Building a Steel String Guitar

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#261  Postby John Platko » Mar 24, 2016 1:38 pm

Installing the heel cap

I'm using a bit of cutoff left over from the fingerboard blank for the heel cap. I saw the 1/4” thick fingerboard in half and then take it down the rest of the way with a safety planer. A bit of scraping and it's good to go.

I roughly cut the cap to the size of the heel bottom but I leave plenty of extra and trim it back after the cap is glued to the heel.

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A bit of glue and a bit of tape holding the heel cap in place.

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Some rubber bands hold the cap a bit tighter than the tape and then add a clamp in the middle.

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After the glue dries I saw off any large cap overhangs.

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I use a rasp to shape the cap to the heel. A center line on the bottom of the cap helps me to see if there are any symmetry issues. This is a good time to check heel symmetry too and make any adjustments that are needed.

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I use a small chisel to scrape the flat part of the cap that will be against the guitar body.

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A file is a good way to flush the cap with the rest of the heel. This is a good time to be careful.

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I use a bit of sandpaper on a rubber block to clean things up and that's good enough for now.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#262  Postby John Platko » Mar 30, 2016 3:00 pm

Putting a radius on the fingerboard

Steel string guitars usually have a radius on the fingerboards to help with fretting the strings. Classical guitars usually have a flat fingerboard.

The radius can be anything from 12” to 18” or so. This guitar is going to have a compound radius which will be 14” for about the first 6 frets then 16” to about the 12th fret, and from there about 20” to the end of the fingerboard. The radius changes will be gradual.

For the most part I use sanding blocks with the radius I need for various sections of the fingerboard.

The larger one on the bottom I made, the others I bought.

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I like to put a center line on the fingerboard so that I can see when the sanding block has completed the arch. When the line is gone, it's time to stop.

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I use a scraper to take off some of the bulk on the side of the board so there's less sanding needed.

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Then I sand.

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When the entire board has a radius I check that the fingerboard is still level. Often there's a high spot near the nut.

I use a flat sanding board to take off any high spots and blend the different radii .

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And it's done. I think you can see from the pictures that it has more arch at the nut end then at the saddle end.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#263  Postby John Platko » Apr 02, 2016 1:49 pm

Preparing the fret slots for frets

Next I'll be installing the frets. There is a wide variety of fret sizes to choose from. The height, as well as the width, can be selected. After the frets are installed they will be flattened and re-crowned so the original size will change a bit. I'll be using a medium/medium fret which is a good choice unless something else is specifically desired.

Start by cleaning out the frets slots, removing dust from fretboard sanding as well as any glue that may have crept in from the binding. I use an “exacto” like knife with a curved blade.

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This requires a fair amount of concentration, one slip could put a pretty deep scar in the board.

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Next I file the top of the slot a bit wider than the fret saw kerf to make it easier to get the fret started in the slot. A gun stock checkering tool is great for this also. Clean the slot when you're finished.

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One more time through with the exacto blade to pull out loose debris and it's done.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#264  Postby John Platko » Apr 05, 2016 6:28 pm

Preparing the fret wire

The fret wire needs to match the curve of the fretboard or something close to it. I use an arched board with a slot cut in it for the tang and bend the wire to the curve I need.

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I use one end of the board and gently put a smooth curve in the wire. The slot in the board keeps the wire from twisting as I bend it.

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That looks about right.

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I have a couple of wire cutters that I use for fret wire. The one on the right, is a pair of general purpose cutters that I use to size each fret. The one on the left is ground flat on the top and I use that for trimming the frets after they are installed on the fretboard.

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For standard (non Gibson) bound fretboards you need to remove a portion of the tang where the fret goes over the binding. Fret nippers make this job easy. (For this, and other reasons, I recommend that you don't bind the fretboard on your first guitar.)

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The nipper locked and loaded.

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A bit of the tang removed.

