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Starting a Les Paul - First Full/Scratch Build


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Likewise welcome! and likewise nice shop. And how cool is it to build the first one (or any one) with your son! Count yourself one of the lucky ones. 

Your woodworking experience is showing through in the pics even if you hadn't mentioned it. I'm looking forward to watching this develop and you're soo going to have a blast.

SR

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Awesome that you have car and guitar restoration background, so you should be able to handle anything now, especially finishing, buffing, etc.  

So welcome!  I am new here too, and everyone is very nice, encouraging, and ultra knowledgeable.  One of my current builds is a hot rod themed guitar, and will have chrome sidepipes coming out of the bridge so maybe you can think of ways to tie your love of Fiats into your future builds.  

A Les Paul with its carved top is really swinging for the fence for a first build, although the carving should be easy for you, so good luck!  

Don't forget to wear thick gloves when using a carving blade on an angle grinder - if any catches anything and your fingers are in the way, the glove buys you a little protection.  Great tool though - love it.     

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This Weekend's Progress

This weekend’s work on the Les Paul focused on the neck, and played out in three main accomplishments.

  1. Convert the pencil drawings to computer drawings
  2. Select a board and glue up the blank
  3. Make router templates

Reproducing the pencil drawings in the computer was important because I want to be able to use these layouts again, and if I had just cut out and used my hand drawings, they would have degrade pretty quickly.  Besides that, I can easily edit the drawings in the computer to vary things like scale length, headstock design, width at the nut, etc.  In this case, the drawings are good to go, and if you look closely, you can see that we have indeed switched the headstock from a traditional Gibson design to more of a PRS look.

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Next, the drawings went onto the mahogany in different spots and at different angles to select the best part of the board from which to extract a good, stable neck.  We did this with a follow up instrument in mind, and selected a piece that we could reasonably get two good necks from and cut out a blank.  The board isn’t quite thick enough to manage the angle of the headstock, so we also glued up a block at the head end, and then set that aside to dry and settle for a couple days.

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We had considered the possibility of just making the neck without the templates, but decided that the likelihood of a follow-up instrument is high enough that it would be worth the time to have the templates for the future.  So the drawings went onto the MDF and a nice top and side template resulted.  The side one will be pretty versatile, but the top template has the PRS headstock on it, so if we decide to do something different with the next one we’ll either have to lop off it’s head, or make another with a different head.  But that’s a decision for another day.

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I rough cut the templates on the (new!) band saw, then finished all the straight lines with a known-straight edge and router, and all the curved lines on the spindle sander.  The results are very satisfactory.

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Bonus Content:

I also finished my vice build/install, and am really happy with how it turned out.  It's not super pretty, but it works like a champ!

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We also had a little fun making fidget spinners in between guitar tasks.  

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And at the end of it all, my build partner disappeared and left me to clean up the mess!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Spent part of the last two weeks building jigs, but did get some work done on the neck this weekend.

Last status of the neck was a blank cut out from our mahogany board with a block glued up at the head end to accommodate the angled headstock.  That’s been sitting for a few weeks and is ready for a little more attention.  The first step was to true up the top surface, which had a little extra height in the middle, and I made quick work of that with a nice sharp plane (thanks Josh!). 

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The neck is actually laid out at a slight angle across our board to take best advantage of the direction and pattern in the grain, so I didn’t have a good, square edge on either side that I could lay on the band saw table in order to make the angle cut for the headstock.  I clamped a couple of thin, straight boards to either side, so I could feed the piece into the band saw at right angles to the center-line of the neck.

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That worked out fine, and I got the top and side profiles cut out with no problems, as well as the underside of the headstock.

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Here’s where I ran into a problem though.  When I went to cut the bottom profile, I realized I needed a reference line, so I grabbed my MDF template, and discovered that I didn't have a flat side to set the template on to trace the line.  The wings on the headstock held the full-length template off the side of the neck.  I guess this is just a long way of saying that I used the side neck template to make a new side neck template that excluded the headstock so I could lay it on the side of the neck and mark my reference line.  So anyway, I did that, and then cut the bottom profile.  Not really all that dramatic in retrospect.

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With the neck rough cut on all four sides, and close-to-final surfaced on the top, the next step was to shape and surface the headstock.  I started by hand planing the top surface flat, and down to the nut-position reference line on the neck.

