Saturday, December 28, 2013

Special Acoustic Guitar-Making Tools and Jigs -- Part Two

In a prior post concerning the acoustic guitar kit I received, I mentioned the need for special tools and jigs, and there are many.  I researched this extensively and discovered that anything I need can be purchased from a variety of sources, and if my pockets are deep enough, there is no problem.

Well, here's what I further understood.  Some tools and jigs are very simple in construction, but costly, so I decided to create my own, with the exception of a couple, which are more complex or made from materials I do not have at my exposure.  I'm fortunate to have a shop full of the basic woodworking and craft tools, and enough experience gained through past experiments to tackle the 'special' tool making endeavor, plus I simply get a rise out of creating my own stuff.

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A body mold is essential.  It can be as simple as laminated cardboard pieces cut in the shape of the guitar body, or as complex as an item costing a hundred dollars or more.  Or, something in between for a lot less money.  I chose the middle ground, and spent about $12 on materials to build a mold that is hinged at the bottom and will close with a spring latch at the top, which will keep all the guitar surfaces in place during the building process.

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The next items needed to shape the guitar body are spreaders that fit inside the mold to hold the sides in position, while being glued together, and while kerf ribbon is glued to the inside top and bottom of the sides. These simple devices can cost anywhere from $35-60 on the web, and that doesn't include shipping.  I made mine for about $3 a piece, using turnbuckles with eye bolts and scrap lumber I was going to toss out.

These spreaders are for the center inward angle of the body,
and for the bottom bout.  The spreader for the upper bout
(which I still need to build) is similar to the bottom, only shorter.

This spreader is used when gluing the neck and end blocks 
in place at the top and bottom of the guitar.

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Cam clamps of various description are needed in special circumstances and they too can be purchased, if you don't mind coughing up $19-35 plus shipping each for simple devices like the ones I created for less than $2.50 each in materials.

The upper clamp arm slides on the metal shaft, and the cam lever tensioner can be
adjusted to hold things securely in place during the gluing process.

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A special clamping caul is essential when gluing a bridge to the top surface of the guitar, due to the uneven surface of the bridge.  So, for about $1.20 and a piece of scrap wood stock and a small piece of sheet cork, I built a custom piece that would cost $60+ from a supplier.

The clamp is centered on the bridge and held in place through the sound hole
by one of the adjustable clamps pictured above.  Then the screws on either end 
are adjusted to hold the ends of the bridge firmly to the body during the gluing process.

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Another nifty little item is a homemade fret dresser, which is simply a sheet of eighth-inch ply with laminated and shaped pieces for a handle.  The straight edge of the ply is grooved to fit the contour of a fret.  A small piece of very fine sand paper is wrapped over the leading edge of the tool and rubbed carefully on the frets to dress down any sharp or uneven edges.  Cost to make $0.

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Saddles are the bone (or other material) pieces on the top of the bridge, which hold the strings off the fingerboard and guide them at the proper angle along the neck.  Usually, the saddle top edge is slightly rounded over, which can be a simple task or a little more difficult.  I like simple, so I created a little tool out of a dull box cutter knife blade.  I cut a thin slot in a piece of scrap oak, inserted the blade sharp-side down in the slot, and voila, the rounded adjustment slots on the blade can be used to round over the saddle stock., by sliding it along the saddle.  Cost to make $0.  Cost to buy, I don't know, 'cause I've not seen one on the market.

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And, this jig is for applying tension to bracing material on the inside of the top and bottom surfaces of the guitar. I suppose a combination of books, bricks, or Weider weights could be used to hold the bracing in place, but again I like a simpler approach, even if it requires a little thought, exploration, or piracy of an idea. The jig shown here has a bottom deck and top surface which is slightly larger than a guitar body.  The two surfaces are separated by about 20 inches with a dowel on each corner, which is secured in place with screws.  The guitar top is placed on the bottom jig surface; finished bracing is glued and applied to prearranged locations on the guitar surface; and long, thin dowels are placed on the bracing and wedged under tension against the top surface of the jig to apply uniform pressure to the bracing during the drying process, which holds everything in place to ensure a sold glue job.   Cost to build about $30.  Cost to buy $450+ at your favorite luthier supply store.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I Made The Acoustic Leap! -- Part One

To me there is a giant crevasse on the journey of making cigar box guitars and transitioning to dreadnaught acoustics, but I made the leap.  Nearly four years to the day since creating my first CBG, I received a Martin 14-fret dreadnaught kit for Christmas.

