Equipment and tools

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Some thoughts about equipment:

To build a guitar you need 3 types of tools:

1) Standard woodworking tools like a set of sharp chisels, some scrapers, a set of rulers (flexible ones help), one or the other good woodsaw and some wood files. I personally own a Dremel tool. A couple of good wood planes.

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I also recommend a stable workboard. It doesn´t need to be huge but stable, so it doesn´t move around. I´ve screwed mine to the wall. I also recommend a high one since most of the time you will be standing up, and to avoid back-pain its nice to be able to stand straight without having to bend forward. Since I could not find what I wanted I just got some strong hardwood and a set of feet.On the picture to the right above you may see that I´ve got 2 table-tops one on top of the other. This allows me to simply extend to work area by sliding the top one to the right. I can also extend it at an angle so that it becomes accessible from both sides. All it takes is a big clamp (or 2) to firmly fix it to the lower plank (the one that is fixed to the wall).
2) Some luthier specific tools. Even so these are not mandatory they do however simplify certain “mission critical” aspects of guitar-building and avoid some of the risks of doing mistakes that will make your instrument unusable (Example: a fret slotting tool with various scalelength templates guarantee that your frets will be even and exactly positionned, a slight imperfection in this area and your guitar will play out of tune and be …. useless no matter how good the overall sound might be.

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The above pictures shows the slotting tool. I got mine from LMI. You also need to order the scale templates of your choice. I´ve got a 640 and a 650 template.

The next pictures shows my luthier vice. All luther supply stores sell these, and it really is a must have. Since it´s fully adjustable it aligns for instance to a shaped guitar neck. (A standard vice can only be used on perfectly straight planks of wood, and since most parts in guitar building are not straight, they aren´t of much help)

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Since measuring wood thickness will become important down the road (and measures to the 10th mm) are required I also recommend a caliper like the one shown on the picture below. It´s large opening allows to take measures all around a guitar top or back for instance.

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Even though I build by guitars with mostly hand-tools there are 3 exceptions: (I bought all 3 after the experience fo the prototype to simplify the most tyring operations. Below a picture of a very small bandsaw. Since I´m not cutting my own trees and have no plans in doing so this size (and power) is sufficient for smaller guitar building tasks. (like cutting the neck planks, of get a (pretty much) straight cutting line when cutting the headstock at its angle from the neck plank etc. One of these will cost you less than 100 EUR and are more than worth the investment. (Building the prototype and the travel guitar before) I probably spent more time cutting wood with a andsaw (and correcting alignment mistakes) than doing real guitar-building stuff.

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Something else you cannot really do without is a wood bending iron. Of course you can build your own, but this came in handy so I just went for it. (there are videos on youtube on how to build your own if you wanna save another 100 EUR.)

If I continue building I might consider getting a prof. wood bending machine. (didn´t buy it yet). The reason is not speed or avoiding to damage (break side planks) while bending them by hand, but really for the precision they guarantee. Even without any previous experience I haven´t broken one single side, nor any of the “fragile” and very structured snakewood or maple bindings. I mention this since the binding part is really the aspect I was most scared about before having tried it for the first time. To get it right 3 simple pieces of advice which summarize all the overly complicated and scaring videos on youtube I watched before trying:

a) be patient, and use a humid towel between the wood and the pipe (you have to re-wet it every 30 seconds since the heat quicky evaporates the humidity – so a water spray container comes in handy)

b) don´t try to bend anything that is (still) thicker as 1,5 mm.

c) don´t force. Just put your hands on the piece of wood (10 cm away on each side of the contact point with the pipe) and let the simple weight of your arms do the work (at times even this might be too much force). Once the wood has sufficiently heated up (the spot you´re holding against the pipe) and will have absorbed enough humidity from the cloth you will start to feel how gravity will slowly attract your arms down…. and the wood will bend. No pushing or rocking required. Don´t be scared to burn the wood either if you make sure our cloth is always wet and the wood does not get in direct contact with the iron.

