Hey Everyone,

A customer told me about this forum and I thought I would start a build thread about the steel-bodied resonators I build. It seems like this is the correct sub-topic for this sort of thing. I dont know of many other people who do this sort of instrument so it might be an interesting addition to the large library of info here.

I spent some years building at Huss and Dalton guitars in Virginia. I ended up returning to Michigan after a long battle with some family members´cancer treatments. Last year I went to a Kelly Joe Phelps show where he was playing his National. Kelly Joe was my first exposure to acoustic music 10 years ago and this was the first time he had used it in concert. He made a joke about the chrome blinding the audience. During the show people couldn´t help asking questions about inbetween the tunes. I left wondering if I could make one, and being a guitar player, knowing I liked the aesthetic of raw materials, one with a different patina.

I didn't have any metal work experience at the time, so it was a long and arduous journey of talking to all the waterjet/laser cutting, old school roofers, suppliers, welders, machinists, knife makers, stained glass window makers and sculptors that would respond to me. The patina itself took two months of trying different chemicals and application methods to get one that didnt look antique-y. Ive got something Im really proud of, and something I love doing.

I also brought that Huss and Dalton mentality to the tone aspect of the instrument. I think of the guitar as trying to get everything making tone, not just the cone. You can see some videos of the guitar being played live, and it's a big tone. Plenty of harmonics, with a big bass and a funky attack of steel. It´s something thats really intriguing to my ear.

So here we are, and here are the guitars. I´ll be posting build pictures so check back.

So this is how they all start out. I buy the sheets of steel in 4x8 sheets. 20 gauge cold rolled mild steel. Hot rolled is cheaper but harder to find in this thickness because its not as accurate. Hot rolled also in covered in a nasty hard mill scale that has to be removed. The first picture is after cutting the back and sides to dimension on a shear.

The necks are hard maple. I used to offer mahogany, but I don´t really anymore. I can get the maple locally, its stable, and looks awesome with the stain. Really awesome.

The second and third picture are gratuituous pictures of my 1954 Pexto circle shear. When I started I had zero metal work experience. I had no idea how to cut the circles out for the soundwell rings and such. In building wood guitars, we make jigs that make routers and saws do just about everything. Because steel is so much harder, and a huge part of the economy is building things quickly and accurately out of steel, you dont make a tool do something (usually) you get the tool that does what you need. These old school circle shears are the best way to do it by hand. Problem is they are hard to find, Im assuming because most things are done with stamps or a CNC of some sort. A lot of metal working places I emailed had never heard of one. I made only one post on a forum about it, and for a while it was the top search result on google. Just not soemthing people use. But If you have one, its a machine you need and arent usually going to give it up. I happened to find one on craigslist in St. Louis for a good price. So I drove down from michigan to pick it up. An older man and son owned it, and the dad was a woodworker and aslo restored these old metal toy cars kids can ride in. He an attic of about 50 of them. It was cool to see the detail work he did. I still keep in touch with them, and they are the type of guys who are excited to see a tool they owned be part of a new story.

With the locating clamp on the left I can cut circles between 6 inches and 48 inches. With the clamp up I can use it as a rotary shear to cut the outine of the backs out. A really useful machine. And cool to look at.

Thanks for the compliments.

I can do a cutaway on this model, and theres a picture of the electric cutaway in progress on my website for those who need some more rawk.
The top´s F holes are cut out on a laser cutter. I emailed about 80 waterjet/laser/plasma cutting places and almost all recommended laser.

Waterjet- Is good for cutting really thick stock, reflective metals like brass, and super hard metals. The most expensive of the quotes I got, even though some had told me water jet would be the cheapest option.

Plasma- Good for quick and dirty cuts in thick stock only. Because of the high heat affected area, it wont cut clean in thin stock. there also is a cone effect that will make the cuts non 90 degrees. There are high def plasma cutters that can do it I hear, but they are hard to find. I found one that would do it, it was not cheaper than laser.

Laser- Have stock that needs to be dead on? Laser is the place to go. The logos I put on the tailpieces are cut out of the steel on the laser machine, and it is fine work. Ive had 1/4 pieces cut out as well, so its good for jigs. the guy I found is a guitar player, and has really hooked me up.

