Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Don't Fret

Am I the only one that thinks this looks like a sad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
You may notice that there are some missing frets in the above picture.
In my usual style I said, "F--- it! Why not?"
If you look closely - the remaining frets have some life left in them.  I probably could have just 'dressed' them and moved on with this build.  But I have too many plans for this neck.
...and not nearly enough sense in my head.

I really want to see if I can put some binding on this neck.  It's tough to do once the fret board is glued to the neck - but not impossible.

However, it is nearly impossible to do it with the frets still installed - so off they must come.
Also - I thought I could get over those diamond fret markers.  ...but I can't.  I'm just not a diamond kind of guy.  So, those will have to come out at some point too.  As you can tell - the neck is going to need some work.  Here's what we're doing today.

I'll cut a B...
Wait, I already used that joke...
First thing you should do is to score the wood under the fret.  This is an essential step on a fretboard that has been lacquered (many Fender maple fretboards) but it's also a good idea on a rosewood fretboard like this one.  The exacto blade let's you get under the edge of the fret and start the process of loosening it from the wood beneath it.  Scoring the wood like this can (should?) help minimize the wood's tendency to chip when you pull the fret wire out.  Also, many guitar manufacturers glue their frets into place.  This can help start to break that bond.

"Feelin' Hot Hot Hot!"
C'mon - who doesn't love a little Buster Poindexter?

Next I busted out (get it?) the soldering iron.  This is supposed to serve two purposes.  1) If the fret is glued in place - the heat will melt the glue enough to loosen things up. 2)  It's supposed to warm up the wood and make it expand a little.  Which seems counter to what you would want in this situation...  So, maybe that's bullocks.  I don't know.  But I did it anyway because smarter people than me have decided it's a good idea.  You heat one fret at a time.  I placed the tip of the iron on one side of the fret for about 30 seconds and then on the other side for about 30 seconds.  Then you remove the fret.

I'll cut a...
Oh, yeah.  Right...
This next step is one of my own making.  Most luthiers that I've seen re-fretting a neck don't use a utility razor in the process.  My rationale is that I don't have a set of pliers/clippers that are small enough to get under a fret that is properly seated.  But the blade from a utility knife does the job pretty well.  Would I use this process on a 1950's Les Paul?  Probably not.  But it works for me in most other cases.  I use the sharp end to get underneath one of the corners of the fret and then use leverage to pry up that corner - just enough to get a small set of pliers under there.

Resist the urge to just yank it out.
That would be counter-productive.
I then 'walk' the pliers from one side of the fret to the other.  Slowly lifting the fret out of the fret slot.
This has two effects:  1) It pulls the fret out (duh).  2) you are pressing and squeezing the wood fibers down - which keeps the chipping to a minimum.  All of this is to avoid having to fill gaps that you create when you pull out rosewood that you shouldn't have pulled out.

When you are done - you only have to repeat the process 23 times!

Once I got to about the 3rd or 4th fret I got into a rhythm and removing the remaining frets took about 2 to 3 minutes each.  This is one of those times when everything went my way.  If these frets had been glued in - it probably would have been a much longer process.

My successes and failures - in detail!
So, how did it go?

Not too shabby.  The very first fret (all the way to the right in the above picture) was the worst in terms of chipping.  It's not great - but most of that damage will be covered when I install the new frets.  I'm also going to sand the fretboard down a bit when I install new fret markers - so most of that damage will disappear anyway.  The rest of the fret slots look just like the other two in this picture - which works for me!  I'm satisfied this will do just fine.

How often do you get to describe a photo as full of studs and tang?
The pile of spent frets looks like this.  A fret is made up of three parts: The Crown, the Tang, and the Stud.  If you can't see it from the above picture - take a look at this fret cross-section to get a better idea of what I'm talking about.  The guitar string is pressed down against the crown.  The tang is what sits in the fret slot.  The stud is what keeps the fret in place.  It acts like an anchor in the fretboard.  It's designed to go in easy and come out hard (yes, I giggled a little when I wrote that sentence).
But in all seriousness - it is designed to be difficult to remove.  I'm very happy that this part of the process went as well as it did.  With a very dried out rosewood fretboard (or an ebony fretboard) the tendency to take out big chunks of wood with the fret is high

Hey buddy.  Yer slots are showing.
One thing I noticed about this neck right away made me wonder who the original manufacturer was.
None of the fret slots go all the way to the edge of the fretboard.  This is usually how frets look on a board that is bound - there's a space at the edge - like in the above image.

