New(ish) Amp Designs-

I’ve never much cared for the look of your average guitar amp.  I realize that a Tolex covered wooden box with grill cloth serves a purpose: it allows the amp to be carried around from gig to gig without damage to the sensitive electronics.  But what if you have no intention of moving the amp anywhere?  What if you intend to let it sit in one place in your living room or recording space?  If it doesn’t need to be moved, why make it look unattractive?

My amps are Living Room amps.  They are designed to be put in one place and will hopefully appeal to the eye like furniture or a piece of sculpture.  I made two amps in 2014, which will serve as a prototypes for more amps to come.  One amp follows a design similar to artists from the De Stijl movement of the early 20th century.  Gerrit Rietveld was famous in part for his Rietveld chair.  Piet Mondrian painted brightly colored rectangles, often bordered in black.  I borrowed from these two artists to create my Mondrian amp.

The other amp is inspired by hot rods (and possibly robots) from the late 40’s and 50’s.  It uses curving lines of steel and has few 90 degree angles.  I powder coated the metal in candy apple red.

 

Bookmatched Redwood

Possibly my most upscale guitar to date, #8 has a beautiful redwood top with mahogany back and neck, and ebony fretboard.  I spent a great deal of time working on the inlays, using abalone and mother of pearl.  The redwood for the top was cut some 80 years ago and shows amazing figure.  I used standard plastic bobbins but wound the pickups as usual on a sewing machine.  The pickups are switchable series/parallel using switches in the pots.  Home made knobs and switch tip from ebony.  I even turned the ebony guitar strap buttons on my mini lathe.  I named the guitar “Bohemia” for the European Bohemian movement of the 1800’s, oh, and also for Natty Boh beer!

 

 

Time Flies

…and here it is two years later and I’m still making guitars!

Here are some pics of my latest, the Sparkle Guitar.  I wanted to make a lighter guitar so I used Jelutong for the hollowed-out body with a stripe of figured redwood down the middle.  The top is maple with 20-30 coats of nitrocellulose lacquer over red metalflake.  I made the humbucker pickups on homemade wood bobbins, and installed series/parallel switching.  This one has a 26″ scale neck and I think it sounds just great de-tuned a whole step.  It sounds so good that I think I’ll concentrate on making more 26″ scale D tuned guitars for awhile.  The end result is 6lbs, 4 ozs, lighter than my Strat by a few ounces.

My old homemade studio amp, reamp

I made this amp in 2000-  It has a rectifier tube, an EF86 preamp tube, and an EL84 output tube.  It probably puts out about 4 watts.  It has a simple tone control, which can be bypassed.  It has a cathode bypass cap, which can also be switched out of the circuit.  Volume, power and standby round out the controls.  I used two Weber 10″ alnico speakers in the cabinet- one is open back, one closed back.  I can pick either or both speakers, and can pick series or parallel connections when using both speakers.  It is very versatile for such a small simple amp- I use it all the time!

 

Homemade reamp

homemade reamp

homemade reamp

This box  allows me to send pre-recorded tracks out to a guitar amp for processing.  I find it great for making a synth or keyboard sample sound more “lively”.  Fully passive, it has a Jensen transformer, ground lift.  I used some nice hardwoods, mortise and tenon joinery, and roofing copper.

Finished photos

…and it is alive.

I had a ton of trouble getting the pickups to work well!  I really didn’t want to drill holes in the beautiful thuya burl pickup covers, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the pickups to sound good without getting the strings closer to the magnetic field.  I finally ended up drilling holes for 12 alnico magnets in each pickup.  I made bobbins from maple and used alnico 2 magnets in the bridge and alnico 5’s at the neck.  The neck pickup has 2x 5000 windings and the bridge has 2x 5500.

Strangely, even though I have 10,000+ winds on each pickup, I’m getting a sound very much like a Strat from these pickups.

2013-11-23 13.09.10

one of four maple bobbins…

I tried many different styles of pickup- blades, stacked-

-many attempts

-many attempts

I also spent a lot of time making knobs for this guitar.  I had a couple of ideas in mind, but once I tried them I was disappointed by the look:

2013-12-07 10.10.52

lots of failed knobs to go with the failed pickups.

Applying the finish

I decided to commemorate the Halloween season with a bat inlay on the headstock and an orange top-

 

Sanding and Shaping

I wanted this to be a really smooth guitar, with lines flowing naturally from one to the next.  I spent a lot of time sanding and went back over the course of a week or two refining the curves.  For the first time I used my drill press like an arbor press to insert the frets, and did all the frets with the fretboard off the neck.  I also decided to bind the neck with ebony so it isn’t readily apparent the neck is bound unless you look closely.

developing theme

I started thinking about Fall and Fall colors, Halloween coming in a few weeks…  The brown in the ebony fretboard led me to choose Thuya burl for the headstock inlay.  I put in an ebony inlay for the first time, around the perimeter of the headstock.  I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to bend the inlay around the curves!  I ended up hand cutting the curves at the base of the headstock from leftover fretboard wood, using an inlay saw.  I cut the slots for the tuners using my little Harbor Freight mini mill.  That mini mill comes in handy for so many things.

more progress…

I chose to use the ebony fretboard with the swoop of brown coloring.  I discovered that it had a natural dot and I oriented it so that this dot was at the 12th fret- a natural octave marker!  I cut the space out for the neck in the body.  This has an extra long tenon which terminates at the bridge pickup cavity.  I really didn’t want to put in a neck reinforcing rod, but decided at the last minute to do so.  I think the 5 piece neck with the thick ebony fretboard would’ve been OK, but I chickened out.  