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I give the area where the tang was removed a few strokes on a stone to remove any burr.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#265  Postby mcgruff » Apr 07, 2016 6:48 am

This will be interesting :) Just bought a bunch of Jescar fretwire and have 3 guitars to refret. Number of guitars I've refretted to date: 0.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#266  Postby Alan B » Apr 07, 2016 9:02 am

Can you do a 'blow by blow' picture sequence as John has done? :whistle:
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#267  Postby mcgruff » Apr 07, 2016 1:41 pm

I'll try. I'm also building a neck-through electric guitar,my "Tele Savalas" - a Telecaster-ish body shape with a Jazzmaster trem lollipop:

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Most interesting thing about the design is a special pickup mounting system which will allow me to swap different pickups (and controls panels) in and out quickly without soldering or removing the strings. That'll let me set it up quickly for different sounds and also makes it easier to test new pickup winds.

Don't want to interrupt this thread though - I'll start a new topic later. Got an amp to build first.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#268  Postby John Platko » Apr 07, 2016 2:16 pm

mcgruff wrote:I'll try. I'm also building a neck-through electric guitar,my "Tele Savalas" - a Telecaster-ish body shape with a Jazzmaster trem lollipop:

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Most interesting thing about the design is a special pickup mounting system which will allow me to swap different pickups (and controls panels) in and out quickly without soldering or removing the strings. That'll let me set it up quickly for different sounds and also makes it easier to test new pickup winds.

Don't want to interrupt this thread though - I'll start a new topic later. Got an amp to build first.


It would be great to see more projects in this part of the forum. :thumbup:

I'll save my questions about your guitar until then. I'll just say that I tend to go the other way and make servicing my guitars a bit of a challenge sometimes. Sometimes I go too far and take more of a ship in a bottle approach to the electronics - going a bit further than a Gibson ES-335. One of my projects is to undue that by adding an access hole in one electric so it's more serviceable.

Looking forward to your thread. :cheers:

(I'll post my fret install soon, but I don't usually level and finish the frets until the guitar is assembled.)
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#269  Postby John Platko » Apr 12, 2016 2:14 pm

Installing the frets

You can buy special hammers but I like this old Maydole for installing frets.

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The Stewmac hammer is a better choice but I mostly press frets so I never invested in one.

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It's much easier to hold the wire in place if the fingerboard is not bound. With a bound board extra care is needed to make sure that the fret starts to go into the slot straight. Start at one end and continue across the fret. The neck must have solid support beneath it. A bag filled with shot makes a great neck support but I don't have one.

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Here's what the shot bag looks like:

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I made a tool that helps tap in "difficult" frets and it's great for seating the ends too. The slot in the bottom fits the fret wire and keeps it from slipping off the fret.

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My tool in action.

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And a fret installed.

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Hammering in frets is a pretty traditional way to install them but you can also press them in place.

Here's a photo of my fret press head that accepts various caul sizes along with some cauls.

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And the fret press in action.

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I wait until all the frets are installed to trim the overhang, that way, if any pop up while the other frets are being driven in it's easier to re-seat them. The flush ground nippers make short work of trimming the frets .

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And they're all installed.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#270  Postby John Platko » Apr 19, 2016 12:46 pm

Drilling the tuner holes

I like to drill the tuner holes before I complete the final headstock sanding so that I can sand out any chipout that might occur.

First, make sure that the headstock is flat. This is important for a good finish.

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I have a half template that is my guide for where the holes should go. Notice that they are not an equal distance from the end of the headstock. This stagger keeps the strings from bumping into tuner posts and is a traditional Martin feature. Whatever headstock shape and tuner plan you use it's a good idea to verify that the strings won't bump into posts, although, Wayne Henderson has made that a “feature” for his guitars.

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Clamp the template and use a small drill to mark the locations.

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I make the mark a bit bigger with an awl

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Flip the template around and mark the other positions. Here's how it looks when it's done.

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Clamp the headstock to the drill press table with a piece of scrap wood backing the headstock. Slowly drill the hole with a bit appropriate for your tuners.

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Repeat until done.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#271  Postby John Platko » Apr 27, 2016 2:09 pm

Installing the position markers

Position marks help locate frets but they can also be decorative. It's traditional for classical guitars not to have position markers. It's also traditional for steel string guitars to have position markers on the front and side of the fingerboard. Side dots is all that I find is really needed to find your way around the fretboard and that's all this guitar will be getting.

