Design Revisited, & Lessons Learned

This very moment is the first I’ve had in almost a month to pick up where I left off. This moment also marks a second attempt at building a bass guitar. In hindsight I needed some time to regroup, come up with a design I truly loved, and the ever critical decision of wood selection. As before this bass is made from multiple pieces of wood, starting with a body core, and neck of Mahogany. The top plate is still somewhat a question, as I’ve worked on a piece of book matched Tiger Maple, and this wood is definitely exhibition grade material. The only hesitation in employing this species is that Tiger Maple can be found on so many guitars, both factory and custom.

With all that being said, I spent the better part of the last hour gluing up the core blank, with two inlay strips of Maple/Walnut/Maple, that will fall on either side of the center line. Gluing up solid body guitar blanks is much for stressful with the race against adhesives that feature superior strength and little patience. The term “open time” is a myth, glue is glue as far as I can tell. In order to ensure a flat blank I clamped from every angle that matters, and since my vise has yet to find a home in my new home/shop, part of it serves as the perfect weight to hold everything down. Now that time is once again on my side, I’ll be able to consider the Tiger Maple as the top plate or is there a better choice? Chances are it will be the Tiger Maple as my checking account is boss in this area.


The Radio Silence

The month of April has been a busy one to say the least. My “Real Daytime Job” has been very greedy with my time, and I’ve not had much of a chance to work with my bass. Once again the world of  luthiery has thrown a curve ball.  My first attempt was plagued with imperfections in profile, shapes/curves, wood selection and presence. Knowing myself as well as I hope, I cannot cope with the “It’ll have to do” attitude. One of the biggest eye sores was the shape of the top horn. Not long after my last post titled, The Cats Eye is when the clumsy shape of the top horn revealed itself. I was very pleased with the result of the “Cats Eye”,  but it wasnt enough to compensate the hideousness of the top horn. So out came the rasps to try to polish up the curves. Shaping, and re-shaping the bevels, and curves is alot like applying icing to a cake. You can over do it and ruin everything instantly. So my almost first bass guitar was a casualty of my inexperienced hands. It’s back on the path of becoming a clock. Maybe it will remind me to slow down, there’s always symbols of our efforts, successes and even failures. In furniture you sketch 100 times, then sketch again. Why I didn’t apply this mentality to luthiery Im not sure.  So with fresh inspiration, and a double dose of enthusiasm I’ve already begun a full-fledged campaign from the start. Sometimes you just don’t know until you try.

The Cats Eye

Yesterday I had left a combination of wood glued onto the top horn of my bass, and wrote about the uncertainty I had attempting this technique. No practice run, with real bullets on my first try. The sequence of Maple veneer, Mascassar Ebony, Maple Veneer was shaped this morning and too my surprise it came out better than expected. I’ve attached the second eye that will cover the input jack, and with any luck it will come out like the first. Over the next few days I’ll be reassembling the body and scraping, sanding, and planing. The Bolivian Rosewood fret board has been stickered and weighted down to assume a flat plane. I’ve come along way, but still have along way to go.

Affixing the cats eye

Walking around my bench more times than I remember puzzling over one of the coolest touches I’ve seen on a bass guitar. The “Cat’s Eye”, something I’ve only seen on basses made by Carl Thompson. I’m almost sure he invented this trick and if not the technique the name for sure. Unfortunately I hadn’t seen a cats eye until I had already begun shaping my bass and just in my general knowledge of woodworking, this is something that should be done before the rasp even comes out. I’m working a few steps backwards here but, I’m not worried. I can live with some of the imperfections here in this first bass. If I’m careful they will serve as reminders later on.


Guitar Making; Tradidtion & Technology

   I was alive in the forest

  I was cut by the cruel axe

  In life I was silent

  In death I sweetly sing 

  -Inscription on the face frets of an Elizabethan lute

I have a strong suspicion that I’m apart of a vast  group of amateur luthiers who pay a daily tribute to the work of William R. Cumpiano & Jonathan D. Natelson. This book which has been accurately categorized as the “Bible of the craft” by none other than C.F. Martin IV, takes an eager mind through every aspect of guitar making one can imagine. It’s safe to assume that many who take up guitar making have some sort of back ground in furniture or cabinet making, and understand grain direction and how to look for a plank that has been quarter sawn from one that is flat sawn. Even if I’m wrong on this, Cumpiano & Natelson throughly explain how to seek out such planks. The book begins with some ideas on the tools you’ll need and some work bench appliances you can build that you will use throughout the project. From here you move through every stage, including finger tapping for tone, building and carving the neck, hand planing the sound board to the correct thickness, making and cutting rosettes, fret work, and the  finish. There is much I left out, but hopefully you can get a picture of how complete this book is.

