Build an Electric Guitar From Scratch — The 10 Most Important Steps to Consider by Bill Wilkat July 30, 2018
So you’ve got the bug. You’ve been thinking about this for a while and figure you’re ready but aren’t sure where to begin. There’s plenty to think about that’s for sure, and it’s an ambitious project, regardless of what you have in mind. So, I’m going to tell you how I believe you should go about it—after all, I’ve been there, and I got the bug to build at a very young age, even though it took me many years before I actually took the plunge. Then again, I never expect to make it into one of my life’s careers even though it did turn out that way.
Step 1: Ask yourself if you have skills and abilities that can be applied to the task of building.
Step 2: Do you have the required tools to embark on this project and do you even know what you need?
Step 3: Do you know where to buy the goodies you need to undertake your plan?
Step 4: Can you use some local facilities like a high school workshop or borrow tools that you need?
Step 5: Do you have a place at home where you can set up and work on the instrument?
Step 6: Are you capable of producing the required drawings / blueprints to make a guitar?
Step 7: Have you thoroughly researched the wood selection you desire and know where to source them?
Step 8: Do you have a basic understanding or any knowledge about electrical wiring, soldering skills, etc.?
Step 9: Have you established a proper budget to build your instrument?
Step 10: Do you have any training or educational materials to guide you from start to finish?
Now that I’ve asked all these questions, if you are still determined to carry on, then continue reading and I’ll do my best to provide some help and answers to each your ultimate goal.
Step 1: Obviously I can’t teach you every thing you’ll need to know in this post, but I have to assume that you know your strengths and limitations or you wouldn’t be reading this. If you aren’t sure about using some tools it’s best to take some woodworking courses, even basic ones, as most common practices like using a saw table, jointer, planer, router, etc. are taught and can be applied. Evening courses are a great place to start and if you need more or that method does not work for you there’s also on-line courses available as well as plenty of how-to videos on Youtube and/or on digital media. Just be certain to choose a source that’s reliable with a proven history so that you can trust what you’re being told is the best way to proceed.
Step 2 and 3: I’ll assume that you’ve already made the investment and/or resolved the issue of power tools like table saws, band saws, planers, jointers, and will talk about specialty tools needed. There are a number of sources for luthier tools and I can confidently recommend Stewart MacDonald and Luthier’s Mercantile International as two of the best places to shop. But taking note of step #9, be aware that the cost of unique files, templates, etc, add up quickly and they are not always as affordable as we’d like them to be. You can also shop for used tools and other online stores like Amazon but going with expert shops is the best place to start.
Check my future posts for a comprehensive list of what you’ll need if you want to become a luthier. For now, I’m just going to give you a more basic list for your first project:
- Flat bastard file (used for fret levelling, filing fret edges, and filing wood)
- 3 sided triangle file (used for crowning frets)
- Needle files (used for fine fret work and fine wood filing)
- Fret crowning files (for filing tops of frets)
- Half round files (for wood filing)
- Nut slotting files
- Small diameter round files (for nut slotting and other fine filing work)
- Vernier caliper (I recommend a dial type that never needs batteries)
- Measuring tape
- Metal Rulers (various sizes like 6”, 18”, up to 36”)
- A multi-meter for measuring ohms and voltage
Now that’s not all, but you can get by without a number of things and even make some of your own items like router templates for pickups, and neck pockets, etc. And never forget safety equipment like ear and eye protection, as well as protection against dust and fumes, and a fire extinguisher.
Step 4: When I first got started, I didn’t own a band saw, so I paid a local woodworking shop to rough cut some of my blanks for things like the necks and naturally they can provide more services as well, but if that’s not an option evening classes at high schools are the best option other than a close friend with a complete workshop.
Step 5: You’ll need a dedicated work space t home even if you don’t have a proper workshop so that you leave your work unattended and undisturbed for periods of time—this is very important when clamping and gluing up bodies and necks, or even curing of finishes after application. With that in mind, don’t forget safety provisions which are paramount to doing it correctly. If you live in an apartment, I wouldn’t recommend tackling a scratch project but considering a kit instead.
Step 6: If you can draw, prepare a full-sized accurate blueprint of your design on proper drafting media so that you can get too scale prints (or printouts made if you are doing this using a CAD program). You’ll need these to be able to layout and trace things onto the wood before rush cutting and as a guide to ensure you haven’t placed something in a bad location that won’t work out later. Otherwise, it’s best to buy proper full-sized to scale drawings of what you want to build. That won’t work if you are making a true custom design however.
Step 7: Select your wood types giving thought to weight and structural considerations. Some types of wood don’t hold screws well and you’ll need to resolve methods of attachment for the neck, pickups, pick guards, covers etc. to be sure they won’t pullout easily. You also don’t want a body wood that ends up being too light for the weight of the neck resulting in a neck heavy instrument that’s difficult to play. Tone comes from more than just one thing (like playing technique), and some wood types may not sound as well as others, so stick with proven choices for now—you can experiment more when you tackle subsequent projects—right?
Step 8: Use standard wiring diagrams for your first project, again it’s not the time to experiment, and there are numerous simple drawings available on line—among the best are available free at Seymour Duncan Pickup’s web site. Practice soldering in your spare time, and make sure you pay attention to rules for grounding the circuit and shielding it as well.
Step 9: The budget. Perhaps the most difficult thing for some, but to do it right, start by preparing an estimate based on the hardware you really want to incorporate, and likewise for the wood choices, including all shipping charges and taxes as applicable. Don’t forget to allow for expenses related to outsourcing some of the rough cutting if required, and educational materials such as books and/or video, and courses. You may have noticed that your costs are mounting faster than you thought they would, so be prepared to fork out a few more dollars.
Step 10: Training: At the very least I strongly recommend a good starter book from well-know builders to get you going, and there are quite a few good ones on the market. I can recommend that you start at Stewart MacDonald and if they don’t have what you need check your local bookstore or Amazon (use the handy search box on the left-hand side of my blog to find other choices).