A week in the shop

This week, as with last week, was a tail of three necks: one getting started, one in the middle of the process, and one nearly completed. Here's how the three looked at the end of the week (spoilers!)


There was also some laser cutting for an art project as a nice distraction.

Before we dive into those though, a couple of random bits. Firstly, I mentioned a few months ago that I was being interviewed for Hackspace magazine as part of their "Meet the maker" series, and that interview is now up! Whilst it's a nice thing to be asked to do these things, I'm not a fan of reading about myself, so you can be the judge of whether it's a good interview or not :)

The other random bit is that at the end of this week I'm going to be exhibiting at Oggcamp, which is the UK's main open source/open culture conference. On the face of this it's a bit of an odd thing to do as a guitar builder: most people will be there to talk about software and hardware, and the political side of that. I'm unlikely to get any commissions from such an audience :) However, I see part of what I do with my life these days in encouraging others to try things they wouldn't normally do, and it fits into that remit. I also know that the crowd who organise this overlaps with those who organise Liverpool Makefest, so it's bound to be an interesting and fun event. Also, as a general rule, opportunities to get to show what you do before people are rare, at least at this stage in my career, so I tend to grab them with both hands when they come up.

I believe tickets are now sold out for Oggcamp, but if any readers want to say hello give me a shout and we can always meet in a nearby pub or such.

Right, random asides out the way, back to the building.

I continued to make progress on the second attempt at a neck for the tenth commission. Last week I'd routed out the rough shape of the neck, and this week I got it looking more like an actual bit of an instrument. The first task was to get rid of any tear marks from where it was routed. Whilst a router will generally make a nice smooth finish if you have a sharp bit, as you transition across the grain it'll tear as you would with any bladed instrument. Thus areas up around the headstock tend to have a slight roughness to them, and always on the curved bits that are annoying to sand by hand. Thus it was onto the spindle sander:


We got some 240 grit sleeves for the spindle sander, and that makes this kind of operation much less fraught. Whilst a spindle sander with an 80 grit sleeve will leave a nice finish due to the dual action of the spindle, it will happily take away a lot of material, which is great for shaping, but less for finishing. In the past I'd not done this sort of finishing work on the spindle sander for that reason, but with the new higher grit sleeves I was able to get rid of these cross grain marks simply.

Similarly, once I'd used the bandsaw to remove the headstock face I used the 80 grit to shape in the transition between the fretboard and the headstock, and the 240 grit to remove the bandsaw markings on the face of the headstock.


Thus I headed off the issue that caused me to ruin the previous neck for this build. Ideally I'd have some jig to let me slide things exactly onto the spindle, but the 240 grit sleeves are gentle enough I could do this by hand for now with good results.

With the headstock shaped, I then glued on the fretboard:


I failed to remember to take pictures of this stage, but regular readers will have seen me glue up necks before, and I didn't really do anything different this time. I glued on an oversized bit of Indian Rosewood, clamped it securely and left it for a day, before unclamping it and trimming off the excess with the bandsaw and then getting it flush with the handrouter and spindle sander. You can see the final result for the week in the opening picture for this post.

I had hoped to do the next stage, which is laser etching the neck to add the headstock logo and the fret position guides, but on Sunday all the Makespace laser cutters were busy, so that's how I'll start the coming week.

The neck for the Corvette prototype hasn't made a huge amount of progress as I worked on the other two necks mostly last week, but this week it saw more progress. First up I did the neck carve, getting a bit good bit of exercise in the process:


I'm definitely getting better at this the more I do it, which is good. I managed to get this to a good shape in a couple of hours rather than an entire afternoon.

With the back of the neck carved, the next task was to make the inlays, which as before I made myself. I'm using a maple veneer that I made using the bandsaw from some left over neck material, and then laser cutting the dots.


Because the laser power output varies over time as people use it and the lenses get dirty, I need to do some calibration inlays before to work out how big to make the inlays to compensate for the material vapourised in the process. If I just burned a 6mm diameter dot then I'd end up with something like a 5.8mm dot, which would then not fit snuggly into the holes I drilled in the fretboard. It took about 4 test burns before I got the magic number for the day, and I then was able to make 18 dots, of which I used ten.


Having some extras means I can reject ones where the grain in the maple shows through particularly distinctly, as I want the inlays to be quite pale overall.

Inlays glued in, it was then back to my exercise routine as I sanded in the fretboard radius. I've mentioned before that purpleheart is quite a tough wood, and that was definitely apparent as it took me a couple of hours to carefully sand in the radius.


The fret saw is there because as I add the radius I need to keep recutting the fret slots so they’re an even depth across the entire radius, otherwise they’d be very shallow at the edges.

One thing that surprised me is how much the colour of the wood changed as I sanded in the radius. It went from the vivid purple you see in the above picture to a more pinky red as I sanded it. I assume the difference between the wood being finished with a blade (as it was when it was thicknessed) and finished with an abrasive (as I sanded in the radius). No doubt it’ll change yet again as I oil the wood. Just shows you can’t get too attached to how a bit of wood looks until the end of the process, as it’s always changing as you do different things to it.

With the radius now in, at some point this neck will need to be fretted, but I fear due to work commitments this one will be leapfrogged by the commission neck, so it may be a few weeks before you see this one again.

Finally, with the fretwork complete on the new neck for deluxe tele I gave it a final sand down, going all the way up to 2000 grit to get a nice silky smooth feel on the playing surface.


After that it entered the oiling cycle. One mistake I made here, which is annoying but not too bad, is used some steel wool to see how that would work when rubbing back the oil between coats. Do not use steel wool as a finishing material on anything where you're going to see the wood (so, fine if you're painting say, but otherwise steer clear). The issue is that fibres of the wool will get into the wood grain in places and there's nothing you can do about that once they're in other than sanding back aggressively and restarting,

In this case the damage was minimal, and mostly on the heel of the neck which you won't see anyway, but it was still frustrating. Normally I would just use 2000 grit for sanding back, but paper doesn't flex to the neck's natural contours as well, leading to it being sometimes a bit too aggressive on the edges, which is why I tried the steel wool. But lesson learned, don't use it.

The final thing I did this week in the workshop wasn't guitar related, but I did some laser cutting for my friend Jonathan over at Output Arts, who needed some custom spacers made for a project they have on the go. Output arts have been doing some amazing light show work of late, so I’m excited to see how this laser cutting will be put to use.


Whilst I am always happy to work on a thing for a friend, it was made all the nicer that Output Arts were happy to bill for my time so there was less of a worry about it being a distraction from other things. Even doing a simple job like this can take an hour or two, due to needing to do test burns to calibrate the laser cutter versus the material, converting file formats, etc.. In this instance Jonathan needed the part cut to fit relative to other components so I really needed to check the sizes were not going to be too big or small, so I had to spend effort making test cuts before I did the final pass.

In the end it took me about 90 minutes, and whilst it won't make me a lot of money, the more money I can make in the workshop means the more time I get to spend here honing my skills and working on guitar related things, which is nice.

A week in the shop

In general when I write these notes up I try and impart lessons etc., but between spending the last three days solid in the workshop and my computer being unavailable due to doing photo migrations between disks this weekend, I’m going to try keep this week’s notes brief, and hopefully I can return to my more rambling educational style next week.

This week was all about the necks. I have a stack of necks I’m working on, sufficient that I didn’t even manage to work on all of them this week.

First up, I worked on the reboot of the neck for the commissioned guitar #10, after I managed to ruin the first attempt as I got about half way through. The new wood turned up, so that was run through the thicknesser to get it to the right heights.


Annoyingly both bits of indian rosewood I received had multidirectional grain, so there wasn’t one way I could run it through the thicknesser and not have it tear in places; this is how wood is at times alas. To compensate for this I left it a little thicker than my target thickness so I can sand it down that last bit to get a nice finish.

With the maple at the right thickness, it was on with the template, and over to the bandsaw to get it roughly the right shape:


After which I went around it with the hand router to get the correct outer shape and to make the channel for the truss rod:


The neck fits the body nicely:


This was mostly done at the weekend (my week notes are Monday thru Sunday, even if I publish them late :), and I’ll get the rest of this bit shaped at the start of next week.

I also moved forward the neck that is the replacement for guitar #4, as I’d liked to try get this one done before Oggcamp on the 19th of the month, and it’s close to being completed. The main task I needed to complete was putting in the frets, which I started last week.


You can see the beginnings of one neck in the above photo as one heads towards the finish line - see how far the come!

I’m really pleased with the new workflow I have for getting frets in (as described in last week’s post). It’s really let me make peace with using wenge as a fretboard material: whilst wenge still isn’t the easiest of woods to work with, at least the results of trying to put a fret in are now much more predictable. I’m very pleased with the progress here.

However, I think I’ll need to revisit the jig I made to let me use the fret press bit I have with our arbour press. The 3D printed holder I had lasted just to the end of this fretboard, but no more:


Given how much pressure I put on the jig over the course of the 21 frets it slowly collapsed, both where the press bit mounts (as you can see above) and internally where it fits onto the arbour press.

I’ll need to print a new one, or but a proper adapter for the press. Fellow Makespace member Rob Karpinski suggested a few ideas of how to try and make the jig stronger using tricks in the design to get the 3D printer slicer software to insert more material in certain places by using minute holes that won’t be visible but will cause the slicer to put wall material there, so I might give that a go for fun at some point.

But, despite the jig not surviving, it did last to the final fret, so with all the frets in I had to face up to the task of levelling the frets and then crowning them and polishing them. Possibly my least favourite bit of a guitar build, but it is one of the most essential jobs, as it’s the frets that make a guitar a musical instrument rather than a bit of sculpture. I had hoped that with pressing the frets in rather than hammering them perhaps the frets would be magically mostly level, but there is still quite a bit of variance, I guess down to how variable the density of the wood is over the length of the fretboard. Whatever the reason, it meant I had to masking take up the fretboard and get to work.


With the frets levelled, they are now flat, so you have to round them back over with more files, and then finally sand them and polish them with little erasers that are filled with different grits of abrasive to bring them back to being smooth and scratch free. I’ve learned the hard way that if you skimp here you’re just redoing the job again later, so I basically spent an entire day just getting the frets into shape once they were pressed on.


