7 String Classical Guitar Project

I haven’t updated this blog in a long time.  Many new instruments have been built since the Leadbelly 12 string guitar.  I thought it might be interesting to take this opportunity to show how I build 7 string classical guitars, which are quite popular with many jazz players.  I have built a lot of these guitars over my career and some of them have been for very well know musicians, including Bucky Pizzarelli.


Published in: on January 8, 2018 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Final Steps of the Leadbelly Guitar Project

The guitar is now polished to a high gloss are ready to have the hardware installed.

Before installing the tuning machines I need to remove the oversprayed lacquer from the holes that were drilled into the peghead or the machines will not turn smoothly.  This is accomplished with a rattail file and must be done very carefully to avoid chipping the lacquer in the string slots.

Next, I clean up the fretboard, particularly the ends of the frets where some lacquer invariably seeps under the tape that was used to mask the board during spraying.

As with most of my guitars, the nut for this one will be made of bone.  The nut is the piece next to the peghead that holds the strings in proper alignment.  Bone is a very commonly used material because it lasts a long time, is dense enough that slots can be filed into it for each string, and has what are generally considered to be good acoustic properties for a guitar.  I purchase nut “blanks” that are roughly cut to 1/4″ X 3/8″ X  2 1/2″ dimensions.  Here is a picture of the nut blank

I use a belt sander to work the nut blank down to almost the final dimensions I need.  This is a tricky process, mainly because if I let my concentration lapse I will quickly grind off a couple fingernails and even some skin on my thumb or fingers.  This method is the most efficient way I have found to perform this job, so I think that the risk to my nails and skin is justified.  I have done it enough times now that I often walk away with my nails intact.

The final dimensioning of the nut is done with hand sanding.  I start with 100 grit paper and eventually work my way up to 320 or 400 grit to give the nut a nice finished shine.  Here is the nut sitting in its slot at the end of the fretboard.

In the above picture, a pencil line is visible.  This line reflects the arc of the fretboard and it tells me how deep to cut the slots in the nut for the strings.  I use a number of different width files to cut the string slots after their exact location is carefully marked on the top surface of the nut.  I don’t make a lot of 12 string guitars and when I got to this stage on this instrument, I was reminded of how much more difficult it is to make the nut on this sort of guitar.  Not only do the slots have to be spaced at just the right intervals in order for the string positions to feel right to the player, but the slots also have to place the strings at exactly the same height off the first fret (approximately 0.010″) so all of the strings press down evenly.  It took a couple nut blanks and several hours for me to get a nut I was satisfied with on this guitar. 

After making the nut, I glue the bridge onto the soundboard.  The bridges on the original Stella guitars were not glued on because the tension of the strings from the tailpiece was enough to hold the bridge in place, as on an archtop guitar, but many were later glued to the top and my customer thought that would be a good idea so he wouldn’t have to worry about the bridge getting  displaced.  Here is a photo of the bridge position being masked off and the lacquer being scraped away to expose bare wood.

After all of the lacquer is scraped away, the bridge is glued to the top.  It is held in place with a clamp and fixture.

After about 24 hours, the clamp is removed and I will make a bone saddle in much the same way I made the nut.  The saddles on most guitars do not have any slots in them, the strings rest on the top and are held in place by the amount of tension they develop when tuned to pitch.  However, on this guitar there is a very shallow angle between the tailpiece and the bridge saddle, so I did have to make a very small notch in the saddle to hold each string in position.

The last steps are installing the metal tailpiece and the strings.  After the strings are installed and the guitar sits for a day or so under the full tension of the 12 strings, I make any necessary adjustments to the truss rod in the neck and to the string height, at either the nut or the saddle.  Finally, the guitar is finished!!!

Thank you for reading this.  Please let me know if it was worthwhile.

Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 4:05 am  Comments (9)  

Sanding and buffing the lacquer

After the lacquer cures for a few weeks it can be sanded perfectly level and buffed to a high gloss.  During those weeks, almost all of the solvents evaporate and the remaining solids get dry and hard.  Instrument grade lacquer isn’t the same as other lacquers, it contains certain chemicals that help it stay a bit more flexible, thus reducing the dampening effect that the coating of lacquer might otherwise have on the vibration of the wood.

