CHEAP Archtops, DIY

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Alan Peterson
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CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Alan Peterson »

There is no shortage of wonderful and elaborate instructions in books, videos and the web on how to build high quality archtop instruments. Well, I'm about to ask the opposite: Where can I find instructions on how to make a low- to mid-range archtop along the lines of old Harmonys, Kays, the Gretsch New Yorker or Epi Zenith?

That would naturally mean sources of lesser woods like birch & plain maple veneers and poplar, the ability to create a proper non-carved arched mold for pressing or vacuum bagging, and how to shape plain necks on an overhead pin router. There is an entertaining video on the web of the Hofner factory that, if one watches closely enough, can probably figure out how to do it. But I'm more interested in the Chicago and Long Island City way of doing things.

This may sound contradictory in a Forum dedicated to high craft and workmanship. It's just that I've been jonesing for a cheap archtop in recent times, and the supply of guitars from that particular era is dwindling down to expensive standouts or unplayable attic relics. The materials are plentiful; its just the method isn't documented.

Lots of talented and dedicated people post here on MIMF to ask how to repair guitars from that exalted era just prior to the rise of the electric solidbody. I'm asking if anyone has a bead on information on how to build them like that. Thanks very much ahead of time.
Alan Peterson
Name in Anagram Form: "Resonant Peal"

Bill Raymond
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Bill Raymond »

You might want to look at Jim English's book "Making a Laminated HollowBody Electric Guitar" available at Amazon via the MIMF bookstore link. I also note that there is a youtube video about laminating an archtop (I've not viewed it). Just Google "make laminated archtop guitar" and you'll turn up some possible sources of information. Good Luck

Jason Rodgers
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Jason Rodgers »

At the GAL convention auction, there was a whole box of inside and outside molds and various veneers, labeled "laminated arch top experimenter's dream," or some such description.

I don't know if a laminate instrument is necessarily a "cheap" instrument. Mike Doolin made some laminate arch tops toward the end of his professional building career, and he said that he was going after a particular sound that you get from that sort of construction. Not better or worse than carved tops, just different and music specific.

I don't know about you, but the tooling required to do a laminate top, back, or sides well isn't what I'd consider cheap. Or quick!
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.

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Beate Ritzert
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Beate Ritzert »

A few weeks ago i bought an old Isana archtop with a laminated top. Really nice sound, not at all cheap - although it is clearly a midrange instrument.

For DIY i would consider a carved top cheaper and easier to do than a laminated top. Making the mould for a laminated top and bottom envolves more or less the same steps and tools as carving the top and the bottom.
In the latter case You'll have the top and the bottom when You're done with these steps, in the first case You'll just have the moulds and start with the lamination process. IMHO lamination is only useful it You plan to build at least 3 intruments with the moulds.

Bill Raymond
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Bill Raymond »

Jim English shows an inexpensive way to make molds from plaster and an existing archtop guitar. When he first started building he just put the molds with laminae under his truck, as he didn't have a press. Pretty low tech and no carving involved.

Patrick Hanna
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Patrick Hanna »

I agree that a carved plate is probably easier to make from scratch than a molded plate (To make molded plates, you must make accurate molds, and if you're going to do that, you might as well carve solid wood). As for lower cost, in his video Benedetto demonstrates an instrument he made from common, construction grade pine and low quality maple. To prove his point, he left several knots in his top wood.
Just use common woods for several instruments. You will have minimal investment in materials. Buy good tuners. Branch out into better materials from there.

Chris Reed
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Chris Reed »

Is there any reason why you shouldn't make a form, arched shapes (like braces) on a solid base plate, and then clamp the wood down all round, heating with a heat gun as you go until the wood conforms with the shape of the form?

You could make a small tester from scrap (making your "top" proportionately thinner), and not worrying too much about the precise contours, to see if the concept works.

Darrel Friesen
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Darrel Friesen »

Bill Moll also makes some very successful laminated archtops.

Bill Raymond
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Bill Raymond »

As I mentioned above, one can make a serviceable mold from an existing archtop guitar using plaster of Paris. Jim English's book describes the process he uses.

Michael Lewis
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Michael Lewis »

The materials will be the least expense if you value your time. The above suggestion to use lesser quality materials is a good one for learning how to do the job, but you will be better served by using better materials when you "have it down".

Cheap means lesser materials and not much time involved in the process. Not a direction I would go willingly. Lesser materials can suffice but you will need to invest more time.

