A week in Rotterdam

It was a very short week in the shop this week, as I was mostly in Rotterdam on semi-vacation, but I had two workshop-days in which to get things done, so I tried to make the most of them.

First up, I wrapped up the oiling of The Clydesdale offset. Last week I lamented about how the oiling of the fretboard had gone a bit Pete Tong, enough that I had to just sand it back and start again. Thankfully this time the oiling went better, though only because I kept a watchful eye on it. It was indeed the case that having pedantically wiped off any excess after doing a coat of oil on the fretboard, if I came back ten minutes later I found some oil had seeped out of the fret edge and the deeper grain lines in the wood, and I had to do another round of mopping up excess. After this second pass it seemed okay thankfully.


This let me get both the body and the neck finished before I went away, of this will have been curing in the mean time, so now I can go back and start the assembly this week. Before leaving for Rotterdam I ordered all the remaining parts for the guitar, so they should all have arrived by the start of the week. The only fabrication I need to do now is the cutting to the scratch plate, which I’ll touch on later in these notes.

Given The Clydesdale was at a slow stage where I can’t do much to it, I finally turned my attention back to The Prototype Offset. This guitar was “finished” a little while ago, but I had problems setting up the floating vibrato on it, I just couldn’t get it to stay in tune, and as such I felt I couldn’t ship it. I really should have dealt with this a while back, but with The Clydesdale being behind I wanted to focus on that first, and am only now getting around to it. There are unfortunately only so many hours in the day, and I can’t devote them all to guitars as I’d like.


I sat down for an afternoon with the guitar, armed with some spare strings, some spare bridge springs (some tighter and some loser), and some vaseline to let me make sure everything was moving properly, and I tried to work out what was what. The first thing to eliminate was whether there was an internal interference that was causing the bridge to get stuck or struggle. The problem with the dynamic vibrato design found on the Fender Mustang (similarly the one on the Jaguar and Jazzmasters) is that you can’t see what’s going on inside once mounted (c.f, the unit on a Strat where you could see what’s going on easily). To get around this I constructed a bridge mount made in MDF that was the same thickness as the cavity I’d made in this guitar, which let me check if there was any contact as I operated the vibrato.


This told me quickly that this wasn’t the case: despite being close to the sides, they don’t touch at all, and nothing protruded out the bottom either, which was a relief as it meant I didn’t have to take a router to the guitar to remove some more wood.

But then the question is what was I doing wrong? The short version of a long story, which I will blog as a separate tutorial, is that two things needed correcting. Firstly, I’d not realised that for this vibrato design to work correctly I needed the posts that sit between the strings and the springs to be perpendicular to the body surface when everything is at rest and in tune. Once I realised this, it was much easier to see the impact of tweaks to things like the height of the string mount point on these posts and similarly for the springs, as you could use the angle of the posts as an indicator as how well or badly it was set up.

The all highlighted the second issue, which was that the springs I had were too tight for the strings I was using (11s), and when in tune the bridge was far from it’s optimal position. Thus I swapped the springs for a lighter pair, and switched the strings back to a slightly lighter gauge, and now the guitar is much happier. It’s still not perfect, but definitely stays closer to in-tune after you use the vibrato. Here’s a little vid of me playing the guitar (admittedly not with vibrato, as I was just having fun here and I don’t really know any songs that use the vibrato).

It’s been quite an educational experience working through this, and I’m amazed that floating bridges are as popular as they are given how balanced they need to be. Expect a proper write-up with pictures in the near future.

The one thing I did realise coming back to this guitar after a couple of months away is that I’m not happy with the scratch plate, which was laser cut from acrylic due to the failed attempt at making it in PVC (as documented here). I’ve decided to have another go at making PVC scratch plates on the CNC router, both for this and for The Clydesdale. My plan to overcome the wrapping that PVC naturally does is to use double sided sticky tape (and lots of it) to tape the PVC flat (in addition to screwing it down to stop side motion when being cut). Hopefully this will produce a better result than last time.

After getting more quotes for the metal part for the pedalboard I pulled the trigger on getting a prototype commissioned. In the end I had two quotes at roughly the same price, but I went with the supplier who was more local and would do powder coating as an option, but with a higher lead time. I think right now I just want to optimise for somewhere I can easily go talk to the people if things don’t work out as I hope: this being my first attempt to get metal fabricated I’m sure something will go wrong as I’ve not designed it right or communicated it correctly. 

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I suspect I’ll get the first prototype back in January, which is quite exciting.

For most of this week my other half was attending a conference in Rotterdam, and having never been to that part of the world I tagged along. Given I’d be at a loose end for much of the time, and the weather forecast was poor, I took advantage of the fact we were travelling on the Eurostar rather than flying and took my guitar with me, so I could keep up my regular practice routine in the AirBNB each day.


I was using Garageband on my Mac via an iRig adapter to let me get sound without annoying the neighbours, and it was fun to try and actually record some songs along to a virtual drummer - mostly a reminder that I don’t do that often and as such my timing needs a lot of work :) But that’s inspired me to do more of that, and ideally do so with my mic’d up amp and pedal board.