Here some pictures of my bending iron:

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Careful with the hot steam evaporating from the wet towal…. don´t burn yourself. You may consider using gloves even so I don´t since I want to “feel” the wood under my hands. One last detail, keep your hands even on both sides at the same distance to insure even pressure left and right, and make sure whatever it is you´re bending lies completely sraight on the iron so that you´re not inadvertently twisting it sideways 🙂

Also don´t be scared to bend too little or too much since you can always bend a little more, or redress it by bending in the other direction. (if you keep rocking back and forth chances are that it will eventually break, but so far I still have to break my first piece.)

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The tools you see on the above picture is ment to facilitate 2 tasks (and it really does help!!): Drill precise, straight and aligned tuner machine holes in the sides of the headstock and provide a simple routing template to route the tuner slots at the right angle. I did this by hand on the prototype, and it was a scary and time consuming exercise that takes all your attention and concentration. This jigg makes it so much easier, faster, and avoids all risks of making a mistake in these crucial steps. LMI or Steward MC Donalds sell these and I consider them a good investment.

 

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This might not be a building tools per se, but you do need some protective gadgets, like a dustmask, some eye protection (when using the dremel tool to cut trim the frets flush, or when using the bandsaw) Ear protection is also recommended when using powertools like a bandsaw. Not shown are protective gloves that I also recommend highly recommend when using sharp chisels or powertools (the bandsaw is particularly scary….)

Below a bridge gluing device (called shop fox if I remember well) Again, you can do without, but since gluing the bridge is a critical step I wouln´t want to miss mine anymore.

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Below some drill and router bits

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and my frensh polishing box. Since I don´t want to invest in a spary cabin and refuse to use toxic laquers I only use french polish with shellac on my instruments. Well, I also used Truoil on the neck of the prototype because it is easier to apply and I thought it might be more durable since people use it on gun shafts that they carry outside in all kind of weather, and the neck comes in contact with your hands all the time. My very first travel guitar was completely finished with truoil. Can´t say anything against truoil, and I even think it would be a good finish for a classical guitar (even the top). So far (from a purist point of view) and except for the neck of the prototype all the other guitars are entierly french polished. After the 3rd guitar I´m becoming better at it. However its frustrating since the frensh polishing takes about a week to apply  (if you apply coats every day), and then 2 weeks to dry (without touching!!). I´m mentioning this since I was in a hurry to play the prototype and didn´t wait long enough (only 48 hours) and I can still see the structure of the fibers of my sweater I was wearing the days I started to play it at the back where the body touched my chest 🙂 Maybe a word about porefilling and frensh polish. I found there is a lot of rubbish out there (and quite some contradictory and confusing information at times). I stick to shellac and pumice only. That´s it, no epoxy or other pore fillers. These might be required with other finishes, but shellac only really needs pumice (and alcohol of course). The only thing I try to observe is that I pore-fill with pumice and alcohol only (no shellac added and I use a new ball). Also I don’t apply too much pumice and take great care not to leave any pumice residue on the surface before applying the next shellac coat. (Since it can form small whitish dust-like particles) that become trapped in the new coats of shellac and will remain “dots” in the final finish. (something you want to avoid). Last but not least, I don’t apply pumice unless the surface has been able to dry at least 12 hours. (usually at he beginning, its one day bodying with shellac, and one day porefilling, and I iterate until the surface is smooth with no more dots or uneven areas). Then a couple of days bodying only (with not as much shellac applied than during the first iterations) There is no rule on when to finish…. i’d say, finish when it looks good enough for you… On a guitar less is better I think, the thinner the finish the better, at least on the top.

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Below you can discover the precision Dremel router base that Steward Mc Donald sell. It´s much better than the plastic stuff Dremel sells, and it comes with a very useful addon (that you need to buy seperate) wich is a plug-on to cut precise circles for inlaying rosettes and cutting precise soundholes etc. another must-have I think.

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I bought some other jiggs but the ones above are those that really prove very very useful. The others are fun, but not really necessary so I won´t cover them here.

