Free rein on design

Ulrich Teuffel’s striking guitars are in demand all over the world, as both musical instruments and beautiful works of art. The guitar designer makes virtually all parts using a CNC milling machine and the SINUMERIK 840D sl.

Teuffel guitars

"Five-axis machining gives me entirely new freedoms in terms of design, because I can manufacture with extreme precision." Ulrich Teuffel, Managing Director, teuffelguitars

Just a brief glance into Teuffel’s tranquil timber-built workshop is enough to see that this is a place where extraordinary guitars are made with a great deal of creativity and craftsmanship. The guitar maker’s work is not designed for mass production and yearly he can make up to 20 different — and normally very unusual — instruments. His "birdfish" is especially extravagant, and its unconventional design is what brought about Teuffel’s international breakthrough as a guitar maker, in 1995. Today, Teuffel’s guitars are played by world-renowned musicians such as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Kirk Hammett of Metallica. However, it is not just musicians that appreciate how special these instruments are. For many years now, they have not only been played on the big stage but also sold in design galleries to art lovers and instrument collectors worldwide.

From the traditional acoustic to the electric guitar

Over the years Teuffel has moved away from the traditional way of constructing guitars to using a CNC milling machine with the SINUMERIK 840D sl, on which he now manufactures the majority of components himself. He still remembers starting out as a guitar maker: "Initially I built acoustic guitars in the traditional way, partly because at that time an electric guitar seemed too simple for me in terms of the craft involved. However, I then realized that electric guitars are far more than just instruments: for example, they can help to form a musician’s image, or symbolize a lifestyle." This is why Teuffel chose to cease traditional guitar manufacture and study industrial design at the age of 27. The founders and managers of the legendary guitar brand, Fender, became aware of his work and commissioned him to create an extensive design study. The guitar model he developed has never gone into production at Fender.

Contemporary machining methods

This was also the time when Teuffel developed his own special way of working. "One of my weaknesses is that, for a designer, I am no good at drawing by hand. Making a virtue out of necessity, I quickly moved from my initial scribbles and sketches to designs in CAD programs. I see electric guitars as an expression of our era of modern industrial production, so for me transitioning to CAM and manufacturing using CNC machines was only logical," says the guitar designer.

This way of working opened new doors for Teuffel: "For me, machining using CNC machines is not about productivity. Designing a new model takes months, or even years, meaning that I only make around 20 different guitars a year. Here, precision work is key. With the traditional methods using templates, it was extremely difficult to insert drill holes for the electronic components exactly perpendicular to the surface on the curved body of the guitar, or to place the screws in the neck and the body without any play. Five-axis machining gives me entirely new freedoms in terms of design, because I can manufacture with extreme precision." Teuffel has now perfected his working method: he designs in the CAD program; transfers the design into the CAM software, HyperMill; and then transfers it directly to the machine via the SINUMERIK.

All functional parts can be switched out

The unconventional design of the "birdfish" is what brought Teuffel his international breakthrough as a guitar maker, in 1995

The extent to which the manufacturing possibilitiesinfluence the design of Teuffel’s guitar models is illustrated by the layout and structure of the birdfish. Its design embodies the idea of industrial manufacturing: modularity, separation, flexibility, and variety in materials. On the birdfish, a musician can change or move the pickups, tonewoods, and other functional elements. This would be impossible without the dimensional accuracy provided by a precise CNC machine. Customers get several part sets for their instruments, with each configuration having its own character in terms of sound.

Teuffel’s newer guitar designs — such as the niva, tesla, and antonio — also show how much of a perfectionist he is. Where other guitar makers’ fret slots are sawed into the neck of the guitar, he uses end mills in his Reichenbacher milling machine with the SINUMERIK 840D sl. The reason is clear, as Teuffel explains: "This means that the edge of the fret slot is kept and the neck of the guitar is intact and smooth at the side — which makes the guitar considerably nicer to play." However, getting there took a long time, remembers the guitar maker: "Wood is a special material, and every type has its own characteristics. Even rounding edges requires very differentiated machining strategies and precise control, otherwise the wood can start to splinter. In the beginning I had the milling done by other model makers, but the results always fell short of my expectations. Today, other than a few screws, electronic elements, and the strings, I make everything myself — including the lacquer and parts of the pickups."

Investing in new technology

Teuffel now works toward almost 100% vertical integration and is constantly improving his artistic and technical skills. "My milling machine is getting on, and is actually really too large-scale for guitar making. I am currently working on designing a CNC machine that is tailored exactly to my special requirements as a guitar manufacturer."

Pictures Teuffel and SINUMERIK

Teuffel and SINUMERIK

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