A week in the shop

At the end of last week I’d finished levelling and polishing the frets on The Clydesdale offset, leaving me to “just” etch the headstock and then oil the neck.

For the headstock rather than just have the normal Electric Flapjack logo, this guitar is also having its name etched their. When the customer ordered this guitar I’d told him I’d be happy to laser etch something custom on the headstock (or body), and when he decided to name the guitar “The Clydesdale” it seemed a natural addition to the headstock (the name stems from the customer’s hometown of Glasgow being on the River Clyde, and the Clydesdale is a type of horse, fitting for a guitar derived from a Fender Mustang).

I sent the customer some mock ups of how it might look with various combinations, and he came back with a rough idea of what he wanted along these lines:

clydesdale headstock.png

Nothing too complicated, but it had the one downside that it doesn’t leave much room for a string tree. But rather than change the customer’s contribution, I simply made a tweak to move the Electric Flapjack logo around to match the name text which frees up some space around the nut end of the headstock for a string tree. Having done that I then sent a rendering of what that might look like back to the customer for approval: once the etching is done that’s it, so I just wanted to be sure he was happy with how it would all look.


He was indeed happy with this, so then I went and did the scary bit and set about etching the design into the headstock. I also had the neck from the recovery offset that needed a logo adding to it’s headstock, so I decided to do the same angled Electric Flapjack logo on that one, which gave me an excuse to double check alignment before doing it on the customer’s neck.

As ever, each bit of wood is different, and the strength of the laser cutters over time will vary, when I cut the neck I made sure to save the offcuts for this moment. Using these offcuts lets me calibrate the design and check how it’ll look before committing (measure, measure, cut!). One thing I realised on my test cuts was that the logo didn’t quite look right when rendered at an angle relative to the laser bed, but looked nicer when the laser cutter’s natural motion aligned with the text. Normally I’d just lay the neck so it matched the direction of the cutter, but given the results seemed slightly less good when text is drawn at an angle, I simply rotated everything around and put the neck on the bed at an angle instead.


Once I was happy with both these things, there was a nervous few minutes, and voila, one nicely etched headstock.


The etching of the headstock marked the end of physical production for The Clydesdale (modulo drill holes for later assembly). The body had already had its coats of crimson stain the week before, so it was starting to look like a guitar ready for finishing.


As I discovered when making the prototype offset, which also had a wenge neck, wenge works best when finished more like maple (oiled for coating) compared to rosewood (oiled for absorption): if you apply a fingerboard oil as you would with rosewood you lose all the two tone colour of the wenge.

The process for oiling is simple enough: apply a coat all over each part, then you go back after a few minutes and wipe off any excess that the wood hasn’t sucked in, leave it to dry a day, and then give it a quick rub down with a high grit sandpaper (I’m using 2000 grit for this) to get a nice smooth finish before applying again. 

The maple neck has blown me away now that oil has been applied. Before oiling it was nice, but a fairly flat looking bit of wood; after oiling the wood came to life with a lot of depth depending on how the light plays in it. I posted a video to instagram (which I can’t embed here, but you can go see it here), but for comparison compare the headstock here to the photo above.


It has so much more definition now, and the light reflection move beautifully as you move around the neck relative to the light source.

Whilst I was bowled over by the maple, once again the wenge provide to be my nemesis. The first couple of coats went on okay, but the third coat seemed to dry with blotches on it, despite my wiping away the excess. It did look like some had seeped out from under the frets, or it could have come out of the natural figuring in the wood. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t a finish I found acceptable. Thus, my Sunday was lost to sanding down the entire fretboard again (between the now installed frets) to get it back to an even state all over, followed by working my way back up through the sandpaper grits to get a smooth finish once more, re-polishing the frets as they’d been inevitably scuffed during the sanding process, and then finally another coat of oil applied to the fretboard. 


This time I was very fastidious about removing excess oil, and checking back after a short while to remove any that had seeped out from behind the frets (which it had done again, but this time I caught it). The first wenge fretboard wasn’t so much trouble, so I’m not sure why this one has played up so, but it is just adding to my general acceptance that wenge is a better wood than I am a woodworker, and for now I need to find alternatives for future builds.

I’m going to be taking a short trip to Rotterdam this week (my other half is at a conference there, and having never been before I’m going to tag along), so my aim is to get the oil finished before then so it can have a week to cure before I move on to assembly.

Last week I talked a bit about my pedalboard design, and how I was looking for quotes for fabrication of the metal parts. I’ve had one quote back, one request for more detailed drawings (which I generated and sent - I knew that O-Grade in Technical Drawing would come in handy one day…), and one not respond. The quote I had back was acceptable, but that place doesn’t do painting/powder coating, so I’m just trying to get one more quote from somewhere that does before I pull the trigger.

In the mean time I laser cut a plywood mock up of the top surface to check that my modelling of the pedals in CAD matched reality:


Turns out 3mm ply is quite flexible when you put pedals on it like this, so not an ideal test material, but it was enough to convince me that my tweaked design makes cable routing much easier than on my current board.

