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5 string bass build (it's gonna be HUGE in Japan!)


a2k
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We packed up and moved from Seattle to the outskirts of Tokyo a year ago for my wife's job (she works for the U.S. government). I only brought my 4 string bass with me. A trip to Tokyo's musical instrument district, Ochanomizu, one afternoon got me thinking about playing a 5 string again. I've got almost free access to an amazing wood shop through my wife's work so here I am at the beginning of the journey to build a bass. The plan is to make a "fairly standard" 34" scale neck-through 5 string inspired heavily by a Japanese maker called STR's LS series.

I'm gonna have lots of questions. Figured I'd do my best to document the process here and hopefully get some tips, feedback, and answers along the way.  :)

Here's what I've done so far:

1. Bought some wood.

This was actually harder than it sounds. I got it in my head that I wanted to buy the wood locally instead of having it shipped. My first stops were to the spots the wood shop recommended: a dizzying hobby/lifestyle shop called "Tokyu Hands" and the local home depot-esque home supply stores, but none of them had good hardwoods big enough to be useful. So my second stop was to get on the train and head into a neighborhood in Tokyo called Shinkiba. Those of you that have spent time in Tokyo know that for some reason all the shops in a certain category tend to cluster together. So Ochanomizu has blocks and blocks of guitar shops stacked 6 stories high, Jimbocho is packed with stores selling skis and snowboards, Akihabara is jammed with electronics stores. So it only makes sense that there'd be a neighborhood full of wood stores. "Shinkiba" translates to literally mean "new wood place" so it seems like a promising spot. 

Here's what I saw when I got off the train:

1_in_the_station.thumb.jpg.5bd1c80cd5ab6

And then when I got out onto the street, I found this statue:

2_wood_art.thumb.jpg.b40f41feee755fd6c55

In between the buildings, I found hints of what they contained.

3_a_good_sign.thumb.jpg.78c8f62ae0526343

This was not a place for retail shoppers though - just blocks and blocks of warehouses. 4_warehouses.thumb.jpg.7da1edfc8c306b985

I got up the nerve to just start knocking on doors and walking into talk to people. Keep in mind my Japanese is just below "basic caveman" level. Eventually I cam across a guy who took my upstairs from his normal SPF supply warehouse and showed me this:

5_secret_upstairs.thumb.jpg.1d0e2abbc3a7

If you want to build a table, he's got you covered. But prices were as big as the pieces so he didn't have anything for me. He did dig up a beautiful piece of ebony that could be sliced to make 20 or more fingerboards, but it was about $300. Here are some of the table tops:

6_want_to_build_a_table.thumb.jpg.1c5cf6

Finally, I came across a small spot run by two older guys. One of them spoke some English and was a bass player! I showed him a drawing of what I needed. He had everything but a good piece of figured maple for the top. He took my email address and told me he'd call some friends and see what he could find. The next day I got an email with some photos of the maple and some options for the rest of the wood. 

maple3.thumb.jpg.0dd05d44c3eb56946e44f8a

I honestly don't know enough to tell if that piece is fantastic or junk from that photo (any idea?), but I went ahead wired them the $$$ (most transactions in Japan are via cash, so I had to take a stack of cash to the local bank and transfer it into his account). The wood will be delivered by local courier service to me tomorrow. 

2. Made a drawing

I used one of the tips on the site here to enlarge a photo of the bass I'm using as "inspiration" to actual size. I made a few tweaks to it and then created a full size mock up by printing out a bunch of 8.5x11 sheets and taping them together. Here's the mock-up and a picture of the papers taped together (without the final headstock shape).

bass_layout_headstock.thumb.jpg.f09af789IMG_7186.thumb.jpg.c3e60d513e87c4439006c

3. Ordered a bunch of hardware

I went onto Amazon and bought the tuners, bridge, pickups, electronics, nut, strings, strap locks, and fret wire, everything else I thought I'd need. Thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime and military post, it all arrived to me in Japan in about 10 days with free shipping. I figured having all of the materials will be helpful as I get going.

Up next:

First, I need to finalize the neck/fingerboard layout on my mock up to make sure the widths are correct for the bridge, nut, and pickups I'm using. 