I sandwich the top (and later the back) between two pieces of an inside mold. The plates are cut just proud of the actual outline. Then I go through with a ball peen hammer and hammer down a flange. A lot of hammering. I dont cut the relief grooves anymore. It takes longer to hammer, but the flanges are cleaner looking this way.

This was my first experience with how metals stretches. You think its steel, it is what it is, but through stretching and shrinking you can make it whatever you want. Theres some videos of guys making fenders for old cars that are just cool. Its a great feeling to take something that ísnt´supposed to be shaped in that way and do what you want with it.

Next up I clamp the top to a steel form and start soldering on the first soundwell ring.

Soldering 101

So soldering is a pretty difficult thing to find information on. Even on the mighty youtube there really isnt a whole lot that applies to metalwork. Old school roofers use the method for tin roofs, theres a couple short videos, but no really how to´s. Like the metalwork, I found there is THE tool for the job. Roofers use something called a soldering coppers, which is a pointed hunk of copper on a stick, heated in an oven, electricity, or a propane torch located behind the head. Its a really efficient way of doing large flat sections, the direct transfer of heat and controllable temperature makes sure it doesnt get too hot, but makes sure its hot enough. Great for tinning, or prepping the surface with a very thin layer of solder.

I Because most of my soldering is done on the curved edges I didnt want to cough up another $350 for a gas powered copper. What I did find works quite well is a small jewlers torch. Its small and precise, but has enough flame to keep it hot. It uses oxygen/propane and is what Ive found works best. And I tried a lot. For pieces like the soundwell-fairly wide, flat pieces-I put tinning flux on the surface so when the solder melts it flows into the seam. Thats the big advantage of solder. You can make it flow into seams you cant get to through capillary action. The flux acts as kind of the puddle that cleans the surface and the solder can flow in.

Surfaces must be clean. Thats the big one. Sand till its shiny, then wipe it down. Dont start it and finish it the next day.

It was (is) a trick to figure out how much heat to use. Doing it for a living I have to be efficient, but using too much heat will cause steel to discolor (sooner than brass) and then the solder wont adhere.

I use acid core silver bearing solder for the edges, and non acid core for the soundwell because thats what the tinning flux is for. Ive tried a few different types, and using flux always seems to leave residue inside.

They are on their way! I just got back from Sweden and was totally wrecked by the time change and the 15 hour overnight layover in LaGuardia. One more big nap and I'll have some more pictures.
So we have the top and the back done, then for the sides. Just as with the top and back, the sides are sanded to 400 grit. Although all the insides are sealed eventually, the smooth surface helps eliminate the potential for rust. I then tin the sides, which is putting a thin layer of solder on the sides which will melt when I am applying the rest of the solder in th emold. I cut the sides to length and make a hoop by soldering in a reinforcement piece.

The slides back on the inside mold. The mold is the height needed to align the back with the sides. It all goes into this press. The sides are aligned, checked, and checked and then are pressed against the back with the outside.

Then I solder the perimeter. Different compositions of solders flow differently and I use two different types. I want to build the perimeter into a bead, so I use a type that doesn't flow very well. THis bead helps the transition from back plate into the side.

So the back is soldered on. This is a 14 cutaway shape for the electric resonator guitar I'm making.

The inside is sanded and then sealed with Butchers Wax.

The tailblock is glued in and the top soldered on in a similar way to the back.

One might imagine that there would be no sanding involved with a steel guitar but alas, there is always sanding involved when it comes to guitar making! I go through the grits 220-800. It's kind of a trick because any sort of scratch really shows up because it reflects light differently. Polishing up the steel gets it ready to add the patina. The shiny steel makes the patina translucent so it looks more natural.

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I think a really fun about about learning about the metal working side of things is learning about the tools. Because there's no 'finessing' with steel (you can't just sand by hand), and obviously a big part of the economy is driven by things built with steel there has been a huge amount done to come up with tools that make steel do what you want it to. Shears as big as a room, flangers, bead rollers... there's a tool for it all. Contrast that with the wood working side, I have a router and I make jigs so the router can do different things.

