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Guitar build – pickup routing, top smooth, and fretboard installed

Posted by is9582 on November 18, 2012 with No Commentsas , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Well, it’s been a little while since my last post. I’ve been working on the guitar almost every day, and have even posted some build related videos recently on Youtube (just search under Lee Laird). I’ll see if I can bring everyone up to speed with this post. I continue to do my best at keeping each process in the correct order, where it makes the most sense, and hopefully limits downstream errors.

After installing the tailpiece, I was better able to align my template, used to route the cavities for the pickups. I used double-stick carpet tape (two small slivers) to hold the template in place, for the initial step, which is drawing along the inside edge to delineate the area I need to remove at the drill press. If you use too much of this type of tape, it can be a bear to separate the template from the top. I moved over to the drill press, and used two Forstner bits to get as close to the final line as I dared. I started with the 7/16″ bit, which I used only at the two “ears” locations (where the attaching screw, connects the pickup to the pickup ring), and I drilled down to approximately 1.5″ deep. This is the deepest drilling I’ll do in the pickup cavities. The remaining portion was drilled using the 1.5″ bit (make sure to slow the drill press down to a speed proper for this large of a bit), and I drilled to just over 1″ deep.

One thing that really picked up my spirits, was finding the channel I created,  from the intended toggle switch to the control cavity, intersected both pickup cavities.

Blue arrow points toward the wiring channel.

I knew I’d planned well, but there is alway that chance it might just miss. Whew!

After the drill press it was on to the hand-held router, with a 9/16″ pattern-makers bit. I re-applied the template, this time with strips of tape a bit wider, since more forces are applied with the router bearing up against the template, and two wedges up towards the neck joint area. The front of the body slopes away from flat,  around the neck pickup location. I started with the bearing on the router bit, just engaging with the top edge of the template, and worked my way around.

MDF template on guitar top. You may make out the lip about 1/4″ up from bottom.
The router bit wouldn’t quite reach all the way to the floor of the cavity.

Subsequent passes were incrementally deeper. I tested the cavities with a cheap old pickup I had laying around, and found it’s base wouldn’t fit as it’s corners were almost square! I grabbed my V-gouge, and squared up all of the corners, with a combination of the gouge and chisels. Now the guitar is prepped for pickups with either rounded corners or squared versions. I tested the pickup and it sat in it’s home nicely.

Showing the base of the pickup, and the squared corners of the cavity.

Pickup seated in adjusted cavity.
Since I hadn’t yet glued in the neck of the guitar, I didn’t feel comfortable routing the portion of the tenon that intersects with the neck pickup location. I could see the neck shifting, with the forces of the router, which could cause problems. So, after both pickup cavities were completely routed, I placed the neck in place, and with a pencil, marked the portion of the tenon to remove. I used a hand saw to grossly remove material, up somewhat close to the lines I’d drawn earlier. I replaced the neck into the guitar body, and using a knife, scribed on three walls of the neck, the remaining portion I would remove. I planned to pare away this excess wood, and I find it much more precise to do this to a knife line, than to a pencil line. After paring, the pickup fit nicely with the neck in place.

Blue arrow pointing at material still beyond the knife line.
Completed, showing a few parings and chisel. 

It was time to completely blend the top of the guitar, and sand it to 320 grit. I used my Festool Rotex 150 to handle the initial wood removal, in the grinder mode. This mode was only used with 100 grit paper. I then shifted to the random orbit mode for the remaining work. Since the surface didn’t require a lot of wood removed, I started with 100 grit and went through 120, 150, 180, 220 and 320 grits. The only section I left at 150 grit, was the area where the fretboard would glue to the top. I wanted to make sure it had enough “tooth” for the glue to adhere properly. The top is looking nice, and has a silky smooth surface.

Top sanded to 320 grit, but no finish or stain yet applied.

