Short Scale Bass Guitar

For the past 40+ years, a dominant feature at my residence has been a magnificent Black Walnut tree in the back yard.  We loved that tree.  Not so much in the fall, it did drop a few leaves, but in the summer it was wonderful.   Especially sitting on the deck, looking up into its canopy and enjoying the shade.  Our kids, of course, grew up in, under, and around that tree. 

Unfortunately it became diseased and threatened to split apart and crush my house, or my shop, or my neighbor’s house; and anyone in them.  So prudence demanded that we have it removed.

Once it was safely on the ground, it was cut up on site by NW Specialty Lumber and Milling and the slabs were taken to their facility in Sheridan to be dried.  Part of the deal is that I get some of the wood back for my own personal use.  So a couple of months ago, I drove out to visit my wood and brought home a sample. 

The first item built from my dear old tree was a bass guitar for a seventh grader at Forest Hills Lutheran Christian School.  Ellianna is just learning to play bass and I have been giving her a few pointers.  A normal 34” scale bass guitar looks HUGH in her hands. So, I decided to make a smaller one for her; a 30″ scale version of the Mezaluna design I built for myself

Elli came to visit the shop a few times during construction and was able to participate in some design choices.  She was so excited and appreciative.  You just gotta love building for someone with a smile like that!

The body blank for this guitar was just a chunk we whacked off a slab that was too long to fit in my truck.  That piece of firewood made a fine looking guitar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • 30” scale 4 string electric bass guitar
  • Body and head plate – home grown Black Walnut
  • Neck – Maple
  • Fingerboard – Ebony
  • Pickup – Seymore Duncan SMB-4a; passive; one volume & one tone control
  • Tuners – Gotoh Compact
  • Bridge – Shaller roller
  • All hardware – chrome

Acoustic Gallery

After finishing the first two guitars at home in my own shop, and proving I could do it,  I launched off and built 8 more.  The first of these were for my son and my brother-in-law.

Back and Sides are Myrtle; Neck is Mahogany.

Tops are Sitka Spruce, Headstocks are Myrtle and the Rosettes are Applewood

I like building guitars in pairs.  Once I set up for an operation I might as well do it twice.  The next pair was for my brother Keith and my friend Mike.

My brother opted for a Maple back and sides and Ebony bindings. The neck is also Maple.

The Fingerboard is Granadillo, the headstock is Ebony and the Rosette is Tigerwood.

Here a short video of me playing Mike’s guitar soon after it was finished.

The next I built guitars for two of my Nephews

Back and Sides are Myrtle Wood and Necks are Maple.

Pat chose the Ash binding while Ken opted for the Ebony.

Here there are at the Family Reunion holding their guitars for the first time.  Maybe it is just me but I think they look happy with them.

Next I built guitars for a friend and another nephew that both happen to be police officers.  I offered to inlay a cracker-jack sheriff’s badge into the headstock.  But, in the end, we all agreed that a more tasteful and yet appropriate motif for their guitars would be a Thin Blue Line.

Back and Sides are Walnut.

The Blue Lines are made of acrylic sheet from Tap Plastics.  I do like the way it goes with the walnut.

And it looks even better in Ebony headstock.

The position markers were cut from the same acrylic sheet with a plug cutter.  And, serendipitously, someone had just given me some blue stabalized maple that made fitting rosettes.

Building a Balalaika Pt 4 – Ready for Strings

A recess was carved for the lower nut of Ebony. This is where the strings will pass over the edge of the body.

And, it was glued in.

Frets were installed just like on a guitar except the little short ones on the end are tricky to handle

two .040″ Nylon strings and one .010″ steel string are attached with loops around standard guitar bridge pins.

The bridge of Maple and Ebony is not glued but merely held in place by string tension.

The tuner mechanism was screwed into place and covered with a Mable plate.

Upper nut is made of Micarta which is a synthetic bone substitute. Just like a guitar except shorter.

The pick guard is elevated to be level with the finger board adn only touches the top along the bindings. This one is temporarily attached with double stick tape until after finish is applied.

 

So, that’s about it for now. I am thinking about finishing with French Polish but that will be a whole other story.

Building a Balalaika Pt. 3 – Neck & Fingerboard

Balalaika tuning machines are typically mounted in a cavity and covered with a decorative plate. Here the headstock is ready to glue on to the neck.

The angle of the headstock is achieved by making a 15 deg. scarf cut in the neck.  I like to do this on the band saw with plenty of help holding it in place.

Before gluing it on, I very carefully calculated exactly where it should be located and checked all my measurements three times. And it still didn’t come out quite like I wanted.  But I can make it work.

