Tuesday, March 20, 2012

five string bass build 1

I wouldn't exactly call my dad a bass player.

He played bass in a band or two, in the late 70s and early 80s, but he never geeked out on it - he just played bar songs and partied and had fun. To his credit, him having a bass in the house was my first exposure to electric stringed instruments.

Anyways, he's in his 60s, and he told me he's always wanted a 5 string bass. He likes when that low B goes off, and let's face it - who doesn't?

I had him over to my house to hold his (my? the?) old Precision bass he gave me years ago (same one from the band days decades ago) and see how it felt, what he wanted and such, and true to form, his answer was pretty much "I don't know man, surprise me."

So I am going to make a 5 string bass for my dad, because he's the man.

I am thinking about a custom shape, just because he thinks its way cool that I can do that.

I am a yellow-bellied chicken and ordered a mostly-built neck but the body is starting as a slab. The neck is a maple neck with a rosewood board. The specs are different on just about every website that sells Mighty Mite necks, so I'll reserve specs until I can measure it myself. Not that it matters - the two of us have about as much combined knowledge about bass guitars as a butterfly.

The body is alder, because it's the "tastes like chicken" of wood, and hell, an alder bodied, maple/rosewood necked bass is pretty damn likely to sound like what both of our mind's ears have "bass" sounding like.

Anyways, I'm building a 5 string bass, party party!


I just got the following message from my dad:

I'm leaning toward p-bass / jazz....but I want to make some comparisons. It definitely needs to be unique...like all Phinn Guitars
haha, thanks Dad


Mail came today


I met up with dad for lunch yesterday and he told me that he wants a Precision upper and a Jazz lower, because the offset waist of the Jazz rides great on the hip, and the upper of the Precision is what he's used to, and he knows it works and feels good.

So let's mock that up:

I think it'll work!



So I got the slab in yesterday. It's alder, and it's pretty heavy. I'm not worried about it though, because I'll be cutting nearly half of it away, plus you want a body that can counterweigh a big 5 string neck. Not sure if counterweigh is a word.

I talked to my dad this morning, and he said he fell in love with that deep red stain finish that happened to be in my mockup, so he wants me to do that.

Fun! I thought it was cool that he just saw that by chance, liked it, and went for it.


Coming up with the shape:

Measuring for a 5-string neck pocket

How 'bout this?


So next we trace the final shape onto MDF and cut that out with a jigsaw (bandsaw if you got it)

Then we hit the R.O.S.S. (Ridgid Oscillating Spindle Sander, God bless it) to sand to the line:

You can see in that last picture that we're getting there, and the lines are smooooooooth! I'm doing a lot better with the ROSS this time around.

It was so pretty yesterday, I decided to leave the shop and load up my boy in the bike trailer for a bike ride, so here is where I left off yesterday: need to do the horn interiors and the neck joint, then it's time to screw it to the alder and get to routing!


Hand sanding details of the template:


Template finished, center line marked, mounting holes placed, drilled, and countersunk:

You countersink these holes because this surface will be on the router table when you route the body shape, and you can't have the screw heads (of the screws that affix the template to the slab) poking out

Body shape traced on to the slab. Extremely careful attention is paid to make sure the center line of the template lines up perfectly with the glue line on the slab.

Next, I will rough cut the shape into the slab with a jigsaw. After that, I attach the template and route the exact shape with a pattern bit on the router table.


So we rough cut the slab with the jigsaw:

And be sure to make perpendicular relief cuts on concave sections. When you come through here along the curve, those blocks drop off and decrease blade binding:

Real talk, this did not go well for me. I am using a Ryobi jigsaw, and it's really not the right tool for the job. The right tool is a bandsaw, and I have finally gotten serious about acquiring one, because this job was so tough.

This alder is a really tough cut for some reason, I broke one blade and it's all been really slow and built up a lot of heat both in the wood and in the jigsaw motor.

Dense wood gives you a lot of blade walk, where your blade bends inside the wood because of stresses, and the top of your blade and the bottom of your blade are coming out in different places.

That's bad because you can think you're cutting outside the line of your body shape, and actually be cutting inside the line (on the bottom where you can't see the blade).

So I stopped. Then I headed to the ROSS to try to take wood off there, but the wood was so hard that I had a difficult time making any real progress there.