Most Strats and Tele's I've played don't have this gap - the slots go side to side.  And there's a good reason for this - it's hella easier to cut the slots and hella easier to cut the frets if the slot goes end to end.  It's cheaper too - when you are pumping out 10,000 guitars a day - like the big boys do.

If the slots are like this one - not only do you have to specifically cut the board this way - you also have to remove the fret tangs right at the edge (like in this image).  This is a much more involved process.  Which is odd if you are not binding the fretboard.  It looks like this was a board that was built to be comfortable.  Which has me thinking it was on a decent guitar in its prior life.

But it also means...
I now have to trim the tangs off all of the frets when I re-fret this - whether I bind it or not!
Good times...

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sticking your neck out - Part 2

Where to begin...
The neck that I chose for this build is about as close as you can get to a 'Les Paul' style with it still being a bolt-on.  The scale length is 24.75 inches and it has 24 frets - which are both characteristics of a Les Paul guitar.  It feels a bit thinner than a Les Paul neck but not too far off.  A purist would say 'pshaw!' but as I'm not building a replica - I see no reason to get my pantyhose in a twist.  It's close enough.  If that doesn't appeal to you - the woodpile is by the exit.

What?  Looks good to me!

As I hinted in my last post - this neck (along with all the others) will need quite a bit of work - some necessary some cosmetic - before it can be played.  I know for sure I will have to:

  • Fill the existing screw holes
  • Drill new holes to match the body blank and neck plate I have chosen
  • Change the headstock shape to a more 'Les Paul' style
  • Fix that chip in the fretboard at the 24th fret
  • Final/finish sand
  • Tape off the fretboard
  • Stain and shellac the neck
  • Finish with nitrocellulose spray
  • Let dry for 3 weeks - then sand/polish
  • Level/crown/polish the existing frets
  • Clean/polish fret board
  • Install a nut
  • Install tuners
I'd also like to do the following:

  • Add a lamination to the headstock that matches the body wood (the maple headstock kind of stands out)
  • Inlay an Irish 20p coin on the headstock (it's my thing ...until I come up with a logo)
  • Bind the headstock to match the body
  • Change the fret marker inlays (the diamonds).  Nothing wrong with them.  I just have something better in mind.

I may have no choice but to:

  • Re-fret the neck.  Which is a big fat pain in the butt - but it may have to happen...

What's wrong with my shape?
What do you mean I, "stand out?"

Here's where we start:

One of the synonyms for what I'm doing here is, "reaming"
I'm just going to leave you with that thought.
This neck came with screw holes already on the back.  I might have been able to reuse them but more likely I would have just been fighting them when it came time to screw the neck onto the body of my guitar.  It's best not to bump into an old hole (or make it bigger) when attaching the neck.  Better to fill them and start over.  I enlarged the existing holes so that I could glue some dowels in to seal them up for good.

Don't be fooled - nothing in my shop is level.
Even that Level has a twist in it.
I tried to level the neck as much as possible so that the holes wouldn't be angled.  I also put a foam pad under the neck so it would rock a little less. the end of the day - you're filling holes not launching rockets - so, see what works for you.

Perfect!  Don't change a thing!
Once the holes have been enlarged put a few drops of glue in there and tap in some pre-cut dowel pieces to fill the holes.  You can use wood glue or superglue (CA).  Wood glue gives you more working time but also takes longer to cure.  CA glue cures in minutes (if not sooner) so don't dally!
I used CA glue as I was in a hurry on this particular evening.

One note: I used a fret hammer to tap these in as they are like 3/16th of an inch and prone to breaking (as you can clearly see in the above picture). All this is a way of saying that a construction hammer may be a bit of an overkill for this job.  I also find it helpful to taper one end so that it fits in the hole better.

I'll cut a b--ch!
Branch!  I meant branch.
This little guy with the micro teeth is a flush cut saw.  It works great for delicate little cutting jobs just like this one.  It's not so hot for anything substantial as the blade is quite flexible but you can put it right up against a flat surface and it will cut fairly flush to that surface.

Like so...
After you are done cutting you can clean up the surface with a sharp chisel, hand plane or card scraper.  Then move on to sandpaper.  If you go right to sand paper - you may create valleys or peaks that weren't there before.  I used a card scraper and then some 100 grit sandpaper.

No one will ever see it!
How's that fit looking?

Wait a minute...
So, here's the thing.  The dowels felt pretty flush.  But the neck isn't sitting in the pocket all that evenly.  I wasn't convinced it was the change I had just made was the cause of this (hubris, much?).
So I took a straight edge to the neck.  Yep, the heel of the neck itself wasn't completely square.

For that matter - neither was my neck pocket.  I could still see little scratches from the router blade.
So, ignoring what I just said above about valleys and peaks - how does one sand something flat? There are a couple of ways...

Son of a..!
The best way to flatten the neck heel is to tape a piece of sandpaper to the top of your workbench or table saw and run the heel slowly across that with even pressure.  Just a minute or two of that (using 100 grit paper) was enough to flatten the heel so that it looked decent with a straight edge.

For the neck pocket - it's best to find something you know is square (or straight).  I used a 1 by 1 inch square dowel that I was reasonably sure wasn't warped and wrapped sand paper around it.  Press firmly and evenly while making slow passes.  

I saw another idea on the Fender website that I will try in the future: tape the sand paper to two sides of the square block but leave the other sides without sandpaper - that way you can sand up to a finished (or already squared) edge without taking any more wood off on that surface.  Simple but smart.

Looks ugly.  Feels real nice!
Don't be put off by how it looks.  Those rings around the dowels are dried glue and the pen mark is just so I know where the cut away starts.  That sucker is flat and smooth.  You can't feel the dowels at all.

That'll do pig.  That'll do.
Those two processes seem to have squared things up quite nicely.  The neck fits pretty snug in the pocket both on the sides and now on the bottom.  I need to see if there is anything that needs to be done to the 'back wall" of the pocket (closest to the neck pickup) as that was the sloppiest part of my template.
For now, things look good.  I should probably screw this sucker into the body.

(for those playing the home game, that was the ninth double entendre in this post.)

I'm kidding.  I don't keep count...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sticking your neck out - Part 1

None of these things is quite like the other...
A while back I kind of glossed over the fact that I had purchased a few guitar necks online.
Here's why I wasn't too specific:  They were cheap.
...I mean really really cheap...
Cheap enough to make me ask myself, "Are they too cheap?"

Will I respect you in the morning?
...all four of you?

These were about $25-$35 each.  And while that's not an insignificant amount of money when you put four of them together - it's really peanuts vs. buying a new neck.

A premium aftermarket neck from some place like Warmoth starts around $160 (and can go up hundreds of dollars from there).  Even a more affordable option like Mighty Mite necks are still about $100 new.  So, we're not talking about chump change.

Once you get to a comfort level where you are building necks from scratch it becomes more affordable but it still isn't an inexpensive proposition - financially or temporally.  The prices I paid for these necks were in many cases less than what I would have paid for the raw lumber alone.
Which is exactly why I did it - obviously!

Nice backsides.

The reason these necks were so inexpensive is because they are used or rejects.  I bought all of them from Guitar Fetish.  Each one came from an unfinished or a damaged instrument.  Evidently they bought a bunch of these 'distressed' parts and are able to make a profit selling them.
It's a dangerous website - I almost bought two more necks just looking up the URL for the site.

Pictured: A big chip
Not pictured: Frets or fret markers
...but there's a lovely crack in the fretboard

Of course - nothing is for free.  The real cost comes after you buy the neck and you want to use it.  All of these beauties needed to be scraped and sanded to remove the old finish (and in at least one case remove the dents and dings in the wood).  Two of them came without frets installed - which actually is kind of a time-saver as I will probably have to re-fret the ones that are currently fretted due to existing worn or damaged frets.  Some are missing fret markers or tuning peg holes, or the nut.  The list goes on...

