Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Oh look, more templates!

Pictured: The Topography of Desire
Remember a while back when I said, "My thought process (if we are going to call it that) is that digging holes is probably what should be next." And by digging holes I meant the neck pocket and the pickup cavities.  My reasoning was that a flat guitar body is easier to route than a curved guitar body.  There is a sort of simple (nay, simplistic) logic to it: It's easier to balance on a brick than on a basketball.

If you have been reading along - you probably have guessed that this was not, in fact, what I did next.  As I write this post neither of the body blanks has a neck pocket or pickup cavities carved out.  I blame this development on Scott Wilkinson.

Who is Scott Wilkinson you ask and why am I blaming thim?

When I start any new guitar build - I do a fair amount of research as to the process involved.  I try to identify a few different ways that other people have accomplished things and pick the one that is most closely aligned with my skill set and current tool compliment.  Quite often I borrow a little from several approaches.  But really, I like to see how other people have tackled their projects and in what order (and why).  

Scott (also known as ExNihilo on the forum) outlined a very clear process for how to build a Les Paul based on the classic 1950's version of the guitar.  I decided that since his approach was so well documented and lauded that there might be something to it.  The reasoning is this: it will be difficult to gauge the proper depths and placements for the neck pocket and pickup cavities until the body blank is in a semi-final size/shape.  To be clear - my build differs from Scott's in a few crucial ways but using his experience as a guide -  the next logical step for me is to carve the tops of these body blanks.

Which of course means more frickin' templates... 

Courtesy of Scott Wilkinson (aka ExNihilo)
In addition to posting his build experience online Scott also posted a PDF of the templates that he created to carve the top of his Les Paul using a router.  So, because I was having so much fun making templates I decided, "Why not make seven more?"

Not Pictured: Tons of Fun!
The PDF helps you carve the guitar top by breaking it out into unique strata that you route to different depths.  When I get to the actual routing this will make more sense but for now - each line in the drawing equates to a different template that I will use to rout the body blank.

I chose to print out one of these PDFs and cut out each individual strata.  It seems like most people print out seven PDFs and cut away what they don't need.  Both ways work.  But my way was very 'fussy' when it came to tracing them as the paper strips were pretty flimsy.

If I were to do it again - I probably wouldn't try to save the trees.  I'd spend more time saving my sanity by printing out the seven pages. 

...the tree-hugger in me died a little bit writing that sentence (but then again my hobby requires trees to be cut down so who's fooling who?).  

Regardless of the method you use - the goal is to end up with seven templates of different sizes. I used the jig saw again to cut out the rough shapes and then cleaned them up with the belt/disc sander. - just like I did with the body blank template.  This process kicks up a lot of sawdust.

Post Jig Saw but Pre Belt Sander

Now might be a good time to mention dust management / mitigation. 

You shoulda seen my shoes!

See that?  It's sawdust.  

Lots and lots of sawdust

I'm no doctor but my guess is that a bunch of this crap in your lungs probably isn't good for you.  So, I wore a dust mask while shaping these on the sander.  In fact - I've been wearing eye, ear, and dust protection for most of the steps in this blog. 

The first time you put one on you have to say, "Luke, I am your father!"
It's the law.

Since I don't have a dust collection system or air cleaner in my shop I went overboard with a heavy-duty dust mask.  The one in the above picture is really meant for spraying finishes or other VOCs.  A sanding/painters mask is probably good enough.  I like using it because it works really well at keeping dust out of my lungs and because regular dust masks usually fog up my eye protection and this doesn't.

They are your lungs - so do what you like.  But if you are going to make a habit of this hobby (and you don't have the cash for a real dust collection system) you might want to think about picking one of these up.

Guitars are like onions...
...or is it parfait?
In the end - you sand - you shape - you take your time and try not to lose your mind doing the same thing over and over.  I'll share a secret with you - not one of those templates is exactly like the drawing they are supposed to emulate.  These are just to get you to a starting point with your top.  There is a whole lot of planing, sanding, and scraping that needs to be done after the router and these templates are packed away.  Don't fuss and fret over these.  It's a long road ahead.

