Building a Basic Lap Steel Guitar




About: I live on the east coast of Canada, (New Brunswick). I have been tinkering and building things all my life and still manage to learn something new and exciting every day.

In this, my first Instructable, I will attempt to chronicle the construction of a simple Lap Steel guitar. Disclaimer; power tools and sharp cutting tools will be used and I take no responsibility for people who use these things carelessly, read and understand manufacture's instructions and safety guidelines for their proper and safe use. I would also like to acknowledge the web site for providing the basic guide lines I followed,

Here is a list of tools and materials I used in this build in no particular order, of course you are free to substitute any where you wish:
1 piece Maple 32" X 4" X 3/4"
1 Piece pine 32" X 4" X 3/4"
2 pieces of maple 18" X  3/4" X 1/8"
1 piece walnut 18" X 3/4" X 1/8"
several small bits of maple mostly 4" X 2" X 1/8" (pick-up cover plate and control plate)
2 pieces aluminum L channel, 2 1/4" X 1/2" X 3/4" ( bridge and nut)
1each 250 K volume pot
1each 1/4" phone jack
1 single coil pick up with adjustment screws and springs
Carpenters glue
2 part epoxy
6 tuner heads, 3 left, 3 right
5/8" #6 pan head screws
tuner head screws
Sand paper, 60, 100, 150 and 600 grit
table saw
miter saw
drill press
cordless drill
many clamps
flush cut hand saw
dove tail saw
wood rasp
several files
Cabinet scrapper
digital calipers
tape measure
18" steel rule
French curve
rotary tool with steel burr and sanding drums.
Safety glasses
assorted drill bits
lots of imagination
an occasional adult beverage of your choosing (I do not endorse drinking and operating tools)
0000 steel wool
one set of electric guitar strings
block plane
saddle square and combination square

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Step 1: Got Wood?

Ideally you would be using a solid 1 1/2 " plank for this project but since the costs can be prohibitive I went with a laminated blank, the top half is maple, the bottom half is clear pine. Cut your boards 32" long and 4" wide, then if you are using a 2 part construction method glue and clamp them together. I use LePage's carpenter glue but you can use what ever you like.

Step 2: Squaring Things Up

After the glue has had about 24 hours to cure you can square up the blank. I use a joiner and chop saw to do this however you can just as easily use a hand plane and hand saw.

Step 3: Laying Out the Head Stock

In this step I lay out the head stock in preparation for material removal.

Step 4: Making the Cut

At this point you should be ready to remove the bulk of the material on the head to bring it close to the finished thickness.

Step 5: Transition Time

The area where the head meets the neck requires some careful attention, it is easy to mess up the whole job here.  Again, a band saw would make quick work of this, but I chose to use a sharp chisel and hammer.

Step 6: The Head Shape

At this stage we are ready to cut the taper on the head and clean up the back side. Here a hand saw, rasp and file will be used followed by sand paper.

Step 7: Don't Fret the Small Things

The nice thing about a lap steel guitar is that the fret board can be super simple or non existent at all. You don't need to install fret wire and if it isn't perfectly flat or crowned it doesn't matter. Here I am trying to decide if I should use walnut or some lovely bird's eye maple I had on hand.  Since they both looked good I decided to use them both. You could assemble the fret board right on the guitar or do as I did and glue it up and mark it off before I attached it to the guitar.  The end product should be 2 1/4" wide by 1/8" to 1/4" thick by about 18" long, it is better to go long and trim later. Also, a word about scale length, I will be using a 22 1/2" scale length with 25 fret positions. This link has a great fret calculator.

Step 8: Time to Pick It Up a Bit

Now is the time to start thinking about how the electronics are going to work, in this step I show the process I went through to make the pick-up cover plate.  I started by using a 1/8" X 2" X 4" piece of maple I had left from the fret board. It is important to have extra of what ever stock you are going to use because this step is deceptively difficult to pull off in one go. Lay out must be accurate and your cuts need to be clean. I'll let you get the exact dimensions from the link I posted in the intro. I used a variety of tools here, a drill press, a rotary  tool with a steel burr attachment  a copping saw and a variety of files and rasps.