It is always fun to go through the LMI and Steward MC Donald websitges to see what is out there and to buy yourself little presents :). One word of caution though: when ordering from the states, expect a heavy invoice from customs and DHL if you´re shipping to Europe. That´s the reason I kept looking for a luthier supply place on this side of the atlantic, and …. I did find one in Germany:

Rall Gitarrenbau und werkzeug

Even though his offer is much more limited and lacks many of the luthier specific jiggs (at least the last time I checked) he does have interesting stuff at a reasonable price, and the shipping cost and tax difference makes it cheap compared to the US competition…. so really worth it. (And the guy is real friendly and reliable!!)

One thing Rall Guitars is selling and that I could not find elsewhere (well, I did in Canada, but let´s not go there) are domed dishes at different radiuses. These are very handy if you want to build domes into your tops and backs (which is highly recommended for esthetics, stability AND sound!)

More on these in the 3rd section where I´ll talk about “self-made” jiggs.

Here the links to the us shops I mention before:

LMI

Steward Macdonalds

Finally a site (german I guess) that sell all kind of find woodworking tools. They have a special section for instrument builders, but it is not their speciality. However, large offer, interesting prices, and conviniently located in Eur0pe for tax and transport cost avoidance…

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3) Self-made jiggs and tools.

To build your classical guitar the traditionnal way you need at least a solera and ideally a back workboard. The solera is a workboard you use to assemble your guitar but also to brace your top and to measure the fit of the sides etc. Mine does include a slight neck angle, and is shaped so that the top will be domed to a 25” radius at the lower bout up to the soundhole. Before the soundhole it is flat but decends about 4mm towards to front of the neck.

John Bogdanovich explains the building process of this kind of solera in great detail, so If you´re interested I highly recommend his book or DVD set. The solera is important for overall instrument alignment and setup since it incorporates the neck angle and top doming that will guarantee an easy setup and a well playable instrument when all is assembled. Here a couple of pictures of my self built solera:

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Some people will prefer a more complete “mold” for the sides. I opted for the more flexible and moving “sticks” that I can place and tighten around the solera. This flexibility as the advantage that I can re-use my solera for instruments of “slightly” different sizes but have the disadvantage that they lack the precision of a mold. A mold will guarantee that your guitar box is always the exact same size, where as with my method their countour can vary a couple of mm between builds. Some will argue that this will have in impact on the air volume in the box, hence on the sound of the guitar…. Personally I don’t think these small deviations are an issue since we’re talking mm…. and I doubt that this minimal change (you might lose 2 mm on one side and win one on the other…) will be noticable.

However, for people who try to build one guitar exactly like the other, this can be important. Since I consider mine “hand-build” I have no problem accepting that there will be slight variations…

The solear you will have to build yourself. You can find some ‘equivalent tools’ for steel-string guitars, but they are more workboards with molds for the sides than soleras meant to be used to assemble a traditional spanich designed guitar. Rall guitars was working on a prototype of a first “classical guitar” solera set, but not sure whether they’ve started selling it yet.

This being said, if you decide to build your own follow John B. instructions, and make sure you pick “soft wood” for the upper and lower bout inlays (the 2 parts of more light colored wood on the pictures). These you glue on to the plane MDF and those are the 2 areas that you “carve and sand” to achieve the doming and angle of descent from the waist-line to the top of the neck. I did’nt have awy softwood so I used maple. Silly, since maple is so hard to carve that it took me an afternoon just to get the 25” radus carved into the lower bout.

Personal opinion: if you’re new to guitar buiding and wookworking, starting to use your tools on less mission critical components like a Solera or back workboard will have you get aquainted with your equipmenet for a couple of days “before” you get to touch the valuable tonewood :). if you screw up building the solera, then chances are you’d also screw up shaping your top :). So just go for it, and consider it your first little woodworking challenge.

The below pictures shows the back workboard and the manufacturing process. You got to build this yourself as well. The backs of my guitars are domed to a 15” radius. You can see what that looks like on the following picture where I put a straight-edge on the completed workboard. (Notice the gap in the middle).

