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Guitar Building


The Headstock and Neck

You may remember that I did not want to build the neck for this guitar considering the precision work that is involved and so I bought a cheap guitar to use for parts. Having previously striped the headstock of the black top coat I was now left with the bare wood. Unlike the body the neck will be finished with a satin lacqeur, this time polyurethane because it was readily available from bunning in the small quantity that is required. Satin lacqeur is like clear lacqeur except that it has chemicals in it that make it less glossy and smoother to the touch after light sanding, being satin the sanding doesn’t show up much either which negates the need for buffing. Satin is my prefered finish for a neck because it creates a less sticky, smooth finish which is much nicer to play on.

Having sanded the headstock with 240 and then 360 grit paper I sprayed on the satin lacqeur to a wet consistency, unlike the nitrocellulose the polyurethane takes a bit longer to dry and also dries harder. I had to wait about 5 hours before applying a second coat. After applying the second coat I let the finish dry over night before sanding with 360 grit paper to smooth over the finish in preparation of recieving the water transfer decal. I located water transfer decal paper online. The water transfer is a lot cheaper than the vinyl transfer paper and is more easily concealed by the subsequent top coats, and besides, if water transfer is good enough for leo fender, it’s certainly good enough for me!

The 2nd layer of satin freshly applied to a wet consistency.

I tried various different font and sizings before I eventually decided on this;

Headstock design using the font “Cybertooth”

Broken Wizard is an online alias I have been using for over 10 years, my music prodcution and other creative enterprises also bear the Broken Wizard moniker so I decided to give my guitars the same name. The cybertooth font stood out to me, it’s not like a lot of other guitar fonts which have resembled the Fender logo or more 20s and 30s style fonts like Gibson and Gretsch. It’s a bold, solid modern looking font which should be visable form a decent distance, even if not legible. Sticking with the Broken Wizard theme I decided to name all my custom guitars after types of wizard. In this case I went for soothsayer, a soothsayer is a fortune teller and magician from the roman era, the name seemed to fit the curvey edgey design of my guitar. To contrast the manufacture font and create a sort of mystical feel I used the Algerian font for the guitar name.

I used my printer to print the decal, cut it out and then soaked it in water for thirty seconds or so. The transparent top part of the paper slides off easily and located fairly easlily when applied to the sanded surface. I used a small soft brush to smooth out the decal and then used dry kitchen towel to remove the excess water. The manufacturer reccomends that you let the decal dry for three hour so I will leave it over night, this way it will be as dry as possible before I spray another two coats of satin lacqeur over the top of it to seal it in.

The headstock decal after being applied to the headstock.

Once the 2nd layer of lacqeur has dried for 5 hours or so I will sand it lightly with 360 grit, and then wet sand it with a higher grit paper, maybe 400 or 800 to properly smooth out the finish, this step will be especially important on the neck for the other project guitar I am finishing because this will be the playing surface on the back of the neck so I need it to be smooth for a good playing experience.


Applying Colour

This week I applied the colour to my guitar build, I also started the finishing process on a kit that I purchsed from guitarkitsdirect.com as well as continued to work on my Squire strat, the first guitar I ever owned, the finish was in a sorry state so it was a good practice model.

The colour has been the single most stressful part of this whole experience, Mirotone make pigmented lacqeurs, but at $40 for a 4L tin it seemed foolish to buy 4L in several different colours when I only need about 300ml for each guitar. You can also buy acrylic lacqeur in a range of colours from a spray can, but again I already had the nitrocellulose and the spray can finish isn’t quite as good as that of the spray gun. Also for one of the kits I have comming I wanted to make a custom colour, so I set about trying to find pigments to that were compatible with my nitrocellulose finish to mix in to make the colours I wanted. Australia is not a great place to do this at all! In the USA places like Stewart Macdonald have all the colours you could want however the only guitar laqceur specific dyes I could find were analine dyes, these are transparent and wouldn’t have worked.

So eventually I had to threw caution to the wind, I found a hobby site, Dalchem, they had both transparent and opaque pigments for addition to polyurethane resin, given that my guitar finish is basically a thin version of resin, (nitrocellulose in my case not polyureathane) I purchased some opaque white and black as a base and some transparent colours to add to these. Luckily for me they were perfectly compatible! The white especially required quite a lot of pigment to be completely opaque but I wasn’t worried, the pigments were only $15 each so I saved myself a lot of money and also gained the ability to make custom colours, I’ll talk more about applying those later on though.

