A week in the shop

This week has mostly just been a week of graft, getting the two necks moved along: the maple on maple one for the recovery offset build (or painters tape on maple as it has looked most of the week), and the wenge on birds-eye maple for the commissioned offset build. 


The recovery offset neck is slightly ahead of the commission offset neck, deliberately so given it’s been a few months since I did the fiddly bits of making a neck and I might as well get practice on the less pressured build first. On the recovery neck I just did the first pass of the fret work all the way through to, but not including, the polishing off the frets. They’re all level now, and the ends just need a little tweaking before I do the polishing, but overall this one is looking good.


I wrote a few weeks ago about how I wasn’t happy with the finish of using clay inlays, and so I decided at the last minute to just go for pearl effect inlay dots on the commission neck. However, I had to do a sort of hybrid of both, as I’d drilled the dot holes on the assumption I would be using clay inlays, which require more depth, so they were a mm or so deeper than I needed to glue in the pearl plastic inlays (3mm deep vs the 2mm deep inlays). So to get that mm back I used a little clay and made the worlds smallest coffee tamper using a spare inlay dot and a cocktail stick to let me press the clay down properly :)


I let the clay set for a day and then glued in the pearl inlay dots and they sat perfectly That done I’ve then been sanding the radius in and making sure the fret slots are kept clean. The wenge has needed much more sanding to get the machine marks out than the maple did: I think the more brittle darker bits of wenge took more marks than the maple did, so that’s a learning for next time I machine a fretboard blank. But now it’s radiused and ready for fretting in the next week.


The top of the hill is almost insight for these: after fretwork it’s finishes and electronics, none of which are quite so much stress and graft as fretwork.

t’s nice to find oneself in a little community, even if I’m a total amateur compared to the other two luthiers I know in Cambridge. My friend Matt has a spray booth now, and so I’m going to have a go at spraying the recovery offset’s body in the near future. Normally I’d stain and oil the body, but given the repair I had to make on the recovery body is visible on the surface, but totally smooth to touch, I figured this was a good time to try out painting. I have been asked in the past to do painted guitars and have said no, so it’s a useful learning step to enable me to say yes to that in the future.  I have some prep work to do, notably using grain filler which I’d not normally bother with, so that’s on my todo list for the next couple of weeks.

Jamie, who builds acoustics, got in touch asking if there was anything at Makespace where we might make some 0.5 mm holes, to help with a build he has on at the moment, and so I can do my bit to help for a change, and this coming week I’ve arrange with Jamie that we’ll see if we can use the laser cutters to solve his problem.

A week in the shop

This week my first goal was to glue up the fretboard for the commissioned offset to its respective neck, but I wanted to avoid the issue I’d had when I’d done the same bit on the recovery offset guitar that is also being worked on. If you look back at my notes from that week, I had the issue that although the fretboard seemed to dry clamp to the neck fine, after I added glue the join between the fretboard and the neck didn’t close as well as I’d expected, and I had to fill the resulting seam with glue so there wasn’t a gap along the join. This worked and doesn’t look too bad (and indeed, I think with a contrasting fretboard wouldn’t really be visible), but it was stressful to deal with, and I ended up with a lot of excess glue to get rid of which also was extra unnecessary work.

Having reflected on what I did that time versus what I’ve done in the past, I observed that in I’ve clamped an extra bit of wood on top of the fretboard when gluing it, to spread the pressure from the clamps more evenly over the fretboard. However, because with these latest fretboards I’ve radiused them before gluing, that wasn’t possible, as there is not flat surface to have the extra bit of wood sit on. So, I decided before gluing this latest fretboard onto the neck I’d make some radiused clamp blocks to solve this.

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To do this I simply modelled up a block with a concaved surface on once side to match the fretboard radius, and flat on the other side to camp onto, which I then machined out of some left over swamp ash I had from a previous guitar build.


Once cut out, I then laser etched a description of the radius on the back of them, as I suspect over time I’ll end up with a series of these for different fretboard radiuses, and I’m not that good at eyeballing subtle curve radiuses :)


Blocks made, I then put them to immediate use, gluing the wenge fretboard to the birds-eye maple neck for the commission offset. 


The blocks worked a treat: they spread the load from the clamp across the width of the fretboard nicely so that the edges were just as tightly clamped down as the centre. As a result I had a good tight join between the fretboard and the neck when I removed the clamps. Success!

If you’d like your own set of blocks like this, then I’ve added the Fusion 360 design to my open source page so you can use that if you have your own CNC router, or if you’d like me to make you a set for a given radius give me a shout: I’ll send you 10 blocks of the same radius for £25 plus postage.

