Introduction: Upright Bass Made From Free (Reclaimed) Wood
This was not just a longtime dream of mine, but also a step towards further plans I have in making double basses. I have made many guitars, bass guitars and electric upright basses (solid bodies) from new and reclaimed materials but only recently felt I had the know-how to accomplish an acoustic double bass. I would do many things differently my next time around, but I'll do my best to illustrate how I made this one and highlight some things I might do differently next time.
This Instructable will give a broad overview of the project. There is a 3-part video series on my www.youtube.com/timsway channel documenting the build in more detail and I scattered the videos in this Instructable as well.
I used all free wood I reclaimed from pallets, closet doors, decking and fencing. I did use a couple store-bought parts from one of my video sponsors, www.gollihurmusic.com
I did use a CNC and laser but they are not required; I mostly used typical woodworking tools. Some of the parts I CNCed are also readily available premade at Gollihur Music too.
You will need a pretty well-rounded woodworking shop to make this but, as always, where there is a will, there's a way. For materials I used several ash pallet runners, a couple hollow closet doors, flat cedar fence boards (enough to make an aprox 48" X 30" X1.5" solid blank) and I have some reclaimed cumaru decking I used for the tailpiece and fingerboard, but these can be purchased.
I had a new, maple bridge and ebony nut on hand (easily purchased) and I got a set of strings, tuners, soundpost and an endpin from Gollihur. I also bought some aircraft cable at a box store.
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Step 1: Templates and Jigs
I created some double bass shapes in VCarve and carved out some parts on my Maslow/MakerMade CNC (this could be done by hand with a jigsaw).
Remember, #HollowCoreDoorsAreTheNewPallet (Search it and see :)
I made some templates from hollow core door skins as well as the back of the instrument and cut some molds out of 3/4" plywood scraps using the same lines.
I cut doubles of the bass shapes from the 3/4" plywood and screwed them together with 2x4 spacers to make thicker clamping molds.
I skimped on the molds and made them from scraps. In the future I would put more effort in to making them better as they are crucial to the build. I would also change my overall shape a little, making the top narrower and the cutaways taller.
Step 2: Bending Sides and Attaching Back
I developed this kerfing trick on my laser with hollow core doors (they're the new pallet, remember?) by cutting halfway through them to make them flexible. If you don't have a laser, you could try this by hand with a razor or something, but you'd probably be better off steaming real wood (look up DIY steaming methods. There are many).
But with my technique, I half-cut two 1/8" door skins and glue them together, cut sides in, to make a rigid 1/4" shape. Using my molds I did the sides in 3 pieces, then glued the sides together with real wood seams (from the door edges).
In the future I would make additional molds for this step that are three separate pieces so, I could mold the parts with excess material on the edges which would make this easier. My system worked by exposing the real wood corners but it was difficult.
I used wood glue on the parts I wanted permanently bonded (bracing and whatnot) but I glued the doorskin back on using horse hide glue so it can be removed. The video explains this if you are unfamiliar. As a vegetarian, I loathe using it but I am almost done with this can and will replace it with more modern fish glue when I need to (which I still don't like the idea of, but...)
I also glued a block in the top and bottom of the instrument for the endpin and neck. Notice I made a sliding dovetail joint in the top block. Also notice the sides are thicker at the bottom than top. This requires some planning to make it all line up and you need to sand a slight angle in to the back of the neck block.
Step 3: Carving Neck
The neck was carved from a glue-up of ash I reclaimed from these large pallets I picked up from a sheet metal shop (with permission). There was a lot of planing that went in to this and I explain it in more detail in the video along with the choices I made about grain direction, how I added the sliding dovetail, etc. I also drilled two holes through the neck in to the block (before gluing it in) and added 1/4" 20 threaded inserts to the block so I can bolt on my bass neck instead of gluing it. I did this to my vintage Pretschner aluminum bass about 12 years ago and it has worked out really well for doing repair and the knowledge that if I do need to fly with it, I can disassemble and put it in a box).