Then, I'm thinking that I'll make a 3/4" MDF template from the print out to finalize the shape and make sure everything works out before I start messing with the wood. Any easy way to get the layout from the print-out onto the MDF? In all of the photos I've seen that step doesn't get captured. I was thinking I might just glue the printout to it.

After that, I'll start planing and gluing. I can't wait to get started - I still feel a bit like a poser talking about building a bass but not actually doing any of the real work, but I understand that given how little I know, I need to invest some time in planning so I don't screw things up too much. 

Anyway, like I said at the beginning, I'm going to have lots of questions and appreciate any thoughts, feedback, or tips along the way. 

Thanks!

Aaron

 

 

 

7 the spot.jpg

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Welcome to the forum Aaron. That place (Shinkiba) looks amazing. 

 

Apart from spray glue or ordinary wood glue spread thin on the MDF you can also print a mirrored image, place it on the wood with the printed side down and dab it with aceton. That will transfer the print to the wood. However the result I have gotten has ranged from poor to "almost acceptable", but you might be more lucky. I still use hide glue...

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Thanks! Sounds like just glueing on with spray glue is the way to go. 

Exploring Shinkiba really was amazing. I'll tell you that if you ever visit Tokyo and go to Shinkiba, you will be well off the tourist track. Everyone there was pretty shocked to see me but also 99% patient, willing to help, and generally curious as to what the heck I was doing there. I did go into one place that seemed like the jackpot of amazing wood, but they wouldn't sell to me and politely said the sold to "members only". Sometimes around here "members only" is a polite way of saying "we don't want to deal with foreigners" (bars that don't want foreign customers will use that line when you walk in), but who knows - maybe they have a "wood of the month" club or something. 

If you make it to Tokyo, definitely spend some time in Ochanomizu as well. It's mind blowing what you will see there - guitars in every size, shape, vintage, and price point. I went into one store that had more left-handed basses priced above $2k than your average guitar center has basses in total. Here's a shot I took at one of the smaller shops (Japanese Sugi basses in the front, a few Carl Thompson's peeking out of the back). 

IMG_6924.thumb.jpg.2574c7524bea729f67767

From here on out, this thread is going to be mostly just me chipping away (hopefully only figuratively) on my project. But if anybody has a question about Tokyo/Japan, I'm happy to do my best to answer. 

The wood shop is closed on Monday and Tuesday. I plan on walking in there on Wednesday with my MDF, print out, and a can of spray glue to get started. 

 

 

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This looks like it is going to be a fun build and thanks for letting us explore Tokyo a bit with you.

I honestly don't know enough to tell if that piece is fantastic or junk from that photo (any idea?)

That looks like a very nice piece of curly maple with a bit of spalt thrown in for fun. The pic looks like it is rough cut, so you may have a bit of work ahead. Nothing to worry about, most of what I use is rough cut too. That could easily end up being spectacular.

SR

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That looks like a very nice piece of curly maple with a bit of spalt thrown in for fun. The pic looks like it is rough cut, so you may have a bit of work ahead. Nothing to worry about, most of what I use is rough cut too. That could easily end up being spectacular.

SR

Thanks. I sure hope so! There should maple enough to cover the front and back or (two fronts). Here's the wood I've got coming (with the dimensions in mm and price in ¥):

Neck
    Maple             \1,440.-X 3---    \4,320.-
    Walnut            \1,910.-X 2---    \3,820.-

Fingerboard
    Rosewood(indonesian)            \1,670.-

Body Left   559 X 127 X 45(mm)
    Mahogany(African)            \4,120.-

Body Right    458 X 127 X 45(mm)
    Mahogany(African)            \2,580.-

Body Top Left and Right
1300 X 250 X 40(mm)→1300 X 250 X 19(mm)
    Curly Maple        \5,500.-X 2---    \11,000.-

For those that are curious about wood costs in Japan, the total was ¥32,211 (about $270) including tax and delivery. 

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Two updates today. First, I updated my print out with details on the fingerboard, glued it onto some 3/4" mdf (using 3M Super 77 which is conveniently sold under the same name here in Japan - thanks KnightroExpress!), and cut out the template outline. It brought back flashbacks from the hours and hours I spent with a jigsaw in high school making skateboard ramps. 

