Introduction: Handcrafting a Fretless Guitar Neck
This past summer, thanks to generous friends with guitar modding hobbies and leftovers from my own projects, I found myself with a beautiful green telecaster body, two killer humbuckers, and most of the other hardware needed to complete the set and create a fully functional custom telecaster. What I was lacking was a neck.
I have been building guitars as a hobby since part way through high school, and playing them, with progressive improvement. I thought I was ready for a challenge in both building and playing the guitar, and so I decided I would build my telecaster a neck and head from scratch. I'd been watching demonstrations of Vigier's fretless guitar online, and decided it would be fun and challenging to make the neck fretless.
Since I do not own a workshop, and only have my grandpa's old manual tools, this demonstrates techniques to easily construct a functional guitar neck and head in your backyard with only a few tools:
-radius sanding block
-drill (manual or electric would work)
and the essential materials:
-hardwood (I used maple)
All the hardware can be found at the Stewart-MacDonald website, as well as more thorough instructions and references for building your own musical instruments.
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Step 1: Measurements and Preparing the Material
To determine what sort of dimensions your neck is going to have, you need to decide what scale length you want to follow. The "scale length" refers to the distances between the nut, frets, and bridge on your guitar which allow it to be musically in tune. There are several popular scale lengths, and each has unique qualities which affect tone, playability, etc. I suggest reading about scale length here.
Once you have chosen a scale length for your instrument, you can determine how much material is needed for your neck. I often use an online fret calculator such as BuildYourGuitar.com or stewmac's fret calculators, to figure out how much space I need for my frets. Alternatively, if you have a guitar with the same scale length as the one you are building, you can estimate your measurements from it.
Personally, I generally buy a large board of hardwood from a lumber yard, with about an inch of thickness, which gives me enough wood to make a few guitar necks and bodies. I also get a board of something that looks nice for the fingerboard, like rosewood, which is about 2 inches wide, 30 inches long, and only a few millimeters thick.
Once you have your wood, get out a pencil, a tape measure, and your fingerboard material. Starting at one end, measure a distance equal to the last (and largest) measurement given by the fret calculator, and mark the position onto the wood. Then, you'll want to decide how you want your neck to taper.
Have you ever noticed that the lower ends of guitar necks are always less substantial than their higher ends? As the frets get further apart in one dimension, the fingerboard shrinks in the other? This is neck taper. There are many different tapers on many different guitar necks. I have learned from experience that I like a neck to be about 1 3/4 " near the nut, and 2 1/4 " when it reaches the limit of its high end. I suggest doing some research on the different tapers out there, or if you have a favorite guitar, perhaps take measurements from its fingerboard, and use them.
Once you have decided on your taper, draw a line to represent the thickness of the fingerboard near the nut, on the end of the board furthest from where you marked the last fret position given by the fret calculator. Then, about a centimeter from that last fret position, towards the other end, mark out the width of the fingerboard at its high limit. Finally, take a ruler or measuring tape and connect the edges of the two widths you just drew, to get your taper. You should have drawn an almost rectangular shape, with one end a bit shorter than the other.
If all has gone well so far, you are ready to make your first cut.
Step 2: The Fingerboard
Cut out the rectangular shape you've drawn carefully, with a handsaw, jigsaw, or whatever you have. Cut a little outside the lines you've drawn. Then, get some sand paper and sand down to the lines.
Next, you will be shaping the radius of the fingerboard. If you are wondering what this means, Pro Guitar Shop has a good explanation of fingerboard radius. Basically, fingerboards are never flat. It is up to you exactly how curvy you want your fingerboard surface to be, and get a radius sanding block which corresponds.
Once you have a radius sanding block, it is time to get coarse sand paper and do some sanding. Make your strokes along the length of the fingerboard (so you are making the longest strokes possible). Sand the material down until there is no flat area left anywhere on it, and you have one continuous curved surface.
Then, sand your shape with very fine sand paper, to get a wonderful smooth feel.
This can take a while, and requires some patience.
Step 3: The Truss Rod
Next step is making your neck blank and inserting the truss rod into it. For your neck blank, you will need a piece of hardwood, at least an inch thick, wide enough to fit your fingerboard onto, and a few inches longer than the fingerboard. These extra inches will eventually become your head. Once you've cut out your blank, get your chisel out. A cavity needs to be carved out of the blank, which will house the truss rod.
I should note that most people these days might use a router rather than a chisel for this job. However, I both do not always have access to such tools, and enjoy doing the work by hand. If you have more sophisticated tools than are mentioned in this instructable, your job might be easier and quicker. I will assume in my writing that you are using the same tools as me, but this should help you learn the process of making a neck regardless of the tools you are using.
The purpose of a truss rod is to control the bend in the neck. Just like fretboards are never actually flat, necks themselves are actually never perfectly straight. Warmoth has a nice quick explanation of truss rods; what they're for, and how they work.
I have always used a vintage style truss rod. First thing to do is to lay your fingerboard on your neck blank, and trace the fingerboard outline onto the blank. Then you can decide where you want your truss rod to be. There are two different styles which are widely used. You can have the adjustable side of the truss rod up near the head, or down near the body. Both work, but I like to adjust mine from the head; it makes it more easily accessible. The adjustable side will be easy to identify since it will have a part that turns, and typically takes an allen wrench. To make your truss rod adjustable from the head, lay the truss rod on your neck blank, so that the majority of the rod is within the outline of your fingerboard, but the adjustable side sticks out from the shortest side of the fingerboard a little bit (maybe a centimetre). Then trace the outline of the rod onto the neck blank.