Final bit for the week was I learned how to turn wood on a lathe, which was interesting (and fun). Wood turning is much more free form than metal turning was (at least on the kit that Makespace has), being more hands on material, so it’s clearly a skill to be mastered. But if anyone needs plectrum bowls, let me know: I’m sure that’ll be the hot product for 2019 ;)

A week in the shop

I was under the weather for quite a bit of last week, so not a huge amount of progress to report on the guitar build front. The Clydesdale offset continues to move forward slowly: I’ve now finished the fretwork, and the next step is laser etching the logo oiling it. Fretwork is definitely something I need to find a way to improve on: although I felt the early stages went well, getting the frets buffed out was quite a lot slower than I expected. But it is there now:


For all the effort and my desire to avoid wenge for a few builds, it is looking lovely. Headstock etching, final sanding, and then oiling are the next stages.

After upgrading the CNC router last week I made a quick collet holder, as the old one no longer worked due to the new collet size. It was quite a quick job in Fusion 360 to design: it actually is pretty close to what I teach when I do my introduction to Fusion training course. Not long after I had the parts cut out on the CNC router and glued up, and the following day it was up and in use:


It’s little jobs like this that I really love about having all the tools in Makespace: you have an idea of something that’ll make your life easier, and a day later there it is in use. There’s a lot of focus in hack spaces on the esoteric things you can make, but I find this every day problem solving much more interesting.

On a related topic of making things that scratch a particular itch, I’ve been looking a little at sheet metal fabrication this week. With my new pedal setup I realised that although I have quite a nice pedal board, the way it does cable routing wasn’t quite right given some of the bigger pedals are larger than what the board was designed for, and perhaps I could design one that was better suited for my needs. The pedal board I have is made from a bit of folded metal with some nice wooden end-caps: the wooden end-caps I can easily make, but sheet metal is not something I’ve played with much before, and I felt it’s been a while since I pushed myself design ways, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Fusion 360 has a mode for sheet metal folding, which I had played with before a year ago when I tried modelling the pre-built chassis I bought for the amp I made. This time though I wanted to design something that didn’t quest exist yet, which was more fun, and I need to actually get it made rather than just worry about something already made, which is a different kettle of fish, as I have to think about construction practicality as well.

My initial mockup of the metal part for my new pedal board looks a little like this:

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The main change between the pedalboard I have and the design I have here is just a tweak to how the cable slots are cut. I actually modelled it with rough replicas of my particular set of pedals in Fusion 360, so I know that they’ll fit perfectly. Beyond that it’s mostly what you’d expect to see in terms of a raised sloped surface with space underneath for cables and a power brick. In the back I found a socket and switch unit that’ll take a standard kettle lead which I can then forward to the Walrus Audio power supply I have that’ll sit under the board, making it easy to plug and unplug and turn on and off.

When folded out the sheet metal looks like this, which is what I’ll have to get someone to cut out and fold for me:

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It’s really quite nice how Fusion lets you design in this way, making quite a complex task relatively simple for someone inexperienced in metalwork like myself. It has a stock set of bend radiuses etc for different metals, but it’ll be interesting to see how different fabricators will deal with my design.

I’ve sent it off to three different manufacturers for quotes, noting in the request what I thought might be problem areas with the design for fabrication just to enable them to complain if I’ve done something silly sooner rather than after I’ve spent a lot of money on getting it made. It’ll be interesting to see both how much it’ll cost to make and whether this easy to generate design actually cuts the mustard when given to a professional metal work person.

Music Memos

A friend recently pointed me to an iOS app that Apple make but don’t seem to sing about much, but has really changed the way I practice guitar, and seems to be a great potential song writing tool too: Music Memos.


The app starts from a simple premise: it lets you record little bits of music as you play, just as you would with a voice memo app. That in itself is useful enough when practicing - it’s always good to listen back to yourself and hear what you sounded like not what you think you sounded like - but once you have recorded your little clip, it does all kinds of useful other bits. It’ll do an automatic transcription of what you played, putting it on a bar based view with the chords for each bit annotated over the track

You can also add a backing band to your recording, adding various drummer styles and an automatic bassist (which I don’t think is even available in GarageBand, Apple’s normal go to software for amateur musicians). The range of drummers isn’t as comprehensive as say GarageBand’s, but it’s enough to let you get an idea fleshed out quickly without making the UI overly complicated. It also will sync my recordings via iCloud so I can listen to them later on my iPad, or open them up in GarageBand directly if I then want to take the moment of inspiration further, or I can post them to SoundCloud etc. to share them with people.

But for all its features, one of the best things is that for the most part the UI when you’re playing is uncluttered and simple letting you concentrate on playing guitar, not the app.


The main UI just has one button to let you start and stop recording, and there’s even an automatic mode that I assume will track when you start and stop, but I’ve not yet played with that (when practicing I don’t need it to automatically record my scales :). At a lot of guitar apps I’ve tried have very cumbersome user interfaces and when I’m playing guitar I don’t want to be thinking about the app, it’s enough for my brain to cope with trying to play new things my guitar teacher has set me.

The number of times I practice and think “oh, I wish I ‘d recorded that” is reasonably high, so having an app I can just have to one side and turn on quickly to capture something fills a niche nicely. I’ve also taken to using it at my lessons: I have a terrible memory for rhythm patterns and timing, and so I’ll get a new riff or sequence down whilst at my lesson, but the next day looking at the sheet music have no idea how it was meant to flow. With Music Memos I now just record that riff at my lesson before we move on, so for the rest of the week I have that reference to hand.

