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Machine Your Own Guitar

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If you're thinking about designing and building a custom guitar, or even if you're just curious, this Instructable can give you some valuable knowledge and a look at utilizing tools in a different way than maybe you would think was possible, with amazing results.

Applied learning colleges and universities often have a machine shop handy, and if you're a student and you ask nice enough, they might just let you use their tools to build your very own guitar with unparalleled precision.

I managed to put this project together for about $100, parts and finishing products included. This is because the neck I used was a donor from an old Fender "Stratocopy" and the wood was a leftover oak stair from my uncle. Recycling!  If you purchased a nice quality complete neck, and a nice slab of wood,this project could bump up to $450, and up to $600 for premium pickups and electronics.

Now, since mills are large, expensive and potentially dangerous machines I am going to write this Instructable assuming you have little/no milling experience, but have someone close by to assist and answer your machine-specific questions.  I won't be able to help with that kind of specific questions.

Alright, lets get to work!

 
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joypad3 years ago
Could i use this as a guide to making a four string Bass guitar? also ho might i go putting a thumb rest on one of the pickups?
mattthegamer463 (author)  joypad3 years ago
Yeah for sure, the ideas are all the same. You might want to read a couple other DIY bass guitar guides too to make sure you don't miss anything unique to bass guitars.

From what I gather the thumb rests just sit above the strings and you place your thumb on them while your fingers do the strumming. I haven't ever actually seen those in real life. Looks like you just simply screw them down, doesn't seem to be related to pickups at all.
Yeah they just screw on. Nothing to do with the pickups, although in the majority of cases what they're screwed to is the pickguard. They go for about £5 online.
friger3 years ago
Personally, I love the cross grain look you got going on there. I am tempted to add a cross grain veneer to my next build just to get that look.
mattthegamer463 (author)  friger3 years ago
I was initially concerned that there would be structural issues, but it seems that the wood is stronger at the glued seams than the rest of the wood itself!

Glad you like the look.
hohum3 years ago
sorry to be the dumb one,,,,, but, are all the black wires connected together?

very nice looking guitar, be proud for your undertaking, it was a lot of work
mattthegamer463 (author)  hohum3 years ago
Yes, they are. Sorry if that wasn't clear.
wondermeat3 years ago
i think you should of used a plunge router it would of done a cleaner job and it wouldnt have went through your guitar
mattthegamer463 (author)  wondermeat3 years ago
I decided against it because I have no experience with them, and they don't offer the go-as-slow-as-you-want approach that a mill offers. Time is free, material isn't.
CaladanJen3 years ago
That's good work. I'm not a guitar player, but I am a woodworker, so I had a few suggestions of my own. The biggest problem I see with your Instructable is that it uses machines that most people won't have access to. Big milling machines and full-sized floor-standing drill presses are pretty pricey tools. The cool part is that there are affordable substitutes for them.

For the contour shaping, I would use a bandsaw for the rough cutting, like you did, but I'd use a 3/8" curve-cutting blade after I cut off the big chunks to get to within a couple millimeters of the line. For a job like this, you don't need an especially large bandsaw - a $100 9" from a home center will do fine. A jigsaw just can't cut curves accurately enough to bother with for this. To clean it up, rather than using a milling machine, I'd use a tool called an oscillating spindle sander. These can be had for $100 or so at Harbor Freight, or you could get the popular Ridgid model for under $300. Don't let the word "sander" make you think "slow" - it'll finish the shaping task in minutes. You could also use a curved patternmaker's rasp (not a file) and a lot of patience, or even a convex-soled spokeshave, if you'd rather use hand tools.

For the internal pockets, I completely agree that the Forstner bits in a drill press are a great way to rough them out. A relatively small press will do that job, so I consider that well within the capabilities of even a modest home wood shop. To finish the walls of the holes, rather than a milling machine, the old fashioned way is actually quick and not nearly as hard as it sounds - some sharp chisels and a traditional joiner's mallet. I'm a relative novice at such things, and I've taken on more complicated mortises using that technique with great success. Make sure to keep those chisels sharp, though - they are almost always sold dull, and they do lose their edge as you work. 1500 grit sandpaper and a sheet of plate glass or a cast-iron machine table solves that problem quickly enough.

As for drilling the long hole, your method requires a rather large drill press and is still a bit error prone. I have a simple suggestion. Start with an "installer" drill bit which has a long shank of the same diameter as the cutting flutes. Take a chunk of wood about 3" on a side, and drill a hole through it, referenced to a flat "bottom" side, at the height that you will be drilling the long bore at, being careful to make it as parallel to the bottom as you can. Then just cut the block in half, leaving a hole in both blocks. Insert the bit into the holes, spacing the blocks as far apart as you can make them while still having enough bit length to drill the hole in the body. Using the bit as a reference to keep the blocks properly aligned, fasten them to your workbench in some manner (clamps, dog holes, or make a jig by screwing them to a sheet of plywood). Clamp the guitar body down to the bench or plywood, properly aligned with the guide blocks, and drill the hole using a regular hand drill. If you plan to make more than one guitar this way, make the plywood jig and add some toggle clamps on spacer blocks to hold the guitar body in place for drilling.

