Thursday, October 19, 2017

More tools and jigs

Am I a Liar?
Yes.  Yes, I am a liar.

So, I decided to start working on the Les Paul again after a loooooooong hiatus.
I got myself all psyched up to get my hands dirty fixing the neck and neck pocket.  This morning I took the body and neck down from the fridge, took one look at it and decided, "I'm not working on the neck pocket today. " Even though I haven't touched this project in 18 months - I'm going to 'switch gears' and work on the neck.

Okay - here we go...

I had alluded to the fact that I was going to make some drastic changes to the neck in a previous post. Here's where we dig into that process.  My plan is to take the existing neck that I bought from Guitarfetish and add the following:

  1. A headstock veneer to match the body
  2. Binding all around the neck
  3. Replace the existing diamond inlays with standard Les paul 'block' inlays
  4. Install an Irish coin inlay (most likely a 1 penny piece) in the headstock
If you've been following along - I finished the headstock veneer a while back.

Today we'll look at how to do the binding around the neck.
The binding was going to be a mixture of easy and hard.  Most of the binding was going to be set in straight runs (with few curves) but I wasn't sure how I was going to route the channel for the binding as I don't own a router table.  This kind of work is hard to do freehand with a router as the neck is curved on both sides and tapered to boot.

After a quick trip to google - it became clear that I had all the necessary parts to build my own primitive router table.  So, first up: build a router table.

Kinda looks like a reject from 'The Lego Movie.'

 The process is actually quite brief.  Take the bottom plate off of your router, trace the outline of it on a flat and wide board (most people use plywood or melamine as they don't warp easily. I used Particle Board which also doesn't warp easily but isn't as durable - it's what I had on hand).

Make sure to mark off where the holes go to attach the board to the router and start drilling holes.  I made a one inch hole in the middle of a sheet of particle board for any router bits to fit through and drilled four 1/8 inch holes for the mounting screws.  I also used a 1/4 inch forstner bit to countersink the screws so that they don't bump into the workpiece.

Once the holes are all drilled - screw the router base onto the bottom of the board, turn the board upside down, mount it to something (I used a black and decker workmate bench), and adjust the height of the router bit until it pokes through the hole.  Voila!

It took almost as long to write this description as it took to make the thing itself.

For any of the more seasoned luthiers/woodworkers out there - this is a temporary router table.  I'm aware that this won't last (particle board warps).  But it got the job done and I didn't have to drop $300 at Rockler.

Anywho!  This particular router bit is larger than the ball bearing on the top - so the ball bearing runs along the work piece and the blade cuts deeper leaving a channel that I can use to install the binding around the neck.

What? Me worry?

As the last several post about binding have proven - I have no idea what I'm doing!  So, we'll see how this goes.  But for now - there is a channel for binding, I have already purchased neck binding, and there's no legal or ethical reason why I can't just bind this sucker at any given moment.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Les Paul Dreamin'

Wow, that went fast!
The last post that I completed for this Les Paul build was almost two years ago.
This is the downside to having too many hobbies.

So, where were we?

I am a patient boy.

The guitar body has been sitting on top of my fridge for all this time (my garage isn't temperature or humidity controlled) so, I didn't want to leave this out there.  The fact that I thought it was only going to be a couple of weeks until I came back to this is neither here nor there.
For good or for ill - we're back.

If you are just joining us I've been working on a 12 string electric guitar for the last few months.  But that one is sitting in my basement while I wait the 2-3 weeks for the nitrocellulose lacquer finish to dry.

The previous five posts for this guitar (from two years ago) were about binding.  Let's be clear: it was about how to fix a bad binding application because even though I'm 44 years old  I still have the patience of a frickin' teenager...


So, in short, the binding took longer than I expected...
...and it didn't come out exactly how I planned.

The thing is - it was really small potatoes compared to the actual problem with this build:  The neck pocket wasn't straight.  I've tried to make a point about how important it is to get this part of the build correct (here and here).  It's kind of a thing...

