So, at the end of last week I had everything glued together and it looked suitably “guitar-shaped”. This time I had the challenge of making it actually playable and adding the finishing touches. This was by far the hardest part of the build and had me sweating with concentration on more than one occasion!
Making the Nut and Bridge
Two essential parts of the guitar are the nut and the bridge – the bits that the strings “sit” on at the top of the neck and bottom of the strings. They provide a nice hard surface for the strings to vibrate on – giving you that lovely bright string tone instead of a hollow “thump”. The Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) that was the inspiration for this project used a large threaded bolt for both the brige and nut which looked really nice, but there were two drawbacks: 1) I didn’t have any spare bolts lying around the workshop, and 2) on my CBG, the strings kept slipping along the ridges of the bolt and ended up at odd spacings.
So that meant that the carving knives had to come out again to make my own by hand. The wood I used was an offcut of Ash I think – a nice hard, light coloured wood that resembles the bone (or white plastic) traditionally used in many acoustic guitars.
It was really important to get the spacing right for the strings before I carved anything though! So I strung the guitar with the high and low “E”s and placed a piece of the Ash in position at the nut and bridge end, underneath the strings. Using a ruler, I evenly spaced out 4 lines between the two strings which would be cut for the notches for the other strings. This bit took a lot of time and to-ing and fro-ing as it was really important to get it right! Finally, I got everything in place and made my cuts. A bit of shaping on the belt sander and they were ready. I decided not to glue either piece to the guitar as then I can make future adjustments easily.
Fretting about the Frets
I’ll be honest, the bit about this whole homemade guitar project that I was least looking forward to was adding the frets. One of my main requirements for this project was that this instrument would have frets like a “normal” guitar – I’m just used to playing with them.
If the frets were wonky, uneven or sitting proud of one another then I could have ended up with an unplayable instrument! Thankfully there is a wonderful site which will tell you the position of each fret, which meant that I could relax a little. I drew the frets to scale in my desktop publishing software, made sure it printed out to scale and then pritt-sticked it to the fret board. So far so good.
I used a stanley knife to score the lines into the wood before removing the paper. Sadly, I have no pictures of this stage as I was too busy concentrating! I used some old wire that I found in the shed for the frets – they were cut to size and superglued into place over each score mark.
It wasn’t a clean job by any means, despite my best efforts. However, making this thing sound right was my priority, and any imperfections would all contribute to the “authentic” Cigar Box Guitar look of the finished instrument (I kept telling myself!) I ground the fret ends down (so they wouldn’t cut me) and polished them with a Dremel. It was also handy for adding the fret markers on the side of the neck – they’re just ground into the Elm using the pointy sanding head bit. It looks pretty smart I think!
Well, I was almost there, but there was one thing missing – the design for the body top! I liked the “f-holes” of my CBG so I copied them from there onto my guitar and cut the shapes out with a wire saw and cleaned it up with the Dremel.
My boys had often come in to the workshop during the project to “help” me (i.e. play with little offcuts of wood and sawdust) so I thought it would be great to have their contribution to the guitar. I gave them the body top (which is removable) and a tin of wax crayons and asked for a picture! I’m told there’s a tree on there and perhaps a teddy too…
So that’s it. I applied two coats of Danish Oil and strung it up with a new set of strings – my only purchase in the entire project. I’d originally used a set of spares I had but I didn’t have a full set of the right strings – resulting in one of my pegs twisting and splitting when I tried to tune it up. Oops! So, that meant new strings (and another hand-carved peg).
The Danish oil actually covered up the superglue very nicely and you can’t notice it at all unless you really look hard. Wood glue tends to repel oil finishes but this has turned out really well. That Elm fretboard looks beautiful.
The tuning pegs had been staying in tune pretty well before I’d oiled them, but once the oil was applied I found that one of the pegs (the replacement for the one that sheared) kept slipping in the hole and not staying in tune. I tried several methods of fixing the problem, such as filling the hole with sawdust or slivers of wood (to aid friction) which didn’t work at all. Finally, I lined the hole with woodglue and sawdust which reduced the size of the hole enough for the peg to stay in tune. Not an elegant fix, but it works okay for now. I’m going to try making another couple of pegs and see if they hold any better.
But How Does the Homemade Guitar Sound?
It actually sounds pretty good! A mix between a guitar and a banjo – it’s definately a unique sound. I think that perhaps leaving the top unglued means that it reverberates more which gives it that “plinky plonky” banjo sound. It’s nice to strum and sounds great when finger-picked. The neck is a little thicker than I’m used to but still pretty comfortable (if a little uneven!) Have a listen for yourself.
Notes For Next-Time (If There is a ‘Next-Time”)
I think if I did use friction pegs again I’d make them shorter and fit them to the back of the head – why did I fit them at the front in the first place?! Perhaps that will keep them in tune better and prevent the twisted peg problem from happening again.
I’d also try and get some proper fret-wire. The wire I used works well, but a couple of frets have come awaytowards the body end. Using the proper stuff would mean that they aren’t going to ping off mid-song!
Overall though I feel the homemade guitar project has been a success – I’ve created a completely unique instrument that can be tuned and played from a palatte, an old cupboard door and scraps from the workshop. It’s certainly got bags of character, both in looks and in sound – which is lovely and warm; it reminds me a little bit of a crackly vinyl record. No, its not perfect by any means, but it was never meant to be – taking that pressure off myself at the beginning of the project meant that I not only stepped out to try it, but I took risks in experimenting and those (on the whole) payed off.