The two guitars being built for the book was steel string,and a classical. How do I find tips on building my Bass from a book like this? The chapter on making and installing a truss rod is one example I’m using now. I could buy truss rod, and a super special router bit that is only for cutting the slot for the truss rod I just bought, all this for about $40 plus shipping/handling. Or I can go buy a piece of 3/16 for about $12. You know the same place that will sell me that truss rod and bit will also make me a pre-slotted, pre-radiused fret board in ebony for about $45! While I’m at it why don’t I just scrap what I’ve poured my soul into and buy a guitar kit! That might work for some people but I’d rather spend my money on some more tools, and rest at night knowing I made this Bass. I use handtools where I can, and  believe in making something as far away from a production/factory setting as possible. This idea too was something that I had, and after reading this book I was amazed at how unwavering this thought had become. If you own a copy of this amazing book then by know you’ve already seen the quote up above.

Six Gun Guitars

   I have to admit I was more than ready to accept my losses on the walnut bass that inspired this blog. My last post was a public recording of my first failure as a bass luthier. There has been a change in events that orchestrated by a luthier from Arizona named Brian Forbes. Brian has a website for his own work which can be found at He explained that my bass wasn’t meant to be a clock, and provided me with several different methods to correct my mistakes.

So now the bass has been prepped for a neck through design. I’m venturing out of the traditional maple neck and using, an African hardwood known as Padauk. This plank was purchased from my local guild for $23! It’s a very straight and perfectly quartersawn. I’ve taken the extra precaution and laminated two strips of quartersawn hard maple. The padauk neck has been in clamps for a little more than 24 hrs. I’m going to allow a full 72 hours to make sure all the glue has fully cured. The plan for the back of the neck is an inlay of Macassar Ebony and Mahogany. Looks like the Nicholson files will be back out very soon.

Prior Planning……

Here in the South we have a saying about Prior Planning, and what will happen if you don’t do it. The Bass that initiated the creation of this blog is shelved. Forever. This entire project so far has been filled with lessons on patience and how to elevate and adhere to highest standard as a craftsman I’ve ever been. The flaw in the walnut bass began with the book match. The neck pocket should center on the seam of the book match. While this wouldn’t hinder the function, it’s aesthetically offensive to me. The profile had its highs and lows (literally) and I was never content with its final design. Eager to begin, I rushed through the planning stage and once that realization took hold I knew I couldn’t go forward.

Moving forward my enthusiasm for another go at making a bass guitar is unmatched by no other project I’ve ever completed over the last 18 years. So far this week I’ve spent my off time sketching body profiles, planning some shop made jigs to aid me, and preparing templates. One thing I quickly learned is drawing a guitar to scale isn’t as easy as one might think. Since most guitar bodies are continuous curves, the angles and radius must be carefully planned to create the shape I’m after. I’m not out trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m somewhere in-between. I’m taking cues from modern bass guitar, but not to the extreme. I may venture down the road of a traditional style bass later on, but for now the Jazz, and Precision styles will have to wait. I’ve somewhat developed a drafting plan that works for me. It maybe the long way around but until I find some software, or come up with something else, I will use this method.

I started out with regular 1/4 , 8 1/2″ x 11″ graph paper, and made a “master template.” This template displays a rectangle box that measures 14″ x 21″. I scale the 1/4″ graph blocks to represent one inch. I chose the dimensions of the rectangle after seeing a consistent number of body blanks sold using these measurements.  My next step was to scour the internet for body styles I liked, and mix and match until I had something I liked. I’m taking my time on this, and as I mentioned before, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but I do want to make whatever I come up my own. I’m planning about 4 different styles and will pick one from this group. I may mix these styles up and create something else who knows? The idea here is build an instrument that I love to play and look upon for many years.  The orignal walnut bass will not be thrown out, or burned, but will be fashioned into a clock I believe. I need one in my shop anyway.