Having glued the fretboard on, I’ve since tided the neck up with hand router using a following bit to trim the fretboard to be perfectly flush with the neck, and I’ve started cutting the fret slots. 


Whilst wenge is lovely once finished, cutting the slots is a lot more demanding than it is on something like rosewood or maple. The two coloured woods have quite different toughnesses, so you’ll find your saw blade will be stuck one moment and then running smoothly the next, and if you’re not careful with how much pressure you apply you can end up with the blade jumping out the slot and cutting wood where you’d rather it didn’t. Even though I give myself a head start by laser etching a guide slot on the surface of the wood, it’s still slow work and not something it’s worth trying to rush given the cost of mistakes!

I also made a start on the fretwork for the other offset I’m working on which is slightly ahead in the pipeline.


As I said I would last week, following on from attending the Festival of Maintenance, I created a page describing the setup and repair work on existing guitars I’m happy to take on and guide prices for that work. If you’re in Cambridge and would like me to give your guitar a bit of TLC then get in touch!

Looking to the future, I’ve also been doing a little more design work in spare moments on my own designs. Whilst it’s been fun building models based on existing guitars, it has always been the aim one day to have my own designs so the reflect both a mix of my own preferences and those of the people who commission them. To help me visualise those designs, I 3D printed some scaled down mockups to help me get a sense of how the designs are physically, rather than just on screen.


First up, it’s quite amazing how small a quarter scale guitar feels. I guess it’s 1/16th by volume, but they really do feel quite tiny. If there’s a market for guitars for dolls and action figures then I guess I’m ready to corner it :)

That aside, it really was useful having the scale model to get a better sense of how your design looks in reality. This even applies to other guitars that I’ve seen in screen or in pictures: I saw the St Vincent guitar at the weekend up close, and in person it looks very different from how it does in pictures, with the angles being more more striking that it appears on screen or page. The same was true of the curves on my initial prototype here, some of which worked better than I expected and some worse. But the nice thing about using a 3D printer to make the mockups rather than carving them in wood is that it was then but a few hours after I updated my design before I had the next prototype printed and in my hands for evaluation.

It helps that I have someone lined up for the first one of these (a baritone version no less) once I’ve cleared the current backlog with the offsets I’m building, and we’ve been exchanging ideas for the looks and features of that guitar to make it match their tastes, and it helps me evaluate the flexibility of having a guitar design that I can tweak to be flexible enough to meet different needs. 

At the end of the week it was nice to head over to the UK Guitar Show being held at London Olympia.

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The show was quite a bit bigger than the other shows I’ve been to in the last year, with more mainstream brands being on display and less of the independent guitar builds and sellers. Whilst I do enjoy seeing the smaller builders (and there were some of those here), it meant overall I felt less bad about having a go on everything even though I didn’t intend to buy; at the smaller shows I’d feel bad about wasting someone’s time.

Some random highlights:

  • I got to hold a St Vincent guitar, though not play as the Music Man stand didn’t have an amp. It is even more lovely in the flesh than in pictures. The sad thing I noted is that there is no left hand version. I’m not a left handed player myself, but I know a few people who are, one of whom would have liked this, but alas that’s ruled out for them, which was sad.

  • I had a go on the Fender player series Strat and Tele on their stands. Nothing remarkable about these, other than to congratulate Fender for having a left handed guitar up front and centre on their stand ready for people to play.

  • I had a go of a Line 6 Variax guitar plugged into a Line 6 Helix effects board, and my mind was blown by the flexibility of this combo. The Variax works like a standard guitar, but you can switch it into a mode where it ignores the pickups and just runs a microphone under the bridge into a DSP unit that can then emulate all different types of guitars: strats, teles, Les Pauls, and even acoustics. It also lets you change tuning without adjusting the strings whilst in this mode. At the turn of a single control you can do from standard tuning to drop-D, to Eb, to DADGAD. Switching between tunings is always a pain, so that’s quite a game changer. When plugged into the Helix you can then adjust each tuning (e.g., drop the high E as well as the low E when in drop-D). It was hard to tell how good the sound was given the general cacophony of the show floor, but it was certainly a fun ten minutes I had messing around with this.

  • I tried the Vox Starsteam guitar, which like the Variax is meant to emulate a large range of different guitars, and has quite a nice unique design. It was a bit of a let down for two reasons: firstly, the stand had no batteries so all of the fancy features didn’t work, nicely highlighting the downside of fancy digital electronics in your guitar, and secondly whilst I love the looks of the Starstream, it isn’t that comfortable if you play it sat down, with the edge digging into you. It’s clearly designed to be played stood up, but there wasn’t a strap on the guitar. All in all, a bit of a let down, but still I find the general ideal inspirational.