But the results will hopefully be worth it - the neck is certainly looking the part:


Now it just has to be oiled over the coming week, so it might even be playable before the next time I write these notes (I’ve just doomed myself haven’t I?).

The final neck I worked on this week was not one of my own, but one on a guitar that someone has brought in for me to have a look at.


It’s a lovely Ibanez hybrid guitar, which has an actual electric guitar pickup in it rather than just a piezo pickup inside. Unfortunately the action is quite high, so I had a look at what might be the issue.


Apologies for the shirt, but I operate a hawaiian shirt Friday, even if it was particularly cold in Makespace that day :)

The problem seems to be a combination of two things: firstly the neck has quite a bit of relief in it, which I’ve adjusted as much as I dare with the truss rod, though it’s still not as flat as I’d like. The second issue is that the bridge saddle is really quite high, so I now need to file that down.

That’s it: not a lot exciting to write about, just a lot of graft in the workshop this week - but that’s what gets guitars built, it can’t be adventure all the time.

A week in and out the shop

One of the things that I think is important if we’re going to talk about making, which I do a lot of, is talking about failure. I have a sort of mission to normalise failure, rather than have it seen as exceptional. I don’t want to be known as the guy who gets thing wrong, but at the same time I want to encourage more people to have a go at making things, so I think it’s important to show that things don’t always go right, and that’s okay. I’d much rather people avoided failure: measure, measure, cut is definitely a workshop motto I can get behind; but at the same time things will go wrong still on occasion, you’ll never be completely mistake free if you’re building things by hand.

The main thing is not to get discouraged when things inevitably go wrong, but instead find the lesson in what went wrong and use that experience to level up. Getting things wrong is how you improve a lot of the time.

That said, it doesn’t mean that when I get things wrong I don’t at times find it very disheartening, and this week was one definitely a biggie in the things going wrong stakes. I made a very costly mistake, something of which I’m not proud, but I’ll still share it with you as hopefully it’ll help someone out there either to avoid the mistake or understand that things like this happen.

I was working on the neck for commission #10, which last week I’d got to the stage where the fretboard was on and trimmed bar the headstock transition. I started this week by using the spindle sander to get the headstock transition in place. Here I use the jig I made to hold the neck in place, and then use the spindle sander with a 3” diameter sander to make a nice round transition from the headstock face to where the fretboard ends. This is quite tricky to ensure you don’t over sand, but by going slowly and cautiously it all went okay.

The next stage for the neck was to put it into the laser cutter to mark where the frets should be and to put the logo on the headstock. But before I put it in the laser cutter I wanted to do a quick pass over the headstock itself with my orbital sander to remove any marks from where it was cut on the bandsaw. Although our new bandsaw at Makespace does a relatively clean cut, there’s still some small scratches there, and I want to do the more difficult sanding before I have the logo in place after which I need to be much more careful as otherwise I risk damaging the logo.

Thus, out came the orbital sander, and to work I went. There were some cutting marks that didn’t seem to want to shift: I suspect the bit of maple in that position was quite tough. Unfortunately I was so concentrated on that bit, I failed to spot that my sander was quite happily removing quite a bit of material on the other side of the headstock, and I basically ruined this neck by making the headstock too thin in the middle where the tuners will go:


I still don’t quite understand what I did wrong here, as I thought I was being careful with where I applied the sander such that I was not sanding away from the area with bandsaw marks on the far side, but clearly I wasn’t holding it as straight as I thought and put more pressure on other areas than I realised. 

The net result is now I have to build a new neck for commission #10. This is an expensive mistake on my behalf, partly in terms of materials I’ll need to replace (new bit of maple for the neck, a new bit of rosewood for the fretboard, and a new truss-rod), but more so in terms of time.

Once I’d got over my initial frustration with a really strong cup of tea, I got in touch with the person who commissioned this guitar, and explained the situation, how it would impact my delivery estimate, and offered a full refund of their deposit if they were unhappy now I had to push back the delivery date. This is my guide to dealing with when things go wrong on a client build. Ideally you never have to do this, but there will always be times when things go not to plan, and the best thing you can do is be transparent about it with your client and work with them, and if you’re letting them down on your original estimates offer them a way out. Had they said they didn’t want to continue then I’d have been out of pocket for the materials, but I’d rather they at least had a part in the discussion than they felt I was messing them around or taking advantage of them. Longer term I want to have a reputation as someone who is good to work with, rather than worrying about short term cash flow.

Thankfully the client here said they did want to continue, so I gave them a revised estimate delivery and ordered the replacement parts which should turn up this coming week.

As I opened with, things do go wrong: I hate that this happened, and I’ve been kicking myself about it all week. But I can’t let this stop me moving forward: I do everything I can to prevent mistakes being possible, but with hand made things you can’t eliminate error, particularly when working with organic materials like wood. What you can do is learn from the mistake and keep trying. Here I learned that in sanding you need to not just focus on the bit with the marks you’re trying to remove, but continuously check more broadly as wood doesn’t always behave in a uniform manner. I kind of knew this, but just didn’t consider it in this scenario before.

As an aside, note the damaged neck can be saved I think: I’ll just trim the face of the headstock to be uniform in depth and then glue on an appropriately deep veneer to get it back to size. However, that’ll then have to be used for another guitar, as that’s not what the customer expects for this build.

This week was short on time, due to needing to travel around the country later in the week, so I only got a small amount of time in the workshop after the week’s opening misadventure. Given that commission #10 was halted whilst I waited for more material, I did some more work on the other two necks I have in flight right now.


On the neck for the Corvette model, I resumed cutting the fret slots. This is slow going, as it turns out purple heart, whilst pretty to look at, is quite tough. It’s better to work with than wenge, in that it is at least uniform in texture, where as wenge, as seen in the other neck in the above picture, is a mixture of soft and hard, which causes your saw blade to jump suddenly. Despite its uniformity it was slow going, and I got most of it done before getting a risk of a blister due to how I was holding the saw so tight, and left it to complete next week.

I also made a start on the frets for the first neck I was making with my new hand-built technique.


In the past I’ve struggled with wenge fretboards when it comes to inserting the frets, as the tough bit of wenge is very unforgiving when it comes to inserting the frets. This is in part self inflicted: I cut the slots very narrow, 0.3mm, so that I don’t need to use glue to keep the frets in. I could use a slightly wider groove, 0.5mm is common, but then I have to use glue. Given that glue is quite common, why don’t I use it? Firstly, it’s messy, and if you put too much on it’ll leak and get into the wood grain which is hard to then remove. Secondly, in an ideal world the guitar will live longer than a single set of frets, and at some point someone will need to remove the frets, and that is easier if there’s no glue. I’m building with an eye to the person maintaining the guitar a decade from now!

However, whilst this technique I have works okay on maple and rosewood fretboard, with wenge (and I assume I’ll soon be adding purpleheart to this list) the unforgiving nature of the wood makes hammering the frets in quite tough to get in, and requires then a lot of levelling. So this time I’m using some refinements to the usual technique of cutting the fret to length and then hammering it in until it’s settled. It now goes:

  • Cut fret slot with 0.3mm Japanese pull saw

  • Use a small triangular file to give a slight chamfer to the slot, making it easier to get the fret to slip into the slot

  • Bend fret wire to have a slightly tighter radius than the fretboard itself, so that you can get it home at the edges first, making it easier to ensure the fret goes in the slot straight

  • Use the hammer to get the fret halfway into the slot, starting at the edges and working in to the middle

  • Use an arbor press with appropriate bit to push the frets home


Thus far this has made getting the frets in, and in properly, much easier. It’ll be interesting to see if this makes levelling the frets less of a pain, as in theory they should now be more uniform in shape than just hammering alone.

Again, due to limited time I had to stop this with just half a dozen or so frets completed, but I was happy with the progress I had made.

The rest of the week I was off travelling, driving from Cambridge to Glasgow to Liverpool and back home over four days. First it was up to Glasgow, to see my Dad graduate from his Open University degree in law:


My Dad’s been working very hard for this for a long time, so it was great to see him graduate, I’m both proud of him for his effort and of my Mum who’s supported him in this for many years. The graduation ceremony had a much more celebratory feel than the ones I attended at the University of Glasgow back in the day, I think a reflection of the very different path the students took to getting their degrees and how that makes the meaning of graduation very different here.

There was a very wide range of ages represented here, from young to old, and it’s a reminder that if you can find a way to make it work, it’s never too late to learn. All of these graduates were here despite having to either raise a family or hold down a full time job, or both or any other of the commitments we have placed upon us in later life, but still they have found a way to add a new facet to their skills. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the work the Open University do and the opportunities they create for people.

I guess it also resonates with me as in part that’s what I’m doing with this guitar building and related activities: learning and growing outside the conventional structure of school then university. Hopefully these notes I put here each week will encourage others that they can do the same, be it in this discipline or another that they’ve been wanting to try. It’s never too late to push yourself in a new direction, it’s just harder to arrange.

Whilst in Glasgow I crashed over with my friend Dave, who has guitar #3, The Red Rocker. It was nice to spend some time hanging out with Dave, who I’ve known since high school, and have a bit of a jam (I’d taken along guitar #1, as it goes everywhere with me :). It was also nice to spend a little time with guitar #3 and reflect a little on how well I think it still holds up despite how I’ve grown as a builder over the last couple of years - whilst I’d approach things differently now, and I never think anything I’ve built is perfect, I’d still be proud if I built a guitar today that had that end point.

My stop in Glasgow was fleeting however, as at the weekend I was being a support volunteer at the second Festival of Maintenance, this time held in Liverpool. As with last year, there was a wonderfully diverse range of talks on the topic of maintenance, ranging from how to build maintenance into our economic systems, maintaining clothes, maintaining botanical museum samples, and maintaining roads and bridges, with each talk from an expert in that area. 


It all made me feel a bit bad that I build guitars more than I fix them, but that’s not for lack of trying. I do keep an eye on second hand shops or ebay for broken guitar bits, but nothing ever appears in the bounds of totally wrecked to mildly wrecked, and anything that just needs light work will be snapped up quickly by people. I imagine most of what I’d be interested in ends up in the bin - though if you have a decrepit guitar that needs some TLC, let me know!

All the talks are online in raw livestream format right now, and will appear in bite sized snippets shortly. I can definitely recommend having a look at the schedule and finding a couple of talks to view on topics that interest you!

