A week in the shop

Week notes time again: some more work on the amp, a new programmable pedal arrives, and exciting news on new builds!

Last week I said I hoped to make more progress on the amp electronics, and I managed to move that forward, though I did hit a small snag that meant I didn't finish soldering it this week.

The first step this week was to review my circuit drawing, which maps out all the electronic components and how they connect, and verify I had everything I needed. I did this once before and it led to me realising I had the wrong type of transformer. This time I went through and managed to connect everything up as expected.

Having convinced myself that I had everything I needed, the next stage was to make the turret board. In modern electronics you'd have a PCB, but old valve amplifiers everything is wired on small metal turrets mounter in a slab of insulating material. I'm always looking for ways to do things I've not tried before, so I decided to try making a turret board by hand. 

When drawing the circuit on paper I did so to try and arrange things in a logical way so that it would be easy to lay out when it came to board construction: as few overlapping bits as possible, ensuring logical groupings of components so that the wiring off the board to other parts would be simple, etc. To make the turret board layout I fired up Adobe Illustrator, created a rectangle that matched the size of my bit of insulating board, marked on where the mount holes needed to be for when mounting it to the chassis, and the started to work out where my turrets would go. 


This took a few iterations: I'd print out the layout to scale, lay out the components, and make sure that everything fit. It's a bit of a balancing act: for smaller components like resistors you don't want the turrets more than say 50mm apart, as otherwise the resistor won't actually link between the turrets. However, the very large capacitors used in the voltage rectifier circuit are almost that size themselves, so you just need to try a few times until you're happy.


As several people pointed out, those are some scary big capacitors here, so if you try this yourself do be careful. Large capacitors like this can store a lot of energy, potentially fatal amounts. Before touching these I used a multimeter to ensure that they were not charged up and safe to handle.

After about three iterations I was happy with the layout, so I then took my print out, taped it onto my insulating board, and just drilled out holes for the turrets on the pillar drill. After that I used a special bit and a hammer to flare out the back of the turrets to mount them on the board. In the end you have something nice and regular and securely turretted.


That done I then went to solder the components on, but this is where I hit a snag. A mistake I made when first soldering was assuming I was just heating the solder to melting point and then applying the melted solder to whatever it was I wanted to join. However, what you really need to do is heat both the thing you want to join and the solder, so that the solder has time to join properly before it solidifies again. But if the thing you want to join has a lot of metal then it'll take a lot more energy to heat up than just a small pin or bit of wire. When I sat down to solder the above board I quickly discovered it was with the turrets: the basic soldering station I was using didn't provide enough heat, so I was forced to park this until I could get a better rated iron. A friend has provided, so I'll return to this next week.

I did also mount nice chrome corners on the amp cabinate to give it some extra protection from knocks, which now makes it fully complete, and looks awesome. But it's all for nothing until I get these electronics done.

The amp I'm building is based on an old Fender Champ/Princeton design from the 1950s, as I want to keep my first amp build as simple as possible; as such it won't have built in reverb, which I really like in my current amp. To compensate for that, I looked at reverb effect pedals, but in the end decided this was an excuse to get the programmable OWL effects pedal I mentioned a few weeks ago.


Although I've not had time to program it, I have had a play with some of the sample effects patches, and there is quite a nice reverb in there which I've started using in lieu of the reverb in my current practice amp. Really pleased with the samples, so hopefully this will enable me to make some nice sounding effects myself once I have come free time.

As a guitar builder, it's also handy to occasionally play the things. Late last year I joined a Blues Jam group, which is great fun. Usually I take along my first guitar build, but I decided to try out the recent Blues Deluxe build in anger, and I'm over the moon with how it performs. As much as I like that first guitar I made, the sound of the House of Tone P90s in the new guitar when played at volume are just amazing: cleans when you need them, and add a little overdrive and they do that blues thing really well. Also the ergonomics worked as I hoped, not just the comfort carves, but also the hipshot style bridge is really comfy when you want to anchor your picking hand for some rhythm parts. So not just a great looking guitar, but also a great playing guitar!


The week before last I announced my prototype series one: I wanted to try out a new production flow and so offered to make a pair of pretty much at cost guitars to make it more fun. I'm delighted to say that I've had people show interest, and am currently specing out two custom guitars for people.