  • I bumped into Jamie of Swannell Guitars, a Cambridge maker of amazing acoustic guitars. Jamie let me have a little jam on his first electric guitar, which was fun to play, and quite interesting as you could feel the acoustic heritage in the otherwise familiar shape of an electric guitar - I hope to catch up with him in the near future and find out more about his design.


A week in the shop

Brief notes this week, as I’m keen to press on with things!

To start the week I made the fretboard on the commission offset, just as I did two weeks previous on the recovery offset, the only difference being that this fretboard is made of wenge rather than maple. I did both the cutting out on the CNC router and the laser etching of the fret slot guides.


Thankfully for once I was just repeating what I did before, and it all went predictably well. I find one of the things I’ve yet to do is repeat any designs, so most things are always new which I think is part of why I’ve been so slow to make guitars this year. My original intent with the commissions I took in February was to just make some more t-style guitars, to leverage the fact I was building the same again, but in the end there’s been enough change I’m still slowed down by each piece being new to me. Which is why it’s nice I essentially have two guitars being built right now following the same path.

The inlays for the dark fretboards I like to make with clay. I get some air drying clay, set it into the fretboard holes, leave it to dry, and then sand it down. One drawback of this approach with something as textured as wenge is that the clay gets into the natural figuring in the wood. It does sand out eventually, but it’d be nice not to have to do that. So as an experiment I tried putting down masking take before putting the clay in:


This worked quite well, although you do need to be careful that there is a nice clean edge around the hole with no frayed edges on the masking tape, as otherwise when you remove the tape later there isn’t a perfect join between the wood and they clay.


The only thing I’m on the fence about is whether I’m happy with the final finish on the clay. I like clay because it is a traditional finish - it’s now Fender used to make the dots on the guitars originally, and I prefer it’s natural finish to plastic “pearl” inlays. The one downside though is that as you sand the fretboard it will take on some amount of wood dust, which even with a light wood is visible. Here’s a close up of the last neck I made on the prototype offset:


It’s not quite the quality I want when examined up close, though as a whole it’s not that noticeable, and it does give it a more natural finish, which is the aesthetic in general I want to go for.

On the neck that was already in progress I did do the fret insertion, which went smoothly.


Certainly the more I do things like this the better I get; it is simply grinding like in WoW :) And this is in part why I’ve persisting in the finishing off of this recovery guitar made from bits that were damaged: it just gives me another chance to practice bits like fretwork to help me get slowly better. This neck is now taped up and ready for fret levelling, rounding, etc.

I’ve recently been trying to record a few videos of my guitars (and other lesser known brands, like Fender) through my amp, and I realised that the sound quality recording through my phone is good enough for a “what is he playing” but really doesn’t pick up the tone that I’m nearing in the room very well. So I decided it was finally time to get a proper microphone for such videos.

After much research I ended up ordering a Sennheiser e609 microphone, which is a dedicated amp microphone, and has a low profile so won’t get in the way and be something I trip over all the time. I then needed something to let me plug the microphone into my phone, and for that I’ve ordered a ZOOM U22 interface, which will take both an XLR microphone or a guitar direct in (assuming I’ve understood the manual), and has a USB out that is compatible with the iPhone USB converter dongle, or can be plugged into my laptop.

It’ll be a week or so before they turn up, but I’m looking forward to trying to capture some better tonal examples of my guitars and amp in action.

The spindle sander I ordered last week turned up, and I’ve installed it at Makespace. Many thanks to Matt for the recommendation.


I’m actually quite impressed with the finish this thing gets with the stock 80 grit inserts, much more smooth than I’d expected, which I guess is down to the oscillating motion the spindle does whilst sanding, but whatever the reason the results are great, and it’s going to make sanding guitar bodies so much easier.

At the weekend I went to the Festival of Maintenance, a one day event in London celebrating the people who do maintenance as opposed to create new things, and a look at the issues they face.


The talks covered a wide range of domains, from social housing, to documenting the HTML standards, to gorilla maintenance of your local area when no one else will. It was a very good day, with lots to think about.

I did remind me that I’ve been meaning for a while to push the fact that I’m happy to repair and setup of existing guitars, and that’s something I need to update this website for to make it more prominent. Both it’s a good thing to do environmentally in terms of keeping existing instruments in circulation, but also when I do guitar repair work it’s very educational seeing how other guitar manufacturers have approached things (something that Juha Lottenen was advocating also when I visited him).

