Beat Boxes: Building Cajones with the Kids, part 2

Painting and Finishing

This weekend we painted and finished our cajones. Sean’s was constructed from furniture-grade mahogany veneer plywood, so this one would be finished with a natural finish. The girls wanted flowers, butterflies, and ladybugs. Nathan had his heart set on a monster. Since I’m entirely unable to draw any of these things well, we ran to the store and found some stencils that the kids could paint on their respective boxes. These worked much better than I’d expected – the kids were able to do it themselves with beautiful results!

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grass and sky background for the beetle box

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Painting on monster hands

 

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Stenciling on some flowers and a couple skulls

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Stenciled flowers on Emma’s flutterbox

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Making a bead rattle/snare

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Nate posing with his monster box

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An initial coat of polycrylic applied

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Sealing in the waterslide decal

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He likes the skull

 

The finished products

These are definitely family-room worthy pieces that we should be able to enjoy seeing and hearing for years to come. Great work, kids!

Emma's cajon

Emma’s cajon

Emma painted flowers on the side

Emma painted flowers on the side

The "flutterbox"

The “flutterbox”

 

Nate's cajon

Nate’s cajon – el “cajon monstruo”

Nate's monster box

Another view of Nate’s monster box

el cajon monstruo

Nate wanted a skull and bones on the side

Sean's cajon

Sean’s cajon

skull and sombrero

Mahogany sides and top with a skull and sombrero stencil

Annalise's cajon

Annalise’s cajon

the beetlebox

the beetlebox

Annalise chose a dragonfly stencil for the side

Annalise chose a dragonfly stencil for the side

Another shot of the four

Another shot of the four

the group

the group

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Beat Boxes: Building Cajones with the Kids, part 1

One of my (sadly now former) co-workers is an amazing drummer. As in professional-studio-musician-in-another-life amazing. I would spend quite a bit of time chatting with him about music and his experience as a working musician.

Shortly before his departure he mentioned to me at the Chicago Drum Show was coming to town in my neck of the woods. It seemed like a great way to spend an afternoon with the kids, so I figured I’d pack ‘em up and check it out. One of the first booths we happened upon was that of Aaron of Empowered Percussion. After a brief chat he gave the kids an impromptu lesson on the cajón.

At this point I’d never heard of a cajón, but they sounded cool, the kids really enjoyed banging on them, and they were made of wood. Seemed like something we should be able to put together in the workshop!

So, first, what’s a “cajón”?

Cajón
A cajón (Spanish pronunciation: [ka?xon] (Ka-hon), “box”, “crate” or “drawer”) is nominally a six sided, box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front or rear faces (generally thin plywood) with the hands, fingers, or sometimes various implements…Cajón – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

In woodworking terms this equates roughly to a simple wooden box, frequently made of plywood from what I see online, with a thin (~1/8″) ‘tapas’ (cover or lid) on the front. Seemed like a fun, easy woodworking project that I could do with the kids on a cold (or and/or rainy) weekend, which unfortunately we’d had far too many of this spring.

We designed these in the shop together, sizing them appropriately for each child. Naturally I needed to do all the cutting, but the kids were able to glue them up, assemble their boxes, and sand the rough bits.

The kids were great and we all had a wonderful fun – and full – day in the shop!

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an impromptu cajón lesson

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Applying the glue

Sanding the sound hole

Sanding the sound hole

Clowning around

Clowning around

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A job well done

A job well done

Testing the assembled box

Testing the assembled box

Next up, finishing our cajónes.

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This Cabinet Goes To 11!

Something's missing

Something’s missing

Grill cloth installed

Grill cloth installed

With apologies to Nigel Tufnel…

Shortly before completing the cabinet, I began considering the hardware – what to do for drawer pulls and knobs?

Nothing off-the-shelf appealed to me, so I started searching for an alternative. In the end I modified some Marshall stack gold-top volume knobs for drawer pulls and some very cool, retro “chicken head” style knobs for the doors.

 

 

 

 

After letting it cure for about 3 days, it was finally time to install the top. And here is the finished piece:

Top installed

Top installed

Need a pick?

Need a pick?

Grill cloth was tricky to wrap

Grill cloth was tricky to wrap

Side view

Side view

Keep calm and rock on

Keep calm and rock on

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A new home for my old guitars

 

And of course…

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Picky Media Cabinet

I love doing fine woodworking and remodeling. I’m not fond, however, of building basic cabinets and honestly wasn’t interested in spending any real time on the cabinetry. Unfortunately, after a fairly extensive search, it appeared that if I wanted a shallow base cabinet with a configuration anywhere near what I envisioned, I’d need to build something custom.

