By John Fisher
I wanted to share a bit of a history of the LP guitar I just built. You will probably see some techniques and ideas that are a little strange and others that are very strange but all I can say is it worked for me. There are even some methods and the use of certain materials that I wouldn’t recommend but I needed to resort to because of my circumstances and conditions. This will be enough to make any experienced luthier cringe.
I live in a country where many ideal materials and guitars parts don’t exist. I also didn’t have a lot of money so these adversities have caused me to do a lot of experimenting . As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
I had very little of the basic tools and I had NO shop to work in. I was found working away at my guitar in various locations of the house that were non conducive such as the laundry area, the pantry or sometimes a table in the back yard. I say these things to encourage people that they don’t have to have everything perfect to accomplish something. The following pages are not necessarily a complete step by step manual for building a Les Paul but I waned to at least stimulate some inventive ideas and some of the lessons I’ve leared.
Like I said, I had very little of even the basic tools. To have all the right tools is also expensive. In theory, you can build a guitar with just simple hand tools but having some power tools will help speed things up a great deal and in many cases help you to do a better job. Fortunately I had the use of circular saw, a router, belt sander and an electric drill. I also have a little “Dremel” high speed drill which was very helpful.
I didn’t have any large clamps for gluing the body together so I went to the local hardware store and got some 1/4″ threaded rods with nuts to make my own simple devices to clamp things together.
Another example is that I didn’t even have a simple cabinet scraper, which is vital for such projects so I just cut up some small pieces of glass for scraping which worked really good. I also did a lot with my trusty “Swiss Army knife”.
I didn’t have a band saw to cut the shape of the body so after drawing the shape I just cut off pieces with a normal hand saw, then I belt sanded it to the right shape.
As you read through the following pages I’m going to mention many other examples of unconventional methods. Hopefully you (the reader) who endeavors to tackle such projects will in many cases have better tools and working conditions. It is my hope to at least inspire a little ingenuity.
Philosophy behind of Project
To tackle such a project is quite a learning experience. I think that more then even skill, your patience gets exercised to the limit. It’s very time consuming and trying to see quick results will usually cause setbacks.
” It takes God time to make a tree, a sunset, or even a blade of grass”
It takes a lot time to plan the project and to just even figure out what kind of guitar you want. I wasn’t really sure at first and was leaning toward making an SG style but eventually gravitated to a Les Paul style. Unfortunately, you are sometimes limited by the lack of money you have or the availability of materials and tools and even time.
Agostino D’Antonio, a sculptor of Florence, Italy, wrought diligently but unsuccessfully on a large piece of marble. “I can do nothing with it,” he finally said. Other sculptors too, worked with the piece of marble, but they, too, gave up the task. The stone was discarded. It lay on a rubbish heap for forty years. Out strolling one day, Michelangelo saw the stone & the latent possibilities in it. It was brought to his studio. He began to work on it. Ultimately, his vision & work were crowned with success. From that seemingly worthless stone was carved one of the World’s masterpieces of sculpture–”David”!
It takes a lot of just plain hard work but even the many mistakes made along the way are a tremendous learning experience. I learned that although a lot of things take time it is important not to let petty details impede progress and always try to see a way to get past the problems by looking for a better way to do it.
I would like to thank Paul Gambon who helped me with a lot of info. He has made some really impressive guitars. Also I would like to thank the people over at “Ampage” who I pestered with many questions. Another great place where the people are very helpful and where you can learn just about anything you need to know about building and reparing strings instruments is “The MIMForm.”
While I’m at it I would like to thank My wife Shawne and my son Isaac for putting up with me in all my shenanigans and God most of all who through his love gives us all things.
After deciding that I wanted to make a Les Paul stile guitar I had a very big problem. I had no plans or diagrams for the project. I went around to most of the main music stores here in the country and I literally could not find one Les Paul to copy ideas from. I finally did find one LP copy in which I was able briefly look at and take a couple of measurements. To get a template of the shape I finally scanned a very tinny picture of a LP body out of a magazine and then using “Photo Shop” I blew it up to scale. I was then able to print it out on 4 sheets of paper. I then taped the pages together to make a template of the shape. “Assuming” that the body of the guitar was 17″ long I was able to make it to scale. I later found out that a LP body is 17 1/4″. (Close enough?)
