The “Wish-caster” Fingerboard

Preparing to fret the fingerboard
The Wish-caster design

The Wish-caster design

Cutting out the star with a jewel's saw

Cutting out the star with a jewel’s saw

The line art transferred quite nicely from the laser printed output

The line art transferred quite nicely from the laser printed output

Layout of the completed shell pieces prior to inlay

Layout of the completed shell pieces prior to inlay

I placed the numbered pieces in a dixie cup for safekeeping

I placed the numbered pieces in a dixie cup for safekeeping

Inlay complete

Inlay complete

Preparing to fret the fingerboard

Preparing to fret the fingerboard

Binding secured with tape while glue dries

Binding secured with tape while glue dries

A clearance slot filed into my Radio Shack nippers to make fret tang cutters

A clearance slot filed into my Radio Shack nippers to make fret tang cutters

Frets installed. A few of the frets aren't fully seated yet.

Frets installed. A few of the frets aren’t fully seated yet.

The Design

The first two electrics I built were constructed with factory-made necks. Having never fretted an instrument before, I was apprehensive about taking on that part of the project with a hard deadline. For this design I wanted a custom inlay on the fretboard featuring the primary ‘star’ component of the Make-a-Wish logo. Last year I acquired a fretting jig and table saw blade made for the task and used them with much success on the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer project. This time, I would build the neck from scratch.

I’ve still got a decent stock of Cocobolo in the shop, so the fretboard will be made of that. I also purchased a few ounces of white mother-of-pearl blanks from stewmac.com. Using CorelDraw and a vector graphic of the logo, I scaled and arranged the bits I wanted over a full size drawing of the fretboard.

Preparing the Fretboard Blank

I prepared a 1/4″ thick fretboard blank of Cocobolo and slotted it to Fender 25.5″ scale length using the aforementioned template and saw blade. I chose a 9.5″ radius for this guitar, mainly because my favorite neck is on my Ovation, which is only slightly shallower at 10″. I’ve seen a few radiusing jigs online, but they were either overly complicated or required tools I didn’t possess. I did see someone who built a drum sander sled that carries the fingerboard blank through at a slight angle, taking off the edges. I chose not to build that and instead got started with the sanding block. Hand sanding the radius, however, took quite a bit of time and paper. The corners took a long time to drop down, wearing out the paper at the edges well before the center even made contact. Next time, I’ll build the drum sanding jig!

The Inlay

A neat trick I learned from Mary May’s online carving school is how you can easily transfer a design from normal laser printer output using a household iron. This had worked for me for transferring template designs onto hardboard, so I thought I’d try it out on the pearl blanks. The completed design was printed, cut out, and laid toner-side-down onto appropriate size pieces of pearl. A hot iron was held on top for about 30 seconds. Rocking it back and forth a bit seemed to help to ensure a good transfer. The lines came out dark and clear on the flat, brilliant white pearl pieces. Perfect!

Each piece was then numbered to match the numbers assigned on a separate print out of the design and cut out with a jeweler’s saw and fine blades. This operation required a magnifier visor I’d picked up at Harbor Freight some time ago. Though this appears to be a tedious job, the blades actually made fairly quick work of cutting out the parts and I was able to track the line closely.

Another trick I learned online was using masking tape and super glue to temporarily attach the pieces to be inlaid to the fretboard. It basically works like this: I affixed a piece of masking tape sticky-side-up over a print out of the design. The tape is sufficiently translucent to see the design though it. As the pieces of shell were cut, they would be placed into position on the sticky tape. Once the pieces were all cut, a second piece of masking tape was put on the fretboard. I then applied some CA glue to the top of the masking tape on the fretboard and glued the tape and inlay assembly into proper position on that (see photo). When the CA cured, I carefully scored the fretboard around the inlay pieces through the two thin layers of tape. The tape and shell pieces were then removed from the fretboard and white chalk rubbed into the score lines, making them sufficiently visible for routing.

A 1/16″ bit was used to evacuate cavities for the pearl pieces. I don’t have chisels fine enough for the small shell pieces I was inlaying, but an exact-o blade did a nice job of trimming back the Cocobolo until the pieces fit snugly. Once in place, super thin CA glue was applied to the inlay, which wicked around the pieces, holding them firmly in place. After sanding again with the radiused sander, additional CA glue was added to “lock in” the Cocobolo dust now filling any open spaces. The resulting inlay came out great though there was a bit of the star that didn’t survive the final sanding. The cavity wasn’t quite deep enough at the edges. I’m still quite pleased with the result and decided against trying to fix this by adding a separate piece.

Binding

I knew that binding the fretboard would add significantly to the build time. Each of the fret wires would need to be “nipped” to remove the tang on the ends and gluing them in place would also be a bit trickier as I couldn’t just drop some CA glue in the slot at the sides. However, the guitar simply wouldn’t look complete (to me at least) without a bound fretboard. The actual binding process is pretty straightforward. I did find that the curved binding — it’s packaged and shipped in a coil — was far easier to apply to the straight fretboard if I first heated it with a heat gun and spent a few seconds working it flat. Just as with the sound hole, I used the StewMac “BindALL” cement and secured it with that orange tape until dry.

