Fully Plywood Guitar AKA How to Annoy Purists

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Introduction: Fully Plywood Guitar AKA How to Annoy Purists

Plywood gets alot of stick in the guitar world, being reserved for mostly only the cheapest guitars. However after much searching on the internet I have concluded it doesn't matter what an electric guitar is made from as much as many people might think, if it's well made and setup at least.

I thought I would attempt to improve plywood's poor reputation and to really hammer home the point I decided to make the neck and fretboard from plywood too, which as far as I can tell hasn't been done before (multilaminated necks have been but they appear to have the grain all in line which disqualifies them from plywood status)

The short video is my friend Joe playing the guitar (Tbh I can barely play) and the long video is the whole building process.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Tools used:

  • Bandsaw- A jigsaw or coping saw would also work, just take longer
  • Circular saw- Or handsaw
  • Fret slotting saw- Apparently a junior hacksaw works for this, I have a little dremel attachment that worked ok
  • Plane- At least as large as a No.4, I used a No.7 which is an amazing tool
  • Chisels (Sharpened!) and mallet
  • Sandpaper- A range of grits
  • Files, Rasps, Sandpaper glued to a flat piece of wood etc.
  • Drill and bits
  • 1 metre ruler or tape measure
  • Stanley knife
  • Clamps
  • Set square
  • Vernier calipers
  • Router- not essential but probably the most useful tool
  • Straight edge- I used a spirit level
  • Soldering iron
  • PPE!
  • Workbench with vice

A lot of these tools aren't essential and you can make do without, but all the tools makes life far easier.

Materials:

  • 1/4 sheet of 12mm HARDWOOD plywood (2ftx4ft)
  • Glue- PVA and superglue
  • Something for the nut
  • Hardware:
    • Tuning heads
    • String retainers/trees
    • Screws or bolts with threaded inserts to attach the neck to the body
    • Pickups
    • Bridge
    • Control knobs
    • Fretwire
    • Trussrod
  • Wireing:
    • Potentiometers for volume and tone controls
    • Jack socket
    • Switches
    • Self adhesive copper foil- to line the control cavity with
  • Guitar strings
  • To avoid having to cut the fret slots you could buy a preslotted fretboard
  • Control cavity cover- sheet of plastic or something

Step 2: Design Decisions, Cutting and Gluing

  • Body shape
    • Electric guitar bodies tend to be smaller than 340mm by 440mm so that's how big the body pieces should be cut, unless you want an oversize body.
    • Glue and clamp the body pieces together, I didn't have many clamps so screwed it all together around the edges, though far from ideal it seemed to work ok.

  • Guitars are normally about 42mm thick but it doesnt really matter, I used 3 layers of 12mm ply which gave 35mm thickness.
  • Number of frets and scale length
    • This will determine how long the neck is made. Enter your scale length and number of frets into a fret position calculator (https://www.stewmac.com/FretCalculator), the distance from the nut to the last fret plus about 200mm is how long the wood for the neck must be cut.
    • I used 24 frets and a 650mm scale length (approximately the standard 25.5inch) which gave 487.5mm to the 24th fret. I cut the wood for the neck (487.5 + 200 + a bit extra) 700mm by 25mm.
    • 6 layers are required to make up the width, plus a few extra layers just at the headstock.
    • I glued these together in 3s, to make two halves which I later sandwiched the trussrod between.
  • I made all straight cuts with my brothers fancy new circular saw, but a panel saw would work just as well. The neck pieces need to be cut as straight as possible though.

Less wordy cut list:

  • 25mm by 700mm - 6 of
  • 340mm by 440mm - 3 of

Step 3: Shaping the Body

You need something to cut around. I made a full scale printout of a guitar I wanted to copy but you could draw it freehand, or a combination, use a printout but modify it. I highlighted the outline as it was blurry.

Cut around the outline, a bandsaw is ideal but a jigsaw or coping saw would also work.

The saw marks need to be removed with sandpaper and files. A bobbin sander or sanding drum in a drillpress is ideal but the more manual approach is fine, just longer.

