When I discovered nearly a year ago that I knew someone who actually builds acoustic guitars, I was shocked. I knew that fine acoustic guitars were hand built works of art, but I guess I had never really thought of building them as a hobby. Despite attempts to cajole me into building one of my own, I adamantly thought for a while that I lacked both the knowledge and the resources to construct one of my own (at the time of writing, I live in a small 4th floor Seattle condo without any extra space or anything resembling a workshop with power tools), so I wrote off the whole idea.

Six months later however, the urge to give it a try was too great and I finally posed the question, "Suppose I decide to build a guitar...?" I would have no idea of not only how possible it would be to build a convincingly fine acoustic guitar, but to do so without any prior experience, power tools, or a dedicated workspace.

The purpose of this blog is to encourage first-time guitar builders or anyone who may be interested in taking up this incredibly rewarding (and impressive) hobby by chronicling my building experience--both the successes and the arguably more valuable mistakes--and to dispel all notion that you must have a dedicated workspace and a myriad of expensive power tools.

In fact, here's what my "workshop" looks like when I'm not building a guitar:

And here's where all my guitar making tools are stored:

Currently I'm six months into the process and I'm building the entire thing on my dining room table in the kitchen, my tools live in a $15 tool box, AND my condo is on the market so I have to clean up each night so I can convince would-be real estate buyers that they won't find a band saw in the refrigerator (although I could use the storage space...and I could put wood in the "freshness saver" drawers...))

For the next few entries I will attempt to go back and document the last 6 months of my building process with brief descriptions and photos. Hopefully I'll succeed in bringing clarity or encouragement to potential builders, just as I experienced.

A Good Place to Start

When I decided to build a guitar, I had no idea where to begin. Fortunately for me, I knew someone who could provide sage advice and could help point me in the right directions. The biggest and best piece of advise I received was to purchase the guitar maker's bible, "Guitarmaking" by William Cumpiano. Click Here to read a review of the book that I was asked to write for "Cool Tools." This book essentially walks you through the process step by step, and is a must for the beginner. It was highly recommended that I skim / read it first to help wrap my head around the critical order in which things should be done and to fully grasp the scope of the project.

One of the great things about this book is that it assumes you have little or no access to power tools. (A few exceptions will be noted later). Once I became more familiar with the construction process, the fun stuff began: wood shopping!

UPDATE: Since many people have been emailing me asking about costs and which materials . tools they should get first, I thought I'd publish my take on the subject, available here.

Gathering Supplies and Wood

Before buying wood and tools, it's a good idea to spend a little time designing the guitar. If you have access to any sort of AutoCAD software, it can be extremely helpful in working out critical dimensions and trying out different curves.

I chose to build an OM sized guitar (approximately) with a tighter waist, using Amazon Rosewood for the back and sides, and AAA Englemann Spruce for the soundboard. Since I want to build a guitar for fingerstyle playing, the smaller body and livelier soundboard wood should pair well with the rich tones of the rosewood (at least that's what I hope..) I haven't decided yet, but I'll probably use curly maple for bindings and use rosewood for the bridge, headplate, fingerboard, etc.

Cumpiano's book basically spells out all of the necessary tools and rough wood dimensions needed to get going (although you don't need all of the tools he recommends, and many can be bought later in the process to spread the cost). Here are some great links for the harder to find tools:

Allied Lutheirie

Here's a pic of the Amazon Rosewood back and side sets I purchase from Allied Lutherie for around $200.

Sure, you could get a typical (boring) set of East Indian Rosewood for about $75, but EVERY production rosewood guitar is made with it, and since you'll eventually spend months crafting the guitar, it's worth the marginal splurge to get something exotic. I was advised to stick to straight grained, well quartered side wood--(essentially avoid anything curly or figured) for my first guitar due to difficulties that would arise when bending the sides (it turned out to be sage advise).

Another lesson I learned quickly--BUY QUALITY TOOLS

Without semi-decent tools, you might as well not even bother. The first "guitar making" tool I bought was a #4 Smoothing Plane, and I tried to save a couple bucks by purchasing a cheap one, which resulted in a near annihilation of my soundboard! In the end I threw the tool away and got a better one. You don't have to spend huge sums of money on good tools, just don't buy the cheapest one. When in doubt, Stanley planes seem to be a good match between price and quality.