I then just started writing and asking everyone possible a bunch of questions to little by little get the picture of what I needed to do which requires lots of details. It’s kind of like trying to make a road map of Venus with a pair of binoculars. After putting all the ideas together I was amazed to find out that it was pretty close to a real LP.
Here is a picture that I found on the internet of the basic shape of a Les Paul.
Below are some of the basic dimensions I used:
- Body length: 17″
- Body thickness: The basic body was mahogany 1-7/8″ thick with a glued on hardwood top close to 1/2″ thick at its peak of the carved top.
- Standard Gibson neck scale: Scale length is 24-11/16″ on the treble side, and 24-13/16″ on the bass side
- Width at top bout: 8-15/16″
- Width at waist: 7-1/16″
- Width at bottom bout 12-1/2″
Woods that I used
“A maker of violins searched all his life for wood that would serve for making violins with a certain beautiful and haunting resonance. At last he succeeded when he came into possession of wood gathered from the timberline, the last stand of the trees of the Rockies, 12,000 feet above sea level. Up there where the winds blow so fiercely and steadily that the bark to windward has no chance to grow, where the branches all point one way, and where a tree to live must stay on its knees all through its life, that is where the world’s most resonant wood for violins is born and lives and dies.
I just to happen to find in my back yard an old piece of 2″X6″ mahogany from a very old table that I used for the body and the neck. It’s been sitting there for several decades and it was still straight as an arrow, so I figured it must be a pretty stable piece of wood. So I glued some of it together side by side for the body. Like I said earlier, I didn’t have any large clamps for this so I got some cheap 1/4″ threaded rod with nuts and made something to hold it together.
Because of the unavailability of maple here in Peru, I got inspired by looking at some of the new Gibson “Smartwood” guitars to use some kind of exotic Peruvian hardwood for the top. This may or may not be a good idea as maple has a definite effect on the guitar tone giving the guitar that “big shinny round sound”. So it’s been a bit of a chance. I’m sorry but I don’t at this point remember what the name of the wood is I used. I got it at a place for free where they have exotic Peruvian woods for floor boards.
Some Les Pauls are hollowed out to make them lighter. This one is solid.
I used a router to roughly cut the shape of the LesPaul style carved top. I first drew lines with a pencil where I would run the router.
I routed channels about 3/4″ to 1′ wide. I went up each time about 2mm like stairs until I reached the top of the 1/2′ thick hardwood top.
You have to be really carfull not to make any mistakes you can’t correct. As you get more to the middle there is less flat surface for the router base so you have to be real carful.
I saw a more sure method that Paul Fisher did (see picture above) where there are little fins that are left for the router base to rest on. The fins are later chiseled off. I didn’t use this method and had no problems but the fins look like a really good idea.
After doing the rough cutting with the router, I used a chisel to cut off the ledges then I used a belt sander.
This whole procedure works good and fast but you really have to be careful as the belt sander takes it off really fast. You can also use a drill and a sanding disk.
Here I am sanding down the rough shape with a belt sander
Here is the top rough sanded. I was really pleased with the way the shape turned out. I need to touch it up with a little hand sanding and a cabinet scraper.
I didn’t have any templates to do the routing so I did a lot just free hand and at times I used a chisel. I have in the past made cavities successfully by just drilling holes and using a chisel to dig it out. Although this works ok, having a router and some template does a quicker and better job.
I did find it necessary to make a crude template out of some thick acrylic for the neck cavity. This is important because how the neck joins the body is critical for good strength, good sound transmission and to have the neck at the proper angle to the body. The pocket should be a little narrower then the width of the fret board and neck. Assuming that this area of the carved body is flat (important) I temporarily screwed the template to the body very close to the hole. The screws need to be close enough to the hole so that the fret board will later cover the screw holes.
Here is a rough illustration of the neck and how it is shaped to fit into the body
Here is the back where the cavity for the pots will be. I first drilled out the area that I was going to rout with a large drill bit to make it easier on the router. Because the back was going to be black and you were not going to see the wood, I used auto body filler to fill in any holes or flaws.
Here are the cavities routed out. Not shown is an extra ledge I will rout out around each opening for the plastic covers to fit in so that the plastic covers will be flush with the body. One dilemma was the thickness of the wall between the cavity and the carved top where the pots go. It is common practice to use pots with extra long threaded shafts to go through the top. It was wisely pointed out by Paul Gambon that if the wall is too thin it could crack the nice carved top if you ever need to remove a stubborn knob from the pot.
Unfortunately those types of pots with the long threaded shafts were not readily available to me so I thought of a workaround (I hope). After getting the wall thin enough to mount a normal pot which are readily available, I put a thin sheet metal plate at the bass of the cavity and then drilled the holes where the pots will go. This metal plate “should” give the thin wooden wall the added strength it needs to use normal pots.
Doing the binding is one of the more difficult things for me. I was faced with a dilemma as, plastic binding for guitars just doesn’t exist here in this country. I wanted to make multi-striped binding and I happed to have a bit of it that I got from “Stewart McDonald” a while back but I didn’t have the main thicker piece that goes on the out side.
I know you are going to think I’m weird and I don’t recommend it, but out of desperation I just cut up strips of PVC plastic from a sewer pipe that was sitting around for the outside binding. Like I said before, “necessity is the mother on invention”.
Here I am cutting up strips of PVC plastic with the saw on my trusty Swiss Army Knife
Note about Binding Materials
Most binding materials are made of Celluloid Nitrate which is extremely flammable and almost explosive. When using the PVC plastic on my bindings I had to use a candle to carefully heat it to bend it around the cutaway section of the body. You must not use a candle for Celluloid Nitrate plastic as it will violently burn up.
Making the Binding Channel
Another problem was to accurately make the binding channel in the curved top. There is a neat little device available from Stewart McDonald for doing this but I didn’t have it so made up a quick invention. I want to say that my invention is not near as good as the more conventional methods but it still worked. (See below)
I made this crude device out of pieces of PVC pipe glued together with super glue. It will fit on the end of my Dremel tool. The slots are cut out so that when the clamp is put on, it will clamp tightly to the Dremel tool. I had to practice a lot on scrap wood till I knew it was going to work properly.
Here it is on the Dremel tool. It’s hard to see, but there is a small cutter in the center that is adjusted to cut the depth of the binding channel. The tang is what determines the width of the channel cut. It can be adjusted for a smaller width cut by rapping tape on it. This works reasonably well but the main problem was to make sure it’s clamped fit didn’t wiggle around while in use.
Here is the binding being glued on the head and held on with masking tape. It was tricky using PVC around the intricate shapes of the body and head. Since I had to heat the PVC separately from the Celluloid binding, I had glued the binding on in 2 separate operations. This is not ideal but it worked. I glued the binding with household acetone based glue. (Known in the USA as “Duco” I think) I made the binding slightly wider then the binding channel then I shaved it down to size with a scraper.
I would like to express to anyone reading this that it really helps to use the correct type of binding material as it will be easier to work with and turn out better. I only did things this way because I had no other options at the moment and I wanted to experiment.
I once had a book called “How to Survive in the Wilderness with a Knife and this Book”.
I figured why not get your knife and go into a camping store and rob it so you can have all you need in the wilderness. (Sorry, bad joke)
I am in the situation where I am building a guitar but there is not a lot of availability of guitar parts in the country I’m in. This means I need to make my own truss rod. It would be a lot easier and probably better if I was to just buy one for about 10 bucks but like I said, there isn’t one available.
I got the Idea to make one similar to the ones they use in Martin guitars which is a piece of aluminum U cannel that is bowed by a threaded rod that’s inside.
As simple as it may seem, I had to do some experimenting and there was some tedious tasks I had to perform in order to get the desired effect. (Quite a lot of work to save 10 bucks).
Here is the 1/2″ square aluminum U bar I used. I almost used a 3/8″ one but I figured it will have to be strong enough when bowed to bend the neck of the guitar. I then ground down the height of the bar to 13/32″ to get it closer to how they do the Martin truss rods.
I was going to originally use a 3/16″ threaded rod but I had a real hard time finding one, so I welded a 3/16″ bolt on a piece of 3/16″ rod to extend it to the needed length.
The idea is to use the aluminum bar as a type of bow and the steel rod is like the string of the bow that when tightened with a nut on one end of the rod, it will bow the bar which is inside the neck of the guitar.
In order for the rod to grip the ends of the aluminum U bar correctly I made some ends out of aluminum stock. I used aluminum simply because it was a lot easier to work with then steel. In the end that is shown in the picture I put a groove on the far end so that the steel bar could be anchored so in would not be able to turn when the nut is tightened on the other end. I welded a ball on the end of the rod then filed it flat so it could rest in the groove of the end piece when assembled. I also beveled the 2 top edges so that the U bar can be crimped around it. The hole in the center is 3/16″.
Here is one of the end pieces in place (un crimped) inside the U bar.
Here is the end that has been crimped . You can see the ball that has been wielded on the end of the rod.
Above is the rod assembled inside the aluminum U bar. It’s difficult to see but there is a nut and a washer on one end. You will notice that I wrapped about 3 or 4 layers of masking tape on 3 places of the steel rod. This is to avoid any possible vibrations in case the rod happens to touch the walls of the U bar.
I also slightly bent in the walls of the U bar in order to assist the truss rod in bending the desired direction when tightened. On the left is a rough idea of bending the sides in looking end on at the U bar.
After the truss rod was assembled I laid out a strip of masking tape. I stuck on a 1/4″ strip of paper in the middle of the masking tape, then pasted it over the open end of the truss rod. This is to assist in preventing any rattle or vibrations once it’s installed in the neck. The paper is stuck on the masking tape so that there is no chance that the making tape will stick to the steel rod.
Here it is with the tape on. This side will go face down in the groove that is cut out in the neck of the guitar. This truss rod that I am using for an electric guitar is a total of 17 1/2 ” long. For an acoustic guitar it would be a little shorter.
Here is the board that I am making the neck out of. Although it is acceptable and practical to sometimes laminate pieces together for a neck, this is to be all one piece. It is 31/2″ X 2″ by 26″. (quarter sawn). It’s a piece of Mahogany that I found laying around from an old table that is probably older than me. (and that’s pretty old). It’s probably pretty stable wood as when I checked it with a straight edge, it was as straight as an arrow.
After making sure the top and side was flat and square I routed out the 1/2″ groove for the truss rod. It’s important to make the groove at this stage of the game while you have a good straight surface to work with before carving the neck. You can use a router or a circular saw works good too. When using a circular saw you can set the depth you need on the saw and then make multiple cuts to the correct width of the channel using a guide. I usually tape the guard up when I do this but you really have to be careful or you can have a serious accident and lose your fingers and you’ll be playing slide guitar for the rest of your life. (No joke intended).
It is my belief that the truss rod should fit in such a way as it is not too lose or not too tight. If it’s too loose it could rattle around later. If it is too tight it will not be able to freely move and bow correctly when it is adjusted.
In cases when the groove was cut too big and the truss rod is too loose, you can always put a strip of felt in it to keep it from rattling around.
Starting the Neck
I heard someone say once that: “Guitar building is like hot dogs. They look and taste good but did you ever see how they make them?!”
Here is the square block that I am going to make the neck out of. It is approximately 25″ X 3 1/2″ X 2″. As you can see I glued a little piece on the end where the head is to ensure that the slanted head will be long enough. I drew with a thin felt marker where I am going to make some rough cuts. You can’t see it but I drew the same pattern on the other side of the board. It never hurts to plan a wee bit bigger to allow for any inaccuracies.
At this point it is almost practical to insert the truss rod and glue on the fret board and then later shape the neck. I like to wait until I at least rough shape the neck. My reasoning for this is that when you cut up wood sometimes after it’s cut, it bends or warps slightly to a certain extent. Did you ever buy a perfectly straight 2″ X 4″ at the lumber yard but when you take it home and ripped it down the middle, all of a sudden you have 2 warped bananas? Good mahogany is a very stable wood but I still watch out for things like that. After I rough shape the neck, I’m going to re check the surface where the fret board will go just to make sure it’s still good and flat.
Now we have the making hot dogs part. Here is the very rough cut neck. It might encourage you to know that I have very little tools and so far this project has cost me nothing to make except for the truss rod that I made which cost about $2. The wood was from junk funiture and the exotic hard wood top of the body is from Peruvian floor boards.
I didn’t have the use of a band saw so I used a hand saw and a circular saw and hacked and cut away for about an hour to get the rough shape. (Kind of like doing brain surgery with a chain saw.) I say this so people won’t think that they need the perfect set up, but of coarse good tools are a real help. A band saw would have made things a lot easier. I once sliced a piece of Bird’s Eye Maple right down the middle with only a hand saw to make 2 book matched pieces for the top of an electric guitar. A little crazy and a lot of hard work but it worked.