I need to do a little sanding but overall I'm happy with this first step and it felt great to get started. I'm sure pictures of a template in-progress are exciting to approximately nobody, but just in case, here's an in-progress shot (I used this fence as a guide to get the fingerboard cut straight) and the final template. 

layout_neck.thumb.jpg.e923633f75943ef3d5

template.thumb.jpg.406f340a7993a2b1b86a1

Second, got the wood. I felt like a kid on Christmas tearing open the packaging to see what was inside. Here's a shot of the maple with one half wet to get an idea of what the figure looks like (note that it was already raining so there are some rain drops on the right size):

IMG_7226.thumb.jpg.e7c03b03a1f31c748116e

Looks good. The pieces are 2x as long as I need and also 3/4" thick. I don't plan on carving this, so I'm wondering what thickness I should go for. Any guidance here? It'd be awesome if I could split one of the pieces to use for the front and back and save the other piece for a future project, though the sides not pictured are pretty rough. 

Tomorrow I'm gonna play with glue!

 

 

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Template pics may seem boring....but to guys out there trying to figure out how this stuff gets done, they are pretty dang cool. If it's a step that works don't be worried about including it. In fact I find myself returning to some of my old builds to remind myself of the order of the steps I took the last time and discover that I'm happy I included all the little seemingly irrelevant details that I did. I'm going to be doing exactly that before taking the next step on my current build.

It is common for non-carved tops to be in the 1/4" to 3/8" range, but there is no rule. Use proportions that look pleasing to your eye. The instrument only needs to be thick enough to house the electronics. Do be sure to verify your scale and fret locations before using your print out as a guide for locating the various elements of the build.

SR

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It is common for non-carved tops to be in the 1/4" to 3/8" range, but there is no rule. Use proportions that look pleasing to your eye. The instrument only needs to be thick enough to house the electronics. Do be sure to verify your scale and fret locations before using your print out as a guide for locating the various elements of the build.

SR

Thanks Scott. I'll plane down the rough sides today and see how much I have left. The maple is heavy so I definitely don't want to go too thick. 

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I'm going to say something you all already know: boy is this fun. Outside of the shop, life is full of distractions, once I step inside the only thing on my mind is the task at hand. It's really nice to be in the zone for a few hours, and have something tangible - no matter how small - to show for the day's effort. 

Something else I discovered yesterday: running walnut through a planer may be one of my favorite things to do ever. Rough boards go in, and out comes something absolutely beautiful. My next project is going to have more walnut.

Anyway, here's a run down of yesterday's efforts...

The goal of the day was to make some final decisions on how to use the wood I received and to prep it for glueing. 

First, I spent a little time on the computer planning out the neck wood. I started with three long pieces of maple and two of walnut and needed to decide how to lay them out. I wanted to make sure the edges of the neck are maple all the way so I was really working with some options on what to do in the center. Here are the options I mocked up (you'll get to see which I chose further down):

 options.thumb.png.23a651ceb4eb81b4bc327a 

After that I headed into the shop. Once there, I started by seeing if I could resaw my figured maple to have enough for front and back with some extra. I started by planing down the rough sides of the maple just to see how much I really had to work with. Here's an action shot.

1_-_planer.thumb.jpg.f112a7498743dbc9ab1

After planing the maple was still almost an inch thick so I set up a fence and fired up the band saw. At first pass, the band saw was totally unable to cut into the maple, so I narrowed down the board a bit and had a fresh blade put on (one of the great things about using the "company" wood shop is that they provide the blades and swap them out for you on request). With the fresh blade on, I was able to make some progress and ended up turning one board into four book-matched pieces. Mission accomplished!

Here's the wood I plan on using for the front (with some water on it to show the figure):

2_-_front.thumb.jpg.b9fa9cd184bc5f50f648

And the back:

3_-_back.thumb.jpg.8acc2dd0ba0a744b218c5

Next up, I got to work on the neck boards to get the pieces set to match the option I chose from my mock-ups. Here's the walnut after planing (again, my new favorite pastime). It's a shame this grain is just going to be glued together.

4_-_walnut.thumb.jpg.af7d347a93d5fd910ce

And finally, all of the pieces stacked together in their positions:

6_-_stacking_the_pieces.thumb.jpg.d533b9

With a little imagination, I can see it starting to come together. The pieces are all now stacked in storage until next Wednesday when I'll be able to get back into the shop and begin glueing. 

So, a few questions...

