Building a Les Paul
The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most revered and coveted electric guitars. I had
one years ago, a Studio model that I traded in on another Gibson, an ES-335 that I
ended up selling to raise cash to buy woodworking tools. Lately I've been hankering
for another one, but they don't come cheap. So I figured I'd make one. I want to
make a Les Paul, not a sorta-Les-Paul-like guitar, so I bought a set of measured
drawings from Stewart-MacDonald and am following them as closely as I can, using
appropriate woods and hardware, Gibson pickups, etc. As for appearance I'm
shooting for the classic Standard sunburst. Here's the GOAL:
That's a carved figured maple top (a half inch thick at the center under the bridge) glued to
a solid mahogany body 2 inches thick. It's a big slab of guitar. The neck is also made of
So.... it can't be that hard, can it? In August 2003 I decide to make me one. Paul Lloret
found me a lovely thick plank of quartersawn mahogany for the body and neck.
Quartersawn means that the grain is oriented straight up and down rather than diagonally
or across the plank, which makes it much more stable. I called Groff & Groff Lumber in
Pennsylvania and had them send me a piece of figured maple around an inch thick, which
Paul resawed to 1/2 inch thick. That way I can bookmatch it so the grain on the top will
be symmetrical. So below is that starting point. The piece on the right will become the
neck. The thick pieces of mahogany on the left will become the body, and the thin pieces
of maple will become the top. The color difference in the mahogany is because the neck
blank hasn't yet been surfaced; the dark brown is the aged color. Raw, the mahogany is a
light pinkish tan.
The first job was to edge joint the body and top pieces and glue them up to the full
width. Then I face jointed the glued-up pieces and glued them together as below,
making sure to match the center glue joints. Of course, lacking a jointer or a
power planer, I do all my edge and face jointing with hand planes.
Then I face and edge jointed the neck blank and roughed out the bare beginnings of
the neck's finished shape. So here are the inicpient body and neck. The actual figure
('curl', 'flame') of the top is much more pronounced than is visible here:
The next step is the project's most critical bit of woodworking: the neck joint. The
neck angles away from the body at a fairly sharp angle of 4 1/2 degrees. This is to
allow for the fact that the bridge sits way up on the 'belly' of the guitar; the neck has
to angle away to allow the strings to remain low along the length of the fretboard. So
the geometry of the neck joint is critical. This guitar uses a mortise (the cavity in the
body) and tenon (the protruding portion of the neck that is glued into the body) joint at
the neck, so the floor of the mortise, the portion of the top that is underneath the
fretboard, and the shoulders of the tenon have to be adjusted exactly so that:
1. The neck joint will be strong and secure
2. The neck angle will be correct
3. No unsightly gaps will be visible.
I'll make and fit the neck joint with the components square and flat as shown above
and assemble it later after shaping and carving. The mortise is roughed out with a
forstner bit on a drill press using a jig to hold the body at the 4 1/2 degree angle so that
the floor of the mortise is flat and at the correct angle. The mortise is then cleaned up
and squared with chisels. To establish the 4 1/2 degree angle on the top of the body I
will use my tablesaw with the blade tilted at 85 1/2 degrees and just bevel off the top
to the line of the bottom of the fretboard. Then keeping the same blade angle I'll cut
the shoulders of the tenon. Hopefully, all that will result in an accurate, snug,
gap-free joint that I'll be proud to call my own.
September 12, 2003.......
September 22, 2003.....
I cut and fitted the neck joint at Paul Lloret's and in my own shop as described above.