If you’re a guitarist with an iPhone I really recommend you give it go, and a big thanks to Jason for pointing me to it!

A week in the shop

This week marks the one year anniversary of my keeping week notes! I was hoping to do something special to mark the occasion, but I’m feeling under the weather right now, so I’ll defer that to another day, and just do a quick (haha) brain dump of the past week. Hopefully more interesting notes will resume when my brain feels less like cotton wool :)

At the end of last week I started staining the body of The Clydesdale offset, and this week I finished it, and now it awaits oiling, which I’ll do at the same time as the neck.


The above is after 3 or 4 coats of stain, and as ever the ash has done a lovely job of soaking up the stain more darkly along the grain, giving it a nice striped effect.

One thing I finally changed on this guitar was how I applied the the stain to make it easier to apply without spending lots of time buffing out stripes from where I’d applied it. When I first watched tutorial videos on applying stain the advice was, with the guitar body facing you so the neck pocket is at the top, start in the middle and work left and right to the edges. The start in the middle bit makes sense, as it stops you creating dribbles down the side which you might do if you apply the stain edge to edge. The left and right bit was meant to make any lines created as you work up the body less obvious, but that wasn’t working for me, I’d end up with bits I’d have to work to buff out, and I wondered what I was doing wrong. It was only now I realise that on the tutorial I watched they had a flame maple cap with wood grain going in that direction, which hides any brush direction marks, and for the ash body I’m using to get the same benefit I need to brush up and down. Basically you need to just follow the grain as you apply the stain.

It’s funny how because there was one obvious truth in the lesson I accepted the rest as gospel without thinking whether it applied to what I was doing. It’s always worth asking why! 

I continued the fretwork on the neck for The Clydesdale, getting mostly done but I ran out of 240 grit sandpaper, so it got paused until the nice Amazon delivery person arrives at Makespace with some more.


I definitely can feel I’m starting to improve on this process in terms of technique, I just hope at some point I start improving in terms of time it takes me to do a fret job, as it still takes me a couple of days. Part of the problem is managing my attention span - I know that after an hour on any given task my attention starts to wander and it’s best to stop there otherwise I’ll do a shoddy job and need to redo that bit later. Hopefully as my technique improves it’ll become more mechanical.

I spent some time helping improve things at Makespace. Makespace got a little more room earlier this year, which has finally been fitted out for power etc., and thus we have now moved all the metal work machines into the new space, meaning the existing workshop is now dedicated to woodwork. The plan is to make more working space (i.e., bigger workbenches), but it also let us move the CNC Router into a better place, and as a major user of that bit of kit I volunteered to help move it.


In addition to moving it, with the help of one of the directors, we fitted a new spindle motor to it, which takes us from having a maximum router bit shank size of 1/4” to 1/2”. It doesn’t make a huge difference to a lot of jobs, but it does mean that for facing off material I can go from a 1” bit to a 2” bit, which will halve the time it takes me to face off material, which is particularly useful given Makespace doesn’t yet have a thicknesser, and doing multiple facing off passes is a way I often work around this.

The final bit of Makespace admin was I’m now a trainer on the CNC Router, so I’ve started bringing more people into the fold. This is good, as CNC Routing is a nice way to make a lot of things, but at the same time I’m trying to back it up with more training and general tutelage  on the hand held plunge router we have, as I think a lot of people could be using that rather than the more visually obvious CNC machine. This is also to make me learn more about that tool, as I’m convinced I could be building more things quicker if I got used to not relying on the CNC Router for everything.

The second Fusion 360 show and tell night I’ve organised at Makespace was quite a success also, we got over 20 people attending, and 3 great talks and lots of discussion.


Again, this is another thing I’ve organised mostly as way for me to learn more by creating a forum for people to share the great stuff they’ve been building, and the fact that lots of other Makespace members learn more is a wonderful coincidence :)

I did some trial coats of using grain filler on some off cut ash, something I’ve never used before. The plain is to grain fill the body for the recovery offset I’m building and then paint it rather than stain and oil it as I’d normally do. The main lesson here is that the filler I have works, but it’s way too pungent to use in the Makespace workshop due to lack of adequate ventilation there. I suspect I’ll need to find a way to do it outside of Makespace and then a well ventilated place for it to dry.

No pictures for this as given how pungent it was I didn’t want to delay getting it done to take pictures :) But basically the filler I’m using comes as a goo which I applied using a bunch of credit card shaped blanks I bought to scrape it into the grain. I then left it 24 hours to dry and sanded it back and you can see it’s filled the grain nicely.

In some fun guitar playing I got myself a cheap tremolo pedal, the Mooer Trelicopter.  I ended up with this by being tempted to try and make a Leslie Speaker Cabinet at some point, to looking at digital pedals that do the same thing, and realising I didn’t know what I’d do with such a sound, and then deciding the closest thing I could find that was cheap and used by people who’s tone I liked was the Trelicopter pedal. It’s been fun having something else on my board that adds a little movement to the sound I make (along side the reverb pedal I have). I mostly play at home alone, so effects like this fill out your sound and give it more texture. To try and demonstrate this I did a quick video of layering different effects to get a sound when playing Gimmie Shelter by the Stones:

I’d held off getting a tremolo pedal for a while as I didn’t have a specific use for it, but it’s definitely a fun pedal to have to hand for the odd specific song like this and in general as a texture thing, so I happily recommend the Trelicopter if you want to give it a go and see where inspiration takes you.

It’s been interesting also rebuilding my board, as I’m definitely at the stage where I have enough pedals that even with them all off, the fact that my signal is going through all these pedals is changing the sound of my guitar, and I have to compensate for that in how I set my amp up and in the tone control the reverb pedal which is effectively always on. I can see now why people move to switcher based systems which take pedals out the signal path when not in use.

It also reminded me again how unhappy I am with the design of the pedal board I have, which is very nice, but just doesn’t let me route cables in a way that seems to make sense with the pedals I have. At some point I need to design my own :)

A week in the shop

At the end of last week I’d installed the frets into the neck for The Clydesdale offset guitar, but I wasn’t happy with how one of them as sat. In the end I decided the best option was to remove that fret and put in a fresh one; not a decision to be taken lightly, but it was definitely better than fighting with the existing fret further and risking chewing up the fret slot. Having gone through the delicate operation of removing said fret (an operation made considerably easier because it wasn’t sat right anyway, which meant I could readily get purchase to remove it), I replaced it with a new fret that started with a much closer over-radius (as covered last week), and it’s now sat home perfect. 


This coming week I’ll start the fun of levelling, rounding, and polishing the frets.

Overall, although the wenge looks nice, I think in future I’ll see if I can find another wood to work with for dark fretboards. Wenge looks lovely, but whilst I’m still finding my feet as a luthier the difficulty of it means I’m trying to tackle too many variables and it’s slowing me down quite a bit in terms of learning. I think it’s better to learn one thing at a time and keep iterating rather than working on multiple things on a single project. So wenge again in the future certainly, but I suspect I’ll try other rosewood alternatives next time around, even if they don’t look quite as special.

One of the nice bits of a guitar building is when you transition from fabrication to finishing: although you still have a good few weeks to to, it signals you’re on the home straight. With the next getting close to being ready I turned back to the body for The Clydesdale which has hung to one side in Makespace for a while, and I spent a good few hours getting it sanded to the point where I could stain it.


Natural wood finishes on guitars are probably more effort than is logically justifiable compared to painting. Not that painting doesn’t have its own set of complications, just that the effort to appreciation for natural finishes is more questionable :) Wood is a soft natural material, so it’s easily scratched or dented, and additionally it will sometimes naturally contain imperfections you can’t do much about. If you paint the guitar body then you can mask a lot of this which won’t impact the performance of the instrument but would be considered visually unappealing. For a natural finish you need to not just sand the wood smooth to touch, you need to get rid of any slight blemish you see, as staining and oilling tends to cause these imperfections to be accentuated. Thus I easily spent over four hours on sanding the body for this guitar to first get rid of any machine marks, then going up through the grits to get a smoother and smoother finish until it was flawless.


There’s a saying in my workshop (admittedly only by me, but I do say it often enough): higher grits of sandpaper only exist to show you what you missed two grit levels down. You’ll happily review the body after completing it with 600 grit sand paper, but by the time you get up to 1000 or 1500 you’ll find scratches that weren’t there that are visible now, appearing apparently out of nowhere. For example, you can just see tiny scratches here on the lip of the horn that were not visible before reaching higher grits:


At this point you need to go back down several grits and work your way back up for that area, and then other ones will appear as you get up to 2000 grit. All of which is a long winded way of saying that if you have a guitar with a natural finish appreciate that it takes a disproportionately longer time to get right than painting :) Still, by the end of Sunday I got the body to the point where I could start applying the coats of stain.

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Generally I apply 5 to 6 coats of stain, once a day, to get a consistent rich colour, and then the same process is repeated with finishing oil until it has a nice protective shine. It’s a two week phase where you touch the guitar once a day for ten minutes, but the end results are lovely.

We do lots of training in Makespace (the community workshop where I do most my guitar building) on how to operate tools and equipment, but we don’t do much in the way of broader why would you want to use this tool in the first place. Myself and other workshop regulars are trying to change this, and we’ve put in place a couple of things to try and make it easier for people to learn the broader context for how things are made: it’s no good teaching people to operate equipment if they don’t know they need to use that equipment in the first place or what is possible with the tools we have.

The first of these is a monthly(ish) Show & Tell evening themed around Fusion 360. I’ve been running a Fusion 360 course for a while now at Makespace, and I’ve been having conversations with individuals where they’ll explain to me how they made something and I end up learning something I didn’t know (and this is why I do the teaching in the first place - teaching definitely pays back in spades as others go on to do cool things with their newfound knowledge). But it seems inefficient that I have to speak to everyone I’ve taught individually to get this information, and then it only ends up with me learning and not everyone: thus the Show & Tell evening. Each month we have three people talk for 20 minutes about a thing they’ve made and now they designed it. The thing doesn’t need to be tricky - 3D design and manufacture is a complex topic, so even seeing how seemingly trivial things have been made usually turns up a few gems that half the room won’t have seen before. Feedback from our first one was positive, and I certainly have learned from it things I’ve since put into practice as I design my guitars for 2019, and I look forward to the second one this week coming.

