“You start with a piece of wood and you cut away anything that isn’t a guitar.”
– Wayne Henderson, luthier
I don’t know where I first got the idea that I wanted to build a guitar but I do know it’s been in my head for a long time.
Several years ago I read a review of Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology and decided to grab a copy. I read it cover to cover and it became my primary bathroom reader for a few more years. I really wanted to build an acoustic guitar. Not from a kit, but from scratch. The thing is, the main thing I took away from the book is that building an acoustic guitar is hard.
So I sat on the idea for a while, thinking I’d get to it some day. In the meantime I dabbled in other projects and even built a couple crappy cigar box guitars, though nothing that I really put much effort or care into.
Then one day last year I decided I’d build a solid body electric guitar. It seemed easier. No need to bend the sides, I’d be working with thick, forgiving chunks of wood rather than thin, delicate pieces that I’d have to bend using a mixture of steam and sorcery.
This is the story of how I built that guitar, the mistakes I made and the things I learned. It’s not really an exact how-to, but if you’re interested in building your own you might be able to learn a bit from my experience.
I decided a few things early on:
- I would build it entirely from scratch.
- I would use this experience to learn patience.
- I would not get upset when I made mistakes.
- I would be happy with whatever I end up with.
Let me explain these rules a bit.
“I would build it entirely from scratch.”
I’m not doing this because I want to have an electric guitar. I already have an electric guitar. I’m doing this because I want to build an electric guitar. I could buy a kit, or buy a pre-made neck and bolt it to a pre-made body. Lots of people do that and there’s nothing at all wrong with it. They’re not cheating and, make no mistake, they are building guitars. If you bake a cake from a mix you are still baking a cake. I just prefer to bake my cakes from scratch.
“I would use this experience to learn patience.”
I have no patience. I want instant gratification. You know those people who brew beer and they mix the stuff and then wait six weeks before they can drink the beer? Screw those people. I could only brew beer if it were like Kool-aid and you mixed it from a powder ten seconds before you drank it and I’d probably figure out a way to do it in five.
If I rush a guitar, if I do it half-assed, I’m going to wind up with a useless hunk of wood. Guitars are precision instruments. Frets are measured in thousandths of an inch. The string saddles are finely adjusted to ensure proper tuning across the entire neck. The nut is delicately filed so the strings all sit at the perfect height. If I’m going to rush it, it’s not going to end up being a guitar.
“I would not get upset when I make mistakes.”
I’m gonna make mistakes, that’s a given. When I do, I can either throw the thing against the wall and scream “Fuck!” at it or I can tell myself that what I’m doing is difficult and that this whole thing is a learning experience. I choose the latter.
“I would be happy with what I end up with.”
This is my first home-built guitar; it’s not going to be perfect. I hope that I wind up with something I can tune and play. Ideally it will be something I want to play, something I choose to play over my Fender Stratocaster. Maybe I’ll just end up with something that looks like a guitar, something wooden and pretty that sounds like crap. That will be less ok, but still ok. I guess.
After I tossed the idea around in my brain for a few months, afraid to actually start, I finally decided to take the plunge. I bought a copy of Martin Koch’s excellent book, Building Electric Guitars, and some plans that went with it. I’m not much of a designer, so I decided for my first time through I’d build mostly from plans, though I modified things a little bit.
I also bought the hardware, including a bridge, tuners a truss rod and pickup holders. I figured I would need these in advance in order to properly align and measure things. I held off buying the electronics until I got closer to needing them.
For wood I bought a swamp ash body blank, a maple neck blank, a rosewood fingerboard blank, and a bit of rosewood veneer for the headstock. All of this, in fact just about everything I needed for the build, I bought from Stewart MacDonald, a big on-line supplier for luthiers.
Before long I had all this down in my shop. It was time to cut wood.
I decided to start with the body because I knew if I quickly had something in the shape of a guitar it would inspire me to keep going. I often get bored with my projects halfway through, especially if I don’t see some sort of progress. I drew the body shape onto the wood and roughly cut it out with a small bandsaw.
Let’s talk about tools real quick.
I am fortunate enough to have a decent collection of tools. I’ve been collecting them since I was a teenager, my wife makes wooden rustic furniture, and we’ve owned a home for over fifteen years. So between us we have a good assortment of hand and power tools and a basement in which to keep them. I’ve spent a lot of time building up a shop in my basement, organized in such a way that I’m ready to work on any project, be it mechanical, wooden, or electrical, rough or delicate.
I fully appreciate that I’m starting with an advantage. More on this later.
After cutting near my outline with the world’s crappiest bandsaw, I cleaned up the shape on a combination belt / spindle sander. Before long I had something that looked kind of like a guitar body.
Satisfied, I stopped here and moved on to the neck.
Building a guitar neck always seemed scary. I knew what was involved, you start with a rectangle of wood and, through cutting and gluing, shaping and sculpting, you’re supposed to wind up with something smooth and beautiful. Something that feels natural in your hand, that you’re supposed to not really notice while you play. Volumes have been written, thousands of hours of nonsense have been spewed out of the mouths of guitarists concerning neck shape and finish. I’m supposed to build this?
Sure, why not?
The plans I had called for a straight headstock, such as you’d find on a Fender Strat or Telecaster. For some reason I wanted to have an angled headstock like on an acoustic guitar or Gibson Les Paul. For this I took the straight neck blank and drew a 15 degree line on the side. This is where I would cut.
The idea here is to cut the angle, then you stack the two pieces together and plane the surfaces smooth, so that you have a perfectly square, smooth angle.
That’s the idea. In reality, for someone who has done very little woodworking and almost no hand planing, this is a very difficult task.
To start with, the original cut I made with my saw was not perfectly straight, I am not great at sharpening tools, and the only bench I had to plane on was not very secure. Every time I thought I was finished I’d check the surface with my square and discover it was cupped or bowed or otherwise… wrong.
After some time I felt things were good enough. I had to continue planing the headstock to get it down to the right thickness, about a half inch. I then glued the two pieces together.
When the glue cured I had a long neck with a shorter piece angled off it at 15 degrees.
The next step was to route out a channel for the truss rod. Steel string guitars, both electric and acoustic, have an adjustable metal rod inside the neck. This helps stiffen the neck against the tension of the strings and also lets you adjust the bow of the neck.
I have a router but no way to guide it along the neck. The channel needs to be perfectly straight and uniform along its length and depth.
Sometimes when you’re building a thing you not only have to build the thing, but you have to build things to help you build the thing. Woodworkers call these things jigs. So I built a jig.
I used two lengths of L-shaped aluminum and built a track for the router to ride on. With everything secure and clamped down the idea was to run the router along the track, the neck perfectly centered below, and the bit at the correct depth. I would start in from the angled headstock and move the router the correct distance.
The first pass, about half the depth I needed, went surprisingly well. I was patting myself on the back, congratulating myself on my well-thought-out plan, when I started the second pass. That’s when the router made an awful noise.
Somehow the bit took a big gouge out of the channel. I was mad with myself and decided to call it a day. I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I start over? Do I throw the stupid thing against the wall and move on to a new project?
It was at this point that I came up with Rule #3. I told myself that mistakes are going to happen and I can’t let them get to me. I reassessed and decided the gouge would mostly be covered by the headstock veneer and, as long as the rest of the channel was routed properly, it would all be ok. The next day I re-secured everything and continued routing the channel. All was well.
I glued the truss rod in with some epoxy. Moving onto the fretboard.
It was my understanding there would be no math.
A guitar’s “scale” is the length of the vibrating portion of the string. This is generally from where it leaves the nut at the headstock end of the guitar, to where it sits on the bridge of the guitar. The scale of the guitar I’m building is 25.5 inches, the same as a Fender Stratocaster. I chose this length because, not only is it a common guitar scale, it’s the same scale as the guitar I already own so I can use that one as a reference if I need to. Choosing a scale means you have to put the bridge exactly that distance away from the nut.
Not only does the distance from the nut to the bridge need to be exact, but the spacing of each fret needs to be exact as well. If you’re off by even a little bit the guitar won’t play in tune on whatever frets are misplaced.
Fret distances are easily calculated, and even better the book I was using had a table of fret spacings for the more popular scales. In order to be as precise as possible I bought a two-foot ruler that was divided into 100ths of an inch. There are also fret rulers you can buy or apps that will print out a guide on paper. I have a love of measuring tools so I opted to buy the ruler, knowing I’d use it for other projects in the future.
I took great care marking out the frets at the correct spots, measuring each one from the nut rather than from the previous fret so as not to compound errors.
After the frets were all marked with a pencil I double and triple checked the measurements and then marked them again with a sharp knife. Then I was ready to cut the slots.
For some reason I already owned a fret saw. I think I bought it years ago in anticipation of making an acoustic guitar, or for a cigar box guitar. It’s basically a standard rigid-backed dovetail saw with an adjustable stopper so you can control the depth of your cut. I used a small square as a guide to cut each one across the fret board.
Fret slots cut, it was time to taper the fretboard.