It was like that with soldering. Of course it was tough in the beginning, because there is THE tool for it, and I wasn't using it. And for rounding over the edges (see above picture) I use a flap sander on my grinder to rough them in (carefully) then a different type of flap sander on my drill to get an even roundness and then an orbital sander to polish it up.

There's a reason some guitar makers sign their e-mails to each other 'Keep Sanding' and for these there is no escape. The steel must be brought up to a shine because that will give the natural translucency needed for the patina. Carborundum is a brand favored by auto body guys, and it cuts fast. Great stuff. I start out at 220. Then 320, 400, then 600. It took a bit to get used to what going through the grits looks like on steel. When I get to 600, I really use up the disc and it starts to polish quickly. You can see in the picture the shine achieved with a couple worn 600 grit disc, and then the last two #'s of steel wool. I keep those worn 600 grits around for the patina.

And then the patina. I went to estate sales and bought old saws, looked online at rusty box cars, perused knife maker forums and talked to print makers. I had the idea of what I wanted in my head. The trouble with most patinas is 1) They aren't translucent and 2) They aren't dichromatic- they don't have more than one color. An old cabin is attractive because your eye sees different shades of color. Violin makers use a light stain under a dark stain and then sand through in places because it's pleasing to the eye. So I had an idea of what I was looking for but going about finding it was a chore.

Print maker's (and knife makers) use ferric chloride as an 'etchant'. It eats away at the soft parts of the steel and leaves a pretty beautiful patina. Printmakers will 'draw' (more complicated than that) on brass with wax etc. so the pattern isn't removed by the FC. The problem I discovered was 1) print makers tanks are big, kept warm, and aerated. Essential to the process, and though I tried there wasn't really a way to do it on a big guitar, especially repeatedly. 2) As I found out from the head sword maker at zombietools.com,- yes, I searched EVERYWHERE- knife makers use a higher carbon steel than the mild steel I use. The FC never gave me any sort of patina. It just turned things gray. The same happened when using vinegar- another knife maker trick.

So I kept looking. You can't just rust it, it will keep rusting. (Although in some cases you can add potassium dichromate as a rust stop). Adding patina to steel has been around a long time, and there a huge number of chemicals and application methods (Hot, cold, buried, submerged etc). The chemicals I ended up using is sort of a diluted gun bluing chemical (although not technically) and a chemical used on cast iron Japanese tea pots. The patinas don't work on the silver solder, so stained glass window makers have a sulfuric acid patina to darken solder. I use that to blend it in.

I won't rehash the amount of time I spent on things that didn't work. I shudder to think of it. Even the place that makes the patinas didn't know how to use them. If someone taking on such a project and needs direction, get a hold of me and I can help you. The trick is keeping things subtle by making a base, accenting it in spots, blending with the worn 600 grit pad to make the accents subtle, steel wool-ing to restore translucency and then hot applying the Japanese brown. It's hard to get a picture of it, but you can see a translucent palette of grays and browns. The patina isn't on the metal, it IS the metal and that's what makes it natural. Butcher's Bowling Alley Wax is preferred by metal guys, you apply it hot so it gets in the pores and the surface moisture isn't trapped under the wax it dries hard and you buff it out.

A closer shot of the patina:

And if you really want to push your luck with solvent dyes:
Last edited by matt.eich.3 at Jul 16, 2013,
All the neck process pictures you could want. A plank of wood to the finished neck. Lots of work involved-cutting, shaping, sanding, fitting, planing, staining, fretting. Details. I started my guitar making career carving necks at Huss and Dalton Guitars next to Jeff Huss. It took a great many necks before he checked one and said, 'Feels like a Huss.' It is one my favorite memories in this whole story.

hello and how are you?..... im about to try building a resophonic guitar myself,and i would like to have your opinion about using 16 gauge steel instead of 20 gauge??? and also ,would tig welding be good instead of soldering it????

thanx and ill wait for your answer ...keep the good work!!
Quote by franck1313
hello and how are you?..... im about to try building a resophonic guitar myself,and i would like to have your opinion about using 16 gauge steel instead of 20 gauge??? and also ,would tig welding be good instead of soldering it????

thanx and ill wait for your answer ...keep the good work!!

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