Introduction: Semi-Acoustic Electric Guitar From Scratch
As a high schooler, I had the unique opportunity to apprentice in a carpentry shop where I learned the craft of woodworking. During my last summer there, my boss informed me that the shop would be closing the next year, and that I was free to use whatever materials and tools were available to make whatever I wanted in the coming months. I decided to tackle my dream project and build a guitar from scratch.
It should, therefore, go without saying that while I am a decent woodworker, I am an amateur luthier at best. I still have so much to learn as I continue to explore this craft, but I am tremendously happy with the results of my first attempt at guitar building. Hopefully this Instructable can provide you with some tips, ideas, or inspiration for your next (or first!) guitar build.
The video linked above is my first documentation of my process, while it does showcase the entire build, it is more of an artistic video and does not provide many details about construction, cost, mishaps, and so on. I am in the process of creating a longer, more in depth video explaining such details, but for now, this Instructable can serve that function. Please enjoy! Vote for this Instructable in the Instruments Contest! and feel free to comment any questions you have!
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Step 1: Design and Materials
I did a lot of planning and research before I started building this guitar. I love the feel of light electric guitars, and I knew that I wanted this project to showcase beautiful wood as well as beautiful woodworking, so the design that I settled on was an unpainted semi-hollow Telecaster, based roughly on the thinline Telecaster design. The guitar has a chambered body with an f-hole and a traditional pickguard and pickup arrangement.
I knew two things when I started this construction process:
1. I wanted to do all of the woodworking completely from scratch
2. I didn’t want to spend any money on wood or tools
As you will see in the coming steps, this meant using what I had to work with and coming up with many DIY jigs and templates.
After a lot of poking around in the shop I found the wood that I wanted to use on this project.
I chose to construct the body as a sandwich, a solid slab of mahogany as the core with both the top and back of the guitar solid Oregon maple. The top piece was a beautiful discovery; a section of a large slab in the back of the shop that we planed down, revealing an incredible tight figured pattern (see step 4). The wood for the back of the guitar was a piece of quilted maple that I book-matched using a bandsaw and planer. This piece was, coincidentally from the same tree as the top piece :)
As for the neck of the guitar, I had decided to make the fretboard separately and then laminate it to the neck, as opposed to creating a one-piece neck. This was mainly because I didn’t like the typical truss-rod skunk stripe on the backs of Tele necks, and I thought this method of installing the truss rod would be easiest. I found a lovely slab of birdseye maple for the neck and a thin piece of eastern flame maple for the fret board.
I am fully aware that it is a very rare opportunity to have access to this much high-quality wood, for free (these pieces probably would have cost me over $400 if I were to buy them all). It is definitely not necessary to use four species of solid wood for a build like this, especially if you are planning on painting the body.
The rest of my materials were purchased from Steward Macdonald or sourced from a luthier friend of mine, and the whole project ended up costing just under $300. But we will get into all of that later… for now, let’s start woodworking!
Step 2: Templates
I spoke too soon… first we have to deal with templates.
Most of guitar routing and shaping is done using templates. Professional templates can be purchased online, but given that I was not trying to create a perfectly stock instrument, and that I was trying not to spend any money on tools, I chose to manufacture my own.
I found several large pdf templates online that I printed out to scale at my local FedEx store (the ones I used are attached below). I them spray glued them to sheets of ¼” MDF and cut them out on a scroll saw. I sanded up to the lines on a belt sander. I made three templates, one with the headstock and neck profile, one with the body profile, pickup routes, and f-hole, and one with the contours for the internal cavities of the body.
It is worth mentioning that none of the online pdfs were perfect. Additionally, my method of cutting the templates by hand meant that, while they were good enough for the body shapes and cavities, I did not trust them on the more precise routes, such as the neck pocket, but I will address this issue later.
Step 3: Body Construction (part 1)
Okay, finally some woodworking!
