Shell Cutting Jig

It’s definitely been a goal to at least try some simple inlay on my first build. Every moment of building this guitar has been a learning experience, with an endless series of firsts for me.  So I might as well get my feet wet now, so any mistakes I make can be more easily be justified in the name of learning.

Cutting shell and other inlay materials deserves special treatment. Although it’s pretty much been a debunked urban legend that shell dust is poisonous, the dust is still something you want to avoid breathing at all cost. And even if that wasn’t a problem, you still want all the dust cleared from your work piece so you can see what you’re doing at all times.  It is common to have a special cutting surface to do the job. There are premade solutions to buy, but I think this is one of those items that just make sense to do yourself. That way it’s tailored to exactly the way you want to work.

I planned to use a piece of 1/4″ maple that I had as scrap, but needed to come up with a way to attach a vacuum to remove the dust. I’ve seen other designs which mount a hose from a dust removal system or shop vac close to the work piece. I went to Lowe’s thinking I needed a way to hook my shop vac up like this somehow. After much wandering around the store, and seeing what fit into what, I came back with a 2 1/2″ PVC elbow, and a shop vac hose diameter adapter kit.

First thing I did was to cut down the length of the PVC elbow so that it would fit my piece of maple. I thought I might have to use caulking or something to fill the gaps at the edges, but the fit was near perfect, I didn’t have to do much other than a bit of filing to get it just the way I imagined it, with the opening split between the top and bottom of the board._MG_1555

Then I cut the maple, shaped it a bit, and cut a slot and a “V – combining all the features I’ve seen in other designs. I also glued a second piece of maple on the back to make it more rigid – shaping it so that the elbow would fit.


One other refinement I wanted to make was to prevent the actual work piece from getting sucked in. First I stuck a screen into the hose adapter.


But then I thought that to retrieve anything sucked in accidentally, I’d have to dissemble the hoses. Not a big deal, but maybe I could do better. So I used some thick CA glue to attach a screen to the top half of the intake:


Here’s what the final product it looks like:

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Nothing left to do but to give it a spin. I decided to cut out a possible headstock design out of the few shell blanks I had. I had watched the Basic Inlay Techniques DVD by Larry Robinson, so I had some idea how to proceed. It was really quite fun, but I found I needed to use noise-canceling headphones and nature sounds to block out the shop vac noise and get to that zen-like state you need in cutting shell – veeerrrry sloooooly. I used the CA glue technique that Larry explains in the DVD to attach my templates to the shell, and many of the situations he described came up – and I knew what to do to handle them. It was well worth watching that DVD, probably saved me years of trial and error.

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As Larry said in the video, you’ll get better quickly. And I did – my first cuts were pretty sloppy compared to the later ones. It took a bit of filing to smooth the edges, and get the pieces to fit together, but I started to get better at that too as I went.

Just to test out the routing part of the equation, I quickly routed out one of my MDF sample headstocks using a Dremel and and the precision base from StewMac. I definitly rushed this, so I’m not happy with the accuracy of the edges, and also MDF makes a lot of dust, which makes it hard to see what you’re doing. That’s why you practice. It looks good to me anyway.

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I really enjoyed doing this, and I’d like doing it even if this was unrelated to guitar building! I’m looking forward to getting more shell blanks so I can try out some more ideas!

Build day 25: Neck Started, Pearl Cutting Jig

Guitar intermission is over! Today I started on the guitar neck. Yay!

First order of business was to fit the truss rod into the already routed channel. Really all I had to do was to widen the end to snuggly accept the adjustment bolt.


The truss rod channel runs the entire length of the neck, but the truss rod itself is not quite that long. For this reason, I needed to plug the top end of the channel. So I cut a small piece of wood to fit the gap, trimmed it a bit and glued it in.

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After the glue dried, I trimmed the plug flush with a nice sharp chisel. I’m finding that I really enjoy chiseling :) Soon it looked like there was never a channel there in the first place!

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I glued a veneer of rosewood to the headstock. I had a few setbacks before I got this straightened out. I wanted the grain direction to be straight up and down, but the grain on the blank was at a noticeable angle. In trying to square it all up, I tried to cut the end at a slight angle and accidentally split the wood in the process. So I switched to the other end of the blank, and went with plan B. Instead of a saw, I used a sharp chisel plus some decent downward pressure. I found I could follow a line and cut the veneer pretty accurately this way. Anyway, I finally got that thing glued down, and let it sit for awhile while I worked on my pearl cutting jig.

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Yes, I said pearl cutting jig. This may be a bit hard to explain, but don’t worry, I’m not going to try that hard. :) I want to make a simple headstock inlay out of shell. It’s a great excuse for me to learn about inlay, and I’ve been reading a lot and watching much video on that topic. It’s really cool. Seriously cool. I’ve been learning about types of shell material, cutting techniques, precautions, and much more.

I’m going to try something simple, but even something simple requires a shell cutting station. Since shell dust is something you absolutely want to avoid breathing, I’ve got to do this correctly. So today I made my version of what is typically called a pearl cutting jig. Basically, the jig provides a stable platform for cutting shell, while at the same time making sure the shell dust is always sucked away.