The thing about offering custom builds is obviously people come up with ideas outside what you anticipated, but then that's the fun of building guitars for people: new ideas that make you come up with new solutions and learn new things. In this case, one of the prototypes will be a thinline t-style (inline with what I was aiming to build), but a 12 string rather than a 6 string (not a thing I'd considered), and the second one will be an mustang style offset rather than a t-style (an m-style?). Though neither are what I set out to make exactly, I'm super excited about both builds: I really like Fender offsets (and even Gibson ones like the Firebird), so having an excuse to build one is great, and I've never really played a 12 string, so I now have an excuse to learn about something different there too.

Having got the requests early in the week and spoken to both prospective clients about what they wanted, I've been flat out for the last few days building rough drafts in Fusion 360 so I can make sure I understand what the clients want, after which I can nail down the spec and construction, get a proper price quote, and assuming they're happy, get building!

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This is where the power of tools like Fusion 360 really shine: I can create a model that both visually communicates where the project is going to the customer and at the same time this is the design that'll be used to do the CAM side of things when we start production. Really is quite powerful.

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Now that I know I'm on the right track I can spec out the component lists in detail and get a price estimate. Expect to see lots more details of these builds as they progress! 

A week in the shop

Although a chunk of this week was taken up doing contract work (which has been fun, but less interesting to this audience) I did managed to spend some time in the shop and move things forward on the amp, publish some videos, and announce the first Electric Flapjack prototype series.

Back in the shop, I moved the amp forward. First up, I got messy and did the painting of the cabinate and the speaker baffle.


Most amps tend to be covered in tolex, which is a textured vinyl coating. But I wasn't keen to try that on my first amp as I knew that it'd be a pain to get on just right (nice seams, no bubbles, etc.), and the amp project has enough new-to-me parts without me adding more on the first build. Thankfully I spotted someone else in Makespace building some PA speakers, and they were using a special paint called Tuff Cab designed for just this application, and when applied with their special roller comes up with a nice textured finish. So I ordered some of that and used that to paint the cabinate.

The speaker baffle is painted black, and then I wrapped it in silver grill cloth similar to that you'd find on a Fender amp. Overall I have this vision of a blue cabinate with silver/white parts, and at this early stage it feels like it's coming together well.


The other progress on the amp was modifying the chassis to take the transformers I have. The chassis I have was not designed for a through mount power transformer, rather one that just mounts on the surface and wires run through a hole. This meant I needed to drill new mount holes for a Fender Champ style power transformer and cut a rectangle for the through mount. Whilst I've spent the last almost two years slowly building up my skills at wood work, I was back to square zero with metalwork, not having done any of that since high school! I'm also limited in what tooling we have at Makespace, which is more biased for woodwork than metalwork currently. There is a metal mill, which would have been ideal, but I'm not trained to use it yet, so I had to get creative. In the end I discovered you can get scroll saw blades that cut metal (the scroll saw being a fine bladed machine that normally I'd use for cutting curved headstock outlines), so I ordered some of those. By drilling a few holes along the edge of where I needed the rectangular cut out, I could thread the scroll saw blade through and then run around the outline of my rectangle easily. 


Now I can mount my transformers to the chassis, so mounting is all good; so next week it's on to the turret board and soldering the electronics.

The other major achievement of the week: I edited and publish the demo videos for guitars #3 and #4. You can see them here:

Truth be told, the videos were very frustrating to produce, but I'm fairly happy with how they turned out. I had three hours booked at a local practice studio to shoot all the footage, and it was just me with two guitars, an amp I wasn't familiar with, and a small camera and a room microphone I got a while ago for recording meetings. All of which meant the session was rushed and the footage is way lower quality than I'd expected; this was mostly because I didn't have time to shoot and review on computer, I just checked the thumbnails on the camera looked okay, but the camera wasn't set up properly for video, so in the end the quality of video was quite poor. However, this forced me to include the stills to show the guitar in detail, and that worked really well, and I then further inserted more pictures of the production too which feedback tells me was a good move. So in the end the videos ended up better than I had planned to overcome the shortcoming of my footage quality.

I also have to thank my brother Tristan, who shoots video for a living when he's not recording albums with his band IKARI, for all the advice and encouragement he gave me. Ideally I'd have had Tristan come down and shoot the whole thing, but he's booked out at the moment, but he did give me some sage advice, such as shooting the playing and speaking in different styles, to make cuts a feature rather than something you try to smooth over. That also helped, as my playing isn't nearly polished enough for me to things in a single take. 

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I edited it all in iMovie, and I'm pushing it close to it's limits here in terms of cuts, titles and mixing different audio, but I didn't have time to learn yet another fancy package like Final Cut Pro, so it also meant I kept things manageable even if the results are restricted.

