In late November 2002, I packed my bags and relocated to Suzhou, China from Singapore where I was born and bred.

Renowned Taiwanese music producer Jonathan Lee had hired me as a consultant, designer, luthier cum manager to start up a small custom guitar making facility in China. Jonathan has been on the lookout for a luthier whom he can work with to come up with original designs bearing his namesake. In late 2001, we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance in Singapore. Lee Guitars humble beginnings began about a year after their initial meet up.

Prior to the big move, Jonathan and myself had scouted some locations in Shanghai and Suzhou and I’d decided to settle down in picturesque and tranquil Luzhi in Suzhou, China and be away from the hustle and bustle of city living. We were located in the older and touristy part of Luzhi where most of the buildings were built in the early part of last century. You can see canals running all over the area. Luzhi is one of the 3 popular “water villages” in Suzhou and the shop is located right along the main tourist strip.

Here’s the outside of the shop and the assembly room upstairs. The main shop is on the ground or rather basement level where we have a band saw, belt and disk sander, drill press and a compressor for spray finishing. Due to the frequent brown outs especially during summer, it’s very dangerous when we lose electricity because the main shop floor, which is actually the basement, is completely pitch black when the lights go out. It’s especially dangerous when we’re using the table router. Thank God there were no serious injuries and missing fingers.

The assembly room upstairs is where all the gluing work is done. That’s where the braces are glues to the tops and back, the tops and backs are glued to the frames and also where we glue on the bridges. The entire shop is somewhat climate controlled. Due to the critical nature of the work done in the assembly room, the humidity level in the assembly room is closely monitored.

Also in the assembly room is also our trusty go-bar deck. We use the go-bar deck for almost every gluing operation except for gluing on the bridge. Unlike some builders who pre-carve their braces before gluing, all our braces are glued on as blanks and then carved to their respective shape during the voicing process.

The top and back of the guitars are arched as we believe arched tops are stronger for their mass than flat tops, react less to humidity changes, and to the tension of the strings. All braces are also glued using radiused hollow forms as backing. The brace blanks are pre-radiused before gluing on to the top and back.

We used to scallop just the bass bar of the X brace but have now gone to non-scallop bracing. Notice the profile of the back braces. Also notice the date when the top was braced and my signature on the left. The body is usually boxed the same day the top is braced. The date is written backwards so when the body is assembled, one can read it with a mirror.
Most acoustic guitar sides are thinned to about 2.4mm or 0.095” before bending. Our hand bent guitar sides averages about 2.8mm or 0.110”. It’s sometimes a pain to bend the thicker sides but I believe the thickness helps give us our unique tone. The thicker sides allow us to do without the side reinforcement braces and stiffen the frame thus enhancing the response of the guitar tops. As most of our clients have noticed, the thicker sides also add more weight to our guitars, which may be a good or bad thing according to the individual.
The backs are glued on to the frame using the go bar deck. We make our own go sticks from the local Spruce. Any glue squeeze out is clean off and the insides of the guitar are sanded before the top is glued on. The insides of our guitars are just as immaculate as the outside. We spare no expense and effort to build the cleanest guitar possible.
The guitar is finally boxed meaning the top is glued on and the sound box is complete. As we do without an end graft as commonly seen in most steel stringed acoustic guitar, care is taken to ensure that sides are perfectly butt jointed. Most quality nylon stringed classical guitars are butt jointed. The next step of operation is to route the bindings and purflings channel around the body. We use the LMI universal binding machine and it works like a dream. Our necks are attached to the body using the traditional dovetail joint.

We’d build a spray closet at the corner of the shop. The necks and bodies are finished separately to necessitate easy neck removal for future repairs. We use a water-based lacquer for all our finishes. Only the headstock and tops are buffed to a gloss. The back and sides and neck are sanded to a satin finish.

Here’re 2 guitars strung and ready to go. It may be difficult to see but our bridges are taller and narrower than usual. We pitch our necks a wee bit more forward than most makers and that explains the taller than usual bridge. The length of the bridge is to accommodate our forward shifted X-braces. This is the last of the Luzhi pics.

We re-located to Beijing in April 2004. The workshop is now located on the 2nd storey of the building. Thanks to the many windows, everything’s bright and sunny. It’s a totally refreshing environment and completely different from the dark and damp shop floor in Luzhi. I love our new go bar island as well. It’s so convenient being able to walk around and clean up any glue squeeze out and to make sure everything’s hunky dory.

We switched from the Martin influenced 3 ring rosette to a more contemporary 2 ring design. We have 3 different color scheme, blue, green and red. The purflings strips are matched to the color of the rosette.

We switched from East Indian Rosewood to Macassar Ebony for the headstock overlay after the move from Luzhi to Beijing. The “L” logo is Paua Abalam strip with black/white/black purfling strips along the edge.

 

We build the guitars in batches of 4 but we usually have a few more frames that are ready to go. Here’re a couple of East Indian Rosewood, Sapele and a curly Maple frame at the very end ready to go.


Here I am planing a bevel on the bridge plate. I do that to prevent the bridge plate from “curling” up in the event if the bridge plate comes loose.

We’ve also gone with a non-scallop bracing design for the guitars built in Beijing. We use Rosewood with a thin Maple laminate for the bridge plate. I prefer the tone of a Rosewood bridge plate and the maple laminate helps prevent the ball ends of the string from chewing up the Rosewood and also to resist cracking along the grain of the Rosewood bridge plate. To further prevent the latter from happening, the bridge pin slots also run parallel to the saddle slot.
As mentioned earlier, our necks are attached to the bodies via the traditional dovetail joint. We get them so tight and fitting that we only use a few dabs of glue in the dovetail joint for easy neck removal in the future.
The tops are all buffed and waiting for the necks to be final fitted. On the left is the Parlor model, the small Jumbo is in the middle and the Auditorium model is on the right.
The Klein inspired Jumbo model.

The Small Jumbo Cutaway, my final design for “Lee Guitars”.

Koa binding on East Indian Rosewood body. Only the top of the guitars is buffed to a gloss. The neck, back and sides are finish sanded to 2000 grit and hand buffed to a dull sheen.

Note the striking grain and color of the Macassar Ebony bridge with compensated Tusq saddle and abalone bridge pins.

Close up of the heel. Note the roll over edges along the fingerboard.

The guitars are bound either in curly Maple, Koa, East Indian Rosewood or Cocobolo. The purfling strips are made up of 3 colors, a black and white laminate and the matching color of the rosette. Here, we have a blue ringed rosette with blue purfling lines.

I miss my workbench in Beijing.

Jonathan Lee posing with the Parlor model, sound check at the sold out Singapore Indoor Stadium concert with his buddy, Emil Chau on April 23, 05 and warming up before the said concert.