...but then some of them look like this...
...and you realize you still got a hell of a deal.

"The story of a boy ...and his headstock?"
In short, I knew there would be a cost for such savings.  I'm just now truly learning the extent of that cost.  As long as they are functional I should come out ahead.  My greatest fear was that one or all of the truss rods in these necks would be broken.  So far - so good.  I may have dodged that bullet.  So, let's see what it takes to get one of these bad boys up and running.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bling a Ling Ling

When it comes to guitars - a little flash never hurt anyone.  One of my favorite ways to customize a guitar is with a custom neck plate.  The funny thing is that in the normal course of playing a guitar neither you nor an audience member can see the neck plate - so it's more of a mental thing for the player than anything else.

I've used a couple of different vendors for custom neck plates over the years.  The most recent one is  You provide them with a decent quality image and you get back something like this:

Celtic Love knot
I don't normally go for the gold.  But I figured it would be a nice compliment to the warm tones/figure of the Mahogany wood. A cool new feature of this vendor is the ability to put serial numbers on the neck plates.

...whether or not I actually finish these three guitars in 2015 is anyone's guess.

...okay I wouldn't put a lot of money on it...

Awen - Welsh symbol for inspiration.
See kids!  This is what trolling around on the internet for hours at a time will get you:  You spend your money of some really strange stuff.  

Another fun tip: When you type "Celtic Symbol" into Google you get a lot of craptastic tattoo pictures but sometimes you strike gold.  I liked this symbol - the Awen - from the moment I saw it.  It doesn't really appear to be "Celtic" but I like what it stands for and since I'm about  1/16th Welsh -  let's run with it!

Three.  It's the magic number...

I'm pretty sure that the Celtic knot is going on the Les Paul and the Awen symbol is going on the PRS (whenever I get back to that build).  But where is that black neck plate going to go...?
...I do wonder...

Monday, September 28, 2015

What does it have in its pocketses, Precious?

Pictured: Time to put my Router where my mouth is.
(Okay, for real kids, don't do that.  Like, ever.)

To me - this is the most nerve wracking part of any guitar build.  There comes a time when all fun and games are over - and you have to route a neck pocket.  I've talked about this in other blog posts - but this really is the most crucial cut you will make building a guitar.  In my mind - everything else is ergonomics and aesthetics.  

So what if your pickup cavities are too deep or slightly off-center? 
There are pickup rings and springs to compensate for it.  

So what if your volume/tone knobs are a little to the left or right of where they should be? 
Stretch your fingers a little 'cupcake!'

I'm gonna get you, sucka!
This part of the build determines whether or not the guitar is going to be playable.  Period.  Mess this up and you have a pretty looking piece of art vs. a smooth playing instrument. The only other act of wood-working that is as crucial as this one is when you install the bridge.  
...and we'll get to that in due course.  So, as you can tell, I take this part pretty seriously.

Now is the time to repeat the wood-worker's mantra, "Measure twice, cut once."

Measure twice, cut once.  Measure twice, cut once.  Measure twice, cut once.
Since I'm still fairly new to this - I measured about six or seven times.  No, seriously, I had three different straight edges, a couple of rulers, and at least one level out while I was setting up this cut.

I am also lucky - in that I have a bolt-on Les Paul to use as a reference.  I was able to run between my garage and my music room a couple of times to take measurements.  If you do not have an Epiphone Les Paul kicking around - I recommend going to a guitar store and asking if you can take some measurements.  Most of the small shops will be cool with it - if you are polite and gentle with their merchandise (I am speaking from experience).

Because I have a bolt-on Epiphone Les Paul at my disposal - I was able to determine that the neck pocket is closer to 3/4th of an inch deep vs. the 5/8th of an inch that most Fender neck pockets have. In my research I wasn't able to determine if Epiphones have a standard neck pocket depth (like Fender does) so I split the difference on this build.  Currently the neck pocket on my build is just shy of 3/4ths of an inch.  But - by the time I am finished sanding the top the pocket will be closer to 11/16th of an inch deep.

