A very short week in the shop

This was a short week in the workshop due to Laura and I spending the last four days at what is now our annual sojourn away from reality at Wilderness Festival

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It was nice to hang out in some woodland studded with stages with our group of Wilderness friends, eat nice food, drink nice drinks, and listen to some good talks, and obviously some good music. As with last year, I’ll put up another post here shortly with the music Iiked in it.

Guitar build wise I didn’t manage to move things forward that much, as I finally was defeated on the old bandsaw. I wanted to cut out the body for the recent offset commission, so I mounted the template and went to the bandsaw to trim things down.


Unfortunately the bandsaw blade was in a bad state, and whilst just a few days earlier it had made light work of offset #6’s body, that wood being unusually light and the blade being in a better state, that day it was just no go. With the new bandsaw about to be commissioned I didn’t see the value in changing the blade out for a new one, and just deferred this to when the new bandsaw is ready.

Which, I’m glad to report, it is. I’ve not yet been back to the workshop due to galavanting in a field for over half a week, but in my absence Graeme and other Makespace members have got the new bandsaw working, so I just need to find time this week to be in Makespace at the same time as Graeme so I can get a quick tutorial on the newer, more industrial, machine.

Given I was blocked, I took some time to learn a new skill: using a sewing machine. 


For the cigar box guitar I wanted to complete the home made look by making it a strap and a bag to carry it around in. A regular guitar strap looks a little oversized on the cigar box, and obviously a regular bag won’t match size-wise either. Thus my plan is to get some corduroy or similar heavy material and use that to make them.

Claudia, who looks after the sewing machine at Makespace, kindly took time to both teach me the machine and then offer guidance as I did a bunch of practice pieces on my own. The sewing machine is a machine that takes very little time to learn how to operate, but clearly takes a lifetime to master (which makes it interesting). As with a lot of things in the workshop I normally inhabit, there is some setup that you need to get right, but there’s a real skill that needs to be learned through repeated doing before you can get the kind of quality you’d hope to be producing - experience is everything.


Claudia, knowing that eventually I want to make a bag for the cigar box guitar, encouraged me to make a series of pockets, each one having more complex structural properties than the last. In the above picture the one on the left is just a very minimal pocket design, and then on the right is the same thing but with a proper hem to give it a nicer outside edge and some additional stitching in the corners to make it keep that open shape without anything in the pocket.


Finally for this practice session I made an actual box from fabric, using a single ring of material for the four sides and then another bit of material for the bottom. My execution was very rough, but it showed me how to make seams that hold shape and to feed more complicated arrangements of material through the machine.

As with anything of this ilk (e.g., wood work) the secret here will be to slowly build up to making the more complicated bag, so I can see a lot more test pockets being made, and then the next thing I try will be a strap. That in itself will present an interesting challenge: by far the most difficult thing of making the pockets was cutting material with scissors, so I need to get better of that first!

A week in the shop

A long week notes here I’m afraid, but the tl;dr for those of you who are busy:

  • Wear your PPE all the time

  • Remember that done is better than perfect

  • I also do make some guitar build progress too.

Still reading on? Then let’s get into what was an educational week in many ways, not all of which are ideal.

I spent some time of late wondering how I can make it easier to prototype new guitar body shapes to see if I like them without investing the time required to make a body from scratch on a regular build. In the past I’ve 3D printed some 1/4 size models, and whilst those are good at giving you the idea of the physicality of the guitar better than a picture on a computer screen, you still don’t know what it’s like to hold and play.

Having recently taken to laser cutting templates, I wondered if there was a way I could use the laser cutters available to me at Makespace, and just laser cut some acrylic to the right shape, glue it together to get the right thickness, and then I have a quick and dirty guitar made. It’d need quite a lot of weight relief inside, as acrylic is about twice as dense as the woods I normally use, but it seemed a potential idea. To convince myself it was sensible, I first mocked it up in Fusion 360 so I understood what I’d need to cut out.

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This is not the colour I would make it in mind, though perhaps if someone wanted a very 80s guitar I could do, but rather this is Fusion 360’s analysis mode that shows up different bodies in different colours, and thus you can clearly see here the body made up from many sheets of acrylic. For the first time I took advantage of Fusion 360’s ability to model physical material properties so I could assess the overall weight; this meant I was able to convince myself that if I made this out of acrylic I’d be able to actually lift it. It took a surprising volume of cavities in the body to get the weight to anything close to reasonable (at least, it was surprising to me), but certainly it was doable.

This next section is a lesson about health and safety in the workshop. To save you skipping through al the text: don’t worry, I am fine, but I gave myself a little scare and so I recount this as a lesson I’ve learned so you don’t have to.

With the above design convincing me this was a potentially viable approach, the next thing was to think about how I’d make the sheets of acrylic stick together. I could just bolt them together, but that’s going to most likely lead to bits of bolt sticking out something that will be up against your body, and I was’t convinced just a few bolts would do to stop the sheets moving around given the stressed on the body. Ideally, I’d find a way to “glue” acrylic: so I did some research, and it turns out you can use dichrolomethane to do just that. It’s a fairly common solvent to use for this purpose rather than regular glue; it actually melts the two pieces slightly which then rebond as one. Thus my next step was to test this out on something smaller, so I laser cut some bits of scrap acrylic into shapes I could align with pins, and went to stick them together.

As with any experiment, I got everything I needed together before I started: the bits of acrylic I wanted to test with, clamps to hold things in place, a bottle of dichloromethane (which wasn’t new to the workshop, as other people have safely used it to stick acrylic together successfully), and a plastic syringe to apply the dichloromethane with. I thought about safety, so I moved to the secure workshop out of the way of people who might knock me, and I wore gloves as I’d be holding bits of acrylic with the solvent on them and I didn’t want to get any on my skin, as dichloromethane isn’t the healthiest of stuff (though no worse than other glues or cleaning products I might use).

What I failed to do, as some of you may already have observed, was wear my safety goggles, as I didn’t consider splash risk. In hindsight, this was a particularly silly slip up, as I’ve taken recently to wearing contact lenses to enable me to wear more comfortable safety goggles, and I’ve even bought my own. But getting them out of storage and putting them on before I go into the workshop wasn’t yet habit, and this time I forgot.

As per the videos of how to apply this solvent I watched in preperation, I put dichloromethane in the syringe to let me apply a small amount and have it soak up between the sheets using capiliary action. What I didn’t identifiy as important was that all the videos I watched used glass syringes which slide more smoothly than plastic ones do. Unfortunately the plastic ones have a much more stuttery plunge, and as such the dichloromethane spurted out quicker than I intended and a small amount splashed up towards my face, landing near my eyes.

At this point there was a certain amount of panic on my behalf, despite there only being a tiny amount that splashed. I really could do without losing any amount of vision if I can avoid it. Thankfully I know just outside the workshop is the first-aid stand which has eye wash solution, so with the help of Graeme who happened to be in the workshop I went to get some, remove the safety gloves I was wearing, remove my contact lenses, and give my eyes a thorough rinse for a while. I also then washed my face, and then rinse my eyes some more for good measure.

At this point, I am okay, there’s no burning, my vision is okay. However, given how important my vision is and I’m a bit of a worrier at the best of times, I found the whole thing a little unsettling. Thankfully Jonathan and Graeme were around to help convince me that if I had got some in my eyes I’d know about it, and if I was still concerned I should go get my eyes checked.

That I did. I phoned my opticians and they fitted me in a couple of hours later, something for which I’m very grateful. My regular optician gave me a quick eye-check and gave me an all clear, and an unofficial perception to head home and have some real ale to calm my nerves. Having a proper check enabled me to finally relax.

All in all, not my proudest of moments, all because of a silly oversight.

It was my own foolishness that I didn’t think to wear safety goggles when using a solvent like this. I just wasn’t acoustomed to doing this, so wasn’t aware of all the things that could go wrong, but that’s not much good had I been less fortunate. Whilst it was a new solent to me, that’s not really the issue here - I use superglue fairly regularly, and it’s a common luthier trick to dilute this down to be more runny and apply it in exactly the same fashion. The fault was I’m not used to handling liquids with a syringe so didn’t think of the consequences as I lacked experience.

Thus, my advice to you is, as ever, wear your PPE in the workshop. Even if you haven’t spotted a risk, wear some eye protectors, as there’s no real downside to doing so for most things.

If you’re in a workshop regularly like I am, get your own PPE that is comfortable to wear so you’re more likely to do so. For example, for xmas Laura got me some workshop safety trainers, and now I wear them all the time in the workshop as a matter of course. I was trying to do that with my move to contact lenses and the habit hadn’t yet taken, but now I’ll redouble my efforts.

As an aside, I think I’ll put to one side the acrylic test guitar idea for a bit and stick to wood. It’s not just the fun with solvents, but actually it’s hugely wasteful in terms of acrylic given the weight relief required. It’s also quite expensive compared to wood: given the cost of acrylic, wood is 2/3rds the cost for heavier ash, and even more expensive than swamp ash.

