Thursday, March 26, 2015

2.0 - Tear Outs (my hair outs)

So, until I decide what kind of a guitar I'm going to carve this body blank into - I shall dub thee: Number 2.  And to be honest - that's how I felt about this one after I spent some time with it - a little poopy.

This sat in the clamps for about 24 hours.  As I was taking the clamps off I knew there were three things about this body blank that were different than the other one (dubbed #1, for now).

Maple laminations that needed to be worked against the figure.
Yellow heart - which I've never worked with before.
The Mahogany was not as square as it should have been.

First the maple.  Maple is the R. Lee Ermey of luthier woods.  Maple is like, "Come in, sit down, and have a hot cup of 'shut the f--- up and do it my way!'  Flamed maple in my (limited) experience has a mind of it's own.  It's much harder than mahogany to chisel, scrape, and sand.  It's a denser wood.  And the kicker is that the beautiful figure (sometimes called tiger, flamed or curly) are the wood fibers turning and twisting - which seems to make tear-out a common occurrence.  Fun!

Second?  Yup, Yellowheart also has a propensity for tear-out it too.

I dodged a bullet with number three.  I was able to get a good joint with the Mahogany.  There are some noticeable gaps in one spot - but they will be scraps on the floor when I'm done.

So, let's plane those high spots...

Looks pretty, right?  Almost like I know what I'm doing, hmmm?  When you use a wood plane - you want those long, thin, curly shavings.  If you get really good at it they can be so thin they are translucent.  Take a closer look.  There are about four or five good passes in that pile.  The rest are closer to wood chips than shavings.  And that's because I have no idea what I'm doing.

Okay, maybe not "no idea" but close.  I'm still learning how to use a hand plane - so there were a lot of digs, dings, and tear-outs to the surface.  Take a look at the below picture.  This is the better of the two sides.  See all those dark spots on the Yellowheart?  Those are all tear outs.  The maple is in similar shape - just not in this spot

I tell you this not because I like beating up on myself - but rather as a cautionary tale: practice on scraps.  Learn to use your tools before you viciously attack your work pieces.  I am (as anyone who knows me will attest) a slow learner - just making the same mistakes over and over.
Here endeth the lesson.

I will say that this body blank will look good when I figure out the best way to work with it.  The wood combination is pretty sexy - and is only going to get more so when it's got some relief to it.

Those clamps are free to glue up another lamination. 
...and I do have enough of this mahogany left for one more body blank...

 Sadly, this is going to have to wait a bit.  That wood in the middle (the reddish-brown one on the right) is called Cocobolo.  It is my favorite wood but it is also like trying to work with sticky steel.  It's hard as a rock (the wood doesn't float - it sinks) and it is so gummy it clogs up sandpaper and files.  That piece is rough sawn.  I'll need a thickness planer to even begin to work with that wood.


2.0 - I do not think that word means what you think it means...

I know what you're thinking...

"What kind of a flim-flam-scam are you running here? That's not a Tele!"
This is true.  The shape drawn on that body blank is not a Telecaster shape.  It is an altogether different animal.  It is, in fact, not even in the correct Genus (Fender).  That is a Gibson Les Paul body shape.

I have turned this blog into a Den of Lies!
Come along with me - let's have some fun...

For those of you coming here for the first time - the original Telecaster build can be found 'below.'
By that I mean - see the older posts from 2008.  For those of you who have not closed your browser window - let's see what's going on here.

First, why am I building a Les Paul?  The easy answer is, "Why not?"  The slightly longer answer is that it is more challenging to build a Les Paul than it is a Tele because of the carved top.  It's also usually harder to build a guitar with a 'set' (e.g. glued-in) neck.  ...but I'm not doing that.
I'm building this with a bolt-on neck (as I'll explain in a later post).

So, because it's not a real Les Paul - I don't have to worry about copyright (or is it trademark) infringement then - now do I?  Fingers crossed!

There's one guy in the peanut gallery shouting, "Why don't you just carve the Telecaster top?"  
I'm ignoring him.  La la la la la la - I can't hear you!  

Enough with the 'why' let's move onto the 'how.'

