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Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2014 12:47 pm
by Greg Robinson
Hi everyone!
I've been away from the forum for quite some time now due to some health issues which are now being managed much better. I thought a great way to get back into swing around here would be to join the challenge!

I recently had a new housemate move in with me, a friend of mine who is a CAD/CAM designer and 3D animator. We've been working together on a guitar that he's been building since before we met, mostly fixing up a few problems with his finishing. He used the CNC at his job to do the machining, and has done an admirable job for his first.
He's also been sticking around while I work on other jobs and is very eager to learn, which is great to have around.

He had some Queensland Maple left over from his neck blank, and asked if there was anything that I could do with it. Here's a picture:

As you can see, it's slightly oddly shaped, and there are some indexing holes that I would have to work around. I could probably build a couple of necks with it, but thought I might try something different. I had a think and played around with the dimensions in a vector program to see what I could fit in the available blank, and thought it would be perfect for a 6 string lap steel.
I've never played a lap steel before, so this is certainly something new for me.
I decided to aim for about a 21" scale, and tune to a low C6; I wanted to be able to play in a lower range than an E-standard guitar, and it's my understanding that lap steel C6 is generally tuned to c 130.8Hz, so I decided to go with C 65.4Hz tuned low-to-high C E G A c e with 52w 39w 32w 28w 22p 17p strings which should give me a pretty evenly progressive tension from treble-to-bass, which is something I much prefer than any of the off-the-shelf string sets for guitar from the major manufacturers.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Here you can see the first cut I made in the blank after I had leveled some of the surfaces a bit with a jack plane.
Basic blank.jpg

I shortened the blank where it became narrow, and this will be the bridge end of the body.

Here I eyeballed about a 10° angle.
Headstock resaw.jpg

My saw didn't stay perfectly on track, but it wandered to the outside of the cut. It just means a bit more work with 62-1/2 block plane.
Headstock cut.jpg

Here's the surface leveled, and you can see some checking in the wood that wasn't previously apparent. Fortunately it lies outside of my planned layout.
Headstock angle.jpg

Time to bring the body down to thickness. I need a bigger bandsaw!

It took about 30 minutes to resaw through the whole blank. Pretty tiring.

And here you can see the ugly result. I don't do much in the way of building, as I'm doing full-time repairs for guitars and amps for a living, so I'm not particularly well set up for large-scale wood working. But I can certainly get the job done with a bit of patience.
This will need a bit of cleanup with the jack plane.
Rough thicknessed.jpg

I was originally planning making this a slotted headstock with vertical tuner buttons, and here is some basic layout work. As you'll see later, I changed my mind.
Headstock layout.jpg

And here are the tuners and basic orientation I was planning at first. Note that the tuners may look reversed, especially when compared to a lot of other lap steels with vertical buttons, but if you rotate them 180° in your mind, you'll see that the strings would wind onto the shafts in the usual direction. This is because tuners are designed to have minimal backlash in only one direction, and will not hold tune as reliably if used in reverse, and will also wear and potentially fail prematurely. I was surprised at how many lap steels I saw that had vertical tuners oriented backwards when I was doing a Google image search for some inspiration.

I was thinking about doing some sort of scroll, flourish or "open book" type end treatment at first, but with the straight sided headstock, as soon as I drew that first pencil line I knew that that was going to look the best. Simple, but stylish in my opinion.
Headstock end treatment.jpg

My experience with resaw-thicknessing the blank encouraged me to pull my old bandsaw out of the corner and get it working again. I'd bought a benchtop bandsaw years ago when I was young and stupid and didn't know any better. Nothing wrong with a decent benchtop bandsaw, especially the type of stuff that I would use one for most of the time, but apart from the terrible build quality (wheels nowhere near co-planar and very little in the way of adjustment), it also had a non-standard blade length of 1400mm with 200mm wheels. At least here in Australia, most small bandsaws have a blade length of 1572mm and 230mm wheels. I couldn't be bothered brazing up a blade myself, or having one custom made (especially given the poor performance of the tool), so I took inspiration from another member here who had made their own "riser kit" from a piece of timber. I sawed through the hollow rectangular steel neck with a hacksaw, and carefully fitted a large piece of timber that runs the full new height of the saw. With careful adjustment I was able to get the wheels co-planar, and the timber was fitted into the hollow steel frame with a mallet fit. Before I'd started this I had placed a weight over the the mouth of the bandsaw and measured deflection. After I had extended the neck with the timber, I performed the same test to make sure I had similar rigidity to the structure, and was pleased to find that it is actually more rigid now than it was originally. It now fits a standard and easily available blade length, and I've gained almost 100mm of cutting height. It is now a useful tool again, and might even be able to manage some light resaw duty.