You may be wondering what the lines are on the above templates.  They are to help me line up the templates with the body blanks.  I'll draw a similar set of lines on the body blank and use these registration marks to lmatch everything up correctly.

As a final note:  This is just one way to carve a top.  In my research I also found a phenomenally talented (and tattooed) luthier who did this all free-hand with an angle grinder.  Go your own way!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Templates, templates, and more templates

First one who says, "I heart this" gets beaten with a bag of nickels

By this point you should get the gist.  Guitar building takes a lot of templates if you want to make things look decent and make the steps repeatable.  I'll try not to go into excruciating detail on this but here's what's cookin'.  

Almost looks like a film noir Jabba
That black piece of plastic is the control cover for a Paul Reed Smith guitar.  It covers (as you would imagine) the control cavity in the back of the guitar.  That's where all the volume, tone, and switching controls are located.  The cover makes it easy for repair persons to get at everything but also protects the delicate bits from abuse. Remember we're talking about guitarists here - this is the same group of knuckleheads that think it's 'artistic' to smash a headstock through a speaker cab.

Pictured: Close enough!
There are two control covers for the Les Paul and one for the PRS.  I'm planning on making templates for all of them.  Here's the kicker - the control covers are supposed to be flush with the back of the guitar - not sit on top.  Which means I have a decision to make - build two sets of templates for each control cover - or do some creative routing.  I'm undecided right now.

If I decide to make two templates for each control cavity one is slightly smaller than the other.  In essence you dig one big hole for the electronics and a smaller ledge or lip at the edge of the first hole that is slightly larger and only about 1/16 of an inch deep for the cover to sit on.

Which reminds me - at some point I'm going to have to get some plastic and make those covers...

Forstner Bit (aka The Hog)

One note about the above template:  I didn't make 'relief' cuts in this for the jig saw to follow.  I made relief holes at each of the corners.  I used a 1 inch forstner bit for the two rounded areas at the top and a 1/4 inch bit for the point at the bottom.  I was then able to cut from hole to hole using the jig saw and clean everything up by hand with sandpaper and a small file/rasp.  I then repeated the process for one of the Les Paul control covesr (see below).

Ever feel like you're just digging frickin' holes?
If you have slightly more money than time (and you don't have a Les Paul or PRS handy to trace the parts) you can just buy some of these templates instead of making them.  I usually buy them here.
For whatever reason (read laziness) I decided to buy the template I'll be using to route the pickup cavities.

Pictured: impulse buy!
I'll probably use this template to route a thicker template at some point - as this is both thin and small but for now it's one less template that I have to make.  Which is making me happy.

For those playing the home game - this is template #7 for these builds.
If I ever want to do this again - I'm gonna be all set!

Friday, April 10, 2015



I'll be honest, a sailor would have blushed at the vigor and color of my language after seeing this development.  This crack formed soon after I unclamped the PRS - so I've known about it for a little while now.  I wanted to address it - and talk about fixing it in the same post so, I've been holding out until now to discuss it.

rassa frakin' rackin' on a rassa frackin' rackin' rack

So, what happened?  

A few things could have happened: I didn't use enough glue (or pressure) on that spot, there was a killer twist/warp to one of the pieces of the lamination that I didn't see, the temperature and humidity could have been too extreme while this was curing, or the router (being on the endgrain) may have knocked these two pieces of the laminate loose when I was routing the body.  I don't know for sure.  Looking at the crack (and you can see clear from top to bottom for the first 1/4 inch) it looks like there wasn't enough glue to hold it together at this spot and the router probably jolted the pieces apart.  Looking at the guitar top (above picture) the crack runs about 1 to 2 inches.  Looking at the bottom it runs for less than an inch.

What to do...?

The rest of the joint is strong and not moving anytime soon - so it doesn't make sense to tear the body blank apart and start over.  I need to fill the crack but also strengthen the joint in that area.  The most popular solution is to use CA glue.  Cyanoacrylate Glue (also known as Superglue) is clear, strong, and quick to harden.  Also, if you buy the right kind (for example - not the kind you find in your local pharmacy or supermarket) it will 'wick' into the crack and really seal the fissure.

Aw, come on.  I'm great with kids!
I will admit - I may have just swallowed a bunch of marketing info-babble.  But to my eyes this stuff seeped into the crack better than the contents of a regular bottle of Superglue would have.  Also, this comes with precision applicators that regular Superglue doesn't (which alone was worth the $2 premium I paid for this stuff).

The real trick to this process is not to just flood the crack with CA glue and call it a day but also to add saw dust and CA glue in layers to help fill the gap and also make it easier to hide the repair.

Did I say 'saw dust?'  I meant saw powder.

Not pictured: lines
That tiny (and I mean tiny!) pile of powder above is the result of 5 minutes of sanding with 220 grit sandpaper.  For the new arrivals - sandpaper is identified by grit.  60/80 grit is your Arnold Schwarzenegger level of paper - strong, but lacking any subtlety.  100 to 180 grit is your Tom Cruise level of paper - workman-like but lacking finesse.  200 to 400 grit is where we start to get some grace - maybe Ed Harris or Anthony Hopkins.  Somewhere around 1000 grit we hit Meryl Streep territory and after that the analogy falls apart...

So, what I'm saying is that the Yellowheart 'dust' in the above picture is closer to baby powder than wood chips.  I made three piles of powder (one for the top, one for the back, and one for the edge of the body blank).  Step one was to flood a little CA glue into the top of the crack and let it dry.
Step two was to pack the wood powder into the crack from each side.

Crack is whack
Step three was to pour the CA glue over that packed in powder.
Step four was to repeat the above steps until the wood powder/CA glue mixture was proud of the crack.
I may look ugly now - but I'm drinkin' CA glue.  And someday I'm gonna be strong!

Then we wait.  But this is superglue, so we don't wait long!
That stuff cures hard as a rock - and when you add the Yellowheart powder it has something to bond to and form around.  So, you are left with a mound of Yellowheart 'rock.'
The trick is that rock doesn't 'sand out' that well.  I ended up using a card scraper to remove all the excess CA glue and Yellowheart.  If you don't have one - I recommend getting one.  Card scrapers are great for a lot of guitar building tasks (like installing binding).

This is what is left over after you scrape and sand...

Not pictured: perfection

Pictured: Better living through chemicals

The above pictures aren't bad.  But You won't fool anyone.  You can see the line of hardened CA glue.
What happens when we wipe on a little mineral spirits to simulate a lacquer finish...?

Better but room for improvement

Pictured: not terrible
I'm going to hold off judgement until I start carving this top.  The above spot is going to be a 1/2 inch shorter after I'm done carving - so who knows how it will look.  I'm satisfied that I have stopped the crack and strengthened the joint.  I'll deal with the aesthetics when the time comes.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Making the thing that helps me make the thing - Part 2

That's a funny looking comb.
I ended my last post with two body blanks shaped and ready for what's next.

So, what's next?

There are many different answers to this question.  I've seen people carve the arch into the guitar tops next, or route the channel for installing the binding, or attach the neck to the body.  My thought process (if we are going to call it that) is that digging holes is probably what should be next.  And there's a good reason for that - the body blanks are currently flat - so the router will sit nice and level on them.

You try routing a square hole on a rounded surface - tears will be shed, vulgarities shouted, tools cast down, and alcoholic beverages consumed.

What kind of holes are we talking?

Exhibit A: holes

The biggie is the neck pocket.  Then comes the holes for the pickups, control cavities, bridge posts control knobs, and on and on.  There are, in fact, a massive number of holes in a 'solid' body guitar.
It only gets worse if you build a guitar with a tremolo system like a Stratocaster.

The smaller holes (like for the bridge posts and control knobs) can be made with a drill bit but the bigger holes need to be dug with a router - especially the neck pocket.  And if we're talking routers - then we're also talking templates.

So, it's a comb template?