The point of the “media cabinet” in the design is to provide a) a place for the PA head and eventual home theater components to live, b) a nook for a mini-fridge, and c) a countertop for the popcorn machine.

Cabinets are painful for a few reasons. First and foremost – the plywood. It’s large, heavy, and awkward to move and slice up in my shop. Decent plywood is also rather expensive, and moreover, the only place that sells true cabinet-grade stuff is a bit of a hike and way overpriced. Second, they’re just not that interesting. And in this case, I really didn’t want the cabinet carcass to be a primary focal point – the guitars above it were to be the draw. Ultimately I decided to pick up the best “big box” ply I could get and spend some time up front working out how to cut up the sheets in the store such that they’d be more easily transportable. I used inexpensive dimensioned poplar for the face frame, and slapped on some Polyshades American Cherry, which is about as close to paint as you can get while still retaining some translucency. Needless to say I didn’t take many pictures of the build process – it’s just not that interesting.

The cabinet carcass glued up

The cabinet carcass glued up

Got picks?

The counter top was an entirely different matter. Here again I spent some significant time searching for a decent top. At first I figured I’d use some type of solid surface top, like Corian. I also considered some fairly cheap laminate countertops from the big boxes. For under $100 I could get a top and cut it down.

The problem was I just wasn’t satisfied with any of the laminates – they either were the wrong color, or the pattern and style were a poor fit. A solid wood (or stained hardwood plywood) top just didn’t seem to work here either. What to do?

I don’t recall where I got the idea, but I thought it would be cool to a collage of guitar picks, concert tickets, 45’s, and other memorabilia sealed under pour-on epoxy. The guitar picks would act as the base for the whole thing – they would cover the substrate like confetti. Some quick basic math showed I’d need around 1,800 picks arranged without overlap just to roughly cover the top. This would leave tons of gaps of course between picks – especially the rounded edges.

The main problem was expense – sufficient quantities (3,000+) of real guitar picks would cost more that I was willing to spend.  A few years back I picked up a sample pack of wood veneers. I thought these might make for good “picks” – they wouldn’t hold together for plucking strings, but under epoxy they should look quite nice. So I picked up a punch and began a nightly process of punching out these faux picks from the veneer sheets.

Punching out "picks" from veneer

Punching out “picks” from veneer

With around 1,800 of them in hand, the next step was to construct the top. This was fairly straightforward – a sheet of plywood wrapped with 1-1/4″ strips of poplar. I left about a 3/8″ recess for filling with epoxy. Then began the process of gluing down the  veneer picks. The mod podge swelled the veneer, resulting in some curled edges that required a bit of extra work to pin them down either with pressure or for some with cyanoacrylate.

Assembled top empty

Assembled top empty

Starting to glue down the first layer

Starting to glue down the first layer

First layer complete

First layer complete – mod podged down

While I liked the veneer, I really wanted to add some celluloid picks to the mix. The problem with the affordable ones I could find on Ebay was they all shipped from China – and my last attempt to purchase something from China ended was a mess. I lost the money, no product. It also takes weeks.

Thankfully I found an American seller with an offer of 1000 picks for $43! It was the last batch offered, so I snatched ‘em up and started laying them down over the veneer. I heated up the shop to 70+ degrees per the Envirotex Lite instructions and made a first pour over the wood picks. This proceeded through 4 pours, each time adding new picks on top of the prior pour after a few hours while it was still tacky. It worked quite well and resulted in a very nice layered effect.

The final pour I let flow right over the edge, covering them and smoothing the transition from the center to the frame. The epoxy worked quite well, however I did run into an issue with the next to last pour. It was a very thin pour and I got a bit too aggressive with the heat gun in a couple spots – leaving a few round, rough impressions in the top. Thankfully a final pour cured all ills leaving no evidence of its existence. Whew.

Adding a new layer on top of a still-sticky pour

Adding a new layer on top of a still-tacky pour

Layering on the celluloid picks under Envirotex Lite

Layering on the celluloid picks under Envirotex Lite

Final pour

Final pour

Next up…installing the top, drawer pulls, and grill cloth

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Fuzzy Walls

I spent a good deal of time contemplating the wall covering below the chair rail. I didn’t see traditional wainscoting here…it called for something different. I turned again to my collection of inspirational images I’d assembled from the web. The recurring theme here was rectangles. My favorite image of the lot was a wall panel built of random strips of various lengths and widths of wood. I’d also considered a wall composed of endgrain 4×4 blocks like this one, and a panel wall of randomly stained 2′ squares.

