I stopped making guitars for a while but since I was essentially stuck at home to avoid the nasty pandemic I thought I’d keep busy. I wondered what kind of guitar would’ve come from a collaboration between Les Paul and Leo Fender. What if Les went to Leo instead of the Gibson company back in the early 50s? Would this be the guitar they might develop? I made a goldtop using mahogany for the body and neck with a maple cap covered in the exact same Cres-Lite gold tone powder that Gibson used in the 50’s. It’s mixed into nitrocellulose lacquer and covers both the body and headstock. I made the fretboard using nicely grained Gaboon ebony. The ice tea sunburst model is also made of mahogany with a curly maple cap. But I made the fretboard using Brazilian rosewood repurposed from flooring in a house in Washington state. Both guitars use my own hand-wound pickups which I potted using wax from our backyard beehives. I even made the decals and hand painted the one on the sunburst guitar in gold tone paint. The goldtop has a Bakelite pickguard.
I’ve posted a few of my instrumental pieces on Bandcamp. I put them up primarily so that the local NPR radio affiliate could access them to play during the news day. WAMU in Washington, DC has played several of the tunes- I keep hoping to hear one while I’m listening but it has yet to happen! Nonetheless, here’s the link- I use (mostly) my home made guitars and amps in all the tunes.
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!
…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.
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.
I tried many different styles of pickup- blades, stacked-
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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)