The edges need to be shaped. A router with roundover bit is easiest, but files and sandpaper would also work, or perhaps a belt sander. Now would also be the time to add any ergonomic contouring if desired, I like the simplicity of without though.

Most plywood tends to have voids in it, now is a good time to fill these. With sawdust and glue or my prefered method of applying superglue then sanding over it while the superglue is still wet, then repeating till filled and smooth, this only works for smaller voids.

Once you are happy with the shape and how well it is sanded the body is ready to start being finished. There are many to choose from: Oil based varnish, water based varnish, spray laquer, hardening oil (eg. tung oil, tru-oil, Crimson Guitars do a guitar finishing oil). Stains should be applied before the finish if desired.

So choose your favourite finish or whatever is to hand, I used some oil based floor varnish which dries very hard. Apply coats repeatedly till you're happy with it.

Step 4: Installing the Trussrod

Before marking or cutting anything the fretboard face of each half of the neck should be planed flat, check this with a straight edge.

I think this method of installing the trussrod is unconventional though I am fairly certain it's a good idea, and seems to have worked perfectly well so I recommend it, it avoids a skunk stripe or having to have a separate fingerboard.

Using a router is by far the easiest way of making the slot for the trussrod, however some careful chiseling would probably work, or maybe a router plane (these can be made with a chisel and piece of scrapwood quite easily), which would be alot more quiet and pleasant to use than an electric router too.

The position of the trussrod needs to be marked so that the trussrod adjuster approximately lines up with the nut. The trussrod should be about 6mm below the surface of the fretboard face of the neck.

Once the trussrod slots are cut in both halves of the neck and you are happy with the fit, glue and clamp the neck together, ideally using more clamps than I did.

It is important to draw on the fretboard the position of the nut so you dont forget which way round the trussrod is or accidentally cut into the trussrod while shaping the headstock.

Step 5: Cutting Out the Pickup and Control Cavities

The centre of the body must be found, this is done by marking the centre of where the neck will be attached and by marking the middle along various points along the body then averaging them out with a straight edge.

The pickups should be mounted perpendicular to the centre line, unless you have chosen a telecaster style pickup then it is at an appropriate angle.

The pickup position must be found, I made the neck protrude into body by 68mm (it joins at the 19th fret) so the neck pickup will start just beyond that.

To position the bridge pickup the bridge position must be found. For mine, the 19th fret is at 433mm from the nut, to the bridge should be (650 - 433) 217mm from the end of the body, where the 19th fret is. I put the bridge pickup 50mm centre to centre from the bridge, it could be put closer or further, a little closer would have possibly been better.

With the pickup cavities marked out, use a drill with a depth marker on it to remove the bulk of the wood to a depth just beyond the pickups depth. This isn't essential but makes it easier.

Using a chisel and mallet or a router cut out the cavity. I tried both to see the difference, the chisel took about 20 minutes and the router took about 7 minutes. The router also left a much neater hole, but either method is fine.

For the control cavity the locations of the controls should be marked then a pilot hole drilled all the way through the body so a cavity shape can be designed on the back of the guitar around them.

Cut out this cavity leaving about 4mm thickness of wood. This may be tricky to do with just a chisel.

An alternative would be cutting the control cavity from the front and mounting the controls to the cover, this would avoid having to make the wood at the bottom of the cavity so thin, which would make it easier to do with just chisels.

Holes need to be drilled between the cavities, so wires may be passed from the pickups to the control cavity.

Step 6: Shaping the Fretboard, Neck, Headstock and Cutting the Fret Slots

The fretboard should be made flat, I used a router jig but a plane would also work.

Before any shaping is done, it is easiest to mark and cut the fret slots while the neck still has parallel edges to work off. I used a smaller dremel circular saw to cut these slots as I wanted the slots to end before the edge of the fretboard, to do this the neck shed should be marked first so you dont cut beyond the lines. This method was fiddly and probably not very accurate.

Each fret position must be measured from the nut, then a line marked using a square. Then use a saw with an appopriate kerf width (0.6mm or so) to cut each slot.

The headstock will need extra layers of wood added to make it wide enough, I added one on the top and 2 on the bottom, but this may vary depending on your headstock design.

