Guitar making tips are a great resource for beginners, because they condense a lot of knowledge into bite size pieces. Tips encourage the learning process. They also help get new guitar makers on the right track sooner. Here are my favorite 25 guitar making tips to help beginners become successful.
Tip 1 – Choose a Plan For You Acoustic Guitar
Decide on a plan, and stick to it. If you read several books on guitar making, choose one to follow for the actual build. This way, there is no miscommunication between texts. Measurements and dimensions will be specific to the guitar being made, and it will result in a guitar that goes together well.
If you do deviate from the plan, do so in safe areas like inlays or binding colors. These are safer areas to manipulate. Anything decorative or inlaid is fairly safe to alter, and should have almost zero effect on the build. Keep the big ideas in place, and add flair in safer places.
Tip 2 – Aim For a Guitar Build that You Can Accomplish
It’s better to successfully build a simple guitar. If you shoot for the moon and miss, you may have a gigantic mess on your hands. Plan for a simple design, using proven building methods. This ensures that you will have a guitar at the end of the project. Especially if you are new to inlay work, or woodworking in general, picking out a very elaborate design will be more frustrating than it is worth.
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If you are going to use a different species, do some homework. Some woods are gorgeous, but not for guitar making. Electrics are more forgiving than acoustics, but it pays to know. Look online and see if there are guitars made from the wood already. Usually, this is a good indicator.
Also, look up the species and review the properties. Generally, woods with the same density, pliability, and hardness will work about as well as traditionally used woods. All of these factors can be used to determine if the wood is suitable for making a guitar.
Tip 4 – Find a Space Where You Can Build
Have a dedicated space in the house or garage for your build. Keep the area clutter free, and clean up after each session. If you have everything spread out and disorganized, the build will take longer and it will be more stressful. Even a very small space, when well organized, can be used to make an excellent guitar.
There was an article I read about a guy that build an acoustic guitar on his dinner table. He hauled out everything he needed each time he started, and cleaned up and put away everything each night. This level of discipline is amazing, but it allowed him to craft an excellent build in very confined conditions.
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Inlays are expected on a handmade guitar. Thankfully, they are not as difficult as they are made out to be. There is a tool called a router inlay kit that I wrote about here, and it makes simple inlay patterns easy to execute.
The tool works off a template that you will have to make. It cuts the cavity, and then cuts a perfectly fitted inlay piece. This can be used to create headstock and fretboard inlays, and it’s inexpensive. The tool makes an expert out of anyone, and leaves behind a very professional look to the inlays. You won’t be able to make very complex or tiny shapes, but it is versatile enough for most inlay work.
Tip 6 – When in Doubt, Use Round Inlays
Round inlays are the easiest to accomplish. If you can drill a hole, you can execute round inlays. For the fretboard, round inlays are the standard. For most beginners, the inlay pieces will be purchased from a guitar making supplier, but they can be made too. I show that process here, and with a simple plug cutter you can make hundreds of exotic wood fret dots from scraps. The inlay process will be the same for store bought dots, so why not add a custom set of dots in your favorite wood species.
Tip 7 – It’s Easier to Solve Problems Before They are Covered in Glue
Practice all gluing processes dry before you add glue. A dry run uncovers problems before they become glue covered problems. Glue covered problems are harder to recover from. Clamp the pieces in the exact same way as when you will be gluing them together. If you uncover a problem with the jig or the clamps, fix it before adding glue. This way, the process will go smoothly once the glue is introduced.
There is more than one way to do things. This goes for guitar making as well. Read several books, and you will see that the same tasks are done differently from maker to maker.
There is nothing wrong with using a different method to achieve the same results. For example, there are many ways to attach a neck to a body. Yes, a through neck is a great way of accomplishing the joint, but a bolt on neck can be very strong as well. Just because one method is used over another, does not make one guitar wrong and the other right. These are just two different ways of making an instrument, and they are all good in their own ways.
