I recently made up a batch of 12 string tailpieces for some guitars in the current batch, so I figured I would document the process. The tailpieces I make were slightly modified from a tailpiece that came off of an old Stella 12 string. The guitar was an early 12 string (teens era) and the holes for the ball end strings were a little too small to accommodate modern strings. I made the holes a little larger and widened the overall dimension of the tailpiece in order to have sufficient material in between the holes. In the old days strings came with either ball or loop ends. The old tailpieces were set up to use either loop or ball end strings. These days loop end strings are obsolete, so the posts for mounting them are, for the most part, decorative.
I put in quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to make tailpieces, but I figured it was an important element that I wanted to include on my guitars. I had a very limited budget, so farming the job out to a metal shop was out of the question. I worked extensively with my dad, Fred Cambio, on the design of the tailpiece. My dad mapped out the original 12 string on Solidworks and we went over some of modifications together. After the modifications were setup, I had a die made that stamped out the embossed portion of the tailpiece. I stamp the tailpieces out of brass. That was the material that the original ones were made out of, partly because it is easy to work, partly because it is easy to plate.
After the blank is stamped out, the rest of the process is hand work. I use a jeweler’s saw to cut the silhouette of the tailpiece, and I drill out all of the holes on the drill press. I’ve developed quite a few jigs and fixtures for the drilling portion of the process as the drill press can grab ahold of the brass blank and do some real damage to your hand. I learned this the hard way.
After the holes are drilled, I use a jewelers saw to cut slots in the ball end holes. On a side note, the jeweler’s saw that I use belonged to my great grandfather. I don’t know what he used it for, but it was in his toolbench, along with some carving tools. I had been using a new jewelers saw, but it did a poor job of holding the blades. This saw is over 100 years old and continues to do a great job.
After all the holes are drilled, I use a countersink on the back side of the holes for the loop end posts. When the posts were turned, we left a little extra material on the portion that goes through the hole. The extra bit of the post that sticks through the back side is”skwedged” over with a hammer. “Skwedging” refers to the process of smashing the brass on the post so that it fills in the countersunk portion on the backside of the blank. I hope that all makes sense. After the post is set, it won’t move. This is that same way that the old posts were set, and it is that same way that old tuning machines were made. I’ve repaired gears on old tuners using the same technique.
Once the posts are set and everything is filed and slotted, the final step is to bend the tailpiece in a metal brake. Everything is then polished to a high gloss and then it is sent off to be nickel plated.
I have thought about having the tailpieces laser cut as it can be difficult to dedicate a day or two to making them, breaking the rhythm of production, but that would limit the possibilities. As things are currently set up, I’ve made six, nine and 12 string tailpieces. I’ve also made left handed tailpieces. One of the things I appreciate about the old tailpieces is the variety that they come in. I feel that the more handwork I do, the more that variety will be reflected in my work.