Problem solved: A glass guitar that works

Nicole Harris
April 9, 2009
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, AUTO, FABRICATION

I once ripped out an article called, “How to Solve Almost Anything” from a US Airways Attaché magazine. The story told how Stan Mason, inventor of the squeezable ketchup bottle, stringless Band-Aids and pinless baby-fitted disposable diapers, tackles problems. Mason was quoted as saying invention is very simple; “anyone can be creative once they learn how.”

I’ve referred to Mason’s how-to list several times over the years (you can find the list at www.GlassMagazine.com) and was reminded of it when I received an unusual letter from Dave Hackett, manager of Premier Auto Glass, Waukesha, Wis., about a former glazier, a bonding system and his glass guitars. Here’s an excerpt.

“Brian Chivers has garnered local acclaim here in Waukesha and Milwaukee, in part due to the fact that he has been inspired by Les Paul (who was born and raised here in Waukesha, and is known as the inventor of the first solid body electric guitar). In fact, it was Les Paul, who after meeting Brian and autographing one of the art display guitars, encouraged him to ‘make one that works.’ ”

A lifelong drummer, Chivers made his first glass guitar 15 years ago as decoration for his basement rec room. He hand-cut horizontal strips of glass and experimented with various glues until he found a combination that fused the glass and gave it strength. A friend saw the result and told him he needed to make more of them, offering to put photos on a Web site. “Next thing you know, I’m sitting in a hotel room in 2007 with Les Paul,” says Chivers. Paul asked him if he’d ever thought of making a real one with working strings, he says. The guitar legend’s parting advice, “Don’t think about it, just do it.”

“I couldn’t sleep for two weeks,” says Chivers as he tried to figure out how to make a neck that wouldn’t snap in half with the added string tension. “Then one day, sitting in my studio just looking at my Les Paul wood guitar, I thought, ‘why can’t I make a glass log neck like he made a wood log neck?’ ” That solution solved a 2,300-per-square-inch tension problem.

Chivers traveled to Nashville to visit the world-famous Gibson Guitar company. They were impressed by the guitar’s crystal clear sound and gave Brian his next challenge: Make it lighter. Once home, he sat and looked at his first working guitar and it hit him: Reduce the overall weight by making cutouts in the guitar body. By notching the glass, he trimmed the weight from 23 pounds to 15 pounds to 11 pounds.

He also wanted to build a glass-stripped guitar with no visible seam lines. Much glue and experimentation later, Chivers hit on a bonding formula that literally dissolves the glass between the ¼-inch layered strips (he wears a respirator). He also figured out that he had to work in a 72-degree environment to keep air bubbles out of the bonded layers. These solutions, plus hours of hand polishing, have yielded an almost striation-free guitar body.

Chivers’ latest challenge: Simultaneously building four one-of-a-kind working guitars to meet his self-imposed delivery deadline to Gibson Guitars. Two of these are made of low-iron float glass and two of green-tinted float glass. One of them will be imbedded with small LED lights around the wings.

And that’s another, ah-ha moment story. One Christmas his 14-year-old son came home with a set of tiny yellow LED lights. “I knew it!” his son said, when he saw his father’s latest guitar model light up with the imbedded lights. Think of the look this would have on a dark stage, says Chivers. “I’ve got so many ideas in my head,” he adds, including an innovation that would help people learn how to play guitar, including Chivers himself. “I know everything about a guitar except how to play one,” he says.

What he misses these days is time to jam on his drums with band friends. But he has a solution for that, too. “I hope that when I sell one of these guitars to a rock or country music star that my contract will say I get to play the drums with the band.”

Meanwhile, his plan is to just “keep at it, solving one idea at a time.” Or as Mason puts it, problem-solving is “like trying on shoes. If one is too tight, you get a larger size.”

  • Problem-solving

    Even if you’re not obsessed about making a working glass guitar like Brian Chivers, Waukesha, Wis. is (see article), you encounter challenges every day. Here are nine ways to become a better problem-solver. Who knows, you may invent the next best thing since a working glass guitar.

    The following content is summarized from, “How to Solve Almost Anything” by Diane Cyr, November 1997 US Airways Attaché Magazine, in her interview about inventor Stanley Mason, president and CEO of Simco Inc., a think tank organization formed in 1973, which has created over 100 new products for more than 50 Fortune 500 companies.

    1. Know exactly what you want to solve
    Keep it simple and start with one word: How. A problem is not a movable target and neither is a goal, according to Mason. Don’t get waylaid by asking why? As in, "why are we over budget?”
    2. Research deeply
    Get into the problem using the “fork” method. When you want to sample a cake, you don’t just skim the frosting, you dig narrow but deep.
    3. Call in help
    Mason calls in experts (individually) and then picks among solutions. This requires listening and intuition which involves #4.
    4. Practice problem solving
    Keeping your brain flexible may involve doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, but even reading helps. Curiosity enables flexible thinking, says Mason. Observing your environment is also important. “Awareness translates into knowledge, which is the stuff of knowing whether a solution will work or not.”
    5. Sketch it out
    Exit your conscious mind by taking pen to paper and drawing a visual solution to the problem. Cyr tells how Mason describes an ordinary kitchen tool to his M.B.A. students and then asks them to draw what they see upside down. “By shutting down the left side of the brain (how something should look), the process opens up the intuitive right side.” That’s what lets the lightning bolts in.
    6. Churn
    Quantity can often produce quality. By whittling back what doesn’t fit, you get a better idea of what does. Mason did 120 version of his Band-Aid packaging before finding the perfect solution.
    7. Go see a movie
    Great ideas need to hibernate. “You have to let your mind work on a problem while you think about something else,” says Mason.
    8. Keep your space clear
    "A cluttered desk distracts and scatters thinking. A clean desk is a creative vacuum, inviting you to fill it with your thoughts"
    9. Know when to walk away
    Some problems may not be worth figuring out. Let it go. Listen to your gut; if you’ve stated your problem accurately, and you sense it can be worked out, it probably can. If not, every mistake has value.