I also set up an Electric Flapjack YouTube account, which had the benefit of allowing me to do proper thumbnails for the videos. It was a bit of a faff to set up, but worth it to have the nice presentation when embedding the videos.

The main purpose of getting through these videos was so I could point people at examples of guitars I've built when trying to encourage people they want an Electric Flapjack guitar. Thus I wanted them done before I did the next section…

Finally, but possibly most excitingly, I announced my first Prototype Series of guitars!

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The idea is that I'm about to build a couple of prototype guitars based on the new CAD/CAM workflow I've been building to help me rough out things before then hand building the rest, but rather than build these prototypes as generic guitars, I'd like to build them for actual people, and I'll do so at close to cost. So you get a hand made custom t-style guitar to your specification, and I get to not just refine my workflow, but know that these guitars will go on to be used by people who will appreciate them.

More details can be found here, and if you want one then do get in touch soon. I only plan to make two or three, and the first one has been spoken for. Once my workflow is out of prototype phase I'll be charging more regular prices for the builds, so you're looking at paying a third of what you'd normally pay with this offer.

Buy a custom prototype!

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I've been researching a new guitar build workflow, and am about to build a couple of prototype t-style guitars as part of the process. But it's always more fun to build a guitar for a player than in abstract, and to know that the end result is going to a good home, so I'm going to offer these next two guitars at pretty much cost if you order in the next couple of weeks: you get a custom guitar built for you at a low price, and I get some money to cover the build and the fun of making an instrument for someone whilst I refine my production workflow.

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The guitar will be a hand built t-style body with hand built 21-fret neck, but you can specify:

  • Type of t-style you'd like: regular tele, thinline, deluxe, etc.
  • Type of wood for the body & neck (though I can recommend/select options if you're unsure)
  • Pickups to suit your style of music (or just tell me your style and I'll select pickups to match for you)
  • You can go for basic hardware to keep costs down, or we can go full on with professional grade bridges/tuners
  • Your choice of natural oil finish or colour stained before oiling.
  • Feel free to suggest other extras like a bigsby wiggle stick, etc.

For this I'll charge parts plus 20%, so for very basic materials that'll come to about £650, or with added bling probably around £1000. But for that money you'll be getting a custom guitar that would normally cost three or more times the price.


If you're in Cambridge and would like to see and play the existing prototypes, then get in touch and we can arrange a demo session, otherwise, see my demo videos over on the build page to get an idea of what you'll be getting.

This offer will be limited to two guitars though, and once those slots are booked I'll be charging notably more for the production units, so get in touch now if you want a bargain!

The Blues Deluxe: a fully custom t-style deluxe voiced for vintage blues

Following on from our post on the Red Rocker guitar recently, I'd like to introduce it's sibling, The Blues Deluxe. The Blues Deluxe is literally cut from the same planks as the Red Rocker, but those same bits of wood have generated a very different sounding and looking guitar: vintage blues sounds coming from a modern looking Tele Deluxe style build.


The aim behind this build was to take the formula of the proceeding guitars and mix it up style and functionality wise. The looks is very untraditional, from the striking tiger orange ash body with a black and white contrasting motif on the front and the strap, along with the distinctive spalted tamarind fingerboard. Sound wise, we have one foot in classic early 50s blues and another in the more rocky 60s blues thanks to some amazing pickups from House of Tone.

If you'd like your own guitar like this, voiced and styled to your personal tastes, then drop us a line!

Another week out the shop

A frustrating week in terms of shop time (I didn't set foot in it once I think), so no progress on the amp again, but the new transformer has arrived, so I'm unblocked in terms of parts, I just lacked time to move that forward. 

On Monday I was feeling under the weather so staying at home and trying to get better. I did use this time along with some of Tuesday to move my CAD design for the next set of guitars close to almost complete:

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Investing time in my own CAD models has many benefits, not least of which I own my end-to-end design workflow now, so even though this is a t-style guitar, it's my t-style guitar design, not one I found on the internet or traced myself. This means I can do tweaks and changes design wise that would otherwise be quite hard.

One of the issues I've struggled with as a new luthier is getting my head around wood weight and density. As a result most of my recent guitars have been at the heavier end of the spectrum: not quite rosewood tele (a notoriously heavy design Fender shipped briefly), but certainly heavier than I was aiming for. To some degree, this is down to material costs: I'm using regular ash or korina for my bodies, and unless you spend a lot of money to get the very light stuff, you will get the more dense material, and until I've made enough guitars to know I'll justify the cost I've been shying away from getting expensive materials whilst I still consider my workflow experimental.