I have three guitar necks - so that's why this template has three holes.  Just like underwear - one size does not fit all.   Each neck is just different enough that I can't use one generic neck-pocket template.  They have to be unique.

The thing about the neck pocket is that it has to be so many things: the neck needs to fit snug but not too snug, it has to have the correct angle (this will be a whole post in itself), it has to be the correct depth, and it needs to be perfectly in-line with the bridge or the strings will hang off of the fret board.  The neck pocket is pretty crucial to get right.  But, why?  In short, if the neck doesn't sit in the pocket correctly the guitar will never play correctly.

Add to this one other crucial element: wood shrinks and swells with humidity changes.
If you have to force the neck into the neck pocket when you are assembling the guitar - what's going to happen five years from now when we have a month of 95% humidity?  Yo guitar is gonna do the banana splits!

So, that was the long explanation for why I built the above template.  As for how I built this template...

Not pictured: power tools 
I started out the same way as all the other templates: tracing the necks and cutting the rough shape with a jig saw.  Then I just went very slowly with sandpaper wrapped around a stick (or a sharpie for the corners).  It took about 20 - 30 minutes per neck but now the templates fit those necks almost perfectly.
Not pictured: excitement

Not pictured: adventure

You literally make 20 passes at a time on one side of the template and then 20 passes on the other with the sandpaper.  Then you stop and check the fit.  It is just the kind of precision work that I was not made for.  But it is what it is.  This is one step that wood glue and sawdust won't cover up. This is my fourth (and fifth) time doing this - and I'm just now learning this lesson.

Not pictured: my forte 

Pictured: almost perfect.

So the templates are ready to be used.  Now I just have to figure out how deep to dig and at what angle.  Those will be the subjects of my next post.

You may have noticed I glossed over a couple of things:

1)  I only worked on two of the neck pockets on this template.
No sense working on neck #3 until there is a body #3!

2) How is it I just happen to have three necks kicking around?
Um... I'll cover that in another post.

And the mistakes begin! (Part 1)

Pictured: How I probably should have been doing this all these years.
I like the new template.  And I like the new process I've started using for routing body blanks.  Because I took my time (and used the disc sander) while making the Les Paul template it is probably the best one I've made yet.  In addition, taping the template to the body allows me to use just one clamp - so, I can go half-way around the body, move one clamp, and do the other half.
That's a lot faster and easier than my previous multi-clamp process.

Switching up the router bits takes time but makes for a smoother finished product.

Pictured: a couple of passes. Not pictured: a slap in the face.
The above image is after two passes with the 1/4 inch router bit (seen below).

Judge me by my size, do you?
Take a look at this bit for a sec.  You will notice that the blade is the same width as the ball bearing beneath it.  That's how this whole template business works.  The ball bearing follows (is pressed up against) the template and the blade (aka bit) cuts the wood beneath to match.

(fyi - the above router is upside down)

As long as the blade and the bearing are the same width - all is right with the world.
Remember I said that.

If you look closer at the base of the router bit you see where it enters the router collet (it's the part that holds the bit in place).  If you lower that collet too far down  it starts to rub against the template - usually burning it or deforming it in the process. If you are truly not paying attention - it will do both.  I speak from experience as at least two of my previous templates have burns and/or gouges from that particular mistake.  This is the service I provide.  I make these mistakes so you don't have to!

With the above router bit I can only make two passes on the body before I have to switch out the bit for a longer one.  So, in went the 3/4 inch bit and I made two or three passes.
...and things were looking good.

Pictured: Looking good.
As I said in a previous post (and as you can see below) at some point you can remove the template and just use the body blank as your template.  When and how you do this is based on how long your bits are.

...and now get your mind out of the gutter.

I made a total of 5 or 6 passes with the 3/4 inch bit - until there was 1/4 of an inch (maybe 3/8 of an inch) left on the bottom to remove.  Then I moved the clamp to the other side of the body blank to make the same 5 or 6 passes on that side.  And I don't mind saying that things were still looking pretty decent.  I was really happy with how this was all working out.