I discovered “Thuya Burl” at my local exotic lumber supply and chose to use it as the headstock inlay.

Shaping and refining

Once I had my basic shape I cut out the top and bottom of the body and then started shaping the neck.  I discovered that I had to be careful because the mahogany is much softer than the maple or ebony- it is easy to trim more mahogany than ebony, leading to flat spots on the neck.

Working up body design…

I was originally planning to make another LP style guitar, but chose instead to make an original body design based in part on guitars by Michael Spalt and Steve Klein.  I drew a sketch freehand on a piece of tracing paper and put another piece of tracing paper atop the first, modifying my sketch until I had something I liked.

Long Hiatus, but back at work- starting #5

I came to the realization last January that I was spending too much time making guitars!  I still have to work for a living, but I’ve got a little time free between jobs so I’ve recently started build number 5.

It was a revelation putting together the Koa guitar- the action, neck feel, and overall appearance turned out great.  The pickups, although they hum like most P-90’s, just sound fantastic and I really liked how the Bocote neck, pickups, and knobs worked together.  I’ve decided to make another single-cut glue-in guitar, making use of some of the wonderful woods I have kicking around.

YouTube videos on Koa guitar now posted!

Here are some new videos, showing the Koa guitar off and comparing it to some real classics from Fender and Gibson.  I’ve also posted comparisons in sound between Vox and Fender amps and running direct from pickup to hard drive…

Favorite and least favorite spray guns and PPS

Making guitars is one thing.  Finishing them is something else altogether!  As a kid I always wondered how guitar manufacturers managed to get such deep glossy finishes on their guitars.  Once I started building them I learned that the “coolest” finish for guitars is nitrocellulose lacquer.  This is what Gibson and Fender used in the 50’s, and while the formulas are no longer the same (the old stuff was very bad for people and the environment), one can still get a finish that’s close to the classics.  On recommendation from various web sites, I started using Sherwin Williams LOVOC- a lacquer that looks and feels like the old stuff but also has fewer dangerous volatile organic compounds.  It also dries faster than other finishes I’ve tried, like Behlins which took forever, I mean, literally a month or more, to dry.  I found a spray gun (you need a compressor for these- the bigger the better) that works great and also happens to be the cheapest spray gun I’ve ever bought.  It is a Tool Force touch up spray gun model A-C2.  I think I paid about $18 for it on Amazon.  I combined it with the “3M PPS system” -which allows you to work with these finishes using disposable spray cups, less clean-up and less exposure to the nasty chemicals.  This makes a big difference in the enjoyment of finishing a guitar.  The gun has a lot of adjustments, allowing you to get a very fine mist, great for sunburst finishes.

The $17 Tool Force is, in  my experience, fantastic for guitars.  The $120 Leonardo ATD-16913 is essentially useless.

The $17 Tool Force is, in my experience, fantastic for guitars. The $120 Leonardo ATD-16913 is essentially useless.

these disposable cups work great and offer less exposure to harmful chemicals

these disposable cups work great and offer less exposure to harmful chemicals

 

In contrast- the Leonardo ATD-16913 has been completely useless to me, except it introduced me to the PPS system mentioned above because it includes the PPS cup and adapter in the package.  This gun, no matter how I adjust it, doesn’t properly atomize the lacquer.  I get big messy drops on my guitars.  I sent email to the US distributor asking for help but no one responded.  It is possible my compressor just can’t get enough CFM to properly work the gun, but I’ll never know because it is impossible to talk to anyone and they don’t answer their email requests.  In short:

Tool Force A-C2 Touch Up Spray Gun  highly recommended

3M- PPS system and adapters for different spray guns highly recommended (by the way the PPS adapter for the Tool Force gun is the 3M 16105 PPS Adapter #21)

Leonardo ATD-16913 NOT recommended

Almost Done! The Koa guitar- Number 4

Surprising that it has been just over a month since my last post!  I ran into several problems applying the finish to the Koa guitar…  I burned through the horn while buffing, and ended up refinishing the whole guitar.  I finally completed that, had the guitar sitting on a sofa in the living room and somehow Petey, my six year old, put a gouge on top of the guitar.  So I had to sand it out and refinish it once again.  Each finish takes a couple of weeks before it can be buffed.