A big well done to everyone involved in organising it and to the speakers. I look forward to next year!

A week out the shop

As predicted last week, not a very busy week shop wise. Most of the week was taken either catching up with delayed contract work due to the laptop death the previous week, doing a backup restore to a borrowed laptop so I can get working, or beefing up my IT infrastructure given the death of one of the backup systems I use the previous week. You have to remember when you run a small solo business that all these overhead tasks like accounts, IT infrastructure, etc. are down to you, and whilst they seem like a distraction, you have to sort them out one way or another (by dealing with it yourself or by paying someone else to do it). 

The other thing I did this week that kept me out of the workshop was take part in the Global Climate Strike on Friday. Now, I’m self employed, so technically I wasn’t striking, but at  the same time, this makes taking half a day out to support the local children in their campaign for climate justice something with an obvious financial cost to me: when I was out with them I wasn’t either writing software at an hourly rate or in the workshop finishing the commissions so I could get paid.


However, I think that this is an expense worth making. Whilst I think this one action won’t have any direct consequences, perhaps as part of a bigger movement it will, and I need to do something. I don’t have kids, but my sister does and I fear for their future as things currently stand. In an engineering projec, when there is any form of crisis, I always try and cut through all the noise and spot the next actionable thing I can do to move things forward, even if it’s just a little bit, rather than being frozen in panic. With the climate crisis it’s hard to see what an individual can do, so this strike also appealed as it was at least an action I could take, to help give more voice to the children’s protests, beyond just hope someone will fix it.

Whilst the turn out in Cambridge was modest compared to reports I later read in other places, I do also appreciate that the fact I have the power to decide to spend my time in this way is a privilege in of itself. I know people who would have liked to join the march through Cambridge but could not get out of work without risk to their employment, and this also makes me want to take part given I have that luxury.

The main achievement I did do this week in the workshop was moving the neck for guitar #10 along. This involved taking the lovely indian rosewood fretboard blank I had and gluing it on:


Gluing the fretboard on isn’t a straight case of just whacking some glue in there and hoping for the best: it took me a good hour to go from this stage to where things were being left to glue.

Firstly, I did a dry clamping, to let me check that the neck and the fretboard material will form a nice fit together: this will show if say the truss-rod is slightly proud or the wood has twisted/warped at all. In this case I found that the fretboard material had curved slightly since being thicknessed, and that it fitted on way round better than the other. I then marked this on with pencil so I’d not get confused later. Once I understand any physical constraints, I then pay attention to the texture of the fretboard wood itself in detail, trying to make sure that I get the best of the wood to remain behind when I trim things flush after gluing. In this case there was a slight knot in the wood that I wanted to make sure was removed when I trimmed things, and I also wanted to try maximise the colour variance of this particular piece of wood, as it has a nice mix of orangey brown and more traditional brown textures. 

Once I’ve worked out the position, and done another dry clamping to convince myself all is good, I then put the fretboard to one side, and I put some masking tape over the truss-rod, with a little border of a couple of mm or so, and then apply glue to the main part of the neck. The masking tape will stop the truss rod cavity filling up with glue, preventing it from getting stuck in one position. I then use a spatula to ensure a good even spread of glue over the neck (I say spatula, I use a cut in half blank credit card bit of plastic, which I bought off amazon in bulk for not much money).

With the glue evenly spread, I remove the masking tape, and apply the fretboard, making note of my pencil markings to remind me where to put it. I then put some sacrificial wood on top of the fretboard, and use my MDF jig on the bottom, so as not to mark the neck with the clamps. All in all, it’s not a fast process here. If you rush this you’ll either risk ending up with an annoying bit of wood, or you’ll find gaps between the neck and the fretboard after gluing, both of which are expensive to deal with.


24 hours later I removed the clamps, after which I started to trim the fretboard. Firstly I use the bandsaw to remove most of the excess, both on the three sides that aren’t the headstock, and then on the bit over the headstock face itself. I then run around it carefully with a hand router to get the remaining sides flush.

IMG_5922 2.jpeg

The shavings you get from this look beautiful and smell amazing :)


All that remains on the shaping now is to get the side of the headstock transition done, which I’ll do early next week with the spindle sander, and after that it’s onto the laser cutter for making and the detail work to begin.

After gluing the fretboard for guitar #10 and waiting for that to set, I took a quick look again at the neck for Corvette, and did both the side inlays and cut most of the fret slots. 


My top tip for side inlays (or I guess any time you use dowels) is to get yourself a set of engineering drill bits: these come in tenth of a millimetre increments. Although I buy dowel that is notionally 2mm in diameter, each one I buy has a little variance, so I will start with a 2mm drill bit and then got up and down until I can just fit the dowel into the drilled hole, but not have to fight it to do so. With a regular drill bit set I was finding I’d often have to struggle using the 2mm bit (also, if you measure a 2mm bit in a regular drill set you’ll find that size isn’t spot on either), but typically I find with this dowel I’m using a 2.1mm drill bit is a perfectly snug fit, which is just what you want.

That was unfortunately it guitar wise, at least directly. A few weeks ago I talked about the importance of community, and I did spend some time this week helping another of the communities I’m lucky to be part of: that of the local luthiers. At the weekend I did spend a bit of time helping Matt at Fidelity Guitars with some CNC Routing of templates that were too big for his CNC Router.

One of the nice things about the local luthier community in Cambridge is that none of us quite has the complete set of tools we need for every eventuality, but we can always depend on the others to provide a helping hand. Thus why I’m very happy to spend a couple of hours helping Matt out, given he’s generously helped me in the past and knowing that in the future it’ll be me needing a hand with something.

A chaotic week in the shop

This week was quite a chaotic one, for main two reasons, one good and one bad. Let’s get the bad one out the way: both my laptop and my primary backup source died on me within several days, and not in that order. I first noticed my laptop was sick early in the week where it’d just die every 5 minutes or so, particularly if I loaded graphics intensive apps such as Fusion 360 (though not exclusively). This was a major pain guitar build wise, as although I hand-build things, all my designs are in Fusion 360, so if I want to check measurements I need be able to access my laptop. 

Whilst clearly frustrating, at first I wasn’t too concerned: laptop disks dying is to me the same as love is to Rick Astley: I’ve had my fair share of laptops (more specifically usually their disks) die on me, so I plan appropriately. I have a tendency to buy the a top-of-the-line laptop every 4 or 5 years then use it until they die rather than update something less good more regularly (this particular MacBook Pro was bought in mid 2014, so has had a good innings). Given I hold on to machines for a long time, I know that disks can also just fail randomly, so I always make sure I have a regular backup system. However, it unfortunately turned out that four days before my laptop started dying, the Apple Time Capsule I use as my primary backup/restore mechanism also had a disk failure. Two major failures in such a close period of time is rare, but does happen. I’ve no idea how old our Time Capsule is, but it must pre-date my MacBook Pro as I remember restoring my dead MacBook Air onto the Pro when I got it (as the Air had suffered a disk failure - you see a pattern here?).

Thankfully, because I know my businesses (both the software contracting I do to earn my keep and the guitar building business) rely on me being able to have all my data, I actually have a second regular backup system in place. As convenient as the Apple Time Capsule is when it works, it always felt a little fragile to bet your business on, particularly as Apple’s focus on the Mac has waned in recent years. Last year I bought a Synology NAS box and set that up with redundant disks so if any one disk in my NAS box dies I still have my data, and I combined the NAS with using Retrospect backup software to take care of not just my Mac but also my Windows partition that I need to use some times (something the Apple Time Capsule couldn’t do). At the time when I bought all this it seemed like a lot of money (easily a grand) for something you hope you’ll never have to use, but this week it demonstrated its value nicely. 


So after a few days downtime, I have a borrowed laptop (my other-half’s old laptop) and all my data back and I’m back in action. At some point in the very near future I’ll replace this with a new laptop, but having an old laptop for now lets me make a considered purchase not a panic purchase, which is good (particularly as I doubt I’ll be getting another Mac this time, but that’s another discussion for another blog).

Anyway. the moral of the tail is: have backups, and ensure they’re in good health, as things can go doubly wrong at times. Whilst sorting out backups often isn’t cheap, being able to restore your data and be back running after minimal downtime is priceless: this is at least my third machine failure where if I’d not had backups I’d have been sunk.

If you don’t want to buy and run your own backup infrastructure, then consider a cloud based service like Backblaze, which is relatively painless and will give you peace of mind.

It’s a little telling to me that although I’m making things by hand I’m still so reliant on being able to double check things and review numbers on my computer before cutting (measure, measure, cut). Over time I imagine I’ll get more of this down to muscle memory - how big is the headstock transition, etc. But for now I still have a strong level of paranoia for numbers and my desire to get everything just so.

The good chaos this week was having some filming done for a promo. My brother Tristan and his other-half Ket run a videography/photography company, which does a mix of music videos, weddings, and corporate gigs. In the past I’ve tried to make my own little videos of the guitars I make, but as a novice with high standards it always ends up becoming a massive time-sink. As fun as it is, I realise there’s better uses of my time, and I decided it was time to get the experts for some new videos.


The pair had a corporate gig on in Cambridge this week, so they dovetailed me in after that. We had a day of shooting bits of guitar building in the Makespace workshop, some bits around Cambridge itself, and some interview footage. Tris also brought back down the guitar I built him quite a while ago just to have it checked up:


It was nice to see that beyond giving it a bit of a clean, there was nothing that needed tweaked, despite it seeing some serious action on stage and in recording studios over the last couple of years.

I’ve no idea what the promo footage will look like, it’ll be fun to find out when it eventually emerges: I’ve put my faith in Tris and Ket as the experts to come up with something suitable - there’s no point hiring people who know what they’re doing and micro-managing them. There’s a reason I’m paying them, and I’m happy to just let them do what they do well so I can get on with what I do well.

Beyond the chaos I did get some guitar progress done. I started the week as I ended last week, which was finishing the comfort carves on the bodies for guitars #10 and #6.


It’s a nice workout doing this by hand, but after an hour or two I was done. Lots of pencil guide lines are used to keep me on track, and then the rasp tooth marks are cleaned up using my random-orbital sander to give a nice smooth finish.


