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Finished! Tom's African Build II

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Do you remember this from a few years ago? :



To recap - Tom does a lot of work with West African bands and has also got to know one of the traditional African drum makers quite well.  At one visit, they kindly and unexpectedly presented him with a bass body, made from drum wood, to build a bass with.  At less than an inch thick, wavy, indeterminate wood varying between balsa softness and Bakelite harness, making a bass was going to be a challenge!

But it happened and he still plays it.  Here he is playing at the Mayor of London show in Trafalgar Square:


Well, Tom was thrilled, the band was thrilled, the African drum maker was thrilled.  And at a recent revisit to The Gambia - 

- they presented him with another one ;)



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So here we are.  Project is already started although still a way from completion.

In some ways, the new blank is better for the purpose than the first one.  It is still only a touch under 25mm thick, but it is all of the Bakelite-hard part of the tree (still don't know what species it is) and the carve is a touch less wavy.  

Here is what Tom passed across to me:



I pondered a lot.  The previous one was where I experienced the build-changing epiphany that if you had a decent through neck, then the strength/size/thickness characteristics of the body didn't really matter.

So should I do that again?

Of course not.  What's the fun if you KNOW it's going to hold together when you string it up??

So this one (remember, the body is only 25mm thick) is going to be a bolt-on :)


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The other mission is to use offcuts and bits-box contents as much as reasonable.

A kindly soul from one of the other forums saw the above photo and said "I have just the fretboard wood for that - panga panga!"

I confess, I'd never heard of panga panga but it turns out it a very much a wenge-type wood, but it has that hint of orange in the body wood.  It was going to be perfect!  I also had a spare length of rock maple from a just-in-case-over-order.  This would work :)

But this was all going too smoothly.  So what else could we add to make it a challenge?  Ah - of course.  Let's make it multi-scale.

Tom's preferred bass scale is 32", so how about 33" to 31"?



See what I mean about the panga panga toning in well with the body wood?



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In terms of the neck joint, this was going to have to be machine screws and inserts, with the inserts into the maple - and probably 5mm screws rather than the 4mm I would normally use.  This would allow be to give it some serious torque, keeping the neck pocket - with a maximum thickness of 12mm and not ideal grain pattern to take bending forces - in compression.

At first, I considered a carved heel and biscuit strengthener similar to Eude's 6-string bass of last year:


But this would mean squaring off the pocket and losing pocket area.  

No - I would instead go for a heel-less neck.  I would lessen the ' fretting thumb hitting the body heel' issue by using a curved neck plate.

Cutting the pocket would tell me what challenges the wood was going to give.  My conclusion VERY hard but pretty homogeneous and strong:


A bit brittle - but these chips would be routed away anyway.

With the pocket routed to the final depth and the neck blank truss-rod-slotted and cut to side profile, is was time to add the inserts.  It is a joy to use machine-screws - especially for us builders where you end up taking off the neck so, so many times - but the drilling has to be spot one.

Happily, these were OK.  The body heel will be shaped to follow the curve of the neckplate, but you get the general idea.  Note there is no thickening of the neck blank into the pocket!




Next was going to be the chambers for the dual humbuckers and getting cable access to them!  Happy days ;)



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2 hours ago, Andyjr1515 said:

Do you remember this from a few years ago? :

Indeed I do.

You must be bored. You keep coming up with new challenges, and if they do not present enough problems to solve you invent some more!

It's a perfect opportunity to show off!

That must have been a huge tree. Its got lovely cathedral grain on both sides.

Carry on my friend, I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this!


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Clogs are for Swedes and everyone living on the other side of the Swedish border knows what kind of people Swedes are! 🤔

Most likely that applies to any country with a border.

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4 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

Most likely that applies to any country with a border.

Same with UK.  The Scots, Northern Irish, Welsh and English bicker and insult each other all the time...but if anyone takes a pop at us collectively, make no mistake - we're all British!

I used to do a lot of world travelling for my job (for a Swedish company owned by a Norwegian Group, no less) and quickly realised it's the same everywhere :)

Oh - and don't get me onto our neighbours (in a street full of perfectly decent folks)!

Or @ScottR 's ridiculously perfect finishes!!

Or those people who just walked past the house walking their someones dog!!!




Tribal psychology is a fascinating subject! :)


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The pickup rings and headstock plate will be using some wenge constructional veneer - 2mm thick.  Strong along the length but very brittle crossgrain.  It'll be fine for the headstock plate - this will be similar to Tom's original African bass.  This is a photo of his original with maple wings added in anticipation:



For the pickup rings - these will darken when they are sanded and finished - I probably need to add an underlayer either of crossgrain wood or maybe even pickguard material to give it a bit more underlying strength:



When I've done that, I will probably also slim the ring around the neck pickup a touch to match the slimmer pickup itself.

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1/64" plywood - one of the marvels of the 20th/21st century world.  I have no idea how they make it and when it was first developed (I suspect a long, long time ago - early 20th century?) but I've used this for decades.  And now it finds good use in guitar and bass building: 



Ideal to provide stability to my brittle wenge: 




The headstock board is also cut ready to glue to the headstock, although I might add a couple of swifts before I prepare the headstock and glue it.