At the end of last week I had done all the sanding, washcoating, grain filling and barrier coating which meant it was time to apply colour to the guitars. As you may recall I decided to keep the top of my guitar a natural finish so you can see the wood underneath, the back grainfiller did a great job of accentuating the pores but I still wanted to spruce the appearance up a bit. For this I used a transparent stain from feast and watson which was available from bunning, I used elm as the colour as it wasn’t too intense but had a nice golden colour to it. Rather than staining the bare wood (which looked terrible on my test on scrap) I added some of the stain to lacqeur in a fairly thick mix and applied two coats. If you compare last weeks wash coat only with the new colour you can see the diference it has made.

With the two layers of stain the top colour is complete.

With the most important part of the guitar (visually speaking) taken care of it was time to colour the back, although originally I was going to make the back transparent black I decided it would be easier to make it opaque. When laying down a colour coat I decided it would be best to first lay down a primer. This is a pigmented coat that is sanded to a smooth finish using the 360 grit sanding paper. For lighter colour coats a white primer is common, and for dark backgrouns a grey primer is prefered. Because I was using black, I decided to make the grey quite dark so I added one mL of white and 2mL of black pigment to my lacqeur which was a 2:1 lacqeur:thinner mix. I laid it on wet, this means it’s a bit thicker and shines when still wet, the wash coats being thinner were laid on in a drier more sparse spray pattern to avoid runs. Before spraying the primer I masked off the top of the instrument as well as a little of the sides in order to make a binding like effect using painters tape and plastic liner.

My girlfriend Nat helped me apply the masking.

I sprayed the first coat a little too thick in some places which caused runs, build ups of lacqeur, which needed to be sanded out after an appropriated period of drying to let the finish harden, I sanded the whole primer to a really smooth finish using the 360 grit sand paper which meant that a more even smooth colour coat could be applied. You don’t want to have to modify a colour coat because the sanding and imperfections will show through once the top coats are added. Having learnt from the previous experience with coating I made the black lacqeur and sprayed it on being careful not to spray it too thick and managed to avoid runs.

The primer coat before sanding.

The primer coat after sanding.

Freshly sprayed black lacqeur.

After the colour is applied I left it overnight to dry and harden. I then began the process of applying the top coats, these are thick (2:1) coats of clear lacqeur. You apply 4 -8 coats spread over a few days in order to build up a protective layer of finish that is thick enough to accept the buffing compounds without burning through, I’m currently on the 7th coat, tomorrow I will add one final coat and then let the finish harden for 7 days before beginning the final sanding and buffing process.

The guitar has a real shine already with the build coats.

In between coats there was a 1 – 2 hour gap, this meant that I also had time to work on the headstock of the guitar, I will talk about that in a different post though. I am really close to the end of the process now with only the buffing, components and the electronics left, as well as the creation of the top and back control plates. It feels good after weeks of work to finally be getting closer to that finish line, I can’t wait to post a video of the guitar in action!

 


Preparing the finish.

Guitar builds are typically split into two stages, the first stage is called the manufacturing phase, this is essentially the woodworking phase, timber is planed, glued, shaped and routed. The second phase is known as finishing, this involves meticulously prepping the wood with progressive sanding, and spraying lacquers or applying stains and oils to protect the wood. After finshing the manufacturing stage earlier this week I moved onto the home straight and began the finishing process.

The first step is to sand the wood, I had a few dings and scratches so I started off with a coarse grit, 60. This is pretty agressive on the wood, it takes out a big layer and creates fairly deep scratch marks, though less deep than the dings I had introduced. I used the 60 grit to create a back contour also, this is for comfort while playing, the contour lines up with the players abdomen and makes the guitar nicer to play, especially whilst playing standing up. The next step is to use the 120 grit paper. The 60 grit took care of all but the deepest marks that I had accidentally created during drilling the bridge holes, the 120 smothed off the wood and removed the rest of the holes that were amenable to sanding. At 120 the wood is still too rough to achieve a nice base coat so 240 grit is needed. Before sanding with the 240 grit I made the wood slightly wet with a damp cloth in order to raise the grain fibers of the wood, this produces a smoother finish and makes sanding easier. I also rounded off all the edges front and back to create a less sterile feel to the guitar, the straight edges weren’t looking too great. To save myself time and effort I used the orbital sander for this task, I also think the orbital sander produces a more consistent and smoother finish, for the wood stage it removes a fair amount of wood which is good. I intentionally started out with a thick guitar so any dirt that ended up on the surface during manufacturing could be removed with a bit of generous sanding.