It’s good to not be afraid leave everything a little big. You can always shape things down pretty easily later but you will be real sorry if you take too much off by accident.
An important note: If you plan to put binding around the fret board it is a good idea to leave the neck stock a little wider then the fret board and then shave it down to size after the binding is on.
Slab Cut or Quarter sawn
Wood is cut either as a slab cut or a quarter sawn cut. Most common lumber is slab cut which means that the grain of the wood runs horizontal. A quarter sawn board has the grain general running vertically and will be stiffer. This is advantageous where you want more strength for the weight of the board. A great deal of the guitar necks are slab cut which is cheaper to make. Because of the fact that you are using a truss rod there is normally not a problem with it bending under the tension of the strings. A quarter sawn guitar neck will be stiffer. This gets to be controversial as people prefer one or the other which will effect how the guitar resonates. The neck is an important factor considering that around half of the length of the strings is stretched over the neck of the guitar and the other half, the Body.
The wood I used for the neck happened to be quarter sawn Mahogany.
Here Is a childish drawing I made to illustrate a slab cut or a quarter sawn board. This is looking at the board end on or from the end grain. Note how the grain of the wood is angled in each example.
My first choice for the wood I was going to use for my fret board was ebony. If there ever was a wood that’s black, it’s ebony. It’s very hard and the fact that it’s black makes the inlays look nice. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any here. I did manage to find some Jacaranda wood (pictured below) which is also very hard and turned out to be quite beautiful.
The piece I got was a little thicker than 1/4″. At this point I needed to get it real flat.
I got a piece of thick glass for a real flat surface and glued (with contact cement) some 80 grit sandpaper to it.
With 2 hands I then went back and forth with the fret board on the flat sanding surface. I would then check it for flatness periodically by placing a metal ruler on the surface and looking towards a light source. When you can’t see any light pass through between the ruler and the wood, you know it’s flat. When I finished flattening both surfaces I got it to be about 1/4″ thick. At this point the width and the length of the fret board is rough cut.
Although the fret board will eventually be wider on one end you need to make sure at this point that the fret board is perfectly square as this is necessary to accurately draw where the frets will go with a T square.
Most electric and steel string acoustic guitars have a curved fret board to make it easier to play bar chords. The amount of curve is measured by the radius of the curve. Most Gibson fret boards have a radius of 12 inches along the whole fret board. I decided that I wanted to create what they call a compound radius. This is where the curve of the fret board is more extreme at the nut end and as it reaches the bridge end of the fret board it is less curved or flatter. This makes it easier to play chords at the nut end but easier to do riffs further up the neck without it fretting out as you bend the strings. An example of a compound radius is to start at the nut end with a radius of 10″ and then finish up the neck with a 16″ radius. That seemed a little extreme for my liking so I made it 10″ at the nut end and 14″ at the bridge end.
Laying Out Where the Frets Go
I wanted to make the string length scale Gibson standard. (24-11/16″ treble side, 24- 13/16″ bass side)
There are 3 ways to do this. One is to get a chart and carefully measure each fret. Two is to get a computer program for plotting out the fret board and three is to simply use an already existing fret board as a template. I chose the third method.
Here shows how I used a T square to draw with a sharp pencil the lines where the frets will go. I used fine sandpaper to get the pencil real sharp. Note that at this point it is important that the fret board is a perfect rectangle in order to get the frets nice and square. Afterwards, I then cut the fret board to the correct tapered size. I used the same sanding surface to flatten the edges until it reached the correct width. It’s important that the edges are nice and square, so I got a block of wood that I know was square and used it to prop the fret board on it’s edge as a rubbed it back and forth on the sandpaper surface.
I made my fret board 1 – 9/16″ wide on the nut end and 2 – 3/16 at the bridge end. This is also accounting for the fact that it’s going to have a plastic binding on the edges which will make the fret board slightly wider.