I own an Epiphone Les Paul - so I used that to trace the shape onto the body blank.  In this post I'm just going over the first pass of creating the body outline.  There are two steps when doing this with regular tools.  I say 'regular' because the major guitar manufacturers have specialized tools that do this process in a few minutes unlike the below process which is measured in hours.

The first pass it to remove 90-95% of the excess wood.  You can do that with a band saw, jig saw, or even a hand saw if you have that kind of time (I do not).  The idea is to get close enough to the final shape that you can easily finish it (smooth it out) on the second pass with a router.

I'm using an inexpensive jig saw to remove all the excess wood.  The process for a band saw is different (but as I don't have a band saw I'm not qualified to tell you how).

My process (stolen from somewhere online) is to make multiple cut-ins so that I'm making a series of small cuts.  See the above picture for what I mean.  I then cut along the trace-line with the jig saw - going from cut-in to cut in.  It makes the process slower but much more accurate.

For the first build I did (the Tele) I just went around the whole body in one go - right up against my traced line.  Let me tell you why that was a bad idea...

It's called flex.  And jig saw blades have it in spades.  If you try to make sharp turns, corners or switchbacks with a jig saw - you end up with ridiculously sloppy cuts because the jig saw blade bends as you cut.  It's very difficult to keep it straight (or square).  On the Tele I was very close to the line on the surface of my cut - but the back (or bottom surface) was 1/4 of an inch bigger or smaller.  Because of that I had to modify the body shape a lot with the router.  So now I do it this way.

What you see there (above) is not the top of the line tool for this job.  It doesn't need to be.  Take it slow and it'll be just fine.  You may be able to see that I didn't go right up to my trace line with the jig saw cuts.  That's because I'm not going to go that close to the line on this first pass.  My goal is to get about 1/4 of an inch from the line and use the router to clean it up.  It would probably be better if I got within an 1/8th of an inch - but I have a better router than jig saw - so that's how roll.

Well, what do you know.  I think there's a guitar in there after all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2.0 - Image is everything

The lamination sat in the clamps for about 48 hours.  I then brought everything back to the workshop - took off all the clamps - and was left with... this point you may be questioning my taste.
Looks pretty ugly, huh?
Hold that thought...

There.  That's better!
So, what just happened?

After removing the clamps, I took a small surface plane to the thinner laminations (the lacewood, basswood, and purpleheart) because they were about an 1/8th to 1/4 of an inch proud of the mahogany.  Once all of the pieces in the lamination were roughly the same height I busted out the sander and some 60/80 grit sandpapers.  It's dusty work (and not really necessary at this point as we'll see) but it's hard to argue with the results.



Full disclosure - I also changed the lighting a bit and wiped the piece down with mineral spirits.  That's the real reason the grain is popping so much.  The mineral spirits gives you a preview of what the wood will look like once a finish has been applied.  The nice thing about using mineral spirits is that it evaporates quickly and doesn't raise the wood grain like water.

In the close-up images above you can really see the figure of the Mahogany and the 'laces' of the Lacewood.  

The truth is though - that everything after taking the piece out of the clamps and planing the lamination flush was a waste of time.  I am going to be carving the top of this guitar.
See the image below for what I mean.  See how there is a sculpted aspect to the shape of the top.  That's a carved top - and they are purdy.

This particular image comes from

I'm not ready to carve this top yet - so sanding it was not really necessary.  I did it more for inspiration than anything else.  Hence the title of the post.  Image is everything.  Seeing what this is going to look like when it's completed is a motivating factor for me.  I want to see that final finish. That's why I've done this on each of the guitars I've worked on to this point.  Psyching yourself up can be the difference between the woodshed and the couch.  At least that's what I tell myself...

Back to business!

When I planed down the laminations I created a few-tear outs.  Mostly because I've never tried using a hand plane to smooth a surface.  Previously I've used card scrapers, rasps, and sandpaper.  But sanding 1/4 of an inch just takes forever - so I figured I'd try using the hand plane.  Once you get the blasted thing sharp enough and set up properly (and you are using it correctly!) - it's wonderful to use.

You can see one tear-out in the Mahogany in the below picture.  It's the little black spot just above the laminations on the right.  At some point I'm going to need to sand, scrape or fill that hole.  