The 5/16″ binding was nearly twice as tall as needed due to the thinning at the fretboartd edges from the radius. I started leveling this off with chisels first and then finished with sand paper and finally a scraper. The biggest issue I had here was cleaning up the corners – there was some glue squeeze out that was tricky to scrape away. Also, when I wiped the Cocobolo clean with some DNA (acetone would eat the plastic binding!), some of the wood’s oils rubbed onto the white binding, yellowing it a bit. I scraped the binding lightly to restore the color, but will need to be careful in future to prevent this from happening again.

The Frets

At the same time as I purchased the fret blade and template, I also picked up a fret wire bending machine. I considered making my own, but I plan on building quite a few guitars and don’t feel the need to learn from my mistakes at bending fret wire by hand. The machine makes quick and easy work of bending the fret wire, highly recommended. Once I finished cutting all 24 pieces, I began the process of pressing them in place. Again here I had purchased special tool that chucks into a drill press to push the wire into place. I’d hammered them in the fretboard of the dulcimer, and it wasn’t all that bad. However, it was also fairly easy to put a noticeable ‘ding’ in a fret, or otherwise warp it. This tool includes inserts for common neck radiuses and applies even pressure along the curved surface. Very helpful.

Because of the binding, the tangs at the ends of the wire would need to be removed. I first attempted to use my end cutters, but these aren’t truly flush – they would need to be ground for that and I don’t have a bench grinder. Next I tried filing the tangs away with a small file. Although this worked, it was awkward. Holding the wire proved difficult and would require a jig of some sort to do well. Filing was also slow work and one of the pieces I tried this on wound up a bit bent from the effort. I knew that I could purchase a specialty “fret nipper” from StewMac, but that would mean waiting a few days to continue the job. I did, however, have a PC board “nibbler” tool I got at Radio Shack years ago for electronics work. The tool needed some modification as there wasn’t any clearance for the fret top. But by filing a groove into the top of the tool, I was able to quickly and easily “nibble” away the tang…for most of the frets. Until I tried to “improve” the tool further by deepening the slot. Bad move – it essentially stopped working consistently at this point and I returned to hand-filing the remaining fret wires.

Most of the frets pressed into place fine, but there were definitely a few troublesome slots. The frets didn’t like passing through some of the pearl inlays. Though the slots appeared wide/deep enough, but the ends wouldn’t seat properly on a few of them seeming to bind slightly in the middle at the pearl, causing them to rise a bit. I tried sawing the slot wider/deeper. I tried nibbling a bit at the tang. I tried CA glue to hold them down, but this was also problematic as I had some issues applying the glue and then quickly clamping down and spraying the accelerator. The CA glue would also wick out from under the frets and leave a line across the unfinished fret board. At this point I think I’m going to need to scrape back any ‘bumps’ of glue and then finish the entire fretboard with the CA to get a consistent tone.

The next couple weekends we’ll be out of town, so for now this will need to sit and wait for me to get back and fix the bad ends, file and bevel the ends, and apply the CA ‘finish.’ Even with the issues, it’s looking really nice and I’m confident I’ll get a nice final result…

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Make-A-Wish Surfcaster: Capping the Body

Binding ledge cut
Body templates

Body templates

Wild bark inclusion in the birdseye Maple

Close-up of wild bark inclusion in the birdseye Maple

Choosing the top grain pattern

Choosing the top grain pattern

Binding the sound hole

Binding the sound hole

The sound hole bound with pearloid white binding

The sound hole bound with pearloid white binding

The body base and figured top plate

The body base and figured top plate

Gluing the body together

Gluing the body together

Electronics pocket routed

Electronics pocket routed

Binding ledge cut

Binding ledge cut

With the Ash blank shaped, it’s time to prepare the figured top. I made a “top cap” template including holes for the sound hole and electronics pockets. Two of these were cut: one in MDF and another in acrylic. I wanted a clear version to allow me to see the grain pattern I was selecting for the finished top.

The book-matched cuts of birdseye Maple included a really nice bark inclusion. When initially laying out the top, I’d joined the edges such that the inclusion spots would appear just behind the bridge. I thought this would look amazing filled with colored or even phosphorescent epoxy. I played with this for some time but the tradeoff was there are few “eyes” in this section of wood. If I chose to use the inclusions, most of the birdseye figuring would either be underneath the pickguard or not on the top at all.

When I joined to top along the opposite edges, the center and lower bout featured significant figure, including both birdseye and curl. After agonizing over this for some time, I decided against using the inclusion and sticking with the birdseye. I made sure to leave as much material around the bark inclusion for possible use in a future project.

The top piece was jointed, glued, and thicknessed. I’d originally considered thinning this piece down to between 1/8″ and 3/16″,  similar to my very thin Epiphone Wildkat top. The photos I could find online of the surfcaster however, seem to show a fairly chunky top. This was most evident at the sound hole where the binding looked about as tall as the binding on the sides. I briefly considered trying to resaw the top further and then adding a thicker patch under the sound hole, but ultimately settled on a solid 1/4″ cap.

