Minibass: Gluing up the body blank and making a scarf joint headstock

I assembled all of the pieces of scrap timber for the body and trimmed them to around 38mm thick. I then ran them through the table saw to make sure each jointing face was flat and true. I then shade the edge of each jointing face with pencil and use my flat sanding block to remove all the pencil marks.

I gathered together a selection of clamps that are large enough for the job.

My initial thought was to glue on the first two pieces, let that dry, glue on the next two pieces, etc, and then I realised that, even with cauls, the clamping pressure would deform the edge of the wood I was about to join next. This lead me to tackle it all in one go.

I left that for a couple of hours for the Titebond Original to do what it does so well. It doesn’t finish drying properly for 24 hours, but, as long as the join isn’t put under any stress, the clamps can be removed after an hour. I set to work on making the headstock scarf joint.

I marked up the angle of 17 degrees and cut it on the bandsaw freehand.

The headstock portion is flipped over to make the joint.

I glued and clamped that up and then I was in a position to go back to the body blank. I roughly trimmed the ends and then skimmed the surfaces front and back to level and clean them up. Here it is dry and then dampened to show the grain.

And in idle moments while that was going on, and now I know the size of the body blank I’ve got to work with, I took a spare sheet of MDF and drew a 1:1 scale image of what I’m shooting for.

The Minibass: Decisions, decisions.

Before I get any further into this build I need to firm up some design decisions. At the moment I’m just preparing the body and neck blanks which, to a certain extent, I can do without much regard to the config of the final instrument (other than know it is not a thru neck).

This post is really nothing more than me jotting down my thoughts about all of those decisions; the ones I’ve made and those I’ve yet to make. It is this latter category I really need to focus on, to make sure I don’t miss anything that would impact an early stage of the build. Some of the other decisions can be postponed, and be made immediately prior to the build step they impact. Normally I wouldn’t do this – I like to have a very clear idea of absolutely every minor detail before I make any sawdust. As something of a prototype this one is different though – and I will want to review and revise those design decisions based on current progress.

OK so let us start at the head of this mystical “Minibass” and work our way down to the tail.

Headstock

Should the headstock be flat and parallel to the fretboard (like a Fender) or angled back like a Gibson? On this one I’m going to go angled – only because I’ve never made a scarf jointed headstock and I’d like to add the skill to my “portfolio”. Because this bass uses these polypropelene strings the neck is not under as a great a tension as usual, so it should be a safe playground for me.

Type and layout of tuners? I really like the plain simplicity of the Fender style big-eared open tuners. Added advantage is that they’re not overly heavy and relatively cheap. For the layout I want the headstock to be as compact as possible, in keeping with the overall concept of a Minibass. I’m going to go in a staggered 2+2 configuration, aiming to keep the string run as straight as possible over the nut to the tuner post.

Nut

Because I’ve chosen a Gibson-esque headstock it makes sense to use a Gibson style nut too. The nut rests on the neck itself and butts up to the end of the fretboard, rather than the Fender approach of having a thinner nut that sits in a slot on the fretboard. The nut is going to be made from bone. If you’re interested in how I’ll be preparing the bone see this post.

Neck

This is the aspect that, at this stage needs the most careful planning. I need to decide scale length, whether it’ll be fretted or fretless, whether it flat mounts to the body or is angled back to clear a higher bridge, fretboard radius, width at the nut, taper, shape of the neck profile, type of truss rod, what fret markers I want. Phew! Lots to think about.

First off, because this instrument relies on a piezo pickup mounted in the bridge, I want a good downward tenson on the bridge saddle. This means a steeper break angle between the bridge and the string anchors, which in turn leads towards a higher bridge. Therefore it’ll be an angled back join with the body. As on many of my previous builds It’ll get a glued neck join, with a decent sized tenon into the body.

next is the decision about the truss rod. It probably doesn;t need one because of the low string tension but, because I may want to add relief to the neck (a slight bow forward) I’ve decided to install a double action truss rod. When I was building my Voodoo Tele I found this aspect one of the most difficult and I’d like the opportunity to practice and see if I can get it better this time.

