Meeting custom guitar challenges
I typically build just a few guitars per year, but I try to challenge myself with one new feature or complex build per year. This year’s challenge has been the Bourbon, and it has definitely thrown some unique issues my way. Yes, this guitar has been on my workbench for over 1 year now, but hopefully you know that I don’t build guitars as my day job. Some of the unique features are listed below, with how I dealt with those custom guitar challenges.
New body styles
This is my second consecutive custom body style that I’ve built. The first was the custom 5 string bass last year. For every new body style, I have to first begin by making a CAD drawing to ensure the scale is proper and the shape is what I want. From there, I can make my templates and begin construction. I’ve mentioned the semi-acoustic nature of the Bourbon, but if you haven’t been following my site or Facebook page for a while, you may not realize what I’m referring to. Instead of the slab body that is found on solid-body electric guitars, the Bourbon is built similar to an acoustic guitar. The picture to the left, before the face and back were glued on, shows the solid maple core running the length of the body. This core will anchor the neck, pickups, bridge, and vibrato and carry the load from the strings. Around that core are the steam-bent sides that create the hollow cavities and define this body style as semi-acoustic. In the picture, I’m gluing the kerfing, triangular strips of wood, that create a better glue bond with the sides and face. As this was my first semi-acoustic body, I met the challenge by teaching myself to bend thin strips of wood around a hot pipe. Steam-bending is one of those semi-acoustic challenges where you eventually acquire a “feel” for it, so I had a good stack of curved wood in my shop before I was ready to tackle this guitar. I also learned to build bending forms to hold the sides to shape once they were bent.
I decided to paint the sides and back of this guitar black to give a good contrast with the cream binding and to not detract from the beauty of the spruce top. You’d think that black paint would be easy, since it will cover any flaws, but we’re actually talking about black lacquer. I’m not a multinational guitar factory with a clean room, so my ability to spray lacquer is wholly dependent on the whims of nature.
I’m excited to say that all lacquer spraying is complete, but it took months to wait for that good combination where the temperature was more than 20 degrees higher than the dew point with low wind. Wind is an issue because lacquer is wet for about 30 seconds after spraying. In that time, any breeze can kick up any speck of dust and deposit it on the surface, where it becomes an embedded part of the finish. When it happened, I had to wait a few hours for the surface to cure, then sand it out.
I’ve applied burst finishes to some of my past guitars, but those were opaque finishes that carried around from the sides. I’ve also applied a hand-rubbed burst before spraying opaque lacquer, but with this spruce top, I knew that I didn’t want to hide any bit of the grain. So, I used a toner in the lacquer to apply a black tint to the entire face of the guitar, then gradually add more tint to the outside edge to form the burst. This required many coats of lacquer and all the associated risks mentioned above. Also, when spraying lacquer over binding, I have to remove the lacquer from the binding to ensure the binding stays crisp.
I actually started spraying at the end of October, didn’t like the results, sanded it all back to bare wood, then began again. The sunburst seen in the picture to the left is the final product that will be buffed to a high gloss once it cures. I’m very happy with the results of this custom guitar challenge and am happy that I started over.
The biggest custom guitar challenge that I face are timelines. As I mentioned earlier, this is not my day job and I also have a large family. Things happen, so I always tell a customer that a custom guitar will take at least 6 months to complete. I was way off on the Bourbon. Chris, I want to publicly thank you for your patience in receiving this guitar. I truly didn’t think it would take a year. I hope that you’re happy with the progress so far and I’ll tell you that I’m getting close. I know I blew the timeline months ago, but I want you to have a guitar you couldn’t possibly buy off the shelf.
I’m in the home stretch, but I know that I have a few challenges before I’m done. Mainly, this guitar does not have an electronics cavity. The potentiometers, switch, and wiring will be put inside the guitar via the f-hole on the face of the guitar. Look at the size of that hole in the pictures above. I have short, fat fingers. I’m not looking forward to it, but I’ve known since I began that this would be how I wire the guitar. Lastly, I’m not looking forward to letting this guitar leave my shop. Today, I found a hard case big enough to allow me to ship it, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to let it go.