High tech and hand work at Taylor Guitars

Most people in the woodworking industry seem to buy into the idea that automation is a one-way street. Once you add automated processes like CNC machines, there’s no going back to hand processes. But at Taylor Guitars in El Cajon, Calif., a host of traditional hand processes co-exist side by side with the latest in computer technology amid a philosophy of lean manufacturing to produce quality and quantity at the same time.

Taylor was an early adopter of technology, having bought its first CNC machine, a Fadal, in the 1980s. In his book “Guitar Lessons: A Life’s Journey Turning Passion into Business,” Bob Taylor says, “Nearly every tool I’d made over the previous 15 years became obsolete once I learned to make those same parts on the Fadal.” (See a review of the book elsewhere in this issue.)

Today, the company uses more than 60 Fadals, plus CNC machines from MultiCam and Thermwood to produce some 500 guitars a day in two factories, one in El Cajon and the other across the border in Tecate, Mexico. The Fadals are driven by software from Mastercam.

Throughout the CNC production in the factory you see hand procedures matched to automated operations based more on the time the processes take than on the production sequence. This means machine operators don’t have to wait for parts to be completed and work can continue apace.

Small batches, custom features

Chris Wellons, vice president of manufacturing, says it also means the company can make more guitars per day while doing it with smaller batch sizes. At El Cajon, where Taylor makes its premium guitars, the production is 150 guitars per day, but the batch size is just six or seven guitars.

Looking at one of those batches, one is immediately struck by how different they are. In a single batch, the guitars might be made of all different woods and sport a wide variety of custom features. Keeping track of that is another piece of technology – radio-frequency identification (RFID).

A small RFID chip located under the top of the guitar carries all of the indentifying information for each instrument so all the right features are incorporated throughout the production process. RFID readers at key locations in the plant tell workers what features to put with what guitars, so custom is as fast as mass production.

Wellons says the RFID chips have also shown an added value to consumers. “We’ve recovered two (stolen) guitars locally because of RFID tags,” he says. The tags carry serial number identification information, so when someone bought the guitars at a local pawn shop and brought them to Taylor to find out what they were worth, Taylor officials were able to read the RFID tags and check their records to see the guitars belonged to somebody else and had been reported stolen.

For customer privacy purposes, Wellons cautions, the tags carry only the guitar’s identification information. Any information about the owner has to be obtained from Taylor’s records after identifying the instrument.

Precision starts on top

Besides the RFID tag, there is a lot of the precision in the production process that begins with manufacturing the guitar tops. Made mostly out of spruce or cedar, the tops are first sanded in Timesavers three-head widebelt sanders. Then they are precisely cut with lasers using Preco Laser Systems machines.

The lasers not only cut out the shapes and sound holes, but they also etch identifying marks such as a precision center mark that determines every other measurement and helps ensure accurate intonation, which means the guitar will play in tune across all strings and in all fingering positions. Pointing out the bull’s-eye mark etched on one top, Wellons says, “The intonation is set right here.”

Parts cut on the laser machines also are cut with special fixturing tabs that allow precise clamping in CNC machines later in the production process.

In tune to wood movement

You can’t have precision in woodwork if you don’t first figure out how to manage wood movement and moisture content. That’s especially important on steel-string acoustic guitars that feature high tentioned steel strings on an instrument made mostly out of very thin pieces of wood. From the beginning, Taylor was known for its thinner, more comfortable necks.

The secret to making that work at Taylor is an obsession with stabilizing moisture content of the wood throughout the production process. From when wood is cut in the rough mill section of the factory to when guitars are finished, steps are taken to ensure the wood is dried and stabilized. Parts are cut and put on racks in “wind tunnel” cabinets to facilitate air flow and even drying. A number of processes are carried out in stages, so the part can be partially milled then stabilize before the next machining takes place.

“Even wood that comes to us at 8 percent (MC) is acclimated,” says Wellons. “We reduce it below 6 percent and then rehydrate.”

Bending the sides

Musicians admire the graceful curves of the sides of the guitar but bending them to that shape is no easy matter. After spending so much time carefully drying and acclimatizing the wood, now the workers have to introduce moisture and heat to bend thin strips of woods such as mahogany, rosewood, maple, and koa.

From the beginning, like most woodworkers, Bob Taylor loved making jigs and fixtures. Some of his best are still in use in the side-bending area of the plant. There, heat, forms, and carefully graduated pressure allow for complex bends, even including cutaway guitars that require one side to bend back on itself in a tight curve to allow more finger clearance at the lower portion of the neck.

