Building a musical instrument is an incredibly rewarding experience. But it can be very frustrating, too. We've attempted to answer some of the most commonly asked questions here to help make your trip from asking to building as short as possible. Remember: every single one of us, pro or hobbyist, was once where you are now.
Q. I want to build a musical instrument. I want it to be perfect on my first try even though I have no experience as a woodworker or instrument maker. Tell me everything I need to know.
A. Your first instrument will not be perfect, and if you expect it to be you're setting yourself up for disappointment. That doesn't mean it won't be an instrument you're proud of! We really can't tell you everything you need to know about building a clarinet or a violin or a dreadnought guitar, or any other complex musical instrument. People have written entire books on the subjects, and with good reason. There's a lot to learn when you're building a fine instrument. It's just not feasible for us to answer these types of impossibly broad questions on an online forum. You need to buy or borrow some good books (don't forget to make use of Inter-Library Loan), and read those books carefully. We make books available in our Bookstore, and your purchase there helps support the MIMForum. Register as a member of the MIMForum and browse our Library on subjects of interest to you. Follow discussions on the MIMForum.
Q. I know nothing about woodworking. How do I build an instrument out of wood?
A. You must educate yourself in the basics of woodworking if you want to build instruments out of wood. This is not something we can teach you online. See if there's a woodworker's club (or woodturner's club if you want to build woodwinds) in your area. They love helping out newbies. You should also investigate your local adult and community education programs to see if there's a woodworking course available. Many of us started out this way.
Q. How do I build a [pick one] guitar/bass/mandolin/banjo/flute?
A. As you may have seen in the Bookstore, many, many books have been written on the subject of musical instrument construction. Most of them are very good; a few are excellent. Here are seven that are continually recommended by MIMForum members. The first four are outstanding reference works. The last three, for mandolin, banjo, and woodwinds, are not as comprehensive but are the best available and will give you a good place to start.
Acoustic steel string and classical guitars: "Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology" by William R. Cumpiano and Jonathan D. Natelson.
Electric guitar and bass: "Make Your Own Electric Guitar" by Melvyn Hiscock.
Archtop guitar: "Making an Archtop Guitar" by Robert Benedetto.
Guitar wiring and pickups: "Guitar Electronics for Musicians" by Donald Brosnac.
Carved-top mandolin: "Constructing a Bluegrass Mandolin" by Roger H. Siminoff.
5-string banjo: "Constructing a 5-String Banjo" by Roger H. Siminoff.
Woodwinds: "The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker" by Trevor Robinson.
Dan Erlewine's "Guitar Player Repair Guide" is another excellent resource. By seeing what can go wrong with a guitar and how to fix it, you can avoid many common problems. The book also contains valuable information on setup, modifications, and customization.
Q. I want to build an acoustic guitar/electric guitar/electric bass. Please give me a list of all the woods I can use and what they sound like so I know what to build my instrument out of.
A. Oy! There are so many woods, so many combinations of woods, and so much more to the sound of an instrument than the woods you use. There's bracing for an acoustic, pickups for an electric, and your own skill as a builder. If you're just starting out, find an instrument you like the sound of and use those woods.
Q. Can I build it cheaper myself?
A. If you have access to a well-outfitted woodworking shop and don't have to purchase any tools at all, maybe. But if you have to buy tools? Probably not.
Q. Should I build my first instrument from scratch, or should I buy a kit?
A. We have had many successful first-time builders do it both ways. If a kit will make you more comfortable, buy the kit. The most important thing is to build, not to be so intimidated by the process that you never get started. If the idea of bending the sides or slotting the fretboard is what's keeping you from getting started, buy a kit, because the most important thing is just to build the instrument. How you build it doesn't matter. If it turns out well and you enjoy the process you can build the next one from scatch.
Q. Which guitar kit do you recommend?
A. A kit from any reputable dealer will likely make a fine instrument. Our members seem to prefer the kits from Stuart-MacDonald largely because they include both a full-size plan and an instructional video, and because with their kits you get the option of a bolt-on neck.
Q. Can I modify the kit I buy to make it a different shape or size, or to make a 14-fret neck a 12-fret neck?
A. We don't recommend trying to alter a kit that has pre-bent sides, nor to change a 14-fret neck to a 12-fret neck (or the other way around). If you can't find a kit for the instrument you want, you'll be better off buying from a vendor that gives you a deal on a package of wood and materials instead of buying a kit with pre-bent sides and a plan for a different instrument than the one you want to build. You'll end up doing more work trying to alter a kit than you will building from scratch.
Q. Can I take on a particularly challenging project like an F-style mandolin or archtop guitar as my first instrument?
A. We have had reports from many newcomers to both lutherie and woodworking of successful archtop guitars and F-style mandolins as their very first woodworking or lutherie project. They also report that these instruments were far from perfect, but they were happy with the results, and often encouraged by their success to make another, better one. If you're also interested in building other, more simple instruments like a flat-top guitar or an A-style mandolin, it does make more sense to start with one of those, then "graduate" to a more challenging instrument. But if all you really want to build is an F-style mandolin from the Siminoff book, you go right ahead.
Q. Can I fix it myself?
A. We get a lot of questions from people who want to save money by doing their own repair work. Most repair work isn't simple, and it's easy to do even more damage to an instrument if you're inexperienced. You should not attempt to learn repair work on a valuable instrument, whether that value is monetary or sentimental. Learn your repair chops on cheap instruments that mean little to you, take your valuable one to a pro for repairs and ask if you can watch.