My sanding schedule generally starts with 220-grit paper, followed by 320-, 400- and 600-grit.  Sanding is a very slow, tedious process.  It has to be done very carefully in order to avoid sanding right through the lacquer and down to the wood.  This is a particularly big concern on guitars such as this one that have had dye added to the finish because if the tinted lacquer is sanded away, it is very difficult to repair the finish and not leave a trace.  When sanding, I lubricate the paper with mineral spirits.  The lubrication is supposed to result in fewer deep scratches in the finish because it lifts the sanded particles off the surface of the lacquer.  In addition to being slow and tedious, the process is also very messy.  The sanding leaves a white film all over the guitar and my hands.  I didn’t take any pictures during the main sanding process because my hands were too dirty to touch the camera.

After the entire instrument is sanded to 600-grit I start buffing the lacquer.  I use two different wheels–one has coarse buffing compound and the other has fine buffing compound.  As is the case with sanding, when you move from one buffing compound to another, you are really just replacing bigger scratches with smaller scratches.  In the end, the small scratches become so small that they are imperceptible to the naked eye, but they would be quite apparent under magnification, or in the wrong light.  Here are some pictures of the guitar being buffed:

The buffing wheels turn pretty quickly and are not easily slowed down.  It takes a lot of concentration to avoid disasters; something that probably comes only with years of experience.  Earlier in my career it was not all that unusual for me to be too agressive and buff the finish right off a spot on the guitar.  That was always traumatic and resulted in some lost time and effort repairing the mistake.  Worse, though, is that the wheels can catch an edge of the instrument and take it right out of my hands if I’m not careful.  I had that happen once with a ukulele.  I was buffing away and before I even realized what was happening, the instrument had been pulled out of my hands, slammed to the floor and broken into many pieces!  A sickening feeling, indeed.  The worst guitar disaster happened when the instrument was being buffed on one wheel and the peghead was inadvertently pushed into the other wheel.  The wheel caught the peghead very aggressively and snapped it right off the neck of the guitar.  That was pretty terrible.

After most of the guitar has been buffed repeatedly I inspect it closely and give a little extra attention wherever necessary, such as at the neck-to-body joint.  Here I will sand up to 2000-grit and then polish the area by hand because I can’t get the wheels in close enough to make the area presentable.

After several days of work, the guitar is smooth and shiny all over and ready for the final steps of the process.

Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 2:43 am  Comments (4)  

Constructing the Pyramid Bridge

While I wait a few weeks for the lacquer to dry I can build the bridge for the guitar.  Keeping true to another original design element, this guitar will have a “pyramid bridge.”  The pyramid bridge design was more common in the early 20th century, though there are certainly guitars being made today with them, including many of my own.  The strings on this guitar will be anchored to a metal tailpiece, so there will be no need for bridge pin holes in this bridge.

I start with a piece of Brazilian Rosewood that is approximately 7″ X   1″ X 3/8″.  The  final thickness is determined by the angle between the neck and the body of the gutar.  Generally guitar bridges are about 6″ long, but Stellas were almost 7 inches.  I think this is a good thing on a 12 string guitar because the longer bridge disperses the pressure of all of those strings over a larger part of the soundboard, putting a little less strain right in the center.  The first operation is to rout the channel where the bone saddle will sit.  As with virtually all steel string guitar bridges, the saddle slopes backward about 1/8″ from the treble side to the bass side to allow for extra string length compensation on the thicker bass strings.  This keeps the guitar in tune as the player moves up and down the neck.  Here is a photo of the routing set up.  The rosewood is held against a tapered piece of wood with double sided tape.  The taper creates the 1/8″ slope toward the bass side.

The saddle slot is cut at least half of the depth of the bridge.  This ensures that there will be plenty of saddle material in the slot and there won’t be any concern about the saddle leaning forward or breaking.

After the slot is finished, I cut out the valleys between the central area of the bridge and the pyramids.  Here the valleys have been rough cut on the table saw.  They will be smoothed later.

Now I use chisels and rasps to form the pyramid shape on each wing of the bridge.

Here is the roughed-out bridge.

I scrape and sand all of the details.

After sanding the entire bridge to 220 grit, it is given a coat of shellac to seal the wood.  Here is the finished bridge:

Published in: on December 28, 2010 at 3:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Applying the lacquer finish

I use nitrocellulose lacquer as the finish for most of the instruments I build.  Each of the many acceptable types of instrument finishes has its strengths and weaknesses.  I have worked with  lacquer for many years and have a pretty good understanding of it.  I have developed an approach to working with it that gives me consistent results.  It takes 4 to 6 weeks for me to get the finish on a guitar.