That means the bodies for #10 and #6 are now done bar the bridge mount holes, which I’ll do once I have the necks so I can make sure the bridge position is spot on.

Next, I moved the neck for #10 forward, although this was impacted by being laptop-less unfortunately. Last week I’d routed out the main body of the neck along with the truss rod cavity, and so this week I wanted to get that progressed along so I can glue on the fretboard. To do this, I first needed to make a jig to let me hold the neck parallel to the work table on the bandsaw and spindle sander, so it was an hour or so on the CNC Router to make the jig. 


As I’ve said before (I think) whilst I don’t trust the CNC Router, the cost of it going wrong on MDF is very low, so I’m happy to make jigs like this on it, I’m just not willing to put actual guitar wood on there. As you can see, I have another jig just like it, as the Corvette build I’m using to pilot bits of technique is a left-hander.


At this stage I got stuck for a while as I needed to check the measurements for where to remove the material from the headstock face and to start the transition curve up to the fretboard. When I realised my laptop restoration was going to be another day or so, I eventually loaded my Fusion design on my other-half’s new computer and took a photo of all the bits I needed!


That let me get the positions right, and the reason I had the Corvette’s neck out at this point was to do a sanity check of the numbers given I was juggling so many things to get the numbers out. However, that done I was able to take the jig I’d made and run the neck through the bandsaw and the spindle sander to get the headstock shape made.


After that it was onto the pillar drill to make the holes for mounting the tuners, and with that done I was all but ready to glue the fretboard on, which is an absolutely stunning bit of indian rosewood with amazing colours to it.


But alas someone beat me to all the Makespace clamps: whilst I have some of my own, not enough to do a full fretboard glue. So that’s now a job for early this coming week.

I did a bit of work on the Corvette too this week, mostly as I wanted to have it in a position where I could do some funky shots of a build being worked on for the promo filming. Despite the neck being ahead of the commissions, the body was a bit behind, so I did the routing of the edges to round them over for the filming. Here I was very pleased that my design was notably easier to route around than the Fender based designs of the commissions. For instance, if you look at the neck joint area on the back, I’ve rounded everything out to make it easier to reach the upper frets, but by keeping the lines as a continuous set of curves it was much easier to run the hand-router along in one smooth motion:


A nice case of trying to make things nicer for one use case actually making it easier to manufacture not harder as is often the case.

Another thing I worked on was laser etching the neck for the Corvette, and for this I made a tweak to my open source fretboard generator. Before it made circles where the inlays might be, but in practice I never used that option as I need a point not a circle when drilling, so I’d end up calculating all the inlay positions on the neck using a pencil and ruler. However, I was inspired by something I saw Jamie Swannell do when I helped him laser cut some things a couple of months ago, and I got my design generator to optionally also generate cross hairs where the inlays should be:

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Now, I can take those cross hairs and when I laser etch the location of the fret slots I can also laser on a mark where the inlays should be:


Because they’re burnt in here, not only do they give a visual reference, they’ll also guide the tip of my bradawl when I do to make the pilot hole for drilling the inlays. Another double whammy design wise. You can see in the pictures above when I was working on the neck for #10 that I was able to use these to drill out the inlay holes successfully.

Is this cheating for a hand built guitar? I don’t think so: firstly I hand wrote the code to generate it, so it’s still my work to get the inlay positions in the right place, and secondly it’s just making a guide mark, I still have to cut the inlays myself (as I do the fret slots when I use this technique). 

I pushed the code changes for this so if you visit the open source section of this site you can play with the new functionality yourself!

I also laser etched the headstock, taking care to remember this is a left handed guitar, not a right handed one :)


As ever, I had to do a lot of calibration burns. Even though I did this a couple of weeks ago for another neck, this maple seemed much tougher, and I had to use a slower burn to get the same level of material removed.


This is also why I don’t consider laser etching cheating: it’s still a very manual process getting everything set up just so.

The Corvette is starting to look like a guitar now. It still has a way to go, but for the first time it’s starting to look like the renderings I made several months ago, which is exciting.


The last thing I recall doing was trying out some triangular needle-files that fellow Makespace workshop user kindly donated to me for use on adding a slight chamfer to the top edge of the fretslots:


I first did this technique on the cigar box guitar, and it helps let the frets find their home in the slot a little easier. The needle-files in Makespace were a little abused for this task, so Graeme kindly brought in a set and I took them for a test drive and picked a couple that seemed right for this job.

Given I was sat down with this neck I also used a weird chisel I acquired a while ago to cut the slot for the nut:


The weird shape of the edge makes it nice for this kind of work, as I can put it against one of the two slots I’ve sawn to define the sides of the slot, and let that guide the blade. However, its odd angles make it a pain to sharpen. Workshop regular Stephan encouraged me to just give it a gentle rub with a diamond stone, and that did wonders, though I’m not sure you can get away with that indefinitely.

Phew, what a week. This coming week I fear will be a quiet one as I try get back on top of contract software work delays due to a combination of laptop death and filming. However I’m sure I’ll find some time in the workshop to move things a little forward given I’m now definitely behind where I had hoped to be on the commissions. I was already a bit behind due to the new Makespace bandsaw taking a couple of weeks longer to set up than hoped, and whilst I was hoping to catch up, laptop death has put me behind again. Still, no point getting down on that - these things will happen, and I just need to find what time I can and keep moving things forward.

A week in the shop

Most of this week guitar wise was spent in the workshop, but I did hit a couple of snags I had to fix with my design tool of choice, Autodesk Fusion 360.

The first one was initially quite worrying: it seems some recent update broke a lot of my guitar designs! The designs load fine, but the moment you cause Fusion to re-evaluate the timeline, it was hitting an issue with my use of the split body tool.

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 13.02.33.png

The way I define the neck pocket on a guitar body is to design the body without a pocket, position the neck where I want it, and then use the neck design itself to split the guitar body into two parts along the outer surfaces of the neck. Unfortunately that now fails, with a complain that the result can’t be manufactured for some reason; I’ve no idea what has changed, but it was thankfully easy enough to solve using a technique I learned from a tutorial video of making living hinges. Instead of using the “split body” command, I now use the combine command on the guitar body and the neck, which seems counter-intuitive at first, but the combine command has an operation type selection, and instead of joining the two parts, you can select the cut operation, which will use the second body to cut away bits of the first. 

Screenshot 2019-09-08 at 20.46.52.png

Do note the important “keep tool” option, which by default isn’t selected: if I’d not selected that not only would the material for the neck pocket be removed, but so would the neck!

The second snag was that the recent UI refresh to Fusion 360 broke one of the few add-ons I use regularly: the excellent DXF For Laser. This add-on lets you select a surface face and then generate a DXF file that face to be cut on a laser cutter, and has options to compensate for the laser cutter’s kerf etc.

I still recommend this as the best way to get laser cutter designs to the laser cutters at Makespace, as the DXF it produces is compatible with the out-dated DXF parsers in most laser cutter software I’ve come across, but to get it to work now you need to manually patch the script, as per the comments on the add-on page I linked to. It’s a bit gross having to fix the script like that, not sure why they haven’t just uploaded a fixed version, but it’s worth doing given how useful this add-on is.

Enough computers, and into the workshop. I started the week progressing the neck for the Corvette build, which has become a test piece for my new hand-building everything process before I do it on the commissions following along closely behind this build. Now, the observant will have noted I was making a replacement neck for an old t-style I made with the claim that this was to be the test for my new hand-built process, however I belated realised that that neck’s scale-length (25.5” rather than 24” on the Corvette and the two commissions) meant I have much tighter tolerances around the truss-rod access, and so I wanted to check my calculations on the Corvette neck first.

Thus, having made the body of the neck the week before last, I glued up the fretboard first thing to get that moving again.


After leaving the glue to set for 24 hours, I then trimmed around the excess wood with a bandsaw:


After this I then trimmed everything flush: using a hand-router on three sides, and using my pull-saw on the headstock side where you can’t get to with the hand-router. Afterwards I took it to the spindle sander and rounded off the transition from fretboard to headstock:


As you can see, the transition comes very close to the the truss-rod adjuster, which is what I was concerned about, but the technique works fine. This means I’m able to go ahead with the other necks. 

I got started on the neck for #10, but to do that I first had to make another laser-cut template (which is when I hit all the Fusion 360 issues above). Although the commission necks are the same scale-length and outside profile as the Corvette neck above, they are right-handed rather than left handed, and have a slightly different pattern of body mounting screws, so I couldn’t just re-use the Corvette’s neck template. 

Still, this was a good opportunity to fix a couple of minor niggles that I’d spotted on the old template. Notably I subtly tweaked the spacing on the tuners to be a round number of millimetres, making it easier to mark out with a ruler and pencil. Back when I was CNCing things the fact that some of my measurements were factions of millimetres didn’t matter, as the computer took care of that, but now I have to do these things by hand, it’s easier if I stick to whole numbers of millimetres where possible. I’d not spotted these odd measurements before I made the template for the Corvette, only realising when I came to measure out for drilling the headstock:


With the measurements tidied up in Fusion, I then cut a new template and got to work making #10’s neck:


With the new template mounted, it was once again the bandsaw and hand-router tag team to get the main body of the neck cut out.


Paired up with the body, #10 is now looking like a thing:


I had to leave this neck here unfortunately as the fence for the new Makespace bandsaw is currently away being worked on, so I can get back to that next week.

With the necks paused briefly, I turned my attention to the bodies for #10 and #6. Last time I worked on them I got all the pockets and cavities routed out, and this time I turned my attention to the ergonomics. Firstly I rounded over the edges all round on both sides to make them more comfortable to hold, using a 1/4” round over bit.


After this I then started on the comfort carves on both the rear side for the belly and on the front side for the picking arm. These I mark out with pencil first:


Before carefully hacking away with a rasp the bits I don’t want:


And then I smooth everything off using a finer rasp and an orbital sander:


This is probably the most exercise I get all year :p Same again for the front, using multiple lines to ensure I remain straight as a I carve the comfort carve.


I managed to get halfway through these this week, having started this at the end of the week, and I’ll finish them off first thing next week.

The final thing I found time to do last week was look at how I’m going to attach the neck on the Corvette build. Both the Mustang style builds will use a traditional (albeit it rounded) neck plate, but personally as a builder I’m not a huge fan of these, and so wanted to try mounting the neck using ferrules on the Corvette.