It was caused because I was planing against the grain of the Mahogany.  I was planing with the grain of the lacewood - but when I glued the Mahogany to the lacewood - I glued them with opposing wood grains.  Would an experienced woodworker have done that?  Probably not.  But also remember that plywood is stronger than regular wood because the laminations have opposing grains.  So, what I'm saying is: Could be good.  Could be bad.  Time will tell.

I was concerned that there might be gaps in the laminations - either because I didn't prep them well enough (read made them square) or because I didn't squeeze them hard enough when clamping them.

I seem to have done okay.  There are a couple of gaps but if I play my cards right - they will be scrap wood on the floor once I cut the body shape out of this blank.  Again, time will tell.

In short - I'm happy and ready to move forward with this build.

So, now that I've freed up all of those clamps I guess it's time to look at that other body blank...


Round 2: Fight!

Monday, March 23, 2015

2.0 - I see we meet again...

Well, would you look at those beauties.
Have I got some grand plans for you...

(Click on any of the images to see them full size)

So, what are we looking at?
You may see a bunch of wood scraps.  Me, I see Marshall stacks and flying panties...

...uh, excuse me.  
I seem to have skipped a few steps in the middle there.

At this point the only flying underwear in my life is that thrown by my three year old son when he's having a tantrum and the last time I stood in front of a Marshall stack I lost about 6db of hearing.  So, let's stick to the job at hand.

What you see is the beginning of two new guitar bodies.  The one on the left is made up of Mahogany, Curly Maple (aka Flamed Maple), Yellowheart, and Purpleheart.  The one on the right is made up of Mahogany, Lacewood, Basswood, and Purpleheart.  The Mahogany all came from the same board (and there's enough left for another body blank).   That muther was two inches thick by six inches wide by eight feet long.  It was a thing of beauty.

All of the wood (except the Mahogany) was purchased milled or 'faced.'  That is, the wood was bought cut to size, squared on at least one side, thickness planed, and sanded smooth.  It was all ready to use and for the most part was square or minimally warped.  The Basswood has a fair amount of twist to it - but it's also pretty soft and flexible.  So, we'll see how it does.  I have come to realize how important it is to buy wood that is square (and to try and keep it that way).  Just as an FYI for anyone trying this for the first time - if the wood is warped/twisted - it'll be harder to work with.  Not impossible - just harder.

The Mahogany was purchased 'unmilled,' meaning that it was rough-sawn and not entirely square.  As I don't have a thickness planer or jointer it means I'm in the same boat I was in the first time I built one of these: sanding, scraping, and leveling.

In brief - I cut the Mahogany board on the chop saw into 18 inch lengths, ran each 18 inch piece through the table saw (to remove 1/8th from one side), and scraped/sanded that one edge until it was square enough to be ready to glue up (checking with a straight-edge for accuracy).  One note about the table saw.  I had to run the 18 inch sections through twice (flipping it in-between cuts) to cut the whole two inch board.  I tried cutting it in one pass but uh....  

Here's a tip from your Uncle Jerry - when the table saw grinds to a halt and you trip a circuit breaker - you are being too aggressive with the table saw.  Try making smaller cuts.
Hey, it's why I'm here - to make these mistakes so you don't have to!

So, to recap - there is a reason why people buy faced wood.  It's easier to work with.  But this was a stellar piece of Mahogany - as we'll see...

As it turns out - I only have so many clamps.  I had wanted to glue-up and clamp both guitar bodies at once.  But it wasn't meant to be.  So, I'll be gluing up the second body after this one has dried (and the third body after that).  Why yes, I am building three guitars at once.  Is that odd?  Seeing as my name is not Leo Fender - yes - yes it's odd.  My thinking is that if I repeat the steps a couple (a few) times in a row they'll sink in better.  Also, did I mention I bought an 8 FOOT BOARD OF MAHOGANY?!  What else am I gonna do with it - build something useful?

