Plane Speaking (Part 1)
In Tune's Guide To Guitar Making, Customising & Setting Up
Guitar making, repairing, customising. Pt.1 of a great new series
You asked for it, and here it is! IN TUNE's step by step guide to all you ever wanted to know about guitars! Ace craftsman Paul Richardson, of Fingerbone Guitars, starts his new series here...
Every now and again the happy bustle of the Fingerbone workshop stills, and a sense of dread and foreboding settles like a motorway burger. What has happened? Is the rent due? Are there no tea-bags? No; much worse — someone has to go to London!
A quick check of the personnel reveals a wonderful variety of excuses - feigning unconsciousness, claiming not to know where London is, etc. Invariably, then, I'm the mug who climbs into the rusting hulk that was once a car (one careful owner; the other 37 were maniacs...) to head through the Sussex countryside towards the metropolis. It was on one such voyage that I was plied with strong drink by the illustrious Editor of this magazine (illustrious? Hah! — the IT Cat) ana found myself agreeing to write about guitar making - that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it!
In this series (unless something better turns up) I shall be covering most areas, i.e., setting up, finishing, common repairs etc.; but if there is something special you'd like to see included, drop me a line care of IN TUNE and I'll take note. Simple, innit?
Now, what is this rambling all about? Oh, yes; guitars — the making of and fiddling with. And the first question is, why? Well, in an ideal world you'd be able to wander into your local music shop and buy your ideal instrument, which would never go wrong, and we'd all live happily ever after. In reality, firstly the sheer diversity of options as regards pickups, necks, scale lengths, frets, controls, tremoloes etc. means that you generally end up compromising on at least one point. Secondly, the average guitar gets left in hot cars and cold rehearsal rooms, beaten repeatedly with a plectrum, sat on, dropped, and occasionally run over. With a life like that, you'd need a little attention from time to time! Quite apart from these excellent reasons, guitar making is an extremely satisfying way of passing time, and, whilst not yet qualifying you for a scouting proficiency badge, will give you an insight into woodworking, engineering, electronics and finishing, all of which will enable you to be a clever so-and-so in the pub.
There was a time when the biggest problem for the aspiring luthier was in obtaining materials to work with. Nowadays, however, timbers and hardware are readily available from a number of sources (see later for list — Ed.). In sharp contrast to the days of standing around in timber yards waiting for some neolithic oaf to grudgingly take your money, specialist suppliers such as David Dyke (Luthiers' Supplies) and Touchstone Tonewoods are also great sources of advice and information — you first move should be to obtain as many catalogues and lists as you can, as availability of parts and materials dictates to a certain extent what you can undertake.
Before you start work on your tripleneck headless ukelele, it may be a good idea to practise on a 'basket case'. A basket case (so named because it has to be carried in one!) is a guitar to which the worst has already happened, whether it be the result a customising job from the psychedelic era, a careless roadie in a transit, or Pete Townshend-like choreography. Such a delight should cost you very little (try asking friends, your local music shop or repairer), and you can re-fret it, fit different hardware and pickups, paint it bright yellow, etc., without fear. However it ends up, you'll have learned enough to avoid making a mistake when working on, say, your pre-CBS Strat (embarrassing, and, if it's not yours, painful!) later on.
A few weeks ago I was lucky (?) enough to come across a perfect example of the basket case, in the form of a Yamaha SG200 which somebody had tried to incorporate into a Marshall stack midgig. As you can see from the picture, the attempt failed and the guitar disintegrated, shattering around the neck joint and the electrics compartment. As with most basket jobs, an attempt had been made to repair the damage, so the first task was to remove the nails, odd screws, plaster and gunge! The area around the neck joint appears to be reasonably sound, so unless stripping the finish (task no. 2) reveals any further horrors, I shall leave this alone. The damage to the body is in a different category, though, and the entire lower third must be sawn off in line with the grain, in order that it may be planed straight and have a new piece of wood glued on. When cut to shape, this kind of repair should barely be visible even under a clear finish, given a good match with the existing timber. I should point out (in the interests of guitar repairers everywhere!) that normally this job would be rejected as uneconomic, but I shall be restoring the thing throughout this series to illustrate points on repairs, customising, finishing and setting up.
As far as workspace goes, you'll need a minimum of two thousand square feet, well lit and ventilated. A three-phase power supply is, it goes without saying, essential, as is multi-point dust extraction... Sorry; I get these fantasies sometimes! Almost all guitar-making operations (including brewing tea) can be carried out on a Workmate or, at a push, on the kitchen table. You can develop quite a taste for mahogany dust on cornflakes! If possible, you should fence off part of the garage (about ten feet by five is sheer luxury), as this will allow you to be more anti-social than most families will tolerate in the lounge. I don't personally like sheds, as they can be cold, damp, smelly and inflammable; but there are those who disagree, and who am I to argue? What does matter is that you have adequate lighting, some kind of flat surface to work on, and a proper power supply — i.e., not a tangled length of lighting flex with a broken plug at one end!
The same attitude should be applied to tools. If you get the bug you'll buy them anyway, but guitars can be made with a bare handful of fairly ordinary implements — more about these next issue. What is tremendously useful is to be on good terms with a local woodworker, preferably one with a bandsaw. Most craftsmen are prepared to help a novice who expresses a genuine interest, and they will possess the kind of time-saving machinery that is too large and expensive for the amateur to consider. Don't take liberties, though — these people are trying to earn a living, and never ask to borrow tools or make a nuisance of yourself when they're busy. Talking of being busy, I've got a Yamaha to resurrect, and you've got a basket case to find! See you in the next issue!
Touchstone Tonewoods — (Contact Details)
Davia Dyke — (Contact Details)
Part & Parcel — (Contact Details)
This is the only part of this series active so far.
Feature by Paul Richardson
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!