Funny then ( funny strange not funny ha ha) when I routed the pocket - I thought it was okay. It looked fairly straight.  And that neck pocket was tight! I mean that in the literal and colloquial sense.

Sadly, as I looked closer I found it wasn't quite right.

If you look at the diamond inlay under my thumb in the below picture - it is supposed to be lined up with the purple stripe on the body.

I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait...

You can also see that the neck isn't quite lined up with the laminations either.  In short - the neck pocket is crooked.

Now, I know what some of you are saying, "It's really not that bad."  And you're right.  It's not that bad - but it's also not how I want it (as I plan on keeping this one).  And to top it off - did I mention it was a tight fitting joint?  I can't tell you how proud I was of that little bit of craftsmanship right there.

My time is like water down a drain

So it has to be fixed.  How to do it...?

There are a few different ways - the hardest one being to fill the neck pocket with a block of wood (cut to size and glued in place) and re-route the entire pocket completely.  I'm not wild about that option.

The other options I know of are less invasive but they all start with making the current neck pocket bigger so that I can change the angle of the neck.  Those of you playing the Luthier Home Game - I mean the Lateral neck angle. The Vertical neck angle is still fine.

Sitting in the Waiting Room

It's frustrating to have to fix this - but it will bug me if I don't.  Once the neck pocket will accommodate the neck in the correct position you can do one of the following to tighten up the fit:

  1. Glue in a shim of wood (or a couple of sheets of wood veneer).
  2. Fill the gap (gaps?) with a sawdust and glue mixture.

Sadly, the easier the method - the more visible repair. I'm looking at you sawdust and glue.  So, I think I'm going to go with option number 1 - shim it!
I first need to straighten the pocket and evaluate what comes next.

Sandpaper don't fail me now!

Function is the key

Friday, October 13, 2017

...and now we wait.

"Waiting, sweetheart.  Just Waiting. Waiting for you."
The body has about 10 or 12 coats of nitrocellulose lacquer sprayed on it and the neck has probably 5 or 6 coats.  So, now we wait for the lacquer to fully cure (i.e. dry).

I've heard different opinions about how long you should let the nitro cure - the can suggests at least a week.  Dan Erlewine suggests two weeks.  I've also seen some hobbyist luthiers recommend 3 to 4 weeks.   At times like this - I'm tempted to go with Dan's advice.  He usually ends up being right and I usually end up fixing whatever I did incorrectly and doing it his way in the end - so why not just go that route to begin with?

Looks like a lot from where I'm standing
You might be asking yourself why I sprayed the neck with half the nitro of the body.  The main reason is that I'm not going for a high-gloss finish for the neck.  I'm going to keep it pretty low-gloss but I still wanted the protection of a lacquer finish.  Since I'm not going to be adhering to the same finishing schedule as the body will need - I don't need as much finish.

"Yeah, I've seen some things..."

I ended up using two cans of Behlen Stringed Instrument Lacquer for the guitar body and neck.  I could have used more (and would have needed to if I wanted 10 - 12 coats of lacquer on the neck).
A note of caution if you are trying this at home:  When you get to the end of the can the spray starts to really "spit" out of the nozzle.  It's not a big deal if you are going to use a second (or third) can and put on more coats.  But if your last coat happens to coincide with the bottom of the can just know that you may get bubbles or bumps in the finish if you keep spraying after the can goes from a hissing to sputtering sound.  It's probably best to just stop (and get another can if you need more coats).

Yup, I'll just be hanging around for the next couple of weeks.
One thing I don't think I talked about was taping the neck and body in preparation to be sprayed.
As you can see in the below pictures I taped off the fretboard and the "heel" of the neck so that no nitro would get on it.  I taped off the fretboard because it doesn't need it.  The fretboard is made of ebony which is ridiculously hard, durable, and water resistant.  Ebony is another one of those woods that doesn't float because it's so dense.  So, no finish required.