So, personal drama dealt with, let’s get back to guitar building. Earlier in the week I made another neck blank and jig, as I did a few weeks ago for the Corvette (here and here). This is going to be a prorotype for my new way of making the necks, as all the other necks I have in progress are using nice birds-eye maple, and so I wanted a cheaper bit of wood to trial it on first. I also want to replace the neck on The Blues Deluxe build, so I’m using this as a chance to kill two birds with one stone.

Thus I laser cut a new template (this being a longer scale length compared to the one I cut previously), and broke out the hand router.


I also routed out an MDF jig to let me work on the headstock. As I said above, the whole point of this neck really is to be a guinea pig for this new process. If you look at the following picture, you can see the headstock in the jig:


I want to use the bandsaw to take off the front face of the headstock up to the left-most pencil line on the face. From the cut out piece to the second pencil line will be a shallow curve up, which I’ll put in using the spindle sander. In theory it’ll all go well, but given I have three necks in the queue with nice birds-eye maple, I wanted one plain old maple neck so that if it doesn’t go to plan I found out on the less expensive material.

All this is blocked however on the new bandsaw at Makespace getting commissioned. It has now arrived at Makespace, and Graeme has already done a bunch of the initial setup work for it, but we discovered that whilst its operating current is 9A, the initial peak current requirement as it spins up the motor is 16A, so a regular 13A plug won’t cut it: we’ll need to install a new single phase commando socket in the workshop.

Given I’m now backlogging on necks, I spent time getting another body ready. This time, it’s one of the two commissions I have going on right now, and indeed one that a friend commissioned last year but got blocked with the never-ending CNC Router issues, and has been a bit of weight on my shoulders as time goes on.

When I took on the commission from my friend Andy (guitar #6 in my books, though now I’ve made 8 guitars by this point), I was still on good terms with the CNC router at Makespace - it was yet to develop its habit of eating all the nice bits of wood I put before it. Thus I happily came up with a semi-hollow design for a guitar that I wouldn’t be able to build by hand.

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The design complexity comes from the body being hollowed and having a belly carve - that means there’s a thin non-flat surface there, and I didn’t have the confidence that I could do that by hand, which you can see here:

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So for the last year this has hung over me, with the CNC router never getting to a point where I could trust it, and I’ve decided that this has to stop. I either need to build this guitar or scrap the project. A combination of things pursuaded me to give it a go. Firstly, because I realised there was a challenge here and Andy was a close friend, I didn’t take a deposit from him, but I did buy the wood, so if I mess up he’s not out of pocket and I can write off the expense as a learning experience. Secondly, Now that I’ve spent more time around other wood workers, particlarly those who make bowls on the lathes, I can kinda see how to do it by hand now.

In the end, it didn’t matter as you’ll see, but I guess what I’m trying to say is I procrastinated on this one a long time, but at some point you just need to move forward and accept that things may not work out. Or call it all off :) But do one of the other, don’t let it become a weight over you like I did with this one.

The body blank I had already assembled for Andy’s guitar a year ago, it’s just sat in storage waiting all this time. The first thing I observed when picking it up: it’s actually amazingly light, lighter than even the other swamp ash bodies I’ve made.


When I sent that picture to Andy he commented on how lovely the grain was, but I was forced to point out that because it was semi-hollow we’d be forced to put a cap on the top and it’d be lost. However, given it felt so light, I proposed to Andy we see what the weight is at the end of the roughing out and then decide if we want to make it semi-hollow, or see if the exceptionally light wood would be sufficient. He agreed to this plan, and I got to work.

The first stage here was to use the old bandsaw (which was big enough to cut a body like this, just not to cut the face off a neck blank as above) to lose most of the material around the body (note the new bandsaw in the background in this picture!).


That done, the next task was to use a hand router to do finishing passes to make the body perfectly flush with the template.


The ultra observant of you might have noticed that the hand router in this picture is a bigger one than the one I was using earlier in the week to route out the neck. The router I used on the neck is the one in the Makespace workshop for general use, and the second one belongs to a fellow Makespace member who kindly let me borrow it. The workshop router has develoed a small flaw now where you can descend the nut that holds the bit in place below the bottom plate, and I’ve now twice accidentally done this when trying to make deep cuts, marking the wood I was working on, and I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.

It was interesting using the big router. Although slightly more clunky in terms of being able to see what you’re doing, the step up from a 1.2KW to a 2KW motor made the job significantly more easy, and the larger base plate offset the larger bulk of the router itself in terms of balance. So the net result was not mistakes on the deeper cut required on the body, and it was much easier to remove material. I’ll be using this router for most things in future I suspect.

Now that the body was the right shape I needed to decide how thick was it going to be? Was it about right as is for a solid body, or did I need to take 5mm or so off on the assumption it’d be hollowed out and a cap put on. So I found some scales, and was surprised at how light it was already, without even the material removed for pickups, comfort carves, etc.

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Normally I’d exect a light body to be 2 to 2.5 kilograms, so 1.8 at this stage is really quite light indeed. I had a chat with Andy, and he said this was good, he was happy with this weight and we’d keep the body solid. this is a good result for all: Andy gets to keep the grain he likes there, and it makes my job simpler in building it.

The last step was just to take down the front and back a hair. In the past I’ve used the CNC router with a 2” bit to do this, but as I discovered on the last swamp ash guitar I ran through it, this tears the grain somewhat, so this time I took advantage of the fact we have a thicknesser at Makespace wide enough to fit an entire guitar body and has been turned to eliminate snipe (over cutting on entry and exit).


After a year procrastinating on this build, it’s great to finally get it going.

With all these guitar bits in progress, it probably bears a quick recap of what’s being built right now. I have two mustang-style commissions in progress (guitars #11 and #6), the Corvette build (a custom offset design, guitar #10), and a replacement neck (for guitar #3). And that’s also the order of priority: whilst I’m keen to get the Corvette build moving forward again once we have the new bandsaw in place, the customer commissions come first. This is quite a fortunate place to be in, and it’s nice to have things moving forward again.

A week out the shop

I really don’t know where last week went. Well, at a logical level I do: I was trying to move contracting forward on two client software projects, both of which are in a frustrating stage themselves, and then I was ill for part of the week, so it was just One Of Those Weeks™. But still, last week I was talking about how you can use spare moments to make progress, and this week felt like I didn’t get to do that. It’s just one of those weeks where I look back and feel a crushing lack of progress was made. Some weeks are like that, and the challenge has to be to not let that mental low stop me from making progress this week. 

The only guitar bit I managed to do was I laser cut a neck template out of clear acrylic again, this time for a 25.5” neck, and attached it to a neck blank ready to trim. The trimming I’ve held off as Makespace has finally received its new bandsaw, which will make trimming things much easier (in theory at least). Similarly the body for the commission is in the queue waiting for this to become operational, which it should do at the end of this coming week. Whilst I can do these with the current bandsaw, I am pushing what is effectively a hobbyist bandsaw to its limits at times. 


The new bandsaw is practically big enough to chop up the old bandsaw, so it should make light work of the body and neck blanks I have. On my todo list for the coming week is to change the plug on this from a commando unit to a regular 3 pin UK Plug so that when Graeme turns up to commission the bandsaw later in the week it’s good to go.

The main bit I did do in the workshop this week was help a friend prep for a big get-together his family were planning and help him make a giant Connect 4 game :) Connect 4 is a board game that I played as a child, so it was fun to try make a giant one nostalgia wise. 

Firstly I modelled the thing in Fusion 360, and calculated everything based off the maximum width of the wood I can machine on the CNC Router at Makespace. Based on that, and given you have a grid of 7 x 6 for the game, you can pretty much calculate everything else from that, putting in a few constants for things like spacer sizes. Now if you asked me to make one a foot wide my design would nicely just resize and re-calculate all the board and counters to be suitable - I do love parametric design.

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After that, there was a good few hours on the CNC Router. I’ve mentioned before that people assume CNC Routing is fast, but it really is not. Effectively each hole in the board takes a minute to cut, and we have two boards, each with 42 holes in, and then we have 46 counters (allowing for some spares), so you’re already down for over two hours machining just for those bits. 


Thankfully there was two of us, so whilst I nursed the CNC Router, Rob was able to get on doing other bits of work like putting together the bits we’d already cut.


Because we were pushing the limits of what could be made on the bed size wise, we weren’t able to do all the cutting on the CNC Router: once we made made the holes and assembled the main board part, I then ran over it with a hand router to get all the edges nice and straight. I was wearing a lot of dust by the end of the night!


It took us 6 hours all in, which includes the CNC Router setup, machining, and then cutting other bits on the bandsaw etc. Since then Rob’s taken it home, added the side frames to help it stand up, and given it a lick of paint, and it’s now looking like the real thing.