Q. Can I build my own case? Where can I find plans?
A. Our members have built guitar-shaped, odd-shaped, and rectangular cases with success. We do not know of any detailed plans. Rectangular cases are relatively simple to build, and there may not be commercial cases available for unusual instruments. Most folks who've built a guitar-shaped case report feeling that it wasn't worth the time it took to build, and wish they'd bought a commercial case first and designed their guitar to fit it. It takes about as much time to build a guitar-shaped case as it takes to build a guitar, and your case will almost certainly be heavier than a similar commercial case. You should decide in advance if this is a project in which you want to invest a significant amount of time. Unless you're doing it for fun you may be better off designing your instrument to fit a commercial case.
Q. What are the minimum essential tools to build a [fill in the blank]?
A. It's impossible to give you a definitive list of tools required, partly because no two projects are identical and partly because each person has different preferences and budget. The best way to approach this question is to break down your project into discrete operations, and then the tool(s) required for each operation will be fairly obvious. To spread out the cost, and to avoid the trap of buying tools you think you'll need only to find later that you've wasted your money, buy tools only after you are certain you need them. By the end of your project you will have acquired a complete workshop exactly tailored to your preferences and budget. The books recommended by our members on this page all contain tool lists that make good jumping-off points. And as you decide which tools to purchase, bear in mind this well-known maxim: buy a good tool, and you'll only cry once.
Q. Does it take a fully-equipped woodworking shop to build stringed instruments? I don't have that much money to spend on expensive power tools.
A. Many of us started out without a workshop, without any power tools, and without any woodworking skills. We did not spring into this craft as fully-formed and outfitted woodworkers, but as kitchen-table-based hacks. It's a misconception that it takes an expensive shop filled with power tools to do a good job. What it takes is practice. Stringed instrument building is woodworking, and you can't expect to engage in it without learning such basic woodworking skills as using a handplane to plane a good joint. That doesn't take expensive power tools, just a well-tuned handplane and the investment of time to learn how to use it. And just buying a bunch of power tools won't make you a woodworker either. It takes time to learn to use power tools properly and safely. You can ruin just as much wood with expensive power tools as you can with hand tools, only faster. To say nothing of valuable body parts.
Q. I'm putting together my first real shop and am planning on a dust collection system. Do I have to ground it?
A. The consensus of our members is that you must ground your dust collection system. Not only is it cheap insturance against the possiblilty of a dust explosion caused by static buildup, but the static charge accumulated by the system *hurts* when it discharges to you! Just run bare copper wire on the inside of your pipe connected to every machine on one end, and a proper ground on the other.
Q. Can I use a hand-held power planer for flattening or jointing plates?
A. No. Hand-held power planers are designed for rough carpentry work and cannot be adjusted to the fine tolerances necessary for instrument making.
Q. I can't afford a drill press. Are those portable drill guides any good?
A. Not for instrument building. If you can't justify the expense of a drill press, see if there's one at your local technical school or high school shop you can use.
Q. I need a bandsaw but can't afford a 14" model. Can you recommend a good bandsaw that's smaller and cheaper?
A. There are no good bandsaws smaller than 14". We recommend saving your money and waiting until you can afford a 14" bandsaw. There's a huge difference in quality, and in the amount of work you'll be able to do, once you make that step up to a 14" saw. If you're desperate, buy a hand-held power jigsaw to tide you over until you can afford a 14" bandsaw.
Q. I'm about to build my first archtop instrument. What tools should I use to carve the plates?
A. Our members have used a number of different hand and power tools with great success. For hand tools you have the choices of rasps, saw-rasps (very coarse), Microplanes and SurForms (preferred over rasps if you don't have either, yet), square and curved hand scrapers, carving spoons, chisels and gouges, carving shaves, and hand and palm planes. Many of our members have made a small wood-body palm plane from a sketch in our Library provided by archtop guitar maker Bill Moll. For power tools some of our members recommend Kutzall sanding/carving tools. The Kutzall disk is a 4" diameter carbide toothed attachment made to fit a standard angle grinder. At speeds of 10,000 rpm and below it removes hardwood stock very aggressively, yet with good control. As with all power cutters, never over-feed the tool. Make multiple shallow passes until you almost reach your desired depth. Then proceed with 80-120 grit sanding, etc. When the cutter is loaded with material, remove it from the grinder, and with a propane torch, burn away the excess material. A light brushing with a brass wire brush will prep the cutter for future use. Use the obvious precautions when using a propane torch as well! Kutzall also makes drum sanding sleaves for use in a drill press or motorized arbor chucked sanding table. They have identical characteristics to the disk. While these tools are not cheap, they are very useful in instrument making.
Q. Should I install a trussrod in my mandolin / banjo / classical guitar / electric guitar / steel-string guitar / electric bass?
A. Long and/or thin and/or flexible necks should have some form of reinforcement. It's very little additional work to install an adjustable trussrod instead of a non-adjustable one. For steel-string instruments with scales longer than a mandolin, adjustable rods are recommended. For mandolins you should consider non-adjustable carbon fiber/epoxy reinforcement because the required pocket for the adjusting nut severly weakens the thinnest part of the neck, and the neck is already small. Metal trussrods are not generally installed in classical guitars due to weight considerations. Most solid wood instruments will go through changes for climatic reasons. Whether the top swells or the neck is the culprit, movement will occur and some form of adjustment should be available. This scenario may be exacerbated in a beginner's first few attempts, so an adjustable trussrod is cheap insurance. You can find a great deal of information on trussrod types and installation in the MIMForum Library of archived discussions.
