This handmade custom guitar took nearly a decade to complete. Mainly because life events and other projects that were higher priority. We had our daughter, moved into a project house and just got busy with “stuff”.
As far as projects go, this one ticked all the boxes: fun, challenging and something I’m very proud of.
The design comes from a close friend, Leon, who drew up the design below.
I’d inherited some really nice hardwood from another friend when he moved to Atlanta. In his words, I was the only one he knew that wouldn’t use it for firewood!
He’d given me some great big chunks of bloodwood which looks amazing with a glossy finish. He also gave me some maple, canary and zebra.
I planned a through neck guitar (as opposed to bolt on) and started with laminating 4 strips of maple. These strips have an alternating direction of the grain, with a thin strip of bloodwood down the middle.
For this project, I purchased wood online for the first time. Some AAA bookmatched quilted maple. This type of wood comes from a maple tree that grew on the side of a hill. This can cause one side of the trunk to be under more stress than the other. The result is a beautiful wavy pattern that has amazing depth. I watched a documentary on it, yep I’m that nerdy.
I also purchased some wenge, which is the really dark wood in the photo below. This wood is the right color, easy to work with and a lot less expensive than ebony. The downside is, there are tiny holes everywhere that need to be filled before you can finish it.
The maple arrived with a guitar shape drawn on it. This helped align the two pieces correctly for gluing. Once the glue dried I cut out MY guitar shape and started planning to fit the hunk of bloodwood to match Leon’s design.
The swooping shape provided some challenges. Cutting the two pieces on a bandsaw would get me close but I wanted it to fit perfectly. To do this, I cut a piece of scrap wood with the right curve and sanded it smooth. I used a brass collar in my router base that has different diameter spacer rings that snap on. I cut the two pieces close to the line on the bandsaw and then, using two different sized collars to cut each piece, I finished off the curve. This took a few tries and several lost hours contemplating which size collars to use and if this was really going to work. In the end, I got the fit I was hoping for, the two pieces fit together perfectly.
Once the glue was dry, I cleaned the dried excess off both sides and cut the rough shape of the guitar again. I cut the final shape using a pattern and my router after the whole thing was glued together.
The face of the guitar was aligned and glued to the neck. This left two sections on the back either side of the neck, that needed some lumber. This was also tricky in that the chunk-o-lumber had to fit in tight against two surfaces that should be 90 deg to each other.
After a lot more contemplation and speaking with a couple expert machinists at work, I decided that I could use my router table to do a decent job of making the back of the face parallel to the back of the neck. This meant a squared piece of maple would fit tightly. In order to ensure a gap-less, snug fit and ease the transition from the expensive maple on the front to the less expensive stuff on the back, I used some thin strips of wenge.
Whilst awaiting for thouest glue to dry (really kicking up the quality of my writing), I started working on the fretboard inlay.
I cut these on a scroll saw and cleaned them up with small files and sand paper. I used more double sided sticky tape to hold the pieces in place on the fretboard and then traced them with a sharp carving knife. This leaves a clean edge when routing out for the inlay, assuming you can stay in the lines…I struggled with that in a few spots.
The rest of the inlay was a little easier without so many small curves.
Once the inlay was finished I started shaping the neck. The best part of a through-body neck is having a nice smooth thinned-out heel (where the neck meets the body). I started with shaping here.
Before shaping the rest of the body, I figured it would be easier to do the body inlay while everything was still flat.
With this inlay, I again traced it with the carving knife but with the figured wood it was really hard to see the lines. I solved this by rubbing marking chalk into them.
The large inlay allowed me to do most of the work with the big router and then sneak up on the edges with the dremel.
With this large a piece, it took a lot of test fitting in order to get it to fit tightly, but not so tight that pieces will break from forcing it in.
From this point the real focus was on not screwing something up because of all the work that had gone in so far.
The cover for the electronics cavity on the back is usually just a piece of plastic, sometimes a chunk of similar or complimentary wood. I decided to use it as an accent. Using the scanner/printer I blew up the original design of the 12 fret inlay and traced this onto the wooden cover and some more wenge. With the scroll saw and trusty dremel, I made a super fancy electronics cavity cover.
Cutting out the cavities is always stressful, they have to be in the right place, you have to be very careful not to slip with the router, you can’t take out too much material at once or the bit can get too hot or bite into the wood jerking the whole tool.
Shaping the body of the guitar is fun, getting all the right curves in all the right places, sanding it all smooth. The result is a guitar that’s nearly ready for sealer and a glossy finish. But first, all the filing and sanding.
Bloodwood is gorgeous but dense and hard to work with, especially when using hand tools. I like to have a nice angled surface where the bloodwood is for my forearm. I started trying to make this with my file, but it was taking a really long time and wasn’t going to be as clean and smooth as it should be. So I engineered the crap out of it. I spent an hour or two building a custom, one time use jig to hold the guitar at the perfect angle so that I could run it across the table saw.
After cleaning up the cut with a lot of filing and sanding, this gave me the shape I was after.
Once the top was nearly finished I started shaping the back. You can see the super cool electronics cavity cover in place.
About this time I was attempting to learn how to play a lot of different songs. Mostly hard rock. This resulting in listening to a lot of these songs over and over on Youtube. Chevelle has several songs that I was rocking out with including Shameful Metaphors. The video for the song showed a lot of live concert footage and the bassist for the band appeared to have white fret markers or tape across the back of his guitar neck marking the key frets (3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th….). I thought this both looked really cool and makes SO much more sense than a tiny dot at the edge of the fretboard and a large dot on the face of the fretboard. Aside from first year students, no guitarists are looking at the face of the fretboard when they’re playing, especially if they’re standing (it’s hard to really rock out while sitting) and the tiny dots are not a great reference.
I set out to duplicate this, though with a light colored maple neck I used more wenge for my fret markers.
I regretted starting this, I think it looks amazing but each fret marker was a different width but needed to be consistent with the amount that could be seen from the face of the fretboard and they should end the same distance from the neck centerline on the back. Frankly, it was a lot of painstaking work that had to be entirely done by hand. Similar to women with childbirth, the pain was soon forgotten and I subjected myself to this again with Kyle’s guitar.
Being nearly done I did some test assembly and ran into a couple snags that became “design features”. The electronics cavity was too far from where I wanted the output jack and there was no way for me to drill out the hole inside the cavity. My solution was to sink the jack.
I also struggled to get the truss rod adjustment hole to look “professional”, it came out all wonky and was difficult to fix with everything glued together and the truss rod in the hole.
My solution was to use some of the scrap figured maple and mirror the bloodwood/maple curve from the body. I made this fairly thin and glued it to the head stock after making a nice clean hole for adjusting the truss rod.
While solving the misshapen hole problem I created another one, now my headstock was too thick for the tuners. This resulted in yet another “design feature”.
With all my assembly problems solved….or should I say, last minute design features added. I was finally ready to finish sanding and apply the shiny stuff.
As an added bonus, it actually works! Although it does need different pickups in it. I don’t care for the sound of these.