This was a fun little project, and reminded me that CNC Routing for certain things is the right tool for the job, even if I’ve kind of given up on it for guitar building. It was also just nice to build a thing with a friend.

The only other bit I did in the workshop was to do some training, continuing my volunteer duties at Makespace, taking a couple of hours to get someone up and running on the CNC Router. It’s tempting to see volunteering like this as a time sink, but it’s definitely an investment on which I get regular returns.

The worst thing you can have in a community workshop like Makespace is a bit of equipment that only one person or a small clique know how to use. It means that bit of kit won’t get properly maintained, and it’ll be resented by those who can’t use it (either because they want to use it and can’t, or because they see it as taking up room that could be used for something else). You can see this at Makespace if you contrast the fortunes of the woodworking vs metalwork facilities. A year or so ago they were both equally neglected, but since a group of us have put in effort to get the woodworking facilities improved, you now see not only more people using it, but also everything is generally better looked after, other people are maintaining things, etc., and now woodworking at Makespace is much better served than metalwork as there’s a momentum there.

So I definitely see time spent improving the workshop or training people to use equipment that I use as a good thing that makes things not just better for others but also better for me. A rising tide raises all boats is the saying that springs to mind. It’s even the little things, such as I went to use a hand plane off the shadow board the other day and it was sharp and set up properly so I could just do what I wanted without thinking - that’d never have been the case 12 months ago.

A week of brief moments in the shop

I was mostly heads down catching up on contract work last week, so didn’t get any time dedicated to luthiery last week except a burst at the weekend. However, I decided to go with some industrial headphones and work out of the desk space in the community workshop I use, so when I needed a break from software I could move the guitars forward. This was enough to let me draw a line under two near complete projects and move another two early stage projects forward a little. So don’t worry if you can’t spend all your time working on the thing you’re passionate about, just try and find a way to make any small moments in the week you can find productive if you can and you can move things slowly forward.

The main thing I moved forward in terms of time was the cigar box guitar, which is now complete. When I took it up to Liverpool Makefest it played acoustically, but I’d not had time to get either the electronics in place or strengthen the box so it’ll cope with being on a guitar strap and having a cable hanging out the side.

The first task was to finish cutting a hole in the lid of the cigar box to let me put the pickup in place, which I started a while ago but didn’t finish.


I forget why, but at some point I’d convinced myself the lid was made from cardboard (not uncommon), but as I cut through I realised the upper surface is cardboard, but the rest of the lid is the same light ply that’s used to make the rest of the box. This explains why the guitar is more resonant than I expected it to be! Had I known it was a wood lid I might have been tempted to make it more of an acoustic guitar with a sound hole, but by this point I was already on my way to making it electric so I kept with the plan.

Once the hole in the lid was made, I also needed to remove material from the main body of the guitar, the stick of wood that runs the entire length. I marked this out in pencil using the hole in the lid, cut the sides down with a saw, and then removed most of the material with the pillar drill, finishing it off with a chisel. It doesn’t need to be pretty being inside the guitar :)


This done I was then able to mount the pickup, which I bought from Coney Customs. I need to give it a light oil at some point, but it fits the look of the guitar quite well, and it sounds great.

Pickup in, my next break filling task was to add support to the cigar box. Because I’ve cut holes in the sides to let me run the main guitar neck through, the sides were very flimsy, only being anchored on two sides and not being the strongest of woods. I wanted to anchor the strap buttons to the box, and have the cable jack in one side too, and there was no way the now weakened sides would cope with this.

There are many ways I could do this, but I was saved from procrastination by not having much time. In an ideal world I like the idea of being able to take the guitar apart should I need to fix anything, but in practice that wasn’t a very practical option, so whilst I opted to screw the cigar box and neck together, I used wood glue to add in the support wood between the body and the neck, effectively joining everything together as one.


Because of the angles involved getting clamps in and the limited number of clamps of the right size I had, it took me two days to get everything glued:


But once set, the box is now suitably sturdy to stand up to being used, and it hasn’t damped the acoustic quality of the box any, I assume because I’ve not impeded the lid movement any more than I already was.

The final little task to complete the cigar box guitar was to get the electronics soldered up. I kept it simple as suits the nature of this instrument: one pickup, one volume control, and then the jack. The main thing I realised late was that the wiring would have been a lot simpler had I put the jack on the lid, rather than in the side of the box, as then all the electronics would have been on one surface. Still, here’s a lot more room to manoeuvre here than in most guitars I’ve worked on, so it wasn’t the end of the world.


To keep with home made feel of the guitar, I made the knob for the volume dial out of a wine cork:


And that’s it - I string the guitar back up, and it plays great. I’ll do a demo video at some point, but it sounds surprisingly professional for such a rustic little instrument. Fellow Makespace member Zi was around, who’s taken my previous guitars for spin, and this one was no exception - it was great to hear it in action.


I have it tuned to open-G currently, GDGD, so it makes a great slide instrument for my very limited slide ability. On my todo list for the near future is get my guitar teacher to teach me some slide licks!

I did one last tweak to the Phoenix Offset, which is now up for sale! I realised that I’d not aligned the pickup selector pot quite right, and so I fixed that little detail, and thus I’m now happy for someone to take the instrument away and play it.


Don’t worry: I put the proper control knob back on afterwards! A plectrum makes a nice temporary substute, as the rotary switches are not easy to turn just using the shaft itself, but I don’t think that’s a good long term look :)

This guitar has been a lot of work, and if you’ve ready through all these week notes you’ll know it’s had a difficult history, but all of this makes it an instrument I’m really proud of as a result.

For the new commission I found a moment to make the template for the body. I do have some older MDF mustang-style templates, but now I’ve learned the trick of using clear acrylic to make templates that I can see through to help me line everything up, I can’t go back to MDF, so I made a fresh initial template on the laser cutter.


The final thing for the week was to laser etch the fretboard for the Corvette guitar. I’m using purpleheart wood for this, which I’ve not used before, but I was pleased to note that despite it having a reputation for being tough, I had no problem etching in the saw guides into the wood, or indeed on sawing the slot on my test piece.


The purpleheart looks lovely, though that colour will darken brown over time, and indeed when it’s oiled it’ll go darker purple too. I had a look at how one can try to preserve that colour (there’s one useful guide here), but I think within the bounds of what treatments I can practically use on the fretboard, it’s going to fade over time. However, I’ve made peace with that: everything changes over time, and as this instrument ages it’ll mature into something other than it started out as, just as the musician playing it will change over time too as they abilities grow and tastes change.

A week in the shop

No big headlines in the shop this week, as I tried to catch up on all the things I put off outside of guitar building in the run up to Liverpool Makefest last week. I did however spend some time moving the new commission forward.

My aim is to get this new guitar to the same stage as the Corvette build so that I can move them along in parallel: I generally finding having two guitars on the go at once is more productive than just having one on its own. Having two on the go lets you switch between them when you feel the need for a break or need to stop and think about some particular troublesome bit, but means you’re still building a guitar when you switch away.

The first thing then was to joint the body wood. Last week I had thicknessed the swamp ash to about 5mm from where I wanted it. I don’t take it all the way down, as when jointing I never get the side edge planed to exactly 90˚, so there’s always some height variance across the joined body blank that I’ll need to take down afterwards, so that extra 5mm is to allow for that (it’s actually a bit excessive, next time I’ll make it smaller).

Before I start jointing however, I lay the bits of wood out and work out where the guitar is going to be in the two halves. 


What I’m aiming for here is two-fold. Firstly, I want to identify any defects in the wood I’d like to avoid (such as knot holes etc.), and secondly I want to try and align the grain as best I can so that the join line is less obvious. Whilst with a properly jointed edge you shouldn’t see a glue line, an obvious discontinuity in the grain can give things away. Sometimes it’s not possible, but if you can get roughly the same direction of grain on both sides of the join line people will generally struggle to spot it’s not a single piece of wood. Once you’ve decided on how the two halves are going to go together, mark the faces on both side with a pencil so you don’t forget when you go to glue it.

Whilst we have a thicknesser at Makespace, we don’t have a planer, so I do the jointing the old fashion way using a No 7 hand plane. The more I do this the faster it’s getting, but I’m still at that stage where I get it flat on one axis but knock it out on the other axis etc. It took me about half a day to get this just about perfect and glued up (which is half as long as what it took last time, so that’s progress for you). 


Once you’re happy with the edges you’re jointing, it’s into a set of sash clamps for 24 hours, and then voila, you now have one bit of wood for the body rather than two.


A common question I get in the workshop is whether I use any dowels or biscuits on the joint to give it extra strength, and the answer is no, I don’t, and it’s not something I’ve seen other luthers do either. Modern wood glues are very strong (stronger than the wood itself), and you have a nice big surface here for the joint. Also, the joint itself isn’t going to be under a lot of stress: the pull of the strings is not going to be causing the two halves to want to come away from each other, so glue alone will hold it fine.