Cutting the Fret Slots
There are some better ways to do this than the way I did it but it worked anyway. “Steward McDonald” has some very good accessories and different types of miter boxes to do this. You can even make one for the job. I didn’t a miter box or even an official fret saw so I used a little hacksaw that I got from the local hardware store. It is important that the cuts are straight so that the frets will seat in correctly. It just so happed that the width of the blade on my little hacksaw was just the right width for the fret tangs. If necessary you can grind the sides of the blade a little to make the width of the cut narrower. I tried to go down with my cut just a bit further then the depth of the tang. I would check it with a feeler gauge.
There are a few different methods for putting in frets and they all work good when done properly. It is possible to make it fit just right as not to need any glue to hold them in. I personally like the fit to be just snug enough to stay in then I also put a little bit of super glue in there for added security. If the frets are too loose to stay in themselves you can glue them in with epoxy glue. It’s good not to make the fit too tight as this will actually compress the neck causing it to warp backwards. Some people do this purposely to correct a problem of too much forward bow.
Dressing the Frets
This article is not meant to be a detailed manual on how to do these things so there will be many missing factors in this document. I’m just trying to show you some of the unconventional methods that I used. If you have any questions please let me know.
After getting all the frets in and trimming and filing the ends I got a long piece of thick glass and glued fine sandpaper to it. I used #280 grit sandpaper for metal. I then stroked back and forth on the fret until all the frets were just touched by the sandpaper. The idea is to do this as little as possible but just until all the frets have been touched. If the former preparations were done well, you will take very little off. I used sandpaper on the glass but you can use a “large flat file”. Be sure that if you use a file for this, it is truly flat.
After the tops of the frets have been slightly flattened they need to be re-crowned so they are round again.
One essential tool that I didn’t have is a special concave file to crown the tops of the frets. This tools is ideal and will help you do a good job. I had to use the old method using a triangular file to file the frets round. I ground the edges or corners of the file to prevent the sharp edges from cutting into the fret board. I covered the fret board area with masking tape to help protect it. Using a triangular file can be quite tedious as it is critical that you do a good job. After filing the frets I then sanded them with #600 grit sand paper, then I went to #1000 grit. If the frets are not well polished the strings will abrasively rub against them when played.
Making the Nut
As I continue on in my project of building a Les Paul the “HARD WAY”, I decided to make my own nut out of bone.
I went to the butchers to get a large dog bone. (Not a bone from a dog but a bone from a cow.) It has to be big because the wall of the bone needs to be thick. I personally like the sound of bone for a guitar nut. After cleaning it up good, I used my cut off wheel from my Dremel drill to cut it up. You can use a hack saw if you like. While using the high speed Dremel to cut it up it was probably the worse smell I have ever experienced. It was kind of like cremation or something. It took about a day for the awful smell to leave the room. I then shaped it with a grinder, file, and sand paper.
Here is the guitar after I just attached the neck. Attaching the neck is a rather critical operation. It takes patience to make sure that you have a good fit that it’s snug and at to right angle. I used a router and a template to insure that the pocket where the neck goes in was uniform. The top needed to be carved in such a way that the area around the pocket was flat and that it is parallel with the bottom of the cavity. The angle is also dependent on how the top was carved. This is a bit tricky as too much of an angle will make the bridge way too high. Paul Gambon was a big help for me in this. I don’t know what the exact procedure in order is suppose to be, but I glued the neck on first without the fret board.
I made it so that if you were to put a straight edge on the neck without the fret board on, the distance between the straight edge and the carved top at the bridge area was 13/32″. I used white glue so that the neck could be removed if necessary in the future.
It should be fairly tight. If you happen to make the neck too loose you can use veneer to make it fit tight.
“An optimist is one who finds an opportunity in every difficulty. A pessimist is one who finds a difficulty in every opportunity.”
I used gold mother of Pearl for the inlays. I had difficulty in deciding what kind of inlay pattern I was going to use. I wanted to do something a little different then the typical Les Paul design to make it a bit more original. I also wanted to do something a little more graceful then your typical Scull and crossbones design.
I couldn’t find my jewelers saw and blades so what could I do? I got out my Dremel and with the cut off wheel I was able to quickly cut out all the inlays. The problem with that is that you probably waist more material this way then you do with a jewelers saw. For any inlays that are not real intricate this works good. I also used a small sanding wheel and some cheap jewelers files to make the final touches.