So today after work, I'm going to get a rasp and remove wood the old fashioned way - with elbow grease. I'd love to get a bandsaw, but I'll need to save a little for that.

Regardless, I affixed the template to the slab yesterday. To do this, you line up the template with the outline you drew on the body, then clamp the template to the body. After that you run your screws from the template down just enough to make a mark on the slab.

Then you remove the template and check your marks on the slab. If they are correct (they were - dead center on the glue line), drill pilot holes for the screws. Remember, you're not going for a structural bond here - just keeping the template from sliding around, so you can drill wider pilot holes than you would if you were permanently joining two pieces of wood.

Also remember to place your template mounting holes in a place where they will be hidden in final construction. My holes are 1) under the bridge, 2) under where the pickguard will be, and 3) in the neck pocket, which will be routed away.

All together, here's what we have:

After I rasp away all that excess wood, I will take the whole thing over to the router table and route the exact shape.

Monday, October 24, 2011

routing the body 4

I finally routed the neck pocket. I had been putting it off partly because I wanted to make sure it was perfect and was a little apprehensive about making what is most definitely the most important rout on the whole guitar body, and partly because I have moved twice, to two different cities in the past 6 months. I'm all settled now, though, and the shop is all set up, better than ever. That's a great side-benefit of moving - you get a clean slate on how your workspaces are laid out.

I test-fit my neck to the template I was going to use for the routing, and I found some flaws with the fit, so I did a fair amount of hand sanding, hand-turning drums from the spindle sander, and Dremeling with a tiny sanding drum. Again, perfection is key with this rout. I measured the router bit depth (5/8" for a Telecaster style neck) about ten times and then routed the pocket.

It came out perfect. Perfect shape, perfect depth. Also in the above picture, you can see my previously unreleased pickup configuration. That's a Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder in the bridge, a little fatter and juicier than the average Tele pickup (perfect for what I want from this guitar), and then, of course a P90 and a mini humbucker. I still have a trick or two up my sleeve, though.

Next, I started the finishing process. The first step was to apply sanding sealer. Sanding sealer acts as a moisture barrier, so your guitar body is not susceptible to shrinking and swelling with humidity changes. That's kind of an ancillary benefit, though - it's purpose is to raise the grain and fill pores so that sanding is easier. But it also provides an excellent base for a multitude of finishes. I used Minwax Sanding Sealer, and it surprised me, being a milky white color. I was expecting a clear liquid.

I painted it on to the guitar body with a regular old paint brush, and it became kind of foamy and bubbly in spots. Not a big deal since most of it will be sanded off, but kind of frustrating to work with.

 Once the sanding sealer was on, the grain of the mahogany came to life a little bit, which was fun to see. The back, especially, had a great depth to it.

I am in the process of sanding the sealer down now - it's easy to sand, but hand sanding anything takes a lot of elbow grease. The faces of the body are relatively easy, whereas the ends / edges take a little more control and finesse. I will probably do one more coat, because, as you can see most clearly in the picture of the body's back, the wood was very thirsty and soaked up the sealer in some places. I want to make sure the body is sealed against moisture, but I also want to make sure it's got as little finish on it overall as possible. So after I do another coat, I will sand that coat down as much as I can. Also, a tip on sanding sealer application: use a foam brush. The bristle brush created a lot of bubbling, but the foam brush is more even.

Also of note, I picked up a lot of odds and ends from Stew-Mac recently, and learned that the details can really get expensive:

That's all for now - here are some mock-ups to check out to hold you over until I paint!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

mocking up 1

In the last few weeks, I finished the routing of the body cavities, with only the neck pocket left to route. The routing went very well, and although it's not super clean, it's done, and I learned a few things experientially that will help me make the next guitar's routing cleaner.

I was intentionally waiting for the neck to arrive before I routed the neck pocket, so I could make any measurements or adjustments to my templates that I wanted, for a true perfect fit.

Well, I got the neck in from Tommy at USACG last night.

I know I said all this before, but I have never seen customer service on this level before - nothing comes close. When I got the neck, let's just say I found a few unexpected and very welcome surprises.