One thing I did do here, and thanks to Makespace workshop regular Stefan for this tip, is to use beeswax to help make planing such a large area easier. I was finding with these particular bits of ash that even going with the grain that the plane was stuttering a bit, no matter how I had the blade set; I guess you have quite a large surface area of friction on a joint like this between the wood and the sole of the plane. Although you wouldn’t want to use any form of synthetic lubricant that might soak into the wood, beeswax is apparently the thing to help get the plane to move along smoothly without clogging up the wood. I can report it worked a charm.

Once glued up, the next task was to take out any slight bow in the blank due to any slight inaccuracy in getting the jointed edge perfectly perpendicular to the faces. On this one I actually seemed to have got it close to bang on, but even with that there’s still the glue excess that needs removing. The body blank is now too broad to fit on the thicknesser we have (which will cope with 330mm but the blank at this point is about 460mm wide), so I’m back to the CNC router to use it as a thicknesser briefly. 


However, this didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I suspect the facing off bit we have isn’t sharp enough, but I found it was tearing the grain on this particular bit of ash quite terribly.


I let the CNC remove half a millimetre from both sides (just to get rid of the glue excess mostly) and then stopped, which left me with still about 4mm to remove to get the body blank to my target thickness for this guitar. What I think I’ll have to do here is trim the blank down on the bandsaw so that it fits through the thicknesser, which I know doesn’t tear the grain on this wood from when I did the original thicknessing of the two halves. This will need careful marking - the design of this guitar body is just over 300mm wide, and isn’t perfectly symmetric about the centre line, so I’ll need to get the template cut and mounted, and then trim things down from that before thicknessing. Fun.

Speaking of templates, the more eagle eyed of you might have spotted I already had an MDF template above for this guitar, so why do I need to cut a new one? There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, the above template was designed for the Phoenix Offset, where the guitar was partly cut on the CNC Router before it failed and I had to finish the job by hand. I failed to plan ahead and didn’t put any suitable mounting points on it for how I’d like to make a new body. Secondly, I want to have one made from clear perspex as I did on the Corvette guitar I cut a few weeks ago, as I can mark the centre line etc. on the clear acrylic and do a much neater job of lining everything up when I can see through it.

One problem: Makespace had run out of the acrylic I normally use, so I had to order some new in, which turned up just as the week closed:


Five sheets should be enough for a few more guitars worth of templates.

Final bit on the new commission this week: I thinknessed the maple for the neck, ready to cut that out using a template in the near future.


Even though it’s still not yet fully commissioned in the space (we’re waiting for improvements to the workshop extraction piping) the thicknesser has been getting lots of use by the workshop regulars, which is great to see (given I was the one who pushed for us to get one). However, it’s had one knock on consequence we’d not considered until the extractor unit clogged up: it’s the first thing in our workshop that generates large offcut particles, and as such we need to manage the extractor waste better!

Our extractor has two bins: one for dust and one for larger bits sucked up, and given the kind of machines we’ve had until now it was mostly dust we were getting rid of. However, with just a week of using the thicknesser, the heavier particle bin had clogged up with shavings.


It’s somewhat obvious in hindsight, but its funny how just one new addition to the workshop can expose the bad habits of several years - we’ll be checking the second bin regularly from now on!

The only other real progress I made this week was a I created a portfolio page for the now completed Phoenix Offset, and a reverb sale page for it. I have one final tweak I want to make the guitar, then I can get that listing to go live and hopefully find it a new home. 

A week in the shop, and Liverpool MakeFest

This week began on a great start, with a new commission coming in, a hectic middle as I tried to get everything ready for Liverpool MakeFest, and had a wonderful end with MakeFest itself. As such, this is a long post, so apologies, but a lot went on!

At the end of last week I’d strung up the cigar box guitar to let it sit under tension for a day or two, but just because it had strings on didn’t mean it was ready to play, or indeed to show at MakeFest. 


Although I could strum it, and I even managed to get the bridge positioned such that the intonation was okay, not everything was as finished as it looks. Most notably the nut wasn’t yet fixed in position: in the above picture is simply held roughly in place by the strings, but that’s not a good long term solution. Clamping it for gluing was tricky as there’s not really any good surfaces to use a regular small G-clamp at this point, and I’ve no idea what the “proper” way to achieve this is, but in the end I just used some rubber bands looped over the neck to provide pull both down into the neck and along into the fretboard. I also had to use a tiny shim of veneer, as I over sanded the nut trying to get the bottom to match the angle of the headstock (which creates a nice visual effect, which I’ve had positive comments on, so a happy accident there). I also wasn’t sure what glue to use here, but in the end opted for the the wood Gorilla Glue I normally use, and that seems to have held well enough.

The next day, having let the glue set for 24 hours, I then went to tidy up the nut and veneer shim: getting it flush with the neck, trimming the shim to look neater, and removing any excess glue. The selection of tools for this shows you that I’ve become a changed person this last few months thanks to fellow Makespace member Graeme introducing me to properly sharp tools:


I did use some sand paper to get the bone nut down, but then I was in with the chisels etc. to tidy things up properly. Here’s the finished result, where you can see the shim, and perhaps get an appreciation for why it was hard to clamp down the nut.


With the nut properly secured and tidied, I took a second pass at the neck. Having it strung up before let me get a sense for how it felt to play, and I found I wanted to round out the neck a little more. That done, I then sanded the neck up through the grits, going up from 240 all the way up to 2000 grit, after which I started to apply the finishing oil. As ever, this made the bits of wood really come alive.

By this point it was the day before I had to travel up to Liverpool, so I was running out of time. I managed three coats of oil that day, applying a coat every 4 hours. Normally I’d have gone for more coats, but three is more than enough to ensure that it remains nice and clean despite having lots of people play it at MakeFest.

I didn’t get everything done on the cigar box guitar, most notably the electronics didn’t get started properly, but it was enough to let people play it acoustically. The next steps once back from Liverpool will be to get the pickup installed, and to put some support material inside the cigar box so that it’ll take being held up by a guitar strap and having a cable dangling out the side. The wood in the cigar boxes isn’t designed to take either of these strains, and I’ve made it worse by splitting the side edges to run the neck through, so some form of bracing will be needed.

The next thing I wanted to sort out before Makefest this week was the pickup selector on the Phoenix Offset (the new name for the Recovery Offset). I use a 4-position rotary switch for the pickup selector, and in testing I’d realised that how I had things set up wasn’t durable enough. As ever, it’s one thing to make a thing, it’s another to make a thing that’ll withstand abuse. For reference, this is what the rotary switch looks like (apologies for the stock image, but I’m away up North still):


The problem I hit was because there’s no visual indicator on the guitar of what the range of positions is on the selector, people don’t know when they start where they are, and as a consequence tend to try and over turn it. The switches themselves actually ship with a little tab on them that can lock into the surface you mount them on (you can just see them in the above pic if you look hard enough), but that requires a hole to be put through that surface (in this case the pick guard), and I didn’t want that visual artefact, so I’d removed the tab and was relying on just tightening the nut that secures the selector to the pick guard to be secure enough. But it turns out someone who’s not familiar with the guitar doesn’t know how much force to give to turn it, and they were able to rotate the entire assembly when going too far.

I decided to try solve both problems at once: my plan was to create a little position indicator that would sandwich between the pick guard and the control knob with tick marks in each of the positions. This indicator would solve two problems: firstly it would show visually the range of options so people wouldn’t feel the need to keep turning to see if they’d reached the end or not, and secondly I could make it wide enough that it would cover over any hole made to let me use the locator tab on the rotary switches themselves.

I’d ideally liked to have made this indicator in chrome to match the other control bits on the guitar, but I didn’t have time for that - I needed this problem solved before attending MakeFest and unleashing the public on this guitar, so I did some research and found a very thin (0.7mm) laser safe laminate that had a brushed metal effect on the top and black underneath. A little fun with the laser cutter later, and I had this:


I realised after installing this that it reminds me of the indicator disk used on the Varitone control on some of the Gibson ES guitars, and I wonder if that’s solving both the same problems there too.

In the end a fully circular design didn’t really suit the flowing lines of this offset, so for the final version I went for a more minimal curved design that doesn’t disrupt the look of the guitar too much. My friend Jason has suggested another variation, which looked nicer, but again I was against the clock this last week, so that’ll be something to try in the near future.

I similarly didn’t have time to unsolder the rotary selector in the guitar and change it to one with the locator tab on it before heading up to Liverpool, but in practice just having a visual indicator was enough that despite many people trying out the guitar a MakeFest, not one of them tried to over-turn it, the visual indicator was enough. Clearly in practice I do want both - I don’t expect an on-stage guitarist to have time to check the little indicator plate every time - but it was nice to see that this small addition to the guitar was worth the effort.

It’s details like this that make a big difference to the long term usability of an instrument, so it’s well worth the effort spent in fixing little niggles like this.

