Building a bass guitar

With the closure of geocities my fist webpage ever became homeless. It seems a good idea to resurrect it here.

last update : 27 February 1998

What will you need

Right, the first thing you will be requiring is a place where you can make a tremendous mess without your mother/girlfriend/wife/daughter/consious bothering you. For me this place became the basement of my flat. Of course you sweep the floor once in a while, but that will be mostly because you are looking for some of your tools, which you suspect to be burried under the dust and sand particles.

The second thing you need is loads of spare time, and an enthousiastic stubborn attitude to keep on going. Fortunely I have more than enough of them both. Third are power tools. You don’t really need them, but hey you can also build a piramid by yourself, all it takes is time :-). So things go faster, better and easier. You need a mounted drill which allows you to make perfectly straight holes through neck and body. Also handy is a hand held sander, ideally a bandsander, but a simple hand held version did very well for me. A bandsaw is required to cut the shape of the body and neck. This exensive piece of tooling was unavailable to me when I started making my bass guitar and I’m still sorry for that. I used a hand held version which blade was not stable enough for the cuts through 4 cm of wood. So I had to cut 2-5mm further than needed and sand the rest away. A plain boring job, (it costed me an entire sunday, just to sand it straight again) but not impossible. A rooter is also a tool which can save you many many hours, it works great for the big holes, but I prefer chisels for the edges.

The choise of wood is up to you, I used meranti for the neck. Meranti is a relative cheap hardwood, usually used for the making of window frames. I found it easy to work with, it seems stable, and it doesn’t give way to string tension. I had the neck (without fretboard) stringed up at an extra high tuning for 3 days but couldn’t measure more than 0.5 mm torsion. The body is made out of pine. Extremly cheap and easy to work with, but there is a hunch: you also get dents VERY quickly. The fretboard, the pedgehead plane and all decoration wood work are made of american oak. Great stuff, but with a lot of small holes so, you need to fill before you can paint.
Next are loads of sandpaper, I think I used 20-30 sheets. Chissels, files, drill and router bits, screwdrivers, saws, rulers, knifes, glue (lots), titebond cement and lots of other tools. It will all come natually to you the moment all shops close, you will know what you needed.
You will also require special guitar hardware like: tuners, a bridge, a nut and about 1.5 meter of fretwire. Your electronics include a few pots (250/500k), a meter of isolated wire, a pick-up and a jack plug.
Last but not least: paint and laquer, with everything that goes with it.
Information is vital, get a book and read the newsgroups and webpages, some are mirrored right here. So look at : Guitar building links on the web

What to do

You start with a drawing. This should preferable be a full scale drawing. Get a shape you like, draw it and use a photo copier to blow the drawing up to a full size guitar. Then stick it to the wall and look at it for about a week. You’re going to invest a lot of time in it so it better becomes something you will like. Keep the thing in your hands as if it was the real MacCoy, it’s the only way to find out if you like where the knobs are going to be, how’s the scale length, can you reach the upper frets with the cut out you designed, where to put the pickup etc.

When you’re happy, go and get your woods and copy the drawing to the wood. You may have to laminate (glue pieces of wood together) the body first. I used three pieces of wood for the body. Use clamps and be sure all angles are 90 degrees. I spent a lot of time sanding the curvature out of the body. If you still like the design, use the bandsaw to cut out the shape, slowly and keep checking to the lines on the wood.

The neck requires several cuts, be careful that you don’t accidently remove a piece of neck that really should have stayed there. When finnished sand all smooth and get the shape right using the files. The tricky part is the rounding of the neck, gradually increasing in depth, and still keeping it round is an awarding but difficult job. Since my piece of neck wood wasn’t wide enough, I had to attach some “ears” to the pedgehead, to get the width I wanted. Keep sanding with different sizes of paper, going from rough to fine will speed up the sanding process considerably.
When you are happy withy the shape of both neck and body, (day’s, weeks, months later) it is time to integrate the both. Use a large ruler and use the heart lines of body and neck to allign them both and watch out ! if you mount the neck even under a slight angle, it’s going to be a lot of work to correct it (believe me). Now trace the outline of the neck on the body and root out the cavity, watch your depth !
Now you can also root out the cavity for the electronics. I cut out the coverplate first and traced the outline on the back of the body. I rooted it out first at 5 mm depth and then a smaller outline at full depth. This allows me to countersink the cover plate. On the front side, the pick-up cavity is made slightly deeper and wider than the pick-up itself since I have no idea how thick the paint will be. The next challenge is the drilling of the wire tunnels. If you’re lucky it is possible from the electronics cavity to drill a small hole to the pick-up cavity. (I was lucky) If not, you require a long drill and you can drill from the neck cavity, through the pick-up cavity to the electronics cavity.
Last is the counter sinking of a tunnel for the jack plug. I use a small round piece of oak to hold the plug. Matching the fretboard colour very nicely.