Anyway, the first task I put it to was trimming down the other side of the neck.
Neck cut.jpg

Here you can see that I've decided against a slotted headstock, as the angle for the outer strings to the nut would have been far too extreme. It will be a little more tricky reaching the tuners from the playing position, but it'll be fine.
Headstock front.jpg

I also used the bandsaw to thin down the headstock, and then used the 2" drum on my Luthier's Friend to make the transition to the neck.
Headstock side.jpg

Anyway, this is the progress I've made so far. I've decided that I would like to use a fretboard with frets (even though it will not be fretted, obviously). I think it will suit the aesthetic I've got in my head. It will also give me an opportunity to teach some basic fretwork to my friend for a non-critical application. So, I'm going to order an Indian Rosewood blank for that. I've also got some bits and pieces floating around for the bridge, haven't decided exactly what I'll use. I also plan on winding a humbucker for this, so I'll make sure to get some photos of that process.

Thanks for stopping by and looking!

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2014 2:49 pm
by Hans Bezemer
Well what a come back!
Nice project, looking forward to see it progress.

I indeed noticed that you weren't posting anymore. Good to hear that you're back in track!

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2014 3:02 pm
by Greg Robinson
Thanks Hans!
I look forward to seeing more progress on your quintar too, it's looking fascinating so far.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2014 3:13 pm
by Greg Robinson
Thought I'd best post a photo of my modified bandsaw seeing as I described it in such detail in case anyone was interested.

It came with a (useless) battery powered laser guide that I've removed, and I junked the dodgy switch that it came with. I also added a small piece of extruded aluminium (DIN rail) as an extension of the blade guard on the left of the saw. I'm much happier with it now that I ever was before, I think it's a keeper now.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Fri Jul 11, 2014 1:59 am
by Jason Rodgers
Welcome back! Hope you're well. Great save on the bandsaw (stupid metric system). This is a goodly chunk of wood. I'm guessing the Aussie version of maple is not what we think of maple in the states. It looks like black cherry. Either way, this thing is going to sustain for forever.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Mon Jul 14, 2014 2:37 pm
by Greg Robinson
Thanks Jason.
You're right, Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana) is nothing like the Acer's. If I can think of anything that it resembles that is more commonly used internationally, perhaps African Mahogany (Khaya) might be most similar. It's quite stable, machines beautifully, and often displays incredible figure, though not in this piece unfortunately. Here's a link with some properties. It's often used for necks and backs and sides.

I've made a bit more progress with it, having attacked it with a router.

I've routed some steps into the wings, and given them a 1/4" roundover. The top of the roundover should meet at the 12th "fret" location. I had to work with chisels and files in the corners because of course a router bit couldn't manage that.

And here's the pickup rout, I'm trying something "new" (for me at least). It should be fun.

I've got the bridge and some indian rosewood for the "fretboard" (which I do actually plan on fretting) on its way, should be arriving later in the week.

I also picked up a new laminate trimmer type router, and permanently mounted my big beast in the table. It's a big plunge router and didn't come with any sort of table lift, it was a real pain to adjust the height. So, I cobbled together a diy table lift. I removed the old depth stop and used JB Weld to secure a t-nut in its place, got some 1/4"-20 allthread that I coupled and Loctite-d to an allen head bolt that goes through a hole I drilled in the base plate and up into the table. The table lift would bind at first because the lifting force was all on one side of the router, so I used some bungy cord on the other side, and that's made it nice and smooth. I can now adjust the height easily with an allen key from above the table quickly, easily and accurately. A full turn is not any convenient value (1/20th of an inch or 1.27mm), but I'm not fussed by that.