Much like a brontosaurus’s neck, a guitar neck is thick at one end and thinner at the other end. I’m sure there are several ways to put a taper on the fretboard but I chose to use a hand plane. There is something hypnotic about moving the plane back and forth along the edge of the rosewood board. I checked my progress with a straight edge every few minutes and pretty soon had a nicely shaped fretboard.
The next step was to glue the veneer onto the headstock and then draw out and shape it, which I did on the bandsaw. I also took this time to mark out where the tuner holes would be located.
Once that was roughed out I glued the fretboard on to the neck, using several clamps and a long board for a clamping caul.
I then cut the excess wood from the sides of the neck, first roughly with the bandsaw and then with a trim bit on the router. This bit has a bearing on the top that rides along the edge of the fretboard, cutting everything under it to the same shape.
The back wasn’t shaped yet, but it was really starting to feel like I’d be able to play this thing one day.
Now it was time to install the fretboard markers. These are a serious of dots along the top and side that let the guitarist know where he is on the fretboard. I purchased some thin plastic dots from StewMac and drilled some shallow holes in which to install them, securing them with a drop of super glue.
Using a concave sanding block, I got to work sanding a radius on the fretboard. I started with coarse sandpaper and worked my way up to fine paper.
When I was done I held the neck in my hand. The fretboard had a beautiful curve to it and it was smooth… so smooth. It felt like a guitar should feel. I caressed the neck, stroking it back and forth. Are you as turned on as I am right now? Probably not.
I couldn’t believe I made this. I’d never taken wood and made it so smooth before. I was holding it in my hand, more proud of this than anything I’d ever made before in my life. And I have a child!
That was when I noticed something. Look carefully at this picture:
If you’re not a guitarist you may not get it. If you are a guitarist all you need to do is count to twelve.
I thought I knew how to count to twelve, I really did. Like everyone my age, I learned how from The Pointer Sisters back in the 1970s:
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, those two dots should be on the twelfth fret, not the eleventh.
This is probably the dumbest mistake one can make while building a guitar. Seriously. It’s one thing to measure 1/32 when you mean 1/64, or to slip with a chisel and put a scratch where you don’t want a scratch. But… I know those two dots go on the twelfth fret. I know this. Why did I not put them there? I don’t know.
I thought about what to do for a long time. I couldn’t really fix the mistake. I suppose I could drill the dots out and patch them with rosewood dots but it would never look right. And not only was the twelfth fret marker in the wrong place, but all the dots after it were now one fret off. I couldn’t replace the fingerboard, the glue would be much too strong. I posted a picture of my mistake on Facebook and friends assured my that it was ok, it would be my guitar and I could still play it. This was true. It would still be playable.
I knew if I continued I would always look at those markers and remember what a dumb mistake I’d made. I would never be able to enjoy playing the guitar. I decided to start the neck from scratch. I bit the bullet and ordered a new neck blank and fingerboard.
I was still sticking to my rule. I was not really that upset. It was such a silly mistake I mostly thought it was funny.
By the time the replacement wood arrived it was almost Christmas so I decided to wait until the holiday was over before I started again. I had the week between Christmas and New Years off from work so I knew I’d have more time to work on the neck.
For Christmas, my wife got me a small router table. This would make routing the truss rod channel a lot easier. She also got me a Go-Pro camera. I decided to film myself making the neck, which you can now see here. Cue Yakity Sax.
iMovie needs a spell checker.
Once again building the thing to build the thing I was building, I made a jig to cut the 15 degree scarf joint on a tablesaw. I also I built myself a tool to bend the fret wire to the radius of the fretboard.
Installing the frets was a lot harder than I expected it to be. You cut the frets to length and then hammer them in with a little bit of super glue. They make a lot of special fretting tools but I didn’t want to spend the money for them. In the end I think I did a good enough job, though I could have done better. I filed a bevel on the edge of each fret and then spent a couple of hours filing the sides down so they were smooth and wouldn’t be noticeable while playing.
Carving the back of the neck was something that really intimidated me even before I began the project. I’d never carved anything before and I was worried I would screw it up. I finally sharpened up my wife’s spoke shave and started shaping. It felt very natural, like I instinctively knew what to do. I spent hours shaving it down with the spokeshave and cutting the heal and headstock with some chisels.
I could have spent hours more on it. Now I want to carve ALL THE THINGS. I really enjoyed the process. Shaping wood with properly sharpened tools was a joy.
The other thing that scared me from the beginning was routing out the neck pocket in the body. Everything you read about building guitars mentions how critical this fit is. Do it wrong and your guitar will have all the sustain of a cinderblock sitting in a vat of pudding. That is probably the worst analogy I have ever thought of, it’s true, but my point is I didn’t want to screw this up.