Cut the neck so it tapers from about 58mm at the last fret, to about 44mm at the nut. These can vary depending on what you want your string spacing to be. It is best to cut fairly oversize to be safe.

Unless you want a flat fretboard, a radius should be made. I roughed it out using a belt sander, though this was fairly innaccurate. I used the No.7 plane to straighten it and finish putting the radius on. Radius sanding blocks are also available.

Shape the back of the neck using a belt sander, files, rasps, spokeshave (this might not work well on plywood), sandpaper glued to a stick etc. The aim is to make is roughly D shape and for the thickness to be around 21mm. A flat point to connect to the body must be left, about 70mm long.

At some point the voids should be filled with splinters of wood and glue.

The tuner holes should be marked and drilled, then the headstock designed and cut out and sanded till your happy with the shape.

The neck and fretboard should be finished. I reccomend covering the fretboard in superglue, then sanding down and repeating a few times, it leaves a hard finish and is very quick, by the time you've made a pass with the glue the beginning will be ready for sanding. The rest of the neck should just be finished in with whatever varnish you like, could use superglue too.

Step 7: Installing the Frets

Installing frets is quite a long process and really requires a whole tutorial to itself so I will only briefly list the steps and reccomend finding one of the many guides available.

  • Cut slots to final depth if required
  • Clean slots out
  • Cut the fretwire into appropriate lengths
  • Install each fret in its' slot with a little glue
  • File the fret ends down and put a 45 degree angle on them
  • Protect the fretboard with tape
  • Level the frets (I used 120grit sandpaper glued to a spirit level)
  • Crown the frets with a file
  • Polish the frets

Step 8: Cutting the Neck Pocket and Installing the Neck

Clamp the neck into its' correct position on the body, line it up with the centre marks. Draw around the neck onto the body.

Use a router to cut the neck pocket out. Just chisels could probably also work, but would be quite hard to make accurate. The depth should be made so the fretboard is about 6mm above the body

Mark out and drill holes for the screws or bolt in the body then transfer the hole positions onto the neck by clamping the neck in plane and pushing the drill used to make the holes through. If using screws then drill pilot holes. If using threaded inserts drill appropriate sized holes and install them, be very careful not to split the neck. I also superglued the inserts in place for luck. I'm not sure how well screws would hold in plywood in this orientation so recommend using the threaded inserts, these are also ideal if you have to remove the neck a number of times.

If using a tune-o-matic style bridge like me you will need to make a break angle for the neck. This is most easily done by putting a wooden shim in the neck pocket and sanding it will it gives the right angle, though a better way is to make a router jig to put the angle on. Here is a useful calculator for this http://www.tundraman.com/Guitars/NeckAngle/

Step 9: Install the Nut

Either make or buy a nut. I used a piece of scrap indian rosewood because it looks nice.

Cut the nut slot to the correct depth and width (dont change the position of the fret side of it)

Cut the nut to shape then glue in place (not too much glue, it needs to be removable just in case)

The string slots need to be cut to the correct width and depth once the rest of the hardware is installed. I used a 7.8mm string spacing.

Step 10: Install the Hardware, Cut the String Slots, Setup String Action and Wire It All Up

The Control cavity needs to be lined with grounded copper foil.

Mark out and drill the bridge post holes, one of these holes need another hole drilled between it and the control cavity so a ground wire can be connected to the bridge.

Install the hardware!

Put the strings on then you can cut the string slots in the nut (I don't have any good advice on this, for the larger ones I used a small saw but for slots smaller than 0.6mm I had to just cut them out with a chisel, which was quite hard to do and didn't work that well. Just buying a nut would be alot easier, then sand the bottom till its the right height).

Adjust the truss rod while the strings are tight so the neck is straight (or very slightly bowed?). Adjust the bridge height to get the right string action. This whole process takes some time.

Wire it up, this website below has a lot of good wiring diagram, if you can't solder then it would be worth looking at some tutorials. I would also recommend using star grounding, where all ground wires stem from one point, and avoid ground loops.

http://www.guitarelectronics.com/category/wiring_r...

Make a control cavity cover, this should also be covered on the inside with copper foil.