Not only did he throw in the ebony board at no extra charge when I ordered the neck, but, to my surprise, he gave this neck a gorgeous "marbled ebony" fretboard. I had never heard of marbled ebony, much less seen it, but man, it looks like, well, marble. It's got some streaks and such, and just has a very subtle cool to it. And it's as smooth as glass. I couldn't believe it was wood and not something synthetic - it just feels otherworldly. Next up, he had rolled the fretboard edges - again at no upcharge. Any guitar player knows that this is a godsend, and any luthier knows that it's no easy task. Hats off to Tommy for taking care of his customers with little extras like this.*

The flatsawn maple is solid and feels very, very smooth --- if I didn't know better, I would think this neck could get away with no finish. The 6150 frets didn't seem as big as I was expecting them to be, but I may feel differently once the neck has some strings running over it.

Looking from the heel end up towards the headstock, it's easy to see that this is the straightest neck I've ever seen or held --- it was just absolutely perfect. The perfection of the radius and the straightness of the neck were a little unbelievable. The rolled fretboard edges felt great, and the fret ends were - you guessed it - perfect.

Anyways, considering the price, I can't fathom getting a better product for the money without feeling like a thief.

Here is a full resolution picture of the picture above, so you can check it out up close.

It's cool to see the body with a neck mocked up on it - what do you think about the mock up?


* You may be thinking "hey, he didn't get what he ordered! Maybe he didn't want rolled fretboard edges or marbled ebony." I made it clear to Tommy at the time of order that I was open-minded and that as long as the main specs were in place (contour, radius, nut width, profile, scale length...) that I was all good.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

routing the body 3

Today I made a little progress - I hogged out a lot of the wood from the pickup cavities and control cavity using forstner bits and my drill press.

After I got as much mahogany out as I was going to get, I decided to start drawing up a pickguard design.
I want to use a mostly Telecaster pickguard shape, but with a sexier upper bout line, to fit the "mostly Telecaster shaped with a sexier upper bout shape" theme of the guitar.

I found an old Stratocaster pickguard in my basement and used it as a reference for a smoother upper bout line. I then hand drew the corners / interface points and it turned out pretty well. The upper left shoulder / corner kind of mimics the carve of the guitar's upper bout, which would be a really nice but subtle design tie. I will spend some more time getting that shoulder curve to match the upper bout curve exactly, and see how that looks. It could be too homogeneous, and if it is, I'll think up something different.

I'm going to keep the pickguard shape under wraps for now, because I am still not 100% on it.

More to come,

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

routing the body 2

This weekend I got a fair amount of work done.

The biggest task I tackled was creating an MDF template for the pickup routes and control cavity rout. I wanted to include the neck pocket rout on this template, and I did, but I may not use it. More on that later.

I wanted to create a template that had the control cavity, pickup, and neck pocket routes all in one place so that I could use the same template to create a guitar, no matter what the body shape of the guitar is.

The body that I have designed here is my first effort, and I have already found parts of the design that I want to change on the next go-round. I do, however, love the Telecaster bridge design, and the Telecaster bridge pickup sound, and I know that I want this element on every guitar that I make for a while. With this template, I can rout the Telecaster bridge pickup and control cavity and neck pocket routes into any piece of wood I like, carve that wood to any shape I like, and boom, that's a guitar.

So, for this universal template, I wanted to incorporate
  1. The Telecaster bridge pickup rout
  2. The Telecaster control cavity rout
  3. A "swimming pool" rout for the middle and neck pickups wide enough to accommodate a P90, Mini-Humbucker, full size humbucker, STratocaster-style single coil, or Telecaster style single coil in either position
  4. A Telecaster dimensioned neck pocket
 As you can see, the template I created includes all of the above, and after I finished the template, I secured it to my mahogany body slab with wood screws and began the routing process.

I had to find a new anchor point for the template, as my previously used anchor point (that I used for attaching the body shape template to the mahogany slab) was not available this time around, as that part of the template was routed out for the neck and middle pickup rout. I found another anchor point in the thin isthmus between the bridge pickup rout and the neck and middle swimming pool rout. I then traced the routs onto the mahogany slab with a pencil (for reference) and began hogging out wood with a forstner bit chucked into my drill press. I only got five 1" diameter holes drilled before something else popped up and I had to quit for the weekend, but I am pleased with the progress.

