Introduction: Building an Electric Guitar As a Beginner
This project is meant to guide you through the process of building an electric guitar without much knowledge of how a guitar works, and with minimal machinery. When I was looking to build this guitar, I had next to no knowledge of how electric guitars work. I had been wanting to learn to play guitar for a long time, and I wanted to build my first guitar as a learning experience if nothing else since I had zero experience with any musical instruments. The problem was that most plans involve lots of big, expensive tools like table or plunge routers, big planers, and all manner of things that I lack the money and space for. I finally doubled down during quarantine to start working on this project that I've been thinking about for years. Hopefully it can help you get started in learning to build and understand a guitar.
- Trim Router
- 1" Trimming Router Bit (make sure shaft size matches router chuck)
- 1/2" Round Over Bit (make sure shaft size matches router chuck)
- Jigsaw and blades
- Hand Drill
- Standard set of drill bits
- Long 3/16" drill bit (at least 10")
- Soldering Iron
- Coping Saw (optional)
- Hardwood plywood (2'x4'x3/4") of your choice (I used Maple)
- Wood Glue
- Wood Putty
- Parafin Wax
- Prebuilt neck (the neck is complicated and critical to the functionality of the guitar. Shoot for the stars if you wish, but know that you will save yourself a lot of hassle and headaches by giving in on this)
- Audio Grade Capacitors (0.022uF or your choice of value. I recommend watching comparison videos to decide)
- x2 Strap Buttons
- Wire and Solder
Step 1: Prep Plywood to Be a Body Blank
Start by cutting your 2'x4' sheet of plywood in half. Glue the two squares together with the desired sides facing out. Do not be stingy with the wood glue. Spread it out fairly evenly and liberally so that when you squeeze the two together, a bit of glue starts to bead out on the edges.
Clamp it together and place heavy things on top. Let sit to dry based on bottle directions.
Step 2: Decide on a Body Design
I chose a Telecaster style for this build, so I obtained schematics (attached) for that particular style. Print out the schematics either on separate sheets that you tape together (this option is less likely to be perfectly faithful to the design in terms of scaling after the sheets have been matched together), or go to a printing center such as at Staples and get a large 1:1 printout of the pdf.
Step 3: Mark the Body Blank With the Design
Cut out the design that you printed off for the guitar body. Tape it down to the blank in the desired spot with painters tape or any tape that comes off easily without ripping the design. Then trace the design onto the plywood.
Step 4: Cut Out the Body
If you are trying to build more than one guitar or are simply willing to go to the effort of making a body template for the sake of it, cut a sheet of MDF to the shape of the design first. And use that as a guide for cutting the body. Ideally you would use a router with a long enough bit for the width of the plywood, setting a bearing guide on the template to avoid over cutting the body. I did not do this because I did not have a large enough router to handle the proper bit and was unwilling to pay for one. If you do not want to make a template, ignore this paragraph and go to the next one.
Another quick note: if you are using a very unprofessional setup with a trim router like I am, it is easier to get a clean cut out for the neck pocket (where the prebuilt neck will sit) before cutting out the body.
You can cut out the body in whichever way you feel inclined. I used a cheap jigsaw with a blade longer than the width of the glued together plywood (about 1.5 inches). If you have a router with a large enough bit and chuck to hold the bit, you can make the cut fairly easily. My jigsaw left a slight angle to the sides, but I was able to sand it down by taking a sanding block to the sides of the body.
The cutouts near where the neck pocket will go are harder to reach with a tool like a jigsaw that can't turn on a dime. If you are experiencing a problem with this, you will likely need to hand cut with a coping saw or something similar to get the shape that you want. Be careful not to over cut, and you will almost certainly need to do some sanding to get a nice curve.
Step 5: Make the Neck Pocket
Put the 1" router bit in the trim router, making sure to tighten it well. Mark a line 5/8" down from the top surface of the guitar for the depth of the neck pocket (which is less than the height of the neck). Do not cut across this line if you can avoid it. Also, mark out the shape of the neck where the neck pocket will be cut out.