Step 11: Final Thoughts

Though making a guitar was quite a challenge, it was easier than I expected, and was very fun.

Hopefully this will show people plywood can make a good sounding and attractive guitar.

Things yet to do:

  • Control cavity cover
  • Trussrod cover.
  • Install the fret 22, 23 and 24. I didn't buy enough fretwire.
  • Proof read this instructable

I would recommend building a guitar, whether out of plywood or more conventional tonewoods. Feel free to ask questions and I will answer as best I can.

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89 Discussions

How did you drill the hole from the pickups to the control cavity?

Very well done! I have nothing but respect for an artist who can make his own tools.

I don't know about material not mattering. Billy Gibbons (front man for ZZ Top) has a favorite 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard and has purchased ridiculous numbers of them over the years trying to find another with the same tone. His comment was something along the lines of "maybe the pickups got a different number of windings or the body got an extra shot of paint or something." He's yet to find another one that measures up. If a coat of paint could make the much difference, the material could.

Think of it this way. The strings aren't floating in mid air over the pickups. They're anchored to the guitar at both ends. You pluck the string and it vibrates, but the wood surface it's attached to affects how it vibrates by how it absorbs that vibration. Different woods will affect it differently and that vibration is what is exciting the pickups. So, different wood makes different sound.

Don't get me wrong, it's a nice 'ible, but those purists aren't wrong. You just have to have one hell of an ear to hear the difference. I can't hear it either, so don't feel all alone.

8 replies

" and that vibration (of the body: my inclusion) is what is exciting the pickups. " huh?

You think the wood vibrates and sends that vibration to the (magnetic) pickups?

By that logic, then the wood is somehow ferrous and emits magnetic waves, right? Since in no way would magnetic pickups vibrate, nor the wood around them, and the only job a magnet does is sit there waiting to detect the string moving in its aperture.

No. If the witness points* of the guitar could somehow cause the wood to vibrate, then the effect would be to nullify the strings vibrating in their respective magnetic apertures. No electrical generation would result - no output, no music.

Think about it: a vibrating (wooden) slab does not induce motion in the wood sufficient to cause electrical generation in the p'ups.

If anything: wood/the body .... is the black hole for vibrations and like The Roach Motel: vibrations check in - but don't check out.

* The place from where the string is/are ultimately no longer supported but are suspended, in this case: the top nut & the adjustable "barrel" of the intonation adjuster.

One of the primary laws of universal physics is that you don't get somehting from nothing. Re-animation of the strings or rattling the pickups sufficiently enough to generate electrons and cause them to flow is in league with validating the theory of perpetual motion for discussion. I'm not rising to that bait.

Most times I admire those kinds of thoughts, but they are IMHO most positively - and IMHO constructively --- wrong, IMHO

You're right! That is exactly why Dan Armstrong had the idea of building a guitar body from lucite. He wanted a dense material that would be neutral and NOT resonant. Something that wouldn't color the sound at all. Tell me that doesn't totally go against the grain (couldn't resist) of the tonewood argument. The fact of the matter is that in reality whether or not a body material is resonant and how it resonates has no influence over magnetic pickups. A guitar pickup receives the vibration of magnetic strings within the field they generate and passes that signal through to your amp. It has no physical means of converting signal generated by a guitar body, unless said pickup was extremely poorly made and totally microphonic. Tonewood schmonewood. I know there are so many that will refute this argument but it makes perfect sense to me. There is 0 electrical energy within dead wood, so nothing there for a pickup to be influenced by.

" and that vibration (of the body: my inclusion) is what is exciting the pickups. " huh?

and the insertion is wrong. The metal strings vibrating are what excites the pickups. The body of the guitar affects that vibration. You wrote a great long diatribe based on a false premise.

I will take the bait, but feel that you've included the answer in your explanation. though I may not be understanding the witness point explanation correctly.

But, surely there is some vibration induced in the surrounding material that the points are mounted in. Would it have a dampening effect or nullify vibrations? I believe it would to to some degree however miniscule and that degree would vary with different characteristics of different materials. However much more or less miniscule respectively.

