Dan’s Guitar RX: Building a From-Scratch Class Project

Rock-And-Roll High School(er)

Students at Federal Hocking High School here in Athens County, Ohio, are given the opportunity to propose internships in work that interests them. Ceil Thompson, a 17-year-old junior who has been taking guitar lessons for five years at a local music store, proposed building an electric guitar in my shop. I thought it was a great idea, and she started this spring.

Ceil wanted to build a Jaguar copy, and she’d planned to use an off-the-shelf body and bolt-on neck, but I challenged her to make it from scratch and with a set neck.

1) Ceil started by choosing a fretboard blank of bocote, then we visited StewMac, where she picked out a lightweight swamp-ash body and mahogany neck billet.
We made a template by printing a Jaguar drawing and having it enlarged. Not knowing the exact body size, I asked fellow builders Mark and Shawn Penechar at Fountain City Guitars, who know Jazzmasters and Jaguars inside and out.

2) We talked a lot about the tools Ceil would use, including the what, why, and how of each. Either I or my apprentice of two years, Blake Burkeholder, kept a close watch whenever she used new tools for the first time.

3) On her second day, a package came from Fountain City – Mark and Shawn sent their acrylic body-routing template, which worked great for marking the cavities Ceil would rout, with one exception – we relocated the bridge and tailpiece holes a bit further back because Ceil was using a 25″ scale.

4) Routing cavities requires lots of elbow grease, sweat, and vacuuming – that’s why many builders outsource it to shops that use CNC machines to make raw parts. Ceil is doing it the old-fashioned way, drilling as much wood as possible using several Forstner bits, then using the templates and a hand-held router. Because she’s going with lipstick humbuckers, we used my StewMac humbucking router template.

5) Here, she’s sanding the band-saw marks off of the sides. To keep the edges square to the belt, the body is held against a right-angle fence that’s bolted to the belt sander. She also used the belt to sand most of the body to shape.

6) To sand the tight curves of the cutaways, she used the drill press with different-sized sanding drums.

7) She used a 7/16″-radius cutter with a shaper bit to round-over the edges. To help hold the body firmly in place, I taped a 20-pound granite plate on each side of the body.

8) Here, Ceil is shaping the contours using a razor-tooth file (she also used soft and hard blocks faced with sandpaper). It’s hard work, but fun.

9) With the body complete except for hand-sanding, Ceil turned to the neck. After squaring a rough-sawn mahogany blank on a jointer (creating two flat surfaces at 90 degrees to each other), she cut a 1/4″ slot down the center and installed a StewMac Hot-Rod Low Profile two-way truss. Here, she’s band-sawing the neck to rough shape, starting at the peghead.

10) With the neck shaped and tuner holes drilled, we used a 1″-radius cutter on a shaper table to round the back of the neck; it’ll be final-shaped with files and sandpaper.

11) We really did want to do everything from scratch, even cutting fret slots (which was good since bocote isn’t available pre-slotted). Here, Ceil is cutting slots on a table saw with a specialized blade and using a “sled” that slides across the blade at a right angle. The fretboard is face down on the table, with a 25″-scale fret template taped to it. The steel template has 24 notches on one edge that align on a steel pin in the saw fence that correspond to the fret slots: cut a slot, lift the board and template, slide to the next pin, locate, cut a slot, repeat for as many slots as you want (she did 21).

12) One step we skipped in the interest of time was hand-shaping the fretboard radius. My co-worker Todd Sams did us the favor of creating it using StewMac’s shaper and vacuum-equipped jig. Thanks, Todd!

13) After cutting the slots, Ceil glued the fretboard to the neck, then drilled and inlaid the fretboard with her own design of large and small pearl dots that look like bubbles floating upward. I love it!

14) Before final neck shaping, Ceil’s last work on the neck was scraping the peghead face clean so we can glue an overlay. She’s using a piece of the leftover swamp ash so it’ll match the body, and it needs to be in place when she does final shaping of the peghead. We’ll see that in part two, and it will be a great look – like a matching-headstock Fender.

15) Here’s the result of working several afternoons each week – and several weekend days – for five weeks. The neck is fit to the body (but not yet glued), the body is ready for final sanding, and the neck is ready for final shaping and sanding. To Ceil’s right is Blake, to her left Renee Ripple, who directs the school’s intern program, then yours truly. We make a great team.

Next time, Ceil will install frets, make a bone nut, and start applying the finish. See you then!

Dan Erlewine has been repairing guitars for more than 50 years. He is the author of three books, dozens of magazine articles, and has produced instructional videotapes and DVDs on guitar repair. From 1986 through his retirement in late 2019, Erlewine was part of the R&D team for Stewart-MacDonald’s Guitar Shop Supply; today he remains involved with the company, offering advice to the department and shooting video for the company’s website and social media. This column has appeared in VG since March, 2004. You can contact Dan at dan@stewmac.com

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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