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Weekend Warrior Luthiery, Part 2

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Weekend Warrior Luthiery, Part 2

Day 8 – The Neck Carve
If Day 7 is on the books for the most tedious day, Day 8 wins the award for the most fun and by far the most rewarding to date: the neck carve. With just a little bit of neck pull sanding left—this time wearing gloves—I was given George’s blessing that it lined up nice and straight with the body and soon-to-be bridge area. With that monumental task out of the way, it was time to prepare the neck for carving.

Before I could get to the actual shaping of the neck, we glued on the headstock laminate and drilled the slots out for the tuning keys. This required using a drill press to cut the slots out in multiple passes, which were then cleaned up with a router. The final headstock shape was also routed out and completed. Since the neck started out wider than the fingerboard, a band saw was used to cut off the excess material so it was basically flush with the fingerboard. This raw-looking piece of glued-together woods looks exactly like what it is: a rough-cut starting point for the neck.


Neck shape template

I started taking down the excess wood between the headstock and nut area with a file to get the shape to match up along the chalk lines scored using a plexiglass template. The headstock itself is fairly basic with no intricate carving required. After getting that basic shape taken care of, I was given a 4-sided template that gave the basic neck shape for my classical guitar. The neck is a very personal thing for players, and the template was a guide to get in the ballpark, not an exact scale. “Hogging” out the extra wood with the file was incredibly fun, though I found myself being slightly cautious because I feared pulling too much wood away. Using the template on the nut, 3rd and 12th frets I was able to visualize if the shape was getting close. If any light could be seen through it, more shaping was necessary.


Final neck sanding

Once the basic shape was carved, I was given a long sanding block that was used horizontally across the neck to bring uniformity to its shape. It was exciting to pull the neck out of the clamps and feel it for the first time—this is where the extra time spent getting it to feel right in my hands was worth it. After making sure I had the transitional area from the back of the headstock to the nut area (no volute in my case) it was onto the Spanish heel. Spanish heels on necks are known for having a sharply defined shape and slight curve-back to them. Utilizing the file again, I spent several hours shaping away to get it dialed in. Surprisingly within the day the neck had taken shape from a raw block of wood into a nicely hand-carved neck—a great note to end on.


Smoooooooth!

Day 9 – Neck and Finishing
Today started out with some odds and ends before getting the neck and body prepared for finishing. Finishing? Already? Well, you have to finish the neck and body before you can assemble the neck and install the bridge, tuners, nut and frets, so here’s how it went. The first step was drilling the holes in the headstock for the tuners to fit in place. Since I’m building a classical, I’m using Gotoh 3-on-a-side connected tuners. A handy template from Stewart MacDonald lined up the marks for the holes and the drilling went perfectly. We did a final neck fitting to ensure that it was straight and everything was ready to rock.

This was the first opportunity I had to see the guitar in a semi-built state, which was really inspiring. It looks like a guitar! Because the fingerboard was still hanging over into the soundhole, we did a cut with the band saw to follow the soundhole and I used a file to clean up the edges for a clean look.


The guitar in its first semi-built state (with the fingerboard still extending into the soundhole)

Before we could mask the guitar for finishing, there were a few loose strings to tie up. The first was to taper the headstock near the 6th and 1st string tuners for string clearance. Because of the angle of the headstock, you have to file away some of the wood so there is no string drag before reaching the tuning keys. It also is a pseudo-fancy look, since it shows off the combination of the rosewood headstock laminate into the mahogany neck. Finally the binding required a rounding-over with sandpaper to make sure it wasn’t going to cut into my skin when sitting for long hours of playing. There is no right or wrong amount of bevel for this step, just personal taste.

The taping process is simple—just holding down the bridge in the appropriate place and tracing a line to mark where the tape would go. After removing the bridge and taping it off, I used an eraser on the pencil marks. The neck was taped off in the appropriate places, as well as the body, and I was ready for the varnish.

The varnish is an amber stain that brings out the grain, color and intensity of the wood before clear lacquer is applied. I applied one coat of varnish to the back, top and sides of the guitar, as well as the neck, before the day was over. I felt that this day was the most impressive accomplishment to date.


Masked and varnished body drying

Day 10 – Clear Coat
Now that the body and neck had been varnished, it was time to apply the clear lacquer to both. Before the clear could be applied, the guitar was brought outside to inspect for scratches, extra glue or anything that the varnish revealed. At this stage everything will be amplified so it was important to get all of it taken care of before proceeding. More than a few scratches were revealed, so we decided to sand them out evenly. This meant I had to sand the top and back fully and apply another coat of varnish. After it dried, we were on to the clear coats.

It takes a while for the clear coats to dry, but the process is pretty simple: Spray it evenly on the top, sides, and the entire neck and wait for it to dry…repeat. Each time I went through the process there was a 30-45 minute wait, so I got a lot of reading and playing in (they have some really nice guitars there at the shop!). At the end of the day my neck had been sprayed 8 times, the top 3, back 5, and sides 8. It looked a little heavy on the clear (it's sprayed on about .012 to .015"), but I was assured by both Diana and George that the smooth sanding of the clear would leave the guitar with about a .006-.008" coat.


Clear coat drying

That’s all for now. As I looked at the body and neck drying at the end of the day I marveled that this instrument has been crafted by my hands. Once again this is clearly a testament to a couple of dedicated teachers, great tools and some serious sweat equity (especially “pulling” the sandpaper part…I still haven’t forgotten that). Stay tuned next time for the final installment of the Weekend Warrior! I can’t wait.
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