However, even with better wood, weight management is still important. Numerous guitars, for example Gibson's Les Paul range, use weight relief by carving out some of the body and then using a cap piece of wood for the top (which is also an excuse to use a prettier bit of wood on the bit people see, and a more affordable wood for the bulk). Another approach is to make a semi-hollow electric, where you have a body cavity and an f-hole to get some acoustic properties, like the Telecaster Thinline or many Rickenbackers.

I quite like the idea of doing a semi-hollow guitar, but having hollow cavities in the body means you have to be careful with the comfort carves that I like to do, whereby you scoop out the back of the guitar where your belly makes contact with it and on the top where your strumming/picking arm would rest. There's a real risk that if you're not careful carving these scoops out that you will carve into the body cavities and end up with a guitar that looks like a bit of swiss cheese.

The solution to this is, as ever, measure, measure, cut, and modelling everything in Fusion 360 lets me do that. I spent some time this week designing not just a regular t-style guitar, but one with cavity placement to make it semi-hollow or just weight reliefed depending on customer preference, but also with the scoops factored in so there's no risk of adding holes where I don't want them.

Having completed that design, I've also been understanding the options in fusion for taking this more complicated design onto the CNC router for the initial roughing out stage. This means not only will the CNC router do a 2D cut of the body outline for me as I've done in the past, but it should also rough out the cavities and the areas where the comfort carves will be, ready for me to then hand finish it without risk of taking material out of the wrong place.

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The next step of this will be to actually get some wood and make some bodies to test it! To this end I'll shortly be announcing pricing on a prototype run, whereby I'll make two guitars based of the new CAM model at close to materials cost so I can validate the workflow I have. This means my prototypes will end up in a full working guitar, and you'll get a custom t-style to your specification for a fraction of the regular price. More in the coming days on that, but if you want to get in early drop me a line, as I'll restrict this run to just two guitars.

At the same time as planning the next generation of guitars, I also booked some studio time and recorded some demo sounds for the two I just finished. In the past I've just recorded demo videos at home, but I really wanted to do these two guitars justice without having my neighbours get too upset, so booked a studio with a "proper" amp and spent the entire Tuesday afternoon just trying to film bits of me explaining and demonstrating the features of both guitars #3 and #4.


The studio was able to set me up with a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which is a 40W valve based amp: a proper gigging amp. It was actually surprisingly hard to tame a 40W amp in such a small room, at least for someone not used to such high output amplifiers: even with a low master volume (just above 2 out of 12) it was too loud in such an enclosed space, but below that the treble was overly dominent and I had to have the EQs set to extremes to adjust for it. An interesting lesson in amp management, which I'll need to practice some more.

By the end of the day I had 40GB of video and audio to process. I spent a bunch of Wednesday reviewing all of that and documenting where all the bits were in which file ready for editing and then made a start on the first video. I have to say, I am quite disappointed with the footage quality; recording a video on your own with limited time is tougher than I allowed for, and it was only when I got home I realised my camera hadn't really been set up correctly. However, this has forced me to include more stills in the video, and I think that actually is an improvement over what I originally had planned.

The remaineder of the week was taken up with attending Monki Gras, billed as "the developer conference about craft culture". It's not a description that makes much sense I think unless you can pin down what craft means, as it's a term used by many people to mean different things, but then probably no worse than the way the term "engineering" is used in "software engineering". Anyway, for me it was two days of talks about the theme of building and sustaining projects, not just software/hardware (my professional background when not building guitars), but we also heard from other fields such as brewing and fashion, and how they struggle to make something with care to detail (which, after many talks on the topic, I think I've settled on as my definition of craft for now) and both sustain themselves in terms of immediate business and the longer term. All of which possibly sounds a bit waffly, and probably is, but I'm a big fan of going to conferences as places to let your mind soak up a different vibe and see where it takes you. As a starting out luthier the topics certainly resonated with some of the challenges I face, albeit just voiced in a different domain.

It was also a conference that built in time for attendees to talk to each other, and not just listen to speakers, which was quite refreshing. Before each break (other than morning coffee), the break itself was proceeded by a short talk (designed to fit the overall conference theme) by the brewer who's beer was being served at that break, which was a nice thing I'd not seen done before. There was actual good coffee. There was, and I provide photographic evidence lest you not believe me, a cheese mountain.