Q. I've read that you should wipe the surface of rosewoods and other oily tropical woods with acetone or naptha right before you glue them. Should I prepare the joint this way before gluing?
A. The consensus of our most experienced members is no, you should not. It seems to make for a weaker joint. The reports we have of glue joint failure in rosewood or cocoblolo is that it generally occurs after treatment of this type.
Q. Do I have to use epoxy to glue rosewood and other oily tropical woods?
A. The consensus of our most experienced members is that Titebond and hot hide glue work just fine, but they caution that you should glue the fresh joint immediately, and not let the wood sit unglued after you plane your joint.
Q. How can I finish my musical instrument quickly and easily, with a minimum of preparation?
A. The short answer is, "You can't." You'll get out of a finish what you put into it. Surface preparation is all-important, equally so for clear and painted finishes. Some finishes, such as wipe-on oil finishes, require less work and much less dust control than sprayed lacquers, but they're not appropriate to all instruments. Two excellent books on finishing are "Understanding Wood Finishing" by Bob Flexner, and "Hand-Applied Finishes" by Jeff Jewitt. The books complement each other, and will help you choose an appropriate finish and ward off disaster.
Q. I don't have any spray equipment. Do I *have* to use nitrocellulose lacquer on my instrument?
A. No, you do not. It was Bob Taylor who said, "A long time ago, some guy figured out that if you keep spraying and sanding a guitar, you can make it really shiny. We need to exhume that guy and shoot him!" While nitrocellulose lacquer has become "traditional" and a mirror-like lacquer finish is the standard, there are many other finish options including waterbased/waterborne lacquers, French polish/shellac, varnish, and various oil-based finishes like Tru Oil. We have a lot of Tru Oil and French polish/shellac proponents on the MIMForum. Any tough, thin, flexible finish that others have used with success is available to you. Don't be afraid of using a finish that doesn't look exactly like nitrocellulose lacquer, but be aware of possible problems when using oil-based finishes on tropical woods (see below).
Q. I don't have a spray booth. Can I spray my instrument with nitrocellulose lacquer outside or in an unheated garage, then bring it into the house to dry?
A. Lacquer funes are extremely noxious, and a sensitizer. Not only is exposure very bad for you and anyone else living in your house, but you can become so sensitive to lacquer that you will no longer be able to use it. If you don't have a safe method for isolating the fumes from both your living space and your workspace, you should use some less noxious finish like waterborne lacquer or French polish or varnish. And always protect your lungs from overspray by wearing a good respirator. Inhaled mist will harden in your lungs, and this is never a good thing no matter how "non-toxic" the finish is.
Q. I finished my instrument made of [fill in name of tropical wood here] weeks ago. Why won't the finish dry?
A. The oils in many tropical woods inhibit the chemical processes in oil-based finishes, including varnishes and urethanes, that allow them to cure. If you're working with any kind of tropical wood, test your oil-based finish on a piece of scrap first to make sure it will dry. If it doesn't you can either switch to a finish that dries by evaporation (lacquer, shellac, French polish), or use an evaporative finish as a sealer under your oil-based finish. Be sure to test your sealer-under-oil finish on scrap, too!
Q. I've heard that [fill in name of tropical wood here] can cause an allergic reaction. What are the chances that this will happen to me?
A. A few years ago we might have said the chances are very slim, but the longer we're online the more reports we get of allergic reactions to tropical wood dust, most often to Machaerium villosum (pau ferro, morado, palo santos, Bolivian "rosewood") and Dalbergia retusa (cocobolo). Many tropical woods are sensitizers, which means that you will not react to them the first time(s) you use them, but may develop a sensitivity to them that will cause a reaction after repeated exposure. Some of the reactions reported by our members have been severe, with rashes and their accompanying treatment lasting several months. If you find after working with any wood that you begin to itch, especially your arms, your face, around the edge of your respirator, or anywhere clothing chafes (belt, collar), you should immediately strip to the skin and take a lukewarm (not hot!) shower. Wash thoroughly, including your hair, but do not scrub your skin harshly. It is very important to remove the substance that is causing your reaction as quickly as possible, and to avoid any additional contact so you don't re-contaminate yourself with more dust. You may need to have someone else clean your shop before you can use it again. Using effective dust control in your shop and wearing a good respirator when creating dust will help you avoid such reactions. If you end up with a rash you should see a dermatologist immediately, the most common treatment is a course of antihistamines coupled with topical ointment. You may also find that you cannot work with certain woods any more, as has happened to some of our members.
Q. Can I leave my instrument, or just the neck, unfinished?
A. No. Finish is absolutely necessary to protect the wood, and without it the wood will quickly become dirty from handling. If you're concerned about the "sticky" feeling of a neck finished with lacquer, many of our members report that using a tung-oil based finish gives them a "fast" neck.
Q. Can I stain/dye my instrument with clothing dye/food dye/any other kind of stain or dye not originally intended for use on wood?
A. We strongly recommend against using any dye or stain that is not sold specifically for use on wood. While it may look good at first, you don't know how it will hold up and whether or not your deep forest green will fade to a sickly yellow over time. This is not the place to experiment, or to try and save a few pennies.
Q. Anything else I should know about finish work?
A. This one is so important we thought it should be chiseled in stone:
Test it on scrap first!!