Inspired by some designs I’ve seen, I wanted to hook my shop vac to a port positioned near the cutting area. After thinking how I might do this, I came up with the idea of fitting a “split” PVC elbow so that it would suck dust from both the top and bottom of the sawing area. I found it surprisingly easy to cut a slit in the PVC elbow so would it would fit around a 1/4″ piece of maple.


I’m really liking the jig I came up with, but I can’t do an explanation of it justice right now. I’ll wait to take it for a test spin before describing it. Maybe that will happen tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s a picture:


By now, the glue had set on the headstock veneer, so I removed the clamps and trimmed it down.

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To finish off the day, I couldn’t resist sticking the neck into the body. Now we’re talking!


The evening’s viewing was appropriately The Ten Commandments – with Easter being tomorrow and everything. Five hours later, and it’s just now over.


I’m sort of between acts in guitar building land. After finishing the body – which was very exciting – I realized that I was completely unprepared to continue.  I’m not saying I was clueless – I did know it was coming and I’ve definitely done some homework. But now there are tools to buy, and decisions to make.

I’m close to being able to continue, I’ve ordered the guitar tuners, the material and tools for doing the headstock inlay, and I’ve made some adjustments to the microshop.  Let me see if I can recall all I did since the last post…

The first thing I did was make a bit of an extension to my workbench by attaching a laminated pine panel to the wall. Of course I had to make it look nice by gluing a pine strip at the front and finishing it with several coats of poly.

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Because of the limited space, I made it just wide enough to fit my small laptop. But I also wanted it to be useful as a place to stash a larger item. So that block of wood on the wall has a special purpose. It serves to “lock” a workboard in place, by slipping the end under it.

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The next thing I did was order a guitar vice from StewMac. It has padded jaws that swivel, so that you can securely clamp items such as a guitar neck – where no two surfaces are parallel. It needs to be screwed into a workbench, and I found that the dog holes already in the bench worked fine.

Things got a tad more complicated when I realized I couldn’t really avoid buying a drill press. I need to be able to make very accurate holes, and a hand drill really doesn’t cut it.  I found this one from SKIL, which is pretty small, inexpensive, and even has a built in aiming laser. But as small as it is, it’s still not THAT small, it needs a place to live other than the workbench. I went to Lowes with a vague idea of building another workbench that could be used as a power tool stand. I bought some 2x4s and a 2’x4′ laminated pine panel. And I figured I’d come up with something. Here’s what I came up with:

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It actually looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. As I was trying to figure out how to mount the top, I came up with the idea of using tight fitting pieces of 2×4″s on the bottom. The gaps between them fit the cross joists. I simply press the top onto the legs and it fits snug and securely.  I can also remove the top easily by just prying it off.  I also drilled dog holes in 8 locations, so that I can mount the guitar vice in convenient locations.  I also have an idea for a “quick mount” system for attaching the drill press and the band saw when I need them, but easy to remove when I don’t.

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It’s actually perfect! I won’t deny that I’m pretty pleased to have this seemingly huge additional workspace just outside the microshop!

On the guitar making front, I made many paper mockups of possible headstock designs. I narrowed it down to a few choices, and made templates for them out of MDF.


My options are a bit limited for this build because the headstock came roughed in to a relatively narrow width. So my headstock designs reflect that.

The other thing I did was do a bunch of research on inlays. I’m not planning anything fancy this time, but I think it’s important that I do something to get my feet wet. Based on advice from the online guitar building community, I contacted the funky DePaul Luthier Supply company – which is based both in Oregon and Viet Nam(!). These guys get the raw shells, process them and make shell blanks and also beautiful pre-made inlays.  The whole thing is really very fascinating, and still another example of how cool guitar building can be.

Within days I should be receiving packages from both LMI and StewMac, and then I can start working on the neck. I’m nowhere near done tooling up yet, but I should at least be able to continue. I’m really looking forward to starting this next phase!

Build day 24: Body finished! OMG! Now what do I do?

I hit a major milestone in the guitar project. The body is done! It’s such a major milestone that I’m a bit stunned.

Really the only thing I had to do was scrape the binding so that everything was flush. It took some serious elbow grease – and I admit my hands were numb for a bit afterwards. You can see my new improvised guitar body clamp in these pictures. I made it just for this purpose out of some pipe clamps and some cork covered 1/4″ plywood.

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After that, I had a genuine guitar body – of course it will need a finish applied to it, but that’s a step that’s still a ways off.

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The funny thing is, in all the research and obsessing about guitar building over the years, I never imagined a time where I’d get past this step.  It’s a complete shock to me that my next steps are all related to completing the guitar neck.  And I’m NOT READY.  I don’t have the necessary vices and tools. Although I’ve read books and watched videos about what to do, I haven’t really paid close attention like I did for the body.  And to make matters even more interesting, I’ve gotten to the part where my own personal artistic touch is required. Do I use dots for fret markers or something else? What shape should I make the headstock? Should I attempt an inlay on the headstock? There is much to plan and decide, and I haven’t done any of it yet.