Set the router to a very low depth. and make a pass, cutting out material inside the boundary lines that you set. After clearing that layer, turn off the router and adjust the depth of the cut to be a bit more. Continue this process in many small passes so as to not push the router past its limits and to try to practice getting flat surface for the cut which is ideal at the bottom of the neck pocket.
The neck pocket is critical. The bottom must be flat so that the neck sits flat relative to the body, not at an angle or tilted. Sand it down to this ideal. You can make a sanding block to fit the pocket, chisel, or use wood putty to try to even things out if you struggled with getting the flat surface from routing.
If you over cut, use wood putty to fill the gaps and ensure that the neck fits tightly in the pocket. Sand and chisel the wood putty slowly once dry or else you might need to apply more. Do not put the neck in and take it out too much as the putty will give a bit and the neck will not sit as tightly in the pocket.
Step 6: Attach the Neck Temporarily
Attaching the neck temporarily will allow you to make the rest of the cuts in the body with certainty of where the neck will be, which is very useful. Determine where the neck plate should sit on the back of the body and mark the four screw holes. The neck plate should be near the top edge of the neck pocket and centered sideways.
Place the neck in the desired position in the neck pocket. Ideally it can just sit in by friction.
Make sure to mark the depth of holes by placing tape at the stop mark on the drill bit.
Make small pilot holes in each of the marked locations to the depth of the neck plate screws minus the thickness of the neck plate. You will want to start small with the holes and work your way up to prevent tearouts and cracking of the wood.
Put painters tape or similar low residue tape over the initial pilot holes on both sides of the holes. This will help tearouts, but even if there are some, they will almost certainly be covered by the neck or neck plate (or wood putty can fix all kinds of problems).
Drill with increased sized bits until you reach the max bit size that will allow the neck plate screws (bit should be at or slightly under the width of the screw without the threads).
Remove the neck.
Drill the holes in the neck pocket (not the neck) with increased sized bits until the neck plate screws can be placed in easily without the threads grabbing the plywood.
Before placing screws in the wood, put some wax on the threads at the tip of the screws to help them go in easily. Place the neck plate on the back of the body, the neck in the pocket, and the screws in the proper holes. For now, do not put the screws in all the way. Do not over tighten.
Step 7: Making the Bridge Pickup Cutout
With the neck in position, use a straightedge to draw the lines extending from the sides of the neck along the body. Then mark the line that is 25.5" from the nut on the bridge (the piece with the cutouts for the strings near the headstock). The proper way is to measure from the side of the bridge closest to the body. This line will mark the closest position that the saddles (the part of the bridge that the string passes over) can be moved to the neck. Some bridges have a cutout for the bridge pickup rather than using a pickup ring, in which case it is a very simple matter of deciding the pickup location. Mark the position for the cutout based on the bridge or pickup ring.
Route out the cavity in many, small passes using the trimming bit. Route it down to the desired depth to fit the pickup.
Step 8: Route the Control Cavity
The positioning of the control cavity is rather arbitrary, but usually it is parallel to the centerline of the guitar. Mark the desired position of the cavity and follow the previously established method of routing the hole with the trimming bit, doing many shallow passes. The depth of this hole is dependent on the potentiometers and switch chosen. The classic switch is very deep, so I would not recommend using it, but if you do, plan on bending the leads upward and only cutting lower where necessary to fit the switch.
Step 9: Route the Neck Pickup Cavity
The neck pickup cavity should be centered about the neck like the bridge pickup. The top of it is about 0.25-0.3" from the bottom of the neck pocket.
Route it deep enough in many, small passes with the trimming bit in order for the pickup to fit.
Step 10: Route the Input Jack Plugin
Using the trim router and trimming bit, cut out a whole to fit the input jack, using many small passes.
Drill a 3/8" hole through the hole you just made into the control cavity for wiring the input jack to the rest of the electronics.
