Achieving 95 % when he can just as well achieve 100 is a nuisance for him. Tobias Ahlke is a perfectionist. With Essence Guitars, his company, the master maker of plucked instruments builds exclusive guitars by hand, from raw wood to finished instrument, including varnishing. Vertical integration, perfectionism, Made in Germany... does that sound familiar?
Tobias Ahlke takes some material off a strip on the underside of a guitar soundboard. He knocks, listens ... another chip. He knocks and listens, over and over again. It can take hours for the soundboard to meet exacting standards regarding vibration behaviour. This master guitar maker and his journeyman Laurens Lamberty work according to traditional methods. They care about finding a perfect implementation for the client's requirements. The surface also plays a major role.
"The lacquer finish on instruments is often the first thing customers notice, and it’s also very important when it comes to the feel of the guitar. It’s different from, say, furniture or cars. A guitarist is constantly in contact with his guitar’s varnish,”
At the same time, his feelings toward varnishing are somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, he knows how much can go wrong: a single mistake can ruin weeks’ worth of work. On the other hand, a successful paint job always inspires him, because "it’s the cherry on top of the piece".
Essence Guitars uses 2K polyurethane as its standard lacquer. However, since there are also plenty of repair orders that need to be carried out and almost all customers have special requests, the repertoire is much larger. Older instruments are often lacquered using nitrocellulose, which is highly appreciated by retro fans. Essence only uses nitro lacquers on request or for repairs, because they are rather unsuitable for permanent skin contact. Highly delicate and resonant classical guitars also receive shellac finishes.
By the way: Essence Guitars also pay special attention to spot repairs. It’s true that some clients like their instrument to age a little with each performance, while others like to see their guitar in a flawless state. "Unicoloured nitro paints are the best to retouch because the layers of paint peel back and bond," the master craftsman opines.
Tobias Ahlke works with a SATAjet 1000 B HVLP and a SATAminijet 4400 B, each with different nozzle sets: the former for clear coats and large-area work, the latter for the varnish coats, gradients, tints and spot repairs. What he mostly appreciates about his tools, apart from the surface quality, is that they fit well in the hand and are absolutely reliable. His SATAjet 1000 B has not needed a single spare part – not even a seal – since he first started using it in 2012.
Recently, he has also been using the RPS multi-purpose cup system in his workshop. "This saves us a lot of time and we can always mix in a little more the colour lacquers and tints and then store it in there until the next time we need it," says Ahlke by way of summarising the advantages.
Premium – even on the surface
The "Tiger Eye" look is a rather elaborate surface variant. The following layers and steps are used to build up the coating of the soundboard alone:
- Stain in 3 colours (black – maroon – orange yellow, each sanded in between to achieve the tiger eye look)
- 3 to 5 coats of insulating primer
- 3 coats of primer with intermediate sanding
- Sanding with 400 grain
- 3 x 3 coats high gloss top coat, with intermediate sanding
- Sanding with different grit sizes up to 2500
- High-gloss polish
The process is complicated by the fact that it is not only the guitar’s soundboard that is lacquered, but also the body, neck, fingerboard and headstock, including completely different lacquer structures and surface treatments. This in turn necessitates multiple reciprocal masking and treatment of transitions. The whole thing becomes even more complex when "faux binding" comes into play – a decorative stripe that is virtually simulated along with the paint structure
SATAjet X 5500
The SATAjet X 5500 is the SATA paint spray gun for highest demands. With the X nozzle system, painters are able to cope with all paint systems and application recommendations.