Stay in Tune vol#120
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
It' already Aug and my son will be going back to school on the 18th this year. That just seems to early. We finally seem to have come into the perfect summer weather and we haven't been able to go camping as much as we usually like to. Maybe we'll try to go for the next couple of weekends.
I'm showing signs of catching up with my repair work so it will be full on building for the next two months. I always get asked about "How long does it take you to build a guitar?", so I'm going to try to break down some of my building strategies so that you can get an idea of some of the procedures and time that it takes to build an instrument.
Before anything you must have a pretty good working drawing of what your about to build.
The more details you can work out on paper the less time you will be spending fixing the mistakes that you will undoubtedly make if you don't have a good visual drawing in your mind (and on paper) of what and how you are going to proceed with the project. This could take as many as 10 to 30 hrs depending on your skill level. Next is to determine what materials you are going to use. Each wood has it's tonal characteristics and of course visual aesthetics are important too. You should prepare all of your parts by milling them to as close as the dimensions that you will need . Example : the top is planed to .100 to .120, the back is planed to .110 to .135, the sides to .095, the brace stock to what ever you have decided ,etc., etc.... This can take as much as 20-30 hrs or more depending on the complexity of your design. You may be able to limit some time by buying a kit with all of the parts milled and ready to go . I highly recommend that way if it is your first attempt at building. It saves a lot of time and you don't have to put out the expense of the tooling it takes to mill the wood.
Now we have the plans and wood in hand and we are ready to go. I usually start with joining the top and back first. I leave the book matched pieces a little big (about .135 to 150) before I glue them and then sand or plane them down after they are glued. I then will glue the proper braces on the top and the back. With some skill and the proper tooling and clamps this can be accomplished in 8 to 10 hrs. I then turn to the task of bending the sides and building the box. There are a few ways to do this, some can be very costly and others simple and inexpensive. I will try to explain the simple version.
In the old days, luthier's would bend the sides over a hot pipe. This is still the method preferred by many builders today. It is important to note here that before you begin the bending process you should build yourself a mold that you can put your bent sides into to perform the other procedures that are needed to do on the sides and to give you a solid frame to assure that your sides are straight and true to their design before you attach the top & back on. Some builders rig up some very simple molds for their guitars. It can be as simple as drilling a series of 1/2" holes in a piece of 3/4" plywood in the shape of the instrument and then plugging them with 5" long dowel rods and using these to temporarily clamp your side to while you assemble the end blocks and side kerfing to the sides. Building the form, bending the sides, and assembling the "box" can take anywhere from 10 to 20 hrs.
Now that you have the body of the guitar done you can turn your attention to the neck. Cutting the rough shape and routing the truss rod and preparing the fingerboard along with fretting it can take anywhere from 10 to 20 hrs for a simple neck. You must also add hours to final shaping and sanding, binding (if you choose to do so) and inlays that you may decide to use. You can get carried away with some details so it's hard to say how long you can have in that department.
I should step back and mention that before you glue down the fingerboard to the neck you must rout out the proper dove tails in the body and neck (or tenons if you are going to bolt on the neck) to assure that the neck angle is correct and you will be able to play your guitar after it is finished. I consider this the most important procedure because if not done correctly you will end up with an unplayable instrument. There are many books and YouTube videos on the subject and I highly recommend that you are familiar with this procedure before you just try to "wing" it.
Now that your guitar is taking shape you must build and attach the the bridge, make the nut and saddle from bone. You could buy preshaped plastic nuts and saddles, but if your building your own guitar "why would you want to?". The bridge , nut and saddle takes about 6 to 8 hrs. Then I spend as much time as it takes to sand, touch up and final assemble the guitar. I put the tuning machines on and lightly glue the bridge on just to see that the guitar will string up properly making sure that there will be no surprises after I put the finish on it. I then again remove all of the hardware and bridge and make sure that there is no imperfections or scratches on the guitar. The finish can take some time because you must put two to three coats of lacquer on the first day , lightly sand the next day and put on two to three more coats on the second day. I then like to let it sit for about 2 days to harden up a little and then sand with 220 paper till the finish is dead flat, being very careful not to sand through the finish on the edges. I then will put on two very "wet" coats and let it cure for about 14 days before I final sand with 800 sandpaper and then buff out with a fine compound.
After adding up all of the time I would guess that you could build your first guitar in about 60 to 90 hrs. Other wise 2 to 3 weeks if all goes well. After building a few you should be able to build one in under two weeks. That would be about 24 in a year. In the real world with life getting in the way every week as it tends to do , I would estimate 18 to 20 guitars could be a more accurate estimate. If you were very skilled and had a good reputation built up ( this sometimes takes many yrs) you can sell your guitars as much as 3 to 5,000 dollars each. On the high end of 5.000 x 18 guitars , that equals a gross margin of 90,000.00 dollars a yr. After expenses of materials ,shop utilities , website fees , trade shows ,etc this figure can cut that figure in half, as low as 45,000.00. That all sounds good , but keep in mind that you had to spend many rs. to get to this point. To some people that isn't very much money to support certain lifestyles. But it works for me Good Luck!
Patrick from Liam Guitars /Wood-n-Strings