...or at least that is my current plan...

All this is just a way of saying - I'm working it out.  Stay tuned as to how it goes...

Small but fierce!
If you have been following along - you know what's next.  I routed, and routed, and routed some more using the template and template bit above.  The reason for all this routing is because I didn't take more than 1/4 of an inch off on any one pass.  It is also the reason you want to make sure your template is accurate and securely fastened to the body.  If your template shifts during the second or third pass - you are going to have all the feels.
(See? Isn't that an awkward phrase?  Why don't we stop using it...?)

One note - I waited until this point to route the neck pocket because if I did it prior to this the pocket wouldn't be angled.  Since the top has a 4 degree angle in it (and I put the template on top of that) the pocket has a 4 degree angle to it.  It's hard to see in the below picture - but trust me - it's there.  This is going to help when I install the bridge.

I was so focused on getting this right - I didn't take any photos of the process.  Once the neck pocket was done, however, I took some shots of how it all turned out.  If you look closely in the above picture you can see that the Lacewood will be rather prominent at the cutaway.  Once it is sanded and finished it's going to look pretty sexy.  That's a wood-working term.

"You have learned much my young Padawan.  But you are not a Jedi yet."

The end product looks good - so far.
The neck joint isn't as tight as purists say it should be (I can't currently carry the guitar around by the neck.  

...but it's close.

Once I put a finish/varnish on the neck - this is going to be one tight joint.  Oh, and there will be four frickin' screws holding it in too!  Silly purists.  But seriously, I subscribe to the idea that wood will expand and contract with the weather/seasons.  It's probably a good idea to allow a little tolerance for that.  Having said that - I'm not going to pretend that I wasn't aiming for a super tight fit.  I'm still working on the whole 'precision' thing.

Thank goodness for the Fret Board Hangover.

I still have to do a decent amount of work on this neck:
I will definitely be putting some kind of veneer on the headstock.  What kind? I don't know yet. Possibly something to match the body.

Looking at the rest of the neck I keep wondering if I want to keep the existing fret markers (the diamonds).
...or do I want to try my hand at some inlay work...?

If I had completely bollocksed this up - you would see a much bigger gap right here.

I am also intrigued by the idea of binding the fretboard.  Which is a butt-load of work and should be completed before the frets are installed but I'll hold off judgement until after I bind the top.
Oh yeah, I also have to flatten and polish the frets, don't I...?
Hmmm...  Still lots to do...

Wow.  That almost looks right.

Here we are...
It LOOKS pretty good but looks have no bearing on playability.  
For now,  I am cautiously optimistic.  And for the purists - there is nothing holding the neck in that neck pocket in this picture except the tightness of that joint.  So, there may be hope for me as a wood worker yet.

"Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp square joint."

Monday, September 14, 2015


Now that we have all these strata/levels/layers - it's time we got rid of them!


Yes, really.  

You put all the time and effort into creating the stratum templates and cutting into the top of the guitar body - only to remove all the work you just did.  Because it is going to save you time.

Let that sink in for a sec...

Okay, that's not completely true.  It also makes things more precise.  Left to my own devices (e.g. going freehand) my Les Paul carved top would probably look more like a Strat body.  
...and not by choice!  

So, now we SAND!

Lots and lots of sanding.

I didn't take a ton of pictures of the sanding process.  But here's the rub (pun intended)...

You are trying to turn those 'steps' into one mound.  If you are good with a card scraper or a small hand plane (or a finger plane) you can start off using one of those.  I'm terrible with planes and my card scraper needs to be sharpened - so I just busted out the sand paper.  To start I used a small powered sander (a Black & Decker Mouse).  It's not the best sander but it got me started.  I switched to a small sanding block and completed the shape by hand. I think I used 80 or 60 grit paper to get the rough shape and then moved up to 100 to smooth it out a bit. 

One note about my sanding block:  I found it useful to wrap a small (1 inch by 1 inch by 3/4 inch) piece of mahogany scrap in some scotch-brite and then wrap the sandpaper around that.  Having a sanding block with a little 'give' worked for me.  It might (or might not) work for you.

On the Left - Where I'm going.
On the Right - Where I've been.

