Building my 1852 Torres replica - making a custom wooden "coffin" case
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
I knew I needed a special case for my Torres replica, one that not only fit, but was befitting of the instrument itself. Due to it's unusual size, I am not aware of any commercially available cases that will fit, even ones for a parlor-size guitar. Several years back when I built an FE18 replica, I needed to build a case for it as well. Since the 1852 Torres and the 1864 FE18 share a common plantilla, I assumed that case (certainly all the dimensions) would work for both. Such was not the case (pun intended)! Although sharing a common plantilla, the 1852 Torres has a very elongated heel (won't fit in my FE18 case), and due to the 30 degree headstock angle and wooden pegs, it requires a much deeper case. My FE18 case is 5" deep (outside measurement), while the 1852 replica needs a case at least 6 1/8" deep (outside measurement).
The case I built for my FE18 is of flame maple, as is the instrument itself. Even if it would have fit the 1852 replica, I didn't think maple was the right choice for it. I wanted something special.
Also, while I wasn't looking to make a completely accurate period replica case (those cases really had little to no padding or protection for the guitar - usually just some velvet or similar fabric glued onto the inside, or even in some instances, wallpaper), I wanted something that not only looked great, but also afforded a good deal of padding and protection, much like I had built into my FE18 case...but better.
First, I needed to settle on a shape for the case - the one I used for the FE18 (and for which I had all of the necessary measurements and could easily make the adjustments needed to fit the 1852 replica); or one a bit more squared; or one more like an actual coffin. All were appropriate case styles from the latter half of the nineteenth century.
I settled on the smooth lines of the coffin shape. Once that was settled, I also decided to build it with the form-fitting inserts around the waist and along the neck as shown in the final photo above, something that I had not done on my FE18 case. And, as with that final photo above, I also wanted it red (actually claret) inside!
Now for the materials... Many of the wooden cases of the period were constructed of pine or other inexpensive wood and often painted black. For this guitar? No, that just would not do. The back and sides of the 1852 Torres are Brazilian rosewood...but using that was totally out of the question...and the budget. I wanted something elegant, and for me the clear choice was old growth Honduras mahogany, that nice, rich, reddish mahogany as used in fine furniture. I had some, but not enough, or at least not the needed size. The finished case needed to be at least 38 1/2" long, and 14" wide at the widest point, and at least 6 1/8" deep. Once again I turned to my friend, Mark Carver, and from his extensive lumber stash we selected a nice, thick piece about 6' in length and nearly 8" wide - perfect width to make a two-piece bookmatched top and bottom and have plenty left over for the sides...and then some. I took the mahogany to John Sparrow at Blue Ribbon Woodwork (blueribbonwoodwork.com) who does all of my re-sawing for me. I had him re-saw it into slices I could use for the top and bottom that I could bookmatch and that would finish out at 1/4" thick, and others that would finish out at 3/8" for the sides. For my FE18 case I had made the sides 1/2" thick, but to reduce the weight (ever so slightly) I decided on 3/8" for the sides for this case.
Since I decided to use the "coffin" shape instead of the shape I used for my FE18 case, I had to figure out all the new angles and specific dimensions I would need to build the case. Using some 1/2" plywood, I finalized the miters and lengths I would need and test-clamped everything together with my Bessey variable angle strap clamp to test my geometry skills. Perfect.
Instead of building just a plain, solid mahogany case, elegant as it might be, I wanted something a bit more stylish, more decorative - more elegant. I decided to make some ebony binding for around the perimeter of the top and bottom, just as I would for binding on my guitars. But I also wanted something on the top of the case that would compliment its tapered shape. My initial plan was to inlay two tapered strips of bookmatched flame maple veneer into the center of the top bordered by two ebony strips that matched the binding. Unfortunately I could not achieve the tight (invisible) join of the veneers to my satisfaction, so I went back to the drawing board and instead selected some leopardwood for the center motif. It was closer in coloration to the mahogany, but had a wonderful chatoyance that when the finish was applied would really set it off, bordered with the ebony fillets. A bit more subtle than the flame maple, but quite elegant nonetheless.
For the interior of the case I found some claret-colored, foam backed material used for automobile headliner at a local auto upholstery supply shop. It was inexpensive and perfect for my purposes.
For all of the areas inside the case that would come in contact with the guitar (top, bottom, fitted inserts, etc.), I first glued in 1/4" thick (or greater) closed cell foam, which was then covered with the headliner material and affixed with spray adhesive. Using my FE18 plantilla as a pattern I made undersized inserts out of mdf for the areas of the waist which were then covered with the foam and headliner to create a perfect fit - similar treatment was given to the areas at the lower bout/end and alongside the neck.
For the areas around the inside perimeter of the case where there were no supplemental inserts, using 1/2" wide strips of medium-weight poster board, the headliner material was folded under the strip which was then stapled to the sides so it was flush with the case opening surfaces. Spray adhesive was applied to the back of the material to secure it. Below, a test strip of the poster board strip and a straight piece of plywood illustrate that process.
Selecting the hardware and the finish. For my FE18 case I used a variety of "modern" hardware more typically seen on today's cases than on a case from the 1800s - a padded leather handle, flip-type latches, brass "feet" to protect the bottom of the case. For this case I decided to use hardware that was a bit more period correct. For the hinges I thought of using the same brass butler's tray-like hinges that I used on the FE18 case, but instead chose some smaller, round, solid-brass ones from Vertex that I recessed into the sides. Maybe not very period-correct, but a very elegant look. I selected a 3 1/2" long brass half-mortice chest lock, and for the clasps I found some hook/swing-type latches from Highpoint that worked perfectly for my purposes. I also found a period-correct brass carrying handle and brass keyhole escutcheon to complete the ensemble.
Progress photos of the case (without any finish or the ebony binding yet) and the lining:
Finally, what type of finish to apply? For my FE18 case I finished it in French polish of shellac. A lot of work and not particularly durable for a case. For this case I chose to apply an oil-based finish with a satin sheen. First, I pore filled the wood using TimberMate wood filler in a mahogany color. It is water-based, goes on easily, sands easily, and any sanding residue can be collected and re-constituted to a paste-like consistency to use again. What that means is that a little goes a long way! For the finish, after much experimentation, I selected Waterlox Original, which uses a combination of tung oil and phenolic resins. Although it suggests brushing on very thin coats, I found I had more success with wiping it on. I first applied several coats of their sealer/finish, lightly sanding in between, and then topped it with two coats of their satin finish. It is reasonably durable and it achieved the look I was seeking.
My next, and final installment in this series will have photos of my completed 1852 Torres replica, "La Principia", and the completed coffin case...and hopefully a sound clip or video of the instrument. Stay tuned...