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And that’s where we are at this point.  The next step is to surface the back of the headstock to the correct thickness and flatness.  To do that, though, I need to finish building the router thicknessing/surfacing sled (it's about 90% done, but I also still need to buy a router bit).  Oh well, more reasons to spend time in the shop.  Then on to final side-shaping of the neck and headstock, work on the fretboard, carving the back of the neck… obviously still lots to do!

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

It has been a couple weeks since we did any serious work on the Les Paul build, but they have not been idle weeks.  In the shop, we spent some quality time working on jigs that will make life much easier over the next few weeks – I’m working on documenting those builds, and hope to post them in other forum channels as appropriate over the weekend.  Out of the shop, I saw the Beach Boys in Santa Barbara at one of Brian Wilson’s last appearances, I watched Zach (son #1)  jump out of a plane, I spent half a week at Pacific Beach in San Diego (Data Quality conference and paddle boarding on the bay), and I hung out at Disneyland twice. Probably more than you were really interested to know, but the point is, it’s been a busy few weeks.

But today, Josh (son #2) and I were back at it.  We got our dual-action truss rod in the mail this week.  I know it’s upside down in the pic – no need to comment,  We need to make a template for routing the truss rod channel in the neck, but we really wanted to work on the guitar today, as opposed to making templates again, so we set the neck aside, and pulled out the mahogany body base.

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The glue up was nice, but still needed to be surfaced flat, and since we don’t have a planer/thicknesser, or a drum sander, we built a router sled surfacing jig and went to work with that. The process went smooth as silk – it turns out that actually surfacing the board was far easier than the process of building the jig.  I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to work, but sometimes it just surprises me when things work the way they are supposed to.  Of course the next time I'll be able to just reuse the jig instead of building it again, which makes the extra time spent building a reusable jig totally worth it.

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The glued up mahogany board came out nice and flat and measured out at 1.59 to 1.61 all the way around.  It still needs some sanding before it’s ready to have the maple top glued on, but I was very pleased with how even the surface came out using the router sled.  With the surfacing done, I was reminded how pretty the grain is on this piece of wood.

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With the surfacing done, I moved on to rough cutting the body to shape.  I started on the band saw but quickly realized that it would be easier to cut most of the waste off at the table saw.  So after a few cuts there, I moved back to the band saw made pretty quick work of getting the body roughly to shape.  I’ll clean up the final shape at the router table with the MDF template – a task which is on hold until the new router with a 1/2″ collet makes an appearance.

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Josh is pleased with the progress so far, and had been doing a great job learning the ins and outs of the wood shop.

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Here’s a bonus shot of him getting his first lesson in sharpening chisels and plane blades a couple weeks ago.

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Hey @eubie! Sorry I didn't catch up on this thread sooner. I miss a lot of new threads (even though this is weeks old!).

This all looks great, and well under control. Your thicknessing jig is excellent too, and like you said, the process the jig carries out is normally far faster than making the jig itself. That said, it's always the way. A bit of patience and thought put into a good jig always translates directly into a precise quality end result. It shows here.

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i think that thicknessing jig/variations of it- is one of the most used in this group than any other. I got one. and second the comment about time - lots of jigs are like that- spend 6 hours on something to make a 4 second cut. but its worth it. 

you are making great progress and I am enjoying all the pics along the way. 

and kudos for showing your boy how to do the "not so fun, takes too long" stuff. kids these days want instant gratification/results/answers/etc. he may not fully appreciate lessons like that now- but he will.

then again- luthery is not for the impatient now is it. 
 

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5 minutes ago, Mr Natural said:

and kudos for showing your boy how to do the "not so fun, takes too long" stuff. kids these days want instant gratification/results/answers/etc. he may not fully appreciate lessons like that now- but he will.

then again- luthery is not for the impatient now is it. 
 

Of my two boys, Josh (the musician) is the one that takes more naturally to this kind of long game.  Sure, he would love to have it now, but he's more than willing to take the long road if it means ending up with something he can be really proud of.  

Zach (the photographer) on the other hand...  Tuesday evening; "Hey dad, I think it would be cool to have a drone with an HD camera.  What do you think?"  Wednesday afternoon; box from Amazon lands on the front porch...

