Bindings for Stringed Instruments

May 19, 2020

Bindings for Stringed Instruments

 The wood binding an a Classical Guitar or Steel String Acoustic Guitar give the builder a chance to showcase their talents. The Purflings and Bindings that are used on a guitar often are considered a signature of the maker as well.

Purpose of Binding:

Other that the obvious fact that binding create a stunning visual effect, they do have important functions when it comes to our instruments.
  • Exposed end grain of the top and back plates is especially susceptible to moisture changes. This can cause warping and cracking with these delicate pieces of wood. Binding does a good job of sealing off the end grain and moderates moisture changes.
  • Binding acts as a protection element to the top and back plates. If you were to knock your unbound instrument on one of the edges, it would likely be a severe dent or worse, a major crack. Binding project the instrument from such abuse.

Classical Guitar Bindings:

The style that traditionally is used for the classical guitar is passed down from the 1800's with the guitars that Antonio De Torres made. He revolutionized the classical guitar with his own body style and size, bracing patterns and decoration. Up until that time, classical guitars were small bodied, very ornate and had some pretty peculiar bracing patterns.

Torres design for purfling and bracing is still used on the best hand-made classical guitars that are made today.

The simple and elegant binding consists of using the same wood as the sides and back for the major portion of the binding and the portion of the binding that is directly adjacent to the wood of the back plate or side plate has a contrasting color (usually light or Maple wood).

What this does is to separate each half of the back plate and each side into individual panels, almost like a picture frame and it showcases the beauty of the wood.

The top binding is just a bit more ornate, usually consisting of several layers of light/dark purfling to set off the top plate.

Acoustic Guitar Bindings:

The typical Acoustic Guitar Binding was developed by the C.F. Martin Co and The Gibson Company, both jointly and separately. The traditional binding of choice was a type of plastic called celluloid. This plastic has a yellowish tint to it with a very subtle light and dark layering or grain that is very attractive. The problems with celluloid are as follows:

1. It shrinks over time, pulling apart at the seams and pulling away from the waist of the older guitars.

2. It is extremely flammable. In fact, once on fire it is almost impossible to put the fire out. This became a problem in the guitar factory setting, where the binding process was surrounded by flammable materials, such as aged wood and spirit-based finish materials.

With the resurgence of Vintage Series Guitars, the use of celluloid has new life, once again the the high end factory guitar models and is certain luthier shops.

Martin has gravitated almost exclusively to the Boletron binding, for obvious reasons. It has much less shrinkage problems than that of celluloid and it maintains its color much better, not to mention the product is not nearly as much of a fire hazard.

The Fine Handmade Guitar Revolution:
As accomplished guitarists became disenchanted with the changes that were made in guitar production in the 1960's and 1970's, it spawned an entire cult of handmade guitar making shops and small one-person luthier specialty shops.

The guitars that were produced from these shops turned out to be totally awesome guitars that rivaled the one one-of-a-kind Martin prewar D18's and D28's.

The luthiers wanted to show their "stuff" so they took the art of guitar making to levels not seen since the 1800's, when very ornate guitars were being produced. One difference here though - this new generation of guitar being made had great sound, lots of volume and durability, all things that were lacking in the old guitars.

One of the elements that the small shop luthiers concentrated on was the area of binding the guitar. Most fore-go the plastic binding on most of their guitars (and I agree with them). Plastic is an insulator and does nothing to improve or promote the sound vibrations produced by the guitar top plate.

By making bindings of beautiful wood and purfling of contrasting tones of dark and light woods, it not only made the Acoustic Guitars a thing of great beauty, it helped with tone production, much as it does with the fine Classical Guitars.

More Than Body Bindings:

The skills of the the luthiers spread well beyond that of decoration of the bindings around the guitar body edges. They also used wood bindings on fretboard edges and around the perimeter of the head piece. While the bindings in these locations has very little to do with sound reproduction, it sure gives the guitar a feeling of continuity and is a great design feature.

The Beginning Guitar Maker:

If you are making a guitar for the first time, the binding should be an area that you give a great deal of thought to. Keep things simple. Consider using the plastic for your binding as you will have a great looking product and it is very easy to install.

If you decide to go the wood binding/purfling route, use very simple designs. Not only will these look well and give your guitar a timeless feeling, you will gain your skills at a measured pace and not be overwhelmed with the task of installing fragile and costly marquetry that will discourage your new-found skills.

Usually the areas of intersection between binding running in different planes are carefully mitered to give them a seamless appearance. Unless these miters are invisible, they can be unsightly, and will detract from the guitar rather than enhance its appearance.

What's Next?

In our next article we will show you how to make your own wood bindings, how to bend them and what options are available to you.

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