Build day 29: Overly optimistic neck surgery

I was definitely overly optimistic.  I thought today I could finish shaping the neck, put in the nut and heel cap, and set the neck angle without breaking a sweat. But although I did plenty of sweating, I didn’t really finish any of those things. Yet it was still a pretty positive experience – I’m in no rush anyway.

The neck in my kit was roughly formed already – to the extent you might think there isn’t much to do to shape it into it’s final form. Today I learned that it’s not quite so easy. I also now have a better appreciation for how difficult it must be to create the neck completely from scratch – and also how rewarding it must be.

I’ve played enough guitars that I know what I like in a neck, and what I don’t like so much. My very favorite neck ever is on my Larrivee – it’s pretty shallow in depth and kinda flat on the back – very easy to get your hand around. By way of contrast, a Martin style neck tends to be pretty thick, with a rounder cross section. I took measurements from the Larrivee so I had something to shoot for.

I don’t own many of the tools usually employed for shaping a neck – for example a spokeshave would be pretty handy. I thought awhile about how sand down to a nice curve – and decided to make a custom sanding block. I used my drill press with a sanding attachment to cut a curve into a piece of poplar, and then used carpet tape to attach some 80 grit sandpaper. This little thing turned out to be a fantastic tool!

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I also had in my head to form the bottom of the headstock to be narrower and tapered – a blend between the approaches taken by Larrivee and Taylor. I had already made templates for the headstock, so I knew exactly the shape I was shooting for on the front. The back of the headstock and the head of the neck was much more challenging – and it took a while for me to gain the confidence to remove significant amounts of mahogany. At first I was very paranoid of making a mistake – after removing wood you can’t put it back. I used rasps, chisels, scrapers, sandpaper, and The Force – and after hours of fiddling, I got close to the shape I wanted. I don’t know how well it comes across in pictures, but there’s a world of difference between the first and last shot of this sequence:

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To shape the neck contour, I heavily used my sanding block. It was the perfect tool for the job as far as I could tell. I was able to taper the edges just the way I wanted, and I can tell by feel that the neck is close to the right shape when I wrap my hand around it. After taking some measurements, I can see I still have about 0.1″ more to take off, but that will have to wait until my arms recover.

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Forming the heel was a similar exercise – by no means quick or easy. Using all my implements of torture, I forced the heel to succumb to my wishes and look nice to my eyes.

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After I got comfortable, I found that shaping mahogany has real appeal. It works differently than other woods I’m used to, and really takes to shaping. That’s probably a major reason why its used for guitar necks.

Then I went nuts. By that I mean I put in the nut – which in this kit is already shaped. I did have to cut a channel for it – I used my very accurate micro-saw and a fence cut at the correct angle. This turned out to be surprisingly tricky – and honestly I didn’t do that great of a job fitting the nut, although I’m pretty sure nobody but me will notice.

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That’s where I stopped. I never got around to making a heel cap or setting the neck angle. I didn’t even really finish shaping the neck. And I found that some of the frets are a bit loose. And – well, there’s more – but those are all problems to solve another day.  That’s OK, I’m glad that there’s another day. Another day building a guitar will be another good day.

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Build day 28: I’m seeing dots! But don’t fret about it.

I debated for a while about side markers for the fretboard. I could use traditional white plastic rod, or I could simply skip the side markers completely. Or I could do some extra credit, and use gold MOP like I did for the fret markers. I hunted around a bit to see if I could find dots that small made from gold MOP, and I finally located some on eBay.

Although they are pretty small, they are still larger in diameter than the plastic, so it makes hole placement on the thin fretboard edge pretty critical.

In order to make accurate holes in the edge of the fretboard, I glued two pieces of 2×2 poplar together – making a sturdy “stand” to clamp the fretboard on it’s side. I punched the marker positions with an awl, and in each position make a pilot “divot” by turning the drill chuck in reverse by hand. By aligning the fretboard with the top of the clamping surface, I was able to adjust the drilling depth once, lock the stop on the press, and then drill all the holes in one go. I was very careful, as a slip would ruin the fretboard, but it was actually pretty easy.

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The dots were small enough that tweezers were required to pick them up and put them in place.

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It was a little tricky to get them to press into the holes as the fit was very tight – but in the end I got them all in, and I’m pretty happy with the way it looks.

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Next I cut the fretboard to length, using a radiused sanding block as a fence.

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After a bit of sanding to make the fretboard nice and smooth, it was time to install the frets. That’s right – actual frets! I never really thought I’d be installing my own frets, and now I am.

Using a pair of nippers, I cut some fret wire to approximate length for each fret. To keep the frets organized, I made a holder out of a piece of 2×4 – drilling 24 holes and labeling each one.

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To install the frets, I put the fretboard on the concrete basement floor – that way all the energy from the hammer blows goes directly into seating the fret. You do not want to have the fret bounce at all, since you can easily rip out a chunk of the fretboard that way. I also used a “dead-blow” fret hammer – the head of the hammer is filled with shot – that way the hammer doesn’t bounce too much. (BTW, the fret hammer was part of this amazing Christmas present from Candi, and today was it’s day. Thank you Candi!)

After a few tentative frets – I just went for it, hitting the edges in first and then flattening out each fret. It went quicker than I imagined, and I didn’t have any problems hammering the frets in.

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When I tried to trim the fret ends flush, I did have a slight problem. I found that my nippers don’t cut close enough to the surface. A first I tried to file them down – but in the end I wound up sanding down the ends with my level with sandpaper stuck on. I think I may have to get flush cutting nippers in the future.

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Time to glue the fretboard to the neck. I installed the truss rod, applied glue (keeping it out of the truss rod channel with tape), and used the StewMac trick of putting the neck under tension by propping a stick under the heal. This creates a slight bow in the neck which cancels out the bow in the fretboard (which is also under tension from the curved frets). To clamp the fretboard down, I used one of those long rubber bands I used when gluing in the binding.

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After the glue dried, I did a bit of glue cleanup, and spent some time just holding and admiring the neck.

Here’s today’s final result. I think it looks great!

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I’m getting there! However, just in case you might think I’m almost done or something, consider this. This guitar “kit” came with a DVD explaining the whole process. I’M NOT EVEN HALF WAY THROUGH THE DVD. Yes, you read that right. And the DVD does not include any explanation of applying the finish to the guitar – that is a whole other set of tools and skills. I’ve got quite a ways to go before I’m playing tunes on this guitar. But on the other hand, that’s what’s so rewarding about guitar building, it just keeps opening up in front of you.

Build day 27: Best guitar building day yet – neck inlay is DONE!

Amazingly, I finished inlaying the fret position markers and the headstock today! Pretty rewarding stuff!

I started today making a couple of decisions. After thinking about all sorts of options for the fret markers, and weighing endless ideas for the headstock inlay – I decided to go with gold mother-of-pearl (AKA gold MOP) for everything. I think it really complements the gold tuners. I just happened to have some gold MOP dots and shell blanks, so I was ready to go. One potentially tricky thing about gold MOP is that the color is often only on the surface of the shell, so it makes it more important than usual to mount it near flush with the surface. You don’t want to have to sand too much, because that pretty gold color can easily turn white. I decided where to place the fret markers, and I also settled on the headstock design.

I tackled the fret dots first. I spent some quality time practicing and figuring out how best to proceed. I made a few mistakes in my trial runs, which reinforces why I never attempt anything without first practicing it at least once. But after I got the kinks worked out, it went very smoothly when I did it for real. I carefully marked where I wanted the dots to go on the fretboard, then drilled holes with a forstner bit which makes flat bottomed holes. I found that the best method for setting the depth was to mark the bit with a sharpie all the way around at the stop point. I could easily see this line while I was drilling (thank you Optivisor), so every hole was damn near perfect. I also learned that I’d have to do more for the fret with two dots. Since the fretboard has a 16″ radius, out at the edges the bit is not perpendicular anymore. This would leave one edge of the dot sticking out, which, although could normally just sand it off – I didn’t want to this time to keep the color. For those side dots, I used index cards shims to make the fretboard suface level before I drilled it.

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It only took a few minutes more and I had the final product. The dots dropped in perfectly – almost flush – and there was no reason not to glue them in. One drop of superglue in each hole, put in the dot, apply pressure, and done! And it really looks great! I love the gold MOP, it’s subtle but at the same time very noticeable. The look actually changes depending on which direction you look at at. I’m a fan.

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If that was not excitement enough, now came the truly fun stuff. It was time to really do the headstock inlay. Right now. I had already made the big decisions with this – keep it as simple as possible – and go with my z-logo in gold MOP. I also knew the exact size and shape and had already printed out templates. And I already knew how to cut shell from last weekend. So let’s do this thing.

This was undeniably fun. I set up a shell cutting environment like last week – my shell cutting jig hooked up to the shop vac, the CA glue, noise canceling headphones and something to listen to (it gets loud with the vac running – and you want to be zen), the Optivisor, the saw and blades, and the shell. This time I felt like a pro, and had no issues cutting the logo as I listened to some beautiful classical music. Shell cutting is downright addicting, but I can’t easily explain why.

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After doing a bit of filing and sanding, I was very happy with the resulting inlay. So lets rout out the headstock. If I thought about it, I’d just get scared, so lets do this thing now. I practiced on some scrap rosewood, and then spent some time to determine the exact placement on the headstock.

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Learning a lesson from my trial runs, I mounted my shop vac hose near the routing area to clear all the dust from the work area. I found it was critical to see the edges really clearly.

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I attached the inlay into position with some light glue, and then used an Exacto to scribe the outline – as deep as I could.

Then I powdered some chalk over the outline to make the boundary more obvious.

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Then I routed inside the outline with my Dremel and the the StewMac precision base. I’m starting to get some confidence with this – practice is a good thing! I even had a few oh-shit moments during the routing which I was able to deal with as they came up. At one point I chipped off some wood, which I superglued back in. I think ultimately I did well. So OK I’ll admit it – I’m pretty pleased with myself. This was way fun, and the fact that I pulled this off really means quite a lot to me.

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I was so happy that I couldn’t resist putting putting on the tuners one more time to get the full effect.

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To glue the inlay in, I used epoxy mixed with rosewood sawdust. I masked out the gluing area, mixed a small amount of 5-minute epoxy, and mixed in some sawdust I kept from from sanding the headstock. I put in the inlay, clamped it up for awhile, and – I do believe I nailed this one!

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After removing the masking tape, it certainly looks good to me. But I’ll have to wait for the epoxy to cure before sanding it down .

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I have have to say it – I am VERY happy. :)

Build day 26: I’m up to my neck!

A good day in guitar making land. I made decent progress on the neck. I actually sort-of started this yesterday, as I shaped the headstock last night. Using a MDF template as a guide, I used dragon rasps to cut the top curve. Now I did think about other designs, but in the end I just liked this shape the best. So there it is!

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Today’s luthiering (if that’s not a word it should be) began by preparing the tuner holes. I want to temporarily mount the tuners to ensure there’s no complications later.  I bought a set of Gotoh 510 Delta tuners. I’m pretty sure they will be excellent tuners, however they require a stepped diameter mounting hole, as the post at the back of the tuner is thicker than the bushing at the front. The holes in my neck were already predrilled by StewMac for something different, so a little extra work was necessary.

There were three passes with the drill press for each hole: first centering the drill chuck using a bit with the old diameter, then drilling the larger diameter, and then finally reaming out the still larger post area.  The reaming was done with a StewMac Rear Peghole Reamer which you can see in these photos. It worked great!

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I drilled holes for the tiny screws and and then mounted the tuners. I’m really liking the look of these tuners! And I can already tell I’m gonna love the tuning accuracy.

After some quality time just looking at them (hey, they really do look great!), I removed the tuners and put them away. It will be awhile before I put them back in for real. Now that will be an exciting day for me!

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The time has come to cut the fretboard. The mission here is to cut the sides to a really accurate taper. I measured, marked and erased lines (mostly in white pencil) maybe a half dozen times before I was satisfied. I used my old bandsaw to cut pretty close to the line.

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To true up the sides right up to the lines, I used a so called  “shooting board” I used carpet tape to attach 80 grit sandpaper to the side of a level, and then used the level as a sander.

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Before putting any frets into this thing, I guess I’ll have to finalize what I’m going to do about fret markers. That’s for tomorrow…

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