Needless to say, I am very pleased with the gift, but I'm also paranoid about screwing up the makings of a really cool guitar, to say nothing about the expense associated with this experiment.  But, I'll do my best to create something worthy of melody making, and if the past is any indication of the future, things will go well.

It is a D size guitar made of solid East Indian Rosewood back and sides, and solid Sitka spruce top. The grain and color of the sides match the 'book matched' back perfectly.  And, the two pieces of the Sitka spruce top are so well matched that you cannot tell where they are joined in the middle. But, that's why Martin guitars are some of the finest in the world, and it seems their kits are of the same quality as their finished guitars.

The  25.4" scale mahogany neck with rosewood headstock veneer comes with a truss rod to fit the channel, and unfretted rosewood fingerboard, which is slotted and radiused, and position markers are pre-drilled.

The kit also comes with rosewood bridge and bridge plate; tortoise pick guard; dovetail mortise and tenon neck block; end block; traditional 5/16" X-pattern spruce top bracing blanks; spruce back brace blanks; binding; purfling; bone nut and saddle blanks; and medium gauge fret wire.

The kit is great!  But, there are a few things that need attention before commencing with the build.

TOOLS and JIGS!  Yes, there are numerous special tools needed.  And, there are choices to make -- buy or build?  Or, both?

I chose the latter, with a bunch of 'build' tossed in, and I'll post photos soon of the tools I built, which will bring this kit to life.

But, in the meantime, I plan to read the plans several times, and to familiarize myself with all the nuances of building a full size acoustic guitar from nearly scratch.  My plan is to replicate the pre-war Martin D-18 guitar, which is one of the finest sounding instruments ever made (in my opinion).

I'll keep you posted throughout the building process.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

'el Jefe'

I picked up the last oak neck I had in the inventory, looked it over, and thought, 'what am I going to do with this?'  A Padron cigar box was lying in the corner groaning for attention, so I decided to match the two up.

'el Jefe' is a three-string electro/acoustic 25.4-inch cigar box guitar with scarf joint ebony laminate headstock, and zebrawood 22-fret fingerboard.  The Corian nut is followed by a brass drawer pull I converted to a bridge and saddle.  The A-D-G strings from a standard acoustic set ride over a very 'hot' hand wound TotalRojo magnetic pickup, from the open gear tuners to the custom tailstock.  It's tuned to open G (G-D-g).

I like the Padron box because of the acoustic quality derived from the thin laminated top, which lets sound bounce around quite well through the three screen-backed sound holes.  Amp up this monster and the doors blow down -- seriously, with the gain set at two, and volume at four, this 'big man' scorches.

To add window dressing to the box, I chose to design corner pieces from thin walnut stock.  And, the logo, which is a standard headstock item, is relocated to the body for a little change in atmosphere.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

'The Lion' In Winter

I most nearly froze my butt this morning shooting photos of 'The Lion', which is the most recent creation coming out of my shop.

Although, the temperature here in Mansfield, OH was about 28 degrees (that's above zero) with a slight wind blowing, it is nothing like where I grew up.  Temperature in Great Falls, Montana this morning was a balmy -24 degrees (raw temp with no listed wind chill, but I know from experience the wind was blowing - it always blows - hard), while the temp in central Antarctica was a mere -22 degrees.  Yes, folks, it gets very chilly on the central plains of the Big Sky Country.

'The Lion' is a three-string electro/acoustic guitar with oak scarf joint neck and 20-fret chakte kok fingerboard, TotalRojo hand wound pickup and bridge.  The nut is hand shaped from Corian and the saddle is an old skeleton key I found hiding in the cluttered recesses of my tool box.  The exposed tailpiece is a laminated cherry-maple-cherry item, and the tuners are closed gear.  The body is a Totalmenta a mano cigar box from Esteli, Nicaragua. Five coats of poly make the neck and body as slick and glossy as an ice rink.

Acoustic resonance is quite good for a small body, which I attribute to the thin Spanish cedar laminated top and star-shaped sound holes.  The pickup located close to the bridge give the guitar a warm and mellow sound, but it is not to be confused with weak, 'cause that ain't the case.  'The Lion' roars, when plugged into an amp.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pup Tester

Testing the magnetic pickups (pups) I've been making has been a pain in the butt, because I have been lazy and not created a method by which it could be easier.  I would wind the pup, attach lead wires from the pup to an output jack, fiddle around holding the jack to plug in an amp cord.  If I discovered a problem, I would need to unsolder  the leads, before I could proceed.

So, today I decided to build a pup tester, which eliminates the useless fooling around.

This photo is of the basic test platform with pup leads attached to 'ground' and 'positive' alligator clips near the bridge. (The pup is a creation from my friend Roger Berry, who taught me what I know about winding pickups, but not everything he knows ;-).

Leads from the clips are routed through the surface of the enclosure to the output jack, where the amp cord is inserted.

The dark lines on the test surface are the location markers for the pups in neck, mid, or bridge positions on a guitar, which produce different sound in each position.

The chrome bridge is a leftover item that I no longer had use for on a regular build, so it came in handy  here.

I decided to keep it as sanitary and simple as possible, and to make this tester in the shape of a guitar (you need to use your imagination here) with a standard 25.4-inch scale.  It has only base and treble strings, but that all I need to determine if the pup is working correctly and to hear how it sounds in operation.

 I'm using one of the CBAmps I build for the test.  It's a 9-volt battery
operated GuitarFuel harness with multiple output options, 
and it blows sound around big time.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


'Romeo' is a four-string electric guitar created from a
Romeo y Julieta cigar box.

The box construction does not facilitate making it an acoustic, because of the thickness of all surfaces (about 3/8" thick on the sides, and the top is made from a pressed material, not wood).

The scarf joint neck is handcrafted from a stick of cherry with a Zebrawood fingerboard.

Open-gear tuners draw the strings, which are recessed inside the box, across a Corian saddle, hand set frets, and Corian nut.

The magnetic pickup is set into the top about midway between the neck and saddle, which produces a warm and mellow sound, while retaining richness to the treble side of play. To maintain a clean appearance, I covered the pup top and painted it white to match the top.

The box itself, in its original state, has such a smooth and glossy finish, I had to be really careful not to screw it up in the building process . . . I succeeded.  I really like the clean, unobstructed overall appearance of the guitar, and it sounds good, too.

To enhance the Romeo & Julieta theme, I added a few illustrations to the inside.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Allmosta Vintage Bench Vice

You may remember a post several weeks ago, where I posted a photo of the main parts of a vintage vice I found at the flea market.  Well, here's the finished product attached to the workbench in my shop.

The main jaw and tightening screw and block were the only pieces I bought, so, I had to fabricate the other necessary parts.  A scrap piece of oak; a steel rod left over from another project; spare wood knob from an amp build served as the cap for the rod; a small caster reclaimed and fabricated to make a guide block for the adjustment slide, and the project was nearly complete.

It took a little fooling around with installation on the existing bench, but it works.  And, it is just right for holding necks and bodies during the shaping and finishing process.

A helluva $5 investment.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I'm not back in the guitar shack, yet, but I'm getting close.

It's only been two weeks (almost to the hour) since I got a new lease on life through open heart bypass surgery. 

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole ordeal.  One day, I'm out walking for three or four miles, when I feel a slight burning sensation in my chest. A day or so later I'm taking a stress test, then a heart catherization, and the rest is history.

However, recovery is going very well!  I think it's the miraculous intervention I expected (my Doc scolded me about expecting too much, too quickly), but ol' Doc Brown is so damn good, it's scary!  This guy works miracles, and my wife and I are living examples of it.  He wants me to have a bit more patience, so I agreed, as long as I could have it right now.

Up and down stairs with no problem (hand on the rail).  Sleeping in bed as usual.  Walking regularly (following Doc's orders, of course).  Eating whatever in hell I want (as long as it fits the orders (grains, nuts, fruit, vegetables, fish).  Showering by myself (that's sure as hell not much fun).  Watching my weight (the loss of eighteen pounds in the past six months allows me to see the scale).  Eliminating stress (haven't watched TV or read a newspaper in days) -- things must still be the same 'out there', cause the birds are walking, subway's in the hole, palisade's on the rocks, and government is still screwed up.

I cannot remember the names of all the people who made my hospital stay tolerable, but there are some very special folks, who I will never forget.  

Doctor Brown is an awesome surgeon and a really nice guy.  Dr. Freeman's personality is contagious, and he has the best sleep aids this side of Bangkok. Phil is a quiet and serious guy, and one of the most cerebral physician assistants anyone could ask to be in the care of.  

Peggy is out-a-site!  She is so thorough in her explanation of a procedure, but I never want her jerking around on me ever again (she had the honor of removing the three fluid drain tubes from my chest, and I must say it wasn't painful, but the woman lies, when she says, "You will experience a little pressure."  Pressure!, hell, it was like being dropped off a building!)  

