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HOW IT'S MADE - Carbon gives the sitar a new body

News International-French

1 Jun 2019

Harry Shaffer, a luthier and founder of Carbon Sitars, based in Asheville, NC (USA), combines craftsmanship and technicality in his use of carbon fibre to make the body of his instruments. By marrying aesthetics and acoustic performance, he is helping to guide the sitar into the twenty-first century.

Carbon gives the sitar a new body
Carbon Sitars was created in 2013 for the purpose of creating more durable sitars with superior acoustic qualities. Its founder, Harry Shaffer, had been making stringed instruments since 1986, and decided to produce an all-carbon fibre sitar body.

When tradition meets up with modernity
Three key areas of a sitar are weak: the lower tumba, the neck joint, and the neck itself. These tend to deteriorate and crack, which can significantly warp the sound over time, making the instrument practically unplayable. By proposing its all-carbon-fibre sitars, Carbon Sitars intends to eliminate these problems, and more.

Traditional sitars utilize tension-held tuning pegs. Two holes are drilled completely through the neck, and the long wooden peg is chalked and pushed into the hole. This design is prone to slippage and detuning of the string. After regular use, these pegs lose their ability to hold tension effectively, and must be taken out, lightly sanded and chalked, and then put back in. Over time, if the player is not careful with how far the pegs are pushed in, they can produce cracks in the neck. Carbon Sitars solved the problem by using an internal rail, which grips the pegs without damaging them (just how it works is a trade secret). The carbon-fibre bodies also require only a single hole, leaving the neck smooth on the side where  the player’s hand touches it and making it easier to glide up and down the neck. Function is not the only selection criterion when purchasing a sitar, as the beauty of the instrument is also important. The design and carbon-fibre look of Carbon Sitars launches this traditional instrument into  the twenty-first century.

How it is made: The Lower main body part
Step 1: Display the carbon fiber into the mold

Carbon gives the sitar a new body

Step 2: Pre-bend the kerfing before gluing them in place.

Pre-bending the kerfing before gluing them in place.

Step 3: Cure under infrared light for around 12 hours and demold

A new sitar is born

A new sitar is born

Step 4: Trimm up the sides Final trimming of the edges before joining the two halves..

Trimming up the sides. This one's almost ready for some black paint.

What are the advantage of carbon fibre ?
The carbon-fibre body makes the instrument invulnerable to variations in temperature and climate, so humidity can no longer warp or deteriorate the instrument, making it go out of tune. The mechanical strength properties also greatly  facilitate travel for musicians, who no longer need to worry that the baggage handler will damage their instrument by throwing it into the hold of the aircraft they are travelling on to their next concert!

Another advantage is that carbon provides better acoustic qualities than wood, thanks to improved resonance. The instrument – traditionally assembled from natural materials (Indian mahogany for the neck, a dried pumpkin for the rounded body) – gains in resonance, with a louder sound. The Carbon Sitars solution also cuts down on the demand for exotic wood – a good argument in the context of an alarming global deforestation.

The problems with quality that are linked to the assembly of the instrument’sdifferent components are eliminated with the Carbon Sitars carbon-fibre body. The one-piece construction of the carbon body means that there are no joints, and therefore no risk that the joining materials will deteriorate over time. Carbon is also used for the other crucial instrument parts. Carbon Sitars uses a special graphite-based composite nut and string guide on its instruments that is self-lubricating, and extremely tough. Bridges are constructed out of the same graphite-based composite material as the nut.

> As a luthier, how do you utilize carbon fibre?

Harry Shaffer
Harry Shaffer, CEO Carbon Sitars: "I use carbon fibre and epoxy resins from US Composites. The carbon fibre is a 5.7oz 2x2 3K twill, which gives me great drapability for the complex gourd shapes of the sitar. I keep the bodies fairly thin, around 1.2mm because of the resonance and volumes that can be achieved, which is very beneficial for an instrument like the sitar, where each and every string must vibrate together to achieve its characteristic sound. In order to support the immense downward pressure of the strings on the top, I use a bracing system that was originally innovated by famed Australian luthier Greg Smallman, where balsa wood strips are cut and glued into a lattice pattern, and then glued to the top using epoxy and reinforced with strips of 12K carbon-fibre tow. This gives me the advantage of having a very strong, light top, which resonates with a better volume than a traditional sitar, while having the added advantage of not being sensitive to environmental changes, something traditional sitars a very sensitive to."

> Can you tell us more about the resins that US Composites develops?
Harry Shaffer, CEO Carbon Sitars: "I use their 615 Thin Epoxy Resin System. I have found that it is very forgiving to use with hand layup techniques, while giving me the strength I need for such a thin application. Each part is cured under infrared light for around 12 hours, which gives me a very low cost and convenient way to cure parts in my small shop without having to operate the large autoclave that would be necessary for these big parts."

> How did you come into contact with this supplier?
Harry Shaffer, CEO Carbon Sitars: "US Composites did not assist me during the development of the original prototype. I found them later, when looking for suppliers who were in the region and were offering US-made materials. This helps me reduce the cost of my manufacturing process. As you know, carbon fibre can be very expensive, and in order to compete with Indian-made sitars that can cost merely a few hundred dollars, I had to do a lot of work to reduce the amount of time, money, and work involved to make a reasonably affordable instrument for the average player."

How it is made: The Upper part
Step 1: Display the carbon fiber into the mold, popp out of the mold and trimm up the sides

Top half of a sitar after it's popped out of the mold.

Step 2: Shappe the lattice bracing before gluing a layer of carbon fiber tow down, which creates a very strong composite sandwich

Model A ready to get all the internal components shaped and glued up



Gluing up the balsa carbon fiber bracing of a sitar.

Gluing up the balsa carbon fiber bracing of a sitar.

How it is made: Assembling the Lower Part and Upper part

Checking everything before gluing the top down and carving the top.

> Harry Shaffer, how long does it take you to assemble an entire sitar?

Harry Shaffer
Harry Shaffer, CEO Carbon Sitars: Depending on the complexity of the design, it takes me anywhere from one to 5 months to make a sitar. The carbon-fibre body itself only takes 2-3 days to fabricate from start to finish – usually, the rest of the time is taken up by the design, custom specifications, and setup that go into making a sitar. A complicated custom sitar can sometimes take up to 300 hours to complete, because there are so many parts involved, and I make everything from scratch. I currently have around a 2-year wait list for custom instruments.

> What challenges will you tackle next?
Harry Shaffer, CEO Carbon Sitars: I am in the preliminary stages of working with Savitribai Phule Pune University in Pune, India to assist in research on the use of carbon fibre in making Indian stringed instruments. They are using modal and audio analysis to determine the differences between traditional wood instruments and my carbon-fibre sitars. This will help me further refine a sound that is close to a traditional instrument, while having the added advantage of more volume, resonance, and greater durability than the very fragile traditional sitar. There has been very little scientific research in this field, so it’s very exciting to be part of research that will shed light on why sitars sound the way they do, and how using composite materials can help bring these traditional instruments into the 21st century.



After a primer coat, paint, gloss coat, and wet sanding !

Ready for assembly

How it is made: The final carbon Sitar

The final Sitar part

Final part