Making a solid body… body part one

Today we’ll go about how to make a solid body body, part one.

If you want to be boring and build a Strat or Tele, the easiest way is to buy parts from a number of suppliers. Just don’t let me hear you call yourself a luthier!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I build guitars too” only to find that all they did was put together an instrument from parts.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great way for someone to learn the workings of a guitar including set ups etc.  I had one guy come to me with a guitar he “built”, complete with a laser engraved logo of his name on the peghead, wanting me to make him a nut and completely set the guitar up.  This was his 12th guitar.  Learn to walk before you run!

This brings me to another thing: CNC.  I have had a lot of people getting into building that immediately want to jump into the Computer Numeric Control world.  To this I ask how many guitars are you going to build?  If it’s in the hundreds, I say good idea (assuming you can sell that many) but most times it’s just a shortcut to learning your trade.  Kind of like the idea that some pedal or new gadget will make me a better player.  Since it’s a computer it is also prone to s#@t in s#@t out.  I had a friend come to me wanting to make a neck for an old Guild Starfire.  He’s a competent repairman but doesn’t get into building much.  He supplied me with a fret board he had CNC’d .  First off the scale was wrong. The fret slots too shallow and the position markers, while a perfect fit in the cavities, were off center.  Doing all this by hand, the builder would have never made those mistakes or if he had would have caught them right off.  Besides, who wants to listen to a router all day!  Enough rant, on with the build.

If the guitar you’re building is commonly available (Strat, Tele, Les Paul etc), you can find prints and even templates available from many suppliers.  If you’re only doing one and have access to the proper tools, templates are not really necessary.  If you don’t have the proper tools then I suggest taking a night course in woodworking at a local school or college.  I have done this when I didn’t have a shop and it works out great.  Plus you have the added benefit of doing a project most everyone will want to check out.  After all it’s a guitar not a cutting board. Of course you can be creative and do your own design.  Why do something that’s been done a million times.  This is your chance to be original.

First you have to pick the wood you’re using.  This depends on what type of instrument you’re building and what kind of sound you’re looking for.  Fender mainly uses swamp ash and alder but has also used poplar to good effect.  Gibson on the other hand usually uses maple and mahogany, either alone or in concert.  A lot of shredders like Jackson used bass wood and of course, a lot of the Asian guitars have what I can only attribute as mystery wood because of the diversity available.  You can go to a hardwood lumber yard to pick up what you need but beware, most of these places only sell entire boards and this can be very costly especially with the exotics.  These boards are usually rough and sold by the board foot.  This means 1 inch by 12 inches long and 12 inches wide.  In example if you’re buying a board that’s 48 inches long and 6 inches wide by 1 inch rough you will be buying 2 board feet.  There are two confusing things to consider when buying the lumber.  One is it is measured in 1/4 inch increments, so 1 inch boards would be considered 4/4 or four quarter.  Since this is the rough you will not be able to get more than 3/4 of an inch in usable thickness.  The other thing is that hardwood lumber is rarely dimensioned.  Boards vary in both length and width because each tree is cut to give the optimum yield.  Usually, the more exotic the wood the smaller the tree (and more expensive).  Some wood, such as ebony and Brazilian rosewood, are often sold by the pound.  Most guitars will use 8/4 lumber so that it can be surfaced to 1 3/4 inches.  Some yards have mills so you can have them plane it to the correct dimension for a fee.  If you can’t find a board wide enough you will have to joint the board and glue it together.  Most people think that solid body electrics are one piece but that’s not usually the case.  If you look carefully at most Fender’s you will often find two or three piece bodies.  Jointing can be a pretty daunting task if you haven’t done it before but if you take the shop class you can benefit from the instructors experience as well as the tools available.

If this sounds like a lot of work you can always buy the blank from a supplier.  These are already glued up and surfaced so you can start out right away.  While the prices may seem high I find that you end up only having to buy what you need and usually it’s top notch quality with no checks, cracks and knot holes.

Next week, we get into wood butchery or what was once called one of the “dirty trades”.

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