Keely and LeeAnn were the nurses who had the pleasure of caring for this sorry ol' man after I returned from surgery, and was still under the influence of Doc Freeman's secret stash. They were outrageously kind and helpful, but, I soon learned that with a full-body wash down, a fella's dignity goes out the window.  It wouldn't have been so embarrassing, but these ladies are drop dead good looking, so when they're hosing down the intimates, a Seinfeld moment comes to mind.  What made it worse is when Keely smiled and said, "I can get a good looking boy to bathe you."  Enough already!

Garrett, Meaghan, Kim, Tonia, and so many others will stay with me in memory for a very long time.  Thanks you all.

Thanks to Mike and Jun (the guys in the operatory, who kept my motor going).  You're the best.

Thanks to all of the medical staff at Mid-Ohio Heart and MedCentral Hospital for making an uncomfortable situation the best it could possibly be.

I don't want to do it again, but I wouldn't go anywhere else for future care!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The 'Epic'

I got this really cool Montecristo 'Epic' cigar box from my buddy Ed Paxton, owner of Woodland Cigars, but I didn't have a clue how I'd put it to use.

The box itself is quite heavy in the manner in which it is constructed.  The top is 1/2" thick and the reinforced inside lends to the weight.  And, to complicate things a bit, the overall design is really different, in that it is straight at the hinged side, concave on either ends of the box, and convex at the front. And, to make matters even more interesting, the front is rounded as well as convex.  Because, the original finish is factory sprayed bright red enamel with silver accent, I had to be very careful to not screw it up in the design/production process.

I chose a real nice stick of walnut for the neck, which like all my guitars, has an eight- degree scarf joint at the headstock.  Twenty handseated frets finish off the Ziricote wood fretboard (check out the magnificent grain in this wood).  The scale is 25.4" like all of my rigs.  Open geared tuners draw the strings over Corian nut and saddle, which is recessed in the Ziricote bridge.  I chose to use the same stick of Ziricote to design the stylistic pup bobbin top, volume control knob, bridge, and string retainer (they each conform to the curved design of the body).

I couldn't bring myself to carve openings in the top for sound distribution, so the 'Epic' is electric only driven by a TotalRojo magnetic pickup.  I wound the pup to produce a very warm and mellow sound, and it worked out exactly like I wanted.

I think this is one that will remain in my personal stable.  

Let me know what you think.

The 'Hurricane'

The 'Hurricane' is a three-string acoustic/electro guitar created from CAO Fabrica de Tabacos cigar box. 

The cherry wood neck has an eight degree scarf joint at the headstock, which lends to style, strength and string tension. 

The nut is hand formed from Corian stock.

The fretboard, complete with 22 hand shaped stainless frets, is rosewood.  Check out the beautiful grain in this wood.

Open back geared tuners stretch the strings over the 25.4-inch scale, from the hand formed Corian saddle recessed into the rosewood bridge.

The string retainer tailpiece is also designed from the same stick of rosewood, and it anchors the strings to the back of the body.

To accommodate the acoustic needs, I drilled 5/16" holes in the domed top to let sound escape, which is adequate for a nice mellow resonance.

The TotalRojo magnetic pickup is designed to allow only the posts to be exposed through the top, which I feel is less obstructive to the overall design.  And, it does not take away from the bright red hurricane design of the box. 

To complete the design, I decided to create a volume control knob from rosewood.  It looked good, but it didn't stand out like I wanted.  So, I rummaged around through some old coins left over from a European trip and came up with a French coin depicting Caesar.  When the ol' boy's head is turned, the volume increases, probably similar to his behavior all those years ago.

The top is slightly domed (visible in the photo at the left), which is very strong, but a little more difficult to work around.

It plays nice, sounds good, and I'm a happy camper.

Hope you enjoy it. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vintage Vice

Check out what I scored at the flea market this past weekend.

An ol' boy from Loosyana was peddling all sorts of interesting stuff, and in the mix was this nifty vintage wood stand up bench vice, complete with large clamp, hand turned wood screw with forged metal handle and turned wood anchor nut.

I asked, "What do you want for the old wood vice?"  When he looked at me kinda odd and said, "Will you give me five bucks for it?", I damn near threw my shoulder out of it's joint getting the money out of my pocket.

I've been looking for one of these for months, but the unavailability and big prices had me almost to the point of building my own -- with commercial metal screw and anchor nut -- which didn't ring my bell real good.