I’m still getting past the initial shock of how poorly prepared I am. But I expect that situation will change rapidly. I’ve already stayed up late several evenings watching video, researching tools and thinking of design ideas. It’s a totally awesome aspect of guitar building that there’s so much to it. I feel like a student who is so proud of themselves for graduating grammer school – only to discover that they are really only just a lowly freshman in high school.

The shock is now beginning to switch over to excitement. So many things to think about and research – I couldn’t possibly be less bored. I’m totally psyched that I’ve got a whole new set of things to obsess over! And whenever I feel overwhelmed, I just take a peek at that guitar body – and I know I can do it!


Build day 23: Back bound and gagged

The guitar body is almost done! Today I glued in the back binding. Other than scraping the binding flush after the glue dries, this is the last construction step for the body.

I felt like an old pro prepping and gluing the back binding – in stark contrast to the anxiety I felt when I did the front. It was a simpler operation anyway – due to not having any perfling to deal with on the back. But still, it’s a time critical operation that has to be done carefully. As before, I pre-cut the binding tape.  I opened the glue bottle – and then suddenly the whole back was done – seemingly before I even knew what happened!

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After the glue set, I removed the bands and tape, and looked at my practically complete guitar body. Hey, I built that! Wow. Wow. And wow!


Build day 22: Top Binding Glued!

Today I’m finally getting to glue in the binding. However there were a few things to accomplish before I could get to it. The first thing I did was finish a guitar body vise I’ve been working on, something I’ll describe better in another post.


Then I worked at finishing the end trim I installed last weekend. It had to be filed to clear the binding channels and scraped to be flush with the sides. Once that was done, I could really think about gluing in the bindings.


Gluing the binding is another one of those crazy time-critical guitar building procedures. And once again, there’s so many ways to approach it that it’s easy to over analyze it. In this case, I’m using plastic bindings and the perfling is wood. The biggest question is what glue should I use? Seems like an easy enough question – but there are many possible answers – every one with different pros and cons. You need a glue that works decent with both wood and plastic. I think most builders would use an acrylic glue for this situation – the kind you build model airplanes with. The downside is that it’s very fast setting, makes a mess, melts the plastic, and has pretty serious fumes. There’s also vinyl glues, CA glues (types of super glue), wood glue, plastic melted in acetone, and contact adhesive. I have most of the choices sitting in my glue collection, so I could wait until the very last second to make up my mind. After a few experiments, I chose a special type of contact adhesive which large guitar making factories use – and which is now available in small quantities from LMI.

My glue collection

I wound up using the LMI contact adhesive, second from the right.

It took some effort to get the channels touched up, and the binding and perfling trimmed correctly.


But eventually, I was ready to go. There is significant complication because the glue sets so fast, and you have to juggle the binding, perfling, and guitar simultaneously while applying glue and applying strips of tape to hold everything together. Although I practiced a bit, and prepared many short lengths of tape to save time – there really is no way to simulate the actual experience. So once I opened the glue bottle – I was off to the races.

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After the tape was on, the binding needed further clamping to ensure that the tight curves are followed. There are different ways to do this, I chose to use very long rubber bands. I cut them and tied them into one really long strip of rubber – and had my hands full wrapping it around the guitar quickly. There was always the fear that I was going to launch the guitar across the room like from a slingshot.

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After about 4 hours, I needed to remove the tape so that it wouldn’t overly adhere to the top and tear the wood.  To accomplish that safely, I heated the tape first with a hair dryer, which made the tape peel off easily. I can tell already that the contact adhesive was the right way to go, since the binding is not soft, and I should be able to scrape it down tomorrow.

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Build day 21: End Trim Detour

I started out today thinking I was going to glue in the binding and perfling, so I began by repairing a small tear in the perfling with CA glue and accelerator. That operation went perfectly – and I was now ready to go – or so I thought.

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When I reviewed the steps, I suddenly realized I had to put in the end trim before I could do the binding. So instead that’s what I’m doing today. In guitar building, there always seems to be “just one more thing”. First step was to cut a piece of white plastic in a wedge shape to form the end trim piece.

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The plastic wedge will be inset into the bottom of the guitar – I will need to chisel out exactly enough of the rosewood sides to accept the trim. Funny thing is this would have seemed very complicated to me only a few weeks ago. Today I was not at all fazed by this. I marked out where the trim will go with an exacto.


Then I had to deal with the fact that I really don’t have a way to secure the guitar in a position to work on the end. I really need to get a guitar vise, but I don’t have one now, so what to do? Out came the bungie and drawer liner again and I rigged up an adequate “vise” for today’s purpose. I then chiseled out an area to accept the end trim.

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After some filing, the fit was pretty perfect – so I glued it in.

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I have to wait for the glue to dry before I can do anything else, so I finished up with a small side project. I have these awesome dragon rasps – only they didn’t have handles. I had bought some handles to match my LMI chisels. I had to drill and ream out the handles to accept the rasp ends – but the fit was perfect and I’m very happy with the result.

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I will confess I really enjoyed this weekend.  It’s really satisfying for me to work on interesting problems that have absolutely nothing to do with computers or software.  And it’s just plain cool :)