Building a Guitar – The Ultimate in Self-Expression Part I

My last few articles I talked about the search for tone. I went through my history of the many pieces of equipment and guitars I’ve used over the years to achieve the ultimate tone in my mind. As a part of this, I spoke briefly about the first guitar I built. I thought to myself, it would be interesting to discuss the process I went through in more detail as it was an experience unlike any I had ever had before. If anyone reading this has built their own guitar, please feel free to comment about your experience in the comments below.

Why did I build a guitar? I’ve been playing guitar for MANY years and had always been curious about the process. I have several friends who are luthiers and guitar parts builders. It really just came down to my curiosity needing to be satisfied. So, I started doing research. As most know, when on Facebook, there are many advertisements geared to your interests and one of those that popped up for me was a DIY guitar company called Bargain Musician. There are many guitar DIY companies out there and I’ll include some at the end of this article. I had known about Warmoth guitar parts for several years, but they were far out of my budget and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something I had no idea how to do. I went with the Bargain Musician LP Paulownia Body Style which cost only $139.99 and included everything to complete the guitar other than paint/stain and finishing supplies.

One of the reasons I chose this kit over others besides the price was that it had a bolt-on neck, which I thought would be easier than a set-neck, like a real Les Paul. I also wanted untreated wood so that I would be able to customize it with not only a custom paint/stain design, but to modify the headstock. I had a design in my head for the paint as well as the headstock. There are a lot of DIY videos on YouTube I used as a point of reference for nearly every phase of my build, but what it came down to was trial and error. Ace hardware and Radio Shack became two of my favorite places to visit and get advice.

The above pictured package arrived and I was very surprised as to how light the body was compared to my Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plus. Also, as I started looking at the hardware components and electronics, I realized that they probably were not the quality I was looking for even though it was my first build. My design was going to be a two-tone black and wood stain finish, so I thought gold hardware would really make the whole thing pop. I went to Ebay and found someone selling everything off a Les Paul Custom for just over $100. The purchase included all the gold hardware including Grover tuners and all the electronics including the gold pickups. Perfect.

As I waited for the new parts to arrive I went and got the supplies I needed for the build. Luckily for me, Ace and Radio Shack are in the same shopping plaza where I purchased: a soldering gun (20/40 watt), solder, solder gun tip cleaner, then sand paper of varying grit from 320 to 3000, black paint, tack cloth, painters tape, and chestnut stain.

The first step for the build was modifying the headstock. I used a woodworking hand-saw to start the top and then used a Dremel type tool to complete the design. I haven’t seen this design anywhere before, but that doesn’t necessarily mean something comparable out there in the world, but it is unique. I created a crown at the top then furrows at the front and back of each tuning peg.

The next step was to prep the body for the stain and paint which meant a lot of elbow grease and sanding. I started using a low grit, 320, and worked my way up to 1500 until all the wood was baby smooth. For those who have calloused fingers, make sure you use your alternate hand to feel for roughness.

I had a two-tone stain/paint idea for the body and neck which meant I had a lot of taping to do before getting started. I used a pencil and steel rule all around the edge of the body to mark the exact middle. I then taped off the part that was going to be painted so the stain wouldn’t get in the area. Using clean cloths, I put the first coat of stain on the top part of the body and the edge. I don’t remember how many coats I put on after letting dry, maybe five. The best advice I can give is the more coats you add the darker/denser the stain looks, so just keep going until you have the depth that looks good to you.

Next, I pulled the tape off the body edge and applied tape to the stain side of the edge so the paint would not get on it. I applied the paint originally using a brush, but found that the bristles came through when it dried. I sanded those down and applied another coat using a cloth, which worked much better. Make sure to use a tack cloth to clean all areas before applying the next coat!

The neck was a much more difficult prospect as I wanted the two-tone on the edge of the body to flow up into the neck exactly. To do this I positioned the neck in the neck pocket and used a pencil to mark the center of the two-tone. Taping the neck off was not easy as I was working with ½ inch painters tape and had to do a lot of cutting to make it work. I also had a design idea of making the black paint into the shape of a spear in the back of the headstock. Can you say nightmare? I had to a lot of measuring for centering, but in the end it worked out really well.

I used the same staining and painting methodologies for the neck as I did the body. I completed the finishing process by using several coats of polyurethane clear-coat applied with a cloth. I’ve read how some people sand in between each coat for this specific process, but I found that using a green scrubby works well unless there are drips. When all the coats had been applied, maybe five in total, I used a high grit (3000) sandpaper to get it smooth. I finished the process by applying a wax for extra protection. One thing that I thought was cool about the finish was how the wood grain came through in the black paint as I didn’t use a filler for this area as is normally done for high gloss paint finish.

The test to see if all my measuring was accurate was about to happen when I joined the neck and body. Most of these DIY kits come pre-drilled so it takes out a lot of the guess work. However, it’s still important to verify the neck is correctly measured to the bridge, in my case 25.5-inch scale. Once that’s verified it’s a simple matter of bolting the neck to the body using the bolt plate. One thing I should mention is that you either need to drill guide holes for the screws into the neck pocket or have a pretty strong power screwdriver. I bolted it together and…my design worked!

Next week I’ll talk about everything I went through pertaining to the electronics and hardware. Let me tell you now, I spent many a night awake brainstorming the issue of grounding in electric guitars. Thanks for reading and once again, if you’ve built your own guitar, leave a comment below, I’d love to hear about it!!

DIY Links:

Bargain Musician
Build Your Own Guitar
Guitar Kit World
Guitar Fetish
Ed Roman Guitar Kits
Pit Bull Guitars
Boogie Bodies
Warmoth Guitars

-Scott Duncan - MU Columnist

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