Pictured: Happiness

I was ready to switch to the last router bit.  Go back up again to that picture of the router bit above.  Now imagine the blade and the bearing are reversed.  That's what the final bit looks like.

You flip the body blank upside down (so the stuff you are going to trim off is on top), put the router on top of the body blank, and now the cutting edge is between the router base and the bearing.

And that's about when it all went to bollocks...

Pictured: Bollocks
Where did I go wrong?  Happily it was not my technique.  It was my organization.

I have about 20 or 25 router bits.  Most are in plastic boxes that are labeled with descriptions of what the bits are.  Some even have pictures for the drummers in our midst. But I also have a bag of loose router bits.  There are no labels or descriptions on these bits.  It appears that I have purchased a "binding" router bit at some point.  More important, however, is that I forgot that at some point I bought a binding router bit!

A binding router bit is one where the blade is wider than the bearing.  It is used, funny enough, when you want to inlay binding on a guitar.  So when you lean that bearing up against your template (or body blank) it digs in about an 1/8 of an inch deeper than the bearing.  And that's how you get the mistake above.

I know for a fact that this isn't the last mistake that will be made on these builds.  My hope is that when it comes time to actually put binding on this guitar that I've just made my life easier instead of harder (a man can dream, can't he?).

Thankfully I realized something was amiss fairly quick.  I switched to the correct router bit and was left with the below final product from todays routing adventures.


I think there's hope for these two yet.

Making the thing that helps me make the thing - Part 1

Pictured: Not a guitar

Templates.  Templates are cool.  If you have one you know where you are going.  Right there in front of you is a plan - a road map - a visual representation of the thing that you are going to make.  You know how far to the left you need to push and how much to the right you have to pull.  And you trust that the person who made the template knew what they were doing.

I'm making templates - and have no idea what I'm doing...

Okay, not no idea. This is not my first time making a template.  I've made a couple.  Usually by tracing the outline of a guitar that I already own and cutting out the shape.  Previously I've used MDF as my template material of choice.  Mainly because it is rigid, easy to shape and doesn't warp much with changes in humidity.  It is, however, defenseless against moisture.  If a drop of water falls on it - it puffs up like rising dough.  Also, it is more likely to burn than wood when using tools on it (like a router or a table saw).  The reason is because MDF is basically wood powder and glue.

Well, my local Lowes didn't have any MDF smaller than 8x4 sheets.  I have no need for that much MDF.  So, I bought some particle board.  I usually don't use particle board for this kind of work - as it seems a bit too 'crumbly.'  But I have to say - my experience this time may change that perception.

Second verse - same as the first

I used the same process for this template that I did for cutting out the body blanks - with two variations.
1) I used a much finer tooth blade on the jig saw.  The Particle board is thin (3/4 of an inch) and I wanted the cut to be smooth - so you use a blade with more teeth for a more finished edge.
2) I made a lot more relief cuts than I did for the body blanks.  I really wanted to get as close to the line as possible.

My plan was to then use a 'drum sander' bit on my drill press to sand away the excess particle board.
Yeah, I'd still be out there if I had gone this route.  The drum sander bit works pretty well on the MDF.  The particle board just laughed and laughed and laughed...

I do not fear you little puny drum sander.

I believe the phrase the kids use these days is, "That's when shit got real."

Say hello to my little friend!

If I had thought about it for two seconds I would have just started with the belt/disc sander in the first place.  Not just because - 'ug ug me like power tools' - but because what I'm looking for here is precision.  That disc sander has a guide on it.  A guide you can set to be 90 degrees - with measurements and everything!  At the end of the day I want the template to be accurate, precise, and easy to use.  The disc sander will give me a better chance at accuracy than the drum sander or hand sander.  ...and it was a hell of a lot faster too!

Forecast for tonight: Sawdust all up in your grill

Now might be a good time to mention some disc sander etiquette.  See that disc?  It spins in one direction.  If you hold your work-piece on one side of the disc (in the above photo the left side - like I'm doing) the rotation of the sandpaper pushes it down.  If you hold your work-piece on the other side (in this instance - the right side of the disc) - Oh, hey look, it's raining wood!

