In this Instructable, I will show you how I built an electric guitar using tools commonly found in any average workshop. We will see different steps such as how to build the body, wire the electronics, build the neck and shape the fretboard.
Step 1: Find Some Plans
The first step is to find some plans. The internet is full of free and commercial plans so you will have to decide which model you want to build and acquire the plans. I used the book "Building Electric Guitars" by Martin Koch and followed the plans available in the book.
Step 2: Get Some Wood
For my guitar, I used White Ash (body), Mahogany (neck) and Rosewood (fretboard). This is a personal choice and I encourage you to look for local hardwood species if possible. I bought mine at Langevin & Forest during a trip to Montreal.
However, keep in mind that the the body should use a kind of wood that does not absorb vibrations too easily. Also, If the body is laminated, you will want to alternate the growth rings orientation to prevent warping. The dimensions should be at least 20"x14"x1 3/4".
The neck should be quarter-sawn to prevent warping as well.
The fretboard should be hard enough so that strings don't cut a groove in it after a few months of use.
The 2 boards on the right are plywood templates that we will use in a later step.
Step 3: Rough Cut the Body
Designing a plywood template is a good idea at that stage. It will help you when tracing the contour of the body, the bridge, the electronics cavity and the pickups pockets.
Place the template on your board and trace a pencil line around it. Use a jig saw or band saw to cut outside the line. As these saws don't always do a good job at making vertical cuts, you'll need to leave at least 1/4" outside the line.
Step 4: Use Your Template As a Guide
If you haven't created your template, make it now because you'll need it for this step.
Here we'll screw the template on the body. You can put the screws in the neck and bridge area since we'll carve these later.
With the template attached, use a router table and a 2" straight bit with a ball bearing mounted at the end. The bearing will roll on the template. You will end up with your body having the exact same dimensions as your guide.
Step 5: Adjust the Body to Your Liking
Remove the template and round off the edges. If you have a rounding-over bit with a ball bearing at the end, you can use it to create a nice regular radius on the entire body. If you don't, you'll need to use a file and some sand paper.
A lot of electric guitars have a bevel on the upper side to accommodate some room for the player's arm. I used a hand plane and sanded the sharp edges.
The back of the guitar is also beveled to avoid bruising your rib cage. The best tool his is a simple bastard file and some sand paper.
Step 6: Cut the Electronics Cavity
For this guitar, the electronics will sit in a groove on the front side of the body. I used a Forstner bit to remove most of the wood, carved the rest with a chisel and used a straight flute router bit to smooth the edges.
You can cut the pickups cavities too using the same principle.
Depending on your bridge type, you can also cut the bride cavity now. This one is a straight through cut so you won't need to worry about the depth of your cut.
If your bridge is only screwed on the front, you won't need to cut that cavity.
Step 7: Carve the Bridge Tension Cavity (Vibrato)
Starting from the bridge cut, use a router to carve this rectangular pocket in the back of the body. This is the place where you will attach springs for the vibrato effect.
Again, if your bridge does not have a vibrato system or if the vibrato is on the front of the guitar, you can skip that step.
Step 8: Cut the Neck & Head
The head and neck come from the same piece of wood. Just cut the board at an angle, flip the small part and glue it on the back of the board.
I used a table saw with a gig at the right angle to keep the piece of wood straight.
Step 9: Cut the Truss Rod Groove
The truss rod is the mechanical part inside the neck that controls the tension and keeps the neck from bending too much when you put the strings on.
Measure your truss rod and draw the contour on the front side of the neck. Using a router table and a straight bit, cut that groove all along the neck. Note the feather board to prevent any lateral movement.
Step 10: Assemble the Truss Rod and Fretboard
The truss rod can now be glued with epoxy inside the groove. If you want to put a veneer on the head, now is a good time to do it.
Cut the finger board to the right dimension (slightly larger since we'll sand it later). Using a really fine blade (fret saw), cut some grooves on the fret board at the right place. The distances depend on the size of the neck and can be found online. I used the ones provided with the plan.
This part is the most delicate since the distances have to be exact. This makes the difference between the right note and an out-of-tune guitar.
