For anyone interested in how to build a guitar – here’s how to do it. Or rather, here’s one way to do it.
Step 1: Decide what kind of guitar you want to build. If it’s an electric guitar, this guide may not be too much help to you, unless you already have a good understanding of pickups, wiring etc – in which case it might be some help. If it’s a classical, flameco, steel string, folk guitar, mandolin, bazouki, mandola, or some new, abstract, crossover guitar-type stringed instrument of your own invention – this might be some help.
Step 2: Design your guitar.
Get a piece of thin, hard material such as plywood and draw a half of the body shape on it. This will be the template for your (let’s call it a) guitar body.
We are assuming it will be symetrical. It doesn’t have to be and you can include cutaways, sticking in or out, pointy or extra curvy bits as you think will be appropriate. (From my experience of experimenting with different shapes and designs, I’ve found that a guitar that looks most like a guitar also sounds most like a guitar. You might want to bear that in mind – take it whichever way you will and draw your own conclusions. I’m sure that there’s still room for guitar evolution.) I might go on to explain later how to make cutaways, although if you understand the techniques for bending and joining wood in a guitar body, you should be able to figure it out quite easily.
You can use a mirror along the center line to see how the guitar will look.
Before designing your guitar, decide what you want the scale length to be. This is the length of the string from the nut to the saddle. The scale length will determine how far apart the frets will be. For a classical guitar it’s usually about 650mm. A steel string may be slightly less. If it’s considerably less, it won’t be a guitar, it’ll be a mandolin. If it’s considerably more it’ll be a baritone or bass guitar.
Decide where the 12th fret will be because the 12th fret is placed exactly half way along the length of the string. On a classical guitar it’s usually where the neck joins the body. On a steel string, the body/neck join is often at the 14th fret. This placement will determine where the bridge is going to be. Now you know the scale length and the bridge placement, you can go ahead and design your guitar.
When you’re happy with the design you’ve drawn on the plywood, cut it out using a coping saw or an electric jigsaw.
While you’re at it, you might also want to design the head shape, if you feel like it. Make a template for that as well with little holes to indicate where the tuners or pegs will go.
Now you’re almost ready to start building your guitar. But first you’ll need to get some tools and wood.
Go to How to build a guitar Part 2 to find out what to do next.
Now that you’ve designed the shape of your guitar and made a template, there’s a few things you’re going to need to get started.
It’s worth seeking out and getting aquainted with your local hardware shop – a small, old fashioned one where they somehow stock almost everything you might need and are full of knowledge and helpful advice – but not your local B&Q (or similar) ‘super’store which is the size of 12 football pitches yet never has what you’re looking for and even the people who work there don’t know where or what anything is or what it’s for.
I’ll begin with a list of tools which you’ll find it hard (but not impossible) to do without. I’ll no doubt mention a few later that I didn’t mention here, but these should get you started:
Some measuring and marking tools: 1m & 30cm ruler, pencil, carpenter’s/engineers or set square.
A few straight chisels (curved ones aren’t much use in guitar making unless you’re making arch-tops or violins) say, 2mm, 5mm, 10mm and 30mm.
Something to sharpen them with. Japanese waterstones are my favourite.
I’ll say at this point that if you’re coming to this without any knowledge or experience of woodworking tools and techniques and you find some of the terminology a bit daunting, don’t worry. Even with no woodworking experience, you should, with a bit of patience and perseverance be able to build a working guitar and gain some new skills in the process. Saying that, you might want to add a box of plasters (Band-Aid to those in the US) to the list.
Some handsaws. I’d recommend Japanese type back-saws as they’re more accurate and give a finer cut. A coping saw is also useful for cutting curves. An electrical bandsaw can be very useful but isn’t essential. Since mine broke a few years ago, I didn’t bother to get it fixed and I don’t miss it. I’ve got a little electric table saw now with a narrow blade. It’s quite handy sometimes for processing large pieces of wood into regular sized smaller pieces, but I don’t use it much as it scares me.
A sturdy workbench and a vice.
A hygrometer for measuring the humidity in your workshop. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one and it’s well worth having and keeping a close eye on.
A bending iron. You can buy these from luthier suppliers or you can make one. It’s essentially a metal pipe that gets hot (about 150 degrees C.) so some people use a metal pipe and a gas flame.
That should be enough to be getting along with for the time being. After all, you’ll need a bit of money left over to buy the wood.
Actually, the wood needn’t be that expensive. In fact it needn’t cost you anything at all if you’re resourceful and you know what kind of thing you’re looking for. Saying that, unless you’ve got a sawmill, it’s hard work and takes considerable skill to cut up a tree in the right way by hand. Also it takes several years for it to season before you can use it in your guitar. Then again, old furniture can be a good source of guitar making wood. I once made an entire mandolin out of one mahogany table leg from a broken table I found in the street and several guitar bodies from a length of old Walnut sideboard. So there you go.
Get yourself some hard-wood for your guitar body. It can be almost any hard wood although some are reputedly better tone-woods that others. If you’re looking for something really striking in appearance, rare and exotic and cut in the right way for guitar making, you’ll probably have to pay for it. A set will consist of 2 wide pieces, book-matched for the back and two long book-matched pieces for the sides – preferably from the same tree.
Notes for my guitar making students. We are on our 3rd lesson now. We are working on the neck. Here are a few design ideas for the headstock:
It is also a good time to start thinking about the rosette. Here are a few examples:
OK, I think that’s enough for now.
Now you’ve carefully thicknessed your soundboard to something like 2 to 2.5 mm so that it’s light and flexible, yet retains a certain ammount of springiness. It’s time to consider what goes on inside the guitar. The bracing.
The principle is basically quite simple: The soundboard should be as light as possible, yet as strong as possible. The essential contradiction in this aim is what gives rise to the almost infinite possibilities and variations of bracing patterns. As well as that, there is also the fact that you have to consider how sound will travel through the soundboard. And not just any sound. Music.
Here is an overview of some popular variations and the makers they are attributed to.
Let’s start off with ‘fan’ bracing, as used in traditional classical guitars.
Here are a few examples of some variations.
Here are some examples of ‘lattice’ bracing.
The guitar above is one by the luthier, Peter Tsiorba. Visit his website: www.tsiorba.com
Some makers like to combine carbon fibre with the spruce. Carbon fibre is extremely strong and light.
Some makers use this honeycomb polymer called Nomex – It’s a very light, strong, new material developed for the aviation industry. Guitar makers sandwich some of this stuff between two very thin soundboards, making what is called a ‘double-top’ guitar.
Another approach is ‘radial’ bracing, where the braces ‘radiate’ from a central point. These can vary in complexity. Here are some examples: