Getting Started in Instrument Building

by Steve Kalb

Reprinted from Mugwumps, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 1973. Articles referenced throughout this piece will be uploaded as soon as we can do them. Remember, this article is 24 years old, and although the ideas may have withstood the test of time, some of the suppliers may not still be around and there may be newer tools that weren't available to the beginner in 1973. MIH

In issue #5, Mugwumps had a short piece on the pros and cons of presenting articles on instrument repair and construction for consumption by the novice. It urged people who are beginners at instrument work to start from scratch rather than work on old instruments. It occurred to me that perhaps there are many sub-novices among Mugwumps readers who want to get into instrument work but don't quite know how, and that they might profit as well from some straight out advice on getting started as from advice of a more technical nature.

For those who might draw some encouragement from it, I got started purely on a whim. I had no woodworking experience to speak of and I knew nothing about guitars or playing, when one day I read a little blurb on guitar making in the Whole Earth Catalog; it sounded good so I decided I'd try it. It took eight months to finish the first guitar and with its successful completion I decided to become a full time guitar maker.

My focus here will be on guitar making, but the following should be of help to anyone beginning instrument building.


If you intend to build a guitar, the first thing you should do is get a copy of Irving Sloan's Classic Guitar Construction. This is the only book in English I know of that has complete and comprehensible instructions. It doesn't presuppose any woodworking experience. The book does have certain shortcomings, and it has no information on steel string guitars; but on the whole it is an excellent source, virtually a must for those interested in the subject.

Another book, nearly as complete as Sloan is The Classical Guitar Design and Construction by Donald McLeod and Robert Welford. It is a good complement to Sloan's. Other books on the subject, notable A. P. Sharpe's Make Your Own Spanish Gui tar, H. E. Brown's Classic Guitar Maker's Guide, and J. F. Wallo's How to Make a Classic Guitar are not nearly the tool the Sloan or McLeod books are, but are useful as cross references and to clear up especially confusing concepts. Wallo also sells a set of full scale plans, including a 25 5/8 inch fret scale that I found valuable when I was starting.

If you are a novice woodworker, I would suggest any books on woodworking and wood finishing per se. I can't stress this enough, for while most people would make a connection between guitarists and guitar making, the skills needed to build a guitar are mechanical, not musical. Wood finishing is a completely separate skills that many builders find the most difficult task to master. There are any number of good books on woodworking and finishing. Many of the supply houses listed at the end of this article have extensive lists of woodcraft books for sale.

While the books will lay a framework for your craft, that's about as far as they go. If you come to a sticky problem or if there is something you simply don't understand, your best avenue is to seek out someone with the necessary skills. If you can't locate another guitar maker, look for other instrument makers: dulcimer, banjo, violin, etc. There are many skills common to the construction of all wooden stringed instruments, and someone in a related field might well be able to help you with your specific problem, or at least spur your imagination. One rather intangible, but invalu able, advantage to be gained by talking to other instrument makers is a morale boost, as the beginner is likely to feel that he is confronting an impossible task.

Remember, there is no one right way to perform the myriad operations necessary to construct a guitar. Don't treat the books as gospel, but rather as an extensive set of suggestions. View any advice, including mine, with a critical eye. It seems reasonable, try it; if not, discard it. In the end, let your imagination loose.

If you are starting out cold, there are several places to look for people who can help you. Many retail music shops have resident repairmen who are knowledgeable on the subject. Another group of people who can probably help you locate the instrument makers in town are musicians. If you're near a school try their music department. Try craft fairs near you; frequently, craftsmen know the other craftsmen in the area.

One subject all the books fail to cover adequately is the matter of neck shape, string spacing, and action. You'll have to study finished guitars for this. Make sure you talk to a number of people and look at several good guitars because there is a great deal of variation.


If you're short on woodworking experience, you'll find that any skilled wood craftsman could be as great a help to you as an instrument maker. You have to learn how to use basic woodworking tools such as chisels, planes, saws and scrapers, not to mention whatever power tools you'll choose to buy. Books will provide you with some basics but it is immeasurably better to get as much firsthand instruction as you can.

Good places to locate woodworkers are related businesses. Talk to the people in hardware stores, builders' supply houses, and lumber yards, especially those that carry hardwoods. There aren't' too many yards around that stock anything more than an occasional piece of birch or maple, and the skilled woodworkers in your area are likely to be among their customers.

Check with secondary schools and colleges. If they offer woodshop, you're likely to be surprised at how much the dusty old shop teacher knows.

It probably won't be necessary to look in all these places to build up a good number of contacts, as they have a way of building upon one another. With just a little digging it shouldn't take too long.


I know at least six regular suppliers, five of which do mail order business. Some of these firms have a standard trade discount, and if you write them on your business stationary, they'll send you information on this policy. All of them offer quantity discounts, but you have to write for specifics for that. These policies account for some seemingly amazing price discrepancies between the various companies. Get all the catalogues and all the extra price information you can, before you order a thing.

There are other places to pick up materials. Repairmen often stock a few materials, some lumber yards stock exotic hardwoods, or furniture manufacturers might part with a bit of their wood. Guitar makers in your area also might have enough supplies on hand to set you up, at least for your first guitar.

Brazilian rosewood is generally recognized as the best wood for guitar backs and sides, but is very hard to find and you do expect to pay a premium. East Indian rosewood as a second choice is just fine. Rosewood is difficult to work with. Finely flamed maple can turn out a guitar of equal quality. Domestic woods such as walnut, unfigured maple, and oak will make a nice instrument.

There is a great amount of misinformation floating around about guitar tops. American tradition has it that straight, unfigured, close grained spruce, the closer the better, makes the best top. This isn't necessarily so. There are certain percentages to be played, and if you go with superstraight, supertight grain wood, I think you're on the low end. I talked to people in Germany who cut the wood for musical instruments and who speak from several generations of experience. The best chance for a good top, they say, is wood with about 15 lines to the inch, wide by American standards, and as much figure as possible. An especially desirable type of figure, commanding a premium price from European violin makers, is called "hasel." Hasel is little roundish spots of figure in the wood, little spots of flame, as it were. Standard flamed spruce is also desirable, if you can find it. The woodcutters sell the supertight grain wood, up to 50 lines to the inch, at higher prices in America simply because they can get the money for it.

Another misconception is that Canadian cedar, often known to guitar makers as Spanish pine, which has been used for years on fine classical guitars, can't take the stresses of steel string guitars. In the past few years several West Coast guitar makers have been using cedar on steel string guitars with excellent results. Some guitar makers are also now using redwood tops. All in all, there is a tremendous amount of luck involved.

One last word on wood: If you find some Philippine (or "Luan") mahogany in the lumber yard, don't use it for a neck or guitar body. Luan isn't really mahogany; it's a rather soft wood that looks like mahogany. If in doubt, dig in your fingernail. Luan will dent like a piece of pine or fir. Real mahogany is fine for necks.

For finishing materials, I feel the best source is H. Behlen and Bro. Co. They are a complete source for wood finishing materials. Virtually every guitar maker I know uses lacquer for finishing, and Behlen has a fine lacquer for musical instruments. Ask them for #317 and the sealer and thinner to go with it. Having tried two other lacquer systems, I highly recommend this one. It brushes nicely, is perfectly acceptable for spraying, appears quite flexible, is less likely than most lacquers to asphyxiate you while you're using it, and although it is soft at first, it dries to a hard finish. Behlen also sells benzine to thin the pore filler (don't use benzene) which is an extremely difficult chemical to locate. Behlen also makes an excellent white glue called Rivit. Behlen is one of those companies that won't sell through the mail to "individuals," so you'll need a letterhead.


The decision of whether to pursue your work as a hobby or full time will probably dictate in great part the type of shop you'll want to set up. One can build a guitar entirely with hand tools. I built my first one that way and, although it was a rewarding experience, it took a long time.

If you're going to invest in stationary power tools, I would spend my first dollars on a band saw. You'll probably find yourself using it more than any other tool no matter how complete a power shop you have. Next, I would say, get a 6" x 48" table disk sander. (Editors note, 25 years later: Perhaps he meant belt sander?) Sears makes a nice, relatively inexpensive one. After those two tools, anything you can get your hands on is a nice extra. A drill press is handy for pegheads, soundholes and rosettes, and any other drilling operations you might have. A table or radial arm saw allows you to rip braces and blocks out of large stock, and you'll always be finding new uses for these versatile tools. A joiner is especially useful on a project like guitars, with so many glue joints that must be perfect. One other tool that can save you many hours of work if you're going into production is some type of surfacer for tops, backs, and sides. A large, horizontal sanding drum, mounted on a lathe, with a way to slip the wood underneath, is one way. You'll have to compromise here, since commercially available surfacing sanders sell for around $4,000. You could take your glued up tops and backs to a mill that has a surfacing sander.

