Frozen in Ebony

Before I shape the neck, before I finally attach the body to it, I need to radius the fingerboard to make chording, bending, etc. easier (electrics and steel-string acoustics are usually radiused, classical guitars are not). This is done with a very sharp block plane, and a perfectly flat sanding stick. There are many options as far as how much to radius according to the player’s preference. I’ll be going with a comfortable 12″ (more or less). There are also two types of radii: cyclindrical, which uses a set radius sanding block, which means as the fingerboard tapers, the resulting edges will change; or, a compound radius, which keeps the same edge all along the fingerboard, and results in different radii depending on the width. I am going with a compound radius.

With the radius roughed in, I can now inlay the fret position markers. I’m using 3/16″ MOP dots for all but the 12th fret. There, I designed (with the help of Benjy Davies) an oak leaf. In order to match the radius, and get some veining, I decided to make the leaf from 10 separate pieces, all very tiny, and all nerve-racking to saw from the MOP blanks. But, with a couple of redos thanks to tiny, fragile, thin sections snapping off trying force a curve, they all got cut.

Some clean up/fine tuning with some riffler files, and then I, once again, positioned the final leaf under some clear packing tape to take to the copier and get my routing template. Careful routing with the laminate trimmer and a 1/16″ spiral cutter; test fitting; fine tuning with the trimmer, and I’m ready to glue. Since there were so many pieces, I decided to go with epoxy rather than CA glue, so I would have more time to make adjustments (no quick setting epoxy here). Also, I knew I had some gaps (most inlays do), and epoxy takes dye much better than CA glue. I mixed up the epoxy and added some antique maple and black dye until I had a good color match with the Macassar Ebony, which isn’t black like Gabon Ebony, but more dark brown. I found that adding the black dye in steps allowed me to creep up on the color match. Then, with some tape to mask the borders, I filled the pocket with epoxy and added the MOP pieces one by one. One thing I hadn’t counted on was the overflow covering up the pieces, which made positioning them a matter of feel (read: guesswork). Then let dry overnight.

Next, after marking the dot position, I drilled the holes for the MOP dots. I carefully checked my 3/16″ brad point bits with a dial caliper and found them all slightly oversized. So, I found a regular twist bit that was exactly 3/16″ and started drilling. These I could use thick CA glue with, since they didn’t need any positioning once they were in. Then, with everything set and cured, I took the sanding stick with 100 grit and sanded down to the inlay, also further refining the radius. the result:

Not perfect (thanks to not being able to see to position as well as I’d wanted), but OK, certainly good for a first effort with a multiple piece inlay. This will be my guitar, after all, and its better to practice on this before trying it on a client’s build.

Now, if only this heat wave would break so I could get some more work done! (Here’s a tip, if you are building a workshop, make sure it has insulation and heating/cooling!)


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