The Fender Custom Shop Birdflower Telecaster

The Fender Custom Shop Birdflower Telecaster®

The Fender Custom Shop Birdflower Telecaster.
Photo by Steve Pitkin

The Fender Custom Shop is known worldwide as a “dream factory” where dedicated and supremely talented craftsmen have created the best of Fender’s best for nearly a quarter of a century. That said, every once in a while the Custom Shop tops even its own lofty standards by delivering an instrument of such splendidly virtuoso work that it demands special mention.

The Birdflower Telecaster® is just such an instrument. Its top and fingerboard are adorned with stunning handcrafted inlay work in mother-of-pearl, abalone, silver wire and copper wire. These iridescent elements are fashioned into an elaborate floral theme with an elegant “mystique bird” emanating from a flowering branch on the upper bout, with fine custom engraving on the neck pickup, bridge cover and control knobs.

It really must be seen to be believed. It took three years to design and build.

Far from the starkly utilitarian design ethic that has defined the Telecaster since its 1951 debut as a simple and affordable workingman’s electric guitar, the Birdflower Telecaster is a delicate and finely wrought masterwork. It is the Telecaster raised to an exponentially higher level of artistic interpretation. In wood, wire, metal and nacre, it is the very embodiment of what the Custom Shop is all about.

The instrument is the work of Yuriy Shishkov, an 11-year veteran Custom Shop Master Builder who spent years honing his world-class luthiery skills in the shadows in his native land, the former Soviet Union, before immigrating to the United States in 1990.

Even the initial drawings are beautiful. Above, before the Birdflower could take form in wood and metal, it first had to take form on paper. Below, blank inlay “shells” of white and gold mother-of-pearl and pieces of green, pink and blue abalone from which inlay pieces were cut.

The Birdflower’s genesis came as the second half of the 2000s began, when Shishkov was looking for a way to put some claro walnut (prized among makers of high-end furniture and decorated firearms) that had been sitting around the shop since his arrival to good use. At that same time, he conceived of an instrument nearly covered with fine inlay work that evoked intricate flowing and scrolling architectural elements of buildings in the city of his birth, St. Petersburg, Russia.

“The idea came to make a guitar using that beautiful wood, which at that time was already well dried and ready to be used,” he said. “Inlay work was a perfect project for something like that. The idea behind this guitar was to do something resembling centuries-old-style art in a modern instrument.”

With its flat body and the absence of an upper horn providing more room to work on, a Telecaster would be the perfect canvas, Shishkov thought.

“The Telecaster has more room for creativity if you want to do some artwork on the body,” he said. “A Stratocaster would have been my second choice, but accomplishing the inlay pattern I designed and its flow was only possible on a Telecaster body.”

The initial design sketch was finished in 2007. There was a catch, however; one that Shishkov knew meant that the guitar would take a great deal of time to finish—he would do the wealth of meticulous inlay work by hand rather than relying on the CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines used for such detailed work in the modern age. It would take a great deal of concentration, patience and time.

“Entrusting this difficult task to CNC machines simplified inlay work, but at the same time made handcrafted inlay work one of the fastest-dying forms of artistry,” Shishkov said. “While machines can produce high-quality work in unlimited quantities, they’ll never truly reproduce the spiritual value of hand-made art. At the Fender Custom Shop, in many cases our job can only be done by hand, which is the way I prefer to do my inlay work. The objective was to create an interesting inlay design with ‘digital’ accuracy. I knew it would be a very ambitious project, and it was. What made the concept so intriguing is that while CNC machines have powerful high-tech benefits, I could do something that robotic technologies still can’t. In the end, this guitar turned out to be the most challenging and exciting inlay project I’ve ever done.”

And so the first of hundreds of building hours commenced. Key components were decided on: a well-aged ash body beneath the claro walnut top; Ivoroid binding; a triple-A bird’s eye maple neck with a modern C shape; an ebony fingerboard with a 9.5” radius and 22 medium jumbo frets; a Fender Texas Special neck pickup and 1963-style Telecaster bridge pickup (both hand-wound by Abigail Ybarra); modern electronics that would be installed from the rear of the body, modern Fender pearl-button-key tuners, and a thin hand-polished lacquer finish.

Above, Shishkov carefully cuts each small inlay piece from the blank shells using a jewelry saw. Below, he uses a hand mill to excavate the shallow “pockets” in the walnut top for the inlay pieces.

The long, arduous hours of inlay work began once the body and neck were made. Paper copies of small segments of the inlay design were glued to the “shells”—blank pieces of white and gold mother-of-pearl, and pieces of green, pink and blue abalone. Each small segment was cut with a jewelry saw; a process that could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour per piece depending on the complexity of the design (and the temperament of the dense, brittle marine material and fragile saw blades, the latter of which required frequent replacement).

Then, with various small needle files, each small cutout inlay piece was filed into perfect shape. These were traced onto the body so that their “pockets” could be made in the wood. Because each small shell had to fit perfectly in its pocket (“Any mistake here can potentially ruin the project,” Shishkov said), this was the slowest and most important step in the inlay process. Each small pocket was carefully excavated with a hand mill. Then, using a specially sharpened knife used under great magnification, Shishkov carefully sheered the walls of each inlay pocket with microscopic precision and surgical focus for a tight fit. These steps were repeated again and again on the claro walnut top and on the ebony fingerboard until the entire design lay perfectly in place. This took hundreds of hours over the course of many months during which Shishkov often had to postpone the painstaking work to tend to other Custom Shop projects and responsibilities.

Once all the inlay pieces were fitted, they were glued in place and sealed with just a bit protruding from the surface of the body and fingerboard. Then, with a large aluminum block and sandpaper, all the inlay pieces were leveled flush with the surface of the body.

