MOD APPROVED BY :zakkwyldefan79

Ultimate first-time luthier thread

After seeing some "I want to build a guitar but I don't know where to start" threads, I figured out this would be a great thing to have around. Basically, this thread will try to summarize guitar building and have as many link as possible to other, more specialized threads and sites. I know that there is a ressource thread, but I don't think it's detailed enough for most folks like me who, not so long ago, never laid eyes on a router.
Unfortunately, this thread won't have any pictures, but just check out one the build threads around here, they will give you plenty of pictures and informations.
I think this thread should be stickied at the top of GB&C, or at least in the GB&C Central Hub.
If anyone haves anything to add, PM me or just post below. I'm still a beginner too, with a third of a build completed.
This thread only concerns electric guitars and basses.


Essential tools
  • Router, preferably with ball bearing bits (Can be replaced by chisels and loads of time)
  • Either a bandsaw, or a good jigsaw with a long and solid blade
  • A palm sander (or just sandpaper, but it will be long...)
  • A rasp and some files
  • Clamps of all sizes
  • A drill (preferably a press drill)
  • A good ruler
  • A soldering iron (unless you go with EMGs solderless stuff, you need this.)
  • A set of screwdrivers and allen wrench. Always useful, especially when it comes to setting up your first born.

Step 1: Choosing the type of guitar you want to build

Before starting to glue and cut lumber ,you have to know what you want to build, right? Obviously, building a stoptail carved top Les Paul won't be the same as building a Strat with a trem, the same way as building a chair isn't the same as building a table. There are some similarities in the overall work, but some details won't be the same and might have an impact on your choice, i.e.: neck joint, top routing or rear routing, bridge routing, so on.

1.1:Neck Joint
There are three way to do it:
  • bolt-on
  • set-in
  • neck-through

The first, bolt-on, is the easiest to do at first and to repair afterwards. The neck shaft doesn't extend further then the fretboard length, and sometimes is shorter than the fretboard. The neck is then held in place by usually four large screws, sometimes three, sometimes five or more in the case of some basses.
In the best of worlds, the neck pocket (the cavity made by a router where the neck will be bolted/glued) should be tight enough so you can lift the body with the neck without any glue or bolts holding the body and the neck together, but not so tight the neck dosent fit in.

The second way of doing it is a set-in neck joint, or a glued-in neck. This way of doing the neck joint is said to provide more warmth to the tone. Structurally, it usually allows better high fret access and aesthetically, gives a more one-piece look.
This neck joint, however, whilst being almost as easy to do, is harder to repair once glued. To be taken off, the glued neck has to be sanded off at the heel, then heated until the glue gives up.
In this way of doing the joint, the neck shaft doesn't stop at the end of the fretboard but extends in a tenon to give more strength to the joint. The bigger the surface glued, the stronger the joint will be.

The third way, neck through, is a less common fashion, usually found on higher end guitars and basses. In this case, the neck shaft extends through the whole body, and thus becomes the center of the body at the same time. To complete the body shape, other lumber is glued to the sides. This "joint" is the strongest and allows the best high fret access, since you can carve the heel the way you want it., however the neck can't be replaced if broken.

1.2: Scale length and bridge placement
Scale length is another you have to choose, just like when you buy a guitar. Choose the scale length you like the best. What important with scale lenght is the fret placement. Using this tool, you can acurately place each frets. Or, more likely if you arfe a first-timer, you can buy premade neck with the frets alreay done or preslotted fretboards, so you won't have to bother with fret position.
To place the bridge on your guitar, you have to place the neck in the neck pocket, just like if it was beeing glued/bolted. Then you measure the distance between the nut and the twelfth fret, and you place the bridge at the same distance from the twelfth fret.

1.3: Routing
Routing is an important part of guitar building. In fact, building an electric guitar is pretty much all about routing. Another important step that might influence your decision is whether to route the top or the back of your body.
Routing the top of the body, Strat style, allows to mount all the electronics on a pickguard, and thus simplify wiring the guitar. It's also easier to route a "swimming pool" pickup cavity (just one big rectangle, covered with the pickguard, instead of little pickup shapes) than routing proper pickup shapes. Also, it's easier to hide a mistake under a pickguard than under a thin pickup ring.

The other way, rear routing, is just like how a traditional Les Paul is routed. The cavity for the pots and switches is done on the back, and the top only features holes for the pots and smaller routes for the pickups. The advantages of this routing type are that if you have a carved top, you can't put a pickguard, or if you have a gorgeous figured top, you don't have to waste any of its marvellous flame or quilt by hiding it under a pickguard.

1.4: Bridge type
If you want a trem equipped guitar, it will be a little more complex than just drilling some holes and screwing a fixed bridge on. You probably want to take this in account to before starting your build.

1.5: Other stuff
Other factors that will play on the complexity of your build is if it's a solid body or a semi-hollow body, and if it's a carved top or a flat top. A hollow body will need almost the entire guitar routing out, then a top glued on with f-holes or whatever you want cut in the top. A flat top, hence his hame, is a guitar with a flat top (duh) which means obviously simpler to realize. A carved top (i.e.: a Les Paul or a PRS Custom 24)is trickier to do. There are many ways to do it, but the most common (maybe it's not, but it's the one I ee most of the time on GB&C) is first to route steps in the top (wich is as the beggining way thicker then it should be), then smooth everything out with a belt sander, or any kind of sander. An other way uses a big chiselto rough up the shape of the carve, and then everything is sanded smooth.For pics and further information, you can click here . Or here (Post #53).

When you have decided what you want to build, you have to decide with what you want to build it.