Important!! WARE SAFETY GLASSES! The Dremel spins around at about 30 thousand RPM’s and chances are you will break a couple of the cut off wheels in the process. You can hold the pieces of pearl in a mini vice or a pair of pliers to keep your fingers safe. Don’t underestimate the power of these little drills. If it can cut a ball bearing in half it could easily cut your finger off. BE CAREFUL!
After making the inlays here are 2 ways to plot them out on the guitar. One is to trace the inlay on the guitar with a very sharp pencil. The method I used here was to put the inlay in place then paint around it with white out which will leave an image of the shape of the inlay on the guitar. You can also paint on rubber cement then sprinkle on talcum powder.
At times, I’ve dug out the wood to fit in the inlays with just a sharp knife or an exacto knife but it’s helpful to also use a Demel high speed drill with a tinny cutter for carving away the wood. This will work good with a router base to go along with it. I usually do it just deep enough so the Mother of Pearl is slightly higher than the surface of the wood.
On the fret board (because the wood is not black) I used a sharp pencil to trace the outline of each inlay. After cutting out the hole for the inlay, I then glued it in with a mixture of white vinyl glue and fine sawdust from the same wood as the fret board making a dark paste. I put an abundant amount of glue and sawdust first in each hole, then I push in the inlay. The excess glue will ooze out any small spaces where the hole was cut too big filling in the spaces. This will help hide any minor inaccuracies in how the hole was cut. I am usually not afraid to leave a lot on as the glue shrinks quite a bit when it dries. I then later sand off the excess paste and also sand down the Mother of Pearl flat with the fret board. I also made sure there was no glue that got in the fret slots.
The main Lesson Learned while Finishing this Guitar!
NEVER PAINT YOUR GUITAR ON A DUSTY ROAD SIDE IN PERU!!
To get a good finish to me is one of the hardest things to me about building a guitar. Of Course now that I think about it, almost every aspect about building a guitar is tedious. Each phase is a whole project in itself.
One nice thing about using lacquer for the finish is that lacquer can be worked on and any defects can be corrected or sanded off and re-touched up. I used “acrylic lacquer” instead of “nitrocellulose” lacquer which from what I understand is a tuff finish that doesn’t crack as easy as nitrocellulose lacquer.
I am not going to give a complete tutorial on how to lacquer a guitar but I will just touch on some of the experiences (mainly setbacks) that I had and some of the things I learned.
There are many good products and tools available to conquer the many difficulties that you will encounter finishing a guitar. To be honest I lack a lot of experience with those products so I am just letting you know what I did. You probably realized by now that I am quite unconventional in my approach to the tasks at hand. That’s what makes this article different then what you would normally get out of a book. But by all means, you should get the book too. My hope is to just inspire a bit of ingenuity. What the heck! I’m just having fun!
It is imperative to have everything well sanded. It takes a lot of time to do it right but it’s worth it. Because of the fact that most of the guitar I built is painted a solid color, that was helpful in the fact that I was able to fill in many bad spots with auto body putty that were unseen when finished. I started with heavy sandpaper when needed, then worked finer and finer until I finished with #280 grit paper. I found that it’s important to work your way up gradually with the intermediate grades of sandpaper. If you skip grades or stages you will have a smooth surface with distinct scratches in it.
Once sanded to satisfaction, I rubbed a damp (not too wet) cloth over the surface then let it dry. This would raise the grain a little. Then I would sand again with the #280 paper. After dusting off the surface with a cloth, by hand with cotton I applied a very thin coat of lacquer based sanding sealer. It would dry quickly then I would re-sand the surface with #400 paper. This will immediately show you parts that were not perfectly sanded or not shaped correctly and especially with the carved top, it will give you an idea how the curvature of the top will come out. I then carefully masked the binding and the fret board with masking tape.
I then sprayed about 3 coats of lacquer (2 parts thinner and 1 part lacquer) and let it dry for an hour or so.
I then sanded it down a bit with #400 sandpaper
I then prepared some of the same clear lacquer with a tiny bit of stain in it.
I applied a couple of coats of stain until I reached the density of the stain I desired. In this case, I made it a bit dark but with the grain of the wood still showing.
With the same lacquer I just used for the staining I added a bit more stain the then very lightly began the sunburst around the edge.
I then started to mix a tiny bit of black with it and sprayed another layer around the edge of the guitar. This time slightly further from the center then the last time.