The traditional place for markers are the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, etc frets with a double marker on the 12th fret showing the octave position. I'll be using 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 markers for a minimalist touch.

I'm using small gold pearl markers which go well with the pearl rosette. I have these on hand so I'm using them but it's not too hard to make your own. To do so, I super glue two or three small “chips” of pearl or abalone on the non business side of a drill bit of the size of dot I want and then with the bit chucked into my drill press I hold a sanding block against the pearl until the dots are round. Then dunk the bit into a small cup of acetone until the dots come off the bit. After a short time they separate from each other.

Here's the dots that I'll be using.

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Here's a little tool I made to help locate each dot the same distance from the top of the fretboard. It has a small brass rod that rides on the top edge of the fingerboard and a small nail that scratches the fingerboard at the center of the dot. I like to put the dot a bit below the center of the fingerboard. A quick version of the tool can be made by just hammering a couple of brads into a small stick with the brads spaced as desired. Cut the sharp point off the brad that will ride on top of the fingerboard with wire cutters.

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First find the center line between the two frets getting a dot with a rule and mark with a sharp pencil. I don't find that I need a special tool for this. ;)

Then mark the vertical distance, you can eyeball it if you want. Here's my tool in action. You now have a crosshair where the dot goes.

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I use a sharp pin and then an awl to make a good mark for the drill bit.

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The awl in action.

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I use a hand drill to make the hole for the dot.

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The hole ready for the dot. The depth of the hole should be a bit less than the thickness of the dot.

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After the dot's in place a drop of super glue keeps it there. If there's too much gap around the dot a
bit of finger board sanding dust easily fills it.

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After the glue dries a bit of sandpaper on a block is used to sand the dot flush with the fingerboard.

And there you have it.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#272  Postby John Platko » May 04, 2016 6:36 pm

It's a bit unfortunate that I don't have any fingerboard inlaying to show. That's an interesting process. One can just drill holes and put in dots on the front but her is how something more elaborate is done: I don't know who this is but she knows what she's doing.



Edit on correction from Onyx8
Last edited by John Platko on May 05, 2016 11:52 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#273  Postby Onyx8 » May 05, 2016 1:59 am

That's a 'she'. Died last year apparently.

Obviously highly skilled.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#274  Postby John Platko » May 05, 2016 11:53 am

Onyx8 wrote:That's a 'she'. Died last year apparently.

Obviously highly skilled.


:oops: Thanks for the correction. :cheers:
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#275  Postby John Platko » May 08, 2016 7:00 pm

:scratch: I think I'm done building. Time to finish ...

Finish preparation

The final finish of your guitar will only be as good as the finish preparation you do before you start any of the finish steps. So time spent in the final sanding and other prep is well spent.

The grit I start with depends on the wood I'm using and what shape the guitar is in but 100 grit isn't going to harm anything. A firm block made out of something like solid wood, hard rubber, or cork is a must. You'll never get a flat surface if you just use sandpaper by hand.

Of course it's also necessary to sand in the direction of the grain. Easier said than done when working with wood like this guitar has.

I like to start with a large wooden block.

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I switch to a smaller rubber block for the sides and some areas of the top. I work my way up to about 270 grit paper.

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Inspect for any voids between the binding and purfling or edge of the guitar. I found one on the top surface and since I'm using dark wood binding I made a bit of filler by creating some matching wood dust. Put the wood dust in the void, clean off the surface, and squirt a drop of super glue on the area. After the glue dries sand the area and check the job. Sometimes a repeat application of dust and superglue is necessary.

I don't need much filler on this guitar but if I did I would use some power sanding tool, like a drum on a drill press to make a bunch. Also, for rosewood, which I use a lot, I collect some dust from time to time when I'm working and have it on hand to use later.

Making some dust.

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With dark bindings like this, it will never be noticed. With a lighter binding, like maple, I would either use a commercial wood fill product that matches my wood or more likely make a sliver of wood with the same grain orientation and use that to fill any void. Fixing these little issues is an art and takes practice. The level of perfection you want is up to you. Showing that a human made the guitar is not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

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I relieve the sharp edge all around the body with sandpaper, rounding the edge. Some folks like to use a scraper with this but I find sandpaper to work better with wood bindings.