The first step of body construction was processing the wood we found. I planed the mahogany slab down to around 1 ½” and book-matched the piece of quilted maple for the back into a thin slab. With the book-matched piece drum sanded flat, I glued it to the back of the mahogany using our shop’s veneer press. After the lamination, I planed again to get a slab that was 1 ¾” with ¼” of that being the maple back. The plan was to route the body cavities into this slab before cutting the body profile. The cavities would be 1 ½” deep, cutting through the mahogany but leaving the maple.
I started by screwing my cavity template to the blank slab and removing most of the material with a forsner bit on the drill press with a depth stop. After that, I switched to a router with a bushing, taking gradually deeper passes with the bushing riding on the template. After reaching the final depth, I used a flush cutting router bit to finish getting the cavities to the template sizes. As you can see, the body has four cavities, one for the electronics, one for the f-hole, and two more for balance and resonance.
I then traded templates and cut the basic shape of the body on the bandsaw. At this point I tried to flush trim the whole piece to its final shape on the router table, and I encountered my first mishap. Attempting to flush trim 1 ¾” of end grain is dangerous, and upon briefly loosening my grip, the whole piece spun out and chipped. This happened twice. The chips in the mahogany I was able to just fill with sawdust and Shellac, but the chips in the maple were not so easy. I ended up routing those areas out and using off-cut material to make small maple patches that I glued in and sanded flush. The whole body got a good sand to clean the profile, smooth inside cavity surfaces, and hide my mistakes.
At this step, I also routed pickup wiring channels. I marked where pickups would be going and routed the channels by hand with a simple fence. I also drilled the hole for the output jack into the wiring cavity. Before the top of the body went on, I took the opportunity to shield the wiring cavity and channels. If you’re not familiar, single coil pickups have a tendency to buzz or produce noise when exposed to a strong electric frequency that could come from electronic equipment such as an amplifier and surrounding all the internal electronics with grounded shielding reduces the risk of this happening.
I also used some finishing materials to color the inside of the top cavity to the same finish that the rest of the instrument would be at, as this cavity would be seen through the f-hole. We will talk about finishing a lot more later…
With all that done, let’s talk about the top piece.
Step 4: Top Piece
As I mentioned in the materials section, this piece of wood first had to be excavated from the slab it was hiding in. We use a panel saw and table saw to square it and then ran it through the planer until it was ¼” thick.
Once I had roughly decided where this piece would be oriented on the body, I used two small nails to register the piece to my unfinished body. I tapped these nails into the body and cut off their heads, leaving small sharp bits of metal sticking up. I then carefully positioned the top, and then pressed it down to create small holes with which the two pieces would be registered. I was then able to trace my body onto the top and mark out the necessary holes.
First was the f-hole. Almost all thinline Telecasters have a non-traditional pickguard style, and I was set on using a standard telecaster pickguard, so I had to rearrange the placement of the f-hole to accommodate the pickguard. What I ended up doing was reshaping a normal pickguard to take up less space above the pickups, and then I sketched a smaller f-hole that was seated farther back than it was on the thinline template. This was tricky, and not terribly well documented, but once I was happy with it, I cut out that hole on the scroll saw (a truly terrifying cut…)
The other hole that needed to be cut was for the control plate. I marked out where it was, cut the hole on the scroll saw, and then shielded the underside of the top where it would be covering the wiring cavity. I made sure that the copper shielding had enough overlap to make contact with the shielding lining the rest of the cavity.
With these preparations made, I glued the top to the rest of the body on the veneer press, making sure that it was registered using the nails. After gluing, I cut off the excess wood on the scroll saw and trimmed the top nearly flush with the body using the belt sander. I was still shaken from my last bout with the flush router, so I tried to remove as much material as possible before taking it to the router table for the final trim.
Step 5: Body Construction (part 2)
With the top piece on, the last couple bits of body routing could be done.
Remember how I said I didn’t trust my routing template to cut the neck pocket? Well here’s how I got around that: I simplified the butt of the neck to be rectangular instead of tapered, meaning that the neck pocket just had to be a rectangular route 2 1/8” wide, 3” long, and 5/8” deep. I used three pieces of plywood cut on the table saw to make a jig with these dimensions that I was able to line up on both ends of the body and clamp down. I then was able to carefully route the pocket with a flush cutting bit. After that I marked out and drilled the holes for the neck plate and screws.