Once this work is done, you can glue the fret board onto the neck.
Step 11: Cut the Neck to the Right Dimensions
Now that the fret board is glued on the neck, you can trim the neck to the right shape using a jig saw. Just follow the fret board since it already has the right size.
You can now sand the edges to make the fret board flush with the neck on each side.
Step 12: Prepare the Fretboard
The next step is to make the board convex. For that, you can make a concave gig with the right radius and attach some sand paper to it. Rub the gig onto the neck to create the desired convex shape.
Remember to wear a dust mask since hardwood dust is usually fine and toxic for your lungs.
The next step is the inlays. I used mother of pearl 1/4" disks. Using a plunge router, you can drill round cavities which have a depth slightly less than your inlays thickness.
Glue the inlays with epoxy and sand the excess.
Step 13: Drill Holes for the Tuning Keys
Using a plywood template, drill the holes in the head of the neck. Place the tuning keys and screw them in place using the 2 small screws usually provided (depends what model you're using).
Step 14: Shape the Back of the Neck
The back of the neck is shaped using a spokeshave. This tool lets you work where a hand plane doesn't.
Build cardboard gigs to control the shape at the beginning and end of the neck.
Be careful not to remove to much because the truss rod is not far below.
Step 15: Cut and Glue the Frets
The frets usually ship in 2ft straight rods. You will need to bend and cut them.
I built a tool with 3 wooden wheels to create a constant radius. Make it slightly more curved than the fret board.
Cut the frets a bit longer than the width of the neck and apply some instant glue along the bottom of each fret. Use a small hammer to push them quickly in place.
File down and bevel the frets edges to make it more confortable
Apply some lemon oil on the fret board to protect it from dirty fingers. The head and back of the neck are coated with multiple coats of polyurethane varnish.
Step 16: Align Your Frets
You now have all the frets installed but you might have realized that some of them are slightly higher than others.
To fix that, take a long straight piece of wood or metal, tape some fine sandpaper to it and rub it onto the frets.
Once all the frets are at the same level, you will need to round them back to their previous shape. I used a small diamond file. The painter's tape is here to protect the fretboard surface. Leave a small untouched line at the top of the fret. You can now buff the entire fret board with 0000 steel wool or 600 grit sand paper.
Step 17: Make a Nut
You can use any material that is hard enough but easy to shape. Most nuts are made of plastic, bone, antlers, etc.
I live in the Yukon and a friend gave me a small bit of mammoth ivory. It was just long enough to make a nut.
When the time comes to put the strings on, you'll have to mark where the strings are touching the nut and file down grooves to let the strings rest in place.
Step 18: Solder the Components
The electronics circuit depends on the pickups you chose, the pickup selector and the treble and volume potentiometers. I used the circuit described in the book mentioned earlier.
All the components came from http://www.stewmac.com/
Step 19: Wire the Electronics
You can connect the different cavities by using a 1/4" auger bit. You will need to connect the jack cavity to the electronics one. The pickups are also connected to the electronics by 2 holes underneath the surface.
Step 20: Apply the Finishing Touch to the Body
First, remove all hardware from the body.
I used some dark walnut danish oil to stain the wood. If you don't really care about seeing the growth rings in the wood, you can apply some primer and paint it. A good trade off is to use a semi transparent paint that will give color but still show the wood underneath.
To protect the wood, I applied a coat of wax.
Step 21: Assemble the Electronics, Pickups and Bridge
Reassemble the electronics into the cavities.
Bolt the neck onto the body using the 4 screws provided with your neck plate. Cover the bridge vibrato area and install the strings.
You can now attach the springs to the bridge.
Step 22: The Result
Approximate bill of materials (not including tools):
- Wood: $50
- Bridge: $100
- Pickups: $50 x 2
- Tuners: $35
- Other (truss rod, switch, electronics): $145
- Shipping: $35
- Total: $465
The guitar is a bit on the heavy side since I used white ash for the body but it sounds great, has a good sustain and the strings are really close to the neck which makes it easy to play.
The 5 different configurations for the pickups will let you play any kind of musical style from blues to heavy metal.