A template was used to mark and then rough out the top and mark for the sound hole. I template routed the sound hole as much as I could and used a hand saw to remove the rest. Some cleanup with a small file and it was ready for binding.

The binding is a white pearloid plastic matching the pattern of the pickguard. It’s roughly 1/16″ thick and 5/16″ tall. This was attached with some Stewmac Bind-ALL and held in place with paper binding tape. A couple small gaps were filled with sawdust, but it came out looking really great.

Before turning to the neck, I decided to cut the rabbet for the binding. Instead of buying an expensive specialty bit from Stewmac, I grabbed a Whiteside flush trim bit and a spare bearing, 1/8″ smaller, to create a 1/16″ rabetting bit. This cut quite nicely, though I decided to hold off on actually binding the body until after cutting the neck pocket. And to help ensure a tight fit, I don’t want to cut the neck pocket without first building the neck.

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Make-A-Wish Charvel Surfcaster: Starting the Build

The first charity guitar - theLCA SG Jr.

My first charity guitar – theLCA SG Jr.

Charity guitar #2 from last year's raffle.

Charity guitar #2 from last year’s raffle.

The first parts order arrives!

The first parts order arrives!

Template on Ash body blank

Template on Ash body blank

Gluing up the body blank

Gluing up the body blank

Tear-out section after CA glue and sawdust treatment

Tear-out section following CA glue and sawdust treatment

In 2014 I had the idea that I could build an electric guitar (my first) and raffle it off for charity through my company’s holiday party band, the LCA. This resulted in the LCA SG Jr. guitar which raised over $2,100 for Make-A-Wish Illinois. Last year this was repeated with a Lospennato-inspired “Radio star” clone, though I entirely failed to blog about it. That guitar, thanks to a very generous company match, contributed over $5,000 to Make-A-Wish. These guitars were nice, but I really want something special for electric guitar – and charity raffle – #3.

On a recent trip to a local bookstore, I came across Tony Bacon’s The Ultimate Guitar Book and decided it would look nice in my music room. There were some great photos of classic and modern guitars that made for a cool coffee table book. On a whim, I packed this book up with my stuff for a recent week-long camping vacation…and read it.

That’s where I first set eyes on the beautiful Charvel Surfcaster. Built in the 90’s this semi-solid electric featured a retro look with large pearloid pickguard and shiny, sleek, lipstick-style single coil pickups. I knew instantly this would be the 2016 charity guitar.

The Drawing

I initially drafted the surfcaster shape on the computer using CorelDraw and a pretty good, large, top view photo from the ‘net. This came out looking great, but I thought it seemed a little undersized. I had carefully scaled the photo up to a scale length of 25.5″ but the body wound up measuring only a bit over 16″. Clearly my photo reference wasn’t a precise top view, resulting in a bit of a skew. So I did some further searching and found a nice drafting of this guitar, including dimensions. The drawing was a bit too small to simply print out – it was far too pixelated when blown up to use at full size. I was, however, able to scale it up in CorelDraw and then adjust and tweak my original drawing to match by overlaying it on top.

I now had a full-size vector drawing of the guitar, including the sound hole, pickguard, and electronics cavities. (Download the PDF here).

Back from Camp, Down to Work

I returned from camp to find a box from StewMac.com waiting. This first parts order included 18:1 Grover tuners I’d picked out and a couple different bridges to try. I’d decided against installing a tremolo, but am planning on through-body stringing. I also ordered a couple other top-mount bridges just in case I change my mind.

First step for any new guitar project is making templates. The base body template was cut from 1/4″ MDF. I also cut the resonating cavity out of the template. I figured I after pattern-routing the body I could route this cavity before removing the template.

With this first template, crafting the body was fairly simple. I had some 8/4 Ash in stock for the base and my last (gulp!) wide piece of birdseye Maple would be resawn and applied as the top.

The Ash blanks were jointed, glued, and drum sanded to thickness. I didn’t have an exact measurement for the body thickness of the original surfcasters. They certainly look like fairly beefy guitars in the photos and there’d be quite a bit of weight removed from the body when I route out the resonating cavity. I figured they were likely somewhere between 1.75″ and so I’d probably go with around 1-7/8″ to 1-15/16″  finished thickness. I surfaced the Ash blank down to just under 1.70″ and attached the template with double-stick tape and a couple screws. Since the top of the Ash would be hidden under the birdseye, the small screw holes could basically be anywhere and would ensure the template wouldn’t slip during routing.

I cut the basic shape out on the bandsaw, staying as close to 1/16″-1/8″ from the attached template as possible, being careful of course not to cut into it. Turning to my router table, I installed one of my longest flushing bits and began carefully routing the final shape. This is where I ran into that very common and annoying snag – as I rounded the lower bout the Ash tore out pretty bad. This is end grain routing, where tear out is almost inevitable, but I had hoped I’d cut close enough to the final shape, and held the block firmly enough, to avoid it. I was wrong. A better strategy here (next time) would have been to route a portion of the full thickness at a time with the template and bearing initially at the bottom, and then cleaning up with the long flushing bit. The fix for this was to fill the gaps with some sawdust and CA glue and then sand the rest of the body to the final dimension.

