Build day 34 : DONE!

Believe it or not – today – almost exactly 6 months after starting this project – I FINISHED THE GUITAR! Yep, that’s right – now it’s both finished AND done.

Before I get into how that feels – a quick tour of what I did on this last build day. First up was some fret work. I admit I was a bit apprehensive about this, because it turned out I made a fairly large rookie mistake.  By “leveling” the fretboard and frets before attaching the neck to the guitar, I found that once attached, the frets were no longer on the same plane, and I had a noticeable gap at the 14th fret when I checked it with a straightedge.  Thanks to some advice from some guitar forums, I decided to re-leveled the frets – but the downside was that some frets would be a bit thin. I really had no choice – unless I wanted to pull off all the frets and start over – which I really didn’t want to do. So, I re-leveled and re-crowned the frets, and then worried about if it would all work out until I actually tried the guitar later in the day. And yes it did all work out – but I definitely learned a lesson.

Next was attaching the bridge – I measured the location – double, tripple, quadruple checked it – and then masked out around the bridge to be able to quickly position it again.

_MG_0404 _MG_0405 _MG_0406 _MG_0407

I used some sheet rock screws to fix it in place – drilled a few holes through the bridge pin holes, and glued it up. I used a Fox style clamp which worked really great! Much better than using clamps through the soundhole – at least I think it is, because I’ve never done it that way.

_MG_0409 _MG_0416

After a few hours I removed the clamp, drilled out the rest of the holes, and then reamed them to fit the bridge pins.

_MG_0426 _MG_0429

Then it really was getting near the finale. After thickness sanding and shaping the saddle, and also doing some work on the nut, it really was time. The next hour was a bit surreal – because this woodworking project became a live guitar right before my eyes.

_MG_0430_MG_0432

I can’t even describe what it felt like to grab a pack of strings knowing that I was going to put them on this guitar. Putting strings on a guitar is something I’ve done countless times, so it was  totally natural – but at the same time totally weird. Hearing actual tuning sounds – cool – then actual tones – wow – and then amazingly – I could tell that this was going to sound really good.  A nice resonant tone – with a lot of projection. Before going up to pitch, I had to adjust the nut and saddle for action,  loosening all the strings at least 3 times before I was done. But then – I really was done. OK, there’s still going to be a few weeks of settling in, during which time I’ll be doing some minor adjustments – but I’m definitely calling this puppy done!

_MG_0441

I think it sounds and looks fantastic. And it sings. What a great Christmas present! Thank you again Candi!

_MG_0453  _MG_0459

(p.s. If you thought I might now have gotten guitar building out of my system – nothing could be further from the truth!)

Build day 32 & 33 – The Guitar is Finished! It’s Just Not Done Yet…

I’ve finished the guitar! No, it’s not done – but at the moment, I’m looking at a beautiful shiny guitar – albeit without a bridge, nut, or strings. Hey, I need something to look forward to :)

As I talked about in my last post, I had made a massive detour learning all about lacquer, spray equipment, buffing, etc. It’s hard not to be impressed with how dangerous and toxic the whole process is – thankfully I also learned that there is another way – the French Polish technique – which uses only all-natural materials. Here’s a brief description from Wikipedia:

French polishing is a wood finishing technique that results in a very high gloss surface, with a deep colour and chatoyancy. French polishing consists of applying many thin coats of shellac dissolved in alcohol using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil. The rubbing pad is made of absorbent cotton or wool cloth wadding inside a square piece of fabric (usually soft cotton cloth) and is commonly referred to as a fad(also called a tampon or muñeca, Spanish for “rag doll”).[1]

Yeah, I never heard of chatoyancy either.

I had taken Robbie O’Brien’s 6 hour online course on French Polish – where he demonstrates the entire process in great detail. In the end, the process is actually pretty simple – but there are definitely non-obvious techniques to master. And you certainly need patience! I actually finished the guitar while watching Robbie’s video again in real time. By the way – all of Robbie’s videos are excellent – I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’m currently taking both his steel string and classical guitar building courses (which is where the french polish part is). Best investment I’ve ever made! It’s almost like having a master luthier in my house at all times :)

So here’s a quick tour of what I just did. First I had to mask off where the bridge would be – because I don’t want shellac to mess up that very important glue joint. Of couse the bridge position is very critical, so I measured and measured again before I marked it off and masked the area. I also masked off the fretboard.

_MG_0318 _MG_0320

Finally time to do some finishing! First step was to pore fill the open pore wood – in this case the rosewood and mahogany. I used a deep black pore fill on the rosewood – it’s very much like drywall compound died black (in fact you could use exactly that).

_MG_0333 _MG_0330

On the neck I used filler that was more brownish in color. Then I sanded all that down, and did it all again. I made a pretty good mess in the process.

I then used my muñeca to apply thin coats of dark shellac and polish them down. And I do mean THIN coats. To lubricate the pad during polishing, I used extra virgin olive oil. Within about 90 minutes, I had a beautiful glossy finish on the back. There was absolutely no odor – and nothing was toxic about it at all. I could eat this finish if I wanted to. I really think this is seriously cool!

_MG_0358 _MG_0336

I also worked on the sides, and then did the front using amber colored shellac. _MG_0360 _MG_0343

And then on to the neck – which I decided to use the darker shellac for. I think it came out great!

_MG_0373

One seriously annoying thing that I had to deal with was cleaning the white plastic bindings. I’ve cleaned them so many times I’ve lost count. They get dirty every time I sand, or finish, or even look at the guitar. I will NEVER use plastic on a guitar again – I didn’t know any better, as it came with the kit. Live and learn. So I cleaned them again with a razor blade – it literally took hours – I had to be extremely careful not to cut the top or sides. I used a Q-tip to coat them with blond shellac when I was done. I think that’s really the last time I’ll have to deal with that.

_MG_0348 _MG_0368

I’m getting very very close to the end of building this first guitar. Next steps are to glue on the bridge, and then make a nut and saddle. I found out that nut slotting files are really required for this step – tools I don’t have. So that will wait for another day. But that’s OK – in the meantime I’ve got this nice looking almost-guitar to look at!

_MG_0383_MG_0386

Build day 31 – The End is Near! Better stock up on really strong alcohol!

It all started when I got to a “simple” step in guitar making land – to put a finish on the guitar. Hey, the “kit” instructions basically say to “finish the guitar by spraying lacquer on it” before  proceeding to the next step. That next step would be to put on the neck. So here I am, with a nice guitar body, a nice neck, and….. I can’t do anything else before I do that “spray lacquer” thing.

Once I started getting into researching how do that correctly, I found a very large and very complex subject waiting for me. I did tons of research; wound up designing and building a spray booth,  and was about to buy all sorts of spray equipment. BUT – when I found I needed to research explosion-proof fans, whole head respirators, and more, I started looking at safer alternatives to lacquer. And long story short – I discovered the technique of French Polish. It’s a traditional method of finishing using shellac – which is all natural, completely reversible, beautiful and sonically superior. In fact it’s the way classical guitars have traditionally been finished. So why isn’t it perfect? Well… there are a few downsides. The biggest is that it does not play nice with heat, water, or alcohol. That’s OK for a guitar that you take care of, but not for one you want to play in the rain or spill beer on. But it is very easy to repair. So I decided to go with it. However there was one small wrinkle….

The shellac for French Polish must be made fresh – not the stuff that comes in cans at the hardware store. In fact good shellac has a pretty short shelf life. You make it yourself using shellac flakes dissolved in very strong alcohol.  But the usual denatured alcohol has poisons added to it – only added so you can’t drink it – therefore making it cheaper.  But the poisons are REALLY bad. Serious ventilation required, and hands must be protected because it absorbs through the skin, etc…  Kind of defeats the whole green approach.  That’s when I discovered that you can actually buy alcohol without the poisons added – at the liquor store. Well, not just any liquor store – only one that sells Everclear 190 proof pure grain alcohol. And that store would be scarce in New England, because it’s not sold in Maine, NH, Mass. or Vermont. Damn it frat parties! But you can still buy it in Road Island. So to condense what turned out to be a long story, I was able to find and purchase Everclear from a store in Providence RI, and have them ship it to me.

And then there’s the whole story of finding shellac flakes – which describe later when I actually do the finishing. Anyway, in the end, I have my materials for doing a French Polish. And I no longer have to worry about doing the finish before gluing the neck – so it’s back to guitar construction. Things should proceed pretty rapidly now.

_MG_0286 _MG_0290

But first one more side project… I knew I would need a very accurate way of making the frets level. The tops of the frets should all be on the same plane, and to do that, I made a sanding stick made of square steel tubing. I just bought a hollow 1″ square steel bar and sanded one side to be very flat. To do that, I bought a $10 marble backsplash at Home Depot – I figured polished marble should be pretty flat and stable. I stuck sandpaper on it and sanded the bar down to flat. It took literally HOURS of sanding, but in the end I got one side so flat it shone like a mirror.  I even painted the three other sides in glossy red, just to make the thing look cool. And I also drilled a hole for hanging. I call it my Super Sanding Stick.

_MG_0238 _MG_0239 _MG_0243 _MG_0245 Time to install the last frets. To do that without cracking the neck, I used some bricks to support the fretboard extension, put the neck on my concrete floor, and used a deadblow hammer to hammer in the remaining frets. Note the MONSTER Grainger catalog, which I’m using to support the neck. Now that’s a whole other story!

_MG_0268 _MG_0272Then I did a first pass at dressing the frets. I filed down and shaped the edges, and used a CA glue & sawdust technique to seal up the ends. I used my Super Sanding Stick to level all the frets. And then I used a special crowning file to put a rounded top on all the frets. The final fret work will come later, but it’s looking pretty good to me so far.

_MG_0281_MG_0273

I also did some preliminary sanding of the neck and body… however there’s quite a bit more of that to come. And I also used a bit of leftover rosewood to make an endcap for the heel of the neck. I think it looks much better than the white plastic that came with the StewMac kit.

_MG_0294 _MG_0297Next – it’s finally time to glue the neck to the body! I could go on at some length about this, because setting the neck angle and the gluing the dovetail were not amongst the easiest things I’ve ever done. But I did it. No going back now. I keep rechecking all my measurements, because to be off would suck.  I do think I’m pretty close – not totally dead nuts perfect – but I hope close enough. We’ll see.

_MG_0304 _MG_0306And that’s where things stand today. I could finish the guitar completely in a day or two at this point. Tasks ahead include a full day of prepping and applying the French Polish, then installing the bridge, and finally stringing it up and adjusting the action. And then… it will be time to strum a few chords and hope for the best!

1015849_577016955652592_1973150580_o