Step 9: Dealing With Cavities

Cutting the cavity for the pick up is where things have the potential to go terribly wrong. Once again be sure of your lay out and where on the guitar neck it will go. There are all kinds of theories about the perfect placement of a pick up that you don't need to get into. What you need to know is what space do you have available to work with? Since the scale length is 22 1/2" then we know the bridge will be exactly 22 1/2" from the nut.  we also know where our fret board ends, since you have glued it on by now.  So, pick a spot about half way between the bridge and the end of the fret board. 

Here I used a drill press and a 3/4" bit, use a bit that has a flat face, something like a forsner(sp?).
You will remove most of the material with this and work to the lay out lines with a hammer and chisel. I set my drill press to cut to a depth of 3/4" but you can go only 5/8" deep if you wish.

Step 10: Control Freak

In this step I'll show how I created the cavity for the volume pot and cord jack.  As with all things, begin with locating where on the guitar you want to place the controls.  Since this guitar will be played right hand, I placed the controls on the side facing away from the player.  I started with physically placing the components on the blank and deciding how much space I need to provide for them.  After that it was only a matter of centering the space on the blank and drilling out the cavity.  

Like with the pick-up cavity I used a drill press to remove the material. I found there was no need to do any chisel work here because the components were round.  Be sure you drill deep enough for the guitar cord to plug in without the end striking the bottom of the hole.  I then went ahead and drilled a 1/4" hole at an angle from the control cavity into the pick up cavity to run the wires.

Step 11: The Cover Up

With the control cavity done and every thing tested for fit, I set to making the cover plate for the controls. I decided to go with maple that matches the pick up cover plate.  I decided how long it should be and where parts would come through.  then it was just a matter of drilling the holes and doing some sanding.

Step 12: And Sometimes "bleep" Happens.

Now is the time to wax philosophically on the nature of building with plant materials. Mistakes  happen and it is the nature of wood to show it's displeasure at being made to do something it really doesn't want to.  Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, like in this case, I learned many new ways to say "Oh S$#@".
I decided I was not going to spend another 5 hours making a new pick up cover plate, the crack was clean and my epoxy good, so repair it I did.  It turned out OK.

Step 13: Let's Get Wired

One of the things to do now is make your perminant wire connections from the pick up to the volume pot and phone jack.  You could also add a tone control pot if you want but this is, after all, a basic build.  I like to use a fine tip on my soldering iron because of the tight spaces you are dealing with and the small guage wire involved. Simply follow the diagram and make your connections.  Chances are you have used a stereo jack so orient the jack upside down with the long metal tab that makes contact with the guitar plug (I'm sure this bit has a name) nearest to you.  then use the tab directly away from you and the one to the left.

Step 14: Getting a Bit of Bridge Work

The wonderful thing about building a guitar from scratch is that there are so many little projects involved.  While I wait for my client to send some parts he wants on this I started work on the bridges.  I am using 3/4" X 1/2 " aluminum L channel cut to the same width as the fret board.  I then sanded it through the stages up to 600 grit.  Be sure to knock off any sharp edges and corners too. I then located and drilled the holes for the mounting screws on the 1/2" lip.
Make 2 of these, one acts as a nut, the other a bridge.  Then measure in 1/16 " in from each end.  Those marks will be for the E strings. Then, divide the remaining space to accommodate  the other 4 strings. When notching the aluminum for the strings it is important to keep in mind that the tops of the strings all need to be at the same hight so all you are really doing here is making shallow notches to permanently locate where the strings will sit.  You will do the final fitting during the set up phase right at the end of the build.

You will also need to make a way of holding the strings at the bridge.  There are, again, all kinds of ways to do this, I chose to use a tail block.

Step 15: Boom! Head Shot

In this step we'll lay out the locations for the machine heads and drill the holes for them.  Lay out is, as always, very important to get things in the right place and look good.  I've done enough of these things to know that you need to be very aware of the back plate of the head, how much room you need and how much of the tuning key needs to be exposed too .  I find it best if you disassemble one left and one right hand head and use the plate as a template. 

Step 16: The Finish

Like any time you try something new, you can make mistakes, in this case for example, I learned that lacquer doesn't like ink, and that I should have tested the application first.  Oh well, learn and move on.  I used a gloss lacquer for the finish of this project because of many past successes. If you start with a good surface preparation then there is little or no sanding between coats.  Spray lacquer is a great way to go but brush on is ok too.  I did a brush on application for the first coat because I was dealing with very dry wood and I knew there would be a lot of absorption.  The final 3 coats were sprayed.