I finally came to the point where I either needed to install the frets into the fretboard, or glue the fretboard to the neck. I decided on the latter, as I was concerned about keeping the alignment of the fretboard to the neck, when both are slathered with glue. If I installed the frets, and the board shifted much, I’d not only have to remove overhanging wood, but also overhanging fret wire. Not something I’d enjoy doing. As I was prepping for this install, I gathered up quite a few clamps, so I wouldn’t need to run around like a chicken with it’s head cut off. While I was gathering clamps, I decided I’d make some cauls to help apply a more even pressure. I took a piece of softwood scrap and cut it down to short lengths. I used my large bench belt sander to create gradual curves on the side that would face the fingerboard. To do this, I used the curved section, at the top of the sander, where the belt changes directions. After all of the cauls were finished, I set them next to the neck, and put the fingerboard on top of them (below).

Prepped and ready to glue the fretboard onto the neck.

This kept both surfaces that needed glue, facing up and easy to access. I used a Titebond glue, and since they seem to tack extra quickly if the glue is too sparse,  I applied what I thought would be enough. Boy, was I wrong. I applied a thick bead down the middle of both the neck and the fingerboard, and used an acid brush to spread it out. I was afraid I’d applied too much, but my heart was already racing, so I just went for the alignment. Once I had the board down, and clamping pressure across the board, it was obvious there was too much glue. It was almost streaming out of the joint, all along the neck.

Here you can see the extra glue along the neck (about mid way).

I was scrambling to get as much of the excess off, as I could, since it would require much more work after the glue dried. Initially, I was using some small wood scrap to scrape between the clamps, then shifted to a dry acid brush. Once the glue started tacking, I went back with a couple of chisels, used as scrapers, and removed quite a bit more excess. I guess I’d rather apply too much glue, than have had some dry areas that would never adhere. I left the fingerboard/neck clamped up for about 24 hours, just to make sure it was totally cured.

When I took the clamps off (YouTube video of this process), I was hoping the cauls didn’t accidentally get glued to the fingerboard. I was very lucky.

Neck after I took the clamps off. You may be able to see some
dried glue along the edge of the fretboard.

After I’d already applied all of the clamps, I’d thought I should have applied some wax to each caul. This is something I’ll definitely do on any future build. One other thing I plan to do, on future builds, is to clamp the fingerboard in position dry, drive two small pins through the fingerboard and into the neck. Clip off the top of the pins and remove the fingerboard. Next clip the pins so they stand about 1/8″ above the neck’s surface. Then, when it’s time to glue up, just match up the pins with the holes in the fingerboard, and it’s aligned. Clamps are still required, but the slip-sliding fingerboard should be a thing of the past. This tip was provided by a friend of mine, Phil Edwards of Philly Planes, who has made a number of wonderful guitars, in spare time from making his wooden hand planes.

To clean up the edge of the fingerboard, from glue and to flush it up to the neck, I first used a card scraper (YouTube video). I made sure to keep the scraper oriented so the edge of the fingerboard was square to it’s top surface, but also skewed the scraper slightly, so it wouldn’t grab in the pre-made fret slots (YouTube video). I transitioned to my two Lie-Nielsen Spokeshaves (the flat bottom and curved bottom versions) to continue working the fingerboard until it was completely flush with the neck.

Neck after cleaning up. Tools used for cleanup, and for future neck shaping.

After installing the frets, I’ll continue to use the Spokeshaves to shape the back of the neck.

Thanks for checking out my blog, and let me know if you have any questions.

Guitar Build – Bridge install

Posted by is9582 on November 13, 2012 with No Commentsas , , , , , , , , ,

So far, this build has been going well. Even though the overall timeframe is super long, counting the actual time I’m spending hands-on, it’s been pretty reasonable.

A couple of days ago I was to the point where I was ready to determine the tailpiece’s location. Besides aligning the strings with the fretboard, the tailpiece allows you to determine the placement of the bridge and the pickup(s). Since this is really quite important, as being off the mark laterally even by a very small amount can cause problems, I created a jig to determine where I would drill.

MDF template for tailpiece/bridge location (not lined up in photo)

As you might imagine, the strings work best when they are equally centered on the centerline of the fretboard. To make sure of this, I attached some thread to the two outside holes on my tailpiece, and ran it up over the nut, to the first tuner on each side (E) of the headstock.

Thread running from top two tuners, over nut, leading to tailpiece template.

With the neck dry fit into the body, and the fingerboard in place, it was easy to find the best location for the tailpiece.