Building the Soundboard

Although Cumpiano's book begins with the neck rough out, I chose to begin by building the body, and then construct the neck. The first part of the body process involves jointing the edges of the two spruce soundboard halves in preparation for gluing. The book describes how to make a "shooting board" for the jointing process--I made mine large enough to double as a workboard for gluing the two halves later. (That's the dining room table I'm working on)

As I began to plane the spruce halves, I quickly learned some important lessons. The first goes back to what I mentioned earlier about inferior tools--my cheap plane was poorly crafted with out-of-square soles and a cheap blade

LESSON LEARNED: I bought a #4 Plane based on the book's recommendation, but eventually realized that I needed a longer one--at least a #5 or #6--to accurately plane the soundboard edge. I had to borrow someones to finish the job. So far I have had no use for the #4 Plane I bought, so I'd recommend getting a longer one).

The second thing I learned was that planing takes patience and time to learn. It's REALLY easy to accidently plane a gentle curve into the straight edge of your top near the ends if you're not paying close attention to your planing pressure. I eventually got it with a little flat sanding board touch-up.

Once the halves are jointed and pass the light-test (see book), they are joined. I had the two plates machine sanded to .130" thickness before they were shipped, so I wouldn't have to plane them to thickness (like in the book). However, this didn't really leave me with much thickness for sanding later (I was aiming for a final thickness of about .125") so in the future I think I'll ask for them to come at around .140". It's also worth noting that careful attention should be paid while joining the two halves so that one doesn't ride up higher than the other at the seam (mine did a little), especially if you don't have much thickness for sanding out mistakes. In the end it turned out fine.

I used a coping saw and a fine blade to cut out the top, roughly 0.5" outside of the traced template line, but a fine band saw would have been faster (pay attention to the soft spruce grain to avoid a chip out). Also, spruce is SOFT and dents easily, so from here on out treat it like a baby (but not the uncontrollable-screaming-its-head-off-in-- crowded-restaurant kind).
Once I had my soundboard cut out, I clamped it to the plywood workboard (see book) and evened out the surface a little with the scraper--leaving the final scraping and leveling for right before the lacquer finish is applied.

Building the Back

While I had the tools out for jointing and planing, I decided to go ahead and construct the back too. The process is very similar to making the soundboard, except the rosewood is denser and begs for a little more blade.

Here's the back joined and cut out (I used a band saw for this one).
Here are the two plates getting to know each other.

As you can see, our tiny second 1/2 bathroom makes a great place for guitar pieces to be stored while the glue dries. My plates were surprisingly wobbly (especially the rosewood) at this stage, so I handled them carefully and even clamped one to a straight board along the seam when not in use--they'll firm up as the waste is trimmed off, etc. (that glue joint is surprisingly strong).

Tackling the Rosette

I spent a great deal of time (too much time) trying to decide just what my soundhole rosette should look like. I really wanted a little bit of abalone, but I was also aware of the costs and caveats associated with working with abalone inlays. Finally I decided on an abalone inlay with two concentric rings of rosewood (cut from the left over back material) around it, and of course some of the BWB (black/white/black) purfling strips. I also used AutoCAD to help me visualize and measure for the rosette channel that I would need to cut into my soundboard.

I borrowed a friend's bending iron (you can make one) to bend the purflings and the rosewood strips cut from the back material.

The rosewood was a little thicker (.11") than the ideal thickness of .09", so bending was extremely touchy--after snapping a few practice pieces, I finally tried misting the wood with water and wrapping in foil, then working it slowly over the bending iron. The aluminum foil served to trap in the steam--the key to successful bending--and after a night drying while clamped into a circlular form in some plywood, I had nearly round rings. By the time all the strips are "seated" in the soundboard routed channel, they all work together to tighten up and make a perfect circle.

At this point in the building process, the idea of having to rout a perfect circle of a perfect width out of my soundboard was a little intimidating--there's really no room for error here. The book talks about dry fitting the purflings and inlays and then pulling it all out and glueing it all in again with wood glue in one swift step. Instead, it was recommended to me to take my time fitting all the strips, and then covering the top with a watery super glue, allowing the glue to "wick" down among the strips. That way I would be sure the purflings aligned properly. This actually worked brilliantly, and I can't imagine the hassle of using wood glue for this step (it took me hours to fit all the strips in properly).

Lastly I spent a little while planing down the rough rosewood to approximately the soundboard level, and then finished it off with a scraper (leaving just a microscopic amount for "final sanding").

Oops! Soundboard Repair

Sooo...I made an almost tragic soundboard mistake. I was using a tool (cough...mechanical pencil...cough) to fit (jam) some of the rosette purfling into the really snug soundboard channel, when my "tool" slipped and punched a hole into the top. That kind of a move pretty much ends the day of guitar building...