Tip 9 – Make Sure to Use Well Seasoned Wood
Use flat wood that is well seasoned for your guitars. Most wood from a luthier supply house will already be dry and seasoned. However, some wood from a hardwood store may need to be avoided in favor of other pieces. Wood that is still wet will have to be dried before using it. This is a problem for the impatient guitar maker.
Also, wood that is bent or warped will need to be flattened, and this requires more tools. Start with flat, seasoned wood, and the processes will go much smoother. Avoid wood that has visible defects as well, like knots and voids. Spend the time looking, and you will find a great board.
Don’t worry about the price of the wood. Expensive wood is nice, but it does not guarantee a great sounding instrument. In fact, a poorly built guitar will not improve at all, even if the best wood possible is used for the project.
Purchase middle of the road wood, and make the guitar well. I explain the reason why some woods are more expensive in this article, and it’s not because of sound. Even wood that is on the less expensive side, but still sold for making guitars can be used successfully. On many of my first guitars, I used lower priced woods, and they all still came out great.
Tip 11 – Make the Neck Using Easier Techniques
Making the neck can be stressful, but this is just another part of the build. Start with flat wood, and work carefully. A great neck can be made on the first round, even if you struggle. Look for neck types that are easier to make. A scarf joint can be a little more intimidating than making a stacked neck and sawing it to shape. Little differences like this make the build easier.
Tip 12 – Use a Fret Slotting Jig
Slotting the frets is easier than it sounds. Yes, the placements have to be accurate, but there are jigs that make it easy. My Fret Slotting Jig shows how you can slot a fretboard without ever making a single measurement.
When I developed this jig, it radically changed my fretboard choices. Now, I can make a fretboard out of any species I want, and I can slot them quickly without measuring. This dramatically changed the choices that were available to me. Being able to use any species you want to make a fretboard gives you more opportunities to create something unique. Your guitar will stand out from the crowd, and draw attention.
Tip 13 – Make Your Bridge by Doing the Hardest Parts First
When you make your bridge, do the hardest steps first. This will get them out of the way, and allow you to coast through the process. If you get rid of the most difficult steps first, it builds momentum for the rest of the build. Plus, you will not end up ruining something at the last minute. I explain the way I make by bridges here, and it’s a very simple flow from most difficult to least difficult.
A simple binding scheme is the best choice for the first guitar. Overly elaborate bindings, with purfling, abalone, and exotic woods are challenging to guitar makers. The addition of a shell inlay around the face of the guitar can add significant time to the build.
Also, binding the guitar is a tedious process that is hard to recover from if it goes wrong. Select an easy to bend single species to use, and do the back strip and bindings so they match. Make it a contrasting species, and it will set off the back and sides very well. This has been a traditional design on guitars for ages. When well executed, it will look great.
Tip 15 – Start With a Body Swap Project to See if You Like Making Guitars
To see if you like guitar making, start out small. Purchase a used electric guitar or bass with a bolt on neck, and do a body swap. I did a body swap on this electric bass, and it came out really nice. It is also a great introduction to guitar making.
With a body swap, all you are making is the body, and you are using all the parts and electronics from the original instrument. The simple change from a basic basswood or plywood body to a hardwood body will make a significant difference. You can also change out the pickups for something better if you like. The wiring harness will already be there, so if you keep the same style of pickups, the installation will be very easy.
Making an electric in general is easier than making an acoustic. There are difficulties in both, and high end electric guitar makers produce excellent instruments. However, there is more to control when building an acoustic guitar. The plate thicknesses, placement of the braces, and joinery are critical to the success or failure of the instrument.
Even oddly shaped electrics can still produce great sound, because the pickups and processing help them out when needed. The sound of an acoustic all rests on the guitar itself, so coloring too far out of the lines tends to not produce the best results. Work within the main design points, as this will keep you safe.