I may not be understanding your point so I may be arguing the same side. For that I apologize.

Why does the wood/ the body have to be a black hole and completely absorb all vibrations? Is it possible to construct something so efficient out of wood? I would love to soundproof many rooms of my house with this technology.

What if the degree of absorption differed in relation to the characteristics of the material the witness points were seated. Because the strings are always connected to the wood at all times. There is no perfect machine. There is always loss drag friction etc. and different degrees/ more efficiently designed machines incorporate better materials to minimize that.

I may not be getting your explanation correctly regarding this either.

I believe that an outside source could impart enough vibration on the solid body of the guitar to cause the strings to vibrate and thus induce sound from the pickups. (I hope you were not just basically explaining that would isn't metal with this part. If so, I apologize for misunderstanding that too).

All of that being said; I do agree with the builder and creator of this fine "instructible" The material used isn't as important as the the quality of construction and pickups/ electronics used.

Also, I think that BIlly Gibbons and mid life crisis' points should not be disregarded so readily. Because there are truths contained in them that are valid IMHO.

Maybe I've not made sense to anybody but myself. But, I gave it a shot.

Sorry - this is gonna be long.

With the strings being held by the two final contact points (witness points), when the string is plucked - it vibrates inside the aperture of the magnetic field(s) of the magnets.

This is called "cutting fields" and it generates a small electron flow

That small flow of electricity then ultimately travels to the amplifier where it is reproduced in great volume.

As the string vibrates, that vibration decays (in motion) from quite a few physical laws of the universe.

1. The TENSION of the string itself - dampens most of the motion since it wants to stop vibrating and return to rest.

2. The MASS of the string wants to return to a neutral position and stop all this activity.

Newton's Law of Conservation of Energy: "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that
state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

[ibid].....PRECESSION, concerns itself in that energy (vibration) is
dissipated---this is known as loss caused by damping.
a) Damped
harmonic motion arises when energy loss is included.
b) A natural model for damping is to assume that the resistive force (string tension) is opposite and
proportional to the velocity (frequency)."[/ibid]

Consider that the strings are attached in a 'musical' instrument, and the only point(s) witnessed are therefor the last contact points of both ends of the strings and not the anchoring point(s) on the guitar, including the tuning capstans. Included is the final mounting point at the bridge, or the body in some designs.

When a string is fretted, that then becomes a witness point.

The argument about 'tone woods' and their relative ability to 'recharge' the energy (current active string vibration) and reinforce that same energy (which it has to do to re-impart energy INTO the string again), begs to violate physical law.

Believing that sending energy back through a heavy hardware piece (the bridge assembly and all it's components) --- at the bottom of the string is equal to believing in perpetual motion.

When would it stop if it could just cycle from the string, through the hardware, into the wood and back out again, only to continuously repeat this cycle until Armageddon?

How can these wood vibrations be sufficient to somehow travel back to the string to re-amplify the original vibrations (the note or energy) off the string to make it again wiggle through the magnetic field(s) of the p'ups?

The pick ups are electromagnets and if the string doesn't wobble inside it's cone of magnetism, there is no sound to be heard or reproduced.

The wood (of a slab guitar in this case, not an acoustic instrument) , cannot shake the bridge or it's hardware and other hardware sufficiently to cause the string to start shaking harder (more volume) or longer in time (increased sustain).

Energy IN = Energy OUT {minus} Resistance

An ACOUSTIC instrument, on the other hand, relies on the harmonics of the box, the shape of it's bouts, the length of the body in all directions and the flexing of the wood, to amplify the vibrating strings.

This is so long, it's impossible to proofread on this site.

I hope I haven't typed and non-PC words.

Trying to be positive and constructive here!

I will take the bait, but feel that you've included the answer in your explanation. though I may not be understanding the witness point explanation correctly.

But, surely there is some vibration induced in the surrounding material that the points are mounted in. Would it have a dampening effect or nullify vibrations? I believe it would to to some degree however miniscule and that degree would vary with different characteristics of different materials. However much more or less miniscule respectively.

I may not be understanding your point so I may be arguing the same side. For that I apologize.