Similarly, rosewood fretboards don't usually get a finish either (but strangely rosewood backs and sides of acoustic instruments do get finished.).  I don't know why exactly.  Finally, Maple fretboards do usually get finished and many vintage Fender guitars have the nitro sprayed right over the fretboard and the frets(!).  That one makes no sense to me.  But I'm sure all kinds of tone 'mojo' esoterica are really tied to the practicalities of assembly line production.

All taped up and nowhere to go
The heel of the neck (a phrase that makes no biological sense whatsoever) may be sprayed or may not - depending on your preference.  I chose not to because I wanted a tight wood on wood connection.  If you look at the above image of the guitar body you will notice that the neck pocket is taped as well.
Once the tape is removed (hopefully!) the tight fit will still be there.  It's all done in the service of a nice tight joint - as the prevailing theory is that this will provide a good sound transference between the neck and the body.  That last sentence could be complete bollocks.  Only time and experience will tell.

Wearing protection
Penultimately, I have a confession to make.  I'm a bit of an abusive owner.  Perhaps abusive is too strong.  Tragically clumsy?  More accurate but not quite strong enough.  You get the idea - I'm not careful with my stuff!

This poor neck has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous ownership for going on seven years.  I've dropped, knocked over, kicked (okay, it was in a case but I still kicked it) and applied general maltreatment to it for far too long. All of it was accidental - I swear!  But still, this poor thing.

Because of this - it's got a few dents and bruises.  The fact that this neck is finally getting protected by a lacquer finish makes me feel a little better.  The flip side of this is that it's not going to look as good as it could but I'm of a mind that a few scars are probably not a terrible thing - especially if it moves us forward.
A little sloppy.

Finally, while the lacquer is curing I'll start work on the electronics, and probably restart work on the Les Paul build.  But I'm also in the middle of making some upgrades in my shop - so we'll see what really gets done in the next few weeks.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Hey baby, where you been?

I've been right here, fool!
For the last couple of months I've been giving the guitar body on this build all the love.  What about the neck?  I guess it's time to see where we're at.

I bought this neck from Warmoth soon after I started this build - back in 2010.
It was then (and is now) ridiculously expensive.  I would never spend that much on a neck ever again.  But at the time - it made sense.  I was unsure of my abilities as a builder and had precious little experience.  Plus, the mechanics of a twelve string seemed to be overwhelming.
How strong did it need to be to carry the strain of twelve guitar strings tuned to pitch?  I had no idea.

Waiting on your sorry ass...
So, I bought the neck and other than installing the tuning keys and putting a finish on it - it needed nothing.  That certainly is one upside.  The build for this was done by professionals - so it looks good and it functions well.  No arguments there.  But I did want to personalize it a bit.  And of course that's where I got into trouble.  Back in 2010 I added the black stripe and the Irish 5 penny coin..  I was new to these things and as such - it didn't go as well as I would have liked.  Knowing what I know now I would do things a little different.but since fixing these errors would take a looooong time and I'm not sure the coin could be fixed (it's epoxied in there) I'm going to move forward and accept that the headstock won't be perfect. finish what you started.
So, what are we doing?  I'm adding some color to the face of the headstock.  The neck is made of maple (the fingerboard is ebony) which is the same wood as the guitar top.  The difference is that the maple of the body is figured/flamed and the neck is not.  Also, the neck is quarter-sawn wood whereas the guitar top is plain-sawn wood, and finally, the two maples were of different colors - as happens when taking wood from two different trees.  So, my goal is not to match the two woods but rather put them in the same ballpark (I'd be happy with the same zip codes to be honest).