Joinery changes everything

Traditionally, most guitar necks have been joined to the guitar body with a glued dovetail joint. That’s strong, but it causes potential problems later in repair and resetting of necks, not to mention complications in manufacturing. Taylor pioneered a precision bolt-on neck joint that is plenty sturdy, easy to manufacture and offers fast precise adjustment with the use of shims.

“We didn’t invent the guitar, and we didn’t change its appearance or try to introduce a totally new concept to the player,” says Bob Taylor in his book. “We simply improved the way the neck attaches to the body. This innovation resulted in significant benefits to us as guitar builders and to our customers.”

Taylor tells a wonderful story of one of his repairmen doing an instant neck removal and adjustment right in front of a disbelieving customer, even having the customer hold the neck while he worked. The whole process took just three minutes and a couple of wooden shims, and the customer was overjoyed with the results.

CNC carved braces

Another area of guitar building that has been historically a hand process is the carving of braces under the top of the guitar. Braces reinforce the top and have a dramatic effect on sound quality. In the past, skilled craftsmen glued on rough-cut braces with a forest of clamps and then used hand chisels to carve and scallop them to shape.

Today at Taylor the braces are glued on with a vacuum press and them the braced tops are put into MultiCam CNC machines for final shaping. The CNC router can do more precisely in a few minutes what might have taken an hour or more for the hand craftsman do in the past.

Robots for finishing

Guitars are typically prized for high-quality, high-gloss lacquer finishes. But Taylor looked for ways to provide a top quality finish that could be done in less time. Additionally, facing tough California emissions laws and having an innate dedication to environmental responsibility, Taylor wanted to find a low VOC solution.

The first step was switching to polyester finishes, but the company also incorporated UV curing for fast drying without fumes. When filler is applied to the guitar bodies to fill the grain in an early stage of the finishing process, it takes just 13 seconds to cure in the UV unit. A Pinnacle Technologies robotic finishing system is used to precisely apply the finishes to an 8-12 mil thickness over the whole guitar. Robots also buff guitar bodies to a high gloss. It is amazing to watch the robot holding a guitar body up to a big buffing wheel and seeing the results. Sometimes human workers have to step in and buff bodies, too, says Wellons, but mostly the robots can handle it.

The buffing system also has its own Nederman dust collector, separate from another Nederman unit dedicated to wood dust. That facilitates recycling of the wood dust, Wellons says.

Lean transformation

Lean manufacturing is a way of life at Taylor Guitars. Wellons says using lean techniques enabled the company to produce 130,000 guitars last year. “We use a lean pull system,” says Wellons. “It takes 11 days to make a guitar.” He notes that is down from the 41 days it used to take before adopting lean strategies.
“Our goal was to cut lead time by 50 percent, and we met that,” says Wellons.

Besides high-tech equipment and modern production efficiency, Taylor Guitars still has to rely a lot on skilled people. A craftsman in one area, for example, still must use a traditional cabinet scraper to carefully scrape the guitar bindings and sides to match. And skilled luthiers do work to string and set up and inspect every guitar before it goes out the door. Finding the right workers is important, and just like other processes at Taylor, a little different.

“We don’t necessarily hire woodworkers, luthiers or whatever the job is,” says Wellons. He says the company provides support to local high school regional occupational programs and recruits from there. He adds that the company pays “higher than minimum wage” and offers benefits.

Transparent approach

Another factor in the Taylor success story is hard to quantify, but it is a transparent approach to doing business both inside the company and even with competitors. Early on, Bob Taylor and his business partner Kurt Listug decided that being open with employees was the way to go from early on.

“When there is a major development or, alternatively, a problem in your company, the few employees you have should be the first to know,” he writes in his book. “Being transparent is the right approach when you’re starting out, and the situation often dictates that approach.”

He tells of a time when a business slowdown dictated some layoffs in the company. Rather than hiding that from employees, they let them know early on so they could plan. “How could I ever say that I respected my employees and their families if I was willing to withhold some of the most important news that they’d ever receive,” Taylor says, noting that eventually the company hired back many of the people laid off.

Transparency extends to the industry and production. Taylor offers regular tours of its factory in El Cajon and even hosts representatives of its competitors on tours. Taylor has also taken a lead in responsible forestry and wood management to ensure supplies of valuable woods such as ebony for the entire industry.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.