Tom's special cutout will be filed once it's glued and once I have hold of the tuners he's ordered to position them properly.  Once done, it should look pretty similar to the Mk 1 version below:


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1 hour ago, curtisa said:

Interesting. You've inlaid after the frets have gone in. Care to share your brainideas about your choice there?

I've done it both ways in other builds, Andrew.

While it makes it more difficult to clean up the excess, for me it is easier to see how close to put the swifts to each other when the frets are already there.  Swifts fly in a very distinctive way and you can see the pairs even in groups of twenty or so of them screaming round at breakneck speed.  I like to try to capture that if I can.


Well...you did ask :lol:

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And cleaned up, here's how it's looking.  Really starting to look like a bass:





The pickup rings will end up the same shade as the headstock.  I might use the magical Osmo Polyx Raw so that they both stay the shade the unfinished rings look above rather than the darker effect that a standard finish gives on the headstock.  Both should then retain that slight reddish tinge of the fretboard rather than the slightly blacker look of standard finished wenge.

So next jobs are going to be sanding and finishing.  I can also do the fretwork, fit the Dunlop inset straplock fittings and other similar small jobs but then it's a bit of a waiting game until Tom's US order from Hipshot comes through for the bridge blocks and the tuners.

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One of the smaller jobs is to secure the jack housing.

I'm using these teeny 2.5mm inserts and machine screws.  The inserts are fine threaded but the recess should be taking the bulk of the strain.  If there is any issue when I try it out with a jack it is no problem to fit larger screws and wider-threaded inserts.



For added security, they are screwed into a cyano-gelled hole:


And fitted:


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What I like about these kind of projects is that there is a 'how to best do this' moment around every corner.

I'm now onto tidying up the small reshape around the end of the neck pocket and taking off the original finish ready to refinish after I've done the various plug fills, etc.

And here's the thing.  One of the absolute charms of the body is that it is NOT even.  So, interestingly, the approach has to be "DON'T use a sanding block"

So yes - any transit scratches or maker errors (that they themselves, if they had spotted them, would have sorted) can come off, but anything that is a result of the carving method itself should ideally be left in place   :) 

You can see an example here on the top horn:


Those dints - which normally would be sanded smooth - should ideally be left there.  So I will sand the old varnish away in the dips with fine sandpaper over my finger, but not use a block which would flatten the dips.

The two exceptions are the area where the bridge elements will be going and the bottom of the neck pocket at the back... 


...which needs to be flat for a full seating of the neck plate.  But those dips and digs you can see towards the tailstock, will be cleaned up but left as dips and digs.


This afternoon, I will cut a plug to close the hole drilled to get the cable runs sorted.  Originally, I was going to use a fretboard dot, but I had to widen the hole a touch to allow the two 4-core pickup cables to run through from the rear pickup chamber to the jack chamber.  Besides, I think a colour-compatible wood plug would look better ;) 

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2 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

Would that mean "sanded" as in actually using sand for smoothing?

Probably not literally... ;)

Not sure exactly how they will have carved it - it will be the same as how they shape the wood for the drums but, again, I'm not entirely sure what tools they use for that either.  But, based on the tooling marks in the wood, probably gouges and mallets - a bit like @ScottR and others here use for their magnificent carves. 

But the difference then is that once the basic functional shape is established, there is less importance put onto getting completely smooth contiguous surfaces.

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I've spent quite a bit of time getting the neck pocket right.  Quite tricky as the wood is of uneven thickness either side of the pocket and is wavy!  As such, getting a router to produce a nice flat surface at the right angle was a bit of a challenge!

In the end, I finished it all off by the time honoured method of using school chalk to identify the high spots as mechanics do on metal joints with Engineers Blue.

The added challenge is the brittleness of the wood - if the chisels aren't razor sharp, any cut will ding off a chip, particularly on the edges.  The result of this was a couple of chips at the edges of the fretboard end where it partially sinks into the top.  With things like this, it is a case of either hide it or flaunt it! 😉

So I opted to flaunt it.  I tried a number of options with some black grained veneer cut out with scissors from straight infill:


To an angled infill, with the grain matching that of the headstock (it will be wenge and so will match both the headstock and the pickup rings). 



To an angled infill, with the grain direction matching the pickup rings: 



Difficult to see on these shots, but in real life this last one looked the best.  

So sharpened the chisels again, honed them, tested them with the 'remove the hair off the back of your arm' test and cut the shallow chamber for the 2mm wenge to fit into.  Cut some matching wenge and glued it in:



So the body is now ready to start finishing.  And while I'm doing that, I'll do the final tweaks on the neck profile and sort the trussrod cover (a smallish one in matching wenge) and then it's just a case of waiting for the hardware from Tom's supplier 🙂

And then to the next project - which I'm really looking forward to 😉

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  • Andyjr1515 changed the title to Finished! Tom's African Build II

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