A week in the shop

Last week I was working on the recovery offset’s neck: the recovery offset is a guitar being made from the parts that the CNC router tried to ruin that I’ve plugged and am going to finish off as a sort of factory seconds. The motivation for this is to get as much value out of the bits I start as possible, even if they’re not something I could ship to a paying customer (at least claiming it was in tip top condition), but the more I make things the more I learn.

I’ve wanted to try a revision to my workflow for building necks, and rather than try that first on the commission that I have part way through at the moment, I can try it here with less risk, so it’s convenient timing. I guess the thing I want to encourage is that when things go wrong, don’t see that as final for that thing: try to work out what other learning value you can get out of it before you part ways with it.

At the end of last week I’d glued on the fretboard, and I was lamenting that as I’d glued the maple fretboard on, the seam between it and the neck which previously had been a nice tight fit had expanded the moment I added glue (presumably down to moisture?) leaving a small but visible gap. I’d then had to layer on more glue than I would otherwise have used to fill the seam.

The positive is that this application of excess glue did work: the seam did fill and now that the neck has been carved on the back and sanded down, the glue line isn’t too bad. It’s distinct, but there’s no large bits, and it’s fairly uniform. Had I been using two different shades of wood, you’d probably not notice it much, but as I’m using two bits of maple it is visible, but it’s more of a feature.


It looks a little worse there than it does in real life where you can rotate it a little to see that it’s a nice flat transition between the two pieces.

The negative was that removing the excess glue I’d added was a real pain in the neck. In the end it took a lot of sanding and a light amount of chiselling to remove it, and I wished I’d not sanded down the neck so much before doing this stage, as it took out a little more than I’d have ideally removed. So whilst the excess glue did the job, it wasn’t without consequences. In future I’ll do less sanding before I put the pieces together.

The reason this neck is a recovery pieces is that the CNC router got confused and tried to ramp down at a rate into the piece when on the final contouring pass which cased the bit to shatter taking quite a bit of wood with it:


This I patched a while ago using wood glue and sawdust from the same piece of maple. Unfortunately it’s quite a dark patch: I don’t think using this approach works very well on light woods. My hope was that as I carved the neck most of the patched wood would be removed. Alas, not as much came out as I’d hoped:


Still, it’s no worse than a knot in the wood I guess, but you can definitely tell that it’s been patched, and annoyingly, as this is a right handed guitar, it’ll be visible to the player that its been patched. But, all that said, it’s totally playable now it’s been smoothed down, and thus definitely worth taking through the rest of the steps to complete, along with the recovery body.

Carving it went well enough, though amusingly there’s a kink in the grain line that made it hard to see the middle, as the kink was just off to one side, so I had to be careful to make sure I carved it symmetrically. Once carved there was a bunch of sanding to do, and the next stage is to fret it, which I’ll do next week.


The person who commissioned the first offset got in touch asking if he could have a custom logo etched on the headstock. The nice thing about having access to a laser cutter is that I can readily say yes to this. I made a few mock ups in Illustrator of what we might do, and I’m now awaiting a design back of what he wants.

Timing is good here, as I should make the fretboard for his neck this week, so in a week or so I’ll be ready to etch the headstock on this one.

The sanding of both the neck above and the two bodies that I have on the go reminded me how much I hate sanding. With the guitar bodies you have the awkward curves around the horns that you can’t get the orbital sander I have into, so I have to do them by hand. For finish this is fine, but for trying to remove machine lines this is quite tedious. What I really need for this is a spindle sander. 

Encouraged by the experience of such machines by some fellow luthiers I put together a proposal for Makespace to get one for the workshop (basically pricing it, explaining the use case, how it’d be stored and maintained), which was approved, so next week one should turn up for the woodwork shop, and I’ll have to work out how to plumb it into the dust extraction system. But again, anything that saves me manual sanding time is worth it!

A week back in the shop

This week I was properly back in the shop, determined to move guitars forward. Although I am doing some contracting at the moment, I managed a good 4 days in the workshop last week, and it felt good to be back, even if it wasn’t all plain sailing, as we’ll see.

Given it’s been a while since we talked properly about progress on guitars, let’s do a quick recap of what I’ve got on the go right now:

  1. I have the first commissioned offset that is my top priority to get shipped. The body is being sanded smooth in my spare moments, and the birds eye maple neck has been routed out, and next needs to be mated with a fretboard.

  2. I have the factory seconds offset that is made from the body and neck that the Makespace CNC router tried to ruin that I’ve patched up to let me continue to learn/experiment on. This is now acting as a sort of advance party for any new approaches I want to try whilst building the commission.

