Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pining Away (or Sticking Your Neck Out)

One of the challenges of building a guitar from the ground up is that there are many, many opportunities to make one small mistake that turns many hour s of work on an instrument into many hours of work on firewood.  Building and shaping the outline of the body has been an exciting and enjoyable process, but it’s also the one part with a HUGE margin of error. I could cut one of the horns off and bore a 2” hole n
ear the tail and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in how it sounds through the amp when it’s done. But if the neck pocket is too big, the neck joint will be sloppy. If I carve too much of the neck, it may not hold up to the tension of being strung.  There are some things like this where there is literally one shot to get it right and I really don’t want my first time doing some of these things to be with the wood that SHOULD be the final piece.

This project started out on a recommendation from one of my mentors to NOT use top-quality lumber for the first pass, but to take my first run using a cheaper hardwood, such as Poplar (which I did). Taking that to the next step, even though my $13 Poplar body isn’t made from Walnut or Mahogany or something ridiculously expensive, I have quite a few hours into taking it from a slab to a guitar body and I’d rather play it around a bonfire this summer than fuel the bonfire with it.  So I made a decision to hack together some pine boards and make an initial pass as constructing the neck and machining the pockets for the pickups, control cavity, and neck pocket.

Gluing and Clamping
the pine neck.
Starting with the neck was relatively easy. I had a length of 2x2 in the garage that, with a little bit of effort, was cut in half and joined together to make a neck-width and neck-length hunk of wood.  Cutting the outline without a bandsaw was a pain, even using the same drill-press/coping-saw method I used on the body, but it was relatively uneventful.  The board wasn’t really wide enough to support doing the headstock I wanted (either Reverse Firebird or a Reversed Telecaster), but I got enough for a reasonable look.  Since I’m shooting for a 50s vintage Telecaster, I figured I’d shoot for a neck that would be from that era.  I found this awesome picture online of a 52’ Telecaster “Boatneck” that seemed like a good place to start and a pretty simple shape.  Here’s the problem. I have a “1st Fret” profile and, with a little manipulation in Photoshop, a 12th Fret profile (the neck gets wider as it moves from the nut/tuners toward the bridge/pickups).

1st fret and 24th fret profiles (green arc) for the prototype neck. 

Rough outline, half-shaped.

But what do I actually DO with this? I can’t chop the headstock and heel off to trace the profile and I can’t make a sanding jig since the profile changes as you move down the neck.  About all you can do is mark the depth of the vertical from the fretboard (basically the bottom of word “Reissue” in the images, above), cut the neck to a its depth (taking into account the fretboard thickness), and just start hacking away at the edges with rough wood working tools to get down to the point where finer & finer tools can be used to smooth the neck to a general profile.  The nice thing about working with pine is that this went very quickly.  The lousy thing about working with pine is that it’s SO soft that it rips and tears easily, but it does offer a lesson in taking the time to do the work at the pace the wood wants to work at and not try to force the pace.

Drawn outlines of cavities.
The next step was to do some test work with a set of Forstner bits to see if I could reasonably do the body “routing” with a drill press. (Ed. note: How is it that no one has ever told me that I need a set of Forstner bits? I CLEARLY do, but for this project I am content to borrow the set my father lent me. Next I expect you people will be telling me that I need a plunge router…).  The most direct work was the Control Cavity.  1” Forstner + Chisel made short work of getting the pocket done (to a somewhat random depth).  Lesson #2 learned is that my small drill press is NOT going to be deep enough to do this project on my equipment.  I was able to complete the body work with my 18v Ryobi hand drill, but it was definitely not clean.  The Bridge pickup was connected via a 12” long x ¼” drill bit, angled from the pickup to the control cavity.  The neck pickup will either be drilled from the neck pocket down to the bridge or routed under the pickguard and drilled into the control cavity.  The jack will be Fortner-drilled and covered with a cover plate.
"Finished" Pine guitar
(or the most work ever put
into a piece of firewood).

I definitely went into the Pine Neck project with a lot of questions and came out with a quite a few answers, or at least directions. The Pine Body project was more straight-forward and there was less figuring out to do.  Coming out of this exercise, the key pieces of learning is that the neck is likely going to be the part of the project where I can’t realistically get a quality product with the tools at my disposal, so I’ll be spending time down with my mentors making the neck.  I’ll also need to do the bulk of the body routing/drilling work there as well.  Although I could easily do the cavity drilling with the Ryobi, getting the neck pocket right is going to be a critical part of the construction and something that would be unwise to attempt myself.


  1. Well on your way to discovering the joys, intricacies, art and disappointments of instrument building. Forstners, yep but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Joiners, planers sanders decent chisels, routers, hand saws, rasps, hans planes and the the new shop to safely house them all in.....or, you could do the shop and get a CNC, but that would be no fun????

    1. Sorry about the anonymous thing, I'm not versed in these kinds of things, Tony