The neck pocket ended up being the tiniest bit to narrow, which meant I would have to sand the neck a bit to get it to fit, but this resulted in a perfect fit :) The pickup pockets were marked using my homemade routing template, mostly cut using a forsner bit, and finished by hand with a palm router. While they weren't perfect, this was a fine way to do it, since all the pickup routes are covered by the pickguard. I also had to route a small opening between the neck pocket and the neck pickup. This was because I was going to use a truss rod that adjusted at the neck joint, and so I needed some access to the very end of the neck so that I could adjust the truss rod without removing the neck from the body.
At this point I could also layout where the hardware would be going and drill a couple mounting holes. I used the drill press to drill the holes for the strings and string ferrules (the strings for a Tele are threaded from the back of the body, through the bridge, to the tuners). I drilled the pilot holes from the top of the body, and in retrospect I should have had done it from the back. This way the visible string ferrules would have been more perfectly evenly spaced.
The final step of body construction was to put a ¼” roundover on the edges. I chose to do this instead do a binding because I liked the simple look a bit more, and binding really wasn’t necessary. I also like showcasing the fact that it is solid wood and not veneer. I spent a lot of time sanding off all burn marks and making the necessary transitions between routed edges and sharp edges. I think I got the whole body up to around 220 grit.
Step 6: Fretboard
Alright we are moving along to the neck. In reality this was getting worked on as I was working on the body, but I have separated these processes for ease of explanation.
I mentioned that I wanted to do all the woodworking on this instrument without having to purchase any additional tools. The fretboard was where this resolve really got put to the test. In retrospect, I would have saved at least a day of work and avoided some intonation issues if I had spent the money on a simple fret cutting jig or a pre-manufactured fretboard, but if you’re as stubborn as me and want to do this by hand, here’s how I did it. For doing a precise process like this for the first time with no specialized tools, I think it turned out quite well.
I planed my piece of flame maple down to a little over a quarter inch, keeping it wider than the final neck profile. To cut the slots for the frets, I ended up constructing a miter jig that held my blank fretboard really tightly. I cut a very thin and very straight slot in my jig for a pull saw to sit in and I started by cutting the edge of the nut slot. It was then a process of tapping the piece to position the miter slot carefully the correct distance from the edge of the nut slot for each successive fret slot. As I started getting them cut, I would measure each successive fret using both a ruler and calipers from both the previous fret and the nut slot in both inches and centimeters to make sure the cut was positioned exactly, perfectly, where it needed to be. I would then cut a shallow slot and move on to the next fret. This process took hours to cut 22 little slots, but I was pretty happy with my DIY method.
Electric guitar fretboards have a radius, so after the slots were cut, I taped the piece onto my table saw top, along with some plywood rails and began to radius the fretboard, carefully, by hand, with just some sandpaper and a 12 inch radiused sanding block. I go this block from my luthier friend, who didn’t have any other fret cutting/radiusing tools. This took a lot of work and effort to get the board evenly radiused. It helped to draw lines on the board with the pencil so I could see where the sanding block was actually removing material, and I had to use a relatively aggressive grit of sandpaper to remove enough material. The final thing to do was to use the pull saw to clean out and deepen the slots.
I spent about 10 hours working on this piece of wood to get it to this point, but it turned out quite nice and I was very pleased with my DIY methods.
Step 7: Neck Construction
The fretboard is only one part of the neck. The main body of neck is made of lovely slab of birdseye maple. I started by getting it straightened, flattened, and planed down to ¾ of an inch.
The first step in neck construction is to route a channel for the truss rod. I considered many types of truss rods, but I ended up choosing the “hot rod truss rod” from Stewart MacDonald. It had very positive reviews, it’s adjusted with a slotted nut, and it can correct for both front bow and back-bow. I drew a centerline down the piece and used several passes on the router table to cut the main slot. I also used a rounded bit to cut out the space for the adjustment nut. This way the whole truss rod could sit flush within the piece down the center of the neck. After this I was able to use my neck template to mark out the basic profile of the neck and cut it out on the bandsaw.