After some thought I decided that I could carefully razor knife out a rectangular area encompassing the hole, keeping my cut lines exactly on the grain lines. I would then be able to match the grain spacing to a piece of scrap from when I cut out the top (save the scraps!) and essentially plug it and scrape flush. It was pretty much the most counter-intuitive thing I could think to do at the time, so of course it worked.
Ultimately, I was able to chisel the new hole flat, carefully fit in my plug, scrape flush, and all in all it turned out perfect. I also knew that when I cut out the soundhole, the end of my graft would disappear and you may never notice the graft at all...

It actually worked. Lesson learned? Pencils are for drawing.

LESSON LEARNED: Make sure your router base is perfectly flat and smooth. My stupid plastic Dremel router base had a little plastic nob that made a small circular depression in my soundboard. I can scrape it out latter, but still it's a stupid mistake to make.

Bracing the Soundboard

Bracing the top of the guitar is the subject of great mystery and debate. Arguably, nothing affects the sound and tone of the guitar more than the bracing.
For this guitar I wanted the bracing to be light enough to allow for a clear note when plucked with a fingertip, but firm enough to maintain its sustain and volume. I chose to follow Martin's standard X-bracing guidelines, with subtle modifications to the placement of the lower face braces.

I used AutoCAD software to try a few different layouts and then printed the one I liked best, transferring the line work to the underside of the soundboard. This way I could better control the symmetry of the bracing, as well as the open / closed relationship of the X-bracing.

Below is a picture of the first bracing element I began with (according to the order in the book), the rosewood bridge plate (cut from a scrap from the back material). I sanded it down to .10" and sized it according to my final bridge design.

Next I cut and planed square all the brace blanks and glued down the upper face graft (top of picture) and the 4 smaller face braces (shown clamped).

Some people wait until all of the braces are in place to begin carving and shaping them, but I couldn't wait, so I adopted a "glue and carve as I go" sort of plan (carving braces is actually one of the most rewarding steps).

Here's a shot of the top sitting on the work board, showing all the little guys in place and carved. Notice I left the 2 sound hole braces taller than most, yet smaller than recommended by the book.
Here's a shot from upstairs down into my "workshop"....

According to the book, the next steps include dry fitting the X-brace (the most important one), gluing and shaping the remaining bracing and upper face brace (the one that bears the load of the fingerboard and soundboard torsion) and THEN gluing and shaping the X-brace. However, i chose to fit and glue the X-brace first, then attach the remaining braces. The X-braces are each carved first with a slight arch, so that when glued they impart a gentle arched dome to the soundboard. I felt that by installing this element first, I would then have established the arch of the top and could then make sure the other braces fit that curve, rather than compete with it.

(You can never have too many clamps, and get good ones).

LESSON LEARNED: Before carving the arches into both X-brace blanks, I mistakenly notched the lap joint first. Then I tried clamping one into a vice for carving, not thinking about the fact that I was bearing down on the end of the brace, and ultimately fractured it near the lap joint. I was able to wick superglue into the crack and clamp overnight, so it's fine now. In the future, I will arch first--fully supporting the length of the brace--then cut the lap joint.
Carving the X-Brace is a task that should be well thought out before beginning, as leaving too much wood will deaden the tone, but too little could result in an overly bassy guitar and/or a structural failure of the top due to the high tension of the strings (almost 200 lbs. worth).

LESSON LEARNED: Have a shape in mind, and stick too it. I began thinking I would "scallop" the X-brace a little (you can see my rough carving in the picture below). I introduced a slight scallop, then changed my mind and had to carefully feather my high points back into a gentle curve. I'm currently under the belief that scalloping creates dead zones at the peaks, and instead favor a more gentle parabola.

In the end I was very happy with my bracing. The top has a clean tap tone to it (but I really have no idea what I'm listening for...) and in general just looks freakin' cool. The 2 little diamonds toward the bottom are book-recommended seam patches to strenghen those regions. In the future I think I will omit them--I see no need for them there, so they probably only serve to deaden those spots a little...

Below are just some more pictures of my bracing (you can never look at too many bracing photos. Check out this link for pictures of factory bracing).

Close up of the X-brace lap joint and the "bump" wood patch. Most people use a glues soaked linen patch, but some (including Bourgeois) feel that the wood patch is stronger...

Bracing the Back

Bracing the back plate is considerably easier than bracing the soundboard. Like the top, the back gets arched laterally--only more severely. Before bracing the back, however, I chose to rout a channel along the seam between the two halves to include a decorative center stripe.