You can see the allen bolt which sits just below the surface of the table just above the table insert.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Tue Jul 15, 2014 1:20 am
by Jason Rodgers
Heeey, I like that plunge-base-into-router-table-lift-base conversion. If you could, I'd really like to see some more pics of that in a dedicated thread. I'm really not keen on my Porter Cable plunge base, and there's no way I'm ever purchasing a commercially available router lift product, so this would be a fun project.

Oh, and it cracks me up that the thing y'all call "maple" looks more like mahogany! Is there even a foliage resemblance?

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Tue Jul 15, 2014 8:22 am
by Barry Daniels
I use a Router Raizer on my router table which does the same thing described by Greg. It sure works better than struggling with a plunge mechanism in reverse.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2014 11:43 am
by Greg Robinson
So, I got some parts in today.

I got a nice hardtail bridge with steel saddles and baseplate, and some black acrylic dots.

And a nice east indian rosewood blank.

Will post more photo's as I make more progress.

Jason, I'll see if I can put together some photo's of the router lift for another thread.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2014 2:21 pm
by Greg Robinson
I've drilled the holes for the bridge mounting screws and the string-through holes on the drill press.
Through holes.jpg

And just eye-balled the holes for the ferrules with a twist drill. They're not perfectly spaced, but this is for me, so I'm not fussed. Too much bother to jig up for this, although I should.

The rosewood blank was quite a lot thicker than it needed to be, so I put the modified bandsaw to the test, and tried re-sawing with it for the first time. Going really slowly with it, but not feeding smoothly enough, it came out pretty well, so I'm pleased and impressed. I couldn't be bothered moving the saw from its current location, and it was too close to a wall for me to send the blank all the way through in a single pass, so I flipped it around when I had gone as far as I could, you can see where the two cuts met.

The rosewood I sawed off is not thick enough for another fretboard, but will be quite nice for headstock veneers and backstraps.

Next up I'll be trimming the board down, and sawing for frets. I know I don't need frets, but I think it'll look cool rather than just line indicators.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2014 3:11 pm
by Greg Robinson
Here's the fretboard trimmed and after being run through my Luthiers friend.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 3:03 am
by Jason Rodgers
Did you buy real ferrules? I found these little aluminum (that's aluminium, to you) cylinder thingies that are sold as cable stops/stays at the hardware store (you slip them onto braided cable and crimp them down). I took a string ball-end with me and tried the different sizes until I found one that fit right. I sunk them a bit into the back of the guitar so the ball-ends don't sit proud, but they work. $.36 each. On this build, I'm determined to buy as little guitar-specific hardware as possible.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 8:31 am
by Greg Robinson
Hi Jason, yes, I'm using "real" ferrules. They only end up costing about the same as you got yours (I have wholesale accounts with most suppliers as I run a repair business). I also have them in stock for repairs. Easier than finding a work-around, for me at least. But I respect your motivation to use non-guitar-specific parts, it's just not the aesthetic I'm going for here.

The etymology of aluminium/aluminum is interesting, if anyone cares to have a read.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 10:57 am
by Ron Sommers
Interesting and fun build. You've made some great progress!

I was in the middle of building an archtop and got this wild hair to build a lap steel a few months back.

The archtop has been on hold as I decided I needed a dust collector (dust deputy style), so I made one out of tin. Also in the process of making a side bending jig to bend the sides.

I got 3 bd ft of hard maple and trimmed it down to 32"x5"x1 9/16".

I thought I would pop in here today to see if there was anything on lap steels going on.

I'll post some pics once I get going on it.

I have a few questions about tuning.

Which is more common? E or C6?

Also, I noticed you carved a large pickup slot.
Is that to experiment with the best placement?

Winding your own pickup sounds interesting. Can you document that as well?
What kind of sound are you going for that an off-shelf pickup won't accomplish?

Thanks! Looking forward to this build!

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 11:08 am
by Jason Rodgers
(If you don't mind me inserting this here, Greg...) Ron, if you're interested in pickup winding, here are my threads on the topic.

The winder...

Winding the pickups...

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 12:32 pm
by Greg Robinson
Thanks Ron!
Good luck with your lap steel build too, I'll be interested to see once you get started.

