Towards the end of last year, I decided I’d like to have a go at making the next step from modding guitars to making them.
Logically, a kit seemed the way to go and as PRS didn’t do an affordable model that I liked, I went for a custom 24 style kit with the intention of modifying it to suit what I was after.
My intention is to get some experience carving, staining and oiling the wood during this process (and possibly some burning, we’ll see).
As this was my first kit build, I purposely went for a reasonably cheap kit. All of the hardware and electronics were pretty poor, the nut is awful and there is no backplate.
So, first step was to bin what I didn’t need and take a photo:
You may be able to see some of the pencil marks from my planning for extending the cutaway and shaping the headstock.
I’ll be using my favourite open gear Hipshot tuners in black, a black Hipshot tone-a-matic bridge, Tusq nut, Bare Knuckle pickups (yet to finalise what I’m going for there) and a fairly standard wiring setup including a killswitch from Iron Age Guitar Accessories.
Carving and Shaping
Watching a lot of YouTube videos, it seemed that a spindle sander would make things easier, so I grabbed this one (referring link, opens in new window) from Triton and got to work. Unless stated otherwise, various 80 grit cylinders were used.
After experimenting with shapes using a pencil, it was time to shape.
I found while shaping that an implied, more organic shape seemed to come out of the wood, so I ran with it, which is why you can still see the pencil marks in the after photo:
I had initially intended to shape in the sides and may still do that once I have the tuners, but felt for the moment I’d like to keep some material back, just in case.
This is the stage I’m at now.
Shaping the body has been a bit more of an undertaking.
I started with increasing the cutaway depth using the spindle sander:
Next I started adding the chamfer, which I rounded with some 60 grit sandpaper afterwards for comfort:
To do this, I offered the guitar up to the spindle sander at an angle and removed the material gradually that way.
I decided to repeat this on the back of the guitar in the same way, eventually rolling the guitar to get a smooth curve, finishing off with 60 grit sandpaper:
Quick shot after shaping (showing the shaping for the cutaway and upper horn):
And from the top:
Next I added an extra hole for the kill switch:
The method I went for does have the drawback of being very easy to carve where you don’t want to. The lower horn had to be reshaped a few times and I came very close to the neck pocket at one stage, but it seems ok for now (we’ll see once it’s assembled).
Next I “cleaned up” the control cavity as much as I dared with the forstner bit:
Next I started marking the tummy and arm cuts out with a truly awesome 2mm 2B Mechanical Drafting Pencil (referring link. Opens in new window)
Right! Carving time!
Making use of the taller Black and Decker vice pegs (referring link, opens in new window) as the kit already had a carved top. Put some leather down to avoid imprinting the workbench in the veneer (man it’s thin!).
After first terrifying flapdisc experiment:
Once I’d extracted a suitable amount of wood via the terrifying flapdisc, I moved on to my new Lie Nielsen violin maker’s plane. Once I’d figured out how to set it up, it was the perfect tool to get those rough flapdisc carves into something that looked like it should be there:
I especially like the curly bits:
Looking a lot more deliberate:
Next to the disc sander and working through the grits by hand:
I particularly love how this looks like it’s always been there!
Bit more work to do for the front carve:
I also added a minor carve I wish my other guitars had:
This came in especially handy when making the control cover.
Making the control cover/back plate
For this I started with a plastic Les Paul cover which was too big on all sides. I traced that onto some faux ebony and cut it on the Dremel Moto-Saw (referring link, opens in new page):
Next I tried a few approaches for making a stencil. Paper was easiest, which I transferred to card, placing and cutting as I went:
I stuck the cardboard template to the cover with some automotive trim tape (first thing that came to hand), then fine shaped it with my Triton spindle sander, before working through the grits on the edges for a firm, but not too tight fit:
Then for lack of a batter idea, I used the disc sander for a while to thin the cover to thickness using the cavity itself as a jig. After about 20 minutes, the body looked as it does below and I hadn’t seemed to make any progress. I’m thinking of trying scrapers for a more efficient job (I’ve also got a planer/thicknesser in my shopping list!).
Further carving and shaping on the body
At this point, my new even smaller violin maker’s plane arrived, so back to that front carve!
Featuring the star of the show!
Just the thing!
This is how the body looked after a bit of a touch up with the grits:
Having checked the body over, I wasn’t completely happy with the curve near where the strap pin goes, so I went at it with a sanding block. I’m a lot happier with it now.
Completing the control cover/back plate
I finished the final sanding and shaping firstly with the orbital sander and then with a sanding block, working through the grits until I was happy with the fitting and taper on the edges:
Next I marked and drilled the holes carefully with the assistance of my scratch awl
Once that was done, I completed the fine sanding, before prepping for finish.
Scalloping the top four frets
Taking inspiration from Steve Vai and Herman Li (and as practice for one of my future projects) I decided to scallop the top four frets on the neck.
This was pretty straightforward and I think went fairly well taking my time and planning before acting.
My process (which may or may not be correct) was to first tape off the frets to protect them from filing. Then I used a small rat’s tail file to file a groove to depth down the centre before widening the groove with a wider round file. I made sure to follow the fretboard radius as closely as possible, using a caliper to make sure that all of the scallops were to the same depth – in this case 2mm. Final shaping was performed using 220 then 320 grit sandpaper before a final buff with kitchen towel. I’ll be revisiting this with the rest of the fretboard after stain.
Poplar burl veneer headstock lamination
As you can see, the guitar has a fairly nice spalted maple veneer on the body, but a bare mahogany neck/headstock. I decided I’d like to come up with something to match the body. Looking around, I quickly found that spalted maple was fairly hard to come by at a reasonable price, but a poplar burl is relatively easy to come by. I believe I got these from http://exotichardwoodsukltd.com:
To select the piece I wanted to laminate, I made a rough cardboard template from the headstock:
Next, I sanded the front face of the headstock to 320 grit, then cleaned it with white spirit to give the best possible surface for glue:
I opted to laminate an oversized piece with a view to trip once laminated (as opposed to trimming before laminating). My fear was that any movement in gluing and clamping would mean that I need to start again.
For the clamping, I followed the tips in the Crimson Guitars YouTube video on the same subject:
I got a load of cork underlay from my father, who had just relaid a floor when I was performing this step. I clamped some cork and some wood with a shiny surface around the piece for a solid clamp. I used “Alcolin Professional Wood Glue” from the Crimson Guitars shop and used a light to medium amount of glue, spread around the headstock.
Note: You’ll see later that I didn’t quite spread the glue over the full surface
24 hours later, the veneer was set:
Next I started trimming carefully with a scalpel:
Initially I used the side of the scalpel to get the cuts in and avoid over cutting. Then I went over top down to cut a little closer.
Truss cavity took two goes. I thought I’d cut right at the edge of the cavity (based on marks I made on the nut that I’m not using), but these things happen.
To cut in the tuning holes, I used my B.C. Woodworks scratch awl to make the initial holes and markings before finishing the cuts with the scalpel, then reaming them with a file.
Quick vanity shot:
Finishing up this headstock, I measured out the centre using bisecting callipers from Golden Meancalipers (picture after drilling and screwing):
So that’s the truss cover measured and set:
I made the marker hole for the truss cover and the tuners with my B. C. Woodworks scratch awl
Quick vanity/progress shot:
Control Cavity Tidy Up
As promised, I tidied the control cavity with my Dremel. The mini drum sander bit exploded on me (always wear goggles) so I have some Dremel router bits for next time.
Next up, it was time to add some colour to the guitar. Here’s the raw before shot:
And now just after cleaning with white spirit:
I like that colour, so may go natural next time I use mahogany, but in the meantime I’m staining this one. All of the stain and oil in this project is from Crimson Guitars.
Initial passes with diluted black:
Headstock came out great, body took the stain in like a sponge, so I went for another couple of passes:
With the initial black in and looking good, I diluted some Cherry red and did a couple of passes with that:
Took a few passes to get the cherry looking nice. In the end I adjusted the radios so there was more stain than water and ended with this:
So just before glue up, the guitar looked like this:
Gluing/Setting the neck
The neck joint was a little loose, so I laminated some veneer I had spare. Not having the right clamps for this, I used some folded card as a sort of pressure clamp:
I was surprised by how well this worked, but it really turned out ok:
Happily you can’t really see the veneer with the neck in place
With the veneer in, the body hung on the neck very nicely even without glue:
I don’t have pictures of the guitar clamped up, but it looks as you’d imagine – couple of clamps in the neck pickup cavity and some wood to spread the pressure on the back. here’s my first picture of the guitar glued up:
One lesson learned was that I didn’t mask the neck joint before glue. That gave this effect:
Didn’t get far with the scalpel, so I took the chisel approach (especially for the tight corner)
After the cleanup, regrettably some of the stain was cut off:
Next I cleaned up the area for re-stain and got ready to veneer the back of the heel:
I taped off the heel as I needed it clean for glue and re-stained the outer neck pocket
Not perfect, but I think it’s a good blend.
Quick shot before getting the veneer ready
Next I took my veneer (Poplar burl again) and sanded the back edge to fit against the outer neck pocket:
I then stained it prior to gluing so I didn’t risk getting black on the red:
Next I glued it on with same method as for the headstock:
Again, once glued I started trimming the veneer:
One issue was that the staining seemed to make the veneer a bit brittle, so I super-glued the chipped piece and continued trimming and sanding:
Finally, I finished blending the stain:
Having done all this staining, I’ve still got loads left, this is how my pots looked once this guitar was ready for oil:
With that done, it’s time to apply finish. Here I’ve gone for Crimson Guitars Guitar Finishing Oil.
The next few shots are after two coats of oil:
Unfortunately some of the black did get spread out a bit when I got it with the oil. This cleaned up with some wet sanding shot coming up).
The next few shots are after between 10 and 15 coats (wet sanded with 320 grit and oil between 4 of the later coats):
Still not perfect on the black after wet sanding, but the guitar grew some “patina” as I went, so I think it fits in nicely with the new theme. At this point, I’m letting the guitar take the lead.
I’ve gone for a set of Seymour Dundan P-Rails for this guitar:
Each pickup has three voices – P90, hot rail and humbucker. I want all voices and combinations, but without putting extra switches on the guitar. Three voices rather than two knocks out push-pulls, so I’ve gone with rotary switches and a stacked/concentric pot:
This will let me set each pickup to voice 1-3 and off. A little more fiddly than a selector switch, but hopefully I’ll get used to it.
To help with the wiring, I made a cork jig to hold everything, repeating the holes from the guitar:
While musing over the wiring, I decided the guitar was oiled enough, which means it’s time to fit some hardware. In the process, I found my pickup mounting solution won’t fly, so I got some pickup rings. More on those later.
Fitting the ferrules was not without collateral damage, even using a board and light taps with a hammer to fit them, I still managed to ding the body. Something to watch in future.
Shielding the control cavity
Before adding shielding, I thought I’d tidy up the control cavity as best I could with my Triton router and Radian bit. Sadly the cavity seems to have been routed on a diagonal, so getting it nice and flat wasn’t possible, but it’s more spacious than it was.
Also pro tip – don’t use a Dremel moto saw for thin acrylic. Or if you do, keep an eye on the temperature. When I was making a protective template (mostly as a mask for the shielding), the template melted itself back together. I then shattered the acrylic trying to cut it out with a scalpel. Wood next time.
More updates to come!