At any rate, it's gonna make for a great way to hold guitar bodies and necks, when I want to do a little shaping and carving.  I have to create a lower adjustment arm and position the anchor nut to the bench, but that's no sweat.  An hour's work and I'll have this thing cleaned up and working just fine.

Can't wait to see what treasure I find next month.   ;-)

'Hog Snout'

Paul Smith, who lives in Worcester, England, is pretty happy with the guitar pickups I've created for him, which is the root of a couple of videos he's created for his FaceBook page.

Paul calls himself Boss Hog or some similar moniker, so I decided to fix him up with a pickup that might reflect his true self.

He saw the skull pup I created for Carlton Gill-Blyth, and he thought something like the hog would work just right for him.

It's a hand wound magnetic pup shaped and painted in the form of an intense 'bush hog' with volume control and output jack installed, so Paul won't need to do anything but install it and rip out some cool blues on a three-string guitar.

If you cannot live without a custom made guitar pickup for that favorite ax, let me know, and I'll create something special for you.  If you wonder if they're cool and do the job, just ask Carl or Paul.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


The 'ElectraGlide' lap steel guitar is a done deal.  It fits nicely into the vintage violin case, which my Irish friend Carlton Gill-Blyth supplied.  Thank you Scott Moodie for the idea!

So, what's it all about?

It started out as three large chunks of basswood laminated together, from which the body of the guitar could be shaped.  It had to be designed just right to fit the violin case, but I didn't want it to be just a wedge with strings.  So, after noodling a few ideas around in my head, I settled on an 'arrow' shape to fit the case snugly with rounded tail and softly pointed headstock.  the pattern I drew looked good, but was boring like many of the commercial lap steels I've seen.  So, along came the side fins to give it the style I hadn't seen anywhere. Voila, I was happy, and I had created the design I thought would be different, while being functional as well.


The 30-inch-long body is two inches thick with scarf-shaped headstock.  It's cut from one piece of wood to maintain strength and integrity.  Since it's set up to be right-hand play, I gently sloped the body on the player side down 3/4" for comfort, while all other edges are rounded for overall contour.

The Headstock is covered with laminated Spanish cedar for a nice natural wood grain transition into the specially shaped rosewood fretboard.  The nut leading the fretboard is hand shaped from a stick of Corian counter top material.  All hardware is chrome plated or stainless, from the open gear tuners to hand seated frets and position markers to the humbucker magnetic pickup, shortened tele volume and tone control panel, drawer pull hand rest over the strings, through-body bridge, and output jack cover on the back side.  And, on either side of the body, I installed Harley fender emblems, ala, the name 'ElectraGlide'.  Scale length is 24 inches (that's the distance from the nut to the bridge) thanks to the calculator provided by StewMac.

I chose a transparent green for the body color, which works very nicely with the plum colored velvet material used to line and cushion the inside of the case.  I didn't like it much, after the first application, but that was easily overcome with the use of strategically applied walnut stain to soften and deepen the color and to give it an antique appearance.

That's about all there is to say, other than it sounds good, and as soon as I learn how to play it, I think it will sound great!

The bottom is unobstructed with the exception of tuners at the nose, and string ferrules at the tail.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

'Stompin' Hog' Does The Boogie!

This is my friend Paul Smith, aka 'Stompin' Hog', laying down some cool blues with the magnetic pickup I created for him recently. 

If you like what you hear, you too can be the possessor of a TotalRojo guitar pickup.
3-string is $25; 4-string is $35, volume pot & jack add $15; postage at direct cost.  Drop me a message and I'll get to work on a custom, hand-wound pup for you.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gusle Play in the UK

A couple months ago, I received a note from a lady in the UK, who wanted me to create a bow she could use to play her Gusle, while reciting epic poetry and singing historically based songs.  This is a photo of Jade Buck putting my bow to work.

Notice I tried to give the bow a touch of similarity to the ram's head on the Gusle headstock.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bison Rule, Sometime

On a recent trip through southeast Montana, this bison bull had traffic slowed in the oncoming lane for more than a mile, and it's obvious he doesn't have any intention of changing his meandering way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Scott Moodie Is The Winner

The winner of the 're-purpose the vintage violin case' contest is announced.

Scott Moodie is the winner of the TotalRojo 'The Triangle' guitar. 

Congratulations Scott, and thanks for the suggestion for the creation of a lap steel guitar to fit the case.

The project is underway and photos will be posted in a couple weeks.  So stay tuned to this site for the reveal.