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Designing and Ordering a Custom Guitar, Pt. 3

Some of the cosmetic aspects you’ll need to determine for your custom instrument.

This guitar’s Indian rosewood binding contrasts nicely against its Australian-blackwood back and sides.

In the first two parts of this series, we covered the basics on how to get started ordering a custom guitar, as well as some of the construction details you’ll be deciding on in the process. This month, let’s talk about some of the cosmetic aspects you’ll need to determine for your custom instrument.

As with most parts of the custom-guitar design process, we could go on for days about binding possibilities, but I will try and stick to the ones that we get into most often. While we do a lot of wood bindings because we prefer that look, we also do plastic bindings as well. One thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t expect to hear a difference in the tone between the two options: The choice is strictly cosmetic.

Wood Bindings
The options here are almost endless, but we usually do our wood bindings with maple, Indian rosewood, or koa. We’ll also use cocobolo or ebony occasionally. The biggest decision here comes down to how the color and figure of the bindings contrast with the color and figure of the back and side woods. You may like a lot of contrast, such as maple against rosewood, or you may like the almost-unbound look of rosewood on rosewood, with maybe just a set of black/white/black lines in-between.

You can find plenty of images on the internet to give you an idea of the different options for your guitar, so be sure to research as many as possible before deciding. Do be aware, however, that wood colors and grains vary, so you may not get exactly the same color and figure in your wood bindings that you saw in another example. As with all details, trust the input of your guitar builder on these things. We’ve done it many times before, so we know what works, and what doesn’t.

Plastic Bindings
Often, and mostly for the sake of tradition, we use various plastic bindings. These are usually ivoroid, white plastic, black plastic, or tortoise-colored plastic. If you are ordering a tradition-based model, I would recommend that you stick with whatever your grandpa’s guitar had for binding. You might like the idea of tortoise binding on your D-28-styled guitar at first, but later on—especially if you ever want to sell it—you may end up wishing that you had chosen traditional ivoroid or white plastic instead.

Purfling Schemes
There are just as many purfling options as there are binding options, but we usually see one of just a few. Those include black/white/black fiber lines, herringbone, rope style, or abalone. Abalone top trim is something that has gone a bit out of style, but is still a real jaw-dropper when you see it. It will move most instruments into a showier context, and certainly also costs quite a bit more. Herringbone is often a good choice, even on an instrument that you would normally not see herringbone. If you add herringbone to a mahogany guitar, for example, you can add flair to the look, without giving it a design scheme that’s a bit too weird. It will look traditional, but with a different touch.

We do several top colors other than natural, including a lot of sunbursts. And we offer two basic sunbursts: our three-color (aka standard) and two-color sunburst. The two-color sunburst is reddish brown on the outside edge, whereas our standard burst is black on the outside edge. Every builder has their own, and most will gladly send you pictures. It’s worth noting that sunbursts are not only notoriously difficult to photograph—it’s very hard to do two that are exactly alike. So allow your builder some license here. I’ve been doing sunbursts for 19 years now and I’ve hardly ever done two that are exactly the same. When you embrace that concept, a sunburst can be a unique way to distinguish your guitar from a similar style.

We also do aging toner top-finish once in a while. You can add just a bit of a yellowing agent with the first coat of the top’s finish to give it an antiqued look. This looks best when done on very traditional-designed guitar.

As for staining the back, sides, and neck, I do recommend that you stain mahogany, especially with the lighter-colored mahoganies that we use today. They can be very pale and sometimes an unattractive pinkish color when not stained. The exception here would be mahoganies that have quite a bit of ribbon figure. They often have a darker color than normal, and will display a striking luminescence when left unstained.

Remember that these rough guidelines are influenced by personal tastes, so get with your builder and flesh out your own ideas on these things. If you’re just the right amount creative while remaining open-minded and respectful of the opinions of those with experience, you will end up with a beautiful and unique instrument.

Next time, we’ll cover inlays and move on to pickup and set-up choices.

Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Company. When not building guitars, Mark and his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.
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