Eric Baack
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Eric Baack »

To get fairly "cheap" but maintain quality, you are going to have to do a lot of volume. That's where the big instrument makers have the advantage. They can produce a lot of instruments with minimal cost. (and they can go overseas to do it)

Keith Howell
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Keith Howell »

in the software world we have a saying which I think applies here: You can have it Inexpensive, quick, high quality Pick any two.

Patrick Hanna
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Patrick Hanna »

Keith Howell wrote:in the software world we have a saying which I think applies here: You can have it Inexpensive, quick, high quality Pick any two.
That concept is so true...and it applies any business.

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Beate Ritzert
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Beate Ritzert »

Keith Howell wrote:in the software world we have a saying which I think applies here: You can have it Inexpensive, quick, high quality Pick any two.
Then especially we amateurs would need to do fully laminated bodies in order to achieve best quality ;-)

Gilbert Fredrickson
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Gilbert Fredrickson »

Slip matched, flat sawn hardwood or quarter sawn fir for the back, slip matched fir 5/4 quarter sawn stair tread for the top. Laminate your neck stock from flat sawn stock on edge. Laminate your sides from a veneer. Give it a dark stain on the back and sides and do a small burst like the Old Gibsons. The Epiphone Spartan plan is pretty cool.

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Beate Ritzert
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Beate Ritzert »

Let me refer again to the title: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Just a reminder to my own archtop build a few decades ago: i was using cheap wood for small cellos, i.e. quartersawn with some knots in the outermost regions of top and back, and mildly flamed maple also with a few minor knots. That did not cost me much - the veneers for a laminated body would have been more expensive.

Most difficult for my very limited toolset was sanding the sides to an at least relatively controlled thickness. Carving the top and the back is to a large degree a matter of thorough planning - i found it relatively simple and straightforward (but of course laborious) to make a functional carved top and back which even is tentatively tap tuned. The guitar sounds relatively bright (intended at that time), but otherwise acoustically really good. I actually prefer it to my laminated Isana (made by Josef Sandner, one of the better archtop luthiers in the 50s and 60s).

If mainly cost counts, the archtop made from relatively cheap solid woods will probably be the cheapest approach.
So i would really suggest to other DIYers to simple take the time for carving solid wood except when they want to achieve the slightly more mellow sound of a laminated body or just see a thrill in doing a laminate instrument.

Michael Lewis
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Michael Lewis »

I agree with Beate Ritzert about this. Unless there is a specific reason to emulate the Harmony and Kay cheapies with painted on bindings and basic clunkiness you should get decent materials as you will be spending a lot of time working with them. I'm not suggesting using master grade materials, just lower grade solid 'tonewoods' or buy laminated top and back plates from ACME, the advertiser at the top of this page.

Jason Rodgers
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Jason Rodgers »

Some folks are going to CNC for initial shaping of plates to speed up the rough-out process (and ease some wear on the hands and arms), but a good dupli-carving setup could achieve similar results for less $$ and tool-up. Fine-tuning and finishing by hand brings the product back into the "hand made" realm. Fox/Doolin side benders or veneer laminating cauls or vacuum bagging can speed up the side construction process. In my thinking about small-scale production (charting materials cost, part manufacture, assembly and finishing times, and hardware), it's not materials that are the big "cost," but just the time spent making parts.
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.

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Alan Peterson
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Alan Peterson »

Michael Lewis wrote: Unless there is a specific reason to emulate the Harmony and Kay cheapies with painted on bindings and basic clunkiness ...
Michael, that is quite neatly my point. Except for the Kay models (I'm thinking more Gretsch New Yorker) that is exactly what I want to do, only because it is impossible to find those old clunkaroonies anymore.

I'm not going into business making crap guitars -- there are enough companies a hemisphere away that beat me to it long before now. This is going to be a long winter and knocking out one or two big-bellied plywood beasts sounds like a fun way to pass the time. I'd consider buying some Acme plates, but I've got a lot of wide birch veneer lying around and I recall a MIMF library link that shows how to make an arched mold for vacuum-forming veneers into top and back plates.

While I have to admire the efforts of many to change my mind and talk me out of my position, please understand I want to know how to do this. Telling me why I can't or shouldn't is not why I'm here.
Alan Peterson
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Beate Ritzert
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Re: CHEAP Archtops, DIY

Post by Beate Ritzert »

Well, if it is really the way which shall be the target, then this is absolutely perfect for me. To me that simply was not clear - i was on the low cost edge. Therefore i pointed out why in my eyes a carved top should be cheaper. But if it is really "laminated wood" and "DIY" *i* would probably consider doing the whole process and check the infos in the first replies. Just for the thrill of it ...

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