  3. I have the completed prototype offset where I’m not quite happy with the vibrato. I have all the bits to experiment with the mustang dynamic vibrato (both softer and stiffer sprints and infant a whole second bridge), but whilst it’s tempting to try get this done, I really feel I need to get this first commission off my shoulders. The commission will be a fixed bridge, so it isn’t blocked by me understanding vibrato bridges.

So that’s the three guitars I have in various states of progress right now. I do have a second commission for a friend that is not yet started, and a potential fifth that I’m ignoring right now until I make progress on the first. To say this year hasn’t gone to plan is an understatement.

The next step on the commission offset is the fretboard. In the past I’ve radiused the fretboards using a radius sanding block, but as I mentioned a few of weeks ago, that’s very hard to get spot on, and so I’ve been wondering how I might improve that process to make things more reliable/repeatable. There’s two paths I could follow here: I can try using a hand plane to put in the radius (which is how Juha Lottonen said he makes his when I visited last week, and how Ben Crowe at Crimson Guitars makes their hand built guitars), or I can try CNC routing in the radius when I cut the general shape out of the blank. This CNC router approach being the one I’d already started testing with before going away (when I messed it up due to a combination of rushing and being tired), so I had another go at making a fretboard this way.


I used Fusion 360 to map out a roughing tool path on the CNC router that used a larger 6mm bit to remove the bulk material over the fretboard, and then a second pass that used a much smaller 2.5mm end mill to carve the radius into the fretboard, using 1mm steps. 


This wasn’t as slow as I’d feared it might be, and gave a wonderful finish better than I’d expected: it only took a light sanding to get that looking close to perfect. Given I was doing the radiusing I also got the CNC router to make the inlay holes and the nut slot.


Having got the rough shape done, the next step was to laser etch the guides for the fret slots, so I can then saw them in properly in the correct position. Doing any job on multiple machines means you need to have a strategy for aligning the piece on the second machine so that the cuts you did on the first machine all line up. My technique for doing this on the laser cutters is to tape paper to the bed and score the outline of the piece using the laser into the paper first to give me a reference. When doing this I try to use the most distant pair of corners I can to minimise any error due to angles being wrong, and the score marks in the paper are very fine so you don’t get much margin for misalignment from them either, so all in all it’s a reasonably accurate way to position things. Once the piece is aligned on the paper I then adjust the laser cutter height to have the focus plane on the top of the fretboard rather than the bed, and away we go with the etching.


It all came out well as far as I can tell at this stage; I’ll not be able to properly tell until I string it up if I got it spot on. However, guitar frets aren’t perfect anyway: if they were mathematically prefect they’d not be straight, so there’s some scope for a tiny amount of error in there.

Slot guides etched, the next step is to get the fretboard inlays made. For this maple fretboard I did what I did for the Blues Deluxe guitar I made a while back, where I laser cut the dots out of a sheet of Rocklite that is about 3mm thick. The fretboard inlay holes are notionally 6mm in diameter, so you might expect I can just laser cut a 6mm diameter circle, but it’s not as easy as that. The router bit will not be perfect, nor will the CNC router, nor will the laser cutter, which will burn off some edge material as it cuts etc. In the end after a bunch of test pieces I found that I had to make 6.5mm circles of rocklite to fit snuggly the holes in the fretboard. These I then super-glued home.


The next stage is to glue the fretboard to the neck itself, and this is where I struggled a little bit, and I’m not sure why. I first clamped the fretboard to the neck without glue, and all the seams looked nice and flush with no gaps. But once I added glue, the fretboard and neck joined less well, with a small gap at points along the joint line. I combatted this with more glue along the seam and more clamps, but it wasn’t an ideal situation, and I wish I understood why it looked okay before glue and not after - please do drop me a line if you have any thoughts on what I might do better.

I’ve had one other failure like this before: that neck had quite large gaps I couldn’t fill with just glue, so it’s now sat on a shelf waiting for me to decide its fate. This one mostly seems to have come out okay, but it was a fretful 24 hours whilst I waited for the glue to dry and I could remove the clamps. Even though the gaps seem to have been mostly filled up, I was left with more excess glue than I’d have liked over the outside the I had to sand down. Still, it’s not ended up on the scarp pile, so that’s okay.

The observant of you (that can see the pictures that is) may have noticed a little square of material near the headstock transition, and wondered why that was there. 


The reason is that the last time I cut out a fretboard on the CNC router, although I didn’t radius it, I did do the slope down to the headstock to get that nicely aligned with the neck. However, you can see it goes to quite a fine point on the left hand side there, and this became a weak spot and as such I lost the tip of the point to the CNC router, and then hand to sand in a new transition later on in that build. So this time I left some excess material so there was no weak point when I cut the neck out on the CNC router, and now that the fretboard is glued to the neck it’s supported by the neck material underneath, so I could use the hand router to cut off the excess with no risk of tearing the tip point. This worked a charm, and after hand routing to smooth the transition between the neck and the fretboard it looked perfect.