Using advice from my book, I carefully aligned the neck to the centerline of the body and put straight pieces of scrap wood flush to either side of the neck, taping them down with double sided tape. These would form templates for the side. For the rounded end of the neck I cut and sanded a matching pocket to fit, which I used as a template for the end of the neck. All clamped down I removed the neck. Now I had a sort of template to guide the router bit.
After routing it out I tested the fit and it was pretty tight. Not factory-made-CNC-machine tight, but first-time-doing-this tight, which I was happy with. I did realize I made the pocket a bit too deep. The depth is measured using the height of the string saddles for one part of the equation but I didn’t take into account the thickness of the base of the bridge. I corrected for this by gluing in a piece of scrap rosewood veneer to raise the height of the pocket. I read later on that this can actually improve sustain, so maybe I’ll pretend like I meant to do that all along.
I worked a bit more on the body, rounding the sides off with the router and routing the pockets for the pickups and other electronics. The plans I had called for a metal plate on the front of the guitar where the controls would be, the pocket for them routed out below the plate on the front of the guitar. I decided I didn’t like that look so I opted to route the control cavity on the back of the guitar and cut holes for the knobs and switch right out of the wood. This was a bit more difficult but I’m very glad I did it this way.
At this point I was mostly done shaping wood. I still had a lot to do but it was time to fit everything together for the first time. I installed the tuners and the bridge. I put the controls and pickups in just to test the fit but at this point they weren’t wired up.
I leveled and dressed the frets. Even though the frets are all technically the same height, and they’re installed on a level fretboard, there are still very small differences in the height of each one. If you don’t correct this there will be dead spots and string buzz along the fret board.
To level the frets you mark the top of each one with a Sharpie and then run a flat stone, I used a Japanese water stone, along the length of the neck. This grinds down the top of each fret. You do this until all the sharpie marks are gone, which at this point means you’ve ground them all to the height of the lowest one. Your frets will all now have flat tops so you “crown” them by putting a curve back on the top. You cover the frets with a sharpie and then you file a curve on top so that you end up with a very thin black line. Now your frets all have nice round tops with a high point in the middle of each one and they’re all level along the fretboard.
I had a bone blank that I used to carve the nut. I filed it down to the correct thickness and roughed out the top, using a line I traced that was as high as the top of my frets. I had bone dust all over my workbench after doing this, god help me if the cops needed to investigate a crime in my basement.
This is a rather precise job so I purchased some very fine nut files, one for each string thickness.
I’d fine-tune the nut later but for now I could install the strings.
It looked absolutely beautiful. Things were lined up perfectly. There was enough space between the outer strings and the edge of the neck. It was already much better than I ever expected it would be.
I tuned it up and played it unplugged. Aside from a buzz in the high E string it sounded ok. I adjusted the action, the height of the strings over the frets, and filed the nut slots to their final height. I adjusted the intonation, which you do by adjusting each string saddle. This fine-tunes the exact length of each string, assuring the string is in tune across all the frets.
Strangely, after I adjusted the action and the intonation, the buzz went away. I watched a Patriot’s game with my family, strumming the entire time. It felt good.
Fun over, I took it all apart again and sanded every inch of it down to at least 320 grit sandpaper, going up to 600 grit on the fretboard and neck.
Originally I thought I’d use an opaque finish but I’d come to appreciate the wood grain on the body. Doing a proper nitrocellulose finish also seemed difficult, expensive, and kind of scary. It’s winter in New England, my basement is unheated, and I didn’t think I had any way of properly dealing with the fumes this sort of finish would generate.
I decided to do a simple finish with natural Danish oil and wax. Everything I had read lead me to believe this sort of finish would be foolproof and easy. Not so much.
I read up on applying oil extensively. Ash is an open grained wood so I would have to wet-sand the oil on in order to fill the grain and get a smooth finish. After a couple of generous coats of oil and sanding, the wood took on a very nice light-brown color. I applied a few more light coats over the next several days, allowing a day or so in between.
In the end the finish looked a bit blotchy. Not bad, but not great either. I don’t think it’s very noticeable, especially after applying a coating of wax, but I notice it. If I build another guitar I will take a little more care when applying the finish.
Once the finish was dry I painted inside the electronics cavities with shielding paint.
All that was left to do now was the electronics. The plans I had called for a pretty complex circuit that controlled two humbucker pickups five different ways, along with a push/pull tone control that gave two different levels of control, plus volume. This was a royal pain in the ass to solder up and honestly I’m not a good enough player, the subtle differences in tone are mostly lost on me.
