bridge. The fifth cut is the angled cut on alternate sides of the arms. The sixth is the same as the fifth, except on the remaining untrimmed part of the arm. The last cut is the scalloped recess on the backside of the bridge (photo 7). The last cut appears to have been made by a precision circular saw blade that had been rounded on the edges, yet was extremely sharp.

A circular saw was used to cut the bracing stock, the glue blocks, and the neck support extension inside of the guitar. There is very strong evidence that circular saws, most likely used on a table saw, were used to cut many pieces. Some showed the telltale circular cut marks (photo 7). The table saw was most likely powered by a belt driveshaft, coming from a water driven wheel, a system that would have run centrally through the entire Ashborn shop.

Detail of the arm of typical Ashborn bridge

Detail of the arm of typical Ashborn bridge. Note the striations from the cutter. Note how clean the perimeter of the bridge is, showing that it was installed after the application of the varnish.

On the inside of the guitar (around the soundhole) are two pieces of wood – the soundhole braces. There are two pin marks on each piece, and on all three guitars, they are spaced at the same interval. These indicate a locating jig was used to place them consistently on each side of the guitar. The jig was referenced to the soundhole, which adds to the great deal of consistency between instruments. The rosettes around the soundhole on the top are incredibly consistent among the three guitars. Each set of rings set into the top is exactly the same width, corresponding to the other instruments, which demonstrates some sort of cutter that referenced a central point on the soundboard, as well as the two channels for the rosette, which were all cut at the same time. This would be possible only if the shop had some sort of drill press, most likely run off of the belt-drive system that powered the other machinery in the shop. To cut the soundhole, the cutter would have a shaft going through some sort of plate with a circle cutter, as well as two chisel-like cutters outside of the soundhole cutter, which would cut the depth for the rosette.

The varnish on the instruments is standard shellac, most likely used as a French polish. French polish is a method where resin is collected from the exudation of a bug, the Lacca lucifera or Lucifera lacca. The resin is dissolved into grain alcohol and once impurities are removed, the solution is applied by hand using a small wad of cheesecloth wrapped in linen. This process builds the varnish up layer by layer. It is extremely slow, but the end result is a glossy instrument that has no measurable buildup of varnish to deteriorate the sound. The French polish method is still one of the most soughtafter varnishes for high-end instruments.

In the early days of guitars, a person would only buy a guitar, the case was extra. But Ashborn had an in-house case maker, just as C.F. Martin was the in-house case maker for Stauffer. This is one example of Ashborn’s marketing genius, as it kept this aspect of the business under his control and, hence, profit.

The guitars made by Ashborn were distributed through the shops of William Hall and Son, Firth and Hall, and Firth, Hall and Pond. All of these companies were run by the same people, mainly William Hall, John Firth, and Sylvanus Billings Pond. Firth and Hall worked together beginning in 1812, when both served in the military. They opened their own shop in 1821 and by 1833 became Firth, Hall and Pond. With Hall and Pond living in the Albany area, it’s presumed they were acquaintances prior to becoming business partners.

The guitars were primarily labeled as William Hall and Son, and were made by Ashborn until 1869. To the best of our knowledge, there are no Ashborns labeled as such. It appears he never labeled guitars with his own name, but was strictly a maker who sold exclusively through these dealers.

Ashborn’s shop was extremely advanced for its time, having a great deal of know-how and technology. Ashborn understood the need to have the technology as well as the skill, but more importantly he discovered a new way of making high-quality instruments that were affordable. He was able to create a factory environment where workers did what they were good at and, with practice, became very fast and consistent. With a new level of consistency in mass production, he created the path followed by other companies such as Martin, Gibson, and Taylor. Using designs ahead of his time, he was able to bring the sound and change to people who otherwise never would have been able to acquire an instrument of this quality.

M.E. Bruné has been studying under R.E. Bruné for more than 10 years and has studied violin repair with violin maker Carl Becker. He recently completed his first guitar, and performs restorations on classical guitars. He can be contacted at (847) 275-2983 or mebrune.com.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Philip Gura for the information provided through research from his article, “Manufacturing Guitars for the American Parlor: James Ashborn, Wolcottville, Connecticut, Factory, 1851-1856, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 104, part I (1994), 117-155.” The author also wishes to thank George Gruhn for his assistance.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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