It took a little hunting to find some ferrules that were the same diameter as one of my Forstner drill bits, but once I did it was dead easy to make suitably deep holes for the ferrules.

My objection to neck plates is they will tend to mark the wood when you string up the guitar before finishing it, and with ferrules there’s no risk of this. Also, there’s less exposed metal to get scratched etc. I know it’s not a look that’s to everyone’s taste, but I’m looking forward to seeing this neck assembled so I can get a feel for how strong they are compared to the plate.

A nice surprise to end the week on was being invited to OggCamp 2019 to be an exhibitor. It’s a slightly odd pace to find me exhibiting guitars, as OggCamp has more an open source software/digital hardware hackery theme to it from my understanding, but ultimately it’s about people nerding out and learning new things, so from that point of view having a stand explaining how electric guitars are made will fit in perfectly. So if you’re in Manchester on the 19th/20th next month then do come along and say hello!

A week out the shop

This week was a short week (after I included the bank holiday Monday into last week’s notes), and (outside of software contract work) mostly dominated by the Wuthering Bytes festival: preparing for my talk on the opening festival day, driving up to the lovely Hebden Bridge, the festival day itself (which is just the start of a week of events for the festival), and then the Open Source Hardware User Group OSHCamp 2019 over the weekend, followed by the drive back. Phew.

This year the Festival Day had a strong theme around communities that permeated though the talks on festival day: clearly the organiser Andrew Back had done a good job of curating the talks. JP Rangaswami, retired chief scientist at a lot of places you’ve heard of, kicked off the day with a talk about the value of “lurk” in society, touching on several themes at a macroscopic level that I was going to talk about at a microscopic level in my own talk: reminding us that it’s okay to try things, make a discovery that this isn’t what we thought, and then to move on; and also the importance of communities. 

JP quoted some figures around open source projects indicating they typically have 5% of people doing the most obvious/lead work, then another 15% of people who are active in some way, and 80% who are “lurkers”, and he reflected on the under-appreciated value of the lurkers This resonated with me when I think of the community at Makespace, the community workshop from which I operate, and how these days I’m probably considered one of the 5%, but for a number of years I was part of the 80%, and had I not been in that 80% it’s unlikely now I’d be taking more of an active role in the community. In open source software the value of that 80% comes in usage/testing/documenting/etc., but it’s just not as readily recognised as the leading lights of development despite its importance. In Makespace the 80% who use the place even occasionally provide the justification for the place as a whole to even exist.

JP’s board picture looked at how we try to see value in people to let us blur those percentage divisions: he questioned what if we valued people not on their financial renumeration for a task (if it’s work), but on the usefulness of their output, which then may level the perceived value of those percentages. It was wondefully thought provoking start to the day.

From there on there were talks raging over engaging children with their world by enabling them to map air-pollution in real-time, letting them think about the non-obvious impact of small changes in habit, the history of the local area as the kickstart to the Industrial Revolution (again, a focus on community there), a lay-person’s guide to how nuclear decay in doped glucose is used to trace blood flow in the body, and that was just the morning session! The afternoon was similarly as diverse and enthralling. 

Actually, that’s a slight fib, as I closed the morning session with my slot. In my talk I tried to pull together two strands: talking about how a guitar is built, going from the broad components of the guitar down to the details of fretwork and so forth, and at the same time using this to illustrate aspects of what it takes to keep up momentum and be successful at whatever endeavour you might choose to turn your hand at.


(a hat tip to Adrian McEwan for the picture!)

I’ve done talks at events in the past, and whilst I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, normally I feel I do an okay job and don’t stress too much about the prep, but this time I really did feel a need to up my game given how much I’ve enjoyed the talks at previous Wuthering Bytes festivals, so I ended up putting many hours trying to refine my talk. 

I suspect trying to do two thematic threads rather than just one was a bit ambitious for me, but I felt I needed to make the talk pay off differently for different audience members: when giving a talk (as with writing these posts) I try to keep in my mind that people are giving up their time to listen to me, so I have to try my best to make it worth that time, and so here I wanted it to give something even if you felt on top of one side or the other.

When JP started his opening talk it was a pleasant surprise to hear the same themes I had embedded in my talk coming from him. I spent a lot of time stressing the importance of community as a maker. I’m fortune enough to have both a real world community in the form of the members of Makespace, and a virtual community in the form of instagram and other places luthier’s hang out and share advice/tips/techniques: I could not do what I do without those people. I may be a 5% at Makespace but I’m definitely an 80% in the luthier community, but thankfully the luthiers of the world seem to appreciate the lurkers out there, and I’ve been given lots of help from professional luthiers as I’ve made my way into this world of guitar building.

I only had one traditional slide (the rest were just photos of bits of guitars being built), so if you missed it, here’s the summary :)

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My talk seemed to go well, in that it provoked a number of lovely conversations later in the day with people for whom it has resonated, so the stress and effort was worth it. My only lingering embarrassment from the whole thing was someone asked me to play something (I had my guitar and amp there as props to let me illustrate various points of the guitar) and due to stage fright I had a total brain blank and played a few dreadful chords and got a bit of a pity clap - oh the shame :)

Following on from the festival day was OSHCamp 2019, the annual get together of the Open Source Hardware User Group in the UK. Whilst perhaps less obviously linked to guitar building, I think there’s a lot of common themes here: whether we like to admit it or not most luthiers, amp builders and pedal builders are making designs that are either heavily influenced influenced by or direct descendants of existing guitars, amps, and pedals, so the idea of sharing physical designs is not new to us, just we do it in a slightly less well defined way. 

The fact I can build an amp based on a 1950s Fender Champ because Fender shipped the circuit diagram with the product is something that would make most modern day Open Source Hardware advocates happy (though I hasten to add that Fender didn’t do so in order that you can make and sell clones, they did it to help with repair and maintenance). 

Anyway, it was a good couple of days where I got to exercise the part of my brain I don’t use much these days - I have worked on digital electronics in the past, and I’m always trying to find a way to fuse that back into my hobbies. 

Whilst the talks were good, the main thing relevant for here was the workshops on the Sunday, where I attended an introduction to KiCAD ran by Tim Telford of Devtank. Whilst learning  Autodesk’s Eagle PCB design tool has been on my todo list for a long time (mostly for ideas around building pedals etc.), Eagle has such an archaic interface that I keep putting it off, and so I jumped at this chance to learn a simpler to use tool, on the grounds that the principles will likely carry over, and knowing any tool is better than knowing none.

KiCAD is no slouch as PCB tools go: it’s a very the popular open source package, which is ran by CERN and is accepted by on-demand PCB manufacturers like OSHPark. Indeed Tim’s company do all their high end test kit PCBs in KiCAD, so it’s definitely not a toy despite being relatively easy to get started with.

Whilst Tim did provide a simple digital circuit for learning KiCAD with I decided to go with a design somewhat more familiar to me: the classic Fuzz Face circuit that I made a bunch of by hand earlier this year:


Here’s the same circuit (with some extra bits for the jacks) as a schematic in KiCAD:

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And then a very poor PCB layout:

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Not bad for a couple of hours in a busy workshop. I’ll need to actually complete this design properly: here I’m using random components I found in the KiCAD library quickly rather than the actual audio jacks etc. and I’ve missed out a few bits due to time constraints. I don’t think I can really say I’ve learned PCB design until I have one in my hand: only then will I know the actual fiddly details that it’s so easy to miss if you don’t push things to completion. 

If you want to get started on PCB design, KiCAD seems a much more friendly option than Eagle (or at least as friendly as PCB design can be), and runs on most platforms, so is definitely worth giving a shot.

A busy week in the shop

A lot to get through this week: due to delays with bandsaws and software work getting in the way I was a bit behind on guitar builds so locked myself in the workshop for all of the bank holiday weekend to try catch up (as such, these notes are actually covering 8 days, as I’ve included the bank holiday Monday in here). 

However, before we leap in, just a reminder that I’m gong to be speaking at Wuthering Bytes festival day this Friday up in Hebden Bridge. If you’re in the area the festival day for Wuthering Bytes is always interesting (I’ve been the last three years I think), so do stop by and say hello or just listen to some fascinating speakers.

Now, on with the week! It was actually wonderful to just spend a bunch of days working on building guitars rather than working on how to build guitars or improving the workshop. 

On Monday I was still on a high from the fun of 3D printing a guitar body last weekend, and I wanted to at least do something with it whilst it was fresh in my mind, lest it get forgotten for an age. So, to give it more life I dug out an old neck I’d started making 18 months ago that hand’t properly glued up and adjust that to fit the neck pocket on the 3D printed body. 


As I expected, the neck didn’t fit the pocket on the body straight out the gate as it was slightly too wide (I tend to make the necks slightly too wide to start as that’s easier to correct for than the alternative). Rather than just sand the neck to fit I used a hand-plane to get it down to size, and much to my surprise the gaps between the fretboard and the main neck body that caused me to reject this neck initially pretty much vanished during that process, so the neck is actually usable now. Glad I held onto it rather than throwing it away! 

Fitting the neck to the 3D printed body revealed a few details that I’d fix on a second print run. As an ergonomic prototype I need more than the neck on the body: I need at least strap pins, because to feel the guitar in its normal position I want to be stood up with it on a strap. However, because we didn’t plan for that there’s no support material where I’d attach the straps given how little infill we used. So whilst I’m still happy with the looks of this design with the added neck, I’m still not sure on its ergnomics. I suspect I may just glue in some strap pins and see how they hold.

Because it looks so close to a real guitar, it feels sad that I can’t string it up. Given that this was a spur of the moment thing and we were limited for time, it’s totally understandable that the body isn’t structurally sound it being effectively hollow, but if I was to do it again I’d definitely try to make it so, as once you’ve got a neck on there you’re most the way to it being playable. That’d mostly just add time to the print job, along with some weight, but given that at 1.2 kg this body is lighter than a real guitar body, I think we could cope with that.

This design also needs a tweak to get it strung up, as the tremolo cavity on the back is actually filled in to save on support material, so there’s some other fixes needed design wise, but I’m going to see if I can get Liz a new design in the near future so that when she has a chance she can try printing one that we can then play.