Also, I think I'd use a cabinet scraper instead of sanding through all the rough grits or using a power sander. That's just personal preference, though.

Hopefully those suggestions will be useful to anyone reading along who does not have access to the expensive tools that you used.
mattthegamer463 (author)  CaladanJen3 years ago
Wow, thank you for the incredible post. I'm aware that not many people would have access to this kind of machinery, but a large demographic was never my intention. I was just hoping that I could maybe inspire someone who does have this machinery to step outside their comfort zone and try something like this, and get people who don't have the tools to start thinking creatively. This isn't what I would call a "definitive" guide, but something to build on your guitar making knowledge. I'm not a carpenter, this is one of my very few endeavours into woodworking. Because of that inexperience, I'm not a fan of machines like routers, they're just too easy to screw everything up with, and they're just plain scary. I had a nice mishap with one that peeled back a nice bit of skin on my thumb. One slip and you just ruined hundreds of dollars, or at very best your project won't come out as intended. When you're not painting the final product, using filler is not an option. I like the low, calculated work that the mill gave me. If you've got the tools, why not use them? The insane drill hole was a pretty big stretch. a nicer way would be to either have two slabs that you glue together to form the body of the guitar, so that you can route or mill channels in the middle, or to have a top piece that covers all the channels. Also, a pickguard works great for covering Fender-style wire jobs.
I understand your hesitation about routers. Any tool that removes stock that quickly has the potential to ruin a project pretty quickly. A mix of hand tools and sanders is much easier to control. I use a router in my own work, but I'm always aware that one little slip and it'll take a chunk out of my workpiece.
Good Job! Suggestions: The body grain is perpendicular to the line of stress (string pressure) - it might crack across the grain. I do not know a fix other than replacing the body. I have been very happy with Duplicolor automoticve finises for many years- get them at your local autoparts store. Really tough and buff out well. Let hem dry for about 2 weeks before any final finish work. I much prefer high ohm control pots- 500K is usual for humbuckers- personally, I use 1 Megohm or more. I never put in a tone pot, just a volumn control, maybe - anything that bleeds tone out of your signal is bad! A pickup selector switch will give you more range of sound and, if your humbuckers are wired to allow split-coil operation, you can get Strat and Tele single coil sounds with 2 mini-switches. Another option is a phase switch, a simple DPDT will add another more layers of sound opportinities. Rock on!
mattthegamer463 (author)  guitarpicker73 years ago
Like I said in the write-up, the grain is horizontal because I was limited by the wood I had.
This guitar looks great! Great Job!! :) I like the way you have the grain going across the body, and how you've put the volume controls out of the way of getting bumped. I do like the way that 3 on a side headstocks look on Les Paul styled guitars, but since you had the neck on hand, you can't argue with the price! :) Rock on! www.dfwsupergeek.com
mattthegamer463 (author)  dfwsupergeek3 years ago
Thanks for your comment. :)
mbelu3 years ago
Really beautiful guitar. You gave me some ideas. The electronic circuit puzzles me, though. The 100k value of the potentiometers is too low for pasive humbuckers (usually 500k) and too high for active humbuckers (usually 25k). What's the reasoning behind this? Also, a tone control (two for a Les Paul circuit like yours) would be quite useful.
mattthegamer463 (author)  mbelu3 years ago
I just had the 100k pots lying around, and they seem to work fine. I would have gone and bought new 500k pots if there had been an issue. They're also wired in a less common method, so maybe that is part of it. I've never really found that tone controls do anything... maybe thats just me.
Right, it's not the usual wiring. As you turn back the volume, the electrical resistance seen by the pickup is lower and lower. So it is also somewhat of a tone control. I'm curios to hear it. Do you have audio samples somewhere? Also you didn't put (or I didn't find them) back pictures. I'd like to see how did you connect the shapes of the neck heel and the body. Sorry if I seem to nag you, I love guitars and building.
mattthegamer463 (author)  mbelu3 years ago
No problem. I'll record some quick demo's in the next couple days, and post them here, or as a Youtube video. Also, I'll take some back pictures, just for you. :)
Awsome! Thanks!
slappy1eye3 years ago
First let me say, not too bad for your 1st guitar! I bet your next one will be pretty awesome! To make a custom guitar all you have to do to "size up" the project, the placement of the bridge has to be equal to the distance from the center of the nut to the top of the back of the 12th fret as the distance from the center of the bridge post from the back of the top of the 12th fret. http://www.stewmac.com/freeinfo/Building,_general/Assembly/i-4003/i-4003_3.html StewMac has excellent builders guide information http://www.stewmac.com/freeinfo/Building,_general/Assembly/i-4003.html
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BlueRick3 years ago
I think you did a beautiful job. I'm a player, not a builder but if I had the resources, equipment and time I surely would...and it would look something like yours...with a trem bar...maybe. BlueRick@www.facebook.com/BlueRick
anderekel3 years ago
Since you asked for suggestions and such I have a few. First off you want the grain the to be going up and down the guitar body, not side to side like you have. The reason is that it vibrates much more freely when the grain is going that direction (and I know it's electric but the wood vibrations do still affect the sound). Another issue with the grain direction is the way wood moves. It tends to expand and retract along the width, so your scale length will actually change a little bit throughout the year with the grain going in the direction it is. The other thing I notice is the neck pocket. You want a little bit of wood on either side of the neck (where it's screwed to the body) because the way it is now, the neck can (and probably will) shift to the side a little bit and that will affect the playability and intonation, now, it may be fine, but it's always good to make sure :) That said, it looks like you did a nice job on your guitar. I really like the finish and overall look of it. (Looking through again I see that you did mention the grain issue)
Think of wood grain as a map, with the grain being a set of roadways. Most think of the point from the bridge to the nut as the only important factor in an electric guitar. Actually, the whole piece is what affects the vibration of the strings. So, thinking this way, you can see that using a side-ways grain (as in your build) makes the vibrations cross a lot of roads, dampening the vibrations. Going along the grain (or roadways) there are fewer paths for them to cross, so the vibrations continue for a longer period. That's called SUSTAIN - and every guitarist's ideal - LOL - The Never-Ending Note! ($99 Wally-Mart knockoffs are possible because they use plywood.... ACK!) An excellent 'ible! There is a ton of great info here for anyone tackling a solid- body, or any idea that needs extensive routing. Great woodworking ideas, and well documented. Superb!
mattthegamer463 (author)  TriacNT3 years ago
Thanks. The sustain isn't too bad on this baby though.
mattthegamer463 (author)  anderekel3 years ago
Like I said in the writeup, I was constrained by the wood I had. I think the neck will stay in place. Having wood on three sides of it isn't really a requirement unless you have massive, irregular holes drilled in the pocket. If its bolted down right, the wood wouldn't be necessary at all.
quadracer3 years ago
Thank you, Im in the process of building a guitar and this helped me figure out some problems im Having.
mattthegamer463 (author)  quadracer3 years ago
Great, I'm glad to hear that. Feel free to ask me directly if you have any more issues and I'll try by best to help you out.
Re-design3 years ago
Excellent build and top notch ible.
mattthegamer463 (author)  Re-design3 years ago
Thanks!
Xm3buX3 years ago