Sand the whole body fix the neck in it and drill the holes for the bolts, I countersinked the nuts in the neck since they must be covered by the fretboard. Now make a countersink in the body as well, to hide your bolt heads, and you’re almost done with the body.
It’s time for the pedgehead. Get a suitable piece of wood, sand it smooth, and glue it to the top of the neck. Draw the outline of the pedgehead shape you like, and cut it out. The tricky part is getting all the round curves nicely ROUND instead of approximatly round. When you are happy with the way it looks and feels, locate your tuners. A huge drill is required to drill the holes (at least for bass) so I drilled the holes slightly smaller to save the wood around and used files to enlarge the hole. The great thing about that is the posibilty to correct the errors you made during the drilling.(pfieuw) At this point I made the mistake of shaping the fretboard to the neck, this is a problem when you want to saw the groves for the frets. So let’s not do that again shall we ?

the picture shows not the bass, but my new guitar
I made a simple fretboard-saw-support frame, which allows me to make perfectly parallel cuts in the fretboard. It consists of a flat piece of scrap wood, with to small “guiders” fixed to it. These guiders, keep the fretboard in a fixed position, allowing it only to shift in horizontal direction. A saw guider slot has been sawn to keep the saw in place. Now it is only shift and saw. Remember to watch your depth, saw to deep and you loose stability, saw not deep enough and you’ll discovered it when you are mounting the frets, saw through and you have a problem. Where to saw ?? you may know that dividing a string length by a factor 2, increases the tone an octave so the formula for fret distances becomes :
Fret(n)= SCALE * (1-2^(-n/12))

Now shape the fretboard to the shape of the neck and use it to clamp the nut at it’s proper place, carefully check the alignment with the fretboard, for the zero fret (the nut) must be parallel with the other frets. If all looks well, sand the neck for the last time and glue the fretboard in place.

I hope you checked the height of the screws which will connect neck and body. If you didn’t they will be to heigh (murphy’s law) and push the fretboard off the neck when fixing it to the body.
With all in place you can drill the holes for the position markers and slowly push them in place, glue is not needed. Last checks, smooth all edges and start painting.
In stead of using inlays to mark the important fretspaces, I used paint. I painted a vine running up the neck, having large leaves at the important fretspaces, and minor leaves at the minor ones. I stole the idea from a view other guitars and the particular shapes from a JEM style Ibanez. A few layers of hard laquer should be enough to protect the painting from evil fingernails.

Now the nut can be filed and for this bass a string guider has been installed. The body was spray painted by someone else, (muchias gracias) so I thought that i was about finished. However, the lacquer i used reacted with the paint, making one big mess of the surface. You can find my cries for help in and rec.woodworkers or so. Any way, i needed to sand off the old finish, respray and relacquer. the pictures show the spraying event of my old telcaster, but the bass spray went just the same.

Use a well ventilated room or you’ll poisson yourself in it ! make a pseudo-neck out of a piece of scrap and spray the baby, fast ! You will spray in thin layers, every 2 min or so. Totaling up to a layer of 5, than let dry for a day, remove all obstacles and spray another 5 layers. Just repeat the sequence until you are happy.

One word of advice : don’t pick your nose during a paint jop, blue noses bring up the funniest remarks in people, and cleaning it out is not what you will like to do most.
You’re almost there now ! just screw all parts together, don’t forget to lead a ground wire to the bridge, insert the pickup, and wire the pots to the plug. (piece of cake) Close the coverplate, string her up, plug in and ROCK !

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