Sunday, February 12, 2012

CBG Tools -- Set Up Your Shop

Purists will tell you the only 'real' way to build a cigar box guitar is with hand tools.  Progressive builders like  the speed associated with the use of power tools.  And, then there are the moderates like me, who think a combination is the way to go.  It is really up to the person creating the instrument, and in my opinion there is no right or wrong way, which conforms to the 'no rules' approach to our hobby.

My shop is small, so a tool combination fits my environment well, especially since it is a materials storage and assembly area as well.  I've found that bigger isn't necessarily better.  I'll share with you the list of tools I find suitable to my builds.  It's not all inclusive, because it isn't necessary to list every screwdriver, clamp, pliers or cutter, or special tool . . . those items come as the result of individual creation and imagination.  So, let's get started.


Files and Rasps -- The basic styles for me are flat, half round, and rat tail, in a variety of sizes. I like them for shaping necks and finishing any openings I cut for sound holes, etc.  Rasps allow fast removal of material, and files work for the removal stage prior to sanding.

Sanding Blocks -- Necessary for preparing all surfaces for final finish.  And, specialty blocks made for shaping fret boards make that job a lot easier.

Chisels -- Come in handy when shaping necks, finishing electronic part cavities and neck pockets.

Spoke Shaves and Block Planes -- Useful for shaping and leveling surfaces.  A variety of block plane styles are available for rough work or final preparation, and spoke shaves work well for dressing the back of a neck.

Hand Saws -- I often use hand saws in my builds.  A back saw and miter box for trimming pieces to the proper length.  An Xacto saw for fine work that larger saws just do not accommodate.  A special fret saw for cutting the slots in the fretboard.  And, a coping saw for the fine opening in the top for sound holes.

Knives -- There are a number of occasions when a knife will do the job another instrument just cannot do, such as cutting cardboard templates.  A utility knife, various Xacto blades, and my pocket knife come in handy on my bench.

Screwdrivers -- Don't forget to arm yourself with a variety of screwdrivers, both large and small, and of various point styles.  You'll need the variety for everything from tuners to tailpieces.

Squares -- Three tools that I use often are the adjustable square, the engineer square, and the adjustable bevel gauge.  They are great for marking saw cuts and for determining headstock angles.  And, you'll find a dozen other uses when you get started on a CBG.

Drill Bits -- You will find that a broad variety of bits in many sizes are necessary.  You will want a set of pilot point bits for general drill work; brad point bits for tuner openings and fretboard inlay, because they cut nearly flawless holes; Forstner bits for cutting holes that require a flat bottom and for removing wood initially from pickup and pot cavities, before dressing the openings with a chisel; and spade bits for work that does not require a precision cut -- I don't use these often, but there may be a time when you find them helpful.

Mallet -- I recommend the use of a small mallet (rubber or rawhide), whenever you are using chisels, or when you may be tapping hardware into position.  Avoid using a hammer on your delicate work for obvious reasons.

Whetstone -- It is critical that bladed tools are kept sharp, and the best way to do this is by using a large (3" x 8") fine-grade stone, which sets securely in a wood tray for protection from damage.  You can build the tray out of scraps, if the stone does not come with it.  Numerous websites explain the proper manner for sharpening various tools.

Scratch Awl -- Use a scratch awl to make a depression at the exact points where you wish to drill holes.  The small opening in the wood will act as a bit guide to assure accuracy.  Also, use the awl for marking around templates which will serve as guide lines for sawing.

French Curves -- French curves, triangles, circle templates, and straightedges, are an essential part of your tool cabinet.

Straightedges -- Straightedges in a variety of lengths, are necessary for obvious reasons.  The funky other tools will be priceless when you start applying the really cool designs floating around inside your head.

Pin Reamer -- A pin reamer is used primarily to shape the holes where strings are inserted into an acoustic guitar bridge and for the strap button, but they can also come in handy for other applications, like enlarging tuner holes, etc.

Caliper -- Using a digital Vernier Caliper is the most accurate way to measure thickness and depth of a hand carved neck.  And, there is no better way to determine accuracy for precision drilling.

Clamps -- Essential to all aspects of CBG building, and never enough of them.  My favorite is the quick grip, but I also use spring clamps in a variety of sizes.  Use them for clamping stock on the drill press platform; attaching fretboards to necks; firmly holding rough-cut necks to the bench while doing rasp and file shaping; and a variety of other times when an object must be temporarily held in place.  C-clamps can be used, but they are too awkward and bulky for me.

Third Hand -- This claw-limb assistant is a must when soldering wires.  The arms are adjustable and easy to use.  I don't use the magnifying glass, but I suppose there is something that it will come in handy for.  I can attach it to my portable guitar assembly table with a carriage bolt, washer, and wing nut, whenever I'm soldering small parts and put it away when not in use, which make it the best four bucks I've ever spent at Harbor Freight.