After some very careful marking, it was time to head over to my drill press. I verified the size of hole the manufacturer recommends (for this one, it was a 7/16″), and chucked up a precision bit in that size. You might think I’d just toss the guitar body up on the drill press table, and make two holes. Not yet. I always try to make sure I don’t mess up (not always successful, though) a project, so I find it better to drill a couple of test holes in some similar scrap material, and see if the fit of the parts is reasonable. Before drilling these holes, I check to make sure the speed on the drill press is appropriate for the size bit I’m using. Ok, the test holes fit exactly as predicted, so it’s time to do the real thing. Earlier I wrote about a precision drill bit for this process. The bit I’m talking about, comes to a very small point in the center, rather than regular bits that have a bluntness to them. This small point made it much easier to validate I was hitting exactly in the center of the mark I’d made on the guitar. I always feed the drill bit slow enough to let it do it’s job, rather than too fast, where it can cause tear-out. After drilling part way into the wood, I retract the bit to allow it to clear the chips, improving the overall results. When I’d made it about a 1/3 of the way in, I began hearing some squealing. I backed out the bit and checked the belts, which were all set to correct tension. I again started drilling, but slowed the feed down further, as the squealing can be related to too much force on the bit. When I was about a half of the target depth, there was a louder squeal, and then it happened. As I was retracting the bit, to clear more chips, the chuck came off of the quill, with the bit still attached to the chuck of course. Both came to a fairly quick stop. One of my first thoughts was related to the shape of the hole I was drilling. Did the spinning bit, after the chuck released, cause it to cut enough material at a different angle, that would create a problem?

I looked at both the female portion of the chuck and the male portion of the quill, to see if there was any internal damage. Both looked fine, but these pieces aren’t supposed to come apart, without some outside assistance. I took some lacquer thinner on a clean rag, and cleaned up the mating parts. Somehow there was a little bit of grime, which was likely the reason it separated during operation. After cleaning the parts, I let the solvent completely dry, and then reassembled. Since it was getting late, I decided this was probably a sign I should stop for the night.

The next morning, I decided I’d go buy a different type of bit for this process. The precision bit I’d used, was still of the twist drill variety, and if you’ve not ever used one freehand in a drill, they can dive into the workpiece. The new bit is a Forstner bit. There are different variants made, but the main concept is they don’t self-feed into the wood. They usually leave a very nice hole, and can be fed into wood at angles other than perpendicular  So, I chuck up my new bit and spend a little bit of time confirming the hole size is on the money. I already owned a 3/8″ Forstner bit, so I tested the two, to see which was the better fit. The 7/16″ was right on the money, as expected. I took my time lining up the bit, with the partially drilled hole from the previous evening. I’m sure if anyone had been watching me, they’d have run out of patience and told me just to get on with it. I was glad I spent the time dialing in the location, as it paid off in spades. The second hole was much easier to align, as I was dealing with the original mark.

After drilling the holes for the tailpiece, I set both studs lightly in place, and tested to see if the tailpiece would fit.

Tailpiece bushings/studs screwed together, and sitting in holes.

It looked good. I left the studs screwed into the bushings, and using a dead-blow mallet, tapped them until the bottom of the stud was flush with the guitar top. I grabbed the tailpiece and went to slide it onto the studs, which in all the Les Pauls I’ve ever owned/used, was a very loose fit to the point it would fall off, if no strings were attached. My new tailpiece met resistance. It wasn’t sliding onto the studs. I’d just checked it, before setting the bushings, and it seemed perfect. I applied extra thumb pressure and it started to go on. I thought about it for a moment, and smiled. I again picked up my dead-blow mallet, and tapped it lightly until is was seated completely.

Tailpiece installed and red thread leading to headstock.

Yep, this was going to turn out better than expected. The solid fit would likely transfer sound waves much better than it’s loose counterpart. Some manufacturers have even started making some tailpieces with a new piece that locks it to the stud. So, ultimately, I’d just upgraded my guitar, without spending the extra money. Sweet!