Again, if I had had a professional, trustworthy template, I could have skipped straight to flush routing the neck using the template. Since I didn’t, I shaped the heel of the neck using a rectangle of MDF that I cut out on the table saw. I used this rectangle as my template to sand and flush route the heel to fit tightly into the neck pocket. With the heel shaped, I used my main template to sand and route the rest of the profile. I had another slip up with the router that resulted in chip out on the top of the headstock, but I fixed this by just making the headstock shape smaller. I also took the opportunity to drill the tuner holes, using my template and being careful to avoid chip-out.
With this done I glued the truss rod in using some silicon glue, to allow it to move a bit if necessary. Then I registered the fretboard to the neck using the same method as described in step 4. I glued the fretboard to the neck using every pistol clamp available.
I then used the sander and router to flush the profile of the fretboard, and I used the bandsaw and a spindle sander to make the recess on the headstock.
Step 8: Neck Carving
Next to fret cutting, neck shaping was the process that I was most terrified of when I was planning this build. Thankfully, it turned out really well and I actually really enjoyed working on it.
There was really only a little method to this process. I started by scribing some lines along the surfaces using measurements that I got from a video by Fletcher Handcrafted Guitars. (check out this video it’s super helpful). I then used a rasp to bevel this edge until it met those lines. Then it was just a long process of rounding off the new corners that I’d created, slowly shaping the headstock and heel transitions, and removing material until I arrive at my final thicknesses and contours. A lot of this was based off of feel. My main concern was carving too deep, since the truss rod channel actually extends pretty far into the wood, so I just took my time and left it a little thick. I used rasps and files to take off material and work on the transitions. In truth this was one of my favorite parts of building a guitar, it was very raw and cathartic and it just made me happy to sit in my garage and work on this piece of wood.
After the rasping and filing was all finished, I hand-sanded it up to 220 grit, and this really smoothed out the shape well and left me with a great looking neck.
There are a couple small details that don’t really merit their own step, so here they are:
I drilled and glued in some ABS inlay dots on the fretboard and then sanded them flush with the radiused block. I sanded the fret board to a higher grit than the rest of the guitar.
With the neck bolted on, I used some string to align the bridge and drill its mounting holes. With this done I was able to do a test fit of all the hardware.
Step 9: Finish Work
We usually say finishing is a good 30% of any woodworking project, this was not an exception. Spoiler Alert: some things went wrong…
I decided to go with a darker color on the body, partially to unify the different wood species and to get the grain of the maple as accentuated as possible.
After sanding to 220 grit, I started by wiping on an unlabeled alcohol dye that we found in the shop. The coloring was, of course, tested an offcut first. This dye is a coloring agent, so it does not build up a protective layer. The dye process meant wiping it on and sanding it off several times, which went pretty fast since alcohol-based dyes dry really quickly. With each sand, the dye in the figure remains while the rest is removed, resulting in a lot of contrast. The last coat doesn’t get sanded off. Then I started applying MinWax wipe on oil-based polyurethane. While the dye gave the wood the brown tones, this oil poly added a bit more yellow and warmed it up. I started by applying it with 1500 grit sandpaper, in an effort to sort of create a bit of a sawdust/polyurethane slurry to fill the grain, and this surprisingly worked pretty well, even on the mahogany.
After two coats of that I switched to wiping on coats and sanding in between. I also used the same polyurethane on the neck. Eventually, after a couple days of curing, I decided it was time to sand the finish flat and rub it out to a polish. This is where things went wrong… The way I was applying the oil-based poly just did not build up a thick enough layer, so when I went to flatten it, I sanded right through. Luckily this happened on the back, so I decided to sand off the finish on the back completely and start over, this time using water-based polyurethane.