Q. I want to learn musical instrument construction or repair. What schools are available?
A. Most schools these days have websites. Use the search engine below to search for the type of instrument building or repair course you're looking for. If you are interested in stringed instrument construction, the Guild of American Luthiers has a list of lutherie schools available at their website.
Q. I have a group of kids/students/scouts/etc. What simple instruments can we build cheaply?
A. There are two good books on simple instruments you can build with children: "Great Folk Instruments to Make & Play" by Dennis Waring, and "Making Simple Musical Instruments" by Bart Hopkin. Both books are oriented towards simple projects for children and young adults that require a minimum of tools. You might also be able to find them through Inter-Library Loan. Thoroughly browse our Links Pages for many, many sites with instructions for building simple instruments, especially simple wind and percussion instruments.
Q. Where can I find other books on musical instrument construction?
A. We have a virtual bookstore right here, and your purchases from our Bookstore help support the MIMForum.
Q. I have a vintage guitar/violin/mandolin/whatever. I want to refinish it, what should I do?
A. Stop! Please reconsider!! Even if the finish is in bad shape, your instrument is almost certainly more valuable (dollar wise) with the original finish. Search your area for a professional to consult about repairing the original finish before doing anything irreversible.
Q. I have an average/low-value/worthless instrument. I want to refinish it, what should I do?
A. Stop! Please reconsider!! We have had several MIMForum participants report disappointing results after jumping headlong into an unnecessary refinishing job. A good refinishing job is hard for a beginner to do well - it takes considerable practice. If you don't have the experience you may end up with an instrument that looks worse than it did when you started, or even one that's been ruined from sanding too aggressively. Many modern commercial finishes are tough, and difficult to remove. If your instrument is in good shape and the only thing you don't like about it is the color, consider selling it and using the money to buy an instrument more suited to your tastes. If there's minor cosmetic damage, a touch-up may be more appropriate, or just leave it - you are almost certainly going to make matters worse if you strip and refinish. Posting pictures of the finish damage on the MIMForum is one way to get good advice, and almost always our advice is to just live with it. It's rare for an instrument to actually require a full stripping and refinishing. On the other hand, if you own or want to pick up a junker specifically for the purpose of gaining finishing/refinishing skills we can give you plenty of good advice on the process.
Q. Were can I buy [fill in the blank]?
A. Use the search engine link below to search for whatever it is you want, be it a tool, wood, supplies, or accessories. Help support the MIMForum by purchasing from our sponsors and advertisers. And we sell tools through our Toolstore, and your purchase there will also help to support the MIMForum.
Q. Where can I find parts/part numbers/technical information/specs for this particular tool/product?
A. Contact the manufacturer directly. They are the best source for parts, part numbers, and accurate, detailed information about their product.
Q. Where can I find free plans for [fill in specific instrument here].
A. Any free plans we know of will be listed on our Links Pages. If it's not there, we can't help you.
Q. I'm building my first instrument, a guitar, and I don't want it to look and sound like everyone else's. What can I do with shape or materials or bracing patterns to make it unique?
A: For your very first instrument, you will be best off sticking with "tried and true" materials and shapes and bracing patterns that have proven track records. The reason a lot of guitars are similar is that they follow the lead of the "classics," and have evolved to give a balance of playability, ease of manufacture and that very subjective aesthetic quality. After you've acquired some experience, in general it's not a bad idea to start with one of the classics and make minor changes and adjustments to suit your own ideas. If you're making a solid-body, be careful that your finished instrument will be well balanced, and comfortable to play, both seated and standing. It's well worth making a cardboard or plywood template to check the "feel" of the instrument before you start cutting up the real wood.
Q. Will it work if I __________?
A. We often get questions like: How do I change the bracing if I move the soundhole? How do I place position markers on a five-string banjo neck? What bridge height will I need given a 2.5 degree neck angle? How much wider should I make the neck if I add 2 strings? How do I wire and fit seven pickups, three humbuckers and a picture of Marilyn Manson under the strings if I only want to have one pot for tone control? Our response is always: draw it out full-size, from the top and from the side, including the strings if it's a stringed instrument. It's much better to make your mistakes on paper first, where an eraser will take care of them! You can get large sheets or rolls of graph paper, called "gridded vellum," from drafting supply companies. This will help you keep everything square in your drawing. 8x8 gridded vellum divides each inch into eighths of inches, 10x10 gridded vellum divides each inch into tenths of inches. A 20-yard roll of 24" gridded vellum will last you a very long time, and be sure to shop around as we found prices ranging from $22 to over $100 for a roll that size. Use the search engine below to find some online if you don't have a drafting supply outlet near you.
Q. I'm getting ready to build my first acoustic guitar but I'm intimidated about bending the sides. How hard is side bending? Do I need to build or buy an expensive bender in order to get good results?
A. The idea of bending sides seems to be the single most intimidating concept for most new acoustic guitar builders, and it shouldn't be. Side bending is not nearly as difficult as you think, and a very pleasant part of building. Just get several cheap or single/unmatched sides from any dealer, or make some yourself, and practice on them first to build your confidence. Be sure not to leave your practice sides too thick. You can make a simple pipe bender for just a few bucks, and with minimal investment in time and materials give a big boost to both your skills and your confidence level. Don't let the idea of bending your own sides slow you down for a second!
Q. I've read about steam bending, and it sounds like it would be easier to build a steam box than build and learn to use any kind of bender. Can I steam bend the sides?