Very different people.  Love 'em both! :thumb:

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Ok - as a first-time builder, I need some input on the order of operations.  We want to do some serious work on the neck this weekend, and I just want to be sure I have a reasonable approach.  Here's what I'm guessing at in terms of the order of things, but I really don't know if this is best, so I'd like to hear opinions from more experienced builders.  There are also several specific questions in there that I'd love to year what people think about.

For reference - we're wanting a traditional Les Paul neck with an ivory ABS bound fretboard.  See a photo of the 'inspiration guitar' at the bottom of this post.

My proposed order of work

  1. Rough cut neck
    • How close to finished dimensions does the neck tenon need to be at this point?  It feels like later in the process, when other parts of the neck are more finished, it will be a little too late to be doing major work on the tenon.
  2. Route the truss-rod channel
  3. Install the truss-rod
  4. Rough-cut the fretboard on table saw
  5. Trim fretboard to final dimensions
    • Should be able to do this with plane and straight-edge
    • Being careful to keep edges square (maybe a shooting board is a better approach)
    • Bottom needs to be square and smooth for gluing to neck
    • Top should be close, but is not as critical yet since it will still be radiused
  6. Cut fret slots
    • Have to do this before binding since the binding would get in the way of cutting the slots
    • The slots have to be deep enough to account for radius since it will be difficult to deepen the slots after the binding is installed
  7. Bind the fretboard
  8. Attach fretboard to neck
    • Doing this before the fretboard is radiused give me a flat surface on top when I clamp the fretboard to the neck
  9. Trim the neck to final width
    • Do this with a pattern bit in the router, and follow the edge of the bound fretboard with the bearing.  Gives me a neck that exactly matches the width of my fretboard
  10. Sand a radius into the fretboard.
    • Is there any reason to not sand the radius in with the binding already attached?  Does it depend on the binding material?  In this case, we are expecting to use ivory ABS binding.
  11. Shape the neck 
    • Start with rasps and files
      • How hard is it to not gouge the fretboard binding while shaping the neck?
    • Finish by sanding up through the various grits
      • I’m assuming it’s safe to sand the ABS binding material (?)
  12. Attach the neck to the body
    • This would include any final tuning of the tenon and the heel
  13. Do any final tweaking/tuning to the neck shape
  14. Install frets
    • All the fret dressing and setup follows

 
Other questions:

  • When is the best stage to final-shape the headstock and install the headstock veneer? 

This is the guitar that's serving as the inspiration for this build:

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For what it's worth, I only just installed the headstock veneer on my wife's SG. I'd cut a precision 14,5° bevel on the end to match the nut, so the only reason I did it this late in the process was so I could butt the veneer up. Now I don't need to re-cut any sort of nut slot. I don't think there's a right answer other than one that makes it fit conveniently into your own personal workplan. You can do it early for any number of good reasons, you can do it almost last thing for the same number.

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From your proposed order, I suggest doing #2 before #1 and #6 before #4/5 for one main reason: having a true/straight edge.

From my point of view It should be best to cut the fret slots before shaping because you can use a square to guide your cuts.

Also for the truss rod I find it easier to use a guide along with my router and having it rest on the straight edge of the neck blank.

Just my two cents.

EDIT: forget about the fretboard, I've re-read and you shape the fretboard after it is installed on the neck. I assumed the contrary because on my three builds to date I shaped the fretboard before gluing it and used the fretboard as a template to route the neck.

EDIT v2 : I've re-read again and I'm more confused than anything, I think I was right at first so you can forget my previous edit :lol:

Edited by Polymaker
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15 minutes ago, Polymaker said:

I suggest doing #2 before #1

Actually - it's too late for this, but I will do it this way next time.  On this one, due to the way laid out the neck on our piece of mahogany, we didn't have a straight side to begin with, so we're just going to have to use a template for the channel.

17 minutes ago, Polymaker said:

and #6 before #4/5 for one main reason: having a true/straight edge.

You're totally right about this.  In my order above I have the radius shaping after it's installed, but I shape the sides before cutting the frets.  I will reverse that order and cut the frets while I still have straight sides so I can be sure all the slots are square.  That's a good catch - thanks!

New order of operations for #4-6 above

  • 4. Rough-cut the fretboard on table saw - keep sides parallel to center line
  • 5. Cut fret slots square to sides
  • 6. Trim fretboard to final dimensions, leaving space in the width for binding
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I would get the neck tenon relatively early in the process, at least right after cutting the taper to the finished size. I also recommend fretting before attaching the neck to the body. It is easier without that extra bulk and weight and you don't have to worry about buggering up the body during the leveling, crowning and end dressing processes.