The “wood strip” wall, while very attractive and unique, would simply be too costly to reproduce. The 4×4 blocks looked interesting, but I couldn’t see them blending well with the chalkboard above.

It ultimately occurred to me that I could get a similar effect of the stained wood with far less effort and a bit of added interest by gluing carpet tiles to the walls. I found some rather inexpensive thin squares and bought five different shades (in the same family) of the stuff. Since there were four boxes and five of us (the kids insisted on helping with this bit), we were each assigned a single shade and I would, more or less randomly call out a child’s (or my) name who would then pick up a tile and place it on the floor as we laid this out.

Laying out the tiles

Laying out the tiles

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My helpers taking a bit of a break

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One wall complete

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Music cabinet/guitar display wall covered

Speaker towers

Three parts comprise the proscenium – two vertical “speaker towers,” and the top horizontal “bridge” piece that connects them.

I figured since these would be finished rather dark, and live in a dimly-lit corner of a dimly-lit room, there was no point in using expensive hardwood to construct them. Instead I built simple frame-and-raised-panel facades out of cheap big box pine.

Every stage needs a curtain, of course. The material is a bit pricey but thankfully I only needed a few yards – and the results I think were well worth it.

Unfinished speaker towers

Unfinished speaker towers

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Completed wainscoting, chair rail installed with proscenium sides in place

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Teaser with gold trim

Top with teaser and legs installed.

Top with teaser and legs installed.

 

Framed

As mentioned in my initial post, I really liked the idea of mounting empty frames to chalkboard walls – essentially inviting family and guests to fill them. My sister-in-law helped out here by painting and mounting them for me. I think she got the spacing just about perfect. The kids certainly had a blast coloring them in…and they continue to tweak and re-draw bits. It’s quite a bit of fun.

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Pictures frames from Goodwill painted and mounted to the chalkboard walls

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Emma sends a message to mommy

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Sean gets into the act

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Rock & Roll

 

creating their first masterpieces

creating their first masterpieces

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The Jaromin Family Band logo

Next up…custom cabinetry

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Setting the stage

The Stage

The main focal point for the music area is the stage. With only 7′ of height to work with under the drop ceiling, it would need to be a fairly small step up. 2×3’s would fit the bill here, topped with 5/8″ OSB. I added additional support under the area where the drum set would live and pink insulation under the entire thing to deaden any resonance from the platform. The entire 8′ 6″ x 12′ 5″ stage would be finished off later with some inexpensive laminate flooring…and some rather pricey matching stair nose at the front to finish off the front edge.

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Building the stage

Platform framework

Platform framework

Insulating the stage

Insulating the stage

The kids got a chance to learn how to use a screw gun!

The kids got a chance to learn how to use a screw gun!

I probably should have made her put her hair up, but she did great driving screws for the first time.

I probably should have made her put her hair up, but she did great driving screws for the first time.

Even Nathan was able to use the driver

Even 6-yr-old Nathan was able to use the driver

The Ceiling

I was greatly concerned about the ceiling. On the one hand I knew it really should match the wall color. On the other, the dark walls were already going to darken up a small basement room with limited lighting. But I ultimately decided to march forward and figured I’d deal with any lighting issues that arose. The big question was if I could actually paint the squares and supporting framework – and how would that look? This gave me an opportunity to (literally) dust off my Earlex 3000 sprayer and try it out. The tiles coated fairly well. They each required two coats – I would paint in one direction, rotate the tile 1/4 turn, and spray it again. This helped getting the paint into all the nooks and crevices in the textured tiles. They look really good, however if you hit them with a bright light from an angle you can see some white in the deep pockets. As long as I don’t install any up-lighting this won’t be an issue!

For the metal supports, I considered using a separate primer first. In the end they took the paint well enough without a primer coat, though requiring two coats for full coverage. In this case the short ceiling was a big help as there was no need to march a ladder around the room…though it was a bit hard on the neck!

Painting the ceiling tiles

All of the tiles removed for painting – the walls are covered in grey primer at this stage

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Spraying the ceiling tiles to match walls

Freshly painted ceiling tiles in place

Freshly painted ceiling tiles in place

Chalkboard Walls

I knew early on that one thing I really wanted for the “Rock ‘n Roll Basement” was chalkboard walls. We would allow the kids to draw on the walls and I could jot down chords and lyrics! I found a few inspiring images online of folks that mounted empty frames on chalkboard walls, inviting visitors to frame their masterpieces. I thought this was just brilliant – and decided I would copy them.