Next up: finishing off the body and making the birdseye maple top…

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Assembling the Box, Part I – Soundboard and Sides

Ready for the back
My lovely shop assistants

My lovely shop assistants

Gluing in the head block

Gluing in the head block

Jig for beveling the kerfed lining

Jig for beveling the kerfed lining

Mahogany kerfed lining

Mahogany kerfed lining

Gluing the kerfed lining

Gluing the kerfed lining

Annalise uses a specialty spreader to apply glue to the sides

Annalise uses a specialty spreader to apply glue to the sides

Gluing in kerfed lining for the back

Gluing in kerfed lining for the back

Ready for the back

Ready for the back

The head and tail blocks

The head block was assembled as a 5-piece glue-up with three ‘core’ pieces stacked vertically and a top and bottom glued horizontally cross-grain. This is done to promote stability and strength in both dimensions while providing a side-grain surface for both the sides and the top and bottom.

The top of the head block was angled, about 1/8″ taller in the back per Cumpiano’s drawings, and a notch cut in the top to allow access to the truss rod. Or at least I thought I was cutting the top. Unfortunately, I managed to confuse the top and bottom (even though I’d marked them clearly) and cut an unnecessary channel in the bottom instead. I glued it in place anyway figuring I’d fill the gap before attaching the bottom.

The one bit I struggled with most here was alignment. You need to ensure the head and tail blocks are aligned on center and square to the shoulder or else you can wind up with an odd and potentially problematic neck joint.

The best I could come up with was to mark the centers of each block and overlay the whole assembly on the full-size drawing. This should result in proper alignment, though because of the truss rod notch, the center line of the head block couldn’t be extended all the way to the bottom of the block. The final alignment was done by sighting down the center line from above. This isn’t perfectly precise, but I believe (…er ‘hope?’) that I managed to get this right.

I’ll be sure to research this further prior to the next build and see what I can cook up. Perhaps if I only cut an access hole for the truss rod and not notch away all of the wood up to the top it’ll be easier to get a perfect alignment.

Making the kerfed lining

It seemed oddly difficult to find online examples of people making kerfed lining. The books suggested ramping the side with a hand plane. This seemed imprecise and time-consuming. Though there are numerous references for installing the lining, many of them either neglect to mention how they made it or explicitly state they bought it pre-made. I intend to make all of the wood components for this guitar, including the lining.

A technique that seemed fast, safe, and practical, involved building a jig with a narrow slot cut down the center of a board wide enough to accept the lining blank. This then acts as a carrier for the lining piece which is run through the table saw with the blade angled appropriately to form the bevel in the lining. This did the trick. The bevel came out consistent and my fingers were never in any danger.

Considering options for cutting the kerfs, I found methods for the table saw and band saw. The band saw method seemed less precise and more tedious as it produced a single piece at a time. With the table saw, people tend to tape several blanks together and run them through the saw on a sled at the same time. Far more efficient.

My fret slotting blade instructions made mention of other uses, including for cutting kerfs for linings. So I thought I’d give that a try. The measure from the Cumpiano book was 3/8″ between kerfs. I taped several together and ran them on the table saw sled over the blade making the cuts. A slight bit of sanding on the back thinned it a bit further and the linings were ready.

The soundboard

After  sanding a bit off the sides to true them up to the head and tail blocks, my assistants and I began gluing in the lining to attach the soundboard.

For some of the tighter curves, the 3/8″ spacing and narrow kerfs weren’t sufficient. For the outside bends, the spacing was too far apart. For the inside curves, the narrow kerfs along with the spacing didn’t allow sufficient “compression”. I wound up cutting additional kerfs in some sections of the lining on the soundboard side.

This worked, but I did find the inconsistent appearance off-putting. Thankfully it won’t be seen unless repairs are needed  – and as this is my acoustic build #1, I’ll consider it a lesson learned. Next time I’ll try 1/4″ or 5/16″ spacing and probably just use the standard table saw blade for the larger width.

Once the linings dried, they were sanded flush with the sides using a large sanding board and the finished side positioned over the soundboard. I marked the intersections of the braces and sides on the kerfing and removed these sections of lining with a sharp chisel.

Finally, it was time to join the soundboard to the sides. Once again, alignment is crucial and somewhat tricky. Fortunately, the side and block assembly fit neatly with almost no coercion over the outline on the back of the soundboard. The curves matched up far better than I feared they would.

The back lining

The back of the guitar slopes gently. The tail end is roughly 1-inch taller than the head. The original side blanks were a consistent width, a bit taller than the tail end. They would need to be trimmed to final size before gluing in the lining.

The process began with a long strip of poster board – actually, two shorter strips taped together – used as a flexible straight edge. I taped one end to the tail at the appropriate height and then wrapped it around the outside of the body, following the curve and angling downward toward the head.

After tracing a line along the edge and repeating the process on the other side, the sides needed to be trimmed down. I initially attempted using a thin razor saw for this. I hadn’t cut more than a couple inches when the blade bound on the side and split it almost horizontally, with the separation ending just below my line!

