Guitar making was never on my to-do list, but then I stumbled upon a guitar kit on the internet. I ordered it, built it, and have been hooked ever since. Just seeing the anatomy of a guitar and how the parts work together to make a beautiful sound, was really cool! Now that I have an instrument I made myself, I should really learn how to play it.
This story gives an overview of what it takes to make a guitar from a kit. I picked guitar kits from Grizzly, Musicmakers, U.S. Guitar and Stewart- MacDonald, priced from $80 to $400. The four kits cover a range of prices, skill levels and styles. In general, the more expensive kits will give you a better sounding guitar because they are built more from solid wood and with higher quality materials. Before you buy, visit their websites – these companies offer more kits than just these four.
If you’re reasonably good at problem solving and improvising in the shop, you can build even the most sophisticated kit without buying special tools. The Grizzly and Musicmaker’s kits don’t require any specialized tooling. The U.S. Guitar and Stewart-MacDonald kits call for some specialized tooling like a tiny rabbeting bit and a tapered reamer. But, as with most woodworking projects, there are always work-arounds.
Hide glue is the luthier’s traditional adhesive. That’s because hide glue is reversible so repairs and adjustments are easier to perform. That said, all four kits give you the green light to use the more familiar yellow glue.
Solid versus laminated materials
Guitar bodies (the sides, top and back) are made out of laminated material (think very thin plywood), solid wood, or some mix of the two. Using solid wood throughout the guitar provides the best sound, but adds significantly to the kit’s cost. Most of the sound quality comes from the guitar’s top. A solid-wood top combined with laminated sides and back is a good compromise between sound and price. Other factors like the shape and placement of bracing also affect the guitar’s sound.
The Stewart-MacDonald and Musicmakers kits require the builder to assemble the sides then glue the bracing to the top and back (Photos 1 - 3). The shape and placement of each brace affects the guitar’s voice. By removing some material from the bracing you’re making the top respond differently to the sound from the strings. Of course there’s a limit. If you remove too much bracing material the top will become too flexible and distort under string tension. There’s a real art to the science of bracing. It’s best to do some research if you want to experiment. Otherwise, play it safe and follow the manufacturer’s brace pattern and don’t worry about reshaping the stock braces, they work well as is.
The top and back are attached oversized (Photo 4) then flush-trimmed to the sides. Next, a rabbet is cut for a decorative inlay (called binding) where the sides meet the top and bottom. The rabbet is much smaller than a standard rabbeting bit can create. A special bit is available ($85) to do the job. Glue in the binding (Photo 5) then trim flush (Photo 6).
Shape the neck
One of the great things about making your own guitar is you can customize it to suit your taste and needs. For example, you can shape the neck to better fit your hand (Photo 7). My wife’s commercially made guitar has a neck that’s too wide for her . She loves the thinner neck I made on my guitar. You can also add your own personal touch to the guitar (Photo 8). Most kit companies offer cool hardware upgrades you can build into your kit or add on later.
The neck to body joint
Joining the neck to the body is crucial to a well made guitar. There are three common ways to make this joint: dowels, bolts, or a dovetail.
Bolting the neck to the body (Photo 9) is easy, strong and allows the neck to be removed for repairs. Dowels are easy too, but difficult to remove for repairs. In addition, dowels aren’t as strong as bolts over time. Luthiers prefer a dovetail for attaching the neck to the body. It’s stronger than bolts or dowels, but it’s also the hardest joint to fit. Expect some fussy handwork when using this joint.
Time to fret
The Grizzly kit comes with the frets already installed on the fingerboard. The other kits require you to tap the frets in place. On the Stewart MacDonald kit, you also shape the fingerboard to fit the neck. Before gluing the fingerboard, you set a truss rod into the neck. The truss rod can be adjusted to counteract wood movement and adjust the height of the strings off the fingerboard. Adjusting the height of the strings is known as adjusting the action of the guitar.
Installing the bridge is a critical operation (Photo 10). On some kits, you’ll also need to create the tapered holes for the pegs that hold the strings to the bridge. A tapered reamer is worth every penny for this job.
The nut at the top of the fingerboard is now glued in place at the end of the fingerboard (Photo 11). On some kits the nut is cut to length and shaped for you. On others you’ll need to do all the work. You may need to file or shim the nut, depending on how it affects the guitar’s action or position of the strings above the frets.
Nitro-cellulose lacquer is the typical finish for guitars. Shellac is an excellent alternative. Both finishes are easy to repair and restore. The bridge and fingerboard should not be coated with a film finish, but can be lightly coated with linseed or tung oil.
String it and play it
With the finish complete you can fasten the tuners and string your guitar (Photo 12). Once the strings are under tension, fine-tune the guitar’s action wth the truss rod. The action is primarily controlled by the height you set for the nut and bridge. Even though its primary purpose is to keep the neck straight, you can adjust the truss rod to raise or lower the strings a bit. The higher the strings, the less prone they are to buzzing when banging out those Ozzy Osbourne chords. The lower the strings, the easier it is to finger those super fast Metallica licks. Have fun!
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1. The more advanced kits, like the Stewart-MacDonald (shown) and the Musicmakers, require you to build the guitar body. Assembly starts with the preformed sides.
2. Detailed plans help you attach bracing to the top and back on the Musicmaker’s and Stewart Macdonald kits. Pro luthiers develop unique bracing schemes for a signature sound to their instruments.
3. Reshaping the bracing is an option on kits that require body assembly. Removing material from the braces alters the sound of the guitar. Experience is the best guide for customizing a brace profile.
4. Got clamps? You may use every clamp in your shop to glue on the top and back. Only the Grizzly kit allows you to skip this step. This joint must be made uniformly tight with light, even pressure.
5. Binding adds a clean detail where the top and bottom join the sides. Some kits require you to rout the rabbet and apply the binding. Masking tape acts like a thousand little clamps.
6. A card scraper works well to flush the binding with the guitar body. Be extra careful with laminated materials, you don’t want to go through the veneer on the body.
7. Fine-tune the shape of the neck to fit your hand. You can use a spokeshave, file or a sander.
8. Customize the look of your guitar. I carved a horse on the peghead of my guitar and replaced the original veneer with a herringbone pattern of cherry.
9. A bolt-on neck joint makes assembly easy. It can be taken apart if future repairs are necessary. The traditional dovetail joint is trickier to fit, but stronger. It’s available as a no-cost option on the Stewart-MacDonald kit.
10. Positioning the bridge is critical. The bridge must be placed an exact distance from the 12th fret on the fingerboard for proper intonation. Every kit requires this step, but the procedure is well described in the manuals.
11. The nut is glued in place at the top of the fret board. You may have to file or shim the nut to fine-tune the action or height of the strings off the fingerboard.
12. Pin the strings to the bridge using tapered pegs. Tune the guitar and you’re ready to play or, in my case, start learning how to play.