A. Steam bending works on thick pieces of wood because a thick piece of wood holds the heat for long enough to get it clamped into shape. Thin wood like guitar sides won't hold the heat long enough, and will cool before you finish getting it clamped into your mold. Side benders work well because they supply constant heat during the bending process. We promise that bending the sides over or in a bender really isn't that hard with a bit of practice. Really!
Q. How do I calculate the neck angle of my guitar?
A. You don't really calculate the neck angle, you draw a side view of your guitar on paper and measure it. Make an accurate, 1:1 drawing of your guitar's design, including the strings, the height of the bridge, and the nut. If you have a flat, Fender-style design, you may not need any neck angle. But the higher your bridge is, the more you need a neck angle so that the strings meet the bridge and the fingerboard is reasonably parallel to the strings. You can also approach your design from the opposite end: if you want a neck angle because you feel that it improves playing comfort by bringing your fretting hand back, decide how much neck angle you want. 1 or 2 degrees is typical, but some archtops have more. Draw a reference line across a piece of paper. Draw the guitar body parallel to the reference line. Draw your fingerboard up at the angle you choose. Measure your scale length from the nut to the bridge. Draw your bridge so that the strings touch the top of the saddles. If you are lucky, the base of the bridge will meet with the top of the body. If it doesn't meet, you can make the body or bridge spacer thicker, lower the set of the neck into the body, or lessen the neck angle. After everything works out, then measure your neck angle. You may find it helpful to examine a number of different guitars, with and without neck angles, to see the differences in construction and playability. Remember, though, that many set-neck guitars have a shorter scale than many bolt-ons, which will account for a different feel and comfort level, depending on what you're used to.
Q. What is "quartersawn" wood?
A. Quartersawn wood is cut so the orientation of the grain (the growth rings) is perpendicular to the face of the board. Wood cut this way is the most dimensionally stable. See this illustration of the difference between flat-sawn and quartersawn wood. Looking at the end of the board, the growth rings look like this (more or less):
| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | |
Q. Do I have to use quartersawn wood for the back and sides of my acoustic guitar?
A. Quartersawn wood is the most dimensionally stable, but some woods like birds-eye maple must be flat-sawn for the figure to show. If you have some gorgeous or rare flat-sawn wood that you want to use, it may well be worth the risk; if it's an inexpensive piece of a common wood, you may be risking the longevity of your guitar for no good reason.
Q. The back/soundboard wood I just bought for my acoustic guitar has cupped. Can I still use it?
A. Thin wood reacts quickly to changes in humidity, and needs to acclimate to the relative humidity of your shop. You should "sticker" the cupped boards to allow air to circulate all around them. Stickers are thin strips of wood or masonite or melamine that you put between each board, across the grain, to allow the air to get to them. Use three per board and sandwich the whole lot between boards of MDF or plywood, and put a weight on top for good measure. If they don't flatten out in a week or so, contact the seller.
Q. Should I use flatsawn or quartersawn wood for my guitar neck?
A. Conventional wisdom on the MIMForum is that grain orientation does not matter for bolt-on solid-body necks. For acoustics, it is traditional to use quartersawn wood. Some builders laminate flatsawn wood (face to face) to create what is in effect a quartersawn neck blank:
=== + === + === becomes ||||||
See a better illustration of the bad ASCII art above.
Q. What wood(s) should I use for my instrument?
A. If you're just starting out, we recommend sticking with the woods that have traditionally been used for your instrument, purchased from a reputable dealer who has experience in supplying woods to instrument makers. Bear in mind that the biggest investment in your instrument will be your time, not the cost of materials. You don't need to buy the highest quality woods for your first instrument, but woods provided by an experienced supplier will be less likely to cause you trouble in the building process, and you know in advance that the traditional woods are well-suited to your instrument. Once you have some experience with woodworking and instrument making you'll find it easier to part with tradition and experiment with alternative or "scrounged" woods.
Q. I don't have any quartersawn spruce for bracing my acoustic guitar soundboard, but I have plenty of other scrap wood on hand. Can I use it as soundboard bracing?
A. The consensus of our most experienced builders is no, you really can't. Spruce has the best strength-to-weight ratio of the lutherie woods, and they feel that any other soundboard bracing wood has a detrimental effect on the sound of a flat-top acoustic guitar.
Q. I'm getting ready to build my first instrument, and I have access to pine/poplar/red oak/whatever locally. I don't want to ruin an expensive piece of wood on my first instrument. Can I use [fill in name of cheap wood here]?
A. We repeat: the cost of wood will be the least you'll spend. It's the time it takes to build that will be your biggest investment. Imagine how you'll feel after putting all that time into an instrument when you used cheap wood and it came out looking great. You don't want to kick yourself and say, "If only I'd used decent wood!" No need to break the bank, most dealers to instrument makers offer good woods in a range of prices. This is a lot more important for acoustic instruments than for solidbody instruments, but even for solidbodies you don't want to skimp on neck wood and use anything that hasn't been proven successful for necks. Stick with traditional woods for your first instruments, and leave experimentation for when you have more experience.
Q. My local hardware store has lots of cheap pine/spruce/fir. Can I build my acoustic guitar entirely from these woods?
A. These woods will not make good back, sides, and neck for an acoustic guitar, and depending on the individual piece, may not make a good soundboard either. As we say above: stick with traditional woods purchased from a reputable source until you know what you're doing. Trying to save a few bucks by using questionable woods is false economy.
Q. I bought wood from a lumberyard/hardwood yard, and the instrument I made from it appears to be cracking. What did I do wrong?