Vice -- There are a variety of vice shapes, makes, and descriptions out there, which can add to the confusion, but I recommend a couple which will make your life enjoyable and easy.  A basic bench mounted adjustable 4- or 6-inch metal jaw vice will do well for most metal and rough wood work, but when stabilizing guitar bodies, necks, etc., you will want something designed for that purpose, so keep that in mind.  But, the vice you will find most useful  is similar to the illustration to the right.  It has larger and more narrow jaws to accommodate the sharp file angle necessary in shaping nuts and saddles.  I found mine at Stewart-MacDonald.

Nut Files -- These are specialty tools designed to make grooves in nuts where strings ride.  They come in a variety of sizes for the purpose intended and are available at suppliers like StewMac.

Fret Tools -- These tools and materials are also specialty items designed to make the job of fretting a guitar an easy and rewarding experience.  A complete inventory of tools and parts needed in the effort is available at Stewart-MacDonald.  Pick up their catalog, or give them a call for any assistance in determining your needs.

Respirator -- You will be creating a great amount of wood dust,which is extremely dangerous to breathe, so while you're doing this, you should be wearing a respirator.  The little white cotton masks are good for preventing pollen from getting inside your lungs, but they are not adequate for dust and fumes generated in the process of woodworking.  So, invest in a good quality mask with replaceable filter inserts.  You, your family, and your doctor will be pleased.


Drill Press -- A drill press is essential for my shop.  It is not only the easiest and most accurate way to drill tuner holes,but after I added a larger platform with an adjustable fence, it became a rotary sander whenever I need to finish the edge of longer pieces or the edges of sculpted headstocks, etc.

Soldering Iron -- I use two types of soldering irons.  One is the conventional 30w wand, and the other is an adjustable wattage 'pencil' style that can also be used for wood burning images into my creations.  If you need my thoughts on soldering, please see the 'How To' post on this site.

Table Saw -- I don't use my table saw a lot, but when I need to rip a larger piece of lumber into neck stock, or cut scarf joints, it works for me.  Purists would say that hand saws are to only way to go, but for me the easy way is the best and most accurate, especially with the scarf jig I made.

Band Saw and Scroll Saw -- I use each of my specialty saws all the time, and I cannot imagine trying to cut sculpted headstocks or sound holes any other way.  And, when cutting nut and saddle stock, bridges, etc., the scroll saw is the perfect.

Hand Drill -- Although I use my drill press for nearly all the basic needs, there are times when my hand drill does the job efficiently, and it is essential to my tool chest.  I like it because it is small and easy to handle, but because it will accept a 3/8" bit shank, so I'm not confined to just small bits.

Belt/Disc Sander -- My bench model works great for shaping and smoothing pieces prior to the finish step.

Planer -- The bench planer is the tool that provides the versatility to be able to custom cut stock to the thickness desired, without wasting time searching suppliers for the inevitable 'lost cause' that just isn't available in mass produced lumber for box stores, and/or neighborhood lumber stores.

Router -- I don't use my router a lot, but when I need it to open or dress cavities in a solid guitar body or to carve out a channel for a truss rod, it is necessary to have around.  And, the way I have it set up, I can use it either as handheld or table mounted.

Dremel Tool -- Because of its size and available attachments, the Dremel tool is the handiest little gadget in my tool box.  Although, I like to do most of the finish work by hand, the Dremel allows me the option to do things the easy way, if I get lazy.  The investment can be a bit pricey if you go with the 'big' model, but you can get by nicely with a basic version, and add only the attachments you will 'really' use.
Vacuum -- A broom and a dust pan will work, but the minimal investment in my ShopVac is the best use of forty bucks (on sale before Christmas at my local retailer) that I can think of . . . aside, from a couple cases of Heiniken.  It makes cleaning up a mess about as enjoyable as it can be, and it makes my wife tolerate my hobby a lot more than the days of the broom.


  1. Jeff, I wish I had of read this before I put together my workshop. It took me months of trial and error to get it together. What did I end up with? Exactly everything on this list!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'm glad to hear that what has worked for my shop is helpful to someone else.

  2. hey can you please give me an estimate?
    i want to know how much will buying all of these tools cost me ,a as i plan to set up my own custom guitar shop!
    please reply soon, eagerly waiting for your reply!! :D

  3. So much is variable in the type, quality and quantity of tools, and where they are purchased, that it is only possible for me to give you a SWAG (scientific wild assed guess), but you should plan to spend in the range of $1200-1500.

  4. I've recently started using my router a lot more for skiving neck/headstock joints using a template I designed. It seems to be quicker & more accurate than the bench saw I was originally using. Also use the router more often for through box cut out sections.

  5. Thank you for the description of your work space and more importantly HOW you use your tools. I'm just about to dive in with little more than a dremel, a hand-held drill, and some screwdrivers, so this really helps me out.

  6. Dean, I'm glad that the post was of some help to you. Thanks for stopping by my site. Jess Allred