All wired up, I installed the controls in their holes and slots and put the knobs on. I was done!
I assembled everything, adjusted a few things, and plugged into my amplifier for the first time.
And then I rocked the fuck out on an electric guitar I’d built myself.
I was expecting to maybe end up with something I could tune up and play a bit. I was not expecting to end up with something that was a joy to play. The action was low, the strings all sounded clear, the neck and fretboard felt comfortable.
It looks, feels and sounds like an electric guitar should. I’m not sure why I was expecting anything different.
I’m very proud of this. I don’t think I’ve ever before made anything with such care and precision. There are a ton of mistakes but most of them will never be noticeable by anyone but me.
Already people have asked me questions. Not so much that I can consider these to be frequently asked questions, and some I’ve even made up, but here are a few answers:
What kind of tools do you need?
As I said, I am fortunate to have a large collection of tools and space in which to put and use them. I truly believe, however, that if one were so inclined one could make a guitar like this on a kitchen table with a modest collection of tools.
For power tools I used a bandsaw, a router, a couple of sanders, a drill (both a hand held drill and a drill press) and a tablesaw.
The tablesaw was not needed at all. I used it the second time around to cut a more precise scarf joint but the first time around I used a hand saw and it came out ok. The bandsaw is nice to have but there’s nothing I needed it for that I couldn’t do with a jig saw.
Really, aside from a drill, I think the one power tool that is critical is a router with a few different bits. I’m not sure it would be possible to do this without one.
For hand tools, a plane, some files, something to carve the neck with (I used a spoke shave, some use rasps or even just a knife) a chisel or two. A scraper. A way to sharpen those tools really well. Lots and lots of sandpaper. A whole bunch of clamps. A square and some straight edges. Something to measure to at least 1/64th of an inch.
I was determined not to spend too much money on specialized tools. The tools I did buy specifically for this project were not 100% necessary but they sure were nice to have. I bought a radius sanding block for a few bucks, a set of nut files, and a fret dressing file. I bought a ruler to evenly space the strings. I also bought an acrylic template to route the pickup cavities. I always think of tools as an investment and I plan on making more guitars in the future.
Did you leave anything out of this guide?
Oh hell yes. Isn’t this long enough already? I spent a whole lot of time measuring things, marking centerlines, aligning other centerlines to those centerlines, drilling holes, applying band-aids to my fingers, sanding things, picking stuff up from the floor, un-super-gluing my fingers to things, removing splinters, neglecting my family, watching how-to You-Tube videos, showering, blowing sawdust boogers out of my nose, reading about how to do things, re-doing things, distracting myself with other things, cleaning up after myself, and doing non-guitar things.
How long did it take you?
I started at the end of October, finished in mid-January, working an hour here, an hour there with a bit more on the weekends. I have a job, a family, a little bit of a sense of responsibility so there were a lot of other things that took priority over this.
How much did you save compared to buying a guitar?
Negative something. I haven’t added everything up yet but I could easily buy a low-end mass-produced guitar for what I paid on wood, electronics, and hardware. Saving money wasn’t the point. I also think I ended up with a better product.
What would you do differently next time?
The next time I build a guitar I will use a pre-slotted fretboard. I wanted to measure and cut fret slots for this one and I’m glad I did. I think I did a pretty good job of it too, none of the frets sound out of tune. But my ruler and eyes cannot compete with a CNC machine. A pre-slotted board doesn’t cost much more than a blank one. The fret spacing is everything. Get it wrong and the guitar is unplayable. I’ll focus on the rest of the guitar and not worry all along that if I’m off a few thousandths of an inch I’ll end up with something I don’t want to play.
I’d also simplify the circuit. Maybe use a three way switch for neck, bridge or both.
I’d put more care into the finish, saving my off-cuts to practice on.
I’d also put more care into the frets. Maybe buy some tools to make it easier.
Why don’t you quit your job now that you can make guitars for a living?
(seriously people have suggested this, like a day after I finished making it)
Almost nobody makes a good living building guitars. The ones who do have been building up their skills for 20 or 30 years. It’s a nice dream, but right now it’s just a good hobby.
Can anyone do this?
Yes. What I did was not superhuman. I just used a bit of care to shape wood a certain way. If you like building stuff and you have a decent idea how to cut stuff and attach stuff to other stuff, you can do this.
I want to build a Telecaster clone next, followed by a five string bass of my own design. I want to do some inlay and maybe some binding. Long term I want to build an Explorer clone, something with a carved top, a banjo, an arch top, and an acoustic. I will most likely get bored half way through the telecaster and move on to a new hobby. That’s how I roll.