Usually I've seen a single stripe of decorative purfling, but I ran into a problem whereby the black/white/black striping I had was slightly different than the one pre-glued onto my maple binding, and would look asymmetrical if I use them on opposite sides of the maple strip. My remedy was to use two maple strips with my smaller one in the middle. Ultimately I was very happy with this decision--the maple stripe has more presence now so I think it will look cool in the end.

I didn't take too many pictures of the back bracing process. It's similar in terms of arching and carving, except the patterning is different. I followed the book's spacing and used a 'Ladder Bracing' pattern. The rounded strips of wood between the 4 main braces are cross-grain grafts used to strengthen the back seam. By the way, the wooden cam clamps shown in the picture below are essential I've found, and completely worth their nominal cost. Here are the braces being glued in place:

Here is a picture of the final braced back after carving:

Here are the two plates and their respective bracing, side by side:

Bending the Sides

Now on to something more intimidating: Side Bending. I borrowed someone's light bulb-heated bending iron and had practiced a little with the rosette pieces, so I was ready to attempt bending the rosewood sides.

After much thought and a few different approaches, I found two methods that worked well for me. The first was to soak the wood in warm water for about 30 minutes, and then SLOWLY work the bend, constantly checking it against a template. The rosewood becomes surprisingly limber once it heats up. The second method--which worked much more quickly--was to spray water onto the side, then wrap it in 1 layer of aluminum foil. The foil creates a steam bath the quickly loosens up the wood. The only caveats I found were that it loosened too quickly, so you have to be careful not to over bend and tear the wood, and it can be hard to check your progress without seeing the exact side wood.

In the end I bent each side using a different method, and concluded that the bare wood, extreme patience method is best. It took me about 3 hours per side to really get it.

Here's one side clamped into position on the template while drying overnight.

Once the wood is bent, it will look like hell. Mine looked burnt (but they weren't), some grain lines were really dark, others not so much, and the once smooth wood was now rough and "fibery" looking. Sap from deep within had come to the surface, and there were nasty water marks meandering everywhere. I even split the end when I first started (I stopped that piece and super glued it to stop the split--that worked perfectly--and it will get trimmed off later anyway). Since I'm back-posting these blog entries, I can tell you now that after the sides are assembled and scraped smooth, all of those imperfections disappear and the sides look beautiful.

The above pictures show both sides, after they've dried, just sitting there waiting to be trimmed and fitted. The lighter sap wood on the top edge of the sides will be trimmed away eventually.

Headblock and Tailblock

Once I had braced the two plates and bent the sides, I began focusing attention on assembling the body. The first steps were to construct from solid mahogany the headblock and tailblock (pictured clamped below).

The tailblock is less complicated than the headblock, so I went ahead and got it out of the way first. I chose to bevel the sides at a 45-degree angle to help reduce the overall mass, and I slightly beveled the top edge to minimize the block's contact with the soundboard (I figure less blocks of wood glued to the soundboard will yield a more freely vibrating plate).

Here's the soundboard with both blocks glued in place:

Here's a close-up of the headblock:

The headblock actually requires a little more attention than you might think, since it's construction and orientation will be essential to the playability of the instrument when the neck is attached later. I laminated the blank for this block from 4 pieces of mahogany, and then squared it into a solid block. The two holes will later receive barrel bolts (to attach the neck), which will be joined to the body with a mortise and tenon joint (dovetails are evil I'm told).

Installing the Sides

The first step to convincing someone that all these pieces may actually become a guitar is to glue kerfed lining to the soundboard edge of the sides (shown above). This notched mahogany lining curves easily around the bend of the side and is clamped / glued into place with a million little clamps. The kerfing actually provides the gluing surface between the sides and the top and back (side material itself is eventually routed away for binding, and thus makes for an impractical gluing surface).
Once the sides are kerfed, and the kerfing is leveled along the sanding board, the sides are trimmed at their ends and glued to the soundboard following the method described in the book. (Boards are placed along the top to prevent the clamps from crushing the sides, and the opposing side is set in p lace to level the boards).

And the rough final product (note: the sides are over sized and will be trimmed later; the same is true for the overhang of the soundboard).

Next I marked the final contour of the back and planed the sides down to their final height. The height at the headblock is approximately 1 inch lower than at the tailblock, so the back will have a longitudinal arch to it. Once planed, the mahogany kerfing that will join the back plate is glued in place (shown below).