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A difference between the back workboard and the soleara is that the back workboard has a complete 15” radius that extends from front to back and side to side, whereas the solera has only got a domed lower bout (stards betwwen the sound-hole and bridge area up to the back), and the front part of the top is straight. (That must be straight otherwise your fretboard (that also comes with a straight under-side) won’t glue on to it properly (and it needs to be glued on completely straight without pressure to make it stick, because if you need to apply force for it to stick, chances are that it won’t be straight but a little domed after gluing on, and that will jeoperdize the playability above the 12th fret. So don’t  dome the complete solera!

With the back workboard however this is not an issue since you (at least I) like them completely domed. First for the stability as the doming adds extra strenght in the structure, but also for the looks and “feel” when you play them. Also, the doming has an impact on the sound for the following reason: soundwaves between a flat top and flat back would tend to play “ping-pong” inside the box, whereas you want them to escape through the soundhole! The doming of both the top and back will avoid (or largely reduce) this ping-pong effect and direct the waves to the location where the soundhole is located. You can see that on the above piture. It’s the area where the dome is is the most pronounced, so the top and the back collaborate in redirecting sound-waves to this center “point” located directly under the soundhole. This is again one of these little details that are tailored by hand, that add up to my list of little improvements that in the end will guarantee the superbe sound of your instrument.

For simplicity reasons you can of course build your first guitar completelw straight, and avoid the need for a solera, a back workboard, and since all being straight, alignment will not be an issue either…. And i’ve played some nice sounding all flat guitars. No problem. But since too easy sounded boring 🙂 i decided for the domed variations from the beginning. (also because John explains it all so well in his lessons….. )

Also note the difference in radiuses between top and back. the top is domed at a 25” (larger, so not as pronounced) dome on the lower bout. The back is domed at a 15” (shorter radius, means more pronounced dome effect).

One last word about making the back workboard. Since you can’t buy them “domed” you need to transpose the dome into the top of your workboard. Above somewhere I introduced you to Rall’s luthier shop in Germany. One thing they sell are domed dishes. (not really workbaords since they are much to big to be used directly in the building process). However, you use them to get the 25 or 15” radius into poles or sticks of wood that then allow you to transpose the dome onto another surface:

The 2 pictures below show a “bizare looking” self contructred jigg that carries my router. If you look closely then you may notice that the 2 wooden poles the router sits on are domed to that same 15” radius from side to side. The workboard sits on a small turntable (bought mine at Ikea’s for 5 eur, was meant to be a cheese plate I guess :)). Those 2 ploles are shaped or domed by hand on the dishes I bought at Rall Guitars.

Then they are assembled so that they stick above the height of the workboard + the hight of the tunrable, and then its an easy task to spin the workboard while slowly moving the router from one side to the other, a couple of mm per spin. When you’re done, then you have transposed the dome from the poles to the work board…..

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The solera and back workboard can of course be reused as long as you don’t vary the shape of the guitars you build.

The domed dishes from Rall guitars are further used to dome the braces for the top and the back. This doming of the “under” side of the braces – once glued on – will help the top and back “keep” that radius shape. That’s also the reason why you do the actual bracing (gluing the baces on) with your top or back lying face-down on their respective workboards, so that the pressure you apply on a brace during gluing will push the top into the domed workboard, and since the brace and workboard follow the same radius, they have a natural tendency to lock that same shape into the thin tonwood trapped in-between.

Later, since the height of the sides must also follow that same radius, the domed top or back will smoothly “fit” the sides so that you don’t hava to apply too much pressure for the box to close. You also want to avoid gluing a domed top to a “straight” set of sides, since this will force the top to straighten-out again, and put reverse pressure (or pull) on the domed braces (not a good idea!). In other words, during the building process, once the sides are connected to the heel and tailblock, you can “sand” the radius into the sides by sliding the structure (without the top and back yet,  but otherwise fully assembled) over the Sanding dishes. (Careful only to sand the “back” of the top side of the sides since the top is only domed at the lower bout!)

On this last picture you can appreciate how the back doming extends from the tip of the heelcap to the back of the body.

bubinga domed back

I’ve recently built myself a side-bender to improve the various bending operations…

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