Once I roughed in the basic shape on the bandsaw, I used Arbortech powercarving tools and hand tools to shape the neck and carve the headstock. I also drilled out the bulk of the wood from the headstock where the tuners live and cleaned the pocket up with a chisel.
This was time consuming as I have little experience doing fine carving but it was a lot of fun and rewarding. I made arrow rosettes on the headstock instead of the typical fluted shape and I was quite pleased with them.
Step 4: Carving Top
Spruce is a common bass top material. I figured cedar is KIND of like a spruce so I glued up a bunch of reclaimed fence boards into a 1.5" thick (2 layers) block big enough to carve a top from. I used my door skin template to give me a reference and I routed out my arrow F holes (A holes?) first, so I'd have windows through the instrument. I also routed the edge of the top down to 1/4" thick and drilled pilot holes through the inside middle of the instrument to leave 1/4" of material.
I basically am carving a big bowl, so these steps were crucial to keep me from power carving away too much material on one side of the bass or the other. I want my bass thinner than 1/4" (more like 1/8") but I want to carve the last 1/8th away slower and by hand rather than make a mistake with the Arbortech turbo plane and blow a hole through it.
Once I roughed it in to shape at 1/4" thick, i went back with sanders, hand planes, etc., and carefully brought it to final thickness.
I used the width of half my carpenter's pencil to trace the final top profile (so it would be just a little wider than the body) and cut the final shape on the band saw before using hide glue to glue the top on. This is a nerve wracking and tricky glue up, so definitely do dry fits all the way for all these glue ups before using the glue. But it's not ready to get glued on yet...
Step 5: Bracing, Hardware, Fingerboard, Tailpiece
The top gets supported with a "bass bar" that I carved from the hollow door trim (did I mention #HollowCoreDoorsAreTheNewPallet?)
I added this video still of my son and I talking because I found his questions very helpful in the build. I explained to him the principals of how the instrument works and how and why I was doing each thing I did. Saying it out loud in a way a 9-year-old could understand really helped me think through the processes and problem solve.
Once the bass bar was installed I glued the top on. I used my Avid CNC to carve the fingerboard and tailpiece from old cumaru decking (I designed these in Aspire and talked to the camera in those parts).
You can see the manufactured parts I used (less than $300 with the $100 strings) For another $150ish you could get the fingerboard and tailpiece, too, AND a neck black is about $160 at Gollihur music, so you could just build the body.
Step 6: Fit and Finish. Repeat.
Here's where it gets tedious (like the rest wasn't!) I used hide glue to put the fingerboard on the neck and finished shaping that in together before bolting it on. The bolt-on option makes a lot of this much easier. I also added some door trim work around the seams.
I began roughing in the bridge shape by using the radiused top of the instrument as a sanding block so the feet of the bridge conformed. I also cut a saddle from cumaru so the tailpiece cable has some hard wood support.
I used TotalBoat Halcyon Amber finish (waterbased) and applied 3 or 4 coats with a foam brush.
Perhaps the hardest part of this is putting in the soundpost, which runs between the top and bottom of the bass. It sits on a reinforced back plate (look back at pics and goes beneath the foot of the bridge where the high G string crosses. I have a soundpost setter tool which is very useful but not necessary. Watch the video for more on this.
My neck angle ended up being a little lower than I wanted it so I had to carve the bridge down a little lower than I wanted, but it ended up all working fine so no biggee. I'm just glad it works! It took me a few back and forth tries to get the bridge right. Then I let it sit under tension for a few days and went back and did it all again.
Step 7: Finished!
I finished this build in September, 2019, about 3 months before I am writing this. I am happy to say after 3 months it is still alive and kicking. The cedar top definitely deformed under tension and is looking a little flat but it plays and you can hear it played up against three other double basses for a side-by-side audio shootout here:
On the next one I will make the carved top deeper (at least 2 inches) and from a stronger wood for sure and, like I said earlier, change the shape a bit. I will also make better and more specific molds.
I have wanted to make one of these for more than 20 years and we really can do and make anything - it may just take a couple decades to get there. Never give up.
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