Your first guitar building course

If any of you are thinking of following a course with Crimson Guitars or any other luthier to build a guitar, I have some thoughts based on my own experiences.  These are really aimed at occasions when the build time is limited (the Crimson 5-day courses are 35 hours and the 6-day courses are 54 hours, with longer days).  If you’re going for a significantly longer period, then some of these constraints may not apply.

This will also depend to some extent on your previous woodworking experience, and your familiarity with tools such as bandsaws, routers and planes.  If you are already very comfortable using them, then you’ll be able to do some things quicker, but don’t overestimate that advantage because there are a lot of stages to building a guitar that just take a lot of time, particularly working on the fretboard and frets.  It takes an astonishing amount of time to build a guitar yourself!

I will also mention some design considerations that may or may not significantly affect the build time.  In a shorter course this will be critical; in a longer course you should be able to spend a bit of time on some additional touches.

#1 Be safe

You’ll be playing with some very dangerous tools.  Take great care, and follow the safety instructions, even if the experienced staff sometimes don’t bother.  It’ll do you no good to go home with a perfect guitar if you don’t have all of your fingers to play it with.

#2 Have a vision

Building a guitar is a creative exercise, and you’re going to build YOUR guitar – or at least something that you want to feel proud of, which means it will be special and unique.  Think about it before and get a picture in your head of what you want.  This will (a) help you to choose the right components, and (b) give you a goal to work towards.  This vision will naturally evolve during the course, but I still think part of the sense of achievement is in seeing what was in your head come into being in your hands.  But…

#3 Don’t be overambitious

When you build your first guitar, keep it fairly simple, particularly if your time will be limited.  Even if you only see yourself doing this once and you fancy a custom guitar built to your specifications by your own fair hands, there’s a good chance that you won’t have the time to finish your dream guitar and so you’ll be disappointed. If you see this as the first of many, then you don’t need to build your dream guitar anyway.  In either case, you’re much better off building something simple the first time that you will actually finish, and then either just enjoying playing your completed guitar, or moving onto more sophisticated things later.  Many luthiers will tell you that their first few guitars were basically firewood – this shouldn’t be the case if you’re under the supervision of an experienced luthier, but keep your expectations reasonable.

#4 Don’t overspend on components

This one is obviously going to be different for everybody, and it might be better phrased as “think carefully about your components”, but for a first guitar I think it’s wise not to go for highly expensive components (both the hardware – i.e. bridge, pickups, tuners etc. – and the woods) because of the risk of not finishing it, or of making a lesser quality guitar.  Remember that much of the hardware can be replaced fairly easily afterwards, especially pickups and tuners.  Also, I personally feel that the big brand pickups are ridiculously expensive, and you can buy perfectly good pickups with less marketing for maybe a third of the price.

On the other hand, for some components you don’t want to go too cheap either.  I was told that it’s worth getting a decent floating bridge, and I certainly wouldn’t just buy unbranded, dirt-cheap components in this context.  If you’re just experimenting at home, that’s fine, but if you’re paying for tuition and expect to get a decent guitar at the end of it, then you need to have reasonable hardware.  Still, like pickups, you can buy other hardware for maybe a third of the price of the big names, and still get quite usable parts.  If in doubt, ask your course tutor in advance.

#5 Allow plenty of time for delivery

If you buy your own components, bear in mind that often you’ll find that the components you want aren’t immediately available and you may have to wait a few weeks.  Order them well in advance of your course!

#6 Patience is a virtue

Some of the steps involved in building a guitar are tedious and take a long time.  In particular, tasks like radiusing and levelling the fretboard, levelling and crowning the frets can take ages.  Don’t try to rush them, and don’t get bored and stop before you’ve achieved the goal.  Relax, be patient and you’ll get there!

#7 Know when to be careful / stop

There are some tasks that you can attack with gay abandon, and some where you really have to take care because if you take away too much wood, you’ll cause yourself big problems.  The good news is that almost any mistake is recoverable….the bad news is that recovering from a mistake will take precious time, and ultimately may jeopardise the success of your build.  In my limited experience, particularly critical operations include:

  • Routing out the truss rod channel – go too deep and your neck will be too thin, risking breakage
  • Sawing the shape of the neck – it’s very easy to go slightly too deep in one place, which forces you to change the carve of the whole neck
  • Routing the neck pocket – go too large, and you have to start playing with shims and it will be hard to get a solid and perfect-looking join.
  • Drilling out cavities – if you accidentally go too deep and break through the back of the guitar, you’ll feel like a real fool!
  • Carving the top – if you have a top, you really don’t want to carve through it and expose the body wood!

Related to this, make sure you allow any power tools to stop before you move on, particularly routers.  During my 2017 build, I routed out the holes in the top and carelessly pulled the router out before it stopped spinning.  This made a chip in the side of the hole, which meant I had to widen both that hole and the corresponding one on the other side, and then carefully file them to a new shape that looked good.  I recovered from the mistake, but it took about an hour of work.

#8 Keep the electronics simple

If you don’t have experience with electronics, and with soldering, the less you have to do here, the better.  Solving problems with the electronics can take a long time, and the more complex the design, the more likely you are to have problems, both because of the additional complexity and because you will be cramming more circuits into a limited space.  Also, check the depth of your components in relation to the depth of your guitar body.  If you have a thin body, you may have trouble with some types of blade switches, or with push/pull pots.  If you use shielding, it’s very easy to accidentally ground something that shouldn’t be grounded, especially if space is tight.  I was very lucky last time and the electronics worked first time, but that’s not always the case.

That’s enough dire warnings, and this has become longer than intended so I’ll put the design considerations on a separate page.

Go to Design Considerations