Step 2: Choosing the tonewoods

I won't go super in depth here because we have this wonderful thread to explain it. Basically, every wood contributes to your guitar's tone: a basswod body with a maple neck won't sound the same as a mahogany body with a maple cap and a mahogny neck. So picking the wood you want is very important for you if you want to be satisfied with your build.

Step 3: Building the body

Let's get started. You have the lumber of your choice, first thing to do is to thickness it if it's not done already. There is no standard thickness, it just have to be thick enough so all your cavities fits correctly. If you have a trem, make sure that the wood is thicker then the trem block so it does not stick out the guitar in the back.
Now, you can cut it to shape. I stronlgy recommend to have a template of your shape made prior to doing anything to tour beautiful piece of wood. Just take some plywood and trace your shape, then cut it with a bandsaw and sand smooth the overall shape until you like it.
Back to the actual body. Trace out the shape on the blank with your template. Cut the rough shape with a bandsaw or jigsaw, but leave a nice 1/8'' around your tracing. This is when the template will be useful. With double-sided tape, tape the template to your rough cutted lumber, or even better, screw them together. Just drill holes in places were they will be routed out, and screw the toghether. This is a much safer way to make them hold together. Now what you want to do is to use your router to give the body the exact same shape as the template's. Place a bll bearing bit on your router, and go along the edge of the template until your whole body is done. Now you can unscrew the template.
You can also try to do the final shape of your body directly with the bandsaw, then smooth the edges with a sander, but you have more chances to mess up the thing
Now you have a body with a nice shape. It's now time for routing!

More to come.
Last edited by n1ckn1ce at Apr 6, 2012,
Thanks to:

-nowa90, for suggesting some other essential tools I forgot to speak about.

-von Layzonfon, for correcting my text ad adding some code to make it look nicer!
Last edited by n1ckn1ce at Mar 30, 2012,
You forgot a drill and a good ruler as the essential tools. Maybe even clamps and sandpaper, also a soldering iron and screwdrivers.
Just call me Julius, J, etc.
Taking an Internet break for a while, will come on when I can.

Good idea for a thread.
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Omae wa mou

Quote by Axelfox
You don't need an electric sander of any type to make a guitar. We humans have arms with muscles in them for a reason.

This guide is assuming you're buying a body blank? If not, add a plane and wetstone to that list, or if you don't like hand tools, jointer and planer.
..I was watching my death.
you really don't need wetstones for a decent plane, it should be sharp enough the whole way through. The guide should just be from a hunk of wood that is thickness'd and big enough.
Just call me Julius, J, etc.
Taking an Internet break for a while, will come on when I can.
I completely disagree with your statement regarding wetstones. I have never heard of a company that sharpens their plane blades before selling a plane. Not even Lie Nielsen does it! They do however grind the blade so it has the bevel, but that's where it stops. You need to hone your plane blades.

You could probably chisel a cavity faster than it would take to make the template and route it. You'd also get nice crisp, clean edges from chiseling.
..I was watching my death.
Quote by timbit2006
You could probably chisel a cavity faster than it would take to make the template and route it. You'd also get nice crisp, clean edges from chiseling.

Good point, especially if you pre-drill it.
Templates can also be bought for >10$, so just put that as an option. Templates and a bit are cheaper then sharpening equipment and good chisels.
Just call me Julius, J, etc.
Taking an Internet break for a while, will come on when I can.
Nowa, you're forgetting about the costs of a router. You can buy a piece of shit Harbor Freight router, but I highly doubt it will last very long. The router will be ~150-200 for a good one.
The bit will run you 30 dollars if you buy a Freud at your local home improvement store.

You can get six Fuller butt chisels for 30 dollars new. At Lee Valley you can get a 1000x/4000x grit wet stone for ~40 dollars. You don't even need the stone, you can use the Scary Sharp method which requires sandpaper and a piece of float glass. A one year subscription to Fine Woodworking online is 11 dollars, but you don't even need that. There's plenty of information for free.
It does take skill to properly use a chisel but that's why we practice.

You can say, "I already have a router" but the same can be true for chisels.
..I was watching my death.
Quote by n1ckn1ce
Thanks! I'm from Quebec so I'm not super good at english, but I try.

Hey, you're a sight better than a lot of stuff I have to grit my teeth through around here.
Préférez-vous français? And I bet your English is better than my French.
I'm tempted to copy and paste that entire correction, and correct it further. But that would be a bit much aha

It's very sound advice though, looking forwards to the next sections, because I would still consider myself an amateur luthier - and it'll all help this summer on my next build
Ball Custom Mark I

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This looks cool. Will be interesting to see the rest of what's gonna be posted.
Quote by von Layzonfon
Hey, you're a sight better than a lot of stuff I have to grit my teeth through around here.
Préférez-vous français? And I bet your English is better than my French.

Préférez-vous le français.
I hate it! so complex and dumb for nothing. I like English better. Its simple, its easier to make up words and you can find anything in English, but try to find a lutherie guide in french. Travel-wise, almost any country in the world will speak english, and USA haves most nicest places anyway. :P

I'll try to continue this, but I'm right in the middle of my friend's fundraiser show agaist suicide (tomorow! Will be playing 21 Guns!) so I don't really have time BUT I'll do my best to add stuff here ASAP.
Added some stuff to the first step, and got started on the body crafting section.

Now I need some help from luthiers. When you route stuff like control cavities, neck pockets and stuff, how do you start? Do you drill some holes, then route everything clean?
could you add some stuff to this about scale lengths and bridge placement?
because i want to start building but i dunno how you are supposed to know the bridge goes.