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Tag Archives: guitar making techniques

Stewart-MacDonald has been sending me emails recently about a device which allows guitar makers to adjust the height of a guitar nut or saddle while keeping the underside both square and straight (item # 4047 in the StewMac catalogue). Here’s a picture.

I thought that this was rather a good idea.  Although it’s not especially difficult to adjust a nut or a saddle by hand with a file, it’s a tedious job and often takes a while. And the reviews on the StewMac website were positive, saying how quick and accurate the device was.

The drawback is that it’s quite expensive.  By the time I’d paid  shipping and import duty, buying one would probably cost around  $200.   So, I decided to make one for myself.

The body is a length of aluminium bar, 15mm x 30mm, drilled at each end to take an axle that carries miniature ball bearings.

Used with a sheet of P280 sandpaper on a flat surface, it worked quickly and accurately.

As I hope you will be able to see from the photographs, it’s not difficult to make, although you will need access to a drill press and a small lathe. The materials needed (aluminium bar and four miniature ball bearings) are easily available and cheap.

Mine took a bit longer to construct than it should have done because I drilled the holes for the axles too low, which meant that the body of the device ended up too far above the sanding surface. So I had to bush the holes and re-drill. If you’re making one, I’d recommend positioning the axle to give a gap of no more than 2mm between the bottom of the device and the sanding surface.

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There are two ways to create the angle between the headstock and the upper end of the neck of a guitar. One is to saw it out whole from a large piece of wood; the other is to make it out of two pieces using a glued joint – either the V shaped joint invented by the early guitar makers or a scarf joint. Of these options, the most rational is the scarf joint. It’s quicker and easier to execute than a V joint and wastes less wood than sawing out a neck and headstock whole. What’s more, it has a large glued surface so it doesn’t rely on nanometric accuracy for its strength.

Despite the obvious advantages of a scarf joint, the V joint has become something of a fetish among guitar makers. This is easy to defend where historical accuracy is concerned. After all, if you’re attempting a copy of a 19th century guitar, it’s desirable – even obligatory – to imitate the constructional methods of the original maker. But for a modern instrument, why prefer a weaker joint that takes longer to make?

The answer, I guess, is to show that you can. It’s not a million miles away from the Georgian cabinet makers who made the pins of their dovetails so skinny that they almost vanished at the narrow end, as you can see in this photograph of the drawer of the table at which I’m sitting as I write this post.

There’s no practical advantage either in strength or speed of production in cutting dovetails like this. Indeed, the reverse must be true. But they do provide an understated way by which makers can demonstrate that they care about seldom seen details and show off their skill.

I’ve found myself using a V joint for both these reasons. Here’s a copy of a 19th century guitar that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. The V joint in this instrument was present in the original and it seemed right to keep it.

On the other hand, the V joint in the guitar below could perfectly well have been a scarf joint. The guitarist for whom I made the instrument didn’t notice it until I drew it to her attention. Still, I enjoyed making it and, for reasons that I can’t properly explain, felt that it was worth the extra time and trouble.

I’ve just cut a couple more V joints for guitars that I’ve got planned for 2012 and, although instructions for making this joint already exist (see here, for example), I thought it might be useful if I kept a camera handy to document the process. In the next post, I’ll explain how I mark out the joint.

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