A. A number of our first-timers with no prior woodworking experience have reported this problem, mostly with solidbody bodies. If you find a nice piece of wood at a general lumberyard or hardwood dealer, you should inspect the ends of the board for checks (small cracks) before you use it. The ends of boards often check during the drying process, these "seasoning checks" are quite common. Experienced woodworkers know to examine the ends of the board for visible checking and discard two inches from the end of the board if there is no visible checking, or discard two-three inches past any visible checking. If you don't, you run the risk of small checks you missed widening into something visible later. Don't forget to figure those extra few inches into your purchase if the yard you're buying from is willing to cut a small piece off the end of a larger board for you.
Q. I have access to a big spruce/osage/locust/maple/whatever log. How can I get it milled?
Wood-Mizer is a company that manufactures and sells portable saw mills, and they maintain a list of people who own their equipment and are willing to mill wood for folks in their local areas. If you're in North America, call Wood-Mizer at 1-800-553-0182 for the name of a sawyer near you. As they sell internationally, you can try e-mailing them to find a local owner if you're outside of North America.
Q. How do I figure out fret placement?
A. See our Links Pages for a number of online and downloadable fret calculators. And it's not "cheating" to buy a pre-slotted fretboard, especially for your first few fretted instruments. If you keep building you'll have plenty of time later to master that particular skill.
Q. How do find and fix a fretboard buzz?
A. See our BuzzFAQ for help in finding and fixing your buzz.
Q. What is scale length?
A. Scale length is the open length of the vibrating string on a stringed instrument, without adjusting for compensation.
Q. What is compensation?
A. Whenever a string is pressed to a fretboard, the tension of the string is increased. This causes the fretted note to be slightly sharp compared to the open string note. This must be compensated for. To compensate for this sharpness, the distance from the nut to the bridge saddle is made slightly longer than the stated scale length for the instrument. This lowers the pitch of the fretted notes slightly. The amount of compensation needed depends on how far the string must be pressed to the fingerboard (action), the mass/thickness/guage of the string, the tension (tightness) of the string, and the string length. When you look at the bridge of most instruments you see evidence of compensation, for example when you see the guitar's saddle at an angle to the strings rather than perpendicular to them. On a mandolin, some guitars and banjos, and electric guitars in particular, the saddle is carved or adjusted so each string bends over it at a different distance from the nut. The exact amount is usually determined by comparing the pitch of the note fretted at the 12th fret to the pitch of the harmonic at the 12th fret. When the two match, you have found the compensated position of the bridge saddle for that string.
Q. How do I determine in advance how much compensation I need?
A. Sorry, we haven't nailed this one yet.
Q. I'm getting ready to build my first solidbody instrument and I don't want to ruin an expensive piece of wood. Can I use MDF (medium density fiberboard) for the body?
A. MDF is nasty stuff to machine and will create thick clouds of dust, it doesn't glue well, it doesn't hold screws well. Use cheap, solid wood and you'll be better off. Poplar is a good choice in a hardwood as it is cheap and readily available, easy to work, and several of our members have reported good luck with it. You can also use a softwood like pine or spruce, but stay away from that nasty MDF!
Q. Can I use pine or another softwood for the body of my solid-body electric?
A. A number of our members report success with softwoods, especially pine, redwood, and basswood, for solid-body guitars. They also report that these guitars dent very easily, so most recommend gluing a hardwood cap on your softwood body if dents and dings will bother you.
Q. I'm building my first solid-body electric. Should I build a neck-through or a bolt-on?
A. A bolt-on is easier if you don't have a jointer and don't have much experience as a woodworker. A neck-through is difficult to adjust if you don't get it right the first time. While some people think a through-neck has better sustain, others disagree. If you're new to woodworking and lutherie, you'll probably be better off with a bolt-on.
Q. You use the term "bolt-on" but can I use screws to attach the neck of an electric solidbody guitar?
A. By all means, this is the way it is typically done and millions of Telecasters and Stratocasters are still being made this way. There's a right way and a wrong way. When you drill your holes, the ones that go through the body should be large enough that the screw just passes through without the screw threads biting into the body wood. You only want the screws screwed into the neck. Otherwise all that friction can cause the head to break off when you tighten the screws down, or when the neck needs to be removed. Use a little paraffin (candle wax) to wax the threads before you install the screws, that will also make it easier for some future repair tech, or you, to remove the neck if necessary.
Q. The ^$@&# who built the guitar I'm working on now didn't do that, and the screw head broke off. How do I get the screw out?
A. Happens all the time, unfortunately, and because it does we can present you with a list of things to try.
First, if none of the threaded part of the screw is biting into the body, as recommended above, you should just be able to lift the neck off once the other screws are out, then get the broken screw out with vice-grips. Otherwise:
1) Use a little dremel tool to cut a new slot in what's left of the screw and use your new slot to screw it out. We have the most reports of success with this method.
2) Use a screw extractor (Easy-Out is one brand name). Drill a hole into the top of the screw, screw in the extractor, and keep turning it because it's threaded the opposite direction of the screw and that'll get it out. Some people have made things worse this way, however, so be careful not to break the screw extractor off inside the screw. The screw extractor is much harder than the screw, and is difficult to drill out.
3) Drill a very small hole right next to the screw, and wiggle it out with a pair of needle-nose pliers or needle-nose vice-grips.