I don't know a lot about guitars, but this is awesome!

Great work :D

mattthegamer463 (author)  Xm3buX3 years ago
Thanks. :)
Schmidtn3 years ago
Nice build and nice guitar! It might cost a little bit more, but if people are looking for some place to get custom necks built, I've had terrific success with Warmoth. And Seymour Duncan's got wiring examples for every type of guitar known to man on his website if they want a setup other than HH with two knobs.
Have you ever used a Mighty Mite neck? I've seen a lot up on ebay, but I've never gotten to try one.
So I did a little Googling... seems Mighty Mite necks come pretty rough and need to have the frets leveled and people complain that the finish only lasts a couple months. BUT they are only $80-ish bucks on eBay. A lot of people recommended Allparts necks (they're around $180-ish) but I've never dealt with them so I can't attest to their quality of work. I did go to Warmoth's Showcase (premade, waiting orders to finish) necks and found some nice ones.
Here's the Showcase link: http://www.warmoth.com/Pages/ClassicShowcase.aspx?Body=1&Spotlight=1&Path=Neck
And here's the neck I really like.  If you get it with 6150 Vintage Jumbo frets, white Corian nut and a clear stain nitro finish it'll cost $265:
http://www.warmoth.com/Showcase/ShowcaseNeck.aspx?i=SN7672&Body=1&Path=Neck
Pretty, pretty
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Thanks, that neck is gorgeous btw.
No, the only guitar I ever put together was a Warmoth body and neck, but I can attest to how amazing the quality of their work is. This is their cheapest, no thrills Rosewood fretboard wood and it's the most beautiful I've ever seen!
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mattthegamer463 (author)  Schmidtn3 years ago
Yes, Seymour Duncan's site is amazing. I based my wiring scheme off a SD scheme.
iamtoats3 years ago
Sick. I'm building a neck through Takamine explorer shaped guitar with a spalted top. I've got blackouts for it, and may put in a Piezo bridge. I'm going big with this guitar because I've been really into guitar for 5 or 6 years, and need a new shred machine...
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