Monday, September 17, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the Second

A few posts ago I told a tale of a little guitar that couldn't, and of my hamfisted attempts to get it working again. I will now bring things up to date.

Part one ended in the autumn of 2011, with the guitar disassembled and thoroughly buggered. It stayed that way for the next 8 months or so. I cannibalized some of its electronics (including the one nice pickup) for a refurb of my little sister's Yamaha Pacifica, and considered throwing the rest of the instrument away on more than one occasion.

I didn't entirely give up on the project though, and once the post-wedding daze had subsided I started thinking about what to do next. Considering the thorough wrecking I'd given it the previous year, I figured I had to either make a entirely new neck or throw the whole thing in the bin. Last year making a new neck would have been completely beyond the realms of possibility (there's only so much you can do with hand tools and a shitty black+decker workbench in your garden) but now I had a wife who worked in a big carpentry workshop. 

This was, I admit, bordering on underpants-gnome logic (Step 1: Wife with workshop, Step 2: ?, Step 3: Guitar Neck!) but it was enough to make me seriously consider how I'd go about building a neck. I bought a few books, read a lot of blog posts, looked into suppliers of wood and parts. I also drew up a set of blueprints for this hypothetical neck using Adobe inDesign. (I know that autocad probably would have been a more appropriate medium, but it took me three years to reach this level of proficiency with inDesign, and so I reserve the right to use it for damn near everything.)

The neck blueprint. Clicky to embiggenate.
The pale blue bit is the truss rod rout.

At about this point Kristen learned that most of her colleagues were disappearing over the summer, and that all her students would disappear also. She suggested that if I came in she could teach me how to use all the tools I'd need and help me with the guitar. In return, I'd be someone to talk to. This seemed like a good plan, so I booked a few days off during the summer holidays and bought the parts I'd need.

I still had a rosewood fingerboard left over from the previous fuckup, so all I needed was fretwire, a trussrod, and a slab of a maple. I bought them from Tonetech Luthier Supplies, who are based in the UK, meaning that there was no interminable wait this time around.

The first tool Kristen taught me to use was a handheld Jigsaw. Once I'd shown I could use it without chopping my fingers off or setting fire to the workshop, she let me loose on a big pile of scrap wood. I cut a load of practice necks from pine offcuts and a couple of dummy headstocks from plywood (I couldn't make practice necks from plywood as plywood has no grain and, therefore, can't be carved)

For the first day and a half I did absolutely nothing to the maple blank itself. I simply made batches of practice necks with the jigsaw, and then carved them with my spokeshaves and rasps. I quickly learned that pine is a tricky wood to carve. This isn't because it's tough – it's barely harder to carve than balsa wood – but rather because it's full of knots. I quickly learned that knots are effectively grain randomisers, once your spokeshave gets within about an inch of them, you have no way of knowing which way its going to go. Nonetheless, I made progress, with the necks looking increasingly neck-like as I went on.

The blanks, carved. The top two were the last ones I did before moving on.

In the afternoon of the second day I decided it was time to start work on the neck blank proper. Before I started to do any of this, however, I had to thin the blank down by about 4mm and level it out. A few trial passes with a big jackplane made it quickly apparent that planing away 4mm of rock maple would take me about a week. Canadian Maple is hard.

Kristen took it upstairs and fed it into the bandsaw. It roared into life, I hid in the corner of the room like a startled kitten (I don't like bandsaws). After an ungodly screeching noise, and a small amount of smoke, Kristen pulled the wood away from the blade, having managed to cut a groove about 2mm deep in one side. Canadian Maple is really hard.

The next day, we tried again with a new saw blade. It went gnuurrrrrrrr-whirr-squeeeeeeeee. I hid. Kristen neatly shaved off a veneer-like piece of maple and handing both bits to me. I spent a lot of the rest of the day planing and planing and planing. By the time came to go home I had a big bruise on the palm of both hands, had pulled most of the muscles in my upper body, and had big salty sweat stains on my clothes. Canadian Maple is insanely hard.

On Friday I traced my blueprint onto the now perfectly smooth surface of the neck and fired up the jigsaw. I quickly discovered that Canadian maple is hard work for a little handheld jigsaw. I had to stop on several occasions because it was overheating to the point where my hands hurt. Eventually though, I managed to cut out the neck. This was the point at which I made my first major mistakes. The first happened when I lost track of the pencil line amidst a cloud of sawdust and drifted about 1mm inside the line near the heel. The second was that I forgot that I needed to do the routing first.

I'm not sure whether it was because I'd removed a lot of material already, or if it's just because routers are evil, but this was the point at which the neck sustained another bit of ‘character’. We clamped the neck into an improvised blank made of plywood and Kristen started to carve the channel (I wasn't feeling particularly confident with the router). When she was about three quarters of the way to the heel, moving with even slowness because the wood was putting up a fight, there was a loud ‘plink’ and Kristen immediately stopped the router. It turned out that the blade had overheated and snapped from the sheer effort of cutting through the Canadian Maple of ultimate hardness. When Kristen restarted a few minutes later the replacement bit caught on some imperfection in the wood and, unnoticed by either of us, drifted off course, cutting a channel that curved about 15mm off the centerline. Luckily it chose to do this in the heel of the neck, where the wood is at its thickest and widest. I figured I could fill the gap by gluing pieces of the veneer-like offcut, which would provide the strength and density needed to hold the neck bolts in place. Having declared the neck to be fine, I set to work carving.

Carving in progress. This was about an hour's work, believe it or not. If you look very carefully, you can just about see the router’s little detour at the heel of the neck next to the clamp.

Needless to say, carving was really difficult. As with the planing earlier, it was a sweaty, palm-bruising process. I first used my microplane rasp (made in Arkansas by wizards) to rough out the curve of the neck at the headstock join and heel, then carefully shaved away layer after layer of wood with my spokeshave (taking care to go with the grain).

Looking up from the heel to the headstock. At this point I thought I was about halfway done with the carving. Hah.

After slicing away enough material that it looked like a neck, I started trying to refine the shape with a regular rasp. I discovered that this was a process akin to cutting through a steel door with a cheesegrater. It made me feel like I was doing something, but I'm not sure it if really achieved much other than to polish it up nicely. Either way, by the end of the day I had something that looked not entirely unlike a guitar neck and felt like I'd been beaten up. Canadian Maple is hard.

How it looked when I downed tools at the end of the day. The weird splodges on the headstock are a mixture of sweat and sawdust. By the end of this few days I was looking thinner and more muscly than I've ever looked in my life. Even if the guitar didn't work, I had at least learned that building guitars is a good workout.


I was originally intending for this to be a two part affair. But now I think I'll have to make it three. Tune in some time in the next week for part three: gluing, fretting and finishing.