  People often ask me how many coats of lacquer I apply and I am never really sure what they are hoping to hear in response.  An easy answer to the question would be that there is only one coat, since subsequent layers melt into and fuse with previous  layers when they are sprayed.  I do have an approximate count of the number of times I point my spray gun at the guitar, so I could tell people that there are 15 to 20 coats of lacquer.  However, there is no consistent definition of what a “coat”  represents as far as a quantity of lacquer.  Every person who sprays can apply a different amount.  There are three ways to vary how much lacquer is applied with each pass of the gun: first, one can increase or decrease the volume of lacquer that comes out of the gun by adjusting a needle valve; second, by changing the speed at which the gun is passed across the surface, different amounts of finish material will be deposited on the surface; and third, by changing the thickness (viscosity) of the lacquer, more or less will remain on the surface after the volatile solvents evaporate.  So my concern with telling people a specific number is that they might think it is either too many or too few coats, even though we aren’t necessarily thinking of the same amount of lacquer.  I usually end up telling people that I don’t know how many coats are on the guitar and that I use just enough lacquer to seal all of the wood pores and to allow me to sand the finish perfectly flat and buff it to a high shine, which is true.

For the current guitar project my customer wanted the finish tinted a little bit on all of the surfaces of the guitar.  I did this early in the spraying process so I could be free from worrying about sanding out the color when if comes time to level and buff the guitar.  I didn’t remember to take any pictures at that stage, so all of the photos below were taken after the color was applied to each of the surfaces.

I first spray the body.  This allows me to hold on to the neck and keep the guitar from swinging back and forth.

Next, I spray the front and back of the peghead.

Finally, the neck and heel are sprayed.

I will repeat this cycle 4 or 5 times in a day and then do it again in about a week.  I will do this until I feel like there is enough lacquer on the guitar to allow me to sand it level.   There really isn’t any need to sand between spray sessions because the solvents melt the new lacquer into what is already on the guitar.

After I have all of the lacquer on the guitar, I will let it cure for at least 3 weeks before I start sanding it.  This allows time for most of the solvents to evaporate.  If I try sanding and buffing the lacquer too soon, it won’t buff to a high shine and fine scratches will remain visible.  Also, the lacquer will continue to cure and shrink for a while, so the sooner the buffing happens, the more settling you will see in the future.  My experience is that after waiting 3 weeks, settling does not appear to be much of a concern.

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 12:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Shaping the neck

It is now time to shape the neck.  I use nothing but hand tools to complete this process; that is how I have always done it.  I have gotten a lot faster over the years and have developed a pretty good feel for the process without having to make frequent stops to make measurements, but I am always mindful of the fact that a mistake in this process could ruin all of my work up to this point.  One misplaced pull with the spokeshave could ruin the neck and force me to rework a great deal of the guitar, so I stay focused while I am shaping the neck and try not to rush.

The bulk of the excess neck wood is removed with a spokeshave, which is basically a plane with a handle on either side of the blade.  The guitar has to be held steady while both hands are holding the spokeshave.  The best way I have found to do this is to lightly “clamp” the guitar body between my knees while I sit in a chair.  This is pretty low-tech, but it  works for me.

 The spokeshave works as it is pulled toward me, so it starts at the heel end of the neck and is drawn up toward the peghead.  I slowly rotate the spokeshave around the neck, changing its position with every pull or two.  Here are some pictures of spokeshave being used:

After the bulk of the excess wood is shaved away, I switch to rasps to continue the shaping process.  Rasps are a very sharp and aggressive type of file.  Like the spokeshave, rasps can also cause disaster pretty quickly, so  again at this stage I am very cautious.  I no longer need to cradle the guitar body between my knees.  I use one hand for the rasp, so the other one can hold onto the guitar.   You can see in this picture that the neck is beginning to take shape.

When the neck feels about right, I take a few measurements with a caliper and do some final thicknessing with the rasp.  Most players want the neck to be shaped symmetrically from side to side.  I used to use a pattern gauge to check for symmetry, but gradually got to the point where I could tell if it was the desired shape by running my hand across the surface, so the pattern gauge rarely comes out now.  As far as thicknesses, I generally want the thickness of the neck at the first fret to be about 0.800″ and at the 10th fret about 0.900″ unless my customer specifies something else.  These dimensions seem to be comfortable to most players.

After the main shaft of the neck has reached its desired thickness and shape, I still have work to do in the transition areas around the heel and the beginning of the peghead.  This is done with finer rasps and eventually scraper blades.

Once I’m satisfied that the neck is shaped properly and that there are smooth transitions to the heel and peghead, I go over the entire neck with sandpaper, usually starting with 100 grit and finishing with 220 grit.  Then I sand the body of the guitar, also up to 220 grit.  The construction process is now complete.  The next step will be applying the finish.

Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 3:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Neck, part five

Now I am ready to install the frets.  In cross-section, fret wire is T-shaped.  The vertical part of the T has nubs sticking out from it and these serve to hold the fret wire firmly in the slot that was sawn into the fretboard.  I get fretwire by the pound, which is enough for 15 or 20 guitars.  It comes in straight, 2 foot lengths.  After cleaning it, I roll a length through a press to induce a curve which has a tighter radius than the curve on the fretboard.  This makes the installation a bit easier.

Then the frets are cut to  a few millimeters longer than each of the fret slots.  I arrange them in a very high-tech scrap of wood with numbered holes.

The frets are then pounded into the fretboard with a brass hammer.   It doesn’t take too much effort to seat them properly, especially into a rosewood board.  The brass hammer head is soft, so there is less danger of it denting the surface of the fretwire than if I were using a steel hammer.

After all of the frets are seated, their edges are filed flush with the sides of the fretboard.  I use both a free-standing file and a file that I inserted into a 45 degree slot in a block of wood.

Next the top surfaces of the frets are scraped with a very flat, very fine stone.  This eliminates any small high spots and ensures that all of the frets are perfectly level–an essential feature for playing without fret buzzes.

After leveling, some of the frets can have a more broad and flat face than I or any player would want, so each fret is carefully re-crowned with a file.  A protective strip of sheet metal ensures that the fretboard won’t be damaged in this process.


Next, the corners of the frets are rounded off with a quarter-round file.  This makes the fretboard feel much more comfortable than if the corners were left sharp.

The last part of the fret installation is polishing the frets and fretboard.  This is done with a series of progressively more fine sandpaper-320, 400 and 600 grit-followed by 0000 steel wool.


Good fret work is essential to having a good guitar.  I have followed this exact same process on almost 300 of my own instruments, plus a lot of others than needed refretting.  This is a time-consuming part of the construction, but it is time well spent.  The best looking guitar in the world is nothing more than a piece of art if it doesn’t play properly.

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 1:43 am  Leave a Comment  

Neck, part four

The next part of the construction process is the fretboard.  This guitar is being built with a 26.5″ scale length.  The fret slots are very accurately sawn into the fretboard according to the scale length being used.  Placement of the fret slots is determined by something I have seen referred to as the “rule of 18,” but it would be more accurate to call it the “rule of 17.835.”  Here is how it works: to determine the distance of the first fret from the nut end of the fretboard, divide the scale length by 17.835.  With this scale, that comes out to 1.49″, so that is where the first fret slot should be sawn.  To determine the distance from the first fret to the second, you subtract 1.49″ from the original 26.5″ scale, then divide the remaining number by 17.835.  The quotient this time is a little less than 1.49″ and it tells me where the second slot should be placed.  This process of subtraction and division continues as you move up the fretboard until all of the slots are cut. 

To say that this is a bit tedious is understating the situation.  When I first was building guitars I would do the work of cutting the fret slots myself.  It would take several hours to mark and cut all of the fret slots.  Now, however, I purchase pre-slotted fretboards whenever I can.  There are businesses that specialize in computer assisted slotting and they are much more accurate than I could ever hope to be with my ruler, carpenter’s square and backsaw.  Accurate placement of the slots–down to 0.001″–is essential for the guitar to play in tune, so the cost of paying someone to do this job is well justified.

I forgot to take an earlier picture, but here is the slotted and tapered rosewood fretboard with the inlays glued in and not yet sanded level

After the epoxy dries on the inlays, I sand them level with the surface of the fretboard and glue the fretboard to the neck. 

I then sand the fretboard so that it is perfectly flat against a straight edge before installing the frets.

Published in: on October 19, 2010 at 2:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Neck, part three

Pegheads and fretboards are the two most common spots on a guitar where decorative inlays can be found.  Adding some ornamentation in these areas can really dress up the guitar and, for my instruments, helps personalize it.  I always encourage my customers to tell me what they would like to have in these places.  Some customers don’t want anything at all, preferring the look of a simple, unadorned peghead and fretboard.  Some customers want something, but they aren’t quite sure what, so they ask me for suggestions.  For this guitar, my customer knew exactly what he wanted on the peghead and fretboard. 

The peghead inlay is a “winged angel” which was cut by a man named David Nichols (www.custompearlinlay.com).  He has been doing custom inlays for decades and has produced some amazing artwork.  I have know him for quite a long time and his work is on many of my instruments.  Here is a picture of the angel still attached to a piece of cardboard to keep the pieces in alignment. 