The most useful hand power tools are a hand drill, some type of router, and a finishing sander. An excellent sander, although it's expensive, is the Rockwell Speed Bloc. You can get a sponge pad to fit over its small base and sand the sides of the guitar. All other finishing sanders are too big to get at the sides. Instead of a router, I use a Dremel Moto Tool and its accessory router base. I have an adjustable stop rigged onto the base, much like a big router's laminated trimmer attachment, for use in cutting the purfling (border decoration) and binding grooves. The moto tool is also excellent for inlaying and general routing, such as cleaning out the rosette groove. One note of caution though: The regular Dremel bits are useless for cutting woods as hard as rosewood and ebony. While I've never tried their carbide cutters, they look like they would clog in wood. Woodson Tool Co.'s Micro Miniature End Mills used with the Moto tool, however, make it a whole new tool. An electric drill is, of course, wonderfully versatile, with many attachments available including a drill press stand that might suit a guitar maker's purpose. Some people also find belt sanders and power planes useful.

Sloan has a good list of hand tools in the front of his book; I would only make a few additions and corrections to it. First of all, you can probably forget about gouges and do a fine job of neck carving with straight chisels followed by rasps and files. Secondly, he doesn't mention it but the only good saw I've seen for cutting fret grooves is sold by Wild. Those little triple-bladed back saws are too narrow, plus they're sharpened at the wrong angle, so they're almost impossible to move on a piece of wood. Third, there isn't any such thing as a 1/16 inch chisel, as far as I know. I later discovered you can get a purfling groove cleaner, which is probably what he had in mind.

Many of these tools are not available from normal sources, but Woodcraft Supply Co. and Brookstone Co. mail order houses stock all of them and many more that you'll find useful. These two companies are invaluable sources of tools, so don't overlook their catalogs.


A few basic tips that will hopefully make the job of guitar building easier for the beginner:

Learn how to sharpen your hand tools. Even though they're outrageously expensive, you have to have a large Hard Arkansas Stone or you'll never get the job done properly. Then get a good book on the subject or, better yet, find someone who knows how to sharpen and have him teach you. (See article by Alberto Vazquez in this issue of Mugwumps. MIH)

Learn how to use a scraper blade. Sloan outlines one method of sharpening them that is difficult to master, so it's easy to overlook the blade altogether. A scraper blade is one of the most valuable tools you can use. Sanding has its place in coarse cutting of stock and fine finishing, but for most jobs in between, you'll spend about five minutes with a properly turned scraper blade to every hour with a sanding block. The time saved over using a power finishing sander is nearly as significant in many cases. I've found that about 90% of the operations I did with sandpaper on my first guitar can be done with a plane, a scraper, and a file, in about one-tenth the time. (For more on scrapers, see Sam Rizzetta's article, "Mosaic Purfling," in Vol. 1, #5 of Mugwumps. MIH)

Concerning glues: I would stick with a good white glue, Rivit or Titebond, for all operations except for perhaps hide glue on the back and fingerboard. Plastic resin and epoxy glues might be stronger, but in most cases good white glues are strong enough for guitars, so it seems to me like a bit of overkill to use the stronger ones. Besides, plastic resin and epoxies are a mess to use. They have a critical temperature factor in setting, and if mixed improperly they could be worthless. Don't use Elmer's; there are many stronger glues on the market. (For more about glues, see Carl Gotzmer's article "Selecting Proper Glues" in Vol. 1 #6 of Mugwumps. MIH)

Sloan says that a dovetailed neck, while strong enough for a violin, will not withstand the greater tensile pull of the classic guitar strings. Yet he overlooks the fact that virtually all steel string guitars, which exert several times the pull of a classic guitar, use a dovetailed neck, with excellent results. Aside from being just as sound structurally, the dovetailed neck is easier to work on, easier to set on the body properly, and it makes the job of binding and purfling the instrument much easier. Some people have told me that the foot at the back of a one piece neck serves a valuable structural purpose, but such a piece can be added to the upper block of a guitar with a dovetailed neck.


Sloan recommends four coats of lacquer brushed, which is not enough. Lacquer dries so quickly that it leaves heavy brush marks, little hills and valleys in the finish that must be sanded smooth before the surface can be polished out. If you apply only four coats you will find yourself sanding through in many places, which requires patching, which is tedious work. Compounding the problem, lacquer usually has to be thinned 25% - 50% in order to brush with any efficiency. I would recommend putting 12 to 16 ounces of lacquer in a big jar, thinning it to brushing consistency and coating until the mixture is gone. You will probably have to add a bit more thinner around the middle of the process as some will evaporate out while the jar is open. In the end, figure on 12-15 coats, most of which is sanded off leaving a very thin finish. Spraying is a superior method of applying lacquer as it puts on a flat coat that requires much less sanding. It is also much faster. (For more on finishing, see Sam Rizzetta's article "Finishing" in Vol. 1, #6 of Mugwumps. MIH)

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