Gluing the headstock to the neck. The stop on the right prevents it from sliding off the tapered end of the neck.

Out of the clamps and ready to trim off the excess.

I really like this Komelon 265/10 1/2″ pull saw.  The perfect tool for this kind of a cut.

I added some veneer and a maple plate to the headstock partially for looks but also to give some depth for a nut slot.

Cutting a slot for the nut with all the apparatus necessary to hold it square and level. Again, some might eyeball it and cut it with a handsaw but that’s not my style.

One of the cool tools I inherited from my dad is this 24″ height gauge. It has a carbide tip so I can scribe lines in an aluminum stick at precise locations and make my own fret scale rules.  This instrument is a 440mm scale length.

Here the fret scale ruler is taped to the fingerboard blank and a fret slot will be cut on each mark. The saw blade cuts a .023″ kerf which fits my fret wire.

Voila! A slotted finger board.

 

Holes were drilled for the “dots” which were super glued in place. Then the thickness sander levels everything and cleans up the glue

 

The finger board, which is still oversized and square, is cut to its final dimensions with this taper jig.

Finger board is glued on with wood glue.

 

And plenty of clamps, of course.

Looking more like a real instrument all the time. Now it is time to shape the neck.

I begin by cutting the neck back close to the edges of the finger board on the band saw and then finish the ends with a hand saw.

A flush cutting router bit brings the neck down to the same width as the finger board.

 

Rounding the back of the neck is done with a spokeshave, microplanes, and lots of sanding with strips of Mirka Net.

More sawing on the heel

And the basic shaping of the heel is done.

 

Building a Balalaika Pt 2 – Top and Bindings

The top is made of Sitka Spruce, glued up from two book matched plates, same as other instruments I have built so I have no pictures of that process.  But the sound hole is much smaller. 18mm.  Traditional instruments have a fancy inlaid rosette, usually with six petals.  After weeks of stewing about how to do that, I settled on a simple circular inlay.  But I still wanted it to look a little bit cool.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, this is the first instrument I have built using all metric measurements.  And I am rather liking the system.

First I cut wedges of rosewood with the grain running to the center and arranged them on paper with purfling pieces in between. Once aligned, I superglued it all together.

I mounted the glued up mess into the lathe and turned the edge to a 60 mm circle which could be inlaid into the top. The the sound hole was opened up to 18 mm after it was inlaid.

Sound board braces have an 1820mm radius to provide a slight dome to the top.

The seams of the staves were reinforced with bias tape and wood glue. Also note the linings were notched out to receive the end of the braces. Off to the right is my home-made 1820mm radius sanding block and gauge.

That last little peek inside before closing up a box is always hard. I will probably never see inside that instrument again. And if there is anything else I wanted to do in there; its too late.

 

And so, with some glue and a lot of twill tape and wedges the box is closed.

When the top is dry, the overhang is trimmed flush with the sides. Then the same router jig I use on guitars makes short work of cutting binding channels.

 

Bindings were attached with wood glue and held in place with tape while they dried.

And so the basic box is completed and I turn my attention to the neck and headstock. I guess I skipped over the part where I inlaid the corner pieces. I must not have been in a picture taking mood that day. Sorry.

 

Building a Balalaika Pt. 1 – The basic shell

The balalaika is probably the most challenging project I have taken on to date.  Books and papers and videos, all available on line, provide about 97% of the information necessary for construction.  But the 3% that is missing is critical!  None of the drawings I have found are done to scale.  Most of the descriptive text I rely on has been translated from Russian to English.  Many times I have been ready to abandon the project.  But I finally have something that is beginning to look like an instrument and so I am ready to show the world what has been going on in the shop.

 

This was the first challenge. The squared off sections will be the neck and the heel which will live outside of the body of the instrument and the odd shaped projection on the end will be inside the body. The ends of the side staves will approach that point from different directions and figuring out how to cut all compound angles accurately kept me occupied for quite some time.

The transom, or base, wasn’t much better. Again, the angles are all compound. The Maple veneers and purflings are laminated on to baltic birch plywood.

An inlay of contrasting hardwood will go in the end where the strings will attach.

The staves are made of Maple re-sawn from a reject bass guitar neck. Again, each stave requires one edge to be beveled at a different angle. Here a thin strip of veneer is being glued on to that edge.

While attaching the staves, the neck/heel block assembly and the transom are clamped to a jig to hold them in their proper places. Note the block raising the end of the neck by a couple of degrees. That is one of the 3% details that wasn’t spelled out but I am pretty sure it needs to be there.

 

Old world professional builders hold the staves in place till the glue dries by putting in temporary nails where the bindings will cover the holes. I didn’t trust my accuracy though so I designed a clamp. And, of course, it requires four clamps to attach my special clamps. In other words, I am using 6 clamps to do what others do with a handful of nails. But it worked for me.