The fully sanded finish with the contour showing.

There are many ways to finish a guitar, some people like to use brushes and rags to apply finish materials, others use products in an aerosol spray can. Most people agree that for professional looking results you need an air compressor and a spray gun. This method allows you the most flexibility in finishing materials because you can mix your own and add it to the spray gun at what ever consistency you like. I decided to invest in the spray equipment, I’m glad I did, not only has it poduced good results so far, but the air is handy to have to blow away dust that is hard to remove with a cloth.

There is no one true way to finish a guitar, the neccesary steps can be applied in different orders depending on what kind of look you are after. I have used the book “Guitar Finishing Step-By-Step” along with the accompanying video and I must say it has been esential. I knew nothing about the finishing process and by reading the book and watching the video tutorial I became much more confident and have learned enough to develop my own method for how I want to finish the guitar.

Although in an earlier post I said I was going to use polyuretane lacqeur, after more research I decided that a nitrocellulose type laqceur would be best, it’s easier to sand, buffs to a shinier gloss and can be applied thinner which affects the tone slightly. It wasn’t easy to find, in Australia you cannot simply purchase it from your local hardware store, however thanks to an internet forum search and a discussion with a local luthier I found Mirotone and purchased a 4L tin of laqceur and the reccomended thinner.

Ash is a very porous wood, this means that if you were to simply spray your finish straight over it you would end up with a pitted uneven finish somewhat like a golf ball. In order to counteract this a grainfiller is needed. Based on the internet research that I have done I decided that it would be best to start off by spraying the whole finish in a wash coat. This is a very thin coat, 3 parts thinner to 1 part lacqeur (3:1), sprayed over the whole body to seal off the wood and protect it from whatever you do afterwards. I sprayed 2 washcoats over the entire guitar, even after these two thin coats the guitar already began to look better.

This is the guitar after 2 wash coats

The wash coats covered the pine nicely and did fill some of the pores, grainfiller was still needed though to fill the rest of the pore holes. Originally I was going to use Feast and Watson sanding sealer but after testing it on an old guitar I have decided to refinish I found I didn’t like the way it looks or the way it sands. Timbermate waterbased grain filler seemed like a popular choice in Australia and was available at Bunnings in a variety of tints, I decided to be adventurous and went with black. I thought that this would really make the pores pop being such a darker colour than the surrounding wood, not to mention I am planning on tinting a layer or two of the top coats with a stain so the dark will be even more helpful to make the pores stand out.

You mix the grainfiller with water to the desired consistency.

The grain filling is achived by basically dolloping the grain filler onto the guitar and then spreading it across the grain with a plastic applicator and wiping off the excess. It dries very quickly but does wipe off for the most part with water, I found however I was also wiping the filler out of the pores so I filled the grain a second time with a thick mixture, filling the holes with the applicator and wiping the excess down the sides to fill the pores that are on the side of the body that the applicator cannot reach, I let it dry thick and then sanded it off leaving only the wash coats below and the filled pores.

The grain filler left quite a lot of residue which needed to be sanded off.

 

With the residue removed it’s starting to look quite striking.

In order to seal in the grain filler and to fill the remaining depth from the pores that the grain filler was unable to fill I applied another two wash coats to the guitar. With the wash coats the guitar is looking more like the final product. The next step will be to apply more wash coats and then a layer or two of the tinted laqceur on the front and transparent black pidmented laqceur on the back. After that it’s just the clear top coats and the buffing, more on that next time…

The guitar is really on the way to looking how I want it with the latest wash coat.

