Making a Guitar Neck

by Steve


The first step into building my own guitar was to obtain some fool proof reading material. The book I stumbled upon turned out to be a complete godsend. "Make Your Own Electric Guitar" is written by Melvyn Hiscock who is an established U.K. luthier who's been making guitars for over 25 years. The book will tell you everything you need, from wood and tool selection and how to use them, to design notes, scales lengths, wiring, tips and tricks and just about everything else involved, the book also goes through constructing 2 guitars and 1 bass from the ground up.
It is ESSENTIAL for me to read up on things, as this will save me a massive amount of trial and error not to mention the expense of failed attempts.

The neck is going to be a laminate of two pieces of Maple ( 'cause I like the feel of unfinished Maple necks ) with a piece of Wenge sandwiched between. Wenge is a very hard wood very similar to Ebony and would provide a nice strong center to the neck. The fret board is African Ebony.

Gluing First

The First thing to do with the neck is thickness each laminate and glue them together.
I followed the same gluing process as I did in making my body, a nice coat on each face to be glued, then clamped them together which is how they need to sit for 24hrs.

Here they are clamped together ( with some fasteners for extra stability )...

Planing And Cutting

Part (A) - Planing

When I glued the laminates they were not thicknessed exact enough, so when I clamped them they slid for a few mm's in general directions.
This was OK in as far as they found their own comfortable contact point, but a bit of a pain in meaning that there would be more wood for me to have to plane off later.
I don't mind planing at all, it's quite an easy job as long as you've got the right tool...

I decided which edge I'd use as my fret board surface (the one requiring least planing of course) then set to work.
I find it best to use long smooth strokes as oppose to shorter hacking, and took about 1mm off at a time.
When I was happy enough that I'd planed as accurate as I could I brought out the power sander to smooth the whole surface down to 240 grit.

You'll probably notice that the right maple laminate is a little pinker than the left.
This doesn't bother me as it's not really that noticeable except when close up and I actually quite like it, sort of a 3 colored neck. :)
With that done it was on to cutting...

Part (B) - Sawing

The first thing to be done is mark out the neck on the wood. This involves marking an exact line (in my case) approx. 24mm's deep. This will allow room for a 19-20mm heel after planing and sanding, and of course give me plenty of wood to work with when shaping the neck.
The head stock as it's being cut from the same piece, also had to be marked onto the laminates. This was just a matter of continuing my current neck lines at a 13 degree angle (as the head stock will tilt back 13 degrees).
Apologies beforehand for the out of focus photos, dunno' how it happened...

And the head stock angle.
You'll also notice in this picture that I drew a channel to saw along as opposed to a single guiding line, I find this easier when sawing.

Initially my plan was to Bandsaw the neck. Bandsawing = fast and accurate, but I wasn't able to get a Bandsaw, so rather than wait an age I decided why not do it in the old style and hand saw the neck! (Is he insane I hear you cry) :)
Now, hand sawing a neck doesn't require the ultimate in accuracy as long as you give yourself room for error. The thing about hand sawing is the hard work you have to put in.
Maple in guitar terms isn't that hard a wood, but it's DAMN harder than the wood you usually saw day-to-day, i.e. Plywood etc...and if you then throw a laminate of Wenge into the equation it makes it 2 times harder.
Overall sawing took me approx. 1 hour, and I now have a right forearm like Popeye. :)

The result of all that sweat...

This is still quite raw looking as I've still to plane and sand the neck.

Routing The Truss Channel

Hmmm, hairy job this one. Not a job to be taken lightly or lose patience with as a wrong move can result in a wasted neck. Planning is the keyword for this.
First thing to do is mark out the center line of the neck, then various points along the neck that mark out the width of the rod.
The rod I'm using is wider than most of the rods Ibanez use (actually 10mm wide to be exact and 8mm deep). This also dictates the thickness of my neck (no skinny Wizard here folks) it should resemble the thickness of the original JEM neck.

Once the markings are made I just taped the rod in pace and traced round it.
This means that after routing and sanding the actual channel will be slightly wider than the rod, which is a good thing.
If the rod is gonna' work properly it cannot be jammed into the channel totally tight, but at the same time you don't want it to rattle.
To combat this I'll tape the rod up with masking tape, or even better if I can find it, a thin rubber tubing, I'll also rub it with candle wax so it doesn't stick to the neck.

Another thing you have to remember is that the center area of the channel has to be routed deeper than the ends...(we don't want the neck to bow in the middle when adjusting do we!)
The best way to do this is to make two guides for the router (a couple of strips of wood) that mirror the channel's curve. Now this is a pretty difficult job in itself as they also need to be quite exact, so what I decided to do was adjust the depth of the router in small steps and work my way into a deeper channel in the middle.
This obviously leaves small visible steps in the wood, but these are easily seen off with a little sanding and you end up with your smooth curve.

A final word on measurement's before the pictures. The center of the channel was routed to 14.3mm deep with the ends (approx. fret's 1 to 5, 15 to 24) routed to 10mm deep. The ends were purposely routed 2mm deeper than the rod so I can glue in a cover or fillet of maple over the rod which will also help anchor things in place.