On the topic of necks that I incorrectly assume are unusable, there is the one I was working on the last couple of weeks that went wrong, and I still haven’t got around to saying why it was wrong (I think). The reason was that I pre-etched the fretboard with the fret positions on it, and when I glued the fretboard on it shifted slightly so the fret position marks I’d made didn’t line up with the neck properly. 


Normally I’d do the laser etching of the fret positions on the fretboard after gluing it to the neck, but given I spent the last few weeks waiting for the new bandsaw to be operational so I could start making necks properly, I was looking for tasks to do to fill the time. In the past I have successfully glued fretboards to the neck with the slots either etched or fully cut, but it is a more risky way to proceed, and I should have just been patient, as this was the result.

Now, this neck isn’t important in terms of deliverables, I’m building this one to let me prototype my CNC-free build technique before trying it on commissions, but rather than just give up on this neck, I figured I could try removing the etched fret markers and re-burning them. When I laser etch the fret markers it’s only a few tenths of a millimetre that I burn: just enough to guide my saw blade gently when I cut the slots proper, so I don’t need to remove much material. That said, the neck was already at target height, so anything I remove here is going to leave the neck short. But, at this point, there’s not much to lose, so I did the unthinkable and ran the entire neck through the thicknesser :)


With a few passes I was able to remove most the signs of the wonky slot markings. It was interesting to see that the laser etching had penetrated much deeper in the light bits of the wenge texture than the dark, so after a couple of passes I’d removed most of the etching, but there was still some traces there.


However, given that I was fairly close to the right position, this faint remainder will be covered by the fret itself, so I stopped removing height before I’d removed all evidence, but just enough that it’d be obvious when I re-etch the fret slots which one was going to be correct. (For those wondering why I don’t laser cut the slots themselves, the profile of a laser cut slot is broader at the top than the bottom, whereas I need a very straight profile).

With this done, I then checked the height. I’d lost about a millimetre from the neck height, down from a target of 25mm at 24mm. This isn’t the end of the world, as I could put a shim on the back of the neck at the heel end of the neck so that it still sits proud of the body by the right amount, but before I did that I went to check the neck on the old guitar that this one will be replacing.


It turns out that this neck is also slightly shorter than my target height, even more so, at 23.5mm, so no shimming required. Always measure before you assume you have to do something like this!

With the old slots cleared, it was back to the laser cutter to re-etch the slots.


Given I was at the laser cutter I also did the headstock logo. As ever, I had to do a bunch of test etchings before doing the logo on the neck itself. The laser cutter’s power output is quite variable depending on how heavily it’s been used since it was last cleaned (you end up with particulates building up on the focussing lens) and each tree is different (just think of the bodies I was showing recently made from the same wood yet one was half a kilo lighter than the other), so between these two it’s vital you check the settings before each neck even if they’re both in theory the same wood (unless you know they’re from the same tree). 


For fun this time I tried adding an outline to the logo to make it more distinct at the edges. Post burn it looked fine, but it’ll be interesting to see if it looks as noticeable once the headstock has been sanded down and oiled.

With the neck back in action, the neck job was to do the rest of the jobs that it’s easier to do whilst the back of the neck is still squared off, giving it nice flat sides for drilling etc.

First up it was drilling the holes for the machine-heads (or tuning pegs or whatever you wish to call them) on the headstock. Normally I’ve preferred using vintage style tuners which use a stepped hole in the headstock which is narrower at the rear than the front, but here I was just going to take the old machine-heads off the old neck, and they’re modern style which just needs a straight 10mm hole.

Here I had a question in my head: should I drill this hole with a 10mm brad point bit, which is what I’d normally do, or should I use the 10mm Forstner bit that came as part of the set I ordered last week (more on these later). In the inimitable words of philosopher Harry Hill, there’s only one way to find out: fight! I took a maple offcut I had from the neck, and drilled one hole with each bit. The hole made with the brad point had a cleaner exit but a slightly less tidy entrance, and the Forstner bit had a cleaner entrance and was slightly less tidy on exit, but really there wasn’t much in it. In the end I used the Forstner bit as they were new to me and I wanted to get used to them.


Headstock holes done, I then drilled yet more holes, this time for the inlays, both on the side of the neck and the face of the headstock. For the holes on the side of the neck, I avoided an issue I’d had in the past getting the plastic 2mm dowel to fit in the holes by using a pair of callipers to realise that the stock “2mm” drill bits we have in Makespace are actually 1.9mm, and hunting around the workshop (like a weird obsessive) until I found a drill bit that was actually 2mm proper. Using this meant the side dots went in a dream. I can also recommend if your cutting them flush to only roughly cut them short with side cutters and then use a sharp chisel to get them properly flush - it does a much better job than the cutters can.


I also drilled the fretboard inlay holes at this point but didn’t yet put the inlays in just yet: they’ll protrude at first until I sand them down as part of sanding the radius into the fretboard, and right now I want the fretboard totally flat so I can clamp the neck down for carving the back of the neck.

The final act I did at this stage before carving the back of the neck was patch the chip in the fretboard I mentioned last week. To do this I took some offcut wenge (really, never throw offcuts out until you’ve shipped, they’re so useful), used a saw to generate sawdust, mixed it with a little bit of wood glue to make a cement that I then packed in and around the tear out.


It looks dreadful here, but once the neck was sanded down you really can’t tell at all that it’s been patched. Had this been a lighter wood I’d have not been so successful, as the wood glue will dry darker than the maple you see here for instance. But on wenge it works a treat.

Next up was carving the neck, which I do freehand using rasps.


You can see a few things in the above picture. Firstly, the use of pencil guides to give me some structure to removing material with the rasp that gets me close to the right shape. So, whilst I am doing this freehand, it’s still a structured process. 

Secondly you can see one of the new clamps I bought last week in use. Those two one-handed clamps I bought last week from axminster have been amazingly useful this last week, I almost wonder how I got on without them. In the past the quick-release/one-handed clamps I’d found to use weren’t strong enough for jobs like this, but these axminster ones are great for anything where you’re securing a part to work on it (I’d not use them for gluing, I’d still use G-clamps there). 

Thirdly you can see the block of wood I’m using to protect the neck from getting marked by the clamp is the test piece I used to test drill bits above :)


After a couple of hours I then have a carved neck. What isn’t so immediately obvious is that the neck tapers: it’s about 21mm thick around the 1st fret, compared to 24mm around the 12th fret. To check that I use a straight edge and have to manually adjust as I go along.


For the inlays, rather than use plastic mother-of-pearl effect dots, I decided to make my own, something enabled by the new bandsaw at Makespace


I took that same offcut of maple again and a couple of 3mm thick veneers from it.


As I’ve said before, there’s a tendency to see a bandsaw as a crude bulk cutting instrument, but if the blade is properly set up and sharp you can do quite precise work with it. Once I had the veneers I headed over to the laser cutter again to cut out some dots. 


The laser cutter will remove material as it cuts, so I had to do several test dots, checking them against the drill bit I used to make the inlay holes, to get one that fit perfectly (hey look, I’m using some fretboard offcuts - it’s like I have an unhealthy obsession with offcuts!). Once had the right size I then used superglue (along with some activator to stop me sticking myself to the fretboard) to stick them in.

The final bit I managed on this neck this week was to put a radius on it. For this I ended up using both my long and short radius block, and using jigs to make sure I got everything flush.


I’d not used jigs before to guide my sanding, but it makes a huge difference. Freehand sanding his you discover that no matter how straight you try to be, your arms will move in a curve naturally. You can compensate for this, but the jig setup I have in the above picture, as crude as it is, lets you get things done faster and more accurately.

That’s as far as I got with this neck this week. This neck isn’t really what I should be working on right now in theory, as it’s not on a commission, but it’s let me pioneer a bunch of techniques and just get back into practice at jobs I’ve not done for a while, it’s been useful. I’m now confident that post-CNC-router I can make a quality neck again.

Commission neck wise I did do some prep on the neck for guitar #10, in that I thicknessed the wood for that neck ready to get shaped. 


The fretboard is a particularly striking bit of indian rosewood, and it might just edge out olive wood as the wood that most makes the workshop smell nice when you cut it up. Rosewood gets its name from the fact that it smells nice, and this particularly piece made the workshop smell lovely as I got it down to size.

On the body side I made progress with all three bodies I have on the go right now: there’s the Corvette prototype (guitar #8), and two Mustang-style offset commissions (guitar’s #10 and #6). Whilst the Corvette is not an urgent piece, it not being a commission, I am again using it to test out new non-CNC-router based techniques before I carry them over the commissions. In this instance it was mostly around using my new set of Forsner bits to help me bulk remove material from cavities before hand routing the remainder using templates to guide me. Whilst in theory I could just use the hand-router to remove all the material for the cavities, I tend to view the hand-router as more of a finishing tool, and where possible I’ll get rid of as much material as possible using other means first.

First up was the easy one: the switch cavity on the Corvette body is like that on a Les Paul, a single cylindrical hole that happened to be the same size as the largest Forstner bit in the set I bought.


I had assumed that I’d have to drill this out and then route it out manually, so it was a pleasant surprise when I realised the sizes matched. Next up was the control cavity on the Corvette, which I definitely did need to drill out then route out.


Drilling done, you can see I’ve got rid of most the material here already, and I’ve done so using the pillar drill which is a much safer, predicable, and restful tool to use than a hand-router, so a total win. The one thing to be aware of is that the spikes on the tip used to guide the bit do go 3mm lower than the main body of the bit, and as such I didn’t drill out all the way. This cavity wants to have a 5mm wall at the bottom of it, and 3mm spikes into that seemed a bit close for comfort, so I stopped 3mm short and cleared the bottom few millimetres of the cavity with the hand-router.


After hand-routing, it looks perfect, so then it was on to routing out the pockets on the bodies for guitars #10 and #6. First I did the neck pockets (for those interested, #10 is on the left, #6 is on the right). Next up it was the same again for the control cavities:


And then finally the more complicated shaped pickup and switching cavities for the Mustang-style offsets, which required me to almost treat it like four individual pockets despite all being connected:


You’ll note that some of the templates I use are made of clear acrylic and some are made of MDF, and the only reason for that is the MDF ones I made  a year or so ago before I discovered the advantages of using clear acrylic to let you see features behind the template. 

After a lot of dust was generated, I had both bodies routed out (this time #6 is on the left, #10 on the right):


I’m delighted at the results on all three of the bodies. In theory this should all have been obvious: this is a well tried and tested technique I’m using here. But there’s a difference between theory and execution, and so it’s not until I’ve tried it I know what’ll work well, and what’ll work for me given my particular skills. Here I’ve delighted at both how relatively easy this was to execute, and how good the finish has come out. You can see there’s some indents here from the tip of the Forstner bit, but in all cases it’s where you won’t see and there’s not functional impact. And, as you saw on the Corvette body, had I wanted to remove all trace of that I could at the cost of a little more hand-routing.

The final learning of the week was that it’s time for me to switch from vintage style machine heads to modern ones, or at least in terms of the wood work required. Vintage style machine heads require a stepped hole in the headstock, being 6.5mm at the bottom and 9mm at the top; modern machine-heads use a straight 10mm hole. I was curious as to how well I can make the vintage style holes by hand, vs using the CNC router to do it, and so I did a bunch of testing, as is my way:


I discovered that whilst I can do it, to get a good finish using the bits I have was time consuming when compared to cutting the 10mm hole as I did earlier in the week using the Forstner bit. In general I find most people don’t care about the hole spec, they just want good working tuners, so I’m going to optimise here for reliability of manufacture (knowing I can do it if asked, just it’s more time I need to allow). With the CNC router it was just as easy to do the vintage style, and being a slightly vintage style of person I went with that, but here it makes sense to change.

Sorry that was a lot of things, but it was great to get into the workshop and just make progress on guitars for several solid days without having to wait for new tools to be delivered or help set up new machines in Makespace etc. - all of which is important, but at times can feel like it is dominating what I do. This weekend it felt like all the time I’ve spent this last half year trying to find out how I make guitars in a post-CNC-router world are now coming together and I’m hitting my stride again with what it is I really want to be doing: making guitars. There’s still bits to understand and learn, and I’m sure there will be more upsets down the line, but for now it felt like I could claim to be a guitar builder again, rather than someone who worries about guitar building :)

A week in and out the shop

Where to start this week? It was a very mixed bag, with the week starting with frustrations (broken/missing tools, causing me to spend a bunch of money I hadn’t expected) and then ending with an unexpected amazing happenings (a fully 3D printed guitar body prototype!)


Let’s start at the frustrating part of the week to get that over and done with. Last week I mentioned that things were going south with the neck build I was doing to prototype my new more manual build process (of which I still intend to do a proper write up), but rather than just abandon the build there and then, there was still more to learn from this neck before I moved on. As a general rule, if you’re working on something and it goes wrong, it’s worth asking if there’s something to be gained by pushing it a little further, either to practice and hone existing techniques or try out new ones, and with this I got to do a little of both in this instance.

Anyway, given things had gone sub-optimally when I glued on the fretboard the main thing I wanted to do with this neck was still finish the headstock transition: this was something that previously I’d done with the CNC router, and so wanted to try by hand once before I do the necks for the commissions I have in the queue. Before I can look at the headstock transition though I had to first remove most of the excess of the wood from the fretboard material, making it flush with the rest of the neck at the heel and sides (I could have done with more pictures here, sorry, but I hadn’t realised what was about to happen :). To do this I used a hand-router with a follow bit, but unfortunately in the process ended up tearing the edge of the wenge fretboard.


Wenge is a difficult wood to work with, and I’ve said previously I don’t plan on using it until I get better at woodwork, but I have quite a bit in stock, which is why I was using some for this test build. Wenge is a weird mix of hard and soft wood, and that combined with the shallow grain angle here made it very susceptible to the kind of tearing damage you see above.

At the time the way I solved this was by doing something you’re generally not advised to do with a hand-router, which was switch to using climb cutting. There’s two ways you can use a hand router when going around a workpiece like this: either counter-clockwise (conventional cutting) or clockwise (climb cutting). For hand-routing the rule is that conventional cutting is preferred, for CNC routing you tend to use climb cutting. The main reason of using conventional cutting with a hand-router is that you’re pushing against the direction of the bit rotation, so the hand-router will not run away from you, keeping you in control of the router at all times. With climb cutting you are pushing with the direction of the bit acting like a wheel on a car, so it wants to speed away from you which has obvious safety implications. However, the other side effect is that with conventional cutting as the cutting surface of the router bit digs into the wood you are reinforcing this motion as you push, digging the bit further into the wood as it turns, making tearing more likely. With climb cutting you get more a compacting action as you move the router back relative to the bit’s cutting direction, reducing that risk.

Given in this situation my neck was firmly clamped down, I was using the smaller, less powerful, hand-router, and I was only removing a small amount of material (I’d removed the bulk earlier with the bandsaw), I switched cautiously to climb cutting for the rest of the neck, and I avoided any further tearing.

However, potentially what I could have done, had I had an appropriate follow bit with the bearing on the other side, would be to flip the entire workpiece over so I wasn’t cutting into the grain line, just as you would turn the piece around if you experienced tearing with a hand plane. Obviously if you’re doing conventional cutting here you’re still using the tool where it might tear more, but working with the grain direction lets you use the safer conventional cutting with lower risk.

In this case it’s not the end of the world that I had a small chip: wenge being a dark wood with varied texture is fairly easy to patch using a mixture of sawdust and wood glue. But still, it’s something I’ll think about more next time I use wenge.

The hand router let me get all the fretboard flush with the neck, except the headstock. Here you can see that I have an overhang above the transition part I made last week. The next task was to finish that transition.


Unfortunately, in the gap between my using the spindle sander last week to round out the main part of the neck and when I came to complete it with the fretboard attached the Makespace workshop had suffered a sudden drought of clamps. For all the benefits of working in a community workshop, this is one of the downsides: at times the things you come to rely on will be broken or missing. The problem isn’t that things break (it’s a workshop) but rather that members have a tendency not to report that things have broken.

In general at Makespace we try and make reporting such things easy, and at every opportunity make it clear that this is normal for a workshop and no one will hold it against you if something breaks whilst you’re using it. Unfortunately people still tend to be embarrassed or scared at having broken something and, so often the first time you realise things are missing is when you go to use them, which is quite frustrating as it can waste a lot of time. I tried to make do with an old F-clamp rather than the one handed clamps I wanted to use, but it wouldn’t hold properly, so I was forced to give up on that task for the day rather than make a mess of the operation.


Whilst for Makespace we ordered some replacement clamps, I decided this was also time to order my own small set of good clamps, so I went over to Axminster and ordered a pair of G-clamps and a pair of one-handed clamps that I can then rely on to be always at Makespace and always in a known good condition. Good clamps are not cheap (£15 to £20 each for the sizes I’m looking at), but compared to the wasted time here I’d rather just spend the money and try recover that by making more guitars. Having my own also deals with the other downside of a community workshop in that we have to buy things on the assumption they’ll be abused (not deliberately, we just have a lot of people who start inexperienced at Makespace), so we can’t justify having the nicest of everything. For most jobs that’s fine, but occasionally it’s not, so this outlay also covers me for this.


Once the clamps turned up I was able to get the neck on the spindle sander set up properly and it did a top job of rounding out that transition.


So, despite the neck not being fit for purpose currently, I still learned a couple of things by continuing to push it forward a little more. I have a sneaky plan to try this week to see if I can fix the thing that went wrong, but even if that doesn’t work I still managed to extract more value from the neck than I would had I just given up the moment I realised I’d messed up when gluing.

Next up I went to route out the control and pickup cavities on the set of bodies I have on the go. First step was to make some more templates for the internal cavities.


The 5mm clear acrylic I use for templates is about £10 a sheet, so as you can see I like to get as many templates out of a piece as I can! Unfortunately this is about as far as I got this week, as again I was frustrated by the stock Forstner bits in the Makespace workshop, which were just too blunt for purpose. When I tried them on a bit of scrap they just started to burn the wood without cutting into it.


When using a hand-router to cut pockets you generally want to remove as much material as possible using drill bits before hand, using the hand-router more as a finishing tool rather than for bulk removal. For this you ideally want Forstner bits for, as the guide spike isn’t too deep (compared to a spade bit) and thanks to the circular outer guide you can cut overlapping holes easily, whereas other bits will want to slip into existing holes if you try to overlap them.

This is another case where in the end I have just ordered my own so I always have my own sharp set to hand, rather than rely on the shared ones in the workshop always being in a top notch state. Another unexpected expense, but at this point I’d rather just spend the money and know I won’t be blocked by this in the future. Thus I wasn’t able to route out the body cavities last week, that’s now a priority for this week.

After a frustrating week in the workshop, on Saturday it was nice to take a trip across to the Engineering Build Space at Warwick University, where on Saturday department lecturer Simon Leigh hosted an Autodesk Fusion 360 Makers day. I’m always on the look out to see how I can improve my Fusion 360 usage, so signed up to the day despite not knowing quite what to expect. 

What I found when I went was the maker-space equivalent of a candy land. They had a good workshop space in one half, with lots of bench space, woodwork tools, lathes for both metal and wood, a very nice CNC mill, and other things I’d hope to find in such a shop. In the second half though they had the more experimental tools, befitting of a space that is actually part of a research department at a university: giant 3D printers, printers that use non-conventional materials or nozzles, and so forth. It was the kind of place that just leaves your mind fizzing with ideas and inspiration as it makes you aware that the little box you assumed you had to work in is much bigger.

There was no real agenda to the day, beyond a meeting of like minded people, so after being shown around the equipment I realised that I might be able to solve a problem that I discussed here a few weeks ago: how to quickly prototype a guitar body to see if the ergonomics feel right? It’s one thing to see a guitar design on screen, but it’s another to actual have a physical model of it. In the past I’ve made 1/4 sized prints on the Ultimaker at Makespace, and that at least tells me that visually things are okay, but to know what it feels like takes an actual thing in your hands, and then you really need a full size model. I looked at several techniques to try and make it faster than just building one with wood and in the end nothing was that practical in terms of either cost, time, or weight. But here I was somewhere with a 3D printer that had a build volume of 1 x 1 x 0.5 m, more than plenty to print a guitar body… 


I forgot to bring a banana for scale in the above picture, but between the cup of tea and the row of ultimakers behind you should start to get an idea for the scale of the machine :)

So faced with this machine I had to ask if I could try printing a prototype body. Simon though this would be a fun idea, and pointed me towards Liz Bishop, one of the department’s engineering PhD students, who spends her time trying to solve some of the technical/material challenges of printing on such large machines. To make the print more meaningful, I picked one of my designs that I’ve wanted to make for ages but has a non-uniform top, so would be hard to make quickly by hand, or at least very time expensive for a prototype that might prove the design wasn’t good.

Screenshot 2019-08-19 at 18.18.05.png

Given we wanted the print to be complete during the meetup, Liz and I made a few tweaks to the design to speed up the printing, namely removing the control and tremolo sprint cavities on the rear (basically details that don’t matter ergonomically), and Liz took some educated guess on things like infill density and outer layer counts to try and keep the print time down too. With that done, we kicked the job off.


And six hours later (with some careful monitoring from Liz and some olympic-level filament swap over action), we had a full-sized guitar body!


The idea with this print is just to get a sense of how the design looks and feels at scale. My plan is to put a neck on it in the coming week, but already I’m over the moon to see my design at actual scale. I like the lines it has and it feels good to hold. Once I have a neck on it I’ll know a lot more, but even just in this form it tells me a lot about the design I can’t get from screen. Weight wise it’s a little light, at 1.2 kg, compared with roughly 2 kg for a wooden body, but it’s close enough still, and if we were to repeat this we could tune the infill to get the weight up - which is a better position to be in than when I looked at doing this with acrylic, where I was struggling to get the weight down from an initial 4 kg estimation. Cost-wise it’s also quite reasonable: a 2kg spool of filament costs around £45, which is a lot cheaper than what I’d need to spend on acrylic when I looked the other week, and probably about right if I use lower quality wood.

Because this was a spur of the moment print, and we were pushed for time, we didn’t try to make a body that we could string up - the minimal infill means that it’d likely snap if we tried. However, Liz and I are already planning a round two at some point, and then perhaps even crazier things if that works out :)

The guitar body wasn’t the only experimental print I got to do at the weekend. One of the things I’ve been wondering about is how I make custom control knobs now that Makespace has got rid of the FormOne resin printer we had. Whilst I liked the finish on prints from the FormOne, the overheads and failure rates in a place like Makespace were unsustainable, so we got rid of it and replaced it with two more Ultimaker printers. However, getting a finish like the FormOne on the Ultimaker is less of a known thing.

I was chatting to Chris Purcell, another staff member from the Engineering Build Space about this, and he introduced me to Polysmooth filament, which is designed to be as easy to print with as PLA filament, but be polishable using a solvent like IPA to remove the ridges that you get on a filament style printer (they even will sell you a special machine for this process). As a demonstration Chris and Liz helped me print one of my controls that I had made before using their Polysmooth filament.


Straight out of the printer it has the common layer ridges, but then Chris made a quick ad-hoc IPA vapour chamber to let us get an impression of how it’d smooth out. By the end of the process we had something that whilst not perfectly smooth, was enough to demonstrate the potential, and certainly something I want to play more with.


The main area where it was lacking was on the top surface of the print, where there was a grid like pattern from the printing that was particularly pronounced. However, Chris then pointed me at another PhD student of the lab, Elliot Griffiths, who introduced me to an option I’d not seen in Cura before: ironing.

Screenshot 2019-08-19 at 11.26.34.png

With ironing you can get the 3D printer to do a second pass on a layer where it doesn’t extrude any new material, but rather uses the heated nozzle to press down on the just printed layer with a fine step over, effectively ironing it like you would with clothes. We didn’t have change to test that there and then, but it’s something I can test out on our Ultimakers back in Makespace.

Between the above and the other conversations I had it was a wonderful event: I met people who knew a lot more than me on 3D printing and I learned a lot from them, and it was great to see some of the future of digital making at the same time. My thanks to Simon and the Engineering department of Warwick University for running the event, and to Liz, Chris, Elliot and everyone else for being very generous with their time and knowledge.

A week in the shop

I know, I know, these notes are late: I got a mental block on trying to go into detail on some issues I hit whilst making the pilot neck that I describe below, and wasn’t in the right (write) frame of mind, so kept putting these notes off. In the end it got silly, so I’ve pulled that section out from here and I’ll write that up in its own post in due course. I’m not a natural writer, so the weeknotes discipline does occasionally bog down like this. But shorter notes are better than no notes, so let’s get to it.

The week started with that new toy fun: I got to use the new Makespace bandsaw! [DISCLAIMER: bandsaws are not toys…] I was looking forward to this because the old bandsaw (pictured here on the left, with the new bandsaw on the right) did not have either the throat clearance nor power to do the sorts of cuts I want to do when building necks in a more manual way.


In the past I’ve used the CNC router on all my necks (which also tells you it’s been a good while since I cut a new neck), but in my post-CNC router workflow I need to be able to cut the headstock face on the bandsaw. This being the first time we’d used the bandsaw for precision work like this, Graeme and I spent some time making sure the bed was properly perpendicular to the blade, and then getting the fence (the whiteish board you can see in the above picture on the bed of the new bandsaw that is used as a vertical reference) to be parallel to the blade. This took a little time, but is worth it: as I’ve said before here, there’s a tendency to see a bandsaw as a crude bulk-cutting tool, but if it’s properly set up a bandsaw can be a precision instrument.

Once we were happy with the alignment, I tried doing the initial shaping of the neck headstock on my first neck to use this new approach. This involved two cuts: the first is just marking where the start of the transition from headstock face to fretboard happens:


Then a second longer cut removes the material from the tip of the headstock to that point, revealing the face of the headstock:


The new bandsaw made light work of this, and thanks to all the set up effort that had gone in, it was precise: I was aiming fo 12mm thick and I got 12.0 on the callipers, so spot on.

Whilst I was very happy with how the neck looked post band-saw, that step from headstock face to fretboard needs to be rounded out. That I did with the spindle sander. 


Again, I took time to get myself set up here, and did a few test pieces first using scrap. I found that for some reason when I apply what I feel is even force on the material into the spindle I always end up with more being removed at the bottom than the top, so I have to watch for that and compensate if necessary by pushing harder on the top. I’m not sure why this is, the spindle itself is quite rigid, so I doubt it’s flexing under the pressure. Still, this is why you test on scrap first, and the final results were again pretty spot on.


The final step this week on this pilot neck for my new process was to glue on the fretboard. 


This is the aforementioned by that didn’t go according to plan unfortunately, but that spills into this week (as I’m now writing these notes for last week after some time in the shop this week), and I think needs it’s own little post. As it is, I now have an order to make for some more wood and repeat the process. Whilst frustrating, I know what I did wrong here, and so it’s just one to chalk up to experience. However, I will still finish the neck roughly here, as I want to check I can get the fretboard transition to be seamless, so there’s still value in this neck even though it’s not going to end up on a guitar.

The other thing I was able to do on the new bandsaw was cut out the body that I found the old bandsaw struggling with last week. The new bandsaw made very quick work of this, slicing through the thicker bit of ash like butter. The downside, if one is being picky, is that the new bandsaw has a thicker blade, so you can’t do as tight turns as I could on the old bandsaw. This means I can’t quite carve out as much wood from the curves on the body with the new bandsaw as I could on the old one, leaving me more to remove with the hand-router. But given the old bandsaw couldn’t really cope, I’m obviously better off with he new bandsaw, but it’s worth understanding that every tool has trade-offs.


As you can see below though, all the extra material to remove with the hand router meant I had quite a mess to sweep up afterwards :)


With the body routed out, I then ran it through the thicknesser to get it to the right depth, and then used the spindle sander to get rid of any machine marks or grain tearing from the hand router. I did make a template to route out the neck pocket, but because I’d used all the clamps in gluing the neck at the time I had to defer routing the neck pocket to the next week.


Here’s a picture of all three bodies I’ve got going on right now, which is a nice thing (to me at least) to see - a little bit of a production line.


Last week I talked about how light the body for guitar #6 is, I did a quick comparison, and can confirm that the other two bodies are currently 2.2 kilograms compared to 1.8 for #6. Now, all these will come down, as there’s still quite a bit of material to remove for the comfort carves and the electronics cavities, however, it does just go to show how much lighter that particular bit of swamp ash is.

For guitar #10, the client and I were unsure of what colour scheme to go for at the time the build was specified, but I’m at the point where I need to start commissioning pickups from House of Tone for this build, and for that I need to know the colour of the pickup covers, and so I took one of the larger offcuts from the body and stained it green, and then set him pictures of the stained wood with a series of pick-guard materials.


In the end we both liked the above option, so I can now get ordering pick guard material, pickups, etc.

Makespace has some interns at the moment trying to improve its public visibility, and as part of that I was interviewed as part of a series of meet the makers. I’ve not managed to bring myself to read what nonsense I spouted, so do let me know if I sound sane or not if you read it :)

To end the week fellow Makespace regular Jonathan and I went on a wood safari, heading up to MAC Timber near Peterborough who had an open day. MAC Timber specialise in locally grown hardwoods, and I wanted to see it they had anything that might be good for guitar building. Whilst I’ve been very happy with the service I get from my regular supplier, Exotic Hardwoods UK Ltd, it’s always nice to see what other options are out there.


MAC Timber are a relatively small outfit compared to other timberyards I’ve visited, but they had a very nice selection of woods, just nothing quite to the dimensions and weights that I normally look for, catering more for furniture making and turning. Jonathan had better luck than me: he makes these lovely laser etched maps of Cambridge on unique bits of wood, and MAC Timber had some lovely knotted and burled bits of oak he fell in love with.


In the end I did pick up a wonderfully light bit of poplar I can use to make a guitar body with, but it’s not something they normally stock, so not a thing I can use on a regular basis.

Mostly the trip once again revealed how ignorant I am of woodwork the moment I go out of the narrow path I’ve trodden to date. I really would like to follow the path taken by local luthier Jamie at Swannell Guitars who is trying to use locally sourced and sustainable woods for his beautiful acoustic guitars. For solid body electric guitars I need to understand a bit more about the density and strength requirements and then perhaps take another visit to MAC Timber to quiz them over what might be appropriate for my needs.