Many articles I’ve read discuss using CA glue (“superglue”) to fix issues like this. So I pulled out my super thin CA, applied it to the crack and clamped it back into position. With a couple spritzes of accelerator the glue held and the side was whole again. Obviously, the violent motions of the saw blade can damage the sides.

I turned to my chisels. These provided a more controlled cut and the ability to feel when to switch directions as the grain demanded. It didn’t take long to get within hand plane range, at which point a low-angle block plane was used to take the sides down to just above the line, leaving it for a sanding reference. Once again the sanding block was used to ensure a level, even finish. Now was time to glue in the lining in prep for attaching the back.

The linings for the back seemed to fit a bit better than the top. There was no need to cut extra kerfs to coax them into place. As these were essentially the same linings installed around the same curves I guess it’s a case of getting a bit better the second time around. In any case, my helpers and I repeated the glue and clamping process on both halves of the back.

The family then headed out for a week-long camping trip, so the body will need to sit in the shop for a bit. Once we get back, my helpers and I will glue on the back and begin fitting the neck.

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Picking Up Where I Left Off…

In early 2012, I started my first acoustic guitar build and for several reasons wound up putting it aside. Over 4 years, a couple electric guitars and mountain dulcimers under my belt, I finally felt ready to return to this project.

Making the mould

Annalise helps me glue up the mold

The completed bending machine

The soundboard and neck, and back and side blanks

The soundboard and neck, and back and side blanks

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Back plates ready for joining

Making the back braces

Making the back braces

Gluing the soundboard bracing

Gluing the soundboard bracing

Sanding the carved braces

Sanding the carved braces

Back to Prep Work…

The first two tasks were to build a bending form and finish building the bending machine that’s been sitting under my bench gathering sawdust for several years. The machine was essentially complete – all that was needed was to assemble the form by drilling some holes and installing 1/2″ conduit. I also installed the springs for clamping down the ends.

Although I had already built a Cumpiano-style workboard, it’s clear that most luthiers these days use a mold to keep their sides in place during the assembly process. It certainly seemed to me like an easier and more precise way to assemble the guitar.

Additionally, with my somewhat limited and sporadic shop schedule, I knew the sides could be sitting around for several days, perhaps weeks, before being glued up. I wanted something to hold them securely in place to ensure the bends didn’t relax. And so my daughter and I built a mold of MDF.

Bending the Sides

Taking stock of where I left off, the neck I liked the most was made of birdseye Maple. I had also resawn a couple back blanks of birdseye. I just love the stuff and had a couple boards around that would work quite well as sides. So after an afternoon of resawing and thickness sanding the side blanks, it was time to test out the bending form.

Initially, I attempted placing a blank directly on the bending machine and allowing the heat from the three 200-watt bulbs to do the work. However, because my bending form is capped with aluminum sheeting, the heat is trapped by the surface of the form and doesn’t heat the straight slat floating several inches from its curved surface. This approach wouldn’t work unless I wanted to remove the aluminum, leaving the bright, hot bulbs exposed.

Shifting gears I briefly attempted bending the sides with a heat gun; a technique that worked very well with the dulcimer ribs. As I suspected, the extra width – more than 2x wider – of the guitar sides made this significantly more difficult to pull off.

So I pulled out my new steam box and decided to steam the wood before bending it against the pre-warmed bending form. This worked quite well. The pieces bent readily after a 20-minute steaming session. Leaving them on the form with heat applied for an additional 15 or so minutes helped “lock in” the bend. There was very minimal spring back.

The Back Plates

While the sides “cooked” we turned attention to the back plates. They were first jointed and glued. With the back and sides of Maple and top of Sitka spruce, there would be a whole lotta light-colored wood in the body. This would need to be broken up with some contrasting binding which meant ripping up a pile of 1/4″ wide Cocobolo strips. One of these was inlaid down the center of the back.

Mahogany seemed a nice contrast for the center patch. Sitka pieces were cut for the bracing. The 30″ radius curve was laid out on the computer and appropriate arcs printed out. I tried a new technique I learned recently from Mary May for transferring the drawings to the hardboard template: a hot iron was used to transfer the laser-printed curve directly onto the board. I would never have suspected this would work, but it does.  This curve was traced onto the Sitka bracing and they were sanded to shape.

I glued these in place with the back clamped onto the Cumpiano work-board with cork shims around the edge to match the bow.

Soundboard Bracing

Before applying the bracing I noticed that the soundboard rosette wasn’t perfectly flat and flush to the surface. The soundboard itself also felt a bit stiffer than I’d like. I recall being apprehensive about running the delicate Spruce through the wide-belt sander four years ago. After running the birdseye Maple through probably dozens of times I was feeling far more confident. Several passes later and the rosette was flat and smooth and the soundboard stiff yet responsive.

I’d purchased several blocks of Sitka Spruce “bracing wood” from LMI several years back. This was sliced up based on the specs from the Cumpiano book and curved in the same manner as the back bracing. Annalise helped me glue and clamp these into place and did much of the finish sanding after carving was done.