What you are looking at above is a lamination.  Or is it a lamentation?  Could go either way...
You spread glue on both sides of all the pieces and clamp them together until - Hey Presto - you have one board of many colors.  As you can probably see from the picture I was a bit heavy handed with the glue.  In theory you don't need this much (there shouldn't be that much squeeze-out) but I am using a different glue this time out and didn't want to take any chances.  The preferred glue for this type of work is Titebond wood glue (either type I or II).  I only had Elmer's Wood Glue on hand.  Let me repeat that: Elmer's WOOD glue.  Do not use Elmer's white glue (or white glue of any kind).  It is just not strong enough.  The glue I used is still a 'PVA' type glue but as I've never used it - I erred on the heavy side.  As you can see in the picture above the pieces have a tendency to shift on you as you clamp them.  After I took this picture I went back and realigned everything so that all the laminations  were flush on one end and on one side.

Some builders will glue up the smaller laminations first and then only have to glue-up three big pieces.  I chose to glue up the whole kit and caboodle at once - as I have less free time than I used to.

You may find that a lot of pressure is needed to clamp everything up so there are no gaps in the laminations.  If you have a jointer - this is less of an issue - because your pieces should be square to each other.  I have no jointer - so I squeezed the crap out those guys.  In the end though - if your edges aren't reasonably square no amount of clamping will eliminate the gaps.

Two notes:
1) I attached the clamps directly onto the body because I know I'm going to have a lot of cutaway.  Normally you would use a thin strip of wood between your clamps and the finished piece - to protect the surface from clamp marks.

2) You can't see it in the pictures but I put a layer of wax paper between my work bench and the wood to catch any glue squeeze out.  Trying to remove dried glue (not to mention a guitar body that has been glued to your bench top) is a royal pain.  Wax paper is your friend.

Okay three notes...  For those of you in New England like me - it's too cold out to leave this in your garage overnight to dry.  Bring it inside.  I brought it into my basement for a couple of hours and then into a living space.  The idea being that you want to gradually raise the temperature of the piece from near freezing to room temperature.
...or pay to have your garage heated.
What, do I look like I'm made of money?

Okay, no really, last note: Drying time.  I let this sit for 24 hours in the clamps.  You can leave it for longer but the glue should be dry by that point (read the instructions on the bottle to be sure).  As you can see from the picture below - there are nine clamps on that bad boy.  I would have used more if I'd had more.  Now, we wait...

2.0 - It's about time...

It has been seven years since I last updated this blog.  In internet terms that's like 27 dog years or something.

I'm ashamed to say - I never did any of the things I said I was going to do in my last post.  I never talked about the finishing details of building the Tele, I haven't posted any sound samples, and I haven't kept up with the site in general.

I am not ashamed to say that the guitar is still smokin' to this day.  It sounds great, plays great and looks (weathered) but good.  It has been my number 1 guitar for the last seven years.  And is only now getting a bit of a rest as I reacquaint myself with the rest of my collection.

The process of building a guitar and then playing it was very positive.  Perhaps a little too positive...

What, you may be asking, have I done with my time?  Well, I've started a couple more builds:
This was a lapsteel build.  I finished the build but not the blog. 
This was an acoustic guitar build .  I finished the build and the blog.
This was a 12-string semi-hollowbody electric guitar build.  This build stalled.  Partly because I was reaching a bit beyond my abilities but mostly because I became a father and I strangely didn't have as much free time as I used to.  Odd, isn't it...?

So, it's been four years since I've worked on a guitar - and that seems too long.
There's a hole in my life.  One that can only be filled with frustration, aggravation, and the eventual triumph of sandpaper.

It's time to unpack the wood glue, tune up the table saw, fire up that router, and continue the game of chicken with my remaining digits.

Can you smell that?  It's the fragrance of sawdust in the air.

Let's build some guitars!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Part 1: Makin' a Tele

So, I decided that I needed a winter project this year. Something to get me off the couch, keep me off the streets, and make me try something new. I decided that building a guitar would be fun - challenging but fun. Here's my experience of building a Telecaster. I hope you enjoy it.

So, why build a Tele?

For the longest time I thought Fender Telecasters were a waste of time and wood. You could make a perfectly good Stratocaster with that hunk o' tree! Why would you want to waste it on a Tele? I used to say that Telecasters sounded like a tin cup full of nails. So, why in the world would I choose to make a Tele if I don't like them? Three reasons:

1) It is the easiest guitar to fabricate yourself. Seriously. It's a slab of wood, a neck, and some screws. There's nothing complicated about its construction (or so I thought). There is a reason this thing has been around since the 50's with little evolution. It's a simple idea that works.