Shellac in esse
To put the headstock in the same color palate I needed to dye the headstock with the same dye and also use shellac.  It became clear to me that the shellac added a lot to the color.  So, I mixed up a small batch of dye and shellac.  You may have noticed in the above photos that I also taped up the neck and filled the tuning peg holes with paper towels to keep the dye/shellac to one area - the face of the headstock.  I'm going to spray the whole neck with nitrocellulose lacquer but I just want color on the face.

Shellac in potentia
I tried to grind up the shellac flakes as fine as I could - to minimize the time it took to dissolve in alcohol but there is no substitute for making this stuff 8 to 12 hours ahead of time.  Next time I will do so.  One other thing that you can't see here is that I added a little dye directly to the shellac to darken it up.  It worked a bit to deepen the color of the shellac - which was good as the neck didn't soak the dye up like the guitar top did.




After a few coats of dye and about four coats of shellac I was left with...

Whatcha gonna do now?

A slightly brown face.  And all of my mistakes highlighted by the dye.  Oh, goody!
In these last few pictures you can see where my chisel slipped, where the black strip was chipped, and basically everything that isn't quite right.  Ah well...

1970 Irish 5 penny coin
To help things out I used some pore filler to even out the rough spots.  As I wait for that to dry I'll do some soul searching to see if I want to try fixing some of these "beauty marks."


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"Everything's Shiny, Captain!"

Pictured: Better living through chemistry
Can I get a "Hell Yeah?"
It's pretty amazing what old-fashioned chemistry can do.
The above picture is after four (technically five) coats of nitrocellulose lacquer sprayed on over two days.

Coats?  Lacquer? Sprayed?

"Let me explain."


"No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

"Say Hello to my little friend!"
Normally, guitars are finished using a spray rig, in a specific room with ventilation, using some type of poly-based finish.  At least that's how it's done on a modern production line.  At Jerry's house of guitars - we take a more basic approach.

The spray can above is full of nitrocellulose lacquer - which was a popular type of finish in the early to mid 20th century.  All those famous 1950's and 1960's Strats and Les Pauls were most likely to have a "Nitro" finish like this one.  This type of finish (especially in a can) has a lot of upsides.  It's super easy to apply (think spray paint), it makes things look fancy (see the below photos), each coat melts into the next (so mistakes get absorbed into the next coat), it's easy to buff and polish (Wax on! / Wax off!), and it is supposed to "breathe" more (meaning it doesn't wrap your guitar like a blanket and stifle the tone of the instrument).  

"Breathe, Breathe in the air"
It has some major down-sides as well.  It is stinky, not good for you, and considered a VOC.
It's also not great for the environment.  When applying it - it is highly (HIGHLY) flammable.  The nitro in nitrocellulose is in the same family as the nitro in nitroglycerine.  And finally, it can crack and check over time if not kept in the right environmental conditions.  So, while it looks fancy today - it might look less so in 20-30 years.  

Although none of the above reasons is why guitar manufacturers switched to Poly-based finishes.  They switched because the finish time with Poly is quicker (time = money) and Poly is more durable.  Which means they can ship guitars in thinner cardboard and they'll still look great at the other end (resources = money). 

"You're so money and you don't even know it."
But here's the thing...  I don't have a spray rig or a spray room.  I have a garage - with a garage door - that I open and spray out of.   

...when the weather permits.  

Maybe someday when money is no object I'll update my space.  But for now - when I'm making an average of one guitar every 2.5 years.  Spray cans seems like the way to go in the short term.

...and I'm having a hard time arguing with the results...

It's like a guitar shaped butterscotch lollipop.
Here's how it's done:  Like most spray paints - nitro in a can is easy to work with once you know how to best apply it.  I start out by submerging the cans in hot water (Not fully submerged - about an inch below the spray nozzle).  This warms up the lacquer and helps it flow better.  Shake the can like you would a spray paint can - for at least a minute to mix the components.  Just like with spray paint - don't get too close to the object you are spraying.  If you do you'll get runs in the finish.  Keep the can 10 to 12 inches from the guitar body.  Start spraying off to the side of the object you are spraying.  This avoids the can "spitting" finish onto the guitar.  Finally, go slow but keep the can moving.  If you stop moving you will get a run or a sag.  I did four coats like this and I'm happy with the resuts.