I'd like to cut electronics compartment cover from the maple that I'll be using on the back so the grain matches. Any tips on how to get this cut out? Is there a way to open up a slot to fit a jig saw in somehow, or some other technique that doesn't require starting at the edge? Also, is 1/4" maple strong enough on it's own, or should I reinforce it?

Second, as you can see from the picture above I haven't touched the fingerboard wood yet. I need to figure out how thin to take it was this stage (before radiusing it). I've read (in my handy copy of "Building Electric Guitars") that the fingerboard should end up with the fingerboard 1/4" thick. I take it that's at the thinner ends? Any rule of thumb on how thick I should go before radiusing?

And as long as I'm asking about the fingerboard, I've been laying in bed at night pondering if and how to do a compound radius. The strings will be 1 3/4 wide at nut at 3" at bridge so there's a pretty big increase. Any general guidance on if a compound radius is a good idea for this, and if so, what radiuses to use? 

Thanks for following along and the help!

Aaron

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Looking good! I really like the layout you chose. Looks like you've got a pretty excellent shop to use as well!

I've not done a matching cavity cover, so I can't offer anything there. Every fretboard I've done was started from a 1/4" blank, so that's the thickness at the peak of the radius, if that makes sense.

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Hi Aaron, and welcome onboard! Japan is a weird mecca for bassists. I simply wouldn't be able to keep my hands off those Carl Thompsons personally, however there's never going to be an end to the stuff kicking around there....

This is a little late to the game and a different solution to the problem presented, however it's possible to re-fuse laser toner using an ordinary clothes iron. Simply take a magazine that uses thin glossy paper (I use advertising junk mail) and print onto that in mirror image. The toner latches onto this paper worse than plain, so you can actually iron it onto the target. The heat melts the toner and it preferentially bonds to the MDF that the paper. The perfect material is the glossy backing to laser printable labels. Toner slides right off that, however it's more difficult to reduce slippage and smearing. Molten toner is like a film of oil or butter.

This technique is something I figured I might cover for a tutorial on transferring carving designs onto a piece of wood, perhaps even a photo finish onto wood. I originally picked it up from making DIY PCBs.

Those workbenches look better than the flimsy shaking crap that seem to be the norm these days (I'm looking at you, Sjöberg!). It's rare that you see benches capable of staying put with even mild planing. Is that shop in Japan?

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Totally off topic: Re work benches, lokal Swedish Luthier Paul Guy (OK originally from UK) actually approached Sjöberg (a company making traditional wooden work benches for carpentry) to design and produce a Luthiers bench. The retired "Mr Sjöberg" got so into the project he did the design personally together with Paul Guy. They did produce about 20 of those benches but unfortunately they are since long gone. There was actually an article about this in a local guitar magazine (unfortunately only in Swedish) http://fuzz.se/artikel/banken-fran-stockaryd 

Now over to our regular scheduled programming 

Edited by SwedishLuthier
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I've never done a matched cavity cover myself, but I believe the technique involves starting off with a body blank overly thick, cutting the excess off the back of the blank in the area where the cavity is going, and using the offcut itself as the cavity cover.  If your body blank is already down to its intended thickness and you can't slice any more off the back, the only other option is probably to try and find a piece of scrap timber that matches the grain pattern and colour close enough and use that as the cover.

Compound radius is going to be tricky unless you have access to a CNC.  There are some fancy DIY rocking/swinging router cradles that can be made up, but there's a lot of work involved to make the jigs and they're fairly bulky items to only use once or twice, and you still need to find some way of sanding the fretboard to a smooth finish after the router surfacing stage that won't ruin the radius you've just put on the board.

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Totally off topic: Re work benches, lokal Swedish Luthier Paul Guy (OK originally from UK) actually approached Sjöberg (a company making traditional wooden work benches for carpentry) to design and produce a Luthiers bench. The retired "Mr Sjöberg" got so into the project he did the design personally together with Paul Guy. They did produce about 20 of those benches but unfortunately they are since long gone. There was actually an article about this in a local guitar magazine (unfortunately only in Swedish) http://fuzz.se/artikel/banken-fran-stockaryd 

Now over to our regular scheduled programming 

I think we need to resurrect that one. It's not a current product as such so there's nothing ethically suspect about it other than basic reference to source. Cheers! Yes, back to our feature programme.

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My first couple of compound fretboards were sanded completely by hand, using a long, straight but narrow sanding stick, making sure to very frequently check the progress with radius gauges . It wasn't too bad actually. I made a very simple swing jig attachment to my router table to be able to do both standard and compound fretboards. My main problem is now we're to store it as it is indeed quite bulky. It took me a day to make and I still need to add a few more permanent solutions for a few details. So for a single fretboard I would suggest the manual version as you might need two hours of manual sanding and then you have the rest of the day off, compared with starting to make a jig for that job

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 Thanks for all of the comments, tips, and the discussion about tables. 

Every fretboard I've done was started from a 1/4" blank, so that's the thickness at the peak of the radius, if that makes sense.

Makes sense - thanks. One of the other things (there are many) I'm currently pondering late into the night is how much the surface of the neck needs to stick above the body. I guess I need to bring my fingerboard down to 1/4", apply the radius, and then measure the fingerboard edge thickness so I can calculate how thick the neck needs to be (by subtracting the thickness of the fingerboard from the height of the bridge).  

Hi Aaron, and welcome onboard! Japan is a weird mecca for bassists. I simply wouldn't be able to keep my hands off those Carl Thompsons personally, however there's never going to be an end to the stuff kicking around there....

This is a little late to the game and a different solution to the problem presented, however it's possible to re-fuse laser toner using an ordinary clothes iron. Simply take a magazine that uses thin glossy paper (I use advertising junk mail) and print onto that in mirror image. The toner latches onto this paper worse than plain, so you can actually iron it onto the target. The heat melts the toner and it preferentially bonds to the MDF that the paper. The perfect material is the glossy backing to laser printable labels. Toner slides right off that, however it's more difficult to reduce slippage and smearing. Molten toner is like a film of oil or butter.

Japan is a mecca for gear heads of all types! What I find funny is how many stores there are here packed with amazing guitars and basses, yet hardly have an amp in sight. The Carl Thompsons are works of art - I was too in awe of them to touch them, though I'm sure the store would have let me. My 3 year old twins have taken to looking at basses with me and providing their thoughts on what I should make. They have established a clear preference for Carl Thompson rainbow style basses. I'm afraid they are going to be disappointed when they see what I'm working on (just as their feedback of a recent gig was "the band was too loud! You need to be more quiet so we can talk to people."). 

Thanks for the glossy paper/iron on tip - I need to make templates for the cavity, headstock, and pickups still so I will give it a try.

The benches are very nice, as is the whole shop. Yes, it is in Japan (on a U.S. Army Base).

I've never done a matched cavity cover myself, but I believe the technique involves starting off with a body blank overly thick, cutting the excess off the back of the blank in the area where the cavity is going, and using the offcut itself as the cavity cover.  If your body blank is already down to its intended thickness and you can't slice any more off the back, the only other option is probably to try and find a piece of scrap timber that matches the grain pattern and colour close enough and use that as the cover.

Compound radius is going to be tricky unless you have access to a CNC.  There are some fancy DIY rocking/swinging router cradles that can be made up, but there's a lot of work involved to make the jigs and they're fairly bulky items to only use once or twice, and you still need to find some way of sanding the fretboard to a smooth finish after the router surfacing stage that won't ruin the radius you've just put on the board.

Thanks for the response. I came across this video showing someone using a scroll saw to cut out the cavity cover. Looks pretty straightforward... if the shop has a scroll saw tucked away somewhere (I'll find out on Wednesday). If there's no scroll saw, I'll use a piece of scrap.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsJwpBifdhQ

Sounds like the compound radius may be more trouble than it's worth. I've got a few Warmoth necks with a 10" radius and my main bass is a G&L L-2000 with a 9.5" radius, so I'll probably go with a single 10" radius fingerboard.   

Up next is glueing the neck and hopefully hunting down a scroll saw to cut out the cavity cover. The shop is closed until Wednesday and it's killing me!

Aaron

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I just got out of the Army a year ago! Are you at Zama, perchance? I wanted to go there, but no luck.

Yep! Got here a year ago. It's a tiny installation but a neat spot with a great location for exploring Japan. Too bad you didn't get to come here, but it's never too late - lots of ex-military come back as civilians (and LOTS of them come from Florida!). 

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Here's a quick update on last week's progress...