I tell you only to spare you from what has happened to me.  I damn near gave myself a black eye the first time I used this thing.

Another cool thing about this tool is the other half - the belt sander.  Doubly cool for this project because the Les Paul cutaway fits in there like they were meant for each other.

It's like I've been waiting my whole life just for you.

What is triply cool is that I now have a decent template that I can use on any future Les Paul builds.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

So round, so firm, so fully packed

I have yet to make a router template for the Les Paul body blank - so this build is on the back burner for a couple of days.  In the mean time I started working on the other body blank, which will be a PRS shape.

As you can see, I followed the same process for this build as I did with he last one: trace the body shape, make relief cuts all along the trace line, and follow the trace line with the jig saw to get the rough shape of the body.

The good news is that I already had a PRS template from an earlier build.
In brief, you trace a real PRS (or whatever guitar you want to duplicate) onto a workable medium that won't warp easily.  I used MDF wood but plexiglass would also work.  Then you cut it out using a band saw, jig saw, or similar sharp-toothed device.  You can then smooth out the lines/contours with sandpaper - either using a belt sander, drum sander or even just a a bit of sand paper wrapped around a dowel.  Being able to get into the curves is important - so a square block won't take you the whole way.
I used a "drum" sander attachment for my drill press and sandpaper wrapped on a dowel.  It worked well but the template is still made of wood (in my case).  If you are not careful you can damage it - which I did on a previous build with the router.  So my template is not perfect - but it is good enough to work with.

The usual way to use a template like this is to tape it to the body blank using double sided tape.  I probably used too much for this template (about 6 pieces running from the horns to the butt).  It made removing the template a bit harder than I had planned on - but I didn't have to worry about the template coming away from the body!  I ended up using three different router bits with this body blank.  All of them had ball bearings on them to trace the template.  You can buy them at Stew Mac, Rockler, or Woodcraft.  You can also get them at big box stores.  Click on those links to see what the router bit looks like.

The first router bit was 1/2 inch in diameter and a 1/4 inch long.  The second was 1/2 inch diameter and 3/4 inch long, the third was also 1/2 inch diameter and 3/4 inch long but with the ball bearing at the bottom of the bit vs at the top like the other two.  (BTW - I'm talking about a 1/2 inch diameter blade - not the shank/collet - all of these are 1/4 inch shank.)  By switching blades this way I was able to make small passes with each and not take off too much wood on any one pass.  The 3/4 in bit was too big (too long) to start with - so that's why I started with the 1/4 bit.  But the 3/4 but wasn't long enough to finish the cut because the body blank is over 2 inches thick.  If you are using thinner body blanks you should be able to get away with just using the first two bits.

The reason why you want to take your time and make small cuts is threefold:  The router doesn't have to work as hard, the bit doesn't get too hot,  the cut is smoother/better.  Routers and router bits aren't cheap - so making more passes will ensure they have a long life.  Also, if you work the router bit too hard you could break it.  The idea of a sharpened steel blade flying through the air at great velocity gives me the willies.

So, how much is too much?  I try not to cut away more than 1/4 of an inch at a time.  There are plenty of people who would tell you that's too conservative and plenty that will tell you that's too aggressive.   I'm just telling you what works for me.

As you can see in the pictures above and below - the different bits have left their mark on the body blank.  Those fine lines come from three different things: where I switched router bits, where there were imperfections on the template, and when I removed the template and used the body blank).  They are pretty minor and will sand out fairly easily.  Also, as you can see in the picture below - at some point you can remove the template and use the body blank as the template.

I do like the PRS shape and it's pretty comfy to play.

Seeing as this body isn't going to have a pick guard and is going to be carved in some way - I think I'm going to put binding on the body.  It's another step to add but I think it'll make it took pretty tasty when it's done.

So, up next is to make a Les Paul Template so that I can get that body up to speed with this one.  Then I think I'm going to have to make some router jigs to shape these two bodies a little.
Stay tuned!