Eugenio Méndez (1929-2003)
Grand master of the Puerto Rican cuatro-making craft
Heño Méndez of Juncos, Puerto Rico, was the most prominent cuatro maker of his times (photo: Germán González)
"I take the plank, then I mark the plank with the template. All the unused wood I cut out and remove, and leave it like a skeleton there. Then I draw the cuatro on the wood that's left. I begin to hollow it and take out all I can from the box. Then I leave it, with the bottom a little thick. I don't leave it too thin, because if the wood isn't seasoned, the back will bend as it dries. It warps.
I leave at least half an inch to three-quarters thickness. This then accelerates the drying process. It's left to air out, but you can't put it in the sun. It's got to be in the shade. You can leave it there a month, a month and a half, depending... I work at least five, six or seven at a time, I hollow them out and put them there. Then I go to work on other things. When I come to see, and look for that piece, it's ready to work. I can start three or four. While I have two with the tops gluing, well I take two over here and start decorating them, and that way I work them two by two or one by one depending on how much work I got in the shop."
Heño Méndez of Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, was one of the most outstanding Puerto Rican cuatro-makers. Note from right to left above the progress sequence
The sound of the cuatro is related to the top. If you make the top too thick, it won't oscillate. The cuatro's top is like the diaphragm of a radio speaker. It's got to be that way, it can't be rigid. If the top is left rigid, it gives a sound that's too sharp, too tinny. It doesn't shoot out. The top must be thin, an eighth of an inch more or less. You can't make it thicker than that.
You put on the fan [braces]. It carries two little braces in the middle next to the sound hole. I don't put them on the box, instead I fix them to the top first. The brace that goes under the fingerboard, which crosses at its end, is straight and flat. The other one I give a little arch to give the top a little dome upwards. The reason for this is for when the strings are tuned, the string tension won't try to bend the top between the bridge and the soundhole. Some builders make it straight. Then, what happens, when they tune the cuatro the top eventually sinks into a downward bow, That's when the bridges twist and problems start. I've then got to adapt the bridge to that bow. I can't put on a flat bridge, I got to match it to the hollow of the top.
For the fingerboard, if I have ebony, I can use ebony. If I don't have ebony, I use native woods such as maga. It could also be acacia or ausubo and those woods that are among the hardest. The thickness can be five sixteenths. I work it till its straight. Then I make the subdivisions for the frets. I make the slots, trim the fingerboard to its proper shape and proceed to glue it on. I use Weldwood powdered glue.
After gluing it, well glued, I take it and sand it well, make it nice and straight, so that it doesn't have a hump...its got to be nice and straight. Then I clean out the fret slots and proceed to the insertion of the frets.I always dot the ends with glue so they'll stay down; so they'll always stay put.
After it's all finished; the frets and everything glued down; the last thing is the bridge. I cut it, prepare it to its proper height and that's the last thing that's done. From the bone nut to the bone saddle the distance is...I set it to twenty and a quarter (inches). That includes the compensation.
A ruler is placed on top of the fingerboard, from where it begins, with a little shim to lift it more or less to the height of the string..So it doesn't sit on top of the frets. Rather, it's raised about a thousandth (of an inch), which is what the raised string requires. Then the other end of the ruler is placed on top of the saddle bone, aiming to end up with the ruler lifted above the last fret by about an eighth of an inch. And that's how the string height is set there. That string height will be determined by the saddle bone at the bridge. So when one finishes the instrument, with the finish and all that, since you already allowed for the string height, you're not going to have any problems. If the action comes out a little high, you can sand down the saddle bone a little bit.
The nut bone
First I prepare the nut, I glue it in so that when you're going to slot it, it won't move; it stays in there firmly. Then I have a little nut templatewith the string divisions already on it. I mark it, then with a little hacksaw and a metal shim that I use, I cut each slot. When the saw reaches the shim, well it goes no farther, and the slot ends up a thousandth higher than the fret crown. So all the string heights at the nut end up evenly. It doesn't end up with some higher and some lower, they're all even.
Then I sand it, prepare it, knock of the sharp corners, and then between each string slot I make a little ornament with a round file, I make some little in-cuts, and the nut comes out looking fancy.
After all that is done, you take it and sand it all real well, the edges and corners of the cuatro are rounded so there won't be any sharp edges left. The edge of the sound box can sometimes bother the player.
So, its really well sanded and all the dust is cleaned off, and you proceed to shoot the finish. For the first coasts I use sanding sealer. I give it two or three coats until the pores are well filled, so the pores won't show. After the pores are well filled, I give it the final coats, which are of lacquer--clear lacquer, and I leave it to dry two or three days. Then it is sanded down with 600 grit waterproof sandpaper to knock off the shine, and then by rubbing, the shine is brought up with Kit, that's what one uses; car polish. After you rub it a lot, it ends up real shiny. You go over it with Kit and it ends up like glass.
That's the whole process."