But before I did the four coats - I did a "tack" coat.  A tack coat is a super light coat that you put on so that all the other coats have something to "grab" onto.  It's light, it's quick, and it should not be shiny.

I see you...
After the 4th (5th) coat you sand the body with 400 or 600 grit sandpaper to knock down the high spots of finish.  Some people call it "orange peel" because that's what it looks like.  It is a very light sanding - using almost no hand pressure.  Then you spray another 4 to 8 coats.  For someone like myself (who is still a novice at this) 10 to 12 coats total is the goal.  It will make it easier for me to get good results as I'll be less likely to sand through the finish.  Once I get better at this - 8 to 10 coats will probably be fine.  Again, you can sand in between coats but I plan on doing it after each 4th coat unless I make a mistake along the line (what are the chances of that, eh?).

You can kind of see the place where I sanded through the shellac in the above picture.  It's semi-noticeable but not too bad.  Another great thing about Nitro is that I can mix it with dyes and shellac as you spray it.  So, if this doesn't get less noticeable - I'll give that a try.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Visibly reduces pores!

Made with pride by the Voorhees Family since 1980
(just don't ask what's in it)
The shellac seal coat is about as good as I can make it.  The shellac looks smooth, flat, and the grain has suitably "popped."  So, now it's time to fill the wood grain (aka pores).

For those playing the Luthier Home Game (or any fine woodworking project) filling the wood grain helps make a project go from "nice" to "WOW!"  And anyone familiar with applying makeup can probably tell you why.

Wood, like skin, has pores.  Some woods (like maple, ebony, and rosewood) have small pores and some (like mahogany, walnut, and butternut) have large pores.  Large pores make the surface of the guitar look uneven so they are traditionally filled prior to putting a finish on the guitar.  Having said that - one of my favorite guitars was intentionally not pore filled and it looks (and sounds) fantastic.  So, like with anything art-related, do what you want.

This guitar body is made up of butternut, maple, and cocobolo.  The butternut needs pore filling (although the shellac gave me a good head start on that).  The maple needs spot filling as the top has some tear-outs and there are a couple of tiny voids in between the maple top and the binding.  The cocobolo is interesting.  Usually cocobolo has small pores (like Rosewood) but this piece of cocobolo has developed microscopic surface cracks in the 8 years that I've been building this guitar.  So, it needs a little filler.

Traditionally wood filler is toned to match the wood you are using.  Reddish-brown for mahogany, whitish-yellow for maple, etc.  I did try going that route once - and was unimpressed.  Whether I was unimpressed with the product or with the implementation - I'm not tellin'.
But because of that I found the above product - a clear wood filler that dries pretty transparent.
Additionally, it dries quickly - which is nice for when you only have an hour or two in the evenings to work on projects.  

Um, yeah.  Not going there.
In brief - you rub the special sauce into the body against the grain, with the grain, and in a swirling pattern to make sure the pores get filled.  You wait a couple of minutes for the filler to 'gel' or partially harden and then you trowel it off.  Kinda of like a squeegee.

I tried two different techniques for applying the pore filler.  One worked better than the other.
First up - I rubbed the filler onto one side at a time, squeegeed the excess off and then moved to the next side.  I had to wait a minute or two for each side as the filler gelled - but it worked well.

How can you not like a word like "squeegee?"
After it fully dried I sanded any remaining filler that was sitting on the surface of the wood and inspected the pores.  It was pretty clear it needed a second pass with the filler so I tried wiping the whole body with filler in the hopes that by the time I finished applying the filler it would be dry enough to squeegee off. 

What you can't see in this picture is the dust mask I'm wearing.  This stuff is worse than sawdust.
Sadly, the filler dried faster than I applied it - so when I went to trowel it off more stuck to the surface than I had intended.  Takeaway: do one side at a time.