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Also round the sound hole edge with sandpaper.

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The neck needs to be sanded and checked in the same way.




It's also important to stop at some point. You can go too far in trying to fix imperfections that can't be fixed at this stage. You don't want to take too much wood off at this point. Also, it's tempting to try to sand out an imperfection in a small spot by concentrating your sanding on that spot but this will leave a very noticeable dip at the spot. Either sand the entire area with a block or leave it be. Sometimes you just need to let it be.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#276  Postby John Platko » May 17, 2016 1:15 pm

Selecting a finish French Polish?

There are several choices of finish that can be used. For steel strings guitars, Nitrocellulose lacquer is the most traditional and still used by Martin Guitars and that's what I'll be using too but I thought it worthwhile to go through the other options.

For classical guitars French Polish is the traditional choice. It involves applying many, many thin coats of shellac over time on the guitar. I find it to be an amazing difficult process to get right but in the hands of a master the finish lays down like magic. The trick is knowing how to keep the pad with the shellac in the right state so that it goes on the surface and doesn't muck up what is already there. You also need to know how much you can work the surface in a given sitting. And there's a feel that you need to develop for how hard to press. It's just not as easy as some make it look.

Here's a classical guitar I made, also with Myrtle wood back and sides, that I French Polished.

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Here's a youtube video I found that explains the process.



And here it's being applied to the top of a guitar.







French Polish is beautiful and natural looking finish but it's not very tough. However, you can, with a lot of work, touch it up from time to time.
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#277  Postby John Platko » May 21, 2016 2:36 pm

Varnish

Another finish option is varnish. Varnish is not so common a finish in the guitar world but very big in some other string instrument worlds. I'm not sure why French Polish became the standard for classical guitars while varnish the standard for the violin family.

Varnish, if you can find a good one, is much more durable than French Polish. It's hard and resistant to solvents. The down side of this is that you need to be careful with the finishing schedule, you can't wait too long between coats or you could develop witness lines when you polish the guitar. Witness lines look something like:

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Varnish remains tacky for a long time so it picks up whatever is floating in the air.

The basic procedure for a varnish finish is to do whatever pore filling is necessary and then brush on coats of varnish, leveling every 3-4 coats until you have a flat surface and didn't break through- at least that's how I was taught to do it. The result is a thin finish that is plenty hard that ages naturally, is very beautiful but not easily repaired if the need arises.

Here's Varnish being applied to a violin, by someone who knows what they're doing.



Here's a guitar, (my first) that has a varnish finish.

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#278  Postby John Platko » May 25, 2016 3:13 pm

There are many types of modern finishes that can be used. A while back I dabbled a bit with some that were practical for home use but I wasn't crazy about them, they generally aren't very repairable which means you need to apply them perfectly and I found them to have an artificial feel to them.

Here's one I did a while back with a water based finish:

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Here Taylor Guitars show how a perfect modern finish is achieved:

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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#279  Postby RNeto » May 31, 2016 8:29 pm

Speaking about finishes, i have a Martin with a "hand rubbed" finish, what means that it almost has no finish at all.

Its super annoying on how "no cleanable" it is. The light clear wood is getting very dirty as time goes by. :(
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Re: Building a Steel String Guitar

#280  Postby John Platko » Jun 16, 2016 1:18 pm

RNeto wrote:Speaking about finishes, i have a Martin with a "hand rubbed" finish, what means that it almost has no finish at all.

Its super annoying on how "no cleanable" it is. The light clear wood is getting very dirty as time goes by. :(


I couldn't find much on the web describing exactly what the Martin "hand rubbed" finish is. I have an old Martin Backpacker guitar that has something like an oil finish on the spruce top and that doesn't seem to offer much protection.

Do you have a picture of what it looks like - especially where it's getting dirty.

The best place to find answers to any Martin Guitar problem is: http://www.umgf.com/
If the folks there can't answer it, then likely no one can.
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