It's difficult to see the channel in the first picture, but I assure you, it is there! :)

Above you can see more clearly the channel routed out, this is prior to sanding so you may get a glimpse of the "steps" I was talking about earlier.

And above you see the rod in place, although just a test fit at this stage.
You'll also see that I started to narrow the neck towards it's final shape with a coping saw and sander, but there are still a few mm's of width to lose so it isn't accurate at all yet. This I'll work on during the coming week as well as building up the head stock and cutting it out.
I was initially planning on shaping the back of the neck after this, but seeing as I still have a flat underside surface to work on I'll attach the fretboard first.

Cutting Out The Head Stock

I've pretty much finished width shaping the neck, so all that remains in that department is the back.
What I concentrated on this week was cutting out the Head Stock and Fret Board
The Fret Board is cut in almost the same way as the neck, finding the center line then marking on the nut width and end width and joining the end of each line up to give you a cutting guide (again slightly wider to allow for sanding the edge's). The Fret Board should then look like this...

Notice above that the board is not yet slotted, this will be done directly before attaching it to the neck.

On to the head stock
As the area wasn't wide enough I built it out with 2 extra pieces of Maple which were glued and clamped for 24 hours, (note to self...don't use so much bloody maple next time! :)
After drying they were sanded level to make cutting all the more easy. The next step is to mark out the head stock shape making sure it is correctly positioned. This was relatively easy as I made a template of the head stock from my DBK.

All cutting was done with a Coping Saw which is a great tool, allowing you to be quite accurate and giving you the flexibility to adjust the blade to different angles when you hit an obstacle.

Once it was cut out, all that remained was to sand it down to the correct dimensions and smooth things off. Below you can see a picture of how it looks from the front and the back.

And just for good measure here's a comparison between my guitar and the DBK. Mine may look slightly bigger but that's just because it's more in the foreground.

Fret Board Slotting

Fret board slotting is one of those "precision" tasks that scare the hell outta' ya' :)
Each Fret Board has to be slotted with 1 main point taken into consideration.

1. What's the scale length of your guitar?

For me it's a scale length of 25.5""

There is a mathematical formula you can use to derive the distance between each fret, but I won't go into it as it's a bit long-winded. I'm lucky enough to have Melvyn's book which has charts of fret distance's for all the popular scale lengths.
Here's the measurements for a 25.5"" scale length guitar in Imperial and Metric with each fret measured from the nut, you'll see how I applied these measurements to the Fingerboard a bit later on.

1 1.431 36.353
2 2.782 70.665
3 4.057 103.052


5 6.397 162.474
6 7.469 189.708
7 8.481 215.414
8 9.436 239.676
9 10.338 262.577
10 11.189 284.193
11 11.992 304.595
12 12.750 323.852
13 13.466 342.028
14 14.141 359.185
15 14.779 375.378
16 15.380 390.662
17 15.948 405.089
18 16.484 418.706
19 16.990 431.558
20 17.468 443.689
21 17.919 455.140
22 18.344 465.947
23 18.746 476.148
24 19.125 485.777

The first thing to do now is prepare a small jig.
This is a very simple jig which just needs a level surface which you can draw a center line down and attach a straight guide to the edge.
Here's mine...

It's also imperative that you draw a center line down the face of the Fretboard so you can line it up with the center line of your jig.
The best way to attach the Fretboard to the surface is with double sided tape. This will ensure a good contact and prevent any movement when you begin cutting. I used industrial strength tape which you have to be careful with when lining the board up, if you center it wrongly it's a swine to lift up again :)

The best way to apply the measurements to the Fretboard (IMHO) is to use the double sided tape again (sparingly this time) and tape a flat steel ruler to the board starting at the nut (line it up exact).
This means you can use the above table and then mark out guidelines along the length of the ruler using the measurements in the above table.
This is where you use your 90o Angle Finder and the Stanley knife.

You can see above where the straight edge guide comes into play (although the Angle Finder is just loosely sitting there and not flush for the ease of taking the picture)
I then used the Angle Finder to slide along the Fretboard and mark off the position of each fret above and below the ruler. All I'd need to do after this is join the two lines together, again using the Angle Finder, and scoring them fully with the Stanley knife (seen below and purposely lightened in Photoshop so it's visible)

All that remains now is to ditch the Angle Finder and Ruler and cut the fret positions using a Gent's Saw.
This is where you have to be careful, if you made a mistake scoring you could easily sand it out, but when sawing you're taking a few mm's of depth so just take time and be accurate...I think patience is the buzz word here! ;)

And here she is in all her 24 Fret glory! (although I chopped the picture and you can't see all 24, hmm...anyone have any pointers on using a camera??? :)

Of course the Fretboard still has to be radiused so I will lose some depth on the fret slots, but that's easily enough remedied by sawing them deeper again, remembering to saw with the shape of the camber and not just dead straight.

On to Part 2


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