This is not the final shape - but I'm happy so far.  The mound is a little too abrupt right now but I plan on taming it a bit.

Pictured: Arched

Pictured: Mounds

Pictured: Swells

Pictured: Carved

Pictured: The end of the analogy.

The top still has a lot of shaping to go between now and it's first Marshall stack - but I think this is off to a good start

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Doin' a Jig

No, not that kind of jig.
I mean a woodworking jig.

What's the difference between a template and a jig?  I think it's flexibility.  Having never done this before - I'm just guessing.  But it seems to makes sense...

A template is for making the same thing over and over in the same way every time.
A jig is for doing the same process over and over but with variable outcomes/outputs.

When is a wooden box and a couple of clamps considered flexible?
When it's a jig.

Take this angle/router sled jig.  It's just a box made with 1x3 stock that is big enough for the guitar to fit inside and a router to fit over.  The neat bit is if you add hinges to one side.  All of a sudden you can now use the router to make all kinds of cuts.  They are repeatable but also variable.
This jig is for adding a 4 degree pitch (or angle) to the guitar bodies.  The jig is supposed to be on hinges but I didn't have any on hand when I worked on this. If I add them I could make a 3 degree or 5 degree (or 22.5 degree!) pitch.

Once again - I'm adding the 4 degree pitch down near the neck pocket.  Les Paul necks (and PRS necks too) are angled away from the body so that the strings are parallel with the neck.  Take a look at this graphic.  It really explains the mechanics around why a Les Paul needs a neck angle but a Tele/Strat doesn't.

For this jig you have to make a temporary modification to your router.  Most routers have a removable plate (usually plastic) on the bottom.  The plate has four screws that you remove and the plate comes right off.

 Because it's removable it is also replaceable.  Usually you remove it and replace it with a new one when the old one gets worn out. But you can also use those screw holes to swap the plastic one for a wooden one (or attach it to a router table).  It's best to use a piece of plywood for this - as plywood is less likely to warp.  Keep in mind you want to be able to move the router laterally and horizontally, so it should be considerably wider than the box.

Do not attempt to adjust your monitor. There is nothing wrong with your computer.  

I used clamps to keep the jig in the right place.  It took a bit of looking but I was able to find a piece of wood in my scrap pile that when placed under one side of the jig made a 4 degree angle.  Not pictured is the angle gauge that I used to determine when the angle was correct.  There is a way to do this with trigonometry if you don't have a angle gauge.  Just google it.

The other thing that I did not take a picture of is how I secured the guitar body to the box.  There are a couple of ways to do this but I chose to use wooden shims to clamp the body to the box.  

Stick a couple of shims in the jig in-between the box wall and the guitar body  (see my crappy drawing below).  I put two at the neck and two at the tail.  Then tap the shims toward each other.  The pressure will clamp the body to the jig.

This is why I don't draw any more.

Just make sure the guitar is centered and squared up to the box or all of your cuts will be a little off.

Yes, I know.  There are two lines.  Look at the one in the middle.

I then drew a line where the router blade should start digging into the wood.

Then you lower your router blade until it just barely touches that line.  Anything between that line and the front of the guitar body should be removed at a 4 degree angle.

I found it easier to go side to side (left to right in the above picture) taking off small amounts on each pass.  The first couple of passes you remove a hair's width of wood but the cuts get deeper very quickly with the 4 degree slope.

If you do go back to front - you will find your cut becomes fairly deep fairly fast.  I think it was between 1/4 and 3/8 of an inch deep at the very end of the guitar body.  That's probably too much for one pass and you should reset your blade depth.  Also for this I used the largest/meatiest straight bit I had.  It also happened to be one of the sharpest bits I own - which is always helpful.

You may find that the sliding action of the wooden jig and the wooden router base plate may not be totally smooth.  It didn't bother me but if it bothers you you can try putting some bee's wax on the jig rails to make them glide a bit better.

It's kind of hard to see if you just look at the body - but if you look at the straight board behind the body blank - you can see how much was taken off.  The pen line on the side of the body matches up with the start line on top of the body in the above pictures.  

It's now time to shape the top!