First, I tried the glossy paper/iron on transfer to get a print out onto MDF with little luck - probably wasn't using glossy enough paper. So instead I tried a similar tip I came across of using a label sheet with all of the labels removed. The ink doesn't stick to it at all, so all I needed to do was press it against the MDF and the transfer happened. No ironing required. Of course this wouldn't work very well for large items but for the cavity cover it worked great. Here's an action shot:

IMG_7250.thumb.jpg.a01251ff487e1abf92705

On Wednesday I was able to get back into the shop. As luck would have it, they had a brand new scroll saw! I fired it up and first practiced on some MDF before getting to work on my precious maple. Scroll sawing along a precise line is tough - both straight lines and curves. I cut the piece out of the maple and it's definitely not perfect, but also nothing a little bit of sanding couldn't fix. Here's another action shot:

IMG_7254.thumb.jpg.1218c0fc2e7832aefa86b

Honestly, I'm not sure this step is going to be worth the stress. It's hard to tell that the grain lines up and I think I probably could have just used another piece of maple and it would look fine. Time will tell...

The last thing I did on Wednesday was glue the neck into a nice 7 layer ice-cream sandwich. 

IMG_7251.thumb.jpg.fd2b2c15f16eb7e25429d

On Thursday, I planed down the neck to even out the edges and then got to work on the body. I brought my mahogany down to size and then glued the front and backs on. I forgot to take a picture.

Next, I headed back to the bandsaw and resawed my rosewood fingerboard in half and was able to get enough wood for two fingerboards. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but i'm already starting to tuck away wood for a future project. Here's a shot of all of the wood arranged together (before splitting the fingerboard into two):

IMG_7257.thumb.jpg.d6cfd25af7c4492888f92

Up next: outlining the neck and cutting out the profile. I'm still not 100% sure how thick the neck needs to be where it meets the body. My hunch is the neck thickness + fingerboard thickness should = body thickness + minimum bridge height. Not sure if I should worry about the thickness of the fingerboard pre vs post radius (Where it will be slightly thinner at the edges) or if the height of the frets should be included. Any tips? 

Thanks for following along!

Aaron

 

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I stick with thinner fingerboards so that the edge is around 3,5mm - 4,0mm. The neck taper can throw these values around a bit, however working out your maximum thickness isn't too difficult. It's possible to work it out using trigonometry using the fingerboard width and radius as the chord of a circle. What radius are you aiming for? I don't recall seeing that spec.

Anyway. A fairly standard 5-string board is about 75mm wide at the 24th. At least, mine are with 18mm spacing at the bridge and a 43mm nut. That works out in CAD to about 5,7mm thickness at the apex with a 16mm radius and 4mm fingerboard edge. Thicknessing the board to about 6,0mm and fettling it down from there is probably the best bet.

Sorry about mixing Metric/Imperial values. It just goes with the territory!

Image1.thumb.jpg.537d1ae63bdc4fb8f9e240e

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Thanks Prostheta. I'm aiming for a 10" radius (254)mm and have already brought the fingerboard down to 1/4" thick. My plans call for the neck being 3" wide (76.2mm) at the 24th fret so close to yours. When I draw out the fingerboard with radius, I get a .111" drop from the apex to the edge. If I account for the height of the fret (.04", or 1.02mm), the drop is .072", leaving .178". So I guess I should subtract .178" from the height of the bridge to figure out how much thicker the neck needs to be than the body. That way I know that untensioned, the B and G strings will be just at the fret and the E, A, and D strings will need to be raised up to .112" at the bridge to get them to the top of the frets (though tension may help with this). Does that sound right? 

Here's my drawing (the fingerboard radius is pink, the top of the fret is green):

fingerboard.thumb.png.34f29917ed71a08dfb

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1/4" - 6,25mm. Okay, well, that's not far off. You're right that factoring in the fret crown top is important for the neck angle...which is a function of that height off the body plane and the saddle witness points. My main concern is the thickness of the side of the fingerboard where the markers will lay. ,139" (about 3,5mm) is on the thinner side. When you factor in breaking the edges to soften them, it could look a little thin. 10" radius is small for a 5-string, but not unheard of. Compound radius is more common for tighter radii at the nut end and solves the thinness of the board at the body end. Not sure if suggesting spec alterations is a good idea though.

Are you binding?

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