Warning, this stuff is very nasty to breathe and very flammable so good ventilation, and no open flames please.  A respirator would be a good idea too.     

Step 17: And We Are Done.

So, I have laid out and drilled for the machine heads, the next thing to do is to attach the machines. Next I did the final setup on the bridge and nut, which was just a case of filing the notches down to get the all the strings at an equal height.  The thing to try and do here is make sure the bottom of the notches are round. This prevents the strings from buzzing.  After that is done string it up and run it through the amp!  I won't offend the real lap steel guitar players out there by posting a video of me testing it.  I'll post a video at a later time of a friend playing it (he actually knows how).

I hope you enjoyed this rather long instructable and try building one yourself.

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    33 Discussions


    Question 5 months ago on Introduction

    can cypress wood be used to make a steel guitar?...…...never mind, I just saw the image of the skateboard deck steel guitar


    2 years ago

    boa noite! como faço o braço da guitarra! como saber exatamente a distancia dos trastes??


    8 years ago on Step 17

    Awesome build. Beautifully finish too. Have you tried copper wire as frets? Works pretty well but you have to lacquer them so they don't turn the surrounding wood green.

    2 replies

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    The frets on a lap steel are for decoration only so any material would do. Even a sharpie marker pen.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 17

    I have not tried that since I have a good supply of fret wire. It would look cool though.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I also made a few of them for myself and friends using the same e-book.

    I also introduced a few changes like having the strings through the body to add more sustain.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Nice design and Instructible.

    Would it be possible to use a thinner top plank, one the same depth as needed for the machine heads in order to make the shaping of the head piece easier and make the bottom piece correspondingly shorter? You wouldn't then need to cut away so much on the head piece and could just shape the bottom piece before gluing together. Hope I've described this well enough!

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    That sounds like a reasonable idea to me. Thanks, I'll try that on my next build.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Here's one of three I made about 15 yrs ago. Lowe's pine 2 piece laminate, mighty mite p-90, some cheap tuners, a nut, saddle, oak inlay on the bottom for the string thru, and an oak bridge. Had a lot of fun with it since.

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    One thing I might be concerned about with this instrument is with the wood lamination part.. It may or may not be a problem, but at least theoretically it could be. Using pine and maple, especially back to back, could cause warping, due to the different expansion and contraction characteristics of the two different woods. This probably wouldn't be a problem if you make sure that you cover every square millimeter of the wood with your finish so that there would be no possibility of moisture transfer from the air to the wood (and vice versa) in varying humidity conditions. With laminating the body, you could also have made a groove down the middle of one (or both) of the pieces and placed a piece of steel rod in it before laminating. This would help strengthen it and also help keep it from warping. Pretty cool instrument though!

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I hear ya on the movement differential, but that again is of little concern because of the nature of the guitar, so long as you don't get such a massive twist that the strings are radically uneven, it would remain playable. I seriously doubt a truss rod would do much good here. I did seal the end grain with epoxy to prevent that sort of thing happening before I put 4 coats of lacquer on it. If anything the lamination of pine to the maple will help stabilize the natural tendencies of maple to twist. (damn site cheaper than solid maple too).


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Hi Guy,

    I've got to say, you did a great job with the "ible". Lots of detail without babling; good pics and explanations.

    Thanks for the info, I've just been looking at building one myself. Keep up the good deals.


    8 years ago on Step 17

    this is very nicely done.
    looks a bit like one i made myself pre instructables time.
    you seem to have used better hardware than i did.
    lets see if i can find a picture of it.ok good i got 1.
    the other slider is a 1 string diddly bow.
    good show.

    4 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Ok, I'd say you lap steel is cut from the same cloth, I love how you used a humbucker ,and that bridge is awesome. I cant tell for sure but is it a hard tail?
    Sweet bow too, piezo pick up?


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    unfortunately that humbucker is a single pretending to be a humbucker .it came from a 1$ yard sale guitar i picked up.
    the bridge is a homemade hardtail type with adjustable saddles{not really needed on this project but i did it anyway}
    the pickup on the bow is a coil from an old inductance microphone that you would use to record a telephone in the old days.
    i did a couple of instructables way back on slide guitars and easy pickups here are the links if you would like to look
    also heres a closeup of the bridge if ya wanna see it


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I love it, simple and elegant. I will steal this idea if you don't mind?


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    feel fre my friend.
    if you build it post it here i for one would love to see it.