Before I did any of this, I did the roundover on the body. Standard Telecaster roundover radius is 1/8", and a Stratocaster roundover is more like 1/4" (don't quote me on these, just shooting from the hip) so I went in the middle with a 3/16" roundover radius. It came out exactly how I wanted it to (radius selection, that is).

As you can clearly see in some of the pictures, I let the roundover bit sit a bit too long in some spots, which resulted in some burns. It's no big deal though, for two reasons - one is that those burns will sand out, and the other is that this guitar will have an opaque finish (white).

Also, big news!

I ordered the neck for this guitar yesterday. I called Tommy at USACG, and I have to say, he is about the nicest person in the world. He gave me his undivided attention, heard me out on everything I asked about, and gave me an unbelievable price for the neck. He remembered my mom from when she called to order the slab of mahogany that I'm working with now and the gift certificate she got me, and asked me to tell her hello - now that's good customer relations!

Anyways, here are the specs for the neck that I ordered:
  • 25.5" scale length
  • US-2 Reverse headstock
  • Tele dimensioned heel
  • Maple neck
  • Ebony fretboard
  • "Fat Back" contour, 1" the whole way
  • 1 11/16" nut width
  • 10" radius (a la PRS)
  • Creme dots
  • 6150 frets
So, basically a gigantic baseball bat of an ebony board neck with a reverse Strat-style headstock and huge frets.

Yeah buddy,

Monday, January 31, 2011

routing the body 1

This past weekend, I routed the shape of my template into the mahogany body blank.

As mentioned in building templates 1, this process involves a pattern bit for the router, whose bearing rides along the template without doing any cutting, while the bit spins and cuts the wood - in the exact shape of the template.

I had very good luck with a Whiteside pattern bit, part number 3004. It cut through the mahogany so well, I could barely believe it at first. I can attribute some of the effortlessness to my router, a very stout Porter-Cable 690 series variable speed unit, but I definitely have to give a tip of the hat to this Whiteside bit. It felt like I was cutting styrofoam - hardly any resistance, and total control. Now I know how having the right tools for the job can truly make your work enjoyable. I chucked the bit into the router, then mounted the router into my router table, and off I went.

It's important to note that routing wood like this creates a lot of shavings / sawdust. It seems like a cubic inch of wood, routed, makes a cubic foot of shavings. If you have the means to hook up a vacuum hood to your router table or workspace, do it. I was continually using a brush and dustpan to collect shavings so I could see my work, and I thought "all this extra hand movement near the spinning bit is not a good thing." I will rig up a dust collection hood next time I rout.

I secured the .75" MDF template to my body blank with two #10, 1.75" wood screws. Some folks use double-stick tape and say that it's sufficient for holding the template in the exact same spot throughout the routing, but I know that with wood screws, the template is definitely not going to shift on the body blank. If you go the woodscrew route like I did, there are two important actions:

  1. Countersink the screw heads on the template. I have a countersink drill bit set that I use all the time, and it's exceptionally important to use them here - because the template, affixed to the body blank, will be against the router table surface, so the surface of the template must be perfectly flat and smooth
  2. Locate the two attachment points somewhere where they won't be visible on the finished guitar. I located one where it will be beneath the bridge of the guitar when finished, and the other where it will be beneath the pickguard when the guitar is finished
 As advised by more experienced builders, I took "small bites with the router bit, only routing .25" to .50" at a time, as illustrated here:

In that photo, the template has been removed, and two passes have been performed already. After the depth of the edge rout is roughly equivalent to the cutting depth of your router bit, obviously, your router bit won't be able to extend far enough to cut any more wood. So what I did was remove the template, then let the already-routed portion of the body serve as the template. It worked perfectly. I did probably 4 passes on this body, each about .50" in depth. The picture above shows the approximate halfway point of my routing.

After I was there, there was nothin' to it but to do it, and I finished up. Here are a few pictures I took along the way:

The next step from here is creating templates for the neck, pickup and control cavity routs. Since this is an original design, I may actually have to use my brain, some pencil and paper, and possibly even a calculator to get it laid out, so watch out!

All in all, this weekend's work was very fulfilling. It taught me that spending a few extra bucks for the right tool can really increase your ease of work, enjoyment of the work, and most of all, the safety of the work. I've said it a million times, and I'll say it again - there's no better feeling than the peace of mind that comes from trusting your gear.

Until next time,