With the sides bent and the top and bottom plates completed, next up is assembling the body…

 

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Finishing “Coco Bear” the Appalacian Dulcimer

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My biggest concern in finishing the dulcimer was sealing the Cocobolo. I’d read that the oils in the wood along with it’s natural density made finishing difficult. Again turning to online forums, people typically recommended sealing the oils in first under a couple coats of shellac before applying your finish of choice.

2 coats of shellac to seal the oily Cocobolo

2 coats of shellac to seal the oily Cocobolo

Cocobolo shines under the lacquer.

Cocobolo shines under the lacquer.

Though I own (and love) an Earlex HVLP gun, for environmental/cleanup issues I use it for waterborne finishes only. The dulcimer is small enough that “rattle can” shellac seemed the obvious choice here. Several layers of lacquer was applied over the initial two shots of shellac. And then I waited.

Hanging to cure

Hanging to cure

Finishing the scroll

Finishing the scroll

For last year’s electric guitar build, I knew I’d need to use TimberMate to fill the deep, open grain of the Ash in order to get a smooth flat final finish. I’d assumed that this step wouldn’t be necessary with the Cocobolo. The grain seemed much tighter – especially after hand scraping the surface. A couple shots of lacquer proved this theory wrong. The grain lines and recesses were definitely visible and made for a less-than-glass-smooth surface.

I sanded a bit but in the end decided I wanted to move on (guitar!) and could live with the “grainy” finish – it still looked beautiful and perhaps some day I can use this as a test piece to improve my finish work.

While it was curing, I cut the nut and bridge from my “sample” block of white Corian and found some decent brass round-head nails to use for the string

pins.

And at last a chance to try it out:

Resting with its cousins.

Finished dulcimer resting with its cousins.

Inlaid mother-of-pearl

Inlaid mother-of-pearl

Peg box scroll detail

Peg box scroll detail

the completed dulcimer

the upper bout

The lower bout

The lower bout

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Glue Up and Carving the Scroll

Back braced and glued to sides. Installing the cherry lining.

Back braced and glued to sides. Installing the cherry lining.

Joining the back and sides went smoothly. The concern I had here, and in general with gluing Cocobolo, is the oily nature of the wood. I’d read numerous articles and blog posts discussing difficulties with getting the glue to adhere. I followed the advice of several commenters in first sanding/planning the edges to be joined and then wiping the area with acetone. The wood’s oils left a brown residue on the wiping cloth. After that, Titebond III seemed to do the trick. So far I’ve not experienced any failed joints; they appear sound and solid.

In guitars, the bracing is typically Spruce. I’m not sure what they usually use for dulcimers, but as the Cocobolo isn’t in any way typical I figured I’d use what I had on hand – in this case scraps of Maple.

Carving the Scroll

Next up was carving the scroll. I briefly considered a more modern guitar-style head but really wanted a more traditional style instrument – and really wanted to learn how to carve.

To work out how to actually carve the scroll, I turned to the Internet where ultimately I discovered Mary May’s School of Traditional Woodcarving. Among her many video lessons were at tutorials on carving at least 3 different types of scroll. Although I’d watched the beginner lessons, I was too impatient to carve donuts and flowers first. Instead I dove right into the scroll.

Scroll blank glued from 3 pieces of birdseye Maple.

Scroll blank glued from 3 pieces of birdseye Maple.

The Kimball book provided no actual peg head dimensions, but there were a few drawings of common heads. I chose one, scaled it to what looked like a proportional size, and printed it out.

I opted to go with a three-part glue up. By leaving a hollow in the middle of the assembly this allowed me to skip the step of chiseling out the peg box.

The carving went quite well, though I did have to use a bit of CA glue to reattach a chip from the center of the scroll that popped off. I also stopped a bit shy of what I had originally intended – the depth of the scroll is a bit subtler than I’d wanted. However, it was looking really good to me and so I decided to quite while I was ahead!

The carved peg head was attached to the body and reinforced with hardwood dowels before turning to the soundboard.

Scroll attached to head block

Scroll attached to head block

The Soundboard

Soundboard glued to sides

Soundboard glued to sides

My assistant and I spent quite a bit of time searching the Internet for the right sound hole design. In the end, we decided to go with a riff on the traditional “f” sound hole design by marrying it with a canted heart design – a dulcimer staple.

The actual heart shape was pulled from Microsoft’s “Webdings” font collection. Though I could probably have drawn my own, I knew this fact would drive my Microsoft Windows-hating co-workers crazy.

Mother-of-Pearl Butterfly and Flower Inlays

Butterflies and flowers inlay

Butterflies and flowers inlay

My very first large scale “fine woodworking” project was a crib and changing table/dresser for my then infant daughter Annalise. These featured my first attempt at inlay – butterflies. As she also happens to be my constant shop companion these days, helping me out with the dulcimer, it seemed fitting to incorporate butterflies into this project as well. After trying, and failing, to cut the shell on my scroll saw, I cut a slot in a piece of scrap plywood and proceeded to hand-cut the abalone. It turned out to be faster and easier than I originally assumed it would be.

Following some very helpful video advice from Blues Creek Guitars, the abalone was glued to the Cocobolo fretboard, scored with an Exacto blade, and routed with a small trim router. The fret slots were cut with my Stewart MacDonald template and table saw blade. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.

