Friday, January 31, 2014

Guitar: Milling the Lumber

I built a guitar... It is still fun to say! This will be a three part writeup. First the milling, then the assembly and last finishing. Bangladesh was a tough place for me to live. In order to cope I sort of threw myself into work. I needed the creative outlet. The idea to make a guitar started from looking at all the amazing wood available in Dhaka. I also wanted a small guitar that I could travel with and something that the kids could actually get their arms over. A friend of mine had a Baby Taylor which is a 3/4 size guitar. It has amazing sound for its size and I thought it might be pretty easy to copy. So I borrowed it and traced and measure and returned it.

I think it took me three months of weekends and evenings to finish. This was not a kit and because of tool limitations each piece was a challenge. Once I had the basic design secured, next was choosing the wood. The woods available in Bangladesh are some of the standards for tropical hardwood. As far as tone wood goes, I would need to do something different as spruce was not available to me. I had heard of a few guitars that used Mahogany as the face and obviously plenty that used Mahogany for the back and/or sides. I did not want to have an all mahogany guitar though. Other woods available here are teak, iron wood, Korai, and a handful of other exotics. There was a nice piece of teak that really caught my eye so I started researching the feasibility of using teak in a guitar. My thinking was that using different woods would make for a more interesting guitar visually but more importantly different woods would resonate at different frequencies which would give the guitar more diverse character.

I decided to mill up some lumber and see what it sounded like with the tap test. All of the lumber used was milled in Bangladesh and allowed had cured for at least 3 years before I started. The mahogany started out as a 3inch thick slab that I would need to re-saw down to get the thickness needed for the back and sides. Since the pieces were so wide, I could not cut them on the band saw in the shop. I ended up cutting as deep as I could on the table saw from both sides and hand sawing (yes, you heard right!) through the middle section. My arm hurt after that day. Here is a pic after table sawing:

I had to do the same thing with the teak. Yes with a hand saw again and teak is much harder to work with! Next was planing the pieces down to a usable thickness for tone wood. I had a 12 inch DeWalt planer, which is not exactly ideal. The issue is that the finished tone wood needs to be thinner than what is possible on the planer. So I had to run the 1/4inch stock through until I could not get any thinner and then run it through with a piece of thin balsa on the bottom to get even thinner. I blew through a couple of pieces of teak and the mahogany sides. The problem was that as I got to the right thickness the blades of the planer would chip out the entire piece. After sharpening and adjusting the blades, I was able to get some workable blanks. You can see in the picture below the plywood pattern for the front and back, the teak, the mahogany and the sides. Notice the chip out in mahogany pieces.

I glued the front and back pieces together. Next I used the plywood pattern and a router with a pattern bit to cut out the front and back. At this point I still had not decided which was going to be the front and which was going to be the back. I loved the book matched teak and decided to use the white part of the mahogany as a feature strip down the middle. This picture was taken after I hand sanded the pieces down to 3/32 of an inch to get rid of any chip-out from the planer. More arm pain...

At this point I think I went on vacation for a week which allowed the wood to rest/cure/dry. When I returned I could hold the front/back pieced at one point on the edge and strike it with one finger as a way of getting to know its tonal properties. It was amazing how different they were. The mahogany was bright and crisp but the teak was more muted and deep. This was the first time that I actually got excited about the prospect that this guitar might actually sound good! I still could not decide which was the front or back so I decided to cut out the blank for the neck. I went with mahogany and found a piece big enough with the grain in the right direction and cut it out. I should mention that I designed a neck that is not a copy of the Baby Taylor, but more of a copy of Taylor's full size guitars. In front of the neck blank is the fret board which is cut out of Korai local to Bangladesh.

Stay tuned for the assembly!


  1. Very informative site and article, i must bookmark it and keep posting interesting articles.

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