2) I fell in love with a particular Tele about a year ago but was unable to purchase it at the time. It had a great sound and a fabulous feel to it. It was unlike any Tele I'd ever played.

3) Tastes change.

One note - I didn't decide to build this beast to save money. I could have bought a brand new Telecaster for the amount this project is costing me (not to mention the extra $ for tools!). But money was never the point of this project. …which is what I keep repeating to myself to help me forget how much I've spent so far.

I did a lot of thinking about this project before I started and I read as many blogs, wikis, books, and chat boards as I could to see how other people were tackling this hobby. For the record what I am doing is known as building a "Partscaster". My first step was to decide how much I wanted to do myself. Some people do everything from scratch - Body, Neck, the whole enchilada. They are very talented people with way too much time on their hands. I want to actually play this thing in my lifetime so I made a choice - I would make the body and buy the neck. I figured it was more of a challenge than buying everything and assebling it - but still realistic with my current woodworking/luthier skills.

One word about necks... They're frickin' expensive! The cheapest new one I found online was $100 (price+shipping). That was a quarter of my original budget for this project (that budget went out the window as soon as I started buying tools, oy!). I could have gone the ebay route but there are some things that I don't feel comfortable bidding on - this was one of those things. I don't want to pay some yahoo in East Overshoe for his Preemeeum (sic) neck.

In fact I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of buying a neck sight-unseen. For those of you that do not play – the neck really is where the rubber meets the road for a guitar. If the neck doesn't feel right to you as a player all the rest is bit moot.

A quick note about guitar bodies. You can buy them online pre-cut and ready to go. They too are ridiculously overpriced ($150 and up).  It's wood!  It is one of those rare things in life that DOES GROW ON TREES!  Why am I being violated for a chunk of Mahogany that's one foot by two feet?  Can you tell I felt a bit wrong-done?  This was one of the reasons I decided to build instead of buy – that and the actual wood working sounded kinda fun.

Since I had decided that I wanted to make the body I was going to need a few things:

Good wood in the right size (more on this in a bit)

A template to trace out the shape of a Tele

A saw that can cut around corners

This is where I had a brainstorm.   Or whatever passes for a brainstorm in the soupy mix upstairs. Why not just buy a guitar? No, really! Hear me out…

I decided that instead of buying a telecaster template online for $25 from some bozo who made it in his shed and then buy a neck I'd never get to touch prior to its arrival on my doorstep for $100 – why not buy a cheap import Telecaster? The cheapest ones are $160. So, I pay 35 bucks more – I get to try out the neck and I also get a three dimensional template – not some flat piece of particle board that I'll never use again. And hey – if I sell the body, pickups and hardware from the import after I'm done with it I could cover some expenses.

Well, that's what I did. In hindsight - the neck part was a good idea. The 3-D template was less so. I'll touch on that when it's relevant. I do plan on re-using some of the metal hardware bits and pieces from the Squier that I was going to have to buy. So it seemed like a good trade-off price-wise.

One note about imports (known as Squier Telecasters) - they sound pretty vanilla. They don't sound bad, per se but they have very little character. This is mainly due to the wood and the electronics used in their construction - two things I'm not going to re-use.

Okay, if you've read this so far you know my game plan - buy a crappy import Telecaster, buy some good wood, and get a saw that can cut around corners.

I started by looking for the guitar. I ended up buying the Squier Tele at Mr. Music in Allston, MA. This was after going to all of the guitar shops in a 10 mile radius of Somerville, MA (there's 7 by the way). A quick note about Mr. Music - it is an independent music store that is worth a visit. If you're ever in the Boston area check 'em out. They always have fun toys to play with.