I did a bunch of other small bits this week in between getting the two guitars above ready for MakeFest. Firstly, I ordered the wood for the new commission (which as ever came from Exotic Hardwoods UK Ltd.), which turned up later in the week and I got the ball rolling on that build by doing the initial thicknessing of the body halves, using the new thicknesser at Makespace:


This one will be a swamp ash body, a maple neck, and a rosewood fretboard. It’ll be very similar to the Phoenix Offset above in functionality, but with the darker wood fretboard, and stained green rather than blue. The pick-guard material is up in the air until we see how the green stain comes out and then the client and I can decide what will work well with that.

The second bit I worked on was making jigs for the Corvette guitar I’m making. Last week I routed out the main part of the neck, and the next steps for that are to shape the headstock, but to do that I need a way to hold the neck such that the centreline is horizontal, but a neck has no edges perpendicular to the centre line, and thus a jig is needed. I found some 18mm scrap MDF in the Makespace trove that was big enough and cut that out on the CNC Router:


It was a shorter week in the workshop, as Friday was driving up from Cambridge to Liverpool in time to help set up Liverpool Central Library on the Friday evening ready for the exhibitors to arrive on Saturday morning. My other half, Laura, had volunteered to help lead the set-up crew this year, and so given I was going to be around that evening anyway I pitched in as crew and helped with the general setup (as did several other exhibitors like myself who were in the area early). This mostly involved clearing bits of library to one side and then carrying trestle tables left, right and centre (and then on the Saturday evening after the event doing the inverse to restore the library to its normal state). I’m not sure I’ve had so much exercise for a long time :) In just two hours we’d got pretty much everything transformed from being a normal library space to somewhere ready for a bunch of makers to descend and exhibit the weird and wonderful things they’ve been creating.

This was also the time when I heard the best phrase said to me in a long time: “don’t worry, the steampunks will be here soon.” :)


Events like this are really a labour of love by so many people, and it was great to be part of the broader team, with everyone pitching in with good spirits.

As it has been in previous years, the day of MakeFest itself was a blur. Once the library doors open and people start coming through it’s seven hours of talking and explaining and demonstrating to people: an exhausting but fun day.

As in previous years, on my stand I was trying to demystify how electric guitars are made. The guitar itself is a very democratic instrument, there for anyone to pick up regardless of musical ability and make some noise for their own amusement or for others. I’d argue that it’s also a democratic instrument in terms that anyone can, with a bit of perseverance, also make a guitar. I wanted to try and help people see this. Not that it is for everyone, but even if they don’t go on to build one themselves, they will know a bit more about how a thing is made, rather than it just being an atomic object.

On my stand I had a stack of the wood required to make one electric guitar on one side, an in progress body and neck in the middle, and a finished guitar on the right, and I attempt to draw a narrative that helps people see how the pile on the left moves to the guitar on the right, demystifying the process. The cigar box guitar was a new addition to the stand this year, and this was an attempt to show that actually if you just wanted to make a fun instrument, you don’t even need to make anything as fancy as what I normally do.


In addition to that, one of the joys for me as ever in this kind of thing is letting people play my guitars, so I had my small workbench amp with me (the excellent Blackstar Fly), and I happily let anyone who felt willing to try have a go. There were many players pass through, of all ages and backgrounds, and all of them made me happy that they could get one of my guitars to sing for them. 


As ever it was a great day: I had lots of interesting conversations, I was able to open some people’s eyes to how things are made, and I learned a few things myself too from the conversations. A huge thanks to everyone who stopped by to say hello, as you made the day worth all the effort.

It’s always slightly nerve-wracking taking your latest pride and joy (or in this case, two prides and joys) and giving it over to a series of strangers to play, but it really is rewarding; if you build guitars, I can’t recommend enough getting them into the hands of people to play. It’s very easy to worry about people dinging them, but in practice people are generally very careful with the instruments, and respond well to being guided about sitting down to play (which I strongly recommend), and with younger kids I position myself ready to catch the instrument should it slip. It’s also a good stress test of your instrument (as I was describing with the pickup selector above) - giving it to strangers will quickly show up niggles that you haven’t spotted.

It’s also a good way to get feedback from a wide-range of players. For instance, neck profiles are a personal thing, and over the years I’ve learned that people tend to like a broader neck that I do. It’s only by putting your guitar(s) into the hands of many players that you get to learn what people like. The positive feedback is a useful indicator of how far you’ve come, and kind comments are always appreciated, but it’s also very useful to learn what different features people do and don’t like.

One thing that did make me happy though is the overall tone of the comments on the guitars did confirm to me that year-on-year I am getting better at this guitar building thing, which is great to see, and something you can only tell by putting things out there.

Despite the overall day being good, I did leave with a feeling that I failed in my original aim of trying to make people see that guitar building was something they could do. The pitch just wasn’t working, and I wasn’t getting across the narrative I wanted people to take.

Without trying to sound like I’m bragging, I think the guitars I had on the stand this year were a bit too good compared to when I did this for the first time two years ago: whereas the logically leap from a pile of parts to the first guitar I built was tractable, I think a lot of people found the leap from that pile of parts to my latest guitar somewhat too wide to make. They all said nice things about the guitar, but it was generally done in a way that implied I’d done something special they couldn’t do, which wasn’t the point.

Even the cigar box, which I made for this event in an attempt to show you can make a very simple guitar using just basic tools, possibly turned out a bit too well. For example, I gave it fancy headstock as I just wanted to try some new techniques I’d not done before whilst building it, but that makes it look more professional than is required for such an instrument. For this event I should have stuck with a simple straight headstock if I wanted to convince people that they can make something with very little experience.

So, whilst I had a good time, and got lots of positive response from the people I talked to, I left the event feeling that next year (assuming they’ll have me back of course), I will need to do a radical revamp and either tell a different story, or a approach to telling this story. I had originally hoped to try something different for this year, but work pressures caused me to run out of time; now I have 12 months to prep, so I’m going to start planning the next one now.

The one bit where did feel I was able to help someone along their path to building a guitar was chatting to a young chap called Oli (who is actually the person playing the guitar above). He’s at Neston High School, who have a Makes club, and he’s been trying to make a guitar as part of his assessed project work. As a fan of 60s guitars, I was delighted to see the tear shaped guitar he’s building.


The guitar started life as a stratocaster type guitar, and Oli’s made it a new body and pick guard, turning it into something like a Vox teardrop guitar, which looked awesome. He’s done a good job on the pick guard too, which is entirely custom made, and had a nice straight edge. I was very impressed both with Oli’s work and Pat’s tutelage. 

Oli was struggling a bit with the electronics, so his teacher Pat (who I met last year) pointed him in my direction. I had a quick look, and it seemed everything was in order, with the exception of a few simple things that are the normal kind of mistakes I might make. Truth be told, I didn’t have much to help him with, as he was actually getting it right, but I think sometimes we all just need that confidence boost of someone experienced telling you that your frustrations aren’t unique to you, and you’re on the right track (I know I do, and is why I make efforts to engage with the broader luthiery community), so that was a service I was happy to provide.  We had a good chat, and hopefully I convinced him he was on the right track and to keep going. Fingers crossed he does, as I’m looking forward to giving the guitar a play next year!

Related, Neston High School Makers are trying to raise money via crowd funding to help them set up the workshop to let them recycle plastic themselves for use in projects. If you want to help support something that encourages kids to make things in a sustainable way, then go have a look.

The Sunday after the show, we headed into DoES Liverpool, the local equivalent of the community workshop I work out of in Cambridge, and something that is a large part of why there’s a good maker scene up in that city. It was a nice chill day with people from Makefest coming by to relax after a hectic couple of days. We even had a bit of a jam session in the afternoon (with MakeFest organiser Caroline, who took this photo, on bassline) , which was a lot of fun, and we’ve promised we’ll have to reform to perform at next year’s event.


Being in DoES is always interesting to me, as it’s like Cambridge Makespace in many ways, but also nicely different in others. It’s a good reminder that how the community workshop I take part in isn’t the only way things can be done, and that for all the things I like I about Makespace I can see in DoES things that it doesn’t do highlighted. I think it’s particularly poignant to me now that I can reflect on the last year or so of putting a lot of time and effort into making Makespace be a better version of itself;  it’s a reminder that I should perhaps occasionally step back and think that there are other approaches that I could consider beyond improving on what’s there. 

DoES, for instance, seems to do a better job of doing larger group projects across their community. At Makespace we do more polished individual projects. I’m not sure where this comes from, and even whether it’d be a good fit for Cambridge to try and change, but there’s some really nice projects I see at DoES that it’s hard to imagine getting off the ground in Makespace due to the way we individual members are pushing forward on our own projects. Many of these things may not fit Cambridge and it’d be wrong to try and impose them, but it was interesting to reflect on these differences with a couple of the Makespace crowd who were also in attendance.

Finally, I saw lots of cool projects whilst at MakeFest and DoES. Too many to call out all of them, but some particular highlights I recommend you take a look at:

A week in the shop

It’s been a busy week, with lots of building progress, so a fun set of things to write about. But first, let’s do the health and safety bit:


Working in a workshop is safe if you’re careful, but I had one of those lapses whilst rushing due to being tired and paid the price. It was near the end of the day, and I was meant to be meeting friends for dinner, so trying to get things done, and I couldn’t find the right tool for tool for the job (some sharp side cutters) and so used my chisel instead to cut the side dot inlays on the cigar box guitar neck. Not an unreasonable tool, but I wasn’t set up for this: I hadn’t clamped the neck, so I was steadying it with my left hand, and chiseling with my right, and the material gave way quicker than I was expecting, and ouch. The plaster above looks innocent enough, but I managed quite a deep cut there, enough to give me a bit of a scare.

Chisels are quite sharp if well maintained (as mine are), so at least it was a nice clean cut, and luckily not too deep. But ultimately the fault was mine: when using a chisel you want one hand on the handle and the other hand behind the blade guiding it, and you secure your workpiece in a vice or with a clamp. You definitely shouldn’t have your hand in front of the blade. It’s easy to forget these things when flustered or in a rush, but that’s when accidents like this happen.

I still earn most of my money from typing (as a software contractor) so this incident unnerved me quite a bit. So please do be careful out there when building your own things. A nice sharp chisel is a wonderful tool, but needs to be treated with respect (as do most things in the workshop). I’m generally quite good about workshop safety, using PPE, etc., but it just takes one small lapse and you have an injury.

My penance has been I’ve not played guitar all week, and had to spend my daily practice slot reading up on music theory and doing audio interval training.

The cigar box has come along leaps and bounds. At the end of last week I’d laser etched the fret-slot guides into the fretboard and clamped it for gluing, so at the start of the week I came in and unclamped it and started to trim the fretboard flush with the rest of the neck. The majority of the overhang I removed using the bandsaw, which left me with just a couple of millimetres of fretboard wood to get rid of, along with the glue that had seeped out when I clamped things down.


Normally I’d use a hand router with a follow bit to get the fretboard flush, but this neck doesn’t have a flat underside preventing me from that route (ho-ho), so I instead went unpowered and broke out the No 4 hand plane and my chisels. Now that Makespace has a set of well maintained tools, doing it this way was much simpler and satisfying, and not much slower, so a technique I’ll perhaps return to in the future for this job.


It also reminded me of how good wood glue is: I’m always amazed that it’ll hold on shavings like this:


Because of the shape of the headstock protrudes beyond the sides of the neck I couldn’t plane all the way to the end of the fretboard, so the last little bit I got down with my chisels. For this you want a sharp broad chisel, taking little shavings off repeated rather than doing big chunks, but it’s still fairly fast work.

I could have glued the wings on the headstock after I’d added the fretboard and just used the plane for everything at this stage, but then I’d not have been able to plane the headstock face flat as I did last week (as the fretboard lip would be in the way); sometimes there just isn’t a perfect ordering, and you have to pick the approach with the least compromises.

With the fretboard now nice and flush, I next set about cutting the slots to roughly the correct depth. I say roughly, as I did this before radiusing the fretboard (which would remove the laser etched guides I made), so I have to do another pass later on to get the final depth post radius.


Before radiusing I also added the inlays to both the side of the fretboard and the face. Normally I’d insert the side dots along the glue line between the fretboard and the neck, which is very unforgiving in terms of accuracy: it’s really obvious if you’re out of alignment even slightly. Given that on this build I had gone with a deeper fretboard than usual, for a change I did the inlays purely in the fretboard side for a change. I’m not sure it’s actually any less forgiving than doing them along the seam given how close you are to it, but it’s interesting in that it’s potentially also something one could do before gluing the fretboard on, giving you more flexibility in your assembly order.

Inlays done, I then used my new long radius sanding block to put the 9.5” radius on the fretboard. On a cigar box guitar you technically don’t need to radius the fretboard, as the fretboard is very narrow and the strings are set to have a high action to allow for slide playing, but I had an ulterior motive here as you’ll see shortly. The longer sanding block was a step up from the 6” one I normally use, as it was much easier to keep it aligned with the neck rather than skewing to one side as you push along the neck.


With the fretboard radiused and the fret slots recut to ensure the edges were deep enough, it was time to put in the frets. Normally I hammer home the frets into the slots, but I wanted to see if an alternative approach might be easier. To this end I got to use the fret press I made myself a while back for the first time. The press consists of a 9.5” radius bit, which is why I had to radius the fretboard even though it wasn’t technically necessary for this guitar, which is then connected to an arbor press via a 3D printed jig I made.


The other trick I used this time that I’d not done before  was to use a small V shaped file to widen the top of the slot to make it easier to get the frets home, which I can definitely recommend. I try to avoid using glue with my frets, so as to make it easier to replace the frets down the line should the wear out, and to do this I cut a very tight slot, which makes the frets hard to get started in the slot. This slight widening makes getting them to start easier, and doesn’t come close to where the fret tangs start to grip.

The press worked, and was less stress and hassle than just hammering the frets home, but wasn’t stress free itself. If you don’t get the frets suitably started before pressing them then they will just fall over as you push down, or worse they’ll go in at an angle which you really don’t want. I was also hoping the resultant frets would be closer to level than when I hammer them home, but you still do need to level them (or you would on a real guitar, for a cigar box guitar with very high action this was good enough). But as I say, it as less hassle overall, and you get a much more consistent fit this way off the bat, so I’ll definitely use this method again in future.

The other tip I’d give you here is not to cut the fretwork too short when cutting it off the reel. There’s a real temptation to be as efficient as possible to get as many frets out of a reel of wire as possible, but when you cut the wire you will inevitably distort the shape as your cutters compress into the material, and this makes it harder to get the frets in. I forgot to bring in my second reel on this particular day, so was trying to eek out as many frets as possible from this short strip I had, and in the end made life harder for myself as a result.

Whilst I’d made the bridge for the strings a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t yet figured out how I’d attach the strings to the heel of the neck. I considered running the strings through the heel end of the neck, using ferrules to secure them on the back and guide them on the front, but that seemed a little professional for a cigar box, particularly given I’d made the bridge out of a bolt I found in the workshop; I wanted to continue that rough and ready feel. In the end I searched for some nicely styled hinges on eBay, and found some ornate ones meant for a dolls house that seemed to fit the bill stylistically, and almost exactly were the right size. With a couple of extra holes drilled in on one side to hold the strings, it seems perfect.


I’m quite pleased that it adds to the hand made look of the instrument. This means the only bits I did build myself on this guitar are the tuning pegs.

With the front of the neck completed, I could now start to shape the rest of it, both carving the back of the neck and shaping the headstock. To shape the neck I carved it as I normally would using a mixture of rasps, but I was a little more conservative on how much material to leave: this neck doesn’t have a truss rod, so I wanted to leave as much wood on as I comfortably could to ensure it has enough strength to withstand the string pull.


The headstock design I did freehand, which was a fun experience. I sat down with the tuners and a pencil and ruler and just started to rough out where I wanted things.


I then used a combination of bandsaw and spindle sander to get the shape, and the pillar drill to make the holes for the tuners, and suddenly it’s starting to look close to finished…


I did in fact manage to get it strung up and tuned, though in my excitement forgot to take any pictures! Still, it’s got a little bit to go yet: I still need to do the electronics, and the wood needs a proper sanding down and finishing oil applied, and the fret ends need dressing as they’re still rough from trimming. That said, I was impressed with how good it sounds acoustically, given this particular cigar box has a cardboard lid, which I didn’t expect to be so resonant. 

My main goal here was to have something that was roughly done in time next weekend’s Liverpool Makefest, so mission accomplished!

Despite having a lot of fun learning new techniques and going freehand with the cigar box guitar, I did return to the corvette guitar I started last month, and now that we have a thicknesser to let me trim wood down to size, I set about making the neck using a laser cut template.


First step was to screw the template to the neck (masking tape really isn’t enough to withstand a hand router ;), and once secured I then used the bandsaw to get rid of most of the material, leaving just a few millimetres material to remove with the hand router. I then carefully followed the template around using the hand router to get the neck profile cut.


Whilst I’ve cut many profiles using templates and a hand router before, a new stage here for me was also cutting the truss rod slot using the hand router (normally I’ve made my necks using the CNC Router). Thanks to a recommendation from Matt at Fidelity Guitars I’d acquired a 1/4” follow router bit that is just the right width for the slot. I was a little tricky to get everything to the right depth, but in the end I managed to get a spot on fit. I did a long time ago make a very complicated jig for doing the truss rod slots with a hand router, but this smaller follow bit turns out to be quite workable.


