I’ve been wanting to add a blog to this website for a while now, to keep track of woodwork projects, thoughts and theories I have on process and politics, and things that I feel a bit too embarassed to pitch to actual publications, but in thinking about the best place to start I thought I’d start with a finished project.
I’ve wanted to make a guitar for most of my adult life, but never quite felt like I had the space or tools, let alone the skills, to make an instrument that I wouldn’t be disappointed by. However, a lot has changed in the past few years – not only have I been improving my woodworking knowledge and skillset, starting Among The Trees has provided both the space to experiment with larger projects and access to a range of recycled timber that I never would have previously.
And so, I decided to make a guitar.
This build started in late 2022. I figured that, as the shop would be closed over the holiday period there would be a few weeks that I could really devote to working on and troubleshooting the build. I was… optimistic. But it did prove an excellent start.
I’ve been researching for a while now about Australian timbers used for guitar making, and also how much timber affects the tone of guitars in general. For acoustic guitars there is understandably little argument about the value of high quality tonewood, in particular for the resonating surfaces of your back, sides and top. For electric guitars, especially for solid-body builds, there is a lot more debate.
I’m a big fan of Jum Lill’s videos, but his video that came out a year ago ‘Where Does The Tone Come From In An Electric Guitar?’ found me at perfectly the right time. Jim’s removal of variables from the question of tone in guitars feels like a no-brainer. How Jim puts his questioning of the mythos of guitar equipment to very practical head-to-head tests is excellent, and of special note in the mentioned video is the similarity in sound he gets from an Anderson Telecaster and a 2x4 pine plank with a neck and pickups attached are so close as to be indistinguishable for me.
All of which is to say: I’m not convinced that the timber used in solid body guitars makes enough of a difference in tone to justify using anything other than what timber is both available and sustainable, and beyond that to pick what timber will both manage the structural needs of the instrument and fit whatever aesthetic quality I want it to have. I have no doubt I will continue to make more instruments in the future and to experiment with timber that is available and develop my own feelings and preferences.
For the meanwhile, this guitar is made from:
- A laminated body from 8 pieces of what I believe is Mountain Ash (E. regnans)
- This was sourced from the regular stock at the shop
- A laminated neck from 2 pieces of Queensland maple, plus an additional piece for the side of the headstock
- This was sourced from one of the support rails of a 19th century church pew, which happens to have been bought from the church I attended as a child
- The fretboard is a single piece of Kauri pine which came out of reclaimed flooring. While looking for lighter-toned fretboard options, these Kauri floorboards interested me as, due to decades of use, they were quite naturally compressed and dense.
As I had some time, I was curious about trying to do as much of the process from scratch as possible. This started with making a set of templates for the build, including 2 body templates (one without the neck pocket for outline routing and one with the neck pocket and cavities), a neck template and some additional pieces such as neck shaping guides and templates for the cutaways on the back of the body.
Templates were initially made from 15mm reclaimed ply, but the first of these was discarded in order to use some MDF we had gotten into the shop. The MDF made for much faster shaping and sanding, and I think results in cleaner templates.
These were then transferred to the laminated blanks and used for template routing. The whole body and neck were routed in an hour or two, including taking breaks to avoid the router bits getting too warm. Even using the timbers picked, it’s always surprising how much wear blades can experience working through Australian timbers, so the job required many light passes, with a final finishing pass along the outside.
The neck pocket and cavities were routed in a similar manner, having pre-drilled and chiselled out a large amount of the material before routing the edges. A roundover bit was used to round the edges on the front and back of the body, and then the cutaway at the front and the top and bottom waist relief on the back of the body were roughed out with scrub planes and smoothed with files until I was happy with the shape. These parts were carved based on Strat dimensions found online, but if I felt something felt nicer under my hand by changing a curve or lengthening a relief I let that guide me. What results is not a perfect reproduction of a Stratocaster body, but one that is obviously similar and fits how I want to hold and play it.
For the body I then went through a couple of coats of wood filler, cutting them back both quite dramatically until the surface was smooth.
