Getting Ahead

I’ve talked about the process of building the neck before, but I’ve added a couple of tweaks to the process (and a thunk), so I’ll give it another go. In the good old days, when the forests were endless and wood was cheap, the necks (and heads) would be made from one solid piece of wood; a couple of bandsaw cuts, some shaping, and you’re done. Unfortunately, this results in a considerable amount of waste. Now, with the rain forests becoming depleted, a number of species on the endangered list, and the cost of wood becoming dearer and dearer, it becomes more and more important to conserve as much as possible. So, necks are usually made from multiple glueups.

For the commissioned guitar, the customer wanted a mahogany neck, and I found a very nice board of reclaimed Honduran mahogany that had been rescued from the bottom of a river, where it had lain for decades. This was an ideal choice in a couple of ways. One: because of the reclaiming process, the wood is incredibly dense and stable, easily the heaviest mahogany I’ve ever encountered. Two: the customer is a heart transplant patient and intends to use the guitar to help others as they wait for new hearts, so the recycled wood fits in with the theme.

The first step was to make the basic sandwich of two pieces of the mahogany (cut to minimize waste) with a creamy maple filling. (Shown here with the maple neck sandwich of the second build.)

Next, the top part is cut off at a 15° angle and, after planing the scarfed surfaces flush, the two pieces are glued together with a scarf joint to provide the head. This also ensures that there are no short grain areas in the head that would be prone to break from the tension of the strings.

Since the width of the neck assembly is too narrow for the shape of the headstock, wings must be glued on to provide the extra width. The waste material of the original neck stock is used. This also helps to further reinforce the scarf joint.

The final pieces of the puzzle are the headstock overlay and underlay (a new element with this build). Aside from providing the contrasting wood to house the inlays, these pieces further strengthen the head joints, with plenty of long grain to resist the strings’ pull. I used cocobolo for the overlay and osage orange for the underlay.

With the sandwich all glued up, its now time to cut the headstock to profile. This headstock has a very special element, an inlay by Jimmi Wingert, a well known artist who usually is providing inlay for her mother’s guitars, Kathy Wingert. The customer had commissioned her to inlay an image of the “Tinman”, from the Wizard of Oz, which, because of his own search for a heart, had become his nickname.

This inlay upped the ante for the next step, since any slips could ruin the artwork (and cost me a considerable amount of $!) I cut the outline of the head at the bandsaw, and then dutifully taped the pattern to the headstock using double sided tape. I set up the router table with a pattern bit and started on the first side.

Maybe it was the cool morning temperature, maybe it was the fact that I had used the pattern to rout a number of shapes previously and the glueing surfaces had been compromised, but as I reached the end of the first side, I had the sickening feel of the pattern slipping. After a string of expletives, I tore the pattern off and surveyed the damage. A nice divot that, THANKFULLY, stopped shy of the inlay. A disaster, but not a complete disaster. I would have to rework the headstock shape to a thinner waist to get past the slip, but it was still useable.

I consulted with the client (ever so understanding) and layed out the tuner holes carefully (they were tight, but they did fit) and prepared a new pattern. This time, I would use the tuner hole position to screw the pattern to the headstock before routing. (Since I had used the old pattern for both guitar and bass, I hadn’t done this before, and the tape had held before. It only takes one time!)

This time, the routing went smoothly, with no problems. After drilling the pilot holes to the final size for the tuners, I could finally breath a sigh of relief. A couple of thin coats of blonde shellac to seal everything, and I can turn my attention to the fingerboard.

Both Tinmen had a terminal scare, but both emerged, hopefully for good!

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