The second event was I did a sort of advance tutorial on how to use a hand router, taught both by myself having used templates etc. with guitars, and with another member who’s got a lot of experience in building furniture and the like (which also meant I got to learn things as we did the session). The aim was to go beyond how to operate the hand router, but show off what you can do with it beyond just round over edges on things. We talked about templates and jigs, how to make different styles of cut etc. It seemed to go quite well, and I was pleased we got quite a broad audience, going beyond the obvious wood working crowd in Makespace. It’ll be interesting to see if any of these people go on to make things in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have in future.

I definitely think that this broader set of learning in Makespace is something, along with the assistance of others, we can do more of to try and open up the workshop beyond just a small niche of regular tasks people currently use it for. 

A brief interlude in the shop

I managed a couple of days in the workshop this last week, as pressure on contracting work let up briefly, however having just limited time in the workshop is highlighting that just getting a day in the workshop doesn’t mean I get a day to work the workshop, and I need to better manage my time whilst there. I do most of my guitar building in Makespace, which is a community workshop, and in general that community aspect is a wonderful thing. But being in that community means I have certain responsibilities and commitments to help the workshop run smoothly, and whilst none of these are particularly onerous, they do break up the day in a way that makes it hard to do long jobs if I’m not careful. For example, this Friday I went in and I had one client meeting to squeeze in for half an hour in the morning and a training session on workshop kit to run in the afternoon for a couple of hours, this fragmented the day enough that I didn’t get time to do the fretwork I’d intended to do that day, which means things spill into next week or consume my weekend.

In computing there’s a term called “context switch overhead”, which means that you can’t just swap from doing task A to task B without some level of wasted time as you pack away task A and get started for task B, which is just as important to humans as it is for computers. Even just someone coming and asking you a question when you’re concentrating can cause you to have to do two context switches and spoil your flow, which is why in the community workshop we have a orange lanyard system as a way that politely says “do not disturb”. Whilst I like to try and help people at Makespace as much as I can, I suspect at times I should learn to pick up that orange lanyard.

Most of my time in the workshop has been on the next for The Clydesdale, the first of my commissioned offsets I’m building. The last time I was in the workshop I managed to get the neck carved and sanded, but I wasn’t quite happy with the feel in my hand, so I took a second pass at it and now it feels just as I want. The birds eye maple is also coming up pretty nice: at times I think I prefer a simpler look to maple, but this one I’m really pleased with now.


With the neck carve done I did a final pass on the fretboard to sand it smooth and ensure all the slots were to the correct level ready for the frets to go on.


Fretting is appropriately named, given it is one of the more stressful parts of a build, at least for a new builder like me. This is my sixth fret job so far, and I’ve not yet found my routine. It’s in part here where doing guitars at low volumes is not good, as by the time the next one comes around you have to relearn all that you did last time. I actually did my 5th fret job a couple of months ago on the neck for the recovery offset, but that feels like an age ago. Perhaps I should just make a batch of necks at some point in the near future just to do it repeatedly and build up some sort of muscle memory for the process.

Frets in a guitar, much to most people’s surprise comes as a length of wire, which you cut into short strips. The cross section of the wire has a sort of mushroom shape: there’s the bit you normally see on top of the fretboard, called the crown, which has a half circle shape, and then a bit sticking down, called the tang, which will go into the slot on the fretboard. The tang has some teeth on it to help it grip in the slot. Here’s a random picture of some fretwire from the people I buy mine from to help make it more clear:


Depending on the width of your slot vs the width of the tang you may or may not need to use glue to help the fret stay home. My aim is to avoid using glue if I can, as using glue will make life harder for the person who in future years needs to replace the frets as they wear down. But it’s not a hard rule: when working with wood you can’t be sure of how it’s going to behave and as such hard rules need to be more flexible, so if necessary I will use a little glue to make sure the frets stay home, but only if required.

Before you cut the fret wire into strips, you want to put a slight over-radius on it. Your fretboard itself isn’t flat, the ones I make have a 9.5” radius on them for instance, and to make it easier for the frets to be hammered in without jumping out you want to give your fret wire a radius that is slightly tighter than the board. If you have it with a bigger radius then as you hit it in at one end then the other end will see-saw out and it’ll be much harder to get home. If you over radius it slightly you can get the two sides home before securing the middle of the fret, which makes things easier (note easier, not easy :). To put the radius onto the fret wire you need one of these fret bending tools:


The main thing that I struggled with this time was I over bent the fret wire when I did the previous fret job. All my fretboards at the moment are the same 9.5” radius, so to save time and storage space, I did the radiusing of the fret wire in a single go. I didn’t struggle with that fret job much, but there the fretboard was made of maple rather than wenge, and maple is a much easier wood to work with. I’m really growing to dislike wenge as a wood to work with, due to the fact thet the density of the two colours in it are very different, so you have some very hard bits of wood and very soft bits of wood mixed in. When cutting the fret slots this can cause your saw to jump out the slot if you’re not careful (which risks scratching the fretboard surface), and here when putting the frets in you have bits which accept the fret readily and bits that don’t want to take it at all.