It was also during these breaks that I took to introducing myself as someone who builds electric guitars first, rather than a technologist as I would normally, mostly just to stand out from all the other software people. It was a fun to see people's reactions and then the conversations it lead to. I still struggle to see this as more than a protracted episode of Faking It, given my 25 years in software and hardware, so voicing that I do this was quite a fun experiment in overcoming yet another round of imposter syndrome.

The Red Rocker: a fully custom classic rock voiced t-style guitar

The Red Rocker guitar is a landmark for Electric Flapjack Guitars, as it was the first guitar I built that build from scratch myself: what started with a bunch of planks is now a great sounding guitar. With a beautiful stained ash body, a maple neck with rosewood fretboard, and pickups from UK hand-winders House of Tone, I couldn't be more happy with how this guitar has turned out.

To show it off, I put together this small video explaining the construction and demonstrating how it sounds:

Video creation isn't exactly my forte, but hopefully this will give you a good idea of what I've built!

As with all the guitars I build, this one has a specific look and tone in mind to match the eventual owner: classic rock tones, with extra versatility thanks to a coil tap on the humbucker, and looks that are both striking and classic to match. We hope the owner will have as much fun with this guitar as we have had building and testing it.

If you'd like your own guitar like this, voiced and styled to your personal tastes, then drop us a line!

A pick and mix sort of week in the shop

It's been one of those weeks where you do lots of little things which keep you busy but don't feel like they add up to much progress to show. You can't always have big exciting weeks in any project, and this was certainly one of those. In part, this is down to my three ongoing builds dragging on longer than I'd hoped (more on those below). Projects always have phases like these, and you just have to keep pushing, and that is in part why I do these week notes each week, to remind myself that things are moving forward despite the times it feels like I'm standing still.

I started the week on the amp build, drawing out the plans out for the electronics. Literally drawing them out, on a large A3 sheet of paper: from mains power and guitar signal input through to speaker output. I wanted to validate I knew where every single component in the chain was going.


Although I'm following a fairly standard amp design, this is my first proper electronics build for a long time, so I wanted to work out both the layout for the circuit board (which will be old school turret board, not a PCB) and just validate I had all the correct components. It turned out to be a good job I did this, as I'd accidentally ended up with the wrong type of power transformer for the type of amp I wanted. Power transformers take your mains voltage (in my case 240V AC) and turn it into a higher voltage needed for the valves in the amplifier (in this case 650V AC). But, not only do the valves want a higher voltage, they also want DC, not AC, so you have to run you AC current through a rectifier circuit to straighten that AC into DC. I'd planned to use a valve rectifier for this based on a 5Y3GT tube typical of old basic Fender amps, but to do that I'd need a power transformer designed to drive a valve rectifier, and in fact due to not doing enough homework ahead of time, I got one that was designed for the more modern diode based rectifier circuit instead. Doh.

But in each setback there's an opportunity to learn, and it was a fun exercise to understand where  I'd done wrong with my understanding when acquiring the parts, and I learned not just about diode vs valve rectifier circuits, but also the different types of valve circuit you can get (e.g., why some amps (like old Fenders) use 5Y3 tubes and some (like old Voxs) use EZ81 tubes, and how I could make my design use either if I wanted). Thankfully the chap who sold me the power transformer was happy to refund me after I explained my misunderstanding on ordering, and I have a replacement on the way. This does all mean I have now a new problem, which is the new transformer will require me to cut new access points on the metal chassis I have to make it fit, but I think I have a plan for how to do that using the tools available to me in Makespace, so you should find out next week if that succeeded.

I also redid the control panel for the amp with a nicer bit of laminated perspex, as the original one I cut did the job but wasn't good enough quality, as the perspex had warped where the logo was etched, I assume due to too much prolonged heat for such a large etching compared to simple text. The new one is much better I think:


I mentioned at the start of the year that the neck I made for guitar #4, whilst serviceable, wasn't up to the standard I'd hoped, but talked a bit about working through the recovery process from warped to playable. Well, I decided that I'd take one more pass at it in the workshop due to deciding that the frets were not quite there after some test playing. Fret levelling is something I find a little tedious at the best of times, but it's made slightly more tricky when the neck in question is slightly wonky. But, an afternoon of levelling and polishing the frets, and I finally got it as good as its ever going to get, and got the reward of being able to plug it in and hear those House of Tone P90s in all their glory, and it's such a lovely sounding guitar when cranked up. So, a valuable lesson in neck building, but now it's a fun rough and ready blues machine. I'll hopefully post a video of it in action shortly.

Those of you who've been following recent progress will know that I was hoping to 3D print guitar nuts with the FormLabs Form One printer we have at Makespace, which makes nice smooth resin models. Unfortunately, I've had to declare that experiment postponed for now due to a couple of reasons. Firstly, I've not been that happy with the prototypes I've been playing with, as they seem to catch the string too much when bending and tuning. I had planned to tweak the design and get some string lubricant to see if that helped, but with the FormOne printer at Makespace being so temperamental of late I've had to just abandon the idea for now until I can get the printer to be more happy again.

So in order to finish off guitars #3 and #4 I ordered some Tusq nuts, made from a man-made ivory substitute, to see if they're worth the fuss. Certainly initial impressions are that they're quite nice, having filed them down they have a nice finish, and they seem quite happy with excessive bends whilst playing. Will need to put them into proper action at a jam night to see if they're worth extra cost (they're over twice the price of a regular nut).

(note the above pic is an in progress shot - I don't tend to leave the nuts wider than the neck :)

(note the above pic is an in progress shot - I don't tend to leave the nuts wider than the neck :)

If nothing else, filing the nuts gave me time to catch up a little on all the NAMM videos and podcasts coming out this week.

To help move along the 3D printing side of things (as I do have plans to print guitar parts like custom volume/tone knobs) I've now become an "owner" of the FormLab's printer at Makespace, so I'll see if I can beat it into working order. First task is to get some newer resin, as the resin does have a limited shelf life, and it could just be the supplies at Makespace have been there too long without being used.

The final bit of the week was moving more of my guitar design workflow to Fusion 360 (you may have seen I started with the neck last week). Whilst to me the joy of guitar building is in a large part the hands on process, having a fully modeled design in CAD is useful for many reasons: for each guitar I can produce a render in advance to make sure the customer has an idea of what they're getting, it makes it easier to do custom body shapes and variants, and it's just much easier to do what if experiments in CAD than in wood. I use a CNC router to get the basic 2D outline of the guitar before hand shaping it, and to date I've been using design files I found out on the Internet which I can't readily modify; making my own design files in Fusion 360 means I can really start to make these things my own.

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Doing the amp design in Fusion was really a good starting point in terms of experience at modelling, thanks to its regular shape. Doing the guitar design above has been much more challenging, but I've been able to leverage all the tricks I've learned on the amp to keep it manageable with only mild burst of profanity on occasion.

For those that think using a CNC router is cheating, I don't use it for anything more than a regular luthier will typically do with a template and a hand router, so it's no more or less automated than any other hand built guitar out there. I'm just letting the machine do the roughing, and then I take over and make the rest by hand.

You'll note the design is still a t-style shape at the moment, just like all my other builds. As I've mentioned in the past, with each guitar I like to push forward on one new front, whilst keeping the rest familiar so I don't over reach and put myself in a position where I'm guaranteed to fail or become overwhelmed and give up. As such, guitar #5 will be another t-style, but it'll be totally from my own design files. Once I know those design files make sense I'll be in a good position to start doing more variations (though, if you want a t-style made, I'm obviously happy to oblige!).

Getting started on a build: Somebody has set up us the BoM

A long time ago I worked on a project where we had to ship an electronics hardware box (I was delivering the software to sit alongside said box), and I had the good fortune to work closely with the guy managing getting the hardware from concept to production. One of the main lessons I took from that experience was the importance of you Bill of Materials, or BoM for short. It impressed me sufficiently that even when building my very first guitar as a hobby project I still made a BoM, and everything that Electric Flapjack has built today has always had a BoM attached.

A friend of mine I spoke to recently who was building a small electronics project had never come across this tool, so in the spirit of sharing the tools I used to build guitars, I'd like to use this post to explain what a BoM is, and why it's such a useful tool for anyone building a hardware thing: regardless of whether you're doing so as a commercial product or as a hobby, or whether you're building a single item or a run of hundreds.

At its most basic, a Bill of Materials is just a fancy title for a document that lists all the things you need in a construction project. Usually it's a spreadsheet, with one line per item you need, how many you'll want, where you'll get it from, how much it'll cost etc. It's nothing complicated, but as we'll see, it's a structure around which you can validate your design assumptions before you go spending money on the wrong things, and will let you track progress as you go along.

To help make this discussion easier to follow, he's a link to the final BoM for the first guitar I built, which will hopefully provide suitable context for you as I explain how to make one as part of your design process.

