Bespoke Guitar Part Three

Now that we’ve got the body done, it’s on to the neck.

I start with pattern grade quarter sawn genuine mahogany.  This is a very stable and relatively lightweight wood that has been used successfully in both instruments and furniture. The first thing I do is to square it off with a plane, then cut the truss rod channel and the two channels for the graphite reinforcement.  Once this is done I cut the profile for the neck and glue on the peghead overlay, in this case, book matched camatillo.  My client wanted a slotted peghead so I used a jig I made to cut the appropriate slots.  After the truss rod and the graphite bars are installed the head stock is inlayed with my logo and the fingerboard prepped. In this case the fretboard is bound in rosewood to match the binding on the body.

Now I glue the fingerboard on, being careful to keep it aligned with the neck.  After it’s dry I start to profile the neck.  As I have mentioned before, I find this easier to do by hand as I can finish the job in about the same time it would take me to set up a CNC.

The final post will be finishing and putting the whole thing together.

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Building a Bespoke Guitar Part Two

Now the side braces are fitted and installed.  This makes for a much stronger side brace than the traditional tape Martin uses today.

I then mark and cut out for the braces on the back to be inlet into the sides.  This makes for a rigid structure that locks the back to the sides.  I put the back into the vacuum so that when it’s glued to the sides it matches the 15 foot radius I was so careful to create.

I repeat the same thing with the top, making sure everything is aligned.

I then trim the top and back in preparation for the binding channels to be cut.  Before I do that I mix a little water with yellow glue and coat the areas of the top.  When this is dry, it acts as a sizing hardening the soft wood in the summer grain so it has less chance of tearing out

Unless a customer requests it (not happened yet) I do all my purflings and bindings in wood.

Now we have a completed body. 

Next time… the neck.

Building a Bespoke Guitar

This will be the first in a four part series on what goes into a custom made instrument.  In this case, it’s one of my Fingerstyle models with a slot head and cutaway.

Most of my clients have had (and do have) several other high end guitars, usually by boutique builders such as Santa Cruz, Goodall, etc.  They have usually played several of my instruments and have a good idea of what they want.  Even though this is the case, I still ask a lot of questions and make sure I have an understanding of what it is they hope to achieve with a bespoke instrument that they can’t get with what they have now.  Sometimes it’s that they like the sound of my guitars and have specific ideas about neck width, wood choice etc, and sometimes it’s about the aesthetics.  Another consideration in what they’re playing now is what woods they have.  If every guitar is rosewood I will try to steer them in that direction.  That doesn’t mean they are limited in choices as there are many rosewoods to pick from and most share similar sonic properties.  A few of them include:  Camatillo, cocobolo, African blackwood, Madagascar rosewood, Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, Amazon rosewood… and the list goes on.

After the woods are selected, I fill out a form that puts everything in writing and let them know what I think the lead time is as well as the nuts and bolts of the nasty issue of money.  I ask for a nonrefundable deposit of 25% of the cost.  This allows me to cover the cost of materials and guarantees their place in the queue.  I also tell them about the return policy should it be needed (haven’t had that problem yet).  I give them 72 hours to return the guitar.  It must be in perfect cosmetic condition and I will give them a full refund when I sell the instrument.  This is a very important point.  This is not something that can simply be put back into stock as I am not a big box store and cannot absorb those kinds of costs.  I think it’s important to make sure they know exactly what to expect, as this, to some extent, is a big leap of faith on their part.  They are entrusting me to make their dream guitar, and I feel it’s an obligation for me to not let them down.  Finally, I have them sign a contract and away we go.

Enough hot air, on to the build.

I’ll be documenting a custom guitar for Tim Pacheco, a professional musician from the central coast of California. He chose camatillo (dalbergia congestiflora) for the back and sides and bear claw Sitka (Picea sitchensis) for the top with a matching rosette and slotted peghead overlay and a cutaway.  All of my guitars have wood binding and purflings, in this case, rosewood binding with a black/white/black/white purfling for the top and white/black for the back.