It is made of several pieces of mother-of-pearl and abalone, with rosewood for the hair.  All of the lines in the gown, wings and facial features are actually very fine saw cuts.  Incredible!  This sort of work is way beyond what I can do, which is why I am happy to know David Nichols. 

Here I have covered the peghead with white poster paint and scribed the outline of the artwork. There isn’t much room on the peghead for this inlay, but it does fit between the string slots.

Next, I carefully rout away the wood where the angel will go using a very small router and proceding very slowly.  Here is the peghead with the routing completed and the angel ready to be epoxied in.

After the glue dries everything is sanded smooth.  Here is the inlaid angel along with a test fitting of the tuning machines.

Now the neck can be glued to the body.  I first need to make room for the truss rod, which will be adjustable through the sound hole.  It is certainly easier for me to have the truss rod adjusted at the peghead end, but there isn’t enough room on this particular peghead.  This picture shows how the truss rod extends beyond the heel-end of the neck.  It extends just far enought that the nut can be adjusted through the hole, but not so far that it will be plainly visible in the completed instrument.

Now I rout away the soundboard and drill a very carefully placed hole through the “upper face brace” where the adjusting nut will be located.  This brace was intentionally made a little taller to compensate for the small loss of strength the drilling a hole might introduce.  The gap in the soundboard will be hidden by the fretboard.

After checking the alignment of the neck to the body and making sure the truss rod fits in the neck slot several more times, the neck is glued to the body with yellow glue.

After this dries I can insert the pins into the neck that will lock everything in place for good.  The pins are actually two short pieces of 5/16″ dowel rod.  I drill two holes centered right in the middle of the neck tennon and the body mortice, one on each side of the truss rod channel.

The holes go down to within about 1/4″ of the back of the guitar.  The hardwood dowels are inserted into the holes with some yellow glue and once this dries, I don’t have to worry about the neck separating from the body, regardless of the amount of tension put on that joint.  I have been assembling guitars this way for over thirty years and, to my knowledge, no neck has ever pulled loose, so I am very comfortable with this approach.  Here are the dowels ready to be glued in:

Now the truss rod is glued in with epoxy.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 1:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Neck, part two

After the mortise and tennon joint is complete it is time to shape the heel of the neck (that’s the part of the neck that transitions to the body of the instrument).  With a lot of my guitars I keep the heel a uniform width from the fretboard down to the back of the guitar, but this heel is going to be tapered like it is on Stellas.  The initial shaping of the heel is done using chisels and rasps.  I generally mark one or two reference lines before getting started, but after that, I just rely on my eyes and experience with shaping almost 300 heels to tell me what to carve away.

After a while, the heel is roughly the shape I want it to be, so I will turn my attention to the peghead.  I will do the final clean up of the heel right before I glue the neck to the body.

The primary function of the peghead on a guitar is to hold the tuning machines.  On a lot of guitars the head also functions in a decorative capacity.  If there are going to be ornamental inlays on the guitar they are generally found on the peghead and the fretboard, where they can be seen readily, but won’t interfere with the tone of the instrument.  The shape of the head itself can also be decorative and many guitars can be identified just by seeing the peghead.   

As with the rest of this guitar, the peghead will be a close reproduction of the peghead of a Stella.  The Stella peghead is different from any I have made before.  It is squared off at the top end, much like a Martin, but then it tapers to its point of termination at the fretboard without any sort of indentation where it approaches the fretboard end. (Typically, right above the nut, the peghead flares out abruptly about 5 or 10 mm.)  I may not be describing this well, but it will be obvious in some of the photos that follow.

So the first part of making the peghead is to cut the profile to shape using a saw, rasps, files and sandpaper.  After that, I need to drill the holes for the tuning machines.  The 6 tuning machines on each side of the head are mounted on a plate, so it is very important that the holes get drilled precisely where they are supposed to be because any misalignment will result in the tuner not working properly. (This isn’t quite as critical when using individual tuners.)  For the set of tuners I am using, the holes had to be exactly 59/64″ apart and all on a line.  Here is a photo of the holes being drilled:

Next, the string slots are cut out.  The initial cuts are made with a scroll saw and then cleaned up with files and sandpaper.

These string slots are squared off on the ends.  It is more common to have rounded ends.  It’s also easier when the ends are rounded, because that can be done with a drill.  These squared ends have to be finished with chisels and files.

The peghead is finished for the moment.  Next up will be adding an inlay

Published in: on September 15, 2010 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment