I know that autumn has arrived when I pick up the guitar. It starts with playing through my journeyman renditions of Beatles, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison tunes, and ends with me trudging through several pages of various jazz guitar books. "Now is the time to get that band together, start playing out. If I really push, I'll be stage ready in less than a year, I'll only be XX, and who knows what will happen." The fantasy generally ends when the daffodils come up in the spring.
But along the way, I always entertain thoughts of becoming something of a luthier -- and it seems that this road starts with solid body electric guitars. A couple of years ago I made a Telecaster style guitar for my daughter from a Grizzly kit. It turned out well, and somewhere along the line I made a few neck-building jigs. But alas, something shiny caught my attention and I moved on to another obsession.
So now, at least for a while, I'm tilting at the luthier windmill once again. First, let me say that everything I'll talk about, and much, much, more is available in detail on the excellent TDPRI site. It includes a robust and active forum on all things Tele-building, and the members are quite eager to share their expertise.
My project starts with some walnut that I had gathering dust, and a short piece of figured sycamore that I picked up at my supplier. I'm building two bodies simultaneously since the first may end up being sacrificed to the learning-curve gods. After downloading the acknowledged best template (quite generously developed/drawn/posted by Terry Downs and used by nearly everyone) I set about building the templates that will allow me create the finished product,
I first glue the paper printout to posterboard, cut this out, trace to and cut 1/4" plywood. This is sanded and adjusted and finished until you are happy with the pattern. From this you trace and roughly cut a 3/4" plywood version. Finally, using a 1/2" bearing bit, use the 1/4" version to make your exact body replica that is 3/4" thick. For me, this chunky template is the easiest from which to work.
You will also need a second template from which to rout the cavities for the pick-ups, controls, and neck mount. You really must make this second template since it must be over-sized to accommodate the router to cut the neck pocket. I also made a third template from which to cut and f-hole for a thinline version.
I start by drawing the outline onto my stock and cutting on the bandsaw. I then attach the template to the stock, via screws that attach in areas that will later be routed out for neck and pick-up cavities, and rout to final shape. BEWARE . . . even with the very big 1/2" template bit, you must follow proper downhill routing techniques around corners to avoid catastrophic tear-out. There are spots where climb-cutting is appropriate, but hold on as this bit is a monster and can throw your piece across the room. Once complete, I set this aside.
I then resaw, bookmatch, and glue up the sycamore caps. These just fit in my drum sander and it makes short work of truing the 1/4" "veneers." I did hit one detour, however. A standard Telecaster is approx. 1.75" thick, and I only took into account one 1/4" cap in the thickness. This meant that the body needed to go back into the planer to remove another 1/4". By placing the body on a sled, and attaching blocks at the front and back to stop any snipe, I was able to run it back through the machine. I don't, however, recommend this "out of sequence" plan unless you are feeling lucky.
Once dry, the sycamore is rough cut and glued to the faces of the walnut body.
Out of the clamps, it starts to look like a guitar. I'm now at a fork in the road. I could (1) rout the edges and install a cream colored binding, or I could (2) mask the lighter sycamore edges and finish creating a "faux" binding, As my brain hurts from all this research and thinking, I'm going to sleep on it for a couple of days.
BTW, I'm also looking to begin studying, in earnest, the steps for building an acoustic guitar. In order not to post too many things about guitars, I'll chronicle these projects in fits and starts -- mixed in with a couple of commissions I have on the boil.
Next up, routing cavities and building a thinline body.
Well, many distractions have come between me and the Prairie Chair this month. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sick to death with the thing. Its simple lines tend to highlight any minor errors, and quartersawn white oak is rough on your tools, your lungs, and your patience. But after a few false starts it is assembled and ready for finish.
In my defense, I am in the middle of a big landscaping project that requires lots of stone wall building, stair construction, and fooling around with the tractor -- all of which I enjoy. But I'm constantly shocked by how my summer hiatus has taken a toll on my skills.
Using biscuits (both for alignment and strength) I glued up the arm assembly. The 45 degree angles were correct, so everything was square upon completion. If this is not the case, the priority is to glue this tight as any "non-squareness" will be undetectable and no dimensions depend on this being perfect. I glue and transport this on a a large piece of plywood as this is very prone to racking.
The next step is to rout the grooves in the legs -- some grooves for the decorative corbels (1/2" deep), some for the side and back panels (3/4" deep.) Cutting these grooves on the router table is machine woodworking at its worst. I find that if I use the 1" ring with the 1/2" spiral bit, and collect dust from underneath, it helps a bit. This has convinced me that (among other things) I need to invest in a good respirator.
Routing the corresponding tenons in the panels, in a dead straight manner, is critical to the fit of the chair and is where big mistakes can be made. In this case, my inattentiveness resulted in one side panel that was out of square by about 1/8". It is amazing how a small error magnifies over the length of one of these large panels.
I fix this by squaring each side with either the top or the bottom. If you square one to the top and one to the bottom, you will end up with a parallelogram. Also, you need to complete the out-of-whack panel first, as it will reduce it in size by the amount that it is off. I use a dead-straight guide on which I can run the router on either side, squaring it (in this case) with the top rail. This squares the exposed bit of the panel, and makes the tenon slightly askew -- which can be be trimmed. I use a 1" straight cutting bit and set it to the depth of the previously completed corbel tenons. Now use this corrected panel to set the dimensions on the opposite panel.
The back bottom rail and the front rail have tenons that are a full 1 1/2" deep for stability. I cut these after the main grooves are cut with a plunge router.
With these long grooves and when using white oak, I've found that tenons cut to the exact width may need a couple of passes with a rabbet plane to slide into place -- which is fine. A dry fit shows that things are now square and final sanding (which is not worth blogging about!) can take place. All that's left to do is glue, finish, and haggle with the upholsterer.
So, what's the advice to myself?
1. Perfect sub-assemblies increase your chances for a perfect final product
There are too many moving parts and not enough reference points to ensure that each panel hits its marks in one glue up. I should have glued up the top rail and side stiles with the panel in place, let that dry, and then slid it in place on the bottom rail.
2. Tenons should fit under the pressure of your hands, not a mallet
On the panel that was out of square, it seized up because things were too tight. Adjustment were impossible when the application of glue swelled the joints.
3. I've got to get a handle on the dust situation
I'll always be a hybrid woodworker, and my current Delta 1.5 hp system is not cutting it for sanding and routing. I'm actually thinking about going the Festool Rotex 150 route with their mid-sized dust extractor unit.
4. Square and true don't just happen by eye -- no matter how cocky you feel
5. Never rush a project to get out a blog post
I'm happy to have this in the rear window as I have two projects lined up that should be fun. The first is a tiger sycamore tele guitar that I'm building from scratch (I've assembled a kit before), and an original design for a table that is loosely based on my love for Westminster Hall's hammer beam construction.
I build bespoke furniture in the English and American Arts and Crafts tradition. I refer to my work as "vernacular" -- working furniture that is to be enjoyed and passed down to the next generation. I accept commissions for original designs as well as historically accurate mission, Shaker, prairie, and Cotswold pieces.