Step 11: Drilling Holes
At this step, I did a test fit of all the hardware to make sure everything would work. You can choose now or later to add pilot holes for all hardware so everything will be easy to position later. Another question is whether you want to top load or through load the guitar strings. I recommend top loading which requires no extra holes and sounds almost exactly the same as through loading. You can look up some comparison tests, but good luck hearing the difference. So, go with the easier path. Through loading needs precise holes, which generally require a drill press to look good.
Add pilot holes for the strap buttons (one at the bottom center and the other at the top left of the body. The positions are indicated in the original schematic.
Remove the neck and all other hardware.
Using the long 3/16" drill bit, drill through the wall of the bridge pickup cavity into the control cavity.
Using the same bit, drill from the back wall of the neck pocket, through the neck pickup cavity, into the control cavity. These holes will be used for wiring later.
Step 12: Remove the Rough Edges
Place the round over bit into the trim router and tighten. Since the round over bit has a bearing on the bottom, it will follow the edge of the guitar and create a smoothed edge. Route the external edges except for the neck pocket ones and keep a healthy distance between the router and the sharper points by the neck pocket. The router can very easily tear out that perfect edge if you get too close. Sand it down by hand instead.
After routing, sand the body to your liking. Use a smooth grit to finish sanding.
Step 13: Plug Pores
The plywood body likely has some unwanted holes on the sides that disturb the perfect surfaces of your guitar. Go lightly over the guitar body with wood putty, just using enough to plug the unwanted holes. This is also a good time to add any putty if any other mistakes were made. If you use too much, you can always use a slightly damp cloth to remove additional putty afterwards.
Rub a lightly damped cloth over all of the guitar surfaces. This is to remove any sawdust so that the finish will stick better.
Step 14: Applying a Finish
You can now choose to stain, paint, or skip straight to the finish. I chose to only apply the finish because I like the natural Maple, so I will describe that process here.
Hang the guitar body from the holes for the neck screws. This is to make it easier to apply the finish all at once without touching the body.
Starting from the top and working downward, apply polyurethane with a paint brush. Follow the grain of the wood so that the brush strokes cannot be seen as easily afterwards. Watch for spots where too much polyurethane was used and it created a bead that started to run down the guitar. Try to brush these flat before they harden.
Once you have a good coat without runs, let it sit to dry as directed on the can. Once dry, very lightly brush the body with a very fine grit of sandpaper. This is only to remove little bubbles that are created while drying. If there is a blemish from a run or such, feel free to sand more but be careful. Once you have finished sanding, use a lightly damp cloth to remove the sawdust again before starting a new coat.
Repeat the process of adding coats as many times as you like. I stopped after three.
Step 15: Assemble the Body!
When putting in screws, put wax on the threads to let them go in more easily.
Reattach the neck and neck plate.
Attach the pickups to their respective mounting hardware (pickup rings, bridges, or pickguards).
Thread the wires from the pickups through the holes that were drilled earlier into the control cavity, and tighten the pickup mounts to the body.
Solder wires to the two terminals of the input jack and thread them into the control cavity. Tighten the jack in place.
Attach the potentiometers and switch to the control cavity cover and solder together the circuit shown in the picture. Many such diagrams exist online if you want a different one. Screw in the hardware for good.
Screw in the strap buttons.
Step 16: Assemble the Neck!
Place the collets in the holes so that each is snug. If any holes are too large, add a thin layer of wood putty to tighten the fit.
Put the guitar tuner pegs in the holes on the neck. The self-aligned tuners are very nice since three or more of them in a row will maintain a good line. Screw them in place and use pilot holes.
Screw in the string tree between the two highest strings and across from the second peg as shown. Use a pilot hole.
Step 17: Finishing Up
Attach the strings and tune them. You will also need to intonate the guitar (which is adjusting the saddle locations). There are many thorough youtube guides on these subjects which are much harder to discuss with words. This step marks the beginning of learning to use the guitar and the conclusion to this build. I hope you enjoyed this guide!
Participated in the
Finish It Already Speed Challenge