Regarding tuning, well, I've never played lap steel before, so I'm not really sure. From my reading though, it sounds like C6 is probably the most common of the tunings, at least for Hawaiian and western swing styles. For blues I believe the plain open major tunings are more popular.
I'm thinking C6 at the moment, but I also plan on tuning down an octave than usual (I think, I'm no expert so I may be mistaken), to get a lower range than an E-standard tuned guitar.

You guessed pretty much right with the swimming pool rout. I actually plan on mounting the pickup on rails so that the tone can be tweaked by "sliding" (pardon the pun) it back and forth. I thought this would be more fun than using two pickups and a switch or a single fixed position pickup.
I'm going to be winding a humbucker, and of course I'll be documenting that when I get to that stage. Why am I winding my own? Well, it's cheaper (if you've got the free time), and even fairly sloppily made hand-wound pickups tend to sound better than off-the-shelf machine wound ones. I'd rate even the first few that I made against any production pickup (and I've tried a LOT of pickups).
This one I'm also going to try an experiment, I'm going to wind two slug coils rather than a slug and screw. I expect it should have a bit more bass and be a bit heavier and grungier, which is the type of tone I'm hoping for from this instrument. But we'll see if that experiment pans out.

Ron, check out the thread Jason has linked to, he's gone into quite some detail about his whole process and learning, and he has also needed to do some troubleshooting, it's a good reference.

I forgot to take as many progress photos as I'd hoped today, but I've made some more progress. I hand scraped the fretboard level, then marked out, hand-sawed and beveled the fret slots with a triangular file. I managed to get a 22" scale out of it, I think I mentioned 21" earlier, but am glad I got a little longer. I then drilled out for and super-glued the black acrylic dots.

Then after level sanding the dots, I installed some mandolin/banjo sized fret wire with my arbor press. I used stainless steel as that's all I normally work with professionally, except for troglodytes who want to stick with nickel silver. I buy in bulk and have only done a couple of refrets on banjolins with this wire, so I figured I'd rather use that than one of my popular sizes. Plus, with the short scale it looks nicer to my eye than a medium or jumbo would have.
I then used my belt sander to sand flush the tangs and to start the side bevel (one advantage to fretting before gluing to a neck), and followed up with an angled file. Then on to detail files, to get a nice semi-hemispherical profile on the edges, and finally polishing up with an abrasive loaded rubber disk in my Dremel extension. This much care and detail were not strictly necessary because it won't be fretted, but I think it deserved it, and it was a good opportunity to demonstrate my fretwork techniques to my housemate.
After clamping in a reverse bow for a while to seat the tangs and get the board dead flat (again, not strictly necessary in this case), I glued it on with Titebond after giving the board and neck a quick pass with the hand scraper. I would normally use a non-waterbased glue (epoxy) on guitars to ensure that the neck comes out dead-flat, but the "neck" is thick enough in this case that it was not a concern, and anyway, I'm not going to be playing on the surface of the fretboard!

Next I'll be finish sanding and making the pickup. Once I've completed the finishing, I'll be able to oil up the fretboard which really makes it pop and makes the black dots stick out.

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Sun Jul 20, 2014 11:29 pm
by Randy Roberts
Don't know if this is overkill, but if you are doing semihemispherical fret ends frequently, this might be of use to you down the road. ... -2012.html

Re: Greg Robinson's Lap Steel

PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2014 11:02 pm
by Ron Sommers
Randy, That's quite the jig for doing semiheispherical fret ends!

Greg, I've been surfing the net and found "brads page of steel" where he supplies a boatload of tunings for lap steel. Also found 8 string tunings.

I think I'm going to go for an 8 string seeing's how my board is 5" wide at the moment. I might as well make use of it.

Have you thought about legs? I know it's a 'lap' steel, but a "table" would be handier on stage. I've been looking around and it looks as if those don't come cheap for a tripod setup.

Tone bars is another thing I'm considering. There's the trad 'bullet' style and then there's the Shubb-Pearse Guitar Steel style. Not sure the benefits of each style?

Pickups is another thing. There's the neck PU and the bridge PU. Each with different windings (ohms). I'm an acoustic guitar guy and never deal with such things. And you're going to wind 10K winds... which means a whole lot more 'hot'?

How does that translate to an amplifier? Wouldn't it be too sensitive for overhead ballasts?? I guess a hotter PU would mean less amp volume required?

Can't hardly wait for the PU winding series! :)