I then added a little more black and went around again getting a little further away from the center.
Finally I went around the last time with straight black tinted lacquer on the very edge or perimeter of the top. The idea is to make a smooth transition from the stain starts to get dark to the edge which is black.
I then put several coats of clear over it. (Just the top)
I then let it dry for a day then I masked the top so I can spray the back black.
I screwed the bridge posts in to protect the top from being scratched while I laid it flat to do the back.
On the back I put a few coats of black tinted lacquer then a few coats of clear over it. I waited about 20 minutes in between coats.
I then let the guitar dry for a day or 2.
I then removed the masking and wet sanded the whole guitar with #400 sandpaper to get a great deal (not all) of the orange peel effect off. I was careful not to go too far where I would sand through the stain.
At this point I drop filled with a match stick any indentations or dings in the finish with thick lacquer.
When dry, I would carefully sand down flat the drop filled lacquer.
I then spayed several more coats on in about 20 minute intervals until I knew I had a good finish.
I then waited at least a week (some people wait a lot longer) then I wet sanded with #400 until there was no orange peel effect left. There should be a good enough coat on by now that all the blemishes can be sanded out. If there was still some deep dings in the finish I would drop fill them with lacquer and sand them down flat.
Once everything is flat with a good finish and no more dings I wet sanded with #600 paper, then a bit with #800, then a bit with #1000, then a little finer, #1500.
By then my finish was pretty good so I started to rub some red rubbing compound on. I let it dry for a minute then with a soft cotton cloth rubbed like crazy until I started to get a mirror like shine.
There are buffing wheels that you can get to put on your electric drill to do the job a lot faster but you have to be careful. If the lacquer is not really hard which can sometimes take months, you can ruin the finish. When the lacquer is not completely cured or dried it will be hard on the surface like a scab but underneath it can still be soft. When buffing with a cloth or a buffing wheel, besides the fact that the rubbing compound is polishing it with a very fine sand in the compound the cloth or buffing wheel is also causing friction and actually slightly melting the finish to where it smoothes it microscopically which creates a high gloss.
I finished it by applying some white rubbing compound which is even a little finer in the same manner as the red. By then I had a high gloss finish.
Some Problems I Encountered
I realized that the weather really had to be dry. If I tried to paint on a humid day or when the sun was setting I would get fogging in my finish. That’s moisture that gets into the lacquer while spraying. The lacquer gets foggy because of miniature bubbles in the finish.
At one point after waiting a day for it to dry, I re-sprayed it with a thin coat mixed with lots of thinner. It seemed to work fine but when I went to sand it down you could see a slight witness line wherever I sanded through to the previous coat. I later found out that the problem was that I had used too much thinner in my mixture and to a certain extent the lacquer was drying a bit before it would unite with the previous coat.
I had 2 potentiometers that were equipped with switches. If you pull them out or push them in, there is a DPDT switch that is activated. This is useful in that you are able to use it to configure the pickups different ways to give a wide variety of sounds. In my setup I am able to have what is called “Dual sound”. Because of the fact that the humbucking pickups have 2 coils each, they also have more than 2 conductors available. Normally a humbucking pickup has the 2 coils wired in series which will give you the highest output signal. Having access to the different windings will make multi pickup configurations possible.
I wired it so I was able to turn one coil off or on in each pickup making it possible to have single coil pickups. Although there are many more options that can be had with more switches, the single coil and double coil option is the most important to me, already giving quite a variety of sounds. When I get more pots with switches in them, I plan to do other things as, switching the phase relationship of the pickups and having the option of connecting the coils in parallel which has a mellower sound. I won’t expound on that right now but there is a lot that can be done.
The pickup selector switch is very unique in that unlike most 3 way switches, when pulled to one side the middle and one side are connected, when pulled the other way the other side is connected and when in the middle both sides plus the middle terminal are all connected.
I lined the cavities where the pots and the switch are with copper foil that I got from “Stewart McDonald”. I also lined the plastic lids with the foil that you can see laying open beside the cavities.
At the moment, I just installed 2 pickups I had laying around. In the bridge I have a Dimarzio (Evolution) pickup and at the neck I have a EMG (Select). I am planning on possibly changing them though, after I do some research to see what I want to put in.
Over all, the guitar sounds great. Ahh! that smooth fat Gibson sound I have been missing.