My Failed Guitar Making Experiment

After watching hours and hours of videos of people making guitars from scratch (Crimson Guitars in particular), I decided to take a crack at making one myself… as you do. I had a garage full of tools, a load of random wood, and an impulsive desire to see if I could make a guitar, so I got to it.

The plan was basically to make a guitar buying as little in the way of tools and materials as possible. This was my first attempt so I expected things to go wrong, but it would be a learning curve at least and maybe I could have another go afterwards with nicer materials and a bit more experience.

That bit about expecting things to go wrong? Yeah, I was right about that bit, but more on that at the end.

I had some rather large beams of some unknown wood in my garage that were left behind by the previous owner of our house. The logic was simple enough; if it’s strong enough to support a ceiling it should be strong enough to make a guitar out of. I had decided to copy the Gibson ES-335 style of guitar, though unlike the hollow body of the 335, mine would be a solid neck-through guitar. “Neck-through” means that a single piece of wood is used down the centre of the guitar, from the base of the body to the headstock. I had recently purchased a Tom DeLonge signature Epiphone ES-333, and was quite taken with the centre stripe;

<3

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As such, I harbored a (somewhat optimistic) notion that I could recreate the centre stripe style using the natural colour of the wood. So, I set to work.

The wooden beams were indeed strong, and had I known just how tough the wood was going to be, I might have reconsidered my decision to spend as little money on new tools as possible. Nonetheless, two long evening later I had the rough shape of a neck through guitar (minus the “wings”).

Homemade Guitar Update: It's starting to look like a guitar.

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I found a piece of wood suitable for the fretboard on Amazon, made of some unpronounceable material that had “Indian” before it. It was cheap and it said “perfect for guitar fingerboard” in the description, so I went with that.

The next step was to add a truss rod to the neck. The truss rod was another Amazon purchase—actually most of the things I bought were Amazon purchases; that tends to happen when you’re already paying for Amazon Prime—but to fit the truss rod I had to buy a new tool. I didn’t own a router (not the thing that gives you WiFi, the other one) and making a guitar without one was out of the question.

Homemade Guitar Update: Shiny

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With the truss rod channel routed and the truss rod in place, I glued the fret board to the neck. This involved a lot of planing of the neck and fretboard to get the surfaces as smooth as possible, before smearing copious amounts of wood glue across them and clamping them together with no less than six clamps (I should have used more but it was all I could get hold of).

Twenty four hours later, with the fretboard firmly attached, I planed a radius onto it, measured out the frets using an online scale length calculator, cut the fret channels, and fit some nice abalone dots. The dots provided a handy lesson in just how important focus and concentration is when making a guitar, as I somehow managed to get the fifteenth fret dot horribly off centre. I wasn’t sure how I could fix that without it looking horrendous, and I wasn’t prepared to start over with the fret board for one dot, so I left it alone. This was supposed to be a practice run, after all.

Errant dots aside, everything was going so well. Time for the “wings”.

Hopefully by the end of tomorrow she'll look like a real guitar…

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A regular solid body guitar would typically be made of a one piece body with a neck glued or bolted to it. A neck through guitar is made of one long piece that makes up the neck and centre of the body while “wings” are glued to the side to create the typical guitar look.

Sticking with my not-spending-any-money mantra, and knowing that it wasn’t particularly important to the sound of the guitar what the wings were made of, I glued a number of pieces of regular CLS timber together, cut them into the shape of a guitar, and glued them to my neck. This process proved a little tricky. I may have had six clamps at my disposal, but only one of them was large enough to clamp the whole body. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, but the final clamping method involved the aforementioned lone clamp, two breeze blocks, and a lot of careful balancing.

Once the wings were glued on I was faced with a great deal of elbow-aching, mind-number planing and sanding to get the body down to the shape I wanted it. Then I could start making it look like a guitar.

DIY Guitar Update: Side by side with the real thing. The big one, not the ukulele.

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I posted the above picture to show off my proud work. “It looks like a guitar!” I thought. I was promptly messaged by a friend who is very knowledgeable on the subject of guitars. The bridge was wrong. It should be angled, and it wasn’t. Un-drilling a hole is impossible, of course. Filling a hole wouldn’t have been a big deal if I’d intended to paint the guitar, but I wanted to stain it. I wanted to keep the difference in colour between the two woods visible to get that centre stripe look.

Nonetheless, there was a very real chance that guitar wouldn’t tune properly if I didn’t fix the bridge, so fix it I did. “The guitar was already made out of old cheap wood and parts,” I told myself, “stop being so precious about how it looks!”

With the bridge fixed (and a lot of ugly wood filler sanded down), I set about fitting the electronics. Here is where the difference between my DIY guitar and a nice, expensive guitar would have really stood out. I found a set of humbucker pickups for less than £15. I had no doubt they’d sound terrible, but at this point I just wanted to reach the stage of having made a functional guitar and I would put some real effort and money into the next one. I only used one humbucker, which is an intentional choice on many guitars (such as the ES-333 mentioned above) but in truth I made this decision because I couldn’t route a neck pickup cavity with the equipment I had.

For the rest of the electronics, I bought a pre-wired single coil pickup with volume knob, tone knob, and output jack (again under £15). I simply cut the single coil off and wired it straight up to the humbucker. A set of black Gibson-inspired knobs finished the electronics side of things off and I was soon ready to stain the wood.

Exciting!

 

The above picture is as close as this guitar came to being finished. The electronics were in, the headstock finished, the stain… good enough. I purchased some Crimson Guitars staining dye and guitar finishing oil. It only seemed fair seeing as a large part of the know how for this venture came from their videos. So now it just needed a nut fitting and it would have been ready to string up.

Then it happened.

I had left the guitar in the kitchen near (but not on) a radiator in order to help the wood and stain cure properly. You can probably guess what’s coming. One Saturday morning at work I got a rather tearful phone call from my fiance (bless her cotton socks), she’d accidentally knocked the guitar over and the headstock had snapped. Clean off.

John Bullck's Broken DIY Electric Guitar :(
My poor DIY guitar…

For my darling fiance, who felt very guilty at the time, I want to reiterate that I was and am not mad, upset, or any other negative feeling. I’ve told her this plenty, but just in case she reads this blog post, I’m not trying to shame you or anything, I’m just sharing the experience.

The truth is, she probably saved me an injury. If the headstock was so weak that it snapped off from being knocked over, there’s a good chance it would have snapped when I began to tension the strings, or while I was playing it. A string whipping you when it breaks is painful, I imagine the lump of wood and metal that is a guitar headstock flying at you could easily break a finger or wrist. On top of that there’s the fact that I had intentionally used cheap wood and tools because I didn’t want to become too attached to this guitar. It was a test run; practice.

The next one will be better…

2 thoughts on “My Failed Guitar Making Experiment

  • 23rd November 2016 at 5:32 pm
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    I’m sorry to hear it didn’t go fully to plan but you had a great first go at it. Accidents happen and like you said – you probably could have really hurt yourself.

    It was looking really good so I bet with the right materials and tools – you will make an excellent guitar!

    Reply

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