In fact, it worked doubly well, as I aligned the jutting out edge with the nut slot so I had a nice clear reference point for fret 0 when trying to align the fretboard on the laser cutter for etching the fret slots: a double design win!

Speaking of the slots, the next step was to cut the slots with my trusty Japanese fretsaw, which went smoothly (and slowly, but that’s also why it went smoothly).


Slots cut, it was then time to do the side dots, as this is the last point where there is a nice flat side on the neck for its entire length.


I started doing the carve on the back, but didn’t get to do more than start that process, so I’ll have to finish it in the coming days.

Overall this new fretboard process went well, but I am a little concerned about that gluing incident. The birds-eye maple neck I need to tackle next is not cheap (£50 quid in material) and I didn’t think about that cost when I was working out the spec on the commission. It’s not that the customer didn’t mind paying a little extra to get a nicer guitar at the end, but whilst I’m still a little unsure at how well a neck will glue (I’ve had 1.5 failures out of 5 necks I’ve made, this being a half failure in my book) I’m now very nervous about the next stage I have to do as the cost of failure is high. But do it I must: we’ll just have to see how it goes, and hope the fact that mostly it’s gone right will carry us through, so my next task is to repeat all this again with some wenge and get the commission neck through the same steps I’ve just described.

One thing I realised early in the week was that my fretboard gauges were not in the workshop, but at home. However, rather than head home to get them, or indeed order a second pair for the workshop from Amazon Prime, I realised I could make my own! Sometimes I forget that I’ve levelled up in manufacturing in the last year. So in half an hour I’d designed and printed my own radius gauge:


Better yet, to save others the hassle, I’ve shared the design I made, both as a parameterised Fusion 360 file so you can make one of any radius you like, and as a series of STL files for common radius sizes you can just send to your 3D printer. My first bit of open source hardware :)

As I mentioned at the outset, hand planes have been on my mind this week, so it was fortuitous timing that fellow Makespace member Graeme who is an experienced woodworker spotted me with my hand plane and offered to each me how to set it up properly and get the blade nicely sharpened. Although I’d had a go at this myself in the past, I figured getting a lesson from an expert wouldn’t go amiss, and boy was that the right choice.


Graeme walked me through both how to sharpen and correctly bevel the blade using a veritas guide, and he also taught me how to quickly get the plane set up to the correct blade height and cutting properly. In the end taking my blade from not properly maintained to correctly sharpened took an hour, but the effort was worth it: my hand plane is now a joy to use, and I’ve started practicing trying to radius bits of wood with it. Whilst the CNC is accurate, it’s not very satisfying, so eventually I’d like to have another go at hand radiusing them.


I spent a lot of time this week also trying to help others with weird behaviour they were having on the CNC router; I’m now considered a local expert, which is a little unnerving, but I’m definitely happy to try share what I know. Eventually we got to the bottom of the issues, but all of it just left me convinced that the sooner we get off our current CNC router controller at Makespace to a better understood unit the better.

One person was struggling due to the fact the Fusion 360 post-processor we use generates g-code seems to work for the common case with our router, but in his case didn’t. Given our CNC router controller is a random unit from China with little documentation that’s hardly surprising, so a move to a GRBL or Linux-CNC based controller would certainly help there. We didn’t find a solution, but at least we know how to work around the issue now.

The second person’s issue turned out to be one we diagnosed quickly as a mis-setting in software, but it took us an age to then get things to work, as the CNC router controller cached that old mis-setting even though we fixed it, so until we tried in desperation turning it off and on again it didn’t take effect. And people wonder why I find the idea of using a hand-plane more appealing than the CNC router…

Finally, out of the shop, I got a new toy to go on my pedalboard: the Hall of Fame 2 reverb by TC Electronic. 


I had found that I was struggling with motivation of late playing guitar, but this has been a much needed injection on inspiration. I’ve written some more about it here, and I’ve posted a few videos to youtube of playing with it on.

Another early morning jam in B over coffee

Still feeling inspired by the addition of the TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 pedal to my rig, here's another morning practice jam whilst I have my coffee:

Mostly I play around in a blues style, which is quite a nice simple structure to follow and improvise open, but I'm very taken with using jazz style chords likes 9ths and 7ths with a percussive pattern to give it a less common sound. I suspect the percussive nature is a natural follow on from mostly jamming over a looper pedal without a drum track, but its interesting to see how ones playing evolves over time.