In deciding the scale length I have a number of limitations. First this style of bass usually has an 18-19″ scale, although they can go up to around 23-24″. Secondly, the fretboard supplied by Steve Benford is pre-slotted for a 25.5″ scale length. That is too long for my needs so, if I chop it at the 1st fret slot, making that the zero fret, it would give me a scale of ~24″, at the 2nd fret, ~22.5″, at the 3rd fret, ~21.5″ and at the 4th, ~20.25″. I’ve dithered between 22.5″ and 21.5″ for a while but, making a decision right this moment, I’m going to stay true to the principle of, making it smaller at every opportunity (whilst still being playable) and go for the 21.5″ scale length.

I’ve also struggled with the decision about whether it should have frets or not. I would love a fretless, and I think this more acoustic sounding bass will really suit it. On the other hand, the shorter the scale gets the harder it is to play a fretless accurately. I’m also crap at playing a fretless, it would take a lot of practice to start maaking sounds that I like hearing and I’m worried that I’ll move onto the next project and this one will just gather dust in the rack. And that makes the decision for me. I’m going to save my first fretless project to be a 34″ scale. Sorted.

I want this neck to be of a medium width, but perhaps a touch flatter, both front and back, than usual. It’ll get a fretboard radius of between 12″ and 16″, probably erring towards 12″. I’m going to have a go at making either my own radiusing jig or, more likely, a radiused sanding block.

Last choice should be the easiest to make but is another one I struggle with. What sort of fretmarkers should it have? I’m not quite sure why but, stylistically, fret markers have taken on a huge significance for me, and I want to do something really cool. I really like the thumbnail fretmarkers on Gretsches so I’m going to haave a go at doing something similar in appearance. It will be a very different technique though. At the point where the neck outline is marked on to the fretboard and neck (before the fretboard is glued on), I’m going to drill 8mm holes centred on that line. This will get a darkwood dowel or plug glued in place. Then, when I trim along the line, it’ll just leave a semi-circle slice of that dowel in the fretboard, looking like a thumbnail from the front and a rectangular block inlay from the side. For the 12th fret I’m going to drill a 3-4mm hole into the dark wood dowel and glue in a light-wood dowel. When cut in halt this will make a double mark when viewed from the side

Body

Whereas the body shape is usually the first thing on the drawing board, this is completely different. I’m going to set myself some hard constraints (position of bridge, size of the blank, type of string anchors, position of neck pocket, position of control cavity, etc. I’m going to leave the design of the silhouette until much later.

Because the blank is of a sandwich construction and the neck tenon will be visible on the top, I have to decide whether to feature this or whether to add a thin cap of a single timber, such as a figured maple. This is another decision I’m going to postpone until I can see how it looks. If I like it I’ll feature it, if not I’ll cover it.

Bridge

As I mentioned earlier this will be a relatively high bridge, to make sure I’ve got a good break angle. Because it is an acoustic style bridge, and because I yet know exactly how these strings will react with regards intonation, I’m initially planning for this to be a floating bridge. once I am happy with the intonation, I’ll glue it down, and can finalise drilling the holes to properly install the electronics.

I haven’t yet decided what materials to use to make the floating bridge. In keeping with the rest of the guitar I’ll aim to use something out of my offcuts bin. I’ve got a few decent sized pieces of maple that will be used for the first attempt. Essentially all I need is a block of wood with a slot cut into it to hold the piezo element with a bone saddle riding on top of it. Turning that block of wood into something that fits with the guitar’s aesthetic will be the challenge.

Because I’m initially going with a floating bridge I need a separate method of anchoring the strings. For this I’m going to use a string through approach, but instead of coming through from the back they’ll come through from the tail end. Hard to describe, but you’ll see what I mean when I do it.

Electrics

I’ve ordered a piezo element and small on-board preamp. I’m waiting for these to arrive because it is difficult to accurately plan out installation until they’re on-site.

Finish

Regular reader of this blog will not be surprised that I’m going to choose Danish oil again. That was the easiest of the decisions.

Making a neck blank for the next project

I’ve started firming up plans for my next project. This one is going to be a bass, but not like anything I’ve played before. For a start is a going to be a very short scale; just 21.5″. It is not going to have magnetic pickups but will use an under-saddle piezo with on-board preamp. I’m taking inspiration from the Ashbory and Kala U-Bass solid body.

With the scale shrinking the body will too. I’ve still not decided on the body shape but have sketched out where the key “landmarks” need to be. I was about to break out a fresh slab of sapele to start this and then the thought occurred to me that, over my previous projects, I’ve generated a fair amount of decent sized offcuts, so I’m going to do everything I can to put them to good use.