Why does the wood/ the body have to be a black hole and completely absorb all vibrations? Is it possible to construct something so efficient out of wood? I would love to soundproof many rooms of my house with this technology.

What if the degree of absorption differed in relation to the characteristics of the material the witness points were seated. Because the strings are always connected to the wood at all times. There is no perfect machine. There is always loss drag friction etc. and different degrees/ more efficiently designed machines incorporate better materials to minimize that.

I may not be getting your explanation correctly regarding this either.

I believe that an outside source could impart enough vibration on the solid body of the guitar to cause the strings to vibrate and thus induce sound from the pickups. (I hope you were not just basically explaining that would isn't metal with this part. If so, I apologize for misunderstanding that too).

All of that being said; I do agree with the builder and creator of this fine "instructible" The material used isn't as important as the the quality of construction and pickups/ electronics used.

Also, I think that BIlly Gibbons and mid life crisis' points should not be disregarded so readily. Because there are truths contained in them that are valid IMHO.

Maybe I've not made sense to anybody but myself. But, I gave it a shot.

If I understand mid_life_crisis correctly, the strings attach to the body at the ends of the string. From the nut to the bridge. If the material that the guitar is made of is soft then the contact points of the strings to the guitar will be more sluggish than if they attached to a more rigid material and you will get less sustain. But, like he said, it would be tough to hear the difference.

I would like to add that different woods have a different coefficient of elasticity. My son often bends his guitar slightly by pushing on the upper part of the body just above the front pickup. If the guitar was less elastic, it would not return to its original position but slowly over time deteriorate. Now, I have done some woodwork with plywood myself and I know that they lamination has both awesome qualities and not so awesome qualities due to the perpendicular nature of the layers. If you can overcome the annoyances, then I think plywood is nice to work with.

After reading your reply to mid_life_crisis, I went back to see whether or not he deserved such harsh treatment from you. I think your inclusion was a mis-read. Therefore, I think you over-reacted to his post and were unduly hard on him. Your instructible is great but I think you read into his reply more than he was saying.

Put those pickups on a different wood-slab guitar and voila,it will sound the same.

I sat though the whole build and it looks nice enough. What happened to the demo?

Hello, nice guitar.

How is the neck working after one year? I mean it's kind of an unconventional neck. Is it stiffer than a neck made of wood? Is it affected by seasonal humidity? Does it have any tendency at all to unglue? Any twists or warps (although plywood I believe is stiffer than wood)? Any other problems?

Thhats really cool, maybe you should learn to play!!

(wish i could:)

I wish I had the ear and the talent to play and ability to build. Truly awesome video account. Party on !!

1 reply

Practice on all those fronts. That's all there is too it. Just get a cheap guitar and practice. Get some cheap tools for woodworking and practice.

Nomex would be more appropriate than cardboard. Similar sort of idea, however Nomex is a lot stiffer by thickness and durable.

You're completely right about the cheapness thing. Leo Fender has a lot to answer for with his clever but frugal approach to making guitars. Vintage Fenders were all over the place in terms of build quality. Crazy that people pay house prices for them....

I teach guitar-making for a living. I thought I'd start with that. It's great that you built a guitar in the first place, however isn't it a bit passive-aggressive in baiting or labelling people as "purists"? Plywood is just a different material with different engineering properties to solid wood, so as far as that goes, cool. At the very least, it's a better project than that stupid cardboard Strat which keeps doing the rounds!

2 replies

@CarlMaltby: Now who's baiting ... "stupid" cardboard instruments, eh? :)

https://www.instructables.com/id/Another-Cardboard-...

... still playable!

@Remi505: "neck and fretboard from plywood too, which as far as I can tell hasn't been done before" ... I did a neck from plywood (but at 90' to your arrangement) -- is that near enough to claim "prior art" :)

https://www.instructables.com/id/The-Hero-Guitar/

Great instructable, and a really nice looking instrument!

Cardboard simply doesn't have the required engineering properties to create instruments that are durable. The cardboard Strat that did the rounds was more or less touted as being "as good as". Whilst a nice proof of concept, a cardboard guitar is patently silly at best. You cannae change the laws of physics, Jim.