Help Kickstart IKARI's first album

The band IKARI are running a Kickstarted for their first album, Shapes & Sound, and they've just reached the half way mark, raising £650 out of the needed £1300. If my brother being one of their guitarists wasn't enough, IKARI have a special place in my heart ever since I went to see them gig at King Tut's with a guitar I built, so I was quick in with my pledge to see what they can do in a full album having heard their two singles to date: Ghosts and Ocean Waves.

If that music is your thing, then why not go and help a band trying to get their music out? I need them to become a success so I can start shipping the Tristan Dales signature IKARI tele ;)

Some early morning jam over coffee

In addition to building guitars, I do actually try to play them too. I've been taking lessons for the last couple of years, and whilst in no way a master, I've got to a point where I can do a little bit of improv blues when the mood takes me - as it did this morning whilst having my  morning cup of coffee.

Here I'm jamming on my Blues Deluxe guitar, plugged into the amp I made earlier this year, running through the Keeley D&M Drive, into my new Hall of Fame 2 reverb by TC Electronic and then into my most used pedal, the Ditto x2 Looper, also by TC Electronic. 

A looper in my mind is an essential practice pedal, letting you lay down a rhythm track and then play some lead over it - whilst backing tracks may offer more variety, there's something nice about the instantaneous nature of using a looper to put down whatever inspires you at that moment. The Ditto x2 also lets you load loops onto it, so I have a folder on my computer of drum beats at different bpm and bar lengths, so I can also have drum + rhythm + lead. But mostly I just play along like this of a morning.

Whilst I don't regret not adding reverb to my first amp build (always best not to get too complicated the first time you do something) I do miss having reverb, and good reverb at that. I've played with some reverb effects via my iPad using the OMEC Teleport, and it's just made me appreciate how getting a nice sounding reverb is quite hard. So I finally caved in and got a dedicated reverb pedal, and I'm so happy with my initial playing with the Hall of Fame 2. I look forward to playing with tone prints and creating my own reverbs through that at some point, but right now I'm just enjoying the lush tones from the built in spring and room reverbs.

Another week out the shop

This week was in two halves: a trip to Helsinki for vacation, and then spent in a field with 2000 fellow nerds at EMFCamp. Hopefully I'm now back in Cambridge for a bit so will get more time to do actual building, but this last week has had some quite interesting guitar moments in it, so here's a look at those.

One of the things I haven’t done much of is meeting proper luthiers to understand how it is they work and build things. I get a lot from talking to people online and watching youtube etc., but there’s still something about just having a conversation with someone practiced in the art of whatever you’re interested in that means you learn a lot very quickly.

In Cambridge I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Matt from Fidelity Guitars, who makes wonderful solid body electrics, but that’s the only one I’ve met. Additionally, I’m actually getting the urge one day to move away from the constraints of solid bodies into at least semi-hollow and carved toped guitars, just to move in a direction that is less common, and as part of that I’ve been wanting to meet people who 

Thus, whenever I travel anywhere I always check to see if there’s any local guitar builders. In Helsinki I spotted Lottonen, who not only builds guitars (mostly beautiful acoustics), but also makes archtops. So, out of nothing I dropped them an email explaining who I was and asking would it be possible to visit and take a look at how they made things, and very kindly Juha Lottonen agreed, and so I delightedly found myself on the last day of our Helsinki trip going over to Lottonen’s workshop to see how they did things.


Juha was very kind and generous with both his time and knowledge, explaining to me how they made their arch top guitars, showing me around their workshop (which is quite different to the community workshop I work in terms of tool availability), and in general he answered my questions on how they approached things on their guitars.

It was a humbling experience: talking to Juha I learned a lot, all the while I was aware that I’m there keeping him from doing actual work, so I was doubly appreciative not just of the knowledge he shared but also of the time he gave me. One of the things we discussed towards the end is how generous with knowledge the guitar building community is, which is certainly true. I only could get started on this because of people like Crimson Guitars and Highline Guitars and many others posting tutorials and explanations on youtube, and from the help I’ve had over time from people online, and then both Matt and Juha. 

I’m trying to do my own little bit to share back with this blog, and by helping people at Makespace whenever I can. I think the guitar community understands that it’s not the knowledge that sets people apart, it’s the execution of that knowledge and the attention to detail and the care and attention. As such, we’re happy to share what we know, as it’ll let us see other people make cool things and we’ll one day benefit from the return favour.

Anyway, it was a wonderful way to spend some time with someone so knowledgeable. I just hope I can do the learning justice at some point in the near future.

