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Discussion in 'Electric Instruments' started by CE-man, Sep 22, 2012.
What is the timeline for the use of Abalone and Mother-of-Pearl for inlay material on PRS's?
Surely one of you guys know when PRS stopped using abalone????? I know they went to MOP until someone devised a special saw to cut the abalone. When did all of this happen?
How about this: would a `96 CUST-24 have abalone or MOP birds?
96' I think will have Abalam laminate joined pieces of abalone (not 100% sure after reading the bottom though)
As a co-inventor of Abalam, I can answer some of these questions with modest authority.
Sorry, but I can't supply an exact date for when Martin started using Abalam materials in production instruments (actually, I could, but it would take days to go back through my own records as well as researching those of Pearlworks!). Our first patent was awarded in 1998, but Martin was working closely with us for at least a year prior to that date in testing how the material would handle going through all the specialized machining processes in an actual factory environment. For legal reasons, they would not have been allowed to use it in production until after the first patent was granted. But Martin now uses nothing except Abalam on all their inlaid models, with the inlays being designed and cut exclusively by Larry Sifel's PearlWorks (pearlworks.com). Most old prewar Martins used "heart" shell from Green Abalone (Haliotis fulgens), a thin patch of material from the center of bigger and older shells where the animal was attached. Newer Martins typically used whatever was available, such as Red ab. (H. rufescens) in the 1960's reissues, and currently Abalam in either "standard" Green ab. (paler, with some "washboard" ripple figure) or "select" (darker, and harder to get), mainly because heart is no longer available as shells now are much younger/smaller and their darker colorations remain undeveloped.
The pearl herringbone of the D-50 was first seen on the Eric Clapton model, and is 100% Abalam, with the "chevron" shapes made from Agoya (or Akoya, Pinctada fucata), the small and slightly yellowish mother-of-pearl oyster used in culturing necklace pearls, while the .020" wide center stripe is pale "standard" grade Green ab. PearlWorks, in Charlotte Hall, Md., did the incredibly sophisticated and complicated CNC programming and cutting, which required technical tricks never attempted before. The first herringbone used black fibreboard/fishboard, but this was soon replaced with a special-blend black epoxy filler which gets soft when heated with a hair blow-dryer, in order to allow bending the strips around a guitar top without breaking or coming apart. It takes eight 9" straight pieces to do a top, and three pre-cut-to-the-curve sections for the rosette.
On Abalam itself: it's all natural, unstained, unenhanced, and untreated, but composed of shell that has been sliced into small pieces of thin (typ. .010") veneer which can then be flattened out in a pressure cooker before being trimmed of flaws, graded for color and figure, oriented for "right side up", and glued under pressure into multi-layered 5.5" x 9.5" sheets (as pointed out, the same general concept as plywood, but much more complicated).
It comes in 31 "flavors", taken from 18 species of fresh and salt-water nacreous shells, such as abalones, ocean pearl oysters, sea snails, mussels, Wing shells, clams, Turbos, and Pen shells. Because of the intense and highly skilled hand labor needed to produce it, and the stiff costs for prime-grade raw shell, it's not just a cheap substitute for solid shell, and certainly not a method to use "junk" grade or scrap shell, which are unusable and avoided! Abalam's a new completely different material from old style "solid" blanks, with many artistic and production advantages and only a few limited disadvantages.
Almost all top inlay artists such as Grit Laskin, Larry Robinson, Renee Karnes, Craig Lavin, and Harvey Leach use it extensively in some of the world's best hand-made instruments, and most top-end factory guitars also take advantage of this material. These makers use Abalam not because it's some type of cheap substitute for solid shell but because it allows things to be done with shell inlay that were not even remotely possible before its advent. The laminated shell offers several ecological (as well as manufacturing and artistic) advantages. First, we get 400-600% more material out of a shell than if it was processed into old-style solid blanks, thus easing pressure on and extending the life of precious natural shell resources. Second, since once-unusable small-sized or thin shells can now be made into Abalam, commercial pressure is spread over a much greater range of species than formerly, and shells which were once discarded as almost pure waste are now being utilized. Third, when cutting inlay from large sheets, the parts can be very tightly nested together, greatly reducing the amount of unused waste which was so typical of the old-style but much tinier "solid" shell blanks. Fourth, since production is so much more labor-intensive than with solid pieces, significant jobs and income have been produced for some very destitute but highly skilled people in Seoul and Jakarta, where our factories are located (we pay about 33% over the local rates, and employ two cripples in making round dots - no so-called "Nike" kids!). One of the most important qualities is its ability to take incredibly fine "spider-web" detail without disintegrating; it also allows large areas such as peghead backgrounds to be composed of one visually unbroken material, something which has become almost a "signature" effect in Mr. Laskin's work.
For the record, Abalam IS "real shell", in essence no different than "solid" flat blanks -- the only "natural" shell would be the soap-dish job the animal lived in (not limited to abalones, but including oysters, clams, mussels, and others), but from that point on both products are the work of human manufacture. Traditional blanks are cut from a shell and ground flat to many different thicknesses, and even though at some stage of increasing thinness the blanks become known as veneers, this is at best an arbitrary term since it's impossible to exactly define where a "blank" ends and a "veneer" begins! .030" solid material has been used for years, but is .029" stuff then something else? What about .025" thick shell? In fact, this is the top solid and engraveable layer found in one form of Abalam known as Gravlam, which really confuses things! Multi-layered Abalam proper is shell all the way to the bottom, nothing else in there except the epoxy holding it together, but is composed entirely of thinner pieces (typically .010") composed into thin layers which are then stacked to get increasing thicknesses.
Why are factories using the stuff? Shell installation time for an experienced luthier on a top and soundhole took about 1 1/2 - 2 hours using the older solid shell strips, which is now down to 5 - 15 minutes with CNC-cut Abalam. Material cost for solid shell would run $42.25 (Green ab.), in Abalam $68.75 (Green ab. "standard"). If doing a traditional D-45, materials would be: solid $136.85, Abalam $239.75.
So, since the materials cost is quite a bit more using laminates, does the savings in installation time make up for that? Depends on how busy a shop is (if not busy, they make more on a job doing it the old way), and what a builder figures his labor time is worth (the more it's worth, the better the laminates look as a choice!).
A factory however parses things out a bit differently than a one-man shop. They aren't so much concerned with how much they save in paid-out labor, as they are with how many "units" are produced in an hour. If they're paying a worker $10.00/hr. to install shell for 1.5 hrs., then a top and rosette using "solid" strips would cost them $57.25. The same worker using Abalam and 5 min. time to put it in would cost $69.58/top. A factory also amortizes all kinds of other overhead into the equation per hour, such as utilities, insurance, advertising costs, etc., bumping it up even more. But, if the factory gets, say, $300.00 for each shell top/rosette, then using Abalam the production goes from 1 top/1.5 hours to 18 tops/1.5 hrs., which in dollars is $300 worth of tops as opposed to $5,400 for the same time span! If we subtract costs of materials and labor, profit for 1.5 hours of factory time goes from $242.75 up to $4,147.56, even though the cost/top is greater.
The new Zip-Flex strips recently introduced by guitar maker Kevin Ryan take the benefits even further. While only slightly more expensive than regular Abalam strips, these are completely flexible in both directions and can thus be used on both the top and sides of a guitar, as well as around pickguards, around a peghead, and in other decorative elements. They also radically simplify parts inventory, since one "size" can be used to trim any model without needing to stock pieces specifically cut to the curve of each different instrument.
Interesting read ... Thanks