 

I did use the old nail and wedge trick to clamp the narrow end of the staves to the heel block. And some good heavy electrical wire helps hold everything in place along the seam.

A good strong light bulb inside the box helps while planing the edges to a good fit.

 

With all the staves glued in place, the edges are trued up before gluing on the linings. That miniature block plane is becoming one of my favorite tools. It almost makes me feel like a real woodworker.

And here is the basic shell with the linings. Time to start thinking about a top.

Building my first guitars in my own shop.

My first guitar, built at the American School of Lutherie, was completed in two weeks.  When I came home and tried to repeat the process in my own shop it took one year!

In class, Charles would hand us a jig and say “Do this…” and we would do it.  At home, before I could do anything, I had to make a jig.  I had taken some good notes and photos in Charles’ class, but many of the jigs and fixtures had to be re-designed and constructed to suit my own environment.  I enjoy that part of the process but it is time consuming.

My first build was to be for my daughter.  Not wanting to start with anything too simple or ordinary, we chose Douglas Fir from Oregon Wild Wood for the back and sides.  I had never heard of a guitar make of Doug Fir but she was hooked on the idea of it being Oregon’s “state tree” so it was settled.

Since this was such a new adventure, I decided to build another guitar simultaneously using less expensive materials.  That way, I could at least test every step of the process on the cheap stuff before endangering the good stuff.  (Spoiler Alert! I ended up with two nice guitars).

I did a few things differently, of course.

A typical Fox Bender uses a dedicated framework with its own press screw and occupies a large chunk of counter space.  It occurred to me that I could accomplish the same thing using my Shopsmith in drill press mode.  I made a mold and clamped it to the table.  A waist caul is mounted on the spindle where the drill chuck would normally go.  The heating blanket and metal slats are the same as a Fox Bender.  The major advantage is that I do not have another large contraption to store when not in use.

 

 

 

And it worked quite nicely!  Here are the Douglas Firs fresh out of my Fox/Shopsmith guitar side bender.

 

 

Another thing that I fashioned differently was the rosette.

We once had an old apple tree in our yard.  When I cut it down, my daughter, who was 10 at the time, said I should save some of its wood. So, being a dutiful father,  I took a slice from the trunk, wrapped it in newspaper, and put it on a shelf in the garage where it remained for 25 years.   While watching videos about how to make rosettes from wood I remembered the apple wood in the garage and knew where it had to go.

Of course, I had to figure out a procedure and make a couple of jigs, perhaps I will describe that in another post, but for now let’s just say that I had enough Apple wood to for rosettes in four guitars.

So, one year later, here are the first two guitars constructed at home in my own shop.

 

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Guitar # 1
Back and Sides – Rosewood
Soundboard – Douglas Fir
Neck – Mahagony
Fingerboard – Ebony
Rosette – Apple

 

 

 

 

Guitar # 2
Back and sides – Douglas Fir
Soundboard – Sitka Spruce
Neck – Douglas Fir
Fingerboard – Ebony
Rosette – Apple

 

 

Building my first guitar at American School of Lutherie

In September of 2014, I acted on a long held desire to build a guitar and enrolled in a workshop with Charles Fox at his American School of Lutherie.  I chose the Steel String Acoustic Guitar course which promised that we would build a playable guitar from scratch in only 2 weeks.  Mind you, that meant 6 days a week and up to 11 hours a day.

It turned out to be two of the best weeks of my life.  In addition to coming away with a great sounding guitar, it was wonderful fun.  And the shop techniques and habits that I learned from Charles provided me with a firm foundation for my retirement hobby.

What follows is a very brief overview of what we did on each day.

DAY 1

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We began by getting to know each other ( there were four students), finding our way around the shop, and examining our materials.  Charles provides a few things but most of what we needed came from Luthier’s Mercantile Int’l.

We began by prepping and glueing up the Rosewood plates for the back.  When they were dry we rough cut the perimeter, and glued on the back strap using a “Go-Bar Deck” and a radius dish.  We bent the Rosewood sides in a Fox Bender (more about that in a later post).  We also started on the neck by milling the Mahogany billet to dimension and making the scarf cut.  The cut off piece was flipped over and glued back on to form the headstock.

DAY 2

We learned very quickly that lutherie requires many clamps.  On the left is the head stock being attached on to the neck shaft.  We started working on the top, or sound board, by joining the Spruce plates.  Next we routed two channels around the intended sound hole and inserted pieces of abalam and purfling to form the rosette.  Then we soaked it all with super glue and left it to dry.