After gluing the birdseye Maple neck and inlayed and fretted finerboard to the body, it was ready for finishing.

Next up: Finishing and final assembly!

Ready for finishing

Ready for finishing

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Starting the Kimball Dulcimer

After finishing up the “Back to Basics” dulcimer, I took a few shop days to prepare for the next build. This time was spent building a couple keys jigs/fixtures that I was lacking.

Something I knew I wanted for the next build (and future guitar builds) was some spool clamps. If you’re not familiar, spool clamps are essentially two round wooden disks or dowels  lined with cork with a bolt running through the middle. They’re traditionally used to clamp the thin top and bottom pieces to the sides for violins and other acoustic string instruments. The commercially available ones seemed a bit pricey to me – I figured I should just build some of my own.

Though I had cork, I wasn’t keen on hand-cutting it into disks and couldn’t locate any pre-cut ones. I figured round felt pads, like the ones for putting under chair and table legs should work just fine. Not only were they abundant, they were also relatively cheap.

The bolts were also a bit pricey on Amazon.com and in the big box stores. However several blogs pointed me to http://www.wholesalebolts.com/. They had what I needed at great prices with pretty reasonable shipping via USPS flat-rate box. I considered using a hole saw to cut plywood disks for the ends, but ultimately it seemed easier to just slice up a dowel and use a centering jig in the drill press to drill the bolt hole.

50 spool clamps complete

50 spool clamps complete

With my trusty assistant helping out in the shop, we managed to build 50 clamps – (25) 1″ and (25) 1-1/2″ diameter in just a few hours.

Wood – 1, Steam Box – 0

Next was to prep for bending the sides of the hourglass-shaped dulcimer. Although an earlier attempt at bending thin strips of wood with a heat gun went rather well, I still wanted to experiment with steam bending.

I went out and grabbed an Earlex steam generator – really just a wallpaper steamer with an extra brass fitting – and slapped together a spiffy new steam box out of pine boards.

I made myself a bending form out of MDF to match the hourglass dulcimer from the book and tested out the steam bending process on ash and cherry.

The results were pretty awful.

Initially I tried steaming the 1/8″ thick pieces for around 10 minutes. Almost as soon as it was removed from the box, I could feel the stiffness begin to return. I couldn’t seem to get it clamped to the bending form fast enough and wound up with a board with a very subtle bend in it – not even remotely close to the shape on the form. Subsequent attempts at 15 and finally 30 minutes weren’t any more successful. After 30 minutes in the steam box the board came out saturated and feeling like a sheet of soggy cardboard. However, even after drying out clamped to the form for several hours, the “spring back” was so significant it couldn’t be used for an instrument side.

Steam box

Steam box

Back to Work…

Not wanting to spend any more time on this, I set aside the steam process and began prepping the parts for the new dulcimer.

It was probably 10 years ago when a now defunct internet-based lumber supplier accidentally shipped me roughly 20bf of Cocobolo instead of the Cherry I’d ordered. Since that time it’s been stacked in my shop’s wood storage loft waiting for the right project. Though mountain dulcimers are more typically made from native North American hardwoods like Maple, Cherry, Walnut, etc., I decided this would be a great project for this beautiful Cocobolo.

The back planed and scraped

The back planed and scraped

First side bent to shape

First side bent to shape

The sides and back would be built from this resawn and bookmatched Cocobolo. The top would come from a beautiful piece of birds-eye maple.

My woodslicer blade made quick work of re-sawing both boards, and after a few passes in the drum sander, the sides, back and top pieces were prepped. To add some interest and help tie the top and back together, a decorative maple strip was inserted between the back halves.

Sides and lining bent

Sides and lining bent

Bending the Hourglass

Following my failed attempts at steam bending I’d decided to pull the heat gun back out and bend the sides freehand.

I was pleasantly surprised and pleased by the results. While the gun was out I also bent some strips of Cherry to be used for the lining.

Finally, the bent sides were attached to the head and tail blocks – also of Cocobolo – using a custom-cut clamping block suggested in the book.

Next up: Gluing and bracing the bottom.

 

Gluing up the head and tail blocks

Gluing up the head and tail blocks

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String it up!

This past weekend as planned my helper and I spent a couple more hours finishing up our new “Back to Basics” dulcimer. Annalise was excited about finishing this up – as was I – so shortly after breakfast we retreated to the shop to get back to work.

The Tuners and Tail

The tuners were first. The head was essentially ready, waiting only for the small pilot holes needed to affix the tuners. Annalise quickly installed all four tuners.

The plans suggest using 4 small pins that the strings loop over. I didn’t care for this look, so instead I crafted a small acoustic-guitar style tail that we glued to the bottom. I was slightly concerned about the stresses from the strings shearing this block off – especially because it was glued on after applying the finish. Therefore we carefully sanded a bit of the finish before gluing and then, for a bit of extra insurance, and because we thought they’d look nice, we added a couple brass screws to the tail.

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Attaching the tuners

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Brass screws to reinforce and dress up the tail

 

Nut and Bridge

I crafted a nut and bridge out of a couple Corian sample blocks purchased last year. The band saw sliced neatly through the sample blocks. And with a bit of sanding on the oscillating belt sander, and some adjustments to the nut slot with a chisel, the pieces were installed and ready for notching.