Q. I'm building a solid-body electric guitar with a bolt-on neck. How do I get everything to line up accurately?
A. You need to start by routing the neck pocket, before you cut the body out of the blank. Mark a straight line down the center of the neck, and on the center of the body blank. Lightly clamp the neck to the blank. Now check to see if the neck is correctly centered. This can be done by clamping two alignment sticks (1/2" x 1/2" x 12" planed true) to either side of the neck heel. Adjust the neck until the two sticks are an equal distance from the center line at the proposed location of the bridge (bridge location is determined by the scale length you select). When you're certain that the neck is centered with the body, mark the neck pocket position with a pencil. You can now remove the neck and route the pocket. Once the pocket is routed and the neck is fitted, re-check the bridge position and adjust if necessary. The body shape may now be cut out of the blank, and routed for pickups.
Q. How can I build tone chambers into a solidbody electric guitar, what are their effects, and how do I "tune" them?
A. Tone chambers are really just a fancy way of saying partially hollowed out. This can be done in many ways. A body blank can be routed prior to gluing on a figured wood top. You can also band saw out the chambers, then glue on both a top and back cap. The entry saw kerf can be filled with a decorative piece of veneer. As far as what shapes to remove, there are really no hard and fast rules here. Circles and/or ovals made with a forstner bit or irregular shapes routed out will all work. You may remove almost all of the wood except for a 1/2" border and the area where the neck pocket sits, and directly beneath the bridge, prior to gluing on a top cap. Your top cap may or may not have f holes, and chambers may or may not be sealed with a finish. It's a matter of personal preference. All of these methods have been employed to produce good sounding guitars.The most noticeable effect of chambering is a reduction in weight, but chambering can also enhance the overall resonance of a guitar. Some have also noticed an increase in the acoustic volume produced. This can be particularly beneficial for lead playing, as the chambered guitar can have a slightly more singing quality. The effects are subtle, and will vary from one type of wood to another. Our collective experience is that "tuned" tone chambers are a myth, we've found they're too small to tune.
Q. I want to make my own metal parts, where can I get them plated? Can I plate them myself?
A. Try your local Yellow Pages for a plating shop, look for one that specializes in antique cars or hot rods. Remember that nickel looks nicer but will haze, and if the part is steel it will eventually rust and bubble. If you can't find a plating shop that will take on your small job, our members suggest trying a local motorcycle shop or gunsmith that might let you put your pieces in a batch with theirs. For doing your own plating there are small plating systems sold for automotive detailing work but they're expensive, as are the plating solutions, which are also poisonous and hazardous to use and difficult to dispose of. Our one member who has such a system is a full-time pro, and tells us that for most builders it really doesn't pay to tool up to do your own plating.
Q. Please list the best possible combination of pickups.
A. Oy again! There are so many possible combinations of pickups that it's impossible for us to tell you what the "best" is. If there's a guitar with a sound you like, find out what pickups are used in it and use those.
Q. Where should I put the pickups?
A. Opinions vary when it comes to pickup placement. Some say that it makes no difference, some say as far apart as possible to give a maximum tone difference between the two, while others say that the pickups should be placed underneath the (open) string harmonic nodes. Everyone agrees on the following, though: too close to the bridge results in a tinny, "twangy" sound. The best advice would be to measure the pickup location on a guitar you like and use that as a starting point.
Q. How deep/wide/long should I rout my solidbody instrument for XX brand and style of pickup?
A. Never do any routing until you have purchased all your parts and have them in your hot little hands!
Q. How do I wire up an output jack?
A. Two wires connect to it. Hook it up one way. If it doesn't work, swap the wires and hook it up the other way. Typically, the center connection of your volume control will connect to the tip connector of the jack.
Q. Should I shield the electronics in my instrument? What's the best way to do so?
A. Shielding keeps electrical noise out of your guitar, and out of your mix. Guitars with single-coil pickups are most subject to noise, but humbuckers can have noise problems, too. Assuming that the guitar is properly wired, shielding will solve or greatly reduce most hum/noise problems. (Note that some wiring options, such as a coil splitter or a phase switch that changes the polarity of one humbucker, can turn a quiet guitar into a noisy one.) Acoustic-electrics with piezo or other vibration-sensitive pickups are pretty much impervious to noise.
You can shield the entire control cavity one of two ways: with conductive paint specifically made for the purpose, or by lining it with self-adhesive metal foil. The best foil is copper, but aluminum tape (real metal tape, not silver cloth duct tape) will work, too. Line the entire cavity, as well as the back of the pickguard and rear access cover, and make one ground connection to the ground side of the output jack. Your controls and other metal objects should not touch the metal foil; doing so may create ground loops. Cut a thin ring around the area where you tighten down your pots and switches.
You can solder a wire to copper, but you can't solder to aluminum. Create a contact area for the ground wire by putting a small wood screw or sheet metal screw through the foil and into the guitar body. Use a small metal spring or finger to create contact between the shielding on the back of the pickguard or access plate and the other shielding.
You can also wrap shielding tape around the body and bottom of single coil pickups, which will control much of their tendency to pick up noise. Some people feel that shielding changes the sound of the pickup, but the effect of nonmagnetic materials such as copper and aluminum on the pickups' fields is minimal. The wrapping should be attached to the pickup's shield braid if it has one, or you should run a separate wire for each pickup from the tape to the central grounding point for your instrument (see star grounding, below).
The other way to shield an instrument is to use shielded wire for all wiring runs in the guitar, but to make sure that only one end of the shield is grounded on every run, and that all of the shields ultimately connect at one central place (again, see star grounding). It's important that there be only one ground path from any component to the central ground. A guitar with all wiring runs shielded and all components star grounded should be just as quiet as one with a fully shielded control cavity.