It was only after I’d finished, and come in to wash up for lunch, that I thought about the ground wire. What ground wire you ask? Well, most Les Paul guitars have a wire that is soldered to the underside of a bushing, prior to seating the bushings, and run through the body into the control cavity. It’s soldered to the back of one of the volume pots, and reduces hum when the guitar is plugged into an amp, and you’re not touching the strings with part of your body. I started to panic, thinking of ways to slip something down through the threaded center portion of the already seated bushing, and have it make solid contact. After I stopped freaking, I was thinking about other upcoming portions of the build. It was then that I thought about the bridge installation, and it’s bushings. I can just as easily attach a wire to one of those bushings, ground it, and it will perform the same function. Wow, what a sense of relief. (Blood pressure likely dropped by 30 – 40 points).

The next article will cover drilling/routing the pickup cavities. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Guitar build – More on the Holey Galahad

Posted by is9582 on November 7, 2012 with No Commentsas , , , , , ,

Today I went back and looked at the progress I made, starting the blending process of the contours yesterday. I knew yesterday, I was just getting a feel for the tool, since it was the first time in use, even though I’ve had it for a while. I decided to see if I could get a better “feel” for the tool, and remove some of the excess material towards the center, which I would have to remove at some time, anyways.

I just freehanded the area I wanted to remove, with some white pencil, since the majority of the top has a somewhat dark, test-dyed finish, and it was hard to see a regular pencil’s marks. The only exception was at the bottom section, where I went back and drew another line, outside the initial line, and that’s why there is still some of the white pencil line remaining. Here are two photos I took, after vacuuming all the dust, and boy does the Holey Galahad create dust. The first is a bit more top down, and the second at a lower angle to better feel the shape.

Top down view of blended guitar top.
A bit more laid back to better show top’s shape.

I found something that makes the Holey Galahad easier to use for me, and allows me pretty darned good control. If you buy a Holey Galahad, you’ll see the information regarding placement of the guard on the angle grinder. For safety, I’ve followed their recommendations. When I used the tool yesterday, it seemed that the guard was somewhat in the way of my sight line, which kept me from really getting into a groove. Today’s experience makes that all moot. I found I like to tip the angle grinder over on it’s right side, with the body of the angle grinder almost horizontal with the work piece. In this position, I can easily see the portion of the wheel that contacts the wood, and by rolling the tool into this position, it makes the contact patch fairly small. If I were trying to hog off a lot of material, and didn’t have tight constraints, I’d move the angle grinder’s body down around 45 degrees, so a wider section of the wheel was working. For this work, being so precise and really not having that much wood (at least for this beast of a wheel) to remove, my positioning works perfect. After working for a couple of minutes, I found one other revelation: working the tool so it is flowing away from me is, for some reason, easier to control and judge exactly what I’m doing. Just to be clear, when I was initially working more “towards” myself, it wasn’t coming straight towards my body, but more like working from the upper left, diagonally down toward the lower right. Now, it is a bit more in line with my body, and since it is moving away, the safety concerns aren’t the same. Also, using this method, I was comfortable working up very close to the router-made rabbeted edge, which is the target final surface (minus some minor hand work).

Yesterday, I was glad I’d picked up the Holey Galahad, and it seemed more like it’s job was primarily a roughing tool. Today, I’m finding this CAN be that roughing tool, but it also capable of working in a fine sculpting capacity. I still intend to follow behind this tool, with the tools I mentioned yesterday, but I’m thrilled at the extra capabilities I’ve found. This is from a woodworker whose primarily projects are flat and linear, and not from a carver. Knowing King Arthur also has the coarse and fine grits available  as well as the full range of flat disks, really opens up the possibilities.

Let me know if you have any questions about any part of this build.

Guitar Build – Holey Galahad

Posted by is9582 on November 6, 2012 with No Commentsas , , , , , , , , ,

In the previous post, I used a rabbeting bit in my router, to take the outside most portion of the top down to the final depth. With this done, the wood at the outside rim, standing proud of this depth, must be removed. As you move towards the center of the guitar, the top becomes […]

Guitar Build – body shaping

Posted by is9582 on November 6, 2012 with No Commentsas , , , , , , , ,

As I’m gathering speed on this project (even though it probably doesn’t feel like it), I’m trying to do something on the build each day. Today I thought it was time to initiate some of the shaping for the top of the guitar. As many will know, some Les Paul guitars have a carved/shaped top, […]