I made the pickups from the same wood as the fretboard- bocote wood.  I then decided that I should make the knobs to match, so I turned them on a lathe and spent countless hours making them identical to each other (to within four thousands of an inch, anyway).  I spent even more time putting the thick glossy coat on these knobs.  I decided to apply Super Glue to them for durability and had real problems getting the finish to match exactly from knob to knob.  I set metal sleeves inside the knobs, perfectly centered, so the knobs don’t rock on the potentiometer shafts as they turn.

2nd coat of clear

Here are some pics taken moments ago…  Might be the last work I can do before Hurricane Sandy comes our way.  The sun popped out and I thought I’d take a couple photos of the work in progress.  This will need more sanding, another coat, more sanding, and at least one more coat before I can start buffing it out.  I decided to do a “faded” sunburst finish on the front because it just looked so cool on the Koa.  I also did just one coat of tinted lacquer over the binding so it wouldn’t stand out so starkly against the wood. I finished the 2nd pickup so now once I finish the headstock inlay and lacquer I’ll be ready to put it all together.

One-piece pickup bobbin construction

I’ve finished one pickup, still have another to finish but it is close.  I came up with one of those eureka moments very early this morning.  I came up with a plan to make a pickup bobbin out of a single piece of wood (in this case I chose Ipe for its strength and stability).  I clamped a piece of mahogany scrap to my table saw for use as a jig, and after carefully dimensioning the stock, I was able to make fairly precise slots.  Cutting to size and more slotting followed, and after sanding and drilling I was ready to wind!

Covers Complete, now I have to fill them!

Here are some shots of the completed pickup covers.  Fortunately I had no real problems finishing the second one…  Well, I did forget to count turns as I was milling out the 2nd pickup cover, almost broke through the end.  I must have been in some sort of meditative state, counting “40, 41, 42, 43…” when I should have stopped at 42!  I use an old Harbor Freight manual mini mill to create the cavities in these covers.  It comes in handy but it has a lot of slop in the gears and really isn’t good for precise work.

Coolest pickup cover evah?

I told my client I had some ideas for cool details on this guitar…  Here’s one:

Wood pickup covers.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to make another one of these!  This one turned out great.  I made it out of bocote so it will match the fretboard.  I’m a little worried that it might be too delicate, especially on the endgrain, but I’ll learn this as it suffers the rigors of assembly.  This one is only sanded and buffed- no lacquer yet.

Working Weekend

It is coming together, finally, and not without a battle.  Gluing the top and back is always a challenge with hot hide glue.  This was no exception.  The glue cooled too fast and when I released the clamps one edge didn’t hold, leaving a nasty quarter inch gap.  Of course the good thing about hide glue is that it is reversible.  I heated the joint with a heat gun, applied a little hot water, and inserted some fresh hide glue, re-clamping the whole thing for another couple of hours.  That did the trick and it looks good now.  There was a lot of detail work before gluing- drilling holes for the controls, routing recesses to accommodate the mounting threads.  Cutting the control access hole, making the control plate, making sure everything would fit together once glued.  I’ve put an initial coat of tung oil on it, and the grain looks good.  Trying to decide whether to stick with tung oil or to go with the hard nitrocellulose finish I’ve grown to love.  Regardless I’ll have to let it dry for a while before I do anything else.

Frets and Alignment

Today I tweaked, sanded a little and put in the frets.  I gave it a quick alignment check, held my breath and drilled the holes for the bridge.  Now I could put up a couple of strings and make sure everything lines up pretty well before I glue anything down.  Looks good, and this is the best fret job I’ve ever done.  I haven’t set the height of ANY frets yet but at least so far, they look level and straight.  Of course that’ll probably change once the string tension comes into play!

small step for Dan, giant leap for Dankind

Here’s one area I always avoid for as long as possible.  But at 7AM I mustered the courage and started measuring for the headstock slots.  The Waverly tuners showed up yesterday, and I couldn’t put it off any longer.

It worked!  Still have to sand, polish, insert screws, etc., but nothing broke and it looks pretty good.

pain in the neck

What a lot of work went into this…  Koa is a tough wood- hard to cut and hard to sand or remove with a rasp.  I started out on the shaper trying to get the bulk of the wood removed but the neck broke free of the jig and shot across the room.  Fortunately there was little damage to the neck, the room or myself, but after this experience I took out my rasps and set to work, manually removing anything that didn’t look like a guitar neck.  Several hours later I was able to start sanding.  Next up, the abalone dots.  Once these were dry, at approx. 1AM, I set to work gluing the fretboard to the neck using only hot hide glue.  I’m finally getting the hang of using this stuff- you have to work very fast, get everything ready before you apply it.  Sometimes it helps to heat the wood with a heat gun first but in this case I just applied the glue to both objects, pulled the protective masking tape off the truss rod area, and slapped the pieces together.  Unlike the white or yellow stuff, hot hide glue doesn’t slide all over the place, making alignment easier as I clamped the pieces together. After I trimmed off the excess fretboard this morning, I applied a little tung oil just to see how it is going to look.