After they’re jointed, they’re both cut out and thicknessed, and the rosette cut into the top.

Now the top and back are braced.

I use a vacuum pump and rubber bladder to glue the braces.

The vacuum is an excellent clamping system, in my opinion, much better than clamps or a go bar deck.  It puts an even pressure of 21 hg (inches of mercury) or about 10 1/3 pounds per square inch on the surface.

The sides are bent next, using a silicone heating blanket and a form.  I still bend the cutaway by hand with a hot pipe and set it in the form.

Next week the body takes shape.

Re-fretting a Bozo

While I’ve done a post on re-fretting a guitar I thought it would be interesting to see some of the tools I use.  A small three corner file to bevel the edge of the fret slot so that the frets go in easier and when they have to be pulled less chipping.This is the tool I made for putting the 30 degree bevel on the fret edges.  It uses a mill smooth file with a high density, low friction plastic base.Flush ground end nippers for cutting frets close to the board.This tool cuts the tang off the fret ends to go over the binding.This is a small needle file with the edges ground and polished so I can remove the sharp edges from the fret end.This contraption I call Frankenfretter.  It’s a sliding base I bolt to the drill press to support the guitar while I compression fret it.  Notice the Taylor fret buck, a massive support for the guitar body while I fret.And finally, the finished job.

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

Wrong.

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.

Resetting a Neck on a Bozo Podnuavac Part 2

Now that we have the neck off, and I’ve let it dry for at least a week, we can proceed to the reset.

This guitar will have a fret job as well so all the frets were pulled.The first step in the reset is to determine how much of the heel needs to be removed.  As I stated in the previous post the current neck angle left the straight edge about 1/8″ above the top or about 1/4″ too shallow.   Since the heel is about 4″ and the distance from the nut to the saddle is about 25 1/2″ it takes a fraction of amount taken off at the heel to make the 1/4″ needed to correct the angle.  My usual formula (not scientific by any standard) is to take about an 1/8th of the amount off the heel.  So in this case, I would take off a 1/32″ from the heel or an 1/8th of the 1/4″.  Some people use a file to do this but I prefer a very sharp chisel.  I cut to the line on a bevel, then back cut on a slight angle so that shoulders of the neck “bite” into the body. I may repeat this several times, until I get the angle right.  Make sure you take the same amount of material off both sides of the heel to maintain the correct trajectory to the bridge.

This gets me into the ball park, but I use another method to get the final fit.  For this step I use 100 or 120 grit self adhesive sandpaper with the backing left on.  I put the neck on the body and put the sandpaper between them, slick side toward body.This does the final fitting.  I’ve run across several bodies that are not completely flat, so this works very well for this.  Make sure when you are doing this, you do not pull the sandpaper up because you will take too much off the heel.  Again, care should be taken to ensure both sides are even.  When you are satisfied with the fit you must now adjust the dovetail geometry.

I you have taken more than an 1/8″ off the heel you will first need to take off material off the back of the dovetail to clear the back of the head block.  Once this is done you can now make the shim for the re-fit.In taking wood from the bottom of the heel you will have a lose fit because the dovetail is now smaller at the bottom.  The top should be relatively tight because no material should have been removed (in fact, if wood is taken away form the top of the dovetail, it will effect the intonation because the neck will be closer to the bridge).  I make two wedges, one for each side of the dovetail.  Using .032″ thick veneer 5/8″ wide and almost the length of the dovetail I taper the thickness from the full .032″ to nothing.  A trick for getting this done is to use a piece of double stick tape on one side of the shim so that I can secure it to my fingers while sanding. Carbon paper or lamp black used in between the neck and head block is a good way to test the fit.   I do this until I”m satisfied with the joint.  I have to say that the original dovetail was a very fine fit, a testament to Mr. Podnuavac’s work.

I then glue the neck back on using the same type of glue as the original.  In this case hide glue was used.  NEVER use epoxy, polyurathane or any other glue that can’t be reversed!!!   I touch up any finish issues, such as chipped lacquer around the body or neck.

