The inner 12 year old - part I
(the dream - an original 1959 Les Paul)
When I was 12 or 13 or somewhere in there, I really, really wanted to play the guitar. Electric guitar to be specific. My mom, having grown up in a very conservative Mennonite farming community would have none of it - it was “the devils music”... which is likely part of the reason I was so drawn to it. That and the fact that unlike my mom - my dad grew up listening to the Beatles and I seem to recall a Black Sabbath album hidden away somewhere - I think it was his older brothers. Anyway - no electric for me but I was allowed to play a classical guitar. That lasted less than a year and thus ended my guitar playing.
Fast forward to a few years ago and both Riley and Lucas expressed interest in guitar. Having fully embraced the “devil’s music” - I was all for it, and loved listening to Lucas pick his way through ‘Iron man’ and other similarly wicked riffs. I was either approaching or just passing 40, so all this really struck a chord with me, and I realized I was no longer under my mom’s thumb and there was nothing stopping me from joining in the head-banging fun. Trouble was - I needed a guitar.
I have realized that very little in my life is random - even when the linkage is not immediately apparent, it all seems to come together at some point. This guitar adventure is yet another perfect example. My old 12" jointer was purchased by a then furniture maker in Guelph Ontario - about 40 minutes from here. He was quite excited about it and a team of 4 of his friends arrived to load it into his truck and away it went. Several weeks later he contacted me and we stayed in touch over the last several years. At the time, he was transitioning from being a full time furniture maker to fulfilling his dream of becoming a full time luthier, specializing in late 50’s style arch-top electrics. As the years continued we realized we had more and more in common including his life long interest in using an infill smoother and my interest in playing an electric guitar. It did not take too many dance lessons before the subject of teaching one another our respective crafts crept into the conversation. I am not sure who jumped first, but the plan was hatched - I would teach Tom how to make himself an infill smoother and he would teach me to make an electric guitar (because you need to have a guitar in order to learn to play).
A few comments about Tom. Tom has become a good friend over the years. He is pretty softspoken, very thoughtful and generous. He is also very skilled at what he does and I have learned a tremendous amount from him and not just in the relm of guitar making. He has been very patient with me over the years and has spent many hours coaching me along either by phone, email or in person in his studio. I would not have been able to do this without his help and guidance. I hope I am able to return the favour to the same level when he is working on his smoother. If you are remotely interested in guitars, you owe it to yourself to check out his site.
This started about 2 years ago now - that is kinda embarrassing to realize. Being left handed made things a little more interesting, measurements, templates and some of the processes needed to be flipped, flopped or changed. I decided that I was going to start 2 guitars with the hopes that if something went wrong in the process that I would at least end with one in the end.
Tom has had remarkable access to at least one original 1959 guitar and was able to get some key dimensions and figure out some of the details of how these were made. He was able to generate a full set of dimensioned drawings which proved invaluable for a first time builder like myself.
I poured through my figured maple stock and found a really nice and somewhat unusual piece of soft maple that I thought would make a suitable top.
(soft maple top with template)
My good friend Wayne Muma took interest in this project too and supplied me with a really amazing piece of very old figured sugar maple.
I found a piece of Mahogany large enough to get both single board bodies and matching necks.
2 different maple tops = 2 different fingerboards.
One of the first things that freaked me out a bit was the angles of the neck, headstocks trussrod etc. I decided to make a full mock up of the neck to work out how to do this. I used Basswood and my trusty Beale tilt-box.
Defining the angle of the headstock on the tablesaw. Once the angle was established, a handplane took care of the material the table saw could not reach.
There is an odd recessed area that allows the nut and washer at the end of the truss rod to be adjusted. This was done on the drilpress.
On original guitars, there are ‘ears’ glued onto the outside edges of the headstock. A strip of maple is hot hide glued into the channel above the truss rod and planed flush.
Shaping the neck and headstock was a lot of fun, but also slow as I do not have any point of reference for what a good neck should feel like. I relied on several guitarist friends and of course Tom.
A 1/16" thick piece of Holly is hot hide glued onto the top of the headstock. Care must be taken to get the angle of the end of the Holly to be perpendicular to the surface of the neck so the nut will nest nicely against it.
The mostly shaped neck.
With the necks shaped, it was time to switch to the fingerboards. Tom went to great lengths to source inlay material that is a perfect match to what was used in the original guitars.
The first task was to radius the fingerboard. My friend Dan sent me a care package of several vital tools - he had embarked on this journey a few years previous. Thanks again Dan. I made a special fixture to hold the fingerboard so the sanding would end when it was the correct thickness and radius.
Next was to position the inlays and trace them onto the board for routing. There were a few bug holes in the board, but I was able to position the inlays and frets to cover them up.
I used a very small router with a 1/32" bit to cut the recesses. The recesses should be radiussed to match the top of the board. The small router was perfect for this.
I was able to get really close to the scribe lines with the router and then used a chisel to get right into the corners.
I was advised to size the holes using Ambroid cement - the same adhesive used to hold the inlays.
The bottom of the inlays needed to be radiused as well. I used the concave metal radiussing block to create a convex block to shape the underside of the inlays. I positioned the inlays along the center line of the jig and then sanded the radius.
This proved to work extremely well and the radius was a very good match.
You can never have too many clamps!
Once the glue had dried, back into the fixture to radius the tops of the inlays to match the fingerboard. I also did the final sanding down to 400 grit (I think).
This is going to make a great looking board!
The next task was to cut the kerf for the frets. I used the same jig to establish the kerf location. Once the kerf was started, I took the board out and free-hand cut the kerf into a radius. Any overcut would be covered by the side binding, but this proved to be easier to cut than I thought.
The side binding is oversized and needs to be scraped down flush with the tops of the fingerboard.
There are these curious little nubs of binding left on the ends of the frets.
The two boards in position on the necks.
The side dots are made from an old pick. I polished the end of a punch and made a corrosponding die in a block of steel - an offcut block from plane making.
I taped an old plastic lid to the underside of the drill press to catch the side dots as they fell through.
Part II will follow in the next few weeks - stay tuned - and Happy New Year everyone!