DAY 3

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After scraping and sanding the rosette level , we cut the sound hole and the perimeter of the top.  Next we cut and shaped braces from Spruce and glued them on to the sound board.  The pattern is very typical X-bracing and in this picture there is much carving left to be done.

DAY 4

The previously bent sides were placed in a form while the head block and tail block were glued on.  Then we installed linings on the edges all around.  By the end of the day we had solid rim that definitely was starting to look like a guitar.

DAY 5

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We installed and carved the rest of the back braces.  The edges of the rim had to be planed and sanded down to the proper profiles.  Then we glued the back to the rim with another gaggle of clamps.

DAY 6

With the rest of the braces carved and sanded smooth it was time to autograph the top and glued it on to the rim and back.

DAY 7

With the box now closed, we started making it pretty by routing channels and inserting an Ebony tail graft and bindings and purfling all around the edges of the body.  The bindings are held in place with strapping tape and then adhered with thin super glue that is wicked into the joints.

DAY 8

After much scraping and sanding the box looked beautiful.

DAY 9

Then it was all about the neck. On the left, the headstock is on and marked for the tuners  Also, the slots are ready for the truss rod and two carbon fiber reinforcement rods.  On the right, position marker dots are being installed on the edge of the fingerboard.  Obviously, we had already cut the slots for the frets.  At the end of the day, the finger board was glued onto the neck and left to dry over night.

DAY 10

With the fingerboard glued, we attacked this bulky square block of wood with chisels and rasps and sanding blocks and transformed it into a smooth and graceful neck.

DAY 11

We installed, leveled, dressed, and polished the frets.  The neck was then bolted on to the body to stay; although it can easily be removed again if necessary..

DAY 12

On the last day we installed the tuners, located the bridge, made and installed a nut and saddle, stung it up and did a basic set up.

After only two weeks in the shop I was the proud owner of fine looking, great sounding guitar that was fun to play!  It was still just raw wood with no finish on it.   That would come a few months later.  But I already knew I couldn’t build just one…..  I would have to build another one, by myself,  at home in my own shop.

Long Neck Fretted Dulcimer

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Launching this blog has given me cause to revisit some of my past projects.  The first fretted instrument that I built was a long neck dulcimer.  It is tuned and sounds like an Appalachian Dulcimer.  But instead of playing it on your lap, you hold it like a guitar or an octave mandolin.

Looking at my pictures of the build process was a real trip down memory lane.  Many of the techniques that I used in 2011, I still use today.   Others caused me to laugh and say “You’re kidding, I did it like that!

 

 

 

For example, bending sides.  Before I heard of a Fox bender or even a bending pipe,  I wrapped the side in wet paper towels, cooked it on a hot plate, and wrapped it around a cookie tin.  Same process, I guess.  Apply heat and wrap around a form.

 

 

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I didn’t have a lot of clamps yet but I did have a lot of things that were heavy.  This is how I glued the back onto the body.

 

 

 

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Here is something that hasn’t changed.  I still use those clamps sometime when gluing in linings.

Notice also the Spanish Heel.  That is a type of neck-body joint in which the sides are inserted into slots in the end of the neck heel.  Only recently have I tried that again.  Everything else has used a bolt-on neck.

 

Fretting has changed too.  I no longer use a calculator and a ruler to figure out where to cut the frets slots by hand in a miter box.  And there are much easier ways to bend to pre-bend frets.  But it all worked!

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Hammer Dulcimer #1

June 22, 2004.  That is when you would have to say that I started building musical instruments.  That is when I went to Crossscut Hardwoods and bought the materials to build my first instrument: a Hammer Dulcimer.

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I found a book of  plans and instructions on line and followed it quite closely.  I was fortunate to have at my disposal a very nice shop building, a Shopsmith, Radial Arm Saw, Drill Press, a Smithy Mill, and assorted hand tools.  I devoted all of my spare time to the project and it came together fairly well.

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I used Cherry for the sides, Maple for the bridges, and Baltic Birch plywood for the back.  The sound board is made from cedar fence boards from Home Depot.  I had to go to three stores to find enough pieces that were straight and quarter sawn.

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At this point I was probably a lot happier and pleased with my progress  that I look in the picture.

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The strings are various sizes of music wire from Wink’s Hardware in Portland.  I turned the end loops by hand and the process required more than a few band-aids.

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I was quite satisfied with the results and put a lot of miles on it playing in public many many times.  Here I am jamming with some friends at a church picnic in 2009.

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The only drawback to the instrument is that it is so big and over built.   It weighs 35 lbs.  After 9 years, I  got tired of lugging it around so I bought a 15 lb. Dusty Strings D550.