 


Routing Continued

My stuff finally arrived from Guitar Fetish, what this means is that I can move on with drilling the holes for mounting the bridge and the pickups. The most important part of the instrument is the bridge in relation to the neck. My neck has a scale length of 24.75″. The scale length is the distance between the nut at the top of the neck and the bridge on the body. Tension is created between these two points and it is the vibration of this particular section of the strings that makes the musical notes. Now the distance of the bridge could be any distance from the nut and you could tune the guitar to the open string tunings, say EADGBE. However in order for the notes on the frets to also be the corect pitch (this is known as intonation), the bridge must be placed at the correct distance from the neck nut, 24.75″. The pitch a string makes is a function of the distance of the vibrating portion of the string and the tension of that part of the string. There is a specific mathmatical formular which determines where the frets must go, spaced in decreasing intervals in order to make the correct notes. If the bridge is the wrong distance, each fret will get progressively further away from the correct pitch making the guitar essentially useless unless you are into some form of microtone jazz. So no pressure to get this part right then…

The bridge is attached to make sure it is in the right position.

I attached some of the tuning machines to the neck to string the outer strings to the neck and through the bridge, this way I could line up the bridge with the measured scale length, I also could see where the outer strings would lie. It wouldn’t be much good if one of them was to lie off of the fretboard. After all the testing I marked the spots where drilling was required and attached the bridge with the strings on to test it out. This was the biggest moment so far in the entire build. And find out how I went after these commercials… no just kidding, it worked great, the string action was good and the intonation was as close as you could hope for without fine tuning it later with the adjustable parts of the bridge. Success!

With that sorted it was time to move on to routing the holes for the pickups. The location of these mounting parts aren’t random either. The importance here though is in the overall sound of the guitar, not it’s playability. It’s generally accepted that the best place to place pickups is where there would be a fret divisible by 12, or to put it another way on an octave. This is because the octave represents a point where there are the most harmonics. A vibrating strings doesn’t just create a single frequency but a multitude of related overtones along side the dominant frequency and the octave points have the most overtones. Placing your pickups under these points therefore produces the most harmonically rich sound. Another consideration is the distance to the nut, the closer to the nut the pickup is located the “warmer” or bassier the sound is, further away from the nut the sound becomes “crisper” or treblier.

Neck pickups are nearly always placed under the place where the 24th fret would be, unless there are 24 frets on the fretboard in which case the pickup is placed as close as possible to the 24th fret point. The bridge pickup however is not always placed directly under the 36th fret and may be placed a little closer or further away from the bridge nut depending on your preference for a warmer or crisper sound. I used my other 24.75″ guitars as a reference point for the bridge pickup because I like the sound they produce so I just copied thier positioning. I won’t know what the guitar sounds like through the pickups untill the guitar is finished because wiring up the pickups is the last step before actually stringing up the guitar.

The guitar after pickup routing.

In routing the pickup holes I wasn’t as meticulous as I had to be for the neck pocket, the reason for this is that the holes will be covered by plastic pickup mounts which will cover the hole. It doesn’t need to look great, and functionally I needed a minimum hole size, so I drew an inner and outer line on the guitar and routed between these two lines, the results don’t look amazing but they got the done in a timely manner. What isn’t shown here is the rout for the guitar controlls. My router couldn’t rout deep enough to allow the controls to be threaded trough the body so I routed all the way through. What this means is that I will have to create a front control plate for the controls to thread through which secures them to the top of the body. Something like this… but using a black 3-ply plastic.

An example of the front control plate.

I also made my permenant neck rout fix today and glued it to the neck pocket. I used a piece of the left over pine, cut it to a smaller depth and then used my orbital sander to sculpt it into the shape that I want. I feel much better about a solid piece of wood supporting the neck angle, it will look better too.

Here you can see the results of the neck fix.

The next step in the process is probably the main reason you build your own guitar, the individual look and this is called the finishing process. It involves sanding the bare wood, filling in the pores, applying stain, colour and finally clear coats on top to protect the whole thing. I must say, preparing for this stage has caused me the most stress because sourcing the materials I need hasn’t been easy, but hopefully by sharing my findings it may be less stressful for people reading this who may want to do a build of their own.

 

 


The Neck Rout

With the basic body shape complete it became time to do the neck rout. Neither me or Dad had ever used a router before so we had to teach our selves. With a bit of experimentation and testing on a scrap piece of wood we made a replica of the rout that turned out well. Normally a router will use a jig, a replica of the shape to be routed. We didn’t make one of these but instead used dimensions of the router, such as the distance between the edge of the machine and the start of the rout, it was quite effective and produced the shape we want.

We practiced on a piece of scrap first.