Even then, however, the inlay work wasn’t yet complete. The next step was to add the silver and copper wire inlays of various thicknesses that form many of the most intricate floral details.

“Many times I’ve been asked how I ‘draw the lines on the wood,’” Shishkov said. “And every time people are amazed to see that it’s just a thin piece of metal hammered in. This work, despite its tediousness, is very interesting and rewarding. The ‘lacing’ scrolls and veins give the whole design more lightness and transparency. I use this technique extensively in all my inlay projects.”

Shishkov’s wire-inlay technique, although seldom encountered today, was used for centuries to embellish exquisite firearms and furniture. A narrow channel is cut one small segment at a time and the wire hammered into it without using glue or any other adhesive. A drop of water then swells the wood and locks the wire in place. Forever. “You have only one shot at making the cut in the right order and at the right angle,” Shishkov said. “Even your own heartbeat can interfere with the required precision.”

Above, Shishov uses a specially sharpened knife to perfect an inlay pocket on the upper bout. Below, each carefully crafted inlay piece must fit exactly into its pocket.

With inlay work then complete, the guitar was ready for finish application—always a crucial step. Here again, Shishkov had very definite ideas about what he wanted. He definitely didn’t want a lot of shiny high-gloss lacquer coats, as such finishes are often prone to fading, shrinking and cracking. He turned once again to old-world forms and methods, opting for a very thin hand-polished lacquer finish that would look great and protect the instrument without hindering the wood’s tonal resonance.

The result, which resembles an antique violin varnish, “took a lot of experiments and trials” and was “impossible to achieve with ordinary modern-day finishing procedures” Shishkov said. “It will last for decades without any shrinkage or loss of its fresh look.”

Three years had elapsed. It was late 2010, and the guitar was just then undergoing final assembly. All the hardware was installed, and green velvet flocking was applied inside the neck pickup chamber. As these final details fell into place, Shishkov regarded his work with a practiced eye as he had for so many months, and was struck by the fabulous bird winging its way across the upper bout of the as yet unnamed instrument. At that moment it occurred to him to name it the “Birdflower” Telecaster.

“In the process of writing a description of the instrument, I noted that ‘Birdflower’ is not a real plant but rather a made-up name,” he said. “But just in case, I decided to check to see if that was correct, and I was surprised to find that a plant called a ‘Bird-flower’ does exist! It’s a subtropical plant that blooms little flowers in the shape of a bird, also called a Pedilanthus.”

And then it was done. There was no more work left to do on it, and Shishkov could finally sit back—albeit briefly—and reflect on his finished creation and all that went into it.

“Every guitar I make is not only an interesting building process, but also an evolving transformation that is pleasing to observe,” he said, “Like any guitar builder, I value the process of making my instruments as much as the customers value owning them.”

Above, Shishkov gingerly places a small inlay piece on the upper bout; just to the right of the tweezers is the as yet unoccupied pocket for the “mystique bird.” Below, lower bout detail of half-complete inlay work surrounding the holes for the volume and tone knobs.

The Birdflower is exquisite; the Custom Shop’s latest artistic wonder rendered on the canvas of Fender’s oldest and most elemental electric guitar. “All it takes is a little imagination, and you can create a masterpiece out of practically anything,” Shishkov said. “The Telecaster is my favorite guitar for its simplicity—it’s as simple as a wheel, but wheels can take you to any destination. For me, it was an unforgettable project, and I am happy that I had an opportunity to work on it.”

And for any Custom Shop builder, finishing a guitar inevitably means parting with it—a pretty heavy moment for any craftsman who has poured not just hundreds of hours but his heart and soul into his work. But these instruments aren’t built to stay in the shop for appreciation only by those few who made them; they are of course destined for admiration—and actual use—by the outside world. Each Custom Shop builder knows that implicitly, and so takes the moment of parting in stride.

“We let all our guitars go, which leaves us only with the memories of their creation,” Shishkov said. “They’re treasures, and seeing a guitar you’re working on evolve not only shows you the physical progression of your craft, but also gives you some unforgettable feelings. This guitar was very special for its interesting challenges, and watching it take shape was like watching a small plant grow to a fruitful tree.”

Custom Shop creations like Shishkov’s Birdflower Telecaster come along only once. There are simply too many artistic and adventurous ideas that brew in the Custom Shop for its builders to repeat themselves. The creativity at work there day in and day out is inexhaustible, and Shishkov notes that not for nothing has the Custom Shop earned its nickname.

“A lot of interesting ideas are waiting to be brought to life, and all of them will have different concepts and precious materials for their execution,” he said. “The ‘Dream Factory’ is fulfilling its name, and for me to be a part of it is bigger than a dream.”

Visit the Fender Custom Shop online at www.fendercustomshop.com.

Finely crafted inlay pockets in the ebony fingerboard; note the pattern drawing beneath the tools.

Shishkov puts a small section of fingerboard inlay in place using tweezers and magnification.

The fingerboard inlay work is leveled flush using an aluminum block and sandpaper.

Shishkov meticulously routs a wire inlay channel around the headstock logo.

Headstock wire inlay pieces are gently hammered into place.

In one of the most delicate inlay tasks, Shishkov cuts extremely narrow channels in small sections for the many wire inlay pieces; the one seen here is just below where the bridge will be.

Putting a wire inlay in place. No adhesive is used; a drop of water swells the wood around the wire, permanently locking it into place.

With all body inlay pieces in place, Shishkov levels them flush with the surface of the walnut top using sandpaper on a large aluminum block.

All photos courtesy Fender Custom Shop except where otherwise indicated.


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