With such a large area to cover, commercial chalkboard paint, which I found available only in limited colors and quart-sized cans, would be both expensive and inconvenient. Thankfully there are numerous articles online discussing making your own chalkboard paint by mixing in non-sanded grout with standard flat latex paint. This worked just great – though it made for a fairly noxious odor, so be warned if you wish to do the same. The added benefit of making our own was the choice of color was virtually limitless. For the basement I chose a color called Starless Night – a very deep blue.

The kids insisted on helping prep the walls.

The kids insisted on helping prep the walls.

 

The kids enjoyed helping with this step - and with such a large are it was definitely an arm-saver.

The kids enjoyed helping with this step – and with such a large are it was definitely an arm-saver.

Priming the chalkboard walls with chalk

Priming the chalkboard walls with chalk

Taking it for a test spin

Taking it for a test spin

Wall complete.

Wall complete.

Next up…a special wainscotting

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Rock ‘n Roll Basement

Shortly after moving into our home in 2003, I began to dream of building a home theater in the basement. It would feature a frame and panel proscenium, wainscoting, and super cool reclining leather theater seats. Then we started having kids and priorities changed…dramatically.

A few years later a new plan emerged – it was going to be a super fun playroom with a slide, a treehouse, and even a boat. I managed to make some progress towards this new goal. Up until this point the basement was used solely for storage – it was finished (ugly but finished). Unfortunately, following the first step in the remodeling process, cleaning up the room, the kids discovered the basement space and almost immediately moved in. Mom and Dad too found it was great to have a space where the kids could run around out of sight and at least somewhat out of earshot for a bit during cold winter days. So this plan too was shelved…the basement would simply have to wait.

So here we are, or at least were in October 2014, when I was finishing up the LCA SG electric guitar and rehearsing with the company band for our holiday party. Over the summer we had inherited a drum kit from a cousin, and an electronic keyboard from Grandma. For years we had joked about starting a family band and the older two had already started music lessons. Now that the kids were a bit older, I figured it was time to re-make the basement.

The Plan

A view of the stage from the initial design

A view of the stage from the initial design

The finished part of the basement is basically “L”-shaped and can be considered as three separate parts. I would put a small stage for the band on one end, a sewing/craft room on the other, and a general living space that will someday feature a projector for watching movies and playing games in the middle. The whole thing was planned and drawn up in SketchUp.

Guitars hanging above media cabinet at bottom of stars

Guitars hanging above media cabinet at bottom of stars

Sewing and crafts area

Sewing and crafts area

Front projection video area

Front projection video area

Next up…chalkboard walls and setting the stage

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Wiring it up and finishing touches

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Lacquered Up

As agreed, my co-worker Kerry would paint and finish the guitar. Working with a friend who I’m told has finished guitars for some big names in rock, the guitar was finished in a brilliant, beautiful deep red. They did a fade on the neck, keeping the natural mahogany visible in the middle. The finish looks just great.

Giving her a “voice”

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Wiring complete

Although the guitar came back to me wired up, due to some last minute changes in components I re-worked the electronics. For a single-pickup SG with a Golden Age P90, the work is fairly trivial. The lacquer had plugged up the holes a bit, so after carefully reaming them out with a 3/8″ round rasp, I was able to install the freshly wired components and give her a spin.

Finishing touches

One thing that I had originally wanted was to label this guitar with the band’s name and logo. Unfortunately due to time constraints there simply wasn’t enough time to inlay something into the headstock. Also, as I knew I wanted it painted to match the body, an inlay would have been painful to work around – or clean up subsequent…and I definitely wasn’t going to inlay a painted headstock. So that left something like a waterslide decal – however this would have required the painter to do the work and this was already a rush job for them.

The idea came to me to have the pick guard and truss rod cover engraved. Fortunately we know a wonderful person who does this stuff for a living – and has helped me out several times in the past with urgent requests. She not only agreed to take this one last minute, but as this was for charity, the work was done gratis!

My wonderful wife coordinated all of this, including the drop off and pick up of the work – and it was perfectly executed. After filling it with some gold paint and sanding it back, the results were better than I’d envisioned.

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Fresh from the engraver

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Filled in with gold paint using a toothpick. I’ll handle the overflow with a scraper and some 2000 grit paper.

The Final Product

I think the finished product looks great. It sounds great as well – though I’ll save that for when I can get someone more accomplished on the electric to wail on it for me.

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Electronics cavity, headstock, and placing the bridge

I managed to make significant progress on the SG build this weekend. After routing the electronics cavity I laminated sheets of black and white acrylic together with some CA glue and fit the cover.