SR

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I'd radius after slotting, but before attaching binding. That way you can do any tweaking to the fret slot depth after the radius is applied, rather than be over-zealous cutting your fretslots extra deep at the outset.

Getting the binding down to the radius of the fretboard after it's been attached shouldn't cause too many issues just by re-sanding with the radius block with some moderate grit paper. You only want to get the binding flush with the top of the radius that you've already applied, not completely re-shape the fretboard.

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1 hour ago, ScottR said:

I would get the neck tenon relatively early in the process, at least right after cutting the taper to the finished size. 

That seems reasonable.  Sounds like I've got some neck pocket work to attend to as well.

1 hour ago, ScottR said:

I also recommend fretting before attaching the neck to the body. It is easier without that extra bulk and weight and you don't have to worry about buggering up the body during the leveling, crowning and end dressing processes.

I've been back and forth in my head on this issue.  Unless someone else suggests differently, I'll let your input sway me and will fret off the body.  Thanks @ScottR

10 minutes ago, curtisa said:

I'd radius after slotting, but before attaching binding. That way you can do any tweaking to the fret slot depth after the radius is applied, rather than be over-zealous cutting your fretslots extra deep at the outset.

Getting the binding down to the radius of the fretboard after it's been attached shouldn't cause too many issues just by re-sanding with the radius block with some moderate grit paper. You only want to get the binding flush with the top of the radius that you've already applied, not completely re-shape the fretboard.

@curtisaThat means radiusing before it's glued to the neck in my work plan above.  Are the benefits of tweaking the slots worth any difficulties I might run up against in putting clamps on the non-flat surface of the radiused fretboard when I glue it on?  I know I can use a caul or whatever - just trying to find the right balance. Maybe I'm overestimating the negatives of gluing up the already radiused fretboard.

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9 hours ago, eubie said:

@curtisaThat means radiusing before it's glued to the neck in my work plan above.  Are the benefits of tweaking the slots worth any difficulties I might run up against in putting clamps on the non-flat surface of the radiused fretboard when I glue it on?  I know I can use a caul or whatever - just trying to find the right balance. Maybe I'm overestimating the negatives of gluing up the already radiused fretboard.

Not necessarily. You can still radius after attaching to neck:

  1. Slot fretboard
  2. Cut fretboard taper to suit, allowing for additional width once binding attached afterwards.
  3. Glue to neck blank.
  4. Radius fretboard.
  5. Finalise/adjust fret slot depth to match radius.
  6. Attach binding (a little bit fiddly once the fretboard is glued to the neck blank, but not impossible).
  7. Scrape/sand binding flush.
  8. Trim neck blank to match resulting fretboard+binding edges.

Or just attach fretboard to neck blank after attaching binding and radiusing using the sanding block(s) you radiused with as a caul. Acoustic builders rarely have a choice to do it any other way because the bulky heel block and overhanging fretboard prevents the neck being laid on a flat surface to sand a radius onto after the fact.

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I won't comment on the binding part, but what I do is:

-slot on a sled
-cut rough taper (very close to final)
-do about 1/2 of the radius
-inlays
-glue to neck using cauls, and locator pins so it doesn't scoot
-finish radius
-reslot as necessary, by hand

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4 hours ago, curtisa said:

Not necessarily. You can still radius after attaching to neck:

  1. Slot fretboard
  2. Cut fretboard taper to suit, allowing for additional width once binding attached afterwards.
  3. Glue to neck blank.
  4. Radius fretboard.
  5. Finalise/adjust fret slot depth to match radius.
  6. Attach binding (a little bit fiddly once the fretboard is glued to the neck blank, but not impossible).
  7. Scrape/sand binding flush.
  8. Trim neck blank to match resulting fretboard+binding edges.

Or just attach fretboard to neck blank after attaching binding and radiusing using the sanding block(s) you radiused with as a caul. Acoustic builders rarely have a choice to do it any other way because the bulky heel block and overhanging fretboard prevents the neck being laid on a flat surface to sand a radius onto after the fact.

I follow this order up to and including number 5 with the exception of flipping 2 and 3. The only reason I stop at 5 is I don't bind fretboards.

SR

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