I re-dyed the back and gave it a coat or two of oil-based poly just to bring back that yellowish tint that comes from oil finishes, I then thoroughly scuffed the entire body with a sanding pad until it was evenly flat and matte. I switched to water-based polyurethane in a sprayer. Spraying enabled me to get really even coats that I could flatten easily and build up pretty well. While this solution kind of saved the finish job, I am pretty bummed that it all worked out this way, because I feel that the colors and the contrast in the wood were much nicer before I had to restart the finishing process. I guess it just shows that there’s a lot to learn before next time.
After nine coats of polyurethane and some time to cure, I started flattening. I had tried using 320 grit to do this on the first round, but that was much too aggressive, so this time I started with 800. I got all the bumps and shiny spots out, and then worked up wet-sanding through 1500, 2000, and 2500 grit. Then I used some rubbing compound to buff it out to a shine by hand with a rag, and it turned out really nice. If I had used an actual buffer it would have come out to a full gloss.
The neck was a similar story of oil and then switching to the sprayer with water-based poly. The finish on the neck ended up being a bit of a mess. I actually coated the neck in water-based poly, but then sanded it off everywhere but the headstock because the coloration was messed up. I added more coats of oil-based poly to the neck, which I buffed out with steel wool, but I kept the water based stuff on the headstock, so the neck just turned out to be a Frankenstein’s monster of finishes. I would definitely do things differently next time.
The part that did turn out really really well was my headstock logo. In photoshop, I created a nice image of my signature and printed it out onto some water decal transfer paper, I then coated it with some clear lacquer, cut it out carefully, and dropped it in water. The water causes the paper to separate, leaving just the ink and the finish, which you can then slide onto the headstock with some water to position it and let it dry. After that I coated the headstock with a couple coats of water-based polyurethane and sanded it to a satin so that you can’t see the decal outline.
Step 10: Hardware, Electronics, and Pickguard
While the actual next step was to do more neck work, I am going to touch briefly on hardware and electronics.
I have also mentioned that I have a luthier friend who helped me out a bit on this build. His name is James and he is a guitar repair hobbyist. He was able to give me some parts and lots of advice, and he helped me through the fretting and final tuning processes. This step and the next were made possible in large part by James.
The hardware was where I spent most of my money on this project. The headstock has Grover locking tuners, the neck pickup is a standard Tele pickup that I ordered from Stewart MacDonald, and the bridge and bridge pickup I got from James. I am not going to go into much detail on electronics, but I followed this video for a tutorial on how to wire a four-way switch on a Telecaster. That is, instead of a normal Telecaster three-way switch, meaning that in addition to the three standard pickup positions, I actually have a fourth option which is both of the pickups wired in series, as opposed to the normal middle position, which is both pickups wired in parallel. This just gives me more variety of tone and more options out of this instrument.
Electronics installation is fairly standard, you just have to make sure that everything is grounded, including all of the shielding. I soldered my control assembly with several short wires coming out so that when I did the final in-body soldering I just had to strip the pickup wires, twist them together with the exposed ones. Solder, and shrink wrap.
In installing the hardware, the pickguard is very important when is comes to spacing everything. After playing around with a tortoise shell pickguard, I chose to use a pearl one instead. Definitely the right choice… Like I mentioned earlier I had to reshape this pickguard a bit so that it would not interfere with the f-hole. I cut off part of the top, scraped in a new bevel, and drilled new countersunk holes. I shielded the underside of the pickguard as well. While I used the pickguard to line everything up, the pickguard itself was one of the last things to get attached, since I designed the truss rod to only be visible (i.e. accessible) with the pickguard off.
Another note is that I used a Les Paul style jack plate as opposed to a Tele-style jack cup because I like the design more, and it makes using a 90-degree cable possible.
Step 11: Fret Work and Tune-Up (part 1)
Alright, home stretch! the most time consuming and detail-oriented part of the guitar build: frets!
DISCLAIMER: There are a lot of details left out of this description as fret dressing and guitar tune up is an art in itself. I would advise doing lots of research and finding people who know what they’re doing. This is just a summary of what I did.