The next step for this neck is to make a jig to hold the neck straight along its length when I use tools like the bandsaw and the spindle sander to get the headstock to the right thickness and add the transition curve. I also need to drill the tuner holes.

And that’s it, other than to remind you all yet again that I’ll be at Liverpool Central Library this coming Saturday (29th June) taking part in Liverpool Makefest again, showing how guitars are made and trying to inspire people to try making things themselves. if you’re in the area, please do stop by and say hello!

A few days in the shop

This week was a short one workshop-wise due to having to travel to attend the funeral of my Grandad. He was a big part of my childhood, and the funeral impacted me more than I expected, and I had to take some time to come to terms with it. I wrote some thoughts up about it here, but it’s another reminder that our span of existence is finite, so you should try get on with things where you can.

I moved along the cigar box guitar a little this week. Having roughed out the neck on the bandsaw at the end of last week I started trying to get it fleshed out properly. First up was an easy job: I used the spindle sander to round out the neck to body transition, which needed a tighter radius than I could get on the bandsaw:


The next task was adding wings to the headstock. I’ve always wanted to make a guitar with an angled headstock (like you’d find on a Gibson or PRS guitar, as opposed to the flat headstocks I normally make), and the cigar box guitar seemed like a good opportunity to give that a try. The wood I had to make the neck was large enough I could make an angled headstock without having to resort to scarf joints, I could just cut it all out with the angle included. To get the full-on traditional angled headstock I wanted to make it broader than the neck is, which is typically done by glueing on wings. So I took some of the excess material from cutting the neck and with the bandsaw quickly made some wings, and giving both head side of the headstock and wings a run over with a small hand plane to let me get a nice jointing surface.


I cut the wings slightly deeper than the headstock to make it easier to align them when gluing, but that then meant I had to find a way to trim them down afterwards.

On the top side I just used a small No 4 hand plane (after first removing most of the excess glue with a chisel). This worked quite well, leaving me with a nice flat surface and very little indicator of the seam other than the grain pattern (this is why you should always hand plane surfaces you’re going to join!). Originally I had planned to put a veneer on the headstock to hide the joints, but it’s come out sufficiently well I don’t think I’ll do that now.


Planing the top side flat also means it’s already got a nice smooth finish without the need for lots of sanding, which is always a win.

The rear side was much more challenging due the the fact you can’t get a hand plane in there due to the neck to headstock transition. On the rear. In the end I used a combination of a chisel, a scraper, and a spoke shave to get this smoothed out. It still needs work but the wings are at least now level with the rest of the headstock. But given the relationship here between the neck and the headstock will change as I carve the neck I decided to finish this off once I’ve done that. 


Before I carve the neck I wanted to glue the fretboard on to give the whole thing more rigidity. First step here was to laser etch the fretboard using a design made with my online fretboard design generator. Whilst the aim is to do as much of the cigar box by hand as possible, getting the fret spacing right is important, and I wrote the code to generate the fretboard design by hand… ;) Also, the laser etching doesn’t cut the slots properly, it is just giving me a slight guide to where I’ll need to saw the slots.


Here I did make a slight mistake of assuming that the lattice frame that makes the bed in the laser cutter was perfectly aligned such that I could use it as a guide, but alas it is not. So when I etched the fret slots using the bed as a reference I ended up cutting them at a slight angle off true! I’ve attempted to compensate for this when I glued the fretboard on, and I’ll get to find out tomorrow if I was successful, but it’s just Yet Another Example of that mantra Measure, Measure, Cut! My mistake was in assuming the bed was aligned and not measuring it myself - still at least I learned it on a fun project rather than something where I was more invested (normally I use paper on the bed to give me an outline as the fretboard is tapered by this point).


The wood for the fretboard is a new one to me, Ovangkol, which I got at random when buying some other wood in my effort to find a non-rosewood fretboard material that is just as easy to work with and has some nice figuring to it. This visually fits the bill, and I test cut some frets on an off-cut with my japanese pull saw and it has a nice even texture. You can see if I’m still happy after cutting 18 fret slots next week.

I also put the jack socket for the electronics into the cigar box body, which made it clear to me that the body will need some reinforcement, as the cigar box walls are quire thin and with the material removed to let the neck run through it’s quite flexible now, and probably won’t take the weight of a guitar cable on it. Once the neck is in place I’ll have to make sure to attach the walls to the neck to give them rigidity.

As mentioned last week I ordered a new demo amp. Whilst I love the amp I made, which is still my daily player, it’s got one particular sound it does well, and that’s it. For a demo amp I wanted something as versatile as possible:

  • Great sound dynamics to show off the guitars (i.e. high end solid state or valve)

  • Loud, so those who gig can get a proper sense of the guitar at volume

  • Quiet, so I can demo the guitar in Makespace or at shows without being thrown out

  • Headphones, for events where no loud noise is acceptable

  • Variety of tones, so you can dial in Fender-like and Marshall-like and everything in between

I looked at many options, but in the end found a good deal on a Blackstar HT-20R, which seems to tick all the boxes. It is a 20 Watt valve amp with a 2 Watt option and headphones out. It even has USB audio put too, which makes recording quick demos easy without having to mic up. It also has a good number of voices, with a clean and overdrive channel, and then two “voices” in each of those (AFAICT, it just pushes the pre-amp harder when you switch to the second voice). Those channels and voices are switchable with an included foot-switch, so it’s quite easy to set up and then play with a variety of sounds without much hassle.

To test it out I booked a session at Rhinocorn Studios in Cambridge. Whilst I can play the 2 Watt mode at home, the 20 Watt mode definitely is too loud for home :)


It sounds really good, and I think will make an excellent demo amp. The Fender-y and Marshall-y tones that are available via the ISF control on the amp are not *very* Fender-y or Marshall-y, but it’s enough to give you the jist. It’s quite a neutral sounding amp, so not something I’d probably go to for my daily amp (I liked something with more of a distinct character), but that’s perfect for what I want it for in a demo amp that should let lots of people with different tastes find a sound they like in it.

If you’re in the Cambridge area and fancy trying one of my guitars, it’s suddenly got much easier to do so!

I’m still getting the new thicknesser Makespace has purchased set up. I wrote up a first pass of the risk assessment Makespace requires for any heavy kit like this. I’d never written a risk assessment before, so I just based it on a combination of existing Makespace risk assessment documents and other such documents for thicknessers I found on the Internet. Hopefully it’ll at least be a good start to making the directors happy.

Next up Jonathan (who helps run Makespace day-to-day) and I tested out the extraction coupling on the thicknesser. We didn’t have enough 100mm diameter hose to hook it up properly, but we were able to confirm that if you have the extaction hooked up the to thicknesser then it makes hardly any waste.


Jonathan had plenty of ”test” wood to double check this with - I thought I’d make Makespace buy this for me, but I think Jonathan is even more excited about it than I am :) I was also able to help out another member who was trying to make a trophy plaque get his wood nice and even - he let me run his material through the thicknesser rather than have him hand plane it, saving him a lot of time: it’s nice that this tool is already helping Makespace members with their projects even before being available to the wider community.

I did some other jobs around Makespace - CNC Router training and maintenance took up a large chunk of Saturday and some of Sunday, and I 3D printed a missing part for the scroll saw (I already had the design as I 3D printed one the last time it went missing!).


It’s always a fine line between working on your own projects and investing time into the workshop to help the broader community. Both need doing, but you need to find a balance that lets you move your projects forward whilst creating the right environment in which to work.

A week in the shop

Not a hugely productive week, as I was blocked waiting for some new kit to arrive (see below), so I paused guitar building for the most part and focussed on other things. However, I did get some bits done, so let’s take a look.

I took another crack at the setup for the Recovery Offset guitar, which is now playing pretty good.


I tweaked the nut a bit and got the intonation just right by tweaking the bridge setup. I’ve had a couple of people stop by to see it and the general reception has been good, from people who I trust to tell me if it was rubbish. This is good, as I tend to be always focussed on how I could have done something better, so it’s nice to get external feedback on both the good and the bad points.

All that really remains for this guitar is for me to take some pics and do a quick demo video and then get it up on reverb for sale! If you’d like to see it then just drop me a line.

I had a friend from a previous part of my career stop by this week to see where I built the guitars and to try some out: I suspect like a lot of people he was bemused that this computer geek had suddenly started making things in the real world :)

It was lovely to catch up with Nick, and it was interesting to see what bits of the guitars I had to hand at the time he liked and didn’t like. For example, Nick’s mostly played Fender Strats, and so whilst he liked the Recovery Offset shown above, the moment I gave him a t-style to play (which has the same 25.5” scale length as a strat, as opposed to the shorter 24” scale length of the offset) he clearly was more at home. This was despite that older t-style being in to have it’s neck replaced as I’m not happy with the build quality compared to what I can do today.

The one thing Nick’s visit did make me aware of is that I need a better amp stashed at Makespace for demos when people visit. An electric guitar is useless unless it can be heard, and whilst I have my little Blackstar Fly as a workbench amp to let me test, it doesn’t let you hear a guitar properly sing. Also, I’m getting to the stage where I have several guitars built that I can demo, so I might try making an appearance at guitar shows in the near future, and I’ll need an amp to use at those.

Picking an amp for this set of use cases is a little tricky, as it’s not like buying an amp for me, where I have a sound I like and that’s all it needs to do. Indeed, this is why the amp I made for myself isn’t a good demo amp, as it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Instead I need an amp that can do a wide range of voices to cater to the many tastes of players who might try my guitars. Obviously lots of cheaper solid state amps will do modelling, however I want a amp that will be of a quality/fidelity that a gigging musician might be familiar with so they can hear the instrument at its best; the amp has to show off the guitars as it is effectively part of my sales process. Finally it has to cope with the fact that different venues where I’ll demo (guitar shows where you’re up against other stalls, Makespace where it’s less noisy and I have less room to make noise, and there’s some shows where it’s headphones only but you still need something to drive the headphones.

I spent a day doing a bunch of research into amps that might fit all those spots, and before I could kick the tyres any more I spotted a bargain on one of the options I was looking at, the Blackstar HT-20R, and decided that given how hectic my time is right now and it was a bargain from a reputable store, I just pulled the trigger and hope it’ll do all that I need. On paper it seems good, but obviously only the ears will tell!

As mentioned last week, we ordered a Metabo DH330 planer thicknesser for Makespace, and that arrived this week. As I’ve said before, I think in any workshop where you get in raw timber and are not just cutting wood from panels of ply or MDF then a thicknesser is an essential bit of kit. I had worried that this was just my opinion, but feedback has been very positive in Makespace at the news of the thicknesser’s arrival. It’s good to know a lot of people will get to use this addition to Makespace beyond myself!


We spend some time setting up the Metabo, in particular tweaking the shelves that support the wood as it enters and exits the machine to try reduce the snipe (overcut) you get as the wood enters and exits the cutting area. We managed to get it pretty low, but not totally eliminated. The general opinion on the Internet is that with fettling it is possible so we’ll take another pass at it soon, but as it is right now it’s pretty usable. 

My next steps for this are to do the risk assessment for Makespace and then come up with a training plan so we can get other members certified to use it.

With the thicknesser installed at the end of the week I didn’t get much chance to use it, but it did let me get a few bits of wood processed, and I ended the week by getting the cigar box guitar properly started. The aim of this project is to build something by hand, rather than using either the CNC Router or templates using the hand router. I’m trying to break away from my fear of doing things slightly more freehand, which is an essential skill in woodworking, as the wood will often throw you a curve ball than you need to deal with, no matter how well planed your initial steps.

To this end, having thicknessed a bit of wood for the neck, I then sketched out the profile of the cigar box on the wood, and took it to the bandsaw for rough shaping. If you look closely you can see the pencil marks on the wood I drew by hand as to where I needed to cut.


As I noted a couple of weeks ago, in the past I tended to view the bandsaw as a crude instrument, but when it has a nice sharp blade on it it’s actually a fairly precise instrument, so I was able to get quite close to all the lines I needed. After about ten minutes and a lot of dust later, I had the neck roughed out. Due to the small thought on the current Makespace bandsaw I couldn’t make all the cuts I wanted, but I got close enough and then used a chisel to get the last bits done.


Neck roughed out, I then needed to cut slots into the cigar box to let me mount the neck. For this I broke out my Japanese pull saw that I normally use for cutting fret slots. The sides of the cigar box are not that thick and are not made from the most rigid of woods, so I wanted a nice sharp blade for this that I knew wouldn’t pull unnecessarily on the box.


The other bit I did was take some offcuts from the neck and shape those to glue on to the headstock as wings to give me more room for the tuners to fit. Unfortunately someone else had got started on gluing their furniture job before I reached this stage, so all the G-clamps of the right size were in use, so that was it for this week. However, a good start. Next up will be making the fretboard.

The one other thing I did this week was be part of the Makespace team attending an event at the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University. The IfM are one of the key sponsors of Makespace, which is why we had a stand there, and we had a good range of things built at Makespace on display. I took along one of the guitars and the amp I made, and in general it was both amusing and satisfying to see the looks of amazement that products so well finished can be achieved in a community workshop.


And that’s not just me - on display was a clock that Graeme built and the laser etched maps that Jonathan is making on oak now, the output of Makespace is at an all time high, and it’s nice to be part of that wave where we all inspire each other to do better things.

A week in the shop

Having completed the initial stringing up of the Recovery Offset last week, and leaving it under tension for the better part of a week (in part due to my repeatedly forgetting to bring my clip-on tuner to the workshop several days running; I really need two of these so I can leave on in the workshop all the time), I set about seeing how the guitar has settled in. I was worried that the neck pocket might need lowering a little, but after doing further setup on the guitar (finishing the nut filing, setting up the bridge properly to get the intonation right) then it all seemed okay. 


Once I was happy with the setup (at least without playing it more), I turned my attention to the electronics. As with the last offset I made that had traditional mustang style single coils (the Bronco pickups from the ever excellent House of Tone pickups) I’ve gone for a 4 position rotary pickup selector, which gives the player the ability to chose between the bridge and neck pickups individually, and then both in series or in parallel. The pickups are wound in opposite directions, so you get hum-cancelling properties when both pickups are in play.

Given I’d used this wiring configuration before I thought I’d just go back to my notes and find the wiring diagram I used last time. Alas, it turned out my “notes” were a photo of a picture I’d draw by hand at some point, which is usable but not ideal.


I need to do better at this! I’d like to publish then on this website, at least for anything where I’m not using a traditional layout that can be found on the hugely useful Seymour Duncan wiring guides page. But for this week the photo of my notes had to do. So, out I was with the soldering iron, and a little while later everything was good.


This was probably the first guitar I’ve soldered up where everything both worked first time and fit in nice and neatly. I guess that’s a little bit of experience starting to set in (about time :). All that remains now is to get the strap buttons on then I can give it a proper test session. I’m glad this guitar has come together in time for Liverpool Makefest at the end of the month, where it’ll be my demo guitar this year. 

I was hoping to get started on the cigar box guitar this week, but the bit of wood I shaped up last week ended up getting a knock on it, right where I wanted the fretboard to join. Annoying, as this means I need to plane off the top layer of the wood again. This caused me to finally decide that enough was enough, and that a planer thicknesser isn’t a luxury in a wood workshop, but an essential if you’re doing anything beyond making panels from ply or MDF. 

For those less familiar with this item, a planer thicknesser is a machine into which you can feed in planks of wood and it’ll shave off the top layer, letting you take then down to the right thickness. When making anything out of timer a thicknesser is the right way to get wood to the correct thickness. Until now in Makespace I’d had to either hand thickness things use a hand plane (a lot slower and less accurate) or the CNC Router (a lot slower and I don’t trust our CNC Router that much). Alternatively I’ve used a friend’s thicknesser in return for beer or such, but that’s also slow in a different way, as I need to wait until they’re available.

But right now I want to be making progress, and I see this as pretty much an essential tool to guitar building, so it’s time I got myself sorted with one.

I had a chat with one of the directors at Makespace, the community workshop I use, and asked whether if I bought a thicknesser I could use it in the workshop there, but as the discussion progressed, and it was clear this tool has uses beyond just my own, then we shifted to the idea of Makespace having a thicknesser and I would be the owner - doing the risk assessment, making sure it kept in good order and training people who would like to use it.

This is a good outcome for me, and I think for Makespace. Thanks to the effort several of us have been making to get the woodworking part of the Makespace workshop into a better shape we now have quite a few people building furniture, so it’s not just me that will benefit, there’ll be a bunch of people who can immediately take advantage of this.

So, we ordered a Metabo DH330, and hopefully it’ll turn up in the next couple of days and I can get cutting some wood down to size!

As part of trying to get more skilled, I also took a step over to the metalwork side of the workshop, and got trained on the metal mill that Makespace has (as pictured here with Jim being shown the ropes of this particular machine):


Although it looks quite technical, it’s actually quite a basic machine that lets you move the metal around in three axis by hand, though quite precisely thanks to a digital positing readout. But it doesn’t have any automatic feed, so you can’t do any particularly complicated shapes: you’re limited to making straight edge cuts or drilling out material. As an example of these, I made a mild steel die:


I’ll have to do more research to see if I’m wrong about not being able to produce curves this way, but as it stands given it’s limitations, I suspect it’s going to be less useful to me than what I’d hoped. I thought I might be making my own pickup surrounds or bridges or such, but those require that I can precisely machine curves, and given the stated limitations I don’t think I’d be able to make anything that was up to the standard that I’d want to match what I can do in wood.

Still, learning is always a good thing, and I’m sure it’ll come in unexpectedly useful at some point.