The 15th fret will have to be replaced, making sure it is in line with the others and doesn’t cause any buzzing (in this case a re-fret was needed).  Finally a new saddle will have to be constructed.

Even if you never do this on your own guitar it will give you some understanding of why this kind of repair costs so much money.

Resetting a Neck on a Bozo Podnuavac Part 1

This is a pretty common but more advanced repair.  Steel string “flat top” guitars have over two hundred lbs. of force from the strings trying to collapse the neck into the body.  Unlike classical guitars where the neck is part of the head block (they have much lower tension), steel strings were made with a neck separate from the body so that they can be disassembled.  Most of the older instruments use a dovetail, either tapered or straight, to attach the neck to the body.  A lot of modern luthiers use bolts to anchor the neck.  There has been a lot debate about what’s better, but as someone who has built over 50 instruments, half bolt, half dovetail, I can’t tell the difference in tone.

If you lay a straight edge along the fret board on a guitar with a proper neck set, the straight edge will just come to the top of the bridge.  A saddle that is too short or too tall will affect the tone and playability.  A general rule is about 3/8″ above the top at the bridge position.

A common method in the past was to shave the bridge (not a good idea) or to “slip the block.”  This is when the back was heated and pressure put on the neck to “slip” the head block, moving the neck angle. When the back cooled the glue would harden.  The problem is that the back was exposed and needed to be trimmed and rebound.

In this example, I’ll be resetting a neck on a guitar by Bozo Podnuavac (pronounced Bo-zho).  He gained fame in the 70’s for his flamboyant 6 and 12 string guitars played by people like Leo Kottke. 

This guitar had been pretty mistreated.  The head stock was broken and poorly repaired.  Numerous cracks have been haphazardly repaired and pressure from the neck had cracked the top on both sides of the fret board and moved the head block toward the body.

A straight edge determined that the neck angle left the height at the bridge about 1/4″ below what it should have been.

The first thing I need to do is separate the fret board from the body. This is done by heating the fret board and carefully working a thinned putty knife under the board.  I’m very careful about this and don’t force the knife.  When the glue is soft it will slide under the board fairly easily.  LMI and a few other companies make a silicone heating blanket just for this purpose.  Stew-Mac also makes a massive iron with space milled for the frets just for this purpose.  In this case I’ll be using the blanket

If the neck joins the body at the 14th fret I pull the 15th fret to make way for two holes I drill into the slot.  In a typical dovetail the male portion of the neck is about 5/8″ long and the corresponding female joint in the body is 3/4″ deep.  This leaves a gap in the head block and the 15th fret is about 5/8″.

Two tools that I think are essential are from Stew-Mac.  One is the guitar neck removal jig and the other is the neck steamer needle and hose.

The other necessity is a cheap coffee maker capable of making steam.  I set up the removal jig as in the picture and turn the cappuccino on steam and wait for the unit to heat the water.  As an aside always use distilled water or you will have a great deal of mineral buildup.  I put a slight amount of pressure on the bottom screw of the jig, just enough to ensure the jig is not moving.  The steam works very rapidly to soften both hide and yellow glues.  I usually only have to wait 5 or 6 minutes for the joint to loosen.  I keep putting slightly more pressure on the bottom screw until the joint separates.   I also elevate the bottom of the guitar so that all the water from the cooled steam stays relatively contained.  Tapered dovetails remove the easiest but in some instruments the dovetail is straight and they require constant pressure because of the friction.

Sometimes, however the mojo doesn’t work, and this was such a case.  After waiting over 10 min. the joint had not budged!  I was afraid that the joint may be epoxy.  Mr. Podnuavac is still building guitars at 82 so I called him in his current shop in Florida and he did indeed confirm that the joint was a dovetail and should come off.

Take two:  This time I put a little more pressure on the screw and after 10 more minutes it did break loose.  If you look at the truss rod you can see a grey bar on either side of the truss rod housing.  This appears to be epoxy that goes through the head block and under the top. This is what I think was causing the hangup.

Next week.  Refitting and re-gluing the neck.