As I mentioned, when I did the maple fretboard last time, the fact I’d made the fret over-radiused by quite a bit didn’t matter too much, as the wood made the fret insertion relatively easy anyway. But here where the darker bits of wenge are much less forgiving it was taking much more work to get the frets home anyway, and the fact I put in more curve to defeat than I needed just compounded the issue. In the end I just threw out the already radiuses fretwire and got a new batch (which luckily I had to hand) and made it only just more than the fretboard radius.


Here you can see that it’s just in at both sides and only just out of the slot in the middle. Before I had a millimetre or so of daylight there. 

Once I’d made the switch, things progressed more smoothly, though I’d not say easy, but certainly easier, and after about three hours I had all the frets home:


One other tip I’d pass on here - this time I trimmed the edges as I went along rather than doing them all at the end, and that is worth doing. If you do them all at the end it’s hard to get your cutters in on the more closely spaced frets, and it also makes it easier to do the final tapping home of the frets on teh edge without risk of hitting the extruded bit and bending it.

I still unfortunately haven’t finished here. One of the frets in the middle where the wood is softer on the left side isn’t home right - down to the fact it was one of the overly radiused set and the soft wood isn’t gripping it, so I’m going to remove that fret and put in a new one, and potentially add glue to secure it properly.

Like I say, you can see why it’s called fret work.

The other thing I did was prep the recovery offset’s body for the first coat of grain filler, sanding it up to 400 grit all over. I ran out of time to actually apply any filler last week, but hopefully I’ll get time in the near future to do that. I should actually start doing the stain on The Clydesdale too, which is going to be a dark deep red similar to The Red Rocker tele I made last year.

A week out the shop

As has been the theme of the last few weeks, I’ve been flat out with contracting work again, and failed to get into the shop at all during the week, and at the weekend I went to the Mozilla Festival, a sort of technology festival ran by the Mozilla Foundation (the people who make the Firefox web browser). I imagine it’ll be another busy week coming, and then I hope to get back into the shop again.

The one thing I did manage to make was a small set of clips to try keep the microphone I bought for my amp straight. I have a low profile Sennheiser e609 microphone, and like a lot of people I simply drape it over my amp, looping the cable around the amp’s handle to keep it from slipping. This works fine in theory, but in practice you’ll find your mic cable has a natural twist in it, and getting the microphone to sit perfectly parallel to the amp face is a very frustrating experience. To try and help keep things aligned I made a simple pair of clips that hold onto the cable and provide a flat surface to rest on the top of the amp, helping me align it better.

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I made a front and a rear clip with slightly different designs: the rear one has an extra section to hook on the rear lip of the amp to stop the weight of the microphone dragging the cable forward, and the front one just has the plate to stop the cable twisting. It took me a couple of goes to get the sizing right, but here’s the clips in situ:


And as you can see, it’s kinda working. They’re not a great solution - you can see teh front clip is at an angle due to the way the cable bends over the front lip, and I’ve not got the balance quite right between the tightness of the clip on the cable and the ability to squeeze the cable into the clip. But it’s good enough for now, and better than the previous solution of just wrapping it around the handle and hoping it’ll sit in the right place.

To me the best thing was that it took me 30 minutes to go from idea to having a parameterised design in CAD that I can readily tweak to having the first printed prototype: all this practice is paying off.

The only other thing I’ve done guitar wise is order some grain filler for the Recovery Offset’s body. Whilst normally I like to stain my guitars, the recovery offset is made from a body and a neck that the CNC router tried to ruin, and thus they have obvious patches on them. A friend has a spray booth setup for painting, so I’m going to use this as an excuse to learn how to paint a guitar properly. To ensure a proper finish though I’ll need to apply grain filler to the ash body (if I want a flat finish, which I do), and thus I’ve got some of that on order, which hopefully will turn up before the end of the week.

A week (mostly not) in the shop

My run of having to do contract work that keeps me out the shop for the majority of the week continues, as I happen to have a couple of clients both with near term deadlines, but I managed to safeguard a day and a half this week to be in the shop and move things forward on The Clydesdale (the commissioned offset). To start with I finished getting the fretboard just right. and sanding smooth the transition between the headstock and the fretboard. Wenge is a particularly tough wood to work with I find, so getting the finish right on the radius and removing all the machine tool marks from first facing it off and then adding the rough radius took quite a bit of elbow grease, but the results are worth it:


The frontside done, then it was onto the rear of the neck to carve the bulk of the neck, which I do by hand using a Shinto hand rasp. I don’t just go at it blind, I set up a bunch of pencil guidelines to help me get the initial facets from which I then just freehand, taking frequent pauses to check how it feels when you make various chord shapes and using a straight edge to check the taper is right.


This is the firs time I’ve made a neck with birds eye maple, and the back has come up wonderfully textured as you can see.


The neck is now roughly sanded smooth and I’m happy with the feel, so the next step is to get the frets in.