Electronics cavity cover

Electronics cavity cover

Though I’d  typically fret and fuss with something like the headstock design, in this case I basically decided to wing it and see what I could come up with in the shop. A friend recently introduced me to the Collings guitars “haircut” headstock design. With that design in mind, I sketched out my own pattern. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I rather like the final shape.

 

Headstock design

Headstock design

 

Completed headstock

Completed headstock

On Sunday, between birthday parties and baskets of laundry, I measured out the location for the wraparound bridge and dropped it into position. This was the source of much anxiety – I was mainly concerned it’d entirely muck up the bridge installation and wind up with an unplayable block of wood in need of significant repair work. I’m planning my next guitar to be something for me – but this one’s on a deadline and I don’t have time for major reworking.

Measuring for the bridge

Measuring for the bridge

I used the nut supplied with the factory neck. However, this piece of plastic is nearly worthless…and far too tall. When I first strung it up the action at the 22nd fret was sky high. Some of this is due to the bridge which is clearly designed to work better with a neck angle of greater than the 2-degrees my SG plans called for. However, after sanding down the top of the nut, I wound up with an entirely serviceable action. Although I spent some time on intonation, my rush job on the factory nut – that I knew I would replace with a custom piece – resulted in a bit of buzz on the low “E.” I intend to shape a custom nut from some material I already have on hand, which will necessitate resetting the intonation anyway.

With that in mind, and a fresh set of strings installed, I gave it a preliminary test run:

Attaching the tuning machines

Attaching the tuning machines

 

Strung up and ready for intonation

Strung up and ready for intonation

 

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The LCA SG Jr.

An annual running joke at my company is that due to overspending on the space, food, and booze, the social committee ran out of budget for entertainment. The solution, they say, is to form an all-volunteer, all-employee band! This year was no exception.

The band, affectionately known as “LCA” or “lowest-cost alternative” has been a staple at the company winter holiday extravaganza for something like 7 years now. While discussing the band, a coworker and I got on the topic of electric guitar construction. He apparently greatly enjoys, and in fact has specific experience finishing and wiring electric guitars. Up until this point he was unaware that I was an amateur woodworker – who also had interest in guitar-making, or more formally luthiery.

So we decided to make a guitar.

One idea that stuck was an “LCA” guitar. We’d build a custom Gibson SG Junior-style guitar, paint it up in the LCA colors and logo, and play it in the company band. We could maybe have the band members sign it and raffle it off at the party, proceeds to go to charity.

Now I just needed to learn how to build an electric guitar.

Though I’d started building an acoustic already, and had read the excellent “guitarmaking” book, I knew an electric would present a different set of challenges. Especially considering we only had a month or so to complete it. First decision: purchase a neck. I knew I didn’t want to try and build my first fretboard under such tight time constraints. And since I didn’t have one to trace, I also purchased a downloadable plan for a Gibson SG.

With the plans in hand I set out to construct my first electric guitar.

Since I had some 9″ wide 8/4 poplar lying around the shop, it seemed like a good idea to start with that as the body. I’d heard that poplar had been used for some commercial electrics, so why not?

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Poplar body blank cut and marked for shaping

I’d used the commercial plans to cut a template from tempered Masonite for both the body shape and the contour lines. I cut the body to rough shape and then routed it with a pattern cutting bit to final form. I really should’ve sanded it a bit closer to the line before routing, though. There was a bit of tear out at the end grain. Thankfully this is a painted guitar, so no one will notice a small bit of filler. I’ll keep this in mind for my next build that I intend to make from something a bit nicer with a natural finish.

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Sizing the factory-made neck to fit.

The factory-made, and I assume Chinese neck (it was only $100!) doesn’t seem half bad. The frets appear clean and level – at least as far as I have checked thus far. The real test will be when I try to intonate and then actually play the finished product, but so far I’m pleased. The heel and tenon were a bit too big for the thin SG, so I needed to do some work to finish it off. I also cut a

Rounding over the neck tenon

Rounding over the neck tenon to match the routed pocket

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Jig for routing the 2 degree neck angle

Though I had hoped to avoid building an involved jig, I needed to go at least part of the way in order to route the 2 degree angle spec’d for a Gibson. At some point I’ll probably update this with adjustable guides, but for now this worked.

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Routed neck pocket

The part I was really looking forward to – carving the body. This is the chance to work with hand tools and see the design take shape. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a blast and looks pretty good I think.

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Carving the body contours

Carved body with neck dry fitted in pocket

Carved body with neck dry fitted in pocket

I’m anxious to join the neck and body, but first I need to cut the headstock and drill the tuner holes. It will also be safer to route out the electronics pocket without the neck installed. I’m hoping to have those bits completed by the end of the weekend.

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