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It's probably not the best BoM in the world, and I could have picked better column titles, but it still served it's purpose. This may look somewhat overwhelming if you've never made a BoM before, so let's walk through how we get there, which in turn should convince you how useful it is.

Step 0: Make your design

Whilst I want to talk about the role the BoM takes in your design, you should start by having your design in mind already formed. In my case, I wanted a simple tele style guitar, and I knew what kind of pickups I wanted, what style of wood etc. Only once I had an idea of what it was I wanted to build did I start to make my BoM.

Step 1: Make a list of what you need

You don't start with all the information in the BoM from day one: the BoM is a living document over the lifetime of the project. You start with just getting a list of the things you think you'll need, and writing that down in the spreadsheet. This in itself is huge value, just knowing what the parts are before you start.

My example project here was a parts build guitar project, so I needed a guitar body, a neck, some pickups etc. Those are the fun and obvious bits: but the idea is to list everything you think you'll need, so you keep going listing the minutiae too: screws to attach the neck to the body, the tiny screws to hold the scratch plate in, the oil for staining, strings etc. That little bit of felt that sits between the strap button and the body? Yep, that has to be on the list too.

Everything on the list should be an elemental component you need to acquire. For example, with my first guitar I bought the body pre-formed, and as such that appeared in my BoM as "guitar body"; but now that I make the bodies myself, I don't list the guitar body, but I list the lumber I need to make the guitar bodies.

By the end of this exercise you should have a list of everything you need to acquire to make your project, and it'll probably be longer than what you thought you needed before you started. It'll also grow over time when you learn more about a project, but that's okay. However, it's important to save time and frustration down the line you make this list as complete as you can.

Step 2: Work out how to get what you need

Having worked out what you need, you can now work out how to get those things. I tend to do this in a few iterations. Firstly, I just go and find a supplier for each item, and don't think too much about the cost. I don't go silly, but the first thing is just to sanity check before you worry about price: can I actually get the things I think I want? Will someone actually sell you pickup screws made in gold-pressed latinum that your design needs? If not, you'll need to go back to the design stage again, tweak your design, and then iterate your BoM.

At this point, you now have a list of all the things you need, where to get them, and a headline cost that tells you how much you're about to spend in materials order to complete this project. This is a good point to decide if your estimates match reality, and it's much better to find this out now, rather than get half the parts and realise you've already blown your budget. At this stage you can always decide it's too expensive, and return to you design stage with this information and think about changes there, and then generate an updated BoM for the refined design. 

You'll find that sometimes you can order parts as a set, so what was four lines will come as a single purchase. I'd advocate that you still leave this as four items on your BoM, and just note that you got them as part of another BoM item: that way, should your supplier sell out and you need to get those bits otherwhere individually, you still have a record of all the bits you need.

Step 3: Do a cost reduction pass

Assuming I can find a supplier for everything on my BoM, I will next do a second pass on the BoM, which is a cost reduction pass, where I search the web, read catalogues, etc. to see if I can get a part cheaper than my initial supplier selection. In truth, you're always doing this naturally, but I think it's always a valuable thing having made a first pass just to now hunt around and see if you can find alternatives that are cheaper, as a little more effort usually does turn up a few deals here and there and bring your costs down. 

Alternatively you may decide that your design is too expensive in it's current form, but if you change say the pickup types you can bring the cost down, but that needs you to change the bridge part, etc. Basically you can again either just find cheaper parts without changing anything, or tweak your design to let you reduce overall costs, update your BoM, until you get to a point where you're both happy with the design and the materials cost.

Step 4: Get acquiring and building!

At this stage, assuming you managed to find a happy place with the overall materials cost, you can start ordering parts and building your project. As I order each part, I go back to the BoM and mark that row in green to indicate I have it. I won't necessarily order everything at once, in part due to storage space, and in part due to anticipation my design may evolve as I go along and learn new things, so marking in the BoM that you have ordered things helps you do some limited inventory tracking.

It is inevitable that as your project progresses you'll realise you had an assumption wrong, or your design didn't look so good in the flesh as you thought, and you'll want to replace some parts with others. This is fine: go back to the BoM, update it for the new part and go through the above steps again. You can also copy the old line out of the main list to a second list if you want to keep a record of changes, letting you keep track of the cost not just for the finished product, but also the cost of changes too. If this is a paid for project, then depending on the arrangement with your client, this may be important for billing!

And that's it. The BoM is a living list of everything material wise that goes into a project, and is a hugely useful way of managing any physical construction project. Don't see it as a document, but as a tool to help guide your hardware from the design stage to construction, one that helps avoid costly mistakes should you get halfway through your design. In guitar building the most common phrase quoted at you is "measure, measure, cut", and a BoM is just another example of that process.

I'm sure production experts probably have much better BoM methodologies, but I think the point here is less making the perfect BoM, but making a tool that can help you do better at your projects. A BoM is clearly very useful if you're building may copies of an item, but I advocate that the discipline of having a BoM brings so many benefits that it's a useful tool no matter how big or small your project is, which is why I always generate one for everything I build.

A week out of the shop

This week I was kept away from the workshop for the most part, and whilst that's frustrating on one hand, it's always necessary in any project to step away for some reason, be it something else needs attention or you want/need to seek motivation. I had a mix of both this week.

For the most part I was doing some (non-guitar related) contract work, and whilst I'd rather be building guitars, it was a nice challenge to help someone ship something quickly, keep my tech skills in shape, and it also importantly helps keep this side of things solvent.

The other thing I did this week was take a day out to head into London to meet some inspirational friends and see some interesting talks. One of the mistakes I tend to make when I get into a project is I get completely dragged into it and forget to look up occasionally and see what else is going on. Thus it was wonderful to reconnect with a couple of smart friends I'd not seen for an age and just chat about ideas without an agenda. As a friend of mine (who was big on trying to combine his love of science and arts in a way I only appreciate these days) who had a similar tendency as me pointed out, you need to "chew cud to make milk"; that is to say, sometimes you need to stop and expose your mind to new things in order to make better things. Since leaving my last full time gig I've promised myself I'll spend more time just engaging with others to help keep my mind exposed to new ideas.

The talks I went to were ran by the Open Source Hardware User Group and themed around music. I found both talks inspiring, as I would like some day to find a way to combine the world of guitars with the world of technology (which is where I've spent most of my career). The first was about the Bela Platform, an open hardware platform for doing real time audio processing. The speaker, Giulio Moro, did a fantastic break down of the troubles of doing real time audio processing, and how the Bela hardware and software works to overcome those, so you as a user can just concentrate of making something musical. If I didn't already have a set of ongoing builds I'd be tempted to buy a Bela board to turn into an effects pedal or build into an amp, but I know that I shouldn't have too many ongoing projects at once otherwise none will get finished, so maybe later in the year.

If Bela is the sort of thing that interest you for guitar projects, then I can recommend taking a look at it, but there's also some other options out there that you might be interested in. There's the OWL, a pre-built open source guitar effects pedal, and the Mod DUO which connects to about everything under the sun, including working for guitars (a hat tip to Tom Armitage for pointing me at the Mod DUO). Both are more expensive than Bela, but are pretty much ready to go in pedal format, so it's down to you how much hacking you want to do. 

The second talk was by Nela Brown of the Female Laptop Orchestra. Nela and colleagues use a mix of digital and traditional instruments to do live concerts with performers taking part from all around the globe, which is very challenging both artistically and technologically. I've always been amazed that the Internet hasn't really disrupted the notion of a band being a bunch of people who live locally more than it has, so it was nice to see a counter example to that.

One of the nice things about train journeys, at least outside of rush hour, is you get an hour or so uninterrupted when you can concentrate on something. I used the trip to London and back to spend some time in Fusion again, this time trying to make a neck design for the next t-style guitar. Before now I'd been tweaking existing design files I found out on the Internet, but I'd like to own everything so my guitars become more my own, and I can start doing properly custom designs. The amp was actually in some way a stepping stone to this: it's a nice regular shape unlike a guitar, so quite good for learning on. Having done that a neck design was fairly easy to flesh out quickly:

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I've also continued to struggle with the Form 1 printer in Makespace. I'm not sure what's wrong with it (the people on the FormLabs forum have some useful suggestions thankfully), but nothing I do right now is working out. My nut design just fails to print most times, and I wondered if it was just my design was atypically small, so I tried a bigger print to test that theory. We needed a new resin filter comb so I tried to print that as it'll take up quite a large volume, but it too failed at just printing the support structs.


You can see what it was meant to look like here. My current top theory is that not enough people use the printer in Makespace so the resin has been open and sat unused for too long, and so I'm looking to arrange a session with the printer owner to teach me how to properly look after the resin supplies at Makespace, but this is now a blocker, and I think I'll have to switch from my 3D printed nuts to traditional bone ones for the near future, and hope to do more fun things once I've got passed this issue.