I started by assembling all of the “scrap” that could contribute to a body.

I’ve got a couple of pieces of Brazilian mahogany that’ll go into the body too.

I planed two pieces of sapele and a piece of what I think is oak to make up a neck blank. I did these on my small table saw and then shaded the edges with pencil and finished with the sanding block.

Applied the Titebond Original.

Clamped them up.

After the clamps came off I planed the top and bottom and this is what I have to work with.

And dampening to show the grain.

For this one I’m going to use the fretboard that Steve Benford gave to me when we met in Nashville earlier this year. It has got a really nice figure to it, which really comes out when it is dampened slightly.

Voodoo Tele: Finishing off the maple cap and routing the cavities

After removing the clamps I was faced with a problem which I knew was heading my way – when I’d trimmed the map cap to rough size I’d not centred the neck on on the line properly and it didn’t match the body exactly.

It was very easily fixed though, I used the cap as a template for the flush cut router bits and just trimmed the body to match, then did the same, using the sapele body as the template to trim the maple cap.

I marked up the cavities and their depths.

Before starting to make more sawdust I double checked the positioning, particularly of the bridge pickup rout. I do this by fitting the high and low E tuners, and running a thread from bridge to tuners and back to bridge.

After routing I strung it up again to mark the bridge location.

I mark the front edge of the bridge, and then extend the line perpendicular to the centre line.

Double check the scale length. 12.75″ from 12th fret to high E saddle is spot on.

Offer up the bridge and mark the position of the screw holes and string through holes.

And that was it for the day. The final few woodworking jobs that are left are to drill the jack socket hole, the bridge mounting and string through holes. Once they’re done it’ll be on to final sanding and finish. I’m just trying to work out whether it is better to do the danish oil back and neck before the nitrocellulose on the body and headstock caps, or vice-versa.

Voodoo Tele: Making a nut and gluing the maple cap

I completed some of the small but time consuming jobs on the project guitar today.

First I cut down a piece of horn on the bandsaw to make a nut, roughly shaping it with sandpaper. I had been planning to make my own bone nut but I’m still waiting for my local butcher to get a suitably sized piece in and I had this horn sitting around doing nothing. I quite like the sort of mottled black to ivory colouring.

As I was planning out the next stages in more detail I spotted a flaw in my plan. I had intended to mount the neck pickup from the back, so that I would just have the chrome pickup cover peeking out. As soon as I laid the rout template on the back of the guitar it struck me. How am I going to make a cover that isn’t on a flat area of the guitar? Thankfully I found this out before I’d routed right through the body! Instead I’m going to install the pickup with one of the chrome pickup rings.

To make sure that I maximised the contact area between body, neck tenon and maple cap, I spent ages planing and sanding the top surface ready to accept the cap. This consumed the majority of the day but despite all of my natural inclination to just bung on the cap and clamp it down tight, I worked away at it until it was as close to perfect as I could get.

I made a template for the shape of the pocket that needs to be cut into the cap, so that it’ll fit round the neck heel. Once I was happy, a quick buzz round with the top bearing cutter and it was done. I’m really happy with the fit.

That left me with just enough time, in the fading light, to get the top glued up and clamped. But just as I was about to start slathering on the Titebond, I remembered that I needed to rout the channels for the wiring to run from pickup cavities to the control cavities.

If the weather holds tomorrow I’ll get the pickup and control cavities routed and then it is on to final sanding and prep for the finish to go on. The end is in sight!

Here come the next guitar projects…

My friend Rob is a left-hander and is not happy with his current electric, a right-handed Squier Strat strung upside down, a la Hendrix. I’d suggested that we could buy a left handed Strat body on eBay and salvage most of the parts from the Squier and make him a Voodoo Strat. Something along the lines of this (note the reverse headstock):

Then, in passing, Rob mentioned that he’d got a body blank still knocking about. I immediately (foolishly?) suggested that, instead of buying a body, how about having a go at making one? So last night Rob dropped off the body blank, and in addition another chunk of wood “if you could do something with it”. This a a piece of mahogany, pre-capped with bookmatched maple which has fantastic heart shaped figuring on it. It has already been pre-cut into a Les Paul shape.

I’m going to work on the body for Rob’s leftie first, and will just let the ideas for the other piece stew for a week or two.