My first go at making a guitar was in high school, about 1973…
It was a bass, walnut body, mahogany neck. I ran out of money. Such is high school, I think I got a B.
Wood: I tend to keep wood around for a long time before I use it. I feel that wood that has been air dried for at least a few years is less likely to surprise with a warp, cup or bend when it’s put to work, and there’s no doubt it gets better as it ages. Hard maple neck stock I’m using now has air dried (after being kiln dried) for 4+ years, and some figured stock I have goes back 25. I’m not a slave to perfection in figure, I make instruments to be played first and looked at second (a close second), so I’ll use a blank with a streak or an odd bit of grain as long as it’s not a structural problem. It takes trees sometimes hundreds of years to make this stuff, and I don’t like to waste that hard work. I see it as character. My tastes run to maple & rosewood for necks, ebony for fretboards and mahogany, alder, linden & sugar pine for bodies but I’m always on the lookout for interesting and sustainable timbers.
Finish: Almost all my guitars are finished on the body with nitrocellulose lacquer, and on the neck with a rubbed in modified linseed oil varnish. Occasionally I’ll french polish (shellac) on an acoustic instrument. To me it’s paramount that a good instrument can be repaired. If it’s good, it should last pretty much forever, with care, so I don’t use hard to repair finishes like polyester, polyurethane or catalyzed lacquer (not to mention the air quality issues). This is also why I shy away from some of the fancy modern trends like CNC pocketed frets unless somebody asks for that.
Hardware: Factory made guitars often use mass produced stamped parts that are shiny chrome but just don’t have the class that a well machined or cast & polished object can have. Luckily there are a few sources around who care about detail. I use Callaham & Pigtail bridges, Gotoh & TonePros/Kluson tuners. My truss rods are local luthier Mark Blanchard’s patented stainless steel, double action rods. A clever design with a very fine, positive adjustment, they move only longitudinally and do not twist inside the neck, allowing for a snug, rattle free installation. Spitz Design & Machine, here in Willow Glen, makes machined stainless steel covers & plates for me, as well as my steel guitar bridges. Many other parts I make myself; cast resin pickguards, bone & corian nuts, knobs & switch tips.
Electronics: Electric guitar wiring is a bizarre anachronism. Why phantom powered low impedance active electronics didn’t find a home in guitars will forever be a mystery to me, it’s been around since 1919 (modern 48v systems since 1966 – perhaps by then it was already too late…). But I’m OK with it, there are so many things you can do with just wire and magnets, and it’s a sound we love. I like tidy wiring that is, again, easy to repair. Sometimes vintage style wiring, if it’s that kind of guitar. I have a couple of big spools of wire manufactured in 1954, excellent tone! (That was a joke, OK?) I enjoy finding ways to get a number of different sounds with a minimum of clutter and controls. I use Lollar pickups in most guitars, they always deliver. Sometimes I wind my own T style bridge pickups for a hotter, greasier sound, and I wind most all my own lap steel pickups.
Neck Shapes: In a perfect world, I’d be able to see how a person plays before carving a neck for them. Even then, it’s a bit of luck, which is why you should play a bunch of guitars blindfolded before you pick one. I find players roughly divided into two camps, those who play with their thumb on the back of the neck and like a slimmer rounded shape, and those who play thumb-over-the-top and like a thicker more elliptical shape towards the nut. The fat, elliptical soft V is my favorite, and I tend to make those more often. Classical players probably wouldn’t like them, but street technique seems to get along pretty well. It depends on how I imagine the guitar is going to be played. You just have to try them out. Fretboards usually get a compound radius, from 9.5 or 10 at the nut to 12 at the heel.
Setup: A guitar that’s not set up well is just no fun at all. So I spend a good amount of time doing this on every guitar I make.
Tone: Well, hard to write about. I don’t have a particular sort of sound I go for. I’ll just say I’m partial to Jeff Beck, Steve Howe & David Lindley among others and we can go from there…
I sometimes teach woodworking to people and I like to babble at them about what I think is the most important tool, especially when the subject is guitar making and the result has to be very good. The tool is light. In 1858, using just light, Léon Foucault could measure the surface of a polished telescope mirror with an accuracy of about a millionth of an inch. It’s a powerful tool.
Good shop lighting of course, plenty of it, and of a color that’s natural and diffused so it doesn’t cast obvious shadows. I like a mix of halogen and fluorescent.
For carving, or flattening surfaces, a strong point source is great. Sunlight is best. Here’s afternoon sunlight showing high and low spots and the smoothness of the curve on a neck.
If you’re older than about 5, magnifying goggles are useful too.
Burnishing wood is so overlooked, I’m wondering if I made it up. There’s no article about it on Wikipedia, so it doesn’t exist, right? Even a search for ‘burnishing wood’ brings up only a few page related to the process I’m talking about, and a bunch of hogwash about oils and creams, as if I was searching for wart remedies. Burnishing (according to Webster) is
Definition 2. Excellent. To rub a material with a tool. I’ll skip right to it then. On a guitar fret board, particularly where the species is porous or compressible (i.e. soft), and especially where the play may be (ahem) vigorous, the luthier may burnish the surface before (and possibly after) fretting, in order to compact and smooth the surface and to make it wear longer.
I use a flat piece of stainless steel about 1″ x 4″, it has smooth, rounded edges (it’s actually the handle of a folding knife that lives on my bench). Some people use a rounded burnisher – the pressure is more concentrated this way, but it’s easy to make a dent if your strokes aren’t perfectly smooth or the wood has an uneven density. I use a lot of pressure.
Here’s a one piece neck where the material is suitable for both neck and fingerboard (it’s Tigerwood, aka Gonçalo Alves), but this wood is a little bit porous, and after some playing it’s going to wear and also collect greasy finger muck. Burnishing the playing surface closes the pores a bit, so the muck won’t get stuck in there as deep, and it compresses and smooths the surface, making it easier to clean and a bit longer wearing.
I sometimes will burnish an Indian Rosewood fingerboard for the same reasons, if it feels a little soft.
Ask a violin bow maker (an Archetier to be more precise) how they finish that tiny, incredibly stiff and resilient stick. They won’t tell you, not because it’s a mysterious secret, more likely because it’s kind of tedious and boring unless you happen to be consumed and possessed by the art, which I believe an Archetier must be. It’s burnished.