Q. The pickups I just installed have a loud hum that stops when I touch the bridge -- what now?
A. The bridge and strings aren't grounded properly. Hum, grounding, and electric shock issues are addressed at John Atchley's Guitarnuts website.
Q: What is star grounding? Why is it important?
A. Each component should have only one ground connection, all wired to a common point. This is called star grounding. Multiple paths to ground create "ground loops," minuscule voltage differences between components. Hum "rides" the voltage differences, just like a humbucker pickup in reverse. John Atchley's Guitarnuts website site has an excellent guide to proper wiring and shielding.
Q. I have little/no experience as a builder and have decided that building instruments is what I want to do for a living. What's the best way to get started?
A. As one MIMForum member said recently, "There is no dishonor in keeping a day job." Instrument making can be a tough business to break into, and many people find the transition from hobby to livelyhood just isn't worth it. We have seen plenty of people fail not because they lack building chops, but because they lack business acumen. For that reason we've written a FAQ just for you: The MIMForum Going Full-Time Pro miniFAQ.
Q. Anything else you want to tell me?
A. We're glad you asked. As a matter of fact: yes, there is. People often come to our Forum who over-think the building process to such an extent that their project is delayed by months, or even years. They could have built one or more instruments in that amount of time, and have all that knowledge and experience under their belts. We're not telling you not to think things through, but we do want you to start making sawdust as soon as you can. Don't try to account for absolutely every hypothetical problem before you start building - just start building. We promise that in a very short time you'll have plenty of non-hypothetical issues to deal with. No amount of thinking can substitute for actual building experience.
We also have a number of newbies who want to reinvent the wheel and make major changes in proven designs before they've built even one instrument, who spend an enormous amount of time asking about alternative or non-traditional materials/shapes/whatever. There are two main problems we see with this. First: a new builder won't be able to tell if the sound they end up with is the result of whatever they did that was non-traditional because they have no instruments of their own construction to compare it to. Second: materials that are not known to work well may have an adverse effect on the sound or structural integrity of the instrument. We've said this a few times already, it's worth repeating one final time. For your first instrument stick with proven materials and designs, and save the large experiments for after you have a bit of experience. We're not talking about things like the body shape of a solid-body instrument (within reason) or headstock shape or other decorative feature. We're talking about major structural features. We're also not making a blanket "don't experiment" statement. We're just trying really hard to warn newbies away from the whole "reinvent the wheel" thing for a first instrument. The time to reinvent the wheel is *after* you know how to build one that works.
Q. What's the best glue?
A. There's no single "best" glue, but there are several that have proven themselves over the years, and in the case of hide glue, over centuries. Our recommendations are BRAND-NAME/PRODUCT SPECIFIC where applicable. Not all glues are created equal so don't assume that any glue readily available to you is good enough for your instrument - different formulations greatly affect quality, especially with yellow glues and epoxies. Some glues have a shelf-life and will expire, yellow glues especially should be fresh. Here's a quick guide to the strengths and weaknesses of the most popular glues. Note that there's a continuing emphasis on disassembly. For electric guitars, set necks (glued-in), as found on most Gibsons, are often disassembled for repair, replacement, or refinishing. Fingerboards need to be removed in order to replace broken truss rods or just because they're worn out. Acoustic guitars also require neck removal and fingerboard replacement, but repairs may require removal of the bridge, top, or back of a guitar as well. Some future repair person will either bless you or curse you based on your choice of glues.
GLUE PRO CON
Hide glue Traditional instrument builders' choice. Very strong, can be disassembled for repair. Invisible joints with good woodworking technique. Dry granules must be mixed with water, heated, then kept at a steady temperature. There is a learning curve.
Premixed liquid hide glue Convenient Weaker than fresh-mixed hide glue. Not recommended for lutherie.
Elmer's Probond Yellow Glue
(PVA, Aliphatic Resin glue) Convenient, strong, easy to use over a wide range of temperatures More difficult to disassemble/repair than hide glue. Oily/resinous woods (most tropicals) may require special preparation. Some joints, such as neck scarf joints, may creep over time, one year shelf life.
Titebond II, Titebond III Waterproof (II), longer open time (III) Not recommended for lutherie, doesn't dry hard.
Elmer's Yellow Carpenter's Glue Low chilling temperature Not recommended for lutherie, doesn't dry hard.
Plastic Resin/Urea Formaldehyde/UF
Cascamite seems to be the most popular brand Strong bond, unlimited shelf life of powder, dries hard. Excellent for lamination. Light tan color may show line when joining light woods. Powder is an irritant/sensitizer. Difficult to disassemble.
Epoxy Strong bonds, can be used clear or with fillers/wood flour. Best for joining dissimilar materials such as wood and metal, works well on oily tropical woods. May break down under heat. Some epoxies are waxy, potentially deadening instrument resonance.
Polyurethane glue ("Gorilla" is the most readily available brand but our members don't like it, they prefer "Probond.") Convenient, strong. Gap-filling properties. Stains skin, gap-filling foam is weak. Disassembly is difficult. Limited shelf life.
Cyanoacrylate/CA/Krazy/Super glue Very fast bonding, dries hard and clear. Available in various consistencies. Good for strengthening porous woods. Good for repairing some clear finishes. Low shear strength. Becomes brittle and releases under heat. May destroy some finishes. Reacts with some metals. Easily attaches fingers to objects under construction and to one another. Fumes are an eye irritant.
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