Shows and Conventions

Today, I’ll be talking about trade shows, conventions and exhibits.

First, we should differentiate the difference.  Trade shows such as  NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) are held twice a year, Los Angeles in the winter and Nashville in the summer.  They are usually of not much value to a hand builder.  They are big business and designed for retail stores to see what’s out there and place their orders for the year.  That’s not to say they can’t be great fun but realistically not something to count on to increase your revenue.

The second are conventions such as the Guild of American Luthiers and the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans.  They are held about every other year and are great venues for sharing ideas and learning new techniques in guitar building.  While you can exhibit your guitars (they typically have one day open to the public for viewing), they are not really geared for selling.  Having said this, I picked up a major dealer by having my guitar in a listening session.  He heard one of my guitars and liked it enough to take me on.

I can’t say enough good about these events.  You get to see other luthiers work in a non-threatening manner and get to meet some of the pioneers of modern lutherie, Ervin Somogyi, Charles Fox, John Greven and Harry Fleishman to name a few.

The third category is the exhibition.  These are shows like the Healdsburg Guitar Festival and the Montreal Guitar Show.  These are shows that have to be applied for and accepted to or invited.  While they are not juried shows on the face, they do try to have a certain degree of diversity and skill level.

As with the conventions, these are great venues to expose your instruments to the public.  Even if you don’t sell them at the shows, you can meet future clients and dealers.  This is another great way to meet some of the finest makers in the world and every time I go I’m both humbled and excited to get back and make new inroads in my lutherie.

The bottom line is that all of these are worth the time on one level or another, and I look forward to all of them.

Basic Inlay Techniques

This will be the first installment of doing a retrofit inlay on a 40’s Martin D-28.  While we’ll be doing a signature, something that on the surface is simple, it is very demanding in technique and execution.

The great thing about doing inlay is that there is very little in the need of tools.  With the exception of big manufacturers’ use of CNC, very little has changed.  A jewelers saw, a rotary tool, such as a Dremel or Foredom and you’re in business. 

The piece of plywood you see in the picture is called a birds mouth and it’s used to support the substance to be cut, in this case mother of pearl.

The customer was having the neck reset and a refret and wanted his stage name inlaid in the fret board.  After we picked out the type style, I made copies for adhering to the MOP.  After gluing the type I start making cuts using the saw with a very fine blade that is .011″ thick.  When you’re starting out I would recommend a heavier blade of .021″.  You will break less of them but are limited in the fineness of the cut.  With practice, you can use finer and finer blades without breaking them.  I can usually do an entire signature without breaking a blade.  The actual “Country” measures about 1 1/4″ so you have to be very careful in placement on the birds mouth, making certain it’s supported on both sides of the cut.  Other important things to remember are to make sure the blade is perpendicular to the piece and to use the full length of the blade.  If the blade is not at a 90 degree angle to the piece you will put stress on the blade and produce a piece that is very hard to fit.  Make sure that you allow the blade to do the work and not to force it.  By using the entire blade you will cut faster and keep the blade from overheating.

You will notice from the picture that I am using my two fingers on top and thumb on the bottom as a temporary clamp.  You might also find a magnifying head band works to keep eye fatigue to a minimum.

Another thing to take into consideration is keeping the dust to a minimum by using a shop vac.  The dust is calcium based and something you don’t want to breathe in.

The thick and thin letters in this can be tricky so I always look to the hardest part first.  In this case I did the bottom of the letters first because they had the most turns and would be the most likely to break.  I don’t stop the blade when I come to a 90 degree turn but keep the blade moving rotating it until I get to the position I want, then continue.  If you’re careful you can cut the entire piece without breaks but if you do simply super glue the pieces together when you’re done.  Small needle files can be used to clean up and rough edges and as you can see, in this case I left the “O’s” and “A’s” closed.  They will be engraved when they are installed into the fret board.

Next week:  Inlaying the letters into the fret board.

Color Match Finish Coats

Now that we’ve got the color match we can complete the finish.

I then spray the top coats.  I start by lightly spraying in alternate patterns.  Horizontal then vertical, and then switching to diagonals to get the most even coverage.  I shoot 2 to 3 coats a day then sand with 320 grit wet or dry, being careful not to sand through the color coat.

Lacquer and other top coats follow, they don’t fill.  That means that the lacquer will flow into the depression not fill it up.  By sanding in between coats you are taking off lacquer on the surface while not touching the depression.  The next time you spray, the depression will be that much smaller.

I usually spray between 6 and 9 coats to get the desired result.  Prep work is critical because the less depressions and holes you have the less you have to finish.

When I’m satisfied with the raw finish I let it dry for a minimum of 2 weeks to allow the finish to cure and shrink.

When the finish is dry, it’s not a simple mater of putting the guitar together. The finish has to be compounded to smooth out the ripples.  Compounding is going through a series of abrasives until the surface is smooth and mirror like.

I start with no lower grit than 600 wet or dry and usually 800 grit.  I use the best quality paper. 3M Imperial wet or dry seems to work well.  The cheaper papers have larger stray grit in them and can cause scratches that are almost impossible to remove.  This is also the case if you start with anything coarser than 600 grit.

The first sanding is the most important. I lubricate with water to float the particles off and for less loading of the paper. It’s very important that you use a hard rubber, cork or felt pad to be sure of a flat surface.  Never sand with you fingers.   I make sure all the gloss is taken off so that the surface is dull but smooth and uniform.  Now I switch to Micro Mesh.  This is an abrasive in cushioned latex that doesn’t build up as easily and is very high quality.  The 1500 grit is equal to 600 grit sandpaper so I start with the next one up, 1800.  I continue with this to 4000 grit also using water as a lubricant.  Then I switch to another abrasive, Abralon.  This is a 6″ pad I use with a 5″ random orbital sander.  Using 2000 and proceeding to 4000, I use these pads dry.  I leave the 6″ pad full size to protect the guitar from the rubber pad on the sander.  In tight corners, I use the pad by hand. One thing to remember is to clean off all the previous slush so that the next grit starts fresh.

Now the fun part, using a buffer to bring the gloss up!  In reality all you are doing in each step is to make the scratches finer and finer until they appear to go away.  I use a Shop Fox buffer and 12″ domet wheels.  I make sure not to contaminate the compounds with the wrong wheel.  While they make several grades, I stick with the fine and extra fine.

Buffing wheels can be very dangerous if you’re not careful with the way they are used.  Remember when you’re buffing to only buff the bottom half of your piece.  Right


If you use the buffer like this you will run the risk of catching the upper surface and having your piece thrown to the ground.  I believe you will not like the result much so be aware of your orientation.

I do the same thing with buffing that I do with sanding, changing direction of the piece’s orientation with the wheel: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. When finished with the fine wheel, clean the surface of the piece to clean the previous compound then proceed to the extra fine.  Wax is not recommended and will in fact make the piece duller.

When you’re done you should have a mirror finish to be proud of.

Color Matching an Existing Finish

Sometimes you encounter situations that require you to color match a finish.  In this case it is with a bass guitar that had its peg head shape altered and the client wanted me to match the finish as close as possible to the rest of the neck.As you can see, the fret board (as is the rest of the neck) is a dark amber color, much darker than the rock maple.

First, I sand to 220 grit to get rid of any scratches and prep the surface.  In fact I do this even if there aren’t any scratches to make sure there is nothing contaminating the wood.  Then I apply my sealer, in this case shellac.  You can also use vinyl sealer, epoxy and sanding sealer but in this case it was handy.  When it comes to shellac I try to always use flakes dissolved in alcohol with a date on it to make sure it’s fresh.  I usually use a 3 lb cut as a sealer.  This refers to 3 lbs of shellac dissolved in 1 gallon of alcohol.  It lasts for about 6 months so I don’t mix more than I can use in that time period.  It should be dry to the touch in minutes, and if it doesn’t it’s old and should be thrown out. The pre-made shellac in hardware stores contain too many additives such as plasticizers to maintain shelf life.  An interesting thing about shellac is that it’s considered a food product by the FDA and it’s what coats M&M’s.

I don’t like to stain bare wood for two reasons:  One it looks blotchy.  The soft parts of the maple will take more stain than the hard parts.  Two, if I screw up the color, I can take it off easier.  Here’s what it looks like with the shellac applied.

I mask off what I don’t want finished and mix my color.  I don’t normally shoot lacquer but in very small amounts I can get away with it (I’m allergic to the stuff).  In this case I’ll be using TransTint dyes sold by Stew-Mac, amber, red mahogany and medium brown.

Most of the color matching comes from practice.  I’ve done a lot of these so I use my experience to make a guess as to the colors and ratios.  In about 4 oz of lacquer I put 6 drops of amber, 1 drop of red mahogany and 1 drop of medium brown.  It’s very important to make a record of this and keep it in a journal.  This way you will be able to correct the formula if it isn’t right and repeat it if it is.  I test the color on a piece of paper and in this case it was pretty close so I went ahead and shot the peg head.  I do very light layers until I get the desired shade.
As you can see, it’s a pretty close match.

Next week, the finish coats.

Jigs, Templates and Fixtures

I’ve discussed this briefly in past posts but I think it’s a subject that could use some further investigation.

First we must define each of these terms:  A jig is a device that attaches to the work and guides a tool.  Some examples would include this jig for routing truss rod channels. 

Or this for making a saddle slot in the bridge.

For my purposes, these are mostly used for router applications.  In this case I use an 1/8″ down cut spiral bit with a fence attached to a plunge router.

Templates are usually attached to the object.  This humbucker template is a good example


This is used with a plunge router as well but with a pattern makers bit.  This has a bearing of the same size as the cutter and it’s on the top of the cutter or where the shaft meets the cutter.  I always use the largest cutter because the smaller bearings are very fragile.  In the case of the humbucker I use the bigger bit to “hog” out the majority and use the smaller bit just to clean up the corners.

This template is used to cut the heel on a neck.

I use a massive 3/4″ pattern bit for this.

As an aside, I always use the best bits I can.  My choice lately has been Amana.  The better the bit the less chance of blowing out chunks of precious wood.  This goes for the router as well.  The more horsepower, the less likely to bog down.

Lastly, the Fixture:  A fixture differs from a jig in that it is usually the work that is attached to the fixture.  An example would be this shooting board

In this case the “board” is attached to my bench and the back or top is clamped to the fixture to joint them for gluing.  Notice one of my favorite tools, my Lie-Nielson 24″ joiner plane!

A couple more, my homemade side bender and vacuum table

As you can see, most of these jigs, templates and fixtures are pretty simple to make and use.  Some of the other things I use these for are profiling necks, fingerboards, profiling solid bodies, forms for sides etc, cutting fret slots… the lists goes on.  While you can buy some of them, body and pickup templates, I encourage you to make your own especially if you’re on a budget.  A little 1/4″ MDF goes a long way and it’s cheap.

Les Paul part deux

Now we can concentrate on the neck and what a set neck entails.

Much of what I’ve said about a bolt on neck applies here as well.  The obvious difference being that once the neck is attached to the body the angle is set for the life of the guitar.  Other than that its truss rod, fret board, etc. are the same.  The fretting is slightly different because of the binding.  The way Gibson did it on their guitars was to fret the board before the binding and add a piece of binding taller than the board and routing the binding to follow the board and the frets.  Stew-Mac has a great description of this on their site.

I’m not a fan of this type of fretting because you lose about an 1/8″ of fretting surface.  I notch the fret wire to go over the fret board.  This is also a bit quicker. 

Here you can see the finished board.  I did two guitars at once. This one is Madagascar rosewood, the other Brazilian.  They are almost impossible to tell apart by looks alone.  Gibson and Martin both fret their boards at this stage but I like to get it on the neck first.  I have less issues with leveling later on.

The next issue is cutting the tenon on the neck.

Here’s a picture of the finished tenon with the truss rod installed.  This is a crucial part so getting it right is imperative!  The angle has to perfectly match the angle on the body.

I made both sides of the template at the same time so as to give them perfect symmetry.  I then made sure they were lined up during construction.  I used a pattern makers bit in a router making sure I double checked the depth.  The finished tenon should be a tight fit.  If you’ve gone a little to far in your depth don’t throw it out you can shim it with veneer.

When I’m satisfied with the fit I start carving the neck and cutting the binding channel.

A lot of people I know spend a lot of time making all sorts of torture devices to carve necks by machine.  I don’t have any problem with this except to say I get a lot of enjoyment carving the neck by hand and after doing it for so long can get the job done in about the time it takes to set a machine up.

After that it’s binding and gluing the neck in place.  Since this is a ’59 the binding is the same width all the way around.  You can see the maple cap in the cutaway.   Also notice the tight fit on the neck joint.  This has more to do with my skill at making templates and jigs than chisels and saws.  This is also when I do the fret work.

Another picture showing both guitars at different stages.

Now we’re ready to finish.  The trapezoid markers are real pearl and not MOTS and the headstock veneer is real ebony, not dyed holly.

See you next time in part three… finish.

Building a Les Paul style guitar

This will be the first of several posts on building a Les Paul style guitar.  While I’ll be keeping pretty faithful to a Gibson ’59 Standard, this will not be a “fake”.  I don’t condone “replicas”, plus if I put all that hard work into it I want my name on it.

First of all if you go on any of the Les Paul forums you can find all sorts of minutia about the guitar.  People have come to turn the details into a fetish!  The mother of toilet seat has to be the kind produced in that time period with almost silvery color and minute black spider webbing etc. The shape must be period correct.  The mounting rings for the pickups have to glow under black light. The Stew-Mac blue print isn’t the correct shape, blah, blah, blah.  Yasuhiko Iwanade’s book “The Beauty of the Burst” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. What I ultimately take away from this is that they were all hand made and probably were all different from each other.

In this build I’ll be using both the Stew-Mac print and templates by  A friend had the templates so I gladly used them but in all honesty you don’t need them.  A good print will work just as well.

The first thing you must do is source the wood.  I used genuine Honduran mahogany for the neck and body. You’ll need 8/4 (two inch rough) for the body and 6/4 for the neck.  One piece bodies were used in the original but two and more piece bodies are fine, if not more economical.  The neck was made in three pieces, the main shaft was at two inches with the “ears” for the head stock glued on.

The top on the originals was eastern hard rock maple and very rarely bookmatched.  Sometimes this was very figured and sometimes not at all.  Most of the modern repros (including Gibson) use western big leaf maple which is softer and doesn’t sound quite the same.

I cut the mahogany body first and make the routes for the control cavity and wiring channel.

Now I join the maple cap which is used non-bookmatched eastern hard rock maple (this is purely an aesthetic) and cut this out to the same pattern.  Don’t worry if they don’t match perfectly. You will have to cut the top for binding later. The holes in the mahogany are for weight reduction because this was a particularly dense piece of mahogany.

Once the cap is glued I drill the holes for the hardware and use a panel bit to bring the top to 1/4″ thick where it joins the body.  This also gives the start of the arch.  Also in the picture is the jig I use to get the proper neck angle .  The angle should be as close to 4.4 degrees as possible.  Any more or less and the bridge will be too high or low.  I use a protractor to determine the angle and make a simple jig to hold the guitar at that angle. Then I use a Wagner Safety Plane (yes the same plane I’ve mentioned countless times before) to give me the proper angle.

Here’s what it will look like with the angle planed and the panel bit cutting the start of the arch.

The next step is to cut the long tenon so revered by Les Paul junkies.  I use a pattern makers router bit and the template for the neck pocket.

After this I cut the pickup routes while the top is flat.  This makes the templates easier to adhere. I also drill for the stop tailpiece and the bridge at this point.

Now comes the elbow grease!!!  Using an Ibex arch top plane with a toothed iron I plane the arch.  When I’m close I use a pneumatic sander with a 40 grit patch to finish the curve.

Almost done

Next week the neck and fitting.