Tip 17 – Look Into Hand Applied Finishes for Your First Instrument
You do not need expensive spray equipment to properly finish your guitar. Furniture and instrument grade lacquers are incredibly easy to apply with aerosol cans, and they lay down an excellent finish quickly. Do not even waste time on hardware store lacquer on the bottom shelf. This is the cheap stuff, and it will not produce a good finish. Instead, look for brands like Behlen, Mohawk, and Deft when buying lacquer. These are far better products, and they will have less problems when spraying.
Learn about finishing while you are building the guitar. My 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing explains hand applied finishes, which are easy to use. Hand applied finishes have been in use since we first discovered that you could finish wood. They have come a long way, and many of these products produce incredible finishes.
None of these finishes require anything but a cloth to apply, and they are easy to repair. Once you know how to finish well (from all of your practice while making the guitar) you will be able to confidently finish the instrument without worry. Destroying a well made instrument with a poor finish is a disaster that is easily avoided with a little reading and some practice.
Tip 19 – Learn the Magic of Tru-Oil Wood Finish
Tru-Oil needs to be your best friend as a beginning finisher. I describe the exact process for using Tru-Oil here, and it makes an expert finisher out of anyone. I have finished dozens of guitars with Tru-Oil, and they all look great. The product is inexpensive too, and a small bottle will finish several instruments. Buy a bottle and test it out. You will love the ease of use, and love the look.
Allow your finish to completely cure before stringing up the instrument. This can be very hard on the first guitar. I was one of those kids that had to play with their new toy on the way home from the store, so this is always agonizing for me.
If you jump the gun and work on the guitar too soon, the finish can still be soft enough to ruin. This can be fingerprints that stay on the surface, or small dents that ruin the glossy look. If the finish says two weeks, give it two weeks. You will be happy you did when the flawless finish stays that way. Patience is the most valuable resource you have at this point. Wait a little, and you will have a great instrument for life.
Tip 21 – Read and Absorb as Much Information as You Can
Read a lot. My top 5 acoustic guitar making books list is a good place to start. However, if you are interested in making electrics, there are plenty of those books as well. Read several books, and make a note of the different steps and processes. Become familiar with the steps before attempting them in the shop, and you will have a better experience. Learn as much as you can, and take that knowledge into the shop to build a great guitar.
If you don’t have all the tools, don’t worry. Most hardwood stores will have larger tools, and they have milling services for a small fee. This can be a great resource for the first build.
In the beginning, you may not want to invest thousands of dollars in tools, especially for a craft that you don’t even really know that you like. Using a service for thickness sanding, jointing, and other process requiring large tools can save you money, and still allow you to enjoy guitar making. If you decide that this is the craft for you, buy the larger tools you need in the future.
Tip 23 – Make Your Own Tools and Save Tons of Money Over Store Bought Tools
Make your own tools, templates, and jigs. The more you can make in the shop, the more you save on the project. My book covers over 50 different items that you can make instead of buy, and it will save you a ton of money in the beginning. The more you make instead of buy, the more you can invest in the few new tools that you will really need. Also, you can spend more on materials, so you can make more instruments. This is a win-win, and the jigs for an instrument are fairly easy to make.
Dont worry. Worrying through the process ruins the experience. You should have concern about the steps you are taking and the detail in your build, but needless worry will ruin your desire to make more guitars.
Guitar making is just like any other woodworking project. There are dimensions, designs, and tolerances. Build the guitar like any other project. Don’t worry bout it. If you step back and enjoy what you are doing, you will build better, and have far less to worry about. Worrying leads to mistakes, and can also lead to injury if you are not thinking about that you are doing.
The Final Guitar Making Tip:
Tip 25 – Enjoy the Learning Process
You will learn a lot on your first guitar. Yes, anyone who puts in the time can make an excellent guitar on the first round. However, you may end up making the fretboard or another piece a couple times in order to get it right. That’s ok. You will learn the most on your first build, because everything will be brand new. On your second, you will still learn quite a bit, but it will be less than your first. Enjoy the learning process on your first build, and make notes of things you need to work on.
I hope you enjoyed these guitar making tips for beginners. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Happy building.
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