Design Considerations for your First Build

Following on from my main article on your first guitar build, here are some of the main design considerations that will affect the time needed for the build.  This is not an exhaustive list because there are endless tweaks and cosmetic touches that you can put on a guitar, but I have tried to hit the main ones for standard models.

#1 Style of Top

There are four main ways to approach the guitar top (or cap) – I have guitars with all four of them.  The simplest is not to have a separate top, just a simple body, which is often used either on guitars with a very solid paint finish, typical of many Fenders for example, which completely mask the wood, or some guitars which go for a very simple and natural wood look.  Next comes a flat top, where the body and top are different and the top is rather simple in shape, flat and perhaps just rounded on the edges for comfort.  This is fairly simple – of course it will add some time because you have to prepare the top in addition and then glue it to the body, but if you have the right tools that doesn’t take too long.

More complex – and probably more or less the same in terms of time required – are the drop top and carve top.  A drop top is similar to a flat top, but the guitar body has a radius, like the fretboard and on the same axis.  This requires quite a lot of time shaping the body or the top, and (if you shape the body) making sure that the top is properly glued to the body without any gaps – easier said than done.  With a carve top, the gluing is easy but then you have to spend time on the carve, which really has to be done to a high level of quality and consistency so that your fingers don’t constantly notice any irregularities or imperfections.  Either of these will probably add two to four hours to your build time, one way or another.

As a side-note, many low- and mid-priced guitars actually have a body, then a cap, and finally a veneer over the cap.  This is because the attractive wood used for the part that you see is expensive, and so they will often use cheaper wood (e.g. maple) for the cap and then a thin veneer of the attractive – and therefore dear – wood on top of that.  It’s a perfectly good and sensible way to build a mass-produced guitar, but you’re unlikely to do that on a course.

Finally, if you’re thinking of adding a binding, don’t!  Leave it for a later guitar.

#2 Laminate Neck

Laminate necks have two main advantages compared to single-piece necks (excluding the fretboard).  They should be stronger, due to the grains of the different woods going in different directions, and they are generally more attractive.  They can be rather complex, often with five or seven pieces, but in fact they shouldn’t add a huge amount to the build time.  True, you need to prepare and then glue several pieces which may take an hour or two, if you have the right equipment, but afterwards there is no difference.  If you have the time, go for it – it’s a low-risk option that can significantly improve the guitar.

#3 Solid vs Semi-Hollow Body

Semi-hollow construction offers two main advantages too, and again one of them is functional and the other is cosmetic.  The functional advantage is the weight – a semi-hollow guitar will be significantly lighter than a solid guitar, and that’s usually a good thing for playing comfort.  Cosmetically, it allows you to add ornamental holes which can look rather attractive, although this is not necessary – you can also have a semi-hollow guitar with no holes.  For an electric guitar, there is really no need to enhance the acoustic sound, so the weight and look of the guitar are the only real considerations (some people may argue that a semi-hollow will sound different through the amp, but I’m sceptical).

Hollowing out the body isn’t too difficult, and might take you an hour.  Making the f-holes (or similar) can be quite fast if you have a template, or it can be significantly more time-consuming if you don’t – or if you make a mistake!  I wouldn’t do it if you’re pressed for time, but if you have a long week (like the 54-hour course) then it should be perfectly feasible.

#4 Fixed or floating bridge

A floating bridge is more complex because you have to rout out a significant part of the body and work out how to fit it.  A fixed bridge can be very simple, or it can be a bit more complex particularly if you elect a string-through construction, since you need to deal with the extra holes, which have to be drilled very precisely to look good, and fitting ferrules etc.  With an experienced luthier to guide you, a floating bridge should be perfectly feasible.  It will add a bit of time, but it’s not excessive.

#5 Fancy fretboards

By this I mean anything like a compound radius, fanned frets, scalloped necks etc.  Any of these is going to add a significant amount of time, and probably isn’t a good idea for a first build.  Leave them for a later build, when you’re confident about the basics.  The same probably goes for other non-standard options like seven or eight strings.

#6 Neck Carve

It’s true that for the main part of the neck you don’t have much option – you have to carve it to a desired shape.  You can make an asymmetrical carve which adds very little time – it’s mainly just a matter of carefully marking out what you want to do, and the rest is simply taking off the wood.  However, the main option is the carve at the neck joint.  Particularly if you have a set (glued) neck, you can shape the joint to fit your hand very comfortably, or you can leave it rather more blocky.  You’re probably looking at something between one and two hours to carve a comfortable joint.

#7 Colours / stains

Most guitars have a coloured top of some kind, be it a solid, single colour, a burst like a Les Paul, or something else.  In the confines of a course, this is probably an hour or two of work, given that you probably won’t do anything particularly complex and you most likely won’t be playing around with lacquers.  Natural wood is beautiful too, though, so don’t be afraid to save a bit of time and go for that if you have something nice to show off.  If in doubt, take an offcut and experiment with different options, and don’t forget the oil (or other finish) to see how it will look at the end of the build.  It may be worth trying to do this a day or so before you actually come to work on the finish, so that your experiments have time to dry and get close to the final look.

#8 Finishes

On a course, you’re likely to be restricted to an oil finish because of time constraints.  Lacquer finishes need days of drying time between coats, which is totally impractical, whereas coats of oil can be added more or less straight away.  You can put wax on top of the oil for more gloss.

I hope these tips are useful – please feel free to comment on this article!