Let’s talk about why the neck routing in particular is so important. The short verion is that it’s all about geometry. The angle between the nut at the top of the neck and the bridge (the two points between which tension will be created) has to suit the type of guitar that you are building. This picture from the Tundra Workshop website demonstrates quite well what I mean.

This image shows the importance of neck angle.

My guitar has a flat top, but the bridge doesn’t sit flat to the body, it’s an adjustable height type that sits a little way off the body at a minimum and so a flat neck angle would produce an uncomfortable action height, the height of the stings away from the fret board. Playing a guitar like that would not be easy, or fun. So I need an angled neck, luckily the neck I scavenged from the cheap Les Paul copy is angled at the end, but when we tested it on the practice neck rout it wasn’t quite enough, so that means the neck rout would also have to be angled. This isn’t an easy task.

This images shows our off the cuff jig method.

It turns out that when we adjusted the router to do the proper neck pocket, it was a bit too deep, making the neck sit too close to the body. Obviously once you make a cut too big there is no going back. So what we have done is to use thin pieces of wood to prop up the neck, this doesn’t produce as stable a neck joint as a solid piece of wood, I have plans to use a small piece of the left over pine and then sculpt it to the correct neck angle to add a more stable permenant height and angle corection. For now we used thin pieces of fiber board.

The fibreboard used to pack the neck is a temporary replacement.

Those pieces you see either side of the neck pocket will be cut to create a completely flat extension for the neck to bolt on to. If they were left there the neck joint would be a little bit more stable, but it is harder to play with extra wood in the way of the fret board, so it has to go. Attaching the neck to the body was a bit of a drama. The neck having already been bolted on to a previous guitar already had holes where it attached. Trying to line up with these hole on the back on the neck pocket proved almost impossible, so we packed the previous holes with wood and created new screw holes using the screw plate as a template from the back of the neck. With the neck attached it’s really starting to look like a guitar.

With the neck attached it’s starting to look quite good!

At this point I have to wait for my order to arrive from Guitar Fetish as that’s where I ordered my bridge from. I can’t drill the hole for the bridge or decide on the placement of the pickups untill I have those things in hand, so I will talk more about bridge placement, pickup placement, and pickup choice in later installments.


Cutting out the body shape.

So it turns out that I found some free time today and don’t have to wait until Sunday to cut out the body. With the laminating phase over it’s time to sand away all the extras that got stuck to the wood as a reult of the clamping. I used my trusty random orbital sander for this on an 80 grit paper, there was quite a thick layer of glue and thin mdf board that I had to remove so the lower grit was ideal, the higher the grit the finer the sanding, rough and brutal was what I was after here. I only bothered with sanding the top and the bottom because the sides would be cut away, saving on work.

You can see all the extra stuff here that will need to be removed before cutting out the body shape.

The Ash top after sanding off all the residual glue and mdf board.

With all the sanding finished it’s time to cut out the body, I used some black corrugated plastic I had lying arround to make a new template and then traced it round a few times with a pencil. The plastic didn’t cut too smoothly, but the cutting and subsequent sanding of the body will make a smooth shape at the end. To cut the body my Dad used a jig saw, appart from a few tight turns where it left a few burn marks the jig saw did an excellent and pretty smoot job. Of course more sanding will be needed in order to make the sides suitable for painting.

The sanded body blank ready for cutting.

 

My Dad cutting out the body using a Jig saw.

The body came out looking great after cutting, we purposely left the neck section a little wide and a little long. The next steps will be to rout the hole for the neck, once we know the neck fits snuggly the extra wood to the sides and underneath will be cut down to size. Then the routing of the pickups and the bridge can be done followed by the rear rout for all the controls which will be together to avoid extra routing which is a change from the original model.

Something else that I did today was to sand away the finish on the headstock of the neck. Originally you may recall it was finished black with the logo Onxy on the headstock. Luckilly it wasn’t a proper inlay but just a 2D sticker or transfer so the whole thing sanded right off. I plan to make my own watertransfer decal for the headstock which I will talk about in more detail later.

The Fully cut body ready for routing the neck cavity.

 

The headstock after sanding away the previous finish.

An edited image to highlight how the joints between the wood have been stagered for extra stability.

Next post I will talk about the routing process as well as the importance of the neck and the bridge being correctly aligned. I will also discuss the choices for where to rout the pickups as this will have a dramatic effect on your sound.