My new audio recording gear arrived this week. I’ve been shooting little demo videos with my iPhone, but the audio quality isn’t that great through its microphone (the microphone is fine, just it’s not pointed at the amp where the sound is coming from :). Whilst in general I’m quite content writing this blog over making videos, there are times with musical instruments when a short video with sound will capture something much more succinctly than I could do so in prose, so I’ve been trying to solve the audio quality issue. My desired solution was to mic up my amp properly, and get a thing that I could plug straight into my phone so I could record things straight to instagram or youtube without any additional steps: to this end I ordered a Sennheiser e609 microphone and a Zoom U-22 portable audio interface.


The Sennheiser microphone appealed to me because of its low physical profile and it has a good reputation (along with the higher end version the e906). Where my amp is set up I don’t have the free space required for a regularly shaped microphone on a mic-stand, so the arrangement with the e609 draped over the amp as in the picture above is perfect, as I can leave it in place all the time without having to worry about getting it all setup when inspiration to record something strikes. The U22 is a simple microphone pre-amp that’ll take in a standard microphone XLR connection and output it to USB audio, and is supported to work with iOS devices through Apple’s USB/Lighting adapter (not all USB audio devices will work this way, particularly if they need power over USB). Thus I just need to plug the U-22 into my iPhone before firing up the camera app and everything Just Works™. 

Here’s a little video I recorded this week to test it all works:

For the most part it did just work, but there is one small snag in that it seems if you give iOS mono input it treats this as stereo audio with just the left channel when it’s recording video. I did some hunting around for solutions to this, and it seems a general problem with some of Apple’s video tools when presented with mono input. Unfortunately I’ve not yet found a neat way to solve this. For the above video I had to import the final movie into the old Quicktime Pro 7 tool, then export the audio as a mono track and import that back into iMovie where it did the correct thing. Whilst this works, it’s no good for quick off the cuff record and post to web scenarios I hoped for. If you have a better solution please let me know, or I’ll post one here when I find it.

I’m also interested to note the Zoom U-22 claims to take guitar direct in, which means in theory I could use it as a replacement for my IK Multimedia iRig 2 adapter that I cart around with me when I know I won’t have an amp to practice with. I’ll report back on how that goes when I get time to try it.

As mentioned a while back, I have this finished offset guitar where I’m not yet happy with the dynamic vibrato bridge setup, and I’ve not had time to investigate it. The first step to understanding why the dynamic vibrato isn’t happy is understanding the mechanics of how it works at all, and to that end I wanted to build an experimental jig where I can attach the bridge unit but see what’s going on inside. To this end, I knocked up this jig whilst feeling a bit too tired to work on fine detail work like neck carving:


The bridge cavities you can see in the centre go all the way through to the back and are the same depth as the cavities on the actual guitar, just open on the back. I’ll attach some clear perspex to this and then I’ll be able to see how the bridge works, whilst at the same time checking it’s not rubbing on the sides or the bottom. I also have a bunch of springs of different tension I can try, and this jig lets me change those and see how good they are without risk of scratching the actual guitar. Some fun experiments ahead, which I’ll try to record, as there’s very little info out there that I can find on setting up this type of vibrato system. I did chat to an owner of some vintage mustangs this week and he says both his stay in tune fine, so I know it’s an achievable aim.

Finally, a bit of dull but important admin: I’ve started implementing better backups for my laptop. Whilst I do back up my Mac laptop using Apple’s Time Capsule device, that device is starting to creak at the seams a bit, and at the same time backups are becoming all the more vital for me. When I wrote software I’d push everything to a cloud server designed to store software code, but for a lot of the guitar work I do there is no nice easy service, so more of value resides on my local disk. Also, doing more rich media content like videos means I need more reliable storage than I can fit in my laptop too.

The solution to this has been I’ve got a Synology NAS storage system, to which I’m going to be both backing up my laptop, and using it as a holding place for large video and audio files that I generate. The NAS has three drives in it, one of which is just used to double check on the other two (it’s a RAID array if you’re technically minded), so not only does it mean I have things off my laptop which can get lost/destoryed etc., but the NAS itself is tolerant of a disk failing too. 

Anyway, this is mostly tedious admin, but let this be a reminder if you don’t have backups for your work then you should do. I’ve had several hard disks die on me over the years, and backups are vital to getting back to business quickly when such things happen.

Rediscovering that first guitar

Whilst I’ve no intention to switching to vlogging on a regular basis over blogging here, working with musical instruments means there are times when words aren’t enough: I want to let you hear things not just read about them. To help with that I just recently got a proper amp mic to help me capture better the sounds I want to share at times, and this video is a quick first test of that new kit. I got into guitar building because the guitar I’ve owned since university wasn’t making me happy, but recently I found a niche where it does a particular sound better than anything else I have, which means I’ve got back into playing it, and I wanted to share that.

Between dropping the guitar to Eb and pairing it with a much better amp than it’s ever been put through before, the guitar is now getting regular play for the first time since I started building my own guitars. It’s not good for everything I want to play, but it’s nice to have a spot in the range of things I play where it gets some use rather than being a bulky memento to my university days.