All this was then sanded at great length and sprayed with an enamel undercoat. I had been doing some research about paint and the primary recommendation that came back was enamel car paint. I bought a couple of cans of primer and colour, as well as some gloss topcoat, and over a few months I got the multiple layers on, but never found the experience very enjoyable. The time taken was fine, but the process of the enamel paints, from their toxicity in application to the offgassing that occurs while it fully cures wasn’t really appealing. I am happy with the colour and finish of the instrument, but am curious to experiment with more natural pigments, paints and finishes in future, and to potentially come back one day and refinish this guitar with all-natural finishes.
The neck was next, or really was happening while I was waiting for the body to cure. There’s less to say about this – the shape was routed, headstock bandsawn to thickness and the whole thing carved and smoothed with spokeshaves, files and card scrapers. The truss rod slot was routed using a jig I put together to hold everything in place and centered. This jig has since proved useful on a number of jobs where I’ve needed to route a straight line along a piece of timber, and has continued to prove useful as I’ve experimented with other neck timbers.
The neck for this build was Queensland maple, with quite a beautiful figure across the grain. I had read that Queensland maple was a highly satisfactory neck timber in Australian guitars, and had some to hand which made the decision a simple one.
The fretboard was slotted with a purpose-bought slotting jig using a template I constructed from a fret spacing print out. Considering this, I am very happy with the end result, though on final measurement there are a couple of spots along the neck where the spacing is out by a fraction of a millimeter. After building this neck I bought a CNC cut fret spacing template online and have no regrets.
The fretboard, with slots sawn, was glued to the neck and the whole thing (neck and fretboard) was sanded and oiled with a linseed and beeswax oil resin. The fretboard ended up with one coat, and the rest of the neck with three.
Possibly the most satisfying part of the build was carving the neck, and makes sense considering the enjoyment I have gotten from jobs that involve a lot of carving or shaping of tool handles and/or furniture parts. Similar to the body, I carved to a template of the neck curvature at the 1st and 12th fret, and then adjusted based on what felt nice in my hand.
Frets were then bent in a quickly made bending jig to around 0.5” higher radius than the neck, dabbed with CA glue and hammered into place with a soft-headed hammer. This resulted in less damage to the crowns than I had expected, which was nice, so the frets were then only very lightly filed flat before being polished. The rest of the hardware was installed, and the wiring assembled and soldered in place, and then the guitar was strung up.
Overall I am very happy with this build, and the result is far nicer than I had anticipated my first guitar build would be. There are still a number of things that I would like to improve upon, both in terms of the quality of specific parts of the instrument and manufacture, including:
- A cleaner join between the neck and the body (this build has a sub-mm gap which I’d like to eliminate in future);
- A reduction in the weight of the body. This guitar is carryable, but is heavier than I would have liked. This could be managed with larger cutouts behind the pickguard;
- Reduced or eliminated use of enamel paints and use of finishes with natural ingredients;
- Reduced use of plastic-based parts, such as pickguards, knobs, etc.;
- A far greater use of reclaimed hardware and parts.
That said, I hope that this build goes to demonstrate that reclaimed timber is not only a perfectly serviceable material for guitar making, but can produce results of high aesthetic and sonic quality. You can see a video of the guitar being played here.
Certainly I am hooked, however. Even before finishing this guitar I have started to play with other timbers and ideas, and started to work on some new pieces. I’m keen to use this space to document some of these explorations, as well as finished pieces, as well as other writing.
Thanks for reading!
- Body: Mountain Ash (E. regnans), reclaimed
- Neck: Queensland Maple (Flindersia spp.), reclaimed
- Fretboard: Kauri pine (Agathis australis), reclaimed
- Pickups: 3 Tonerider Pure Vintage Single Coil, bought new
- Bridge: Wilkinson WVC-SB in chrome, bought new
- Tuners: Gotoh SG360 in chrome, bought new
- Nut: Bone, bought new
- Hardware: Chrome, bought new
- Truss rod: Double action, bought new
- Pickguard, knobs and pickup covers: White plastic, bought new
- Fretboard radius: 241.3mm (9.5”)
- Bridge spacing: 54mm
- Nut spacing: 34.5mm
- Neck angle: 0º