Related to the topic of sharing knowledge is EMFCamp. EMFCamp is a bi-annual festival of all things geeky and nerdy and maker-y, with about 2000 attendees (so I was told, I didn't count them all) and lasting two and a half days. There were talks on three stages running all day; regular workshops on things like electronics, metalwork, and knitting; a race track for home made racers running events throughout the weekend; and lots of groups set up their own villages around specific topics in the camp site (e.g., amateur radio, different hackspaces, and so forth). 


I last went to EMFCamp in 2014, and it’s come along a long way since then. Whilst I understand the organisers struggled with being let down by suppliers this year, as an attendee I wasn't particularly aware of this, and had a great time. In particular I liked how there was room to just chill out more between talks and events - the weather was good and you could just sit on the grass, under a tree, or in a small geodesic dome (it is that kind of event). I got to catch up with people who I’d not seen for a while, and meet some new friends. I had a guitar with me so occasionally I'd just sit down, chill out and play, and pass the guitar over to others to play if they stopped by.


I saw some great talks: building physical models of landscapes from LiDAR scans, making electronic music with open source software, and the trials of entering robot wars (I actually know the team who did this, but it was great to learn more of their struggles despite the brave face they put on it). The full list of talks and the videos of them are available here.

I was also giving a talk this year, on the topic of how to get started in a new domain: how to try and prevent yourself getting overwhelmed, and how to pull yourself through when things go wrong. Basically trying to encourage people who’d seen something cool at EMFCamp that they wanted to do but thought they couldn’t do to give it a try. You can see the talk here if you’re at all interested.

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(Sorry there's not a better picture - I was incredibly nervous about talking to such a large audience, and thus forgot to try and get someone to take a picture of me on stage).

At the heart of the talk is just a few simple rules that I’ve applied to learning to build guitars to try prevent myself getting stuck and giving up. Mostly this is around doing just a little bit out of my comfort zone on each guitar, knowing that I’ll eventually get to building my own custom designed guitars from scratch one day, but if I try that on the first guitar I’ll get overwhelmed and give up. I also have made sure I’m part of a community - both the local Makespace community and the wider guitar builder commit via things like Instagram, both of which help you get knowledge, inspiration, and support on the days when things go wrong.

It seemed to go well, and afterwards I met some people who said that it had resonated with them: that they’d wanted to get into various things but felt overwhelmed or unsure how to get started and the tools. The best reaction though was from a chap at the Newcastle makerspace who is has made his own pickup winding machine, and gave me an example of his work, which was very kind of him.


We have a chat and hopefully at some point I can find time to visit Newcastle and have a go at pickup winding (most likely to learn just how hard it actually is :).

A week out the shop

As I mentioned last week, this has been not a very guitar focussed week: I’ve been trying to close up one of the features for a company I’m doing software contracting for, and now I’m writing this from Helsinki, where I’m taking a quick break for a few days. You’ll be pleased to know we have seen some guitar based modern art again already, despite being here less than 24 hours :)

On the guitar building front though I did get a bunch of bits in the post for a big experiment I have planned for next month. I’m still unhappy with the state of the mustang dynamic vibrato on the prototype offset I built, and I can’t figure out why. I did take it to someone more experienced with guitars with tremolos and he was very dismissive of it. As an engineer though I want to understand why it’s wrong and how to fix it. Part of the issue is that I can’t see what’s happening inside the vibrato when its mounted, and the other part is it’s quite hard to change the variables (e.g., spring tension) and observe the change. Thus, it’s time for some science.

My plan is to make a proxy offset body that has the neck pocket and bridge mount in the right place, but to cut the bridge mount all the way through, and then cap it with clear acrylic at the correct depth: this will let me see what’s happening inside, but also letting me know if the bridge is not working due to hitting the body at some point inside. In the post I’ve got another bridge/vibrato unit by another company, and a set of lighter and heavier springs. I hope to thus actually play around and try properly understand what is going on with my unit that makes it so unstable.

The whole experience with this Mustang bridge has made me appreciate how ignorant I am about other guitars once I move outside the Fender style with fixed bridge space, so I’ve started trying to find broken guitars to fix up as a learning exercise. Unfortunately scouring eBay, gumtree, etc. hasn’t turned up much yet: I guess most people just put broken guitars in the bin. But as an aim I’d like to do some more fixing up guitars I’m less familiar with to learn how they’re put together.

But both of these a projects are for later in September now. The next few days will be in Helsinki, and then EMFCamp for the weekend. After that I really want to get the fretboards cut for the two offsets I have in progress, which will be the priority once back in Cambridge.