The Squier: It has a maple neck with 21 frets.  So, this was good news and bad news. I like maple necks but most Telecasters have 22 frets. For those of you counting - 24 frets equals 2 octaves.  More frets means the instrument has a greater dynamic range.  So, I lost out on that front but I did find a neck that is very comfortable and is also super fast to play.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Part 2: Wood

In front of your house there's a tree. Look out your window – there's anther one. There's wood everywhere. You would think it would be easy to come by. Not so much…

The problem is that most wood you buy at a Home Depot or Lowes is still fairly wet (wood takes a few years to dry out) – or worse – it's warped. These are two things that are not so good for building guitars. Also, there are only about 4 or 5 types of wood that are considered well suited to guitar construction (Alder, Ash, Mahogany, Maple, and Basswood. There are also a few exotic woods that are rare). Finally, to build a Tele you need to start out with a block of wood that is roughly 20 inches long by 13 inches wide and 1 ¾ inches thick. That is an uncommon size for Home Depot. It turns out that its an uncommon size all around (at least for those of us that live in the Metro Boston area).

What I did find out is that it is very common to take two pieces of wood that are 20 x 7 x 1 ¾ and glue them together. Guitar makers do it all the time. In fact I've been told that if I sanded all the paint off of the Squier I bought it could be made of up to FIVE pieces of wood that have been glued together. Crazy Talk! Many people on the chat boards that I visited in my research talked about the necessity of good TONE woods in guitar construction - that the wood is essential in making the tone. Perhaps this is the reason the Squier Tele sounds like Ka-Ka. I'll leave that one unanswered until I finish my Tele.

So, I was talking about Wood. I found a great little woodworkers shop in Cambridge, MA – Rockler's. I'm told they are a chain of wood stores. What will they think of next? Rockler had just about every type of wood you could want – except the kind I wanted. I had wanted to make this Tele out of Alder. Alder is one of the traditional woods used in Telecaster and Stratocaster construction. For the record, Leo Fender, the man who started this madness in the 1950's started making guitars out of PINE – a very soft wood. For one reason or another (I'm guessing production costs or availability) he switched to Alder and Ash. Most people don't know that Leo couldn't play guitar to save his life. He built 'em – he didn't play 'em. I'm guessing he was more interested in making a durable, easy to build instrument than creating a tonally balanced instrument. …but I digress.

They didn't have my wood. No one in the surrounding area had any Alder and no one had Ash in a workable size. My third choice was Mahogany. This they had in the right size. I've owned Magogany guitars before. They are heavy but they sustain very well. Whether it was due to the resonance of the wood or the sheer bulk of the guitar – I'll never know. Either way – I bought two slabs of wood in the following size: 20 x 7 x 1 ¾.
Someone in the peanut gallery is saying something about Telecasters and Mahogany. Oil and water...? What? I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

For the record - Mahogany is not the wood of choice for Telecasters. It is usually considered too dark in timbre and tone for the classic Tele sound. Okay, I've said it. When you build your Tele - tell me how it goes.

One final note about wood: Rockler's had a wood called butternut that was lighter than mahogany in color and weight but came in 20 x 14 x 1 ¾ blocks. If I ever do this again I'm going to try this process with a solid block of wood like that rather than two slabs glued together. Maybe it won't make a difference in tone but it is one less step (i.e. no glueing).

So, gluing. I was supposed to take pictures of the gluing process so you could see how it works. I found that holding two gluey pieces of timber toghether while trying to focus my camera was a tad difficult...

...okay, I admit it - I forgot to take the pictures...

It basically involved me finding the two edges that were straightest of the two pieces I had and sanding them until they were smooth and made a tight joint when placed together. Then glue them together and introduce pressure (hello pressure, how do you do?).

I slathered a ton of glue between the two pieces of wood and used six 24 inch-long clamps to clamp the two pieces together. The basic idea is to glue and squeeze them enough that they in effect become one piece of wood.

A tip: as you are tightening the vice grips glue will seep out of the joint. This isn't a problem but you might find it easier to wipe this up while it is still wet rather than waiting until it is dry. Either way - it will sand away with elbow grease.

You should probably use wood glue for this process - that's what it's for. The wood glue I used recommended that I keep the glued pieces under pressure for an hour and let it set for 8 to 24 hours. I clamped it for 2 hours and let it set for 20 hours. When it was done – I took the above picture.

One note about the image above: This was taken after the glue had set for 20 hours. I then sanded the top surface with 60 then 100 grit sand paper and gave it a light mineral spirit wash to see what the wood grain will look like when I'm done. I nicked that trick from someone on the telecaster forum (