No, seriously, don't breathe that stuff in.  Your lungs will not dig it.
Because there was so much filler on the body (and because nothing clogs up 400 grit sandpaper like pore-filler) I chose to move back down to 320 grit sandpaper in the hopes of speeding up the process.

"He chose... poorly."
Yeah...  That's not a spot of reflected light.  That's me sanding down to the bare wood.  My first thought was -

Well, my first thought wasn't really printable...

But my second thought was, "Well, at least I've done this before and I know what to do."
On my very first build I had the same thing happen (only later in the process).  It means I have another round (or two) of shellac in my future but, "so be it."

Takeaway: stick with 400 grit sandpaper when you get to this stage.  10 extra minutes of sanding is better than going back to square one.

It was at this point that Jerry got so frustrated he just started finger painting on the guitar body
I mentioned earlier that the maple top had a couple of tear-outs (more like pits) that were pretty visible.  Once I have a high-gloss finish on this you would be able to see those pits from a mile away.  So it made sense to fill those as well.  Since they were still visible after two rounds of pore filling I decided to over-fill them.  Hence the blobs of filler above.

Once these dried I sanded them flush and inspected the body.  Pretty much everything that needed to be filled was filled.  Since I had to touch up that spot I sanded through - I decided to use the last of my prepared shellac to do two more thin coats on the entire body.  I did add a little more denatured alcohol to stretch it out a bit - which made it a pretty thin "cut."  See this post if you have no idea what I'm talking about.  

So, just to recap - the finishing process for this guitar has been:

  1. Finish sand the body to 400 grit sandpaper
  2. Tape off the sides of the guitar
  3. Dye the maple top wood
  4. Sand (400 grit) the maple just enough to make the grain stand out
  5. Dye the maple top wood again
  6. Apply 1 coat of shellac
  7. Apply 2 more coats of shellac to fix the first one that was done so poorly
  8. Scuff sand (400 grit) the shellac
  9. Apply 2 more coats of thin shellac
  10. Scuff sand (400 grit) the shellac
  11. Apply 1 last thin coat of shellac
  12. pore fill
  13. sand (400 grit)
  14. pore fill again
  15. sand with (320 grit) sandpaper (too much!)
  16. spot fill maple and sand
  17. 2 more coats of shellac
  18. scuff sand (400 grit)
Yeesh!  And now we start the real "finishing."
Next up - Nitrocellulose Lacquer.

By the way - if you've made it to the end of this post - you deserve a prize:  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Maxing and shellacing

There's not a whole heck of a lot going on here - except shellac.
Coats and coats of shellac.
I think this is coat #5 in these pictures..
...maybe #6.
It rubs the sandpaper on its skin

...or else it gets the hose again

Yes Precious, it gets the hose

Put the shellac in the basket!
What's going on here is I'm sanding in between coats.  The very first coat I put on was too thick and so I got runs and drips and all sorts of bad things.  So, I added a little more denatured alcohol to the shellac to thin it out a bit and tried applying thinner coats.  By thinner coats I mean using less shellac  on each coat and applying the coats with a rag or pad and not a brush.  Because shellac melts into itself the runs will eventually disappear but to save yourself some time and aggravation - try sanding after every 2 or 3 coats with 400 grit sandpaper.  It will speed things up (and level the shellac).

Don't know why but nitrile gloves just look sinister
After I shellac this body I'm going to bury the one in my trunk
My goal is to have an even layer of shellac on the body - no drips, runs, or swirls.  By applying more shellac and sanding after every two coats I'm evening everything out.  My google searches tell me that because shellac 'melts' into itself - you really only have one coat.  Not the 5 or 6 I've applied.  Shellac doesn't build on itself that way.  Either way - things are looking better.  One or two more coats and I should be ready to switch to pore filling.

Getting closer.