Fret material comes in the form of long wires with a dome and a tang. I started by using a fret wire bender to curve the fret wire to a twelve-inch radius. I then used a fret press to one-by-one press each piece of wire into its slot using a radiused call, and then I snipped the ends. This went smoothly except for one fret which I had to pull out because I accidentally pressed it too far in. To fix this I put a metal shim in the slot, filled up the dent with sawdust that I had saved, and ran some CA glue into the sawdust. This filled the dent I had made, and I was able to just press another piece of fret wire into the slot with no issues. Using a hammer to first tap the wire into the slot before using the press helped to alleviate this kind of mishap.
This installation process actually happened before the final steps of the neck finishing process.
With the neck finish done, I bolted the neck onto the body (it really is a perfect fit it’s amazing).
I spent a lot of time fitting a nut blank into my nut slot. With it fit, I cut the slots into the nut using some specialized files from James. After flattening the bottom of the nut, I would eventually adjust the action by just lowering the depth of the nut slots and then filing down the top of the nut and rounding the back. Also, as with many elements of guitar building, cutting your own nut it totally optional, but at least knowing how to adjust the string heights is pretty important to tuning up the instrument well.
Step 12: Fret Work and Tune-Up (part 2)
In James’s shop, we set up the guitar in a homemade jig and strung it up for the first time. We adjusted the truss rod to get it the neck perfectly flat when under tension. This jig allows us to hold the neck at the same tension as if it had strings on it, even when we remove the strings, so we can level and dress the frets perfectly.
With strings removed, I did an initial level and bevel to get rid of the sharp ends of the fret wire. I then rounded over all of the edges of my frets with a small file, creating little domed ends so that my fingers don’t snag on anything when sliding up and down the neck. I then did another pass of leveling with a long metal sanding block and checked level with a rocker to make sure that no frets were higher than the others. With all of the flattening done, I masked off the fretboard leaving only the frets exposed, and I prepared to crown.
At this point every fret has a bit of a flat top, and the purpose of crowning it to round off the top of the fret so that the string is only intonating off of one point. This involves slowly removing the edges with a file until the flat surface on the top is almost gone, then going over the entire thing with a contoured diamond file, sanding the surface to 320 grit with a small contoured block, and then polishing with triple zero steel wool…. And doing all of that 22 times.
After hours of fret crowning, we attached the pickguard (and neck pickup, which is attached to the pickguard) and screwed those down. Off of the tension jig, we strung it up again, this time with nicer strings, and spent a good deal of time making sure the intonation off of the nut was sounding okay, which involved messing with the slots and nut height a bit more. We also had to adjust the string heights and lengths using the bridge. Once we were happy with it, we glued in the nut, and the project was finally complete :)
Step 13: Final Reflections
This was, hands down, my favorite project that I have ever worked on. I learned so much and I am really, really proud of the final product. The guitar turned out beautiful, every part of it has significance to me, and it is exactly the guitar I wanted. It’s incredibly light (it only weighs about 6 ½ pounds), the telecaster setup with the four-way switch makes this a really versatile instrument, and most importantly, it sounds great. It is quite literally a joy to play this instrument.
As mentioned before, this project cost me just under 300 dollars, and I’m estimating that it took about 140 hours of work. I was able to stick with my goals of not purchasing any wood or tools to construct the guitar, with the exception of a truss rod adjuster. That being said, my only disappointment with the instrument is that the intonation is not perfect (the sound sample in the video is a bit out of tune, most of those issues have since been fixed). Still if I were to do this again I would probably get either a real fret cutting jig or a precut fretboard. This whole project was, of course, only made possible by the willingness and generosity of my former boss, Doctor Jason Rosé and my friend, James Garcia. Moral of the story: make friends… this project would not have been nearly as successful (or inexpensive) without their help.
As I hope you can see, I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot from this process, so I can’t wait to try it again. Thanks for reading this far and please, if you have any questions about what I did, go ahead and comment them below. I tried to address everything I could think of, but there are undoubtably some processes I did not explain well and details I left out.
Also if you liked this project, please vote for this Instructable in the Instruments Contest! It would mean the world :)
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