The next part is to actually dig out the cavity. This can be a little difficult. Don't be discouraged if you mess up. Chisel out your cavity in the outline of the truss rod you drew. Once the truss rod fits snugly in, and doesn't stick out above the surface of the neck blank at all, you are ready to glue it in.
I find it best to glue the truss rod and the fingerboard at the same time. First glue the truss rod into the cavity, with enough glue to rise up the sides of the truss rod when you push it into the cavity. Then immediately glue the fingerboard onto the neck blank, in the outline you drew earlier. Let them dry together.
Step 4: Carving Out the Neck
To me, this is the most fun part of making a neck.
You will use the fingerboard you've glued on to guide you as you carve out the neck. This part has to be done mostly be feel, rather than measurement. You start with a rectangular neck blank, and hopefully will end with a nice, comfortable neck shape. Using a rasp, eat away the wood that lies outside the fingerboard, and then curve the wood that lies underneath it.
The important things are to make sure your curve is as symmetrical as possible all the way down the neck, remember to leave about 2.5 inches of flat, uncurved wood at the thickest end of the neck (used for mounting to a body later), and smoothly transition between the curved part of the neck and the head. Remember the head is going to be the extra few inches of wood you left on the your neck blank beyond the length of the fingerboard. You are leaving the head part flat, don't rasp it.
To monitor your progress, periodically take breaks from rasping to feel the shape you've made so far. Try to eliminate any bumps or dips. Try to imagine you are playing the instrument and see if you can easily move your hand across the fingerboard easily. Use the necks of your other guitars as a reference.
Once you are happy with the shape, put your rasp away and coarse sand the rough surface of the neck down until it looks smooth. Then, fine sand until it feels smooth.
This step can be time consuming too. It is best to take your time and not rush it.
Step 5: The Head
Now finally it's time for the head. The shape of your head is almost completely up to you, and can give your guitar it's own really unique look.
Before making the head, it is important to decide what you want it to look like, and how you want it to work. The head plays a key role in keeping the strings in the right place, and contributes to the tensions which act on the neck to hold it all perfectly together. The head needs to deal with the tension exerted by the strings when they are tightened. There are two easy approaches to this, which are widely used.
The approach you'll typically see on a Gibson guitar, for example, is to have the head at an angle from the neck. The angle is small, around 15 degrees. This is the approach I like to use, and the one I will be describing in this instructable.
The other style is what you will typically see on fender guitars, where the head is not at an angle, and metal guides are needed to keep some of the strings in the right place. There are criticisms of both types, and you can read more about the pros and cons here.
Once you've decided on the shape, length, and style of your head, I suggest making a sketch with measurements, or perhaps drawing it up in AutoCAD. Once again, it can be helpful to reference the dimension of other guitar heads you may have on hand.
I claimed that the extra few inches of neck blank that extended beyond the fingerboard would eventually become your head. That is true, but in reality we probably need another layer of wood glued underneath it in order to make the angled head. Before you do any gluing, draw a line across the blank that is about a centimeter away from the edge of the fingerboard. This is where you are going to start your head. Now, on the sides of the blank, measure a 15 degree angle below the top surface and draw a line at this angle with your pencil. If you run out of wood before the line can get as long as you want your head to be, then you need to glue on some wood. Glue it onto the bottom of the neck blank, such that you can draw your line as long as it needs to be. Also keep in mind that your head needs to be about half an inch thick; so make sure that there is always at least half an inch of wood below your line at every point.
Once you have successfully drawn the full line, draw another line parallel to it, a half inch below it. Then you need to do some cutting. Cut along both of the parallel lines to create your angled head blank. This can be a bit tricky, so be patient and careful. If you start a bad cut, don't panic. Just stop before it gets worse.
When you've successfully cut out your half inch thick, angled head blank, then you can sand down the front and the back. Don't worry about making them nice and smooth, just make them flat enough to draw your head design on.
Then draw your head design and cut it out. Use a drill with a bit that has a diameter of about 3/8 " to drill the holes for your tuning machines. You may also want to carefully drill or carve out an access to your truss rod.
Now sand, sand, sand until everything looks and feels smooth.
Step 6: Staining and Installing Hardware
It is always a good idea to stain and seal a neck. It makes it last longer, and look nicer. On this neck I just used a thin coat of varathane. Make sure the neck is well sanded and there is no glue residue anywhere on it before doing this.
Once the neck is stained, it is time to install the rest of the hardware.
The "nut" is the piece between the head and the fingerboard that holds the strings the right distance apart from one another. It is typically made of bone, or metal. You left a centimeter of wood between the start of the head and the end of the fingerboard, and that is where you're going to put your nut. If you bought a pre-made nut, just glue it on.
Then install your tuning machines. Installation is not the same for all models, but tends to be self explanatory.
Then pat yourself on the back. Congratulations, your neck is done, and ready to be part of your new fretless instrument.
If you'd like to see the final product of my build in action, feel free to check out this video I made. Thanks for reading my instructable.