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Time to try it out!

Lessons Learned

We followed the original book design that calls for a guitar style headstock – with the string posts oriented vertically. Unfortunately the angle of the headstock is too shallow to pull the strings down into the nut slot with sufficient force to keep them there. I installed a couple Fender-style string trees – which mostly work – though there is still a tendency for a string to jump its slot if strummed too aggressively.

This isn’t tragic and I may put some more time into this in the future to improve the situation. However it’s still a very playable instrument that we’ve been having a lot of fun with.

Now that this is complete, we’re moving forward with a more traditional style with curved sides and a carved scroll headstock.

Next up: starting work on the Kimball book “hourglass” dulcimer…

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Back to Basics

In the first post of this series, the kids and I built “canjos” following our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. Besides being a fun “shop time” activity with the kids, this was a prelude to – and preparation for – building our own mountain dulcimer.

I admit I was tempted to purchase a finished dulcimer from Wood-n-Strings dulcimers. They also sold kits including all of the pre-cut pieces and pre-bent sides. However, I also knew I’d rather build one myself and, frankly, I don’t see the point of woodworking kits in general. IMHO kits remove most of the artistry and craftsmanship from the process. If everything’s already perfectly machine-cut, the headstock scroll carved, I’d be little more than the last step on the assembly line. Too much “paint-by-numbers” means very little risk of utter failure – which also means no true pride of real accomplishment, at least for me personally.

Back to Basics

Back to Basics

The 2-page spread on how to build a mountain dulcimer

The 2-page spread on how to build a mountain dulcimer

Reading Up

Of course, I had no clue how to actually build a proper mountain dulcimer.

Having read several books on acoustic guitar building, I understood the basic construction techniques and concepts such as scale length – or vibrating string length (VSL) as I see it called on the dulcimer forums. But I wanted to find a plan showing how the tuning head and body are typically attached, internal structure of the body, etc.

Thankfully I found the book – “Constructing the Mountain Dulcimer” by Dean Kimball.

This is a very old book (you can tell by the printed BASIC code for calculating fret placement designed to run on a Commodore 64). Many Internet sites sell used or hardcover copies, but Luthier Merchantile International sells ’em new in paperback for only $15.

I also read a blog post describing another old book – the 1981 Reader’s Digest “Back to Basics” that includes plans for a mountain dulcimer. This book is out of print but there are dozens of used copies available online. I grabbed a copy from Amazon and sure enough, there on page 390 is a plan for building your own mountain dulcimer.

Though a traditional hour-glass shaped dulcimer is pictured on the cover, the plans inside the book are for a relatively simple triangular shaped dulcimer. This suited me just fine – I decided I’d build two.

Cutting the fret slots with a template and custom blade

Cutting the fret slots with a template and custom blade. The blue tape is blocking off the “skipped” frets not in the dulcimer’s diatonic scale.

Gluing up the body

Gluing up the body

Reader’s Digest Dulcimer

The first one is the simple Reader’s Digest “Back to Basics” dulcimer. The purpose of this build is to gain additional experience fretting an instrument – something I’d yet to tackle on my two prior electrics or my as-yet-unfinished acoustic 6-string.

Following the (hopefully successful) basic build, I’d tackle a more traditional body style per the Kimball book. Through the second I’d gain experience bending wood. Both of these will hopefully lead up to finally finishing my acoustic guitar build.

Fret Not

Fretboards scare me. Not playing them, but building them. The precision required is a bit intimidating to say the least. Measurements are often specified in hundredths of an inch. And if you’re off just a bit, your gorgeous handmade masterpiece will forever play out of tune. Yikes.

To help ensure success and take some of the anxiety out of the process I decided I’d purchase a template.

Stewmac.com sells a very nice metal fret template and table saw blade that I’d picked up a few months back. After getting a somewhat imprecise and inconsistent result using the guide to mark frets with a pencil and hand saw them for the canjos, I figured I’d use the template as intended for the dulcimer – paired with the table saw and a simple jig.

The book specifies a 28″ VSL. Because this will be played primarily by the kids, and because I really wanted to try out my 25.5″ scale template, I adjusted this to Fender-style 25.5″.

 

Gluing on the top

Gluing on the top

Wipe-on Tung oil finish

Wipe-on Tung oil finish

Daddy’s Little Girl

My very “crafty” 10-year-old daughter was eager to help out with this project. So I put her to work doing nearly everything that didn’t require the use of power tools. She performed most of the gluing up, fret installation and beveling, and final finish work. We started on Saturday morning, and by Sunday afternoon the first coats of finish were drying.

Next weekend after a few more coats of finish and a few days’ curing time, we should be ready to buff it out, install the bridge, tail, nut, tuners and string it up!

Next up: how does it sound?

Applying finish to the body

Applying finish to the body

Beveling the frets

Beveling the frets

Wiping on the Tung oil finish

Wiping on the Tung oil finish

Fret board hollowed out on the underside

Fret board hollowed out on the underside

Gluing the fret board

Gluing the fret board

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