Final fitting had to wait until I had established the surface angle of the top around the
OK, I got my package of parts from StewMac, so I've been comfortable proceeding
with things now that I can check dimensions etc. against the reality of the
components. First, though this wasn't really hardware-dependent, I began the
carving/profiling of the top by establishing the slope where the neck intersects the
body. The ebony fingerboard will be glued to the mahogany neck and will rest directly
atop the neck tenon, extending over the body on three sides thereof, so the top's profile
has to be correct in this spot, and the top of the tenon must be perfectly flush with the
top of the body. All the rest of the shaping of the top follows from this junction. So to
get that right, I turned to my table saw:
I drew the outline of the neck
joint on the side of the body
blank. That indicates where I
will need to cut to establish
the slope of the top at the
mortise. I the tilted the saw
blade to the 4 1/2 degree angle
I mentioned earlier and
clamped the body to a tall
fence to help keep it square as
I made the cut. The
horizontal lines you can see on
the top mark (from bottom to
top) 1) the end of the
fretboard and thus the end of
the 'critical zone' for the slope
of the top, 2) the location of
the bridge, which will be the
highest point on the guitar's
'belly', and 3) the point at
which the belly levels off at
Once I had made that cut and roughed in the longitudinal profile of the top, I finished
fitting the mortise and tenon joint so that the top surface of the (fingerboardless) neck
is completely coplanar with the mating portion of the body. The photo below shows
the mating body and neck blanks (the neck is turned around--the beveled side of the
neck faces down when attached to the body. I will refine the shape of the heel later):
Below is the joint fitted together; you can see the orientation of the heel and also the
angle at which the neck tilts away (what I've been talking about all this time):
I decided to carve the lenghwise curve of the belly into the entire body blank before
bandsawing the final shape. I figured that would make things easier, and I think I
figured right. Below is a good view of the front-to back curvature of the top. This
profile will only remain at the center line of the guitar after I bandsaw the body
shape and complete the carving of the top
Note: Here you can easily see the mahogany (dark) body and maple top. That's just
over a half inch of maple atop just under two inches of mahogany. I'm not sure what
the mahogany/maple proportions Gibson uses in their Les Paul. It probably varies; the
wide edge binding could conceal large fluctuations. In my guitar the maple will be quite
thin at the edges and a full 1/2 inch think under the bridge.
And now I turn my attention to the neck. The peghead, or headstock, needs to be
tilted back from the neck so the strings go over the nut at the top of the neck. One
way this is accomplished is by use of a scarf joint. To make this joint you cut
diagonally through the neck, then flip over the offcut and glue it back on to the
other side. Sounds harder than it is, though it's kind of painstaking to get the (large)
surfaces nice and flat so that the joint is neat and strong. Below is the glueup
operation. Both pieces are clamped perpendicular to the workbench after glue is
applied, then they are clamped together.
If you're paying very close attention you may have noticed that the peghead is thinner
than the neck. This is because the thickness of the peghead is determined by the
adjustment range of the tuning machines. That's one of the things I had to wait on
hardware for. Once I knew that measurement, I could thin the peghead properly
(allowing for an ebony peghead veneer that will hide the scarf joint from the front)
and go ahead and glue this up.
With that done, I moved on to installing the truss rod. This is a device that allows the
curvature of the neck to be adjusted if necessary to counteract the pulling force of
the strings. The truss rod is a steel rod that is slightly curved downwards towards
the bottom of the neck so that tightening it forces the center of the neck upwards...
oh, just look at the picture...
OK, you see the neck? Just below it is the truss rod. Curved a bit along its length,
bent down at the body end to anchor in a hole, washer at the peghead end against
which a hex-key nut bears to exert tension. Clear? I cut the channel very carefully
on the table saw, being sure to get it centered and exactly the width of the truss rod
for a snug fit. Cut the channel for the washer with a very small chisel. Below the
truss rod is the mahogany spline that I'll glue in to fill the channel atop the truss rod.
And here's the truss rod in place... After taking this photo I glued in the spline and
planed it flush with the neck surface.
And then it was time to turn my attention back to the body. First I applied a
posterboard template to the body blank, being exceedingly careful to center and align
the neck mortise properly. An error here and the neck will point the wrong way! I
marked the locations for the bridge and tailpiece holes when I made the template, so
while I'm here I use an awl to transfer these to the body. I'll continue to use these
reference holes as I carve the top, deepening them as I go...
Hey, it's starting to look like a guitar! I carefully bandsawed the body to the
template and used rasps, files, and sandpaper to fair the curves of the edges. The
Les Paul is just about two inches thick all around the edge, then more or less flat
for an inch or two in, then the belly begins. So to give myself a reference for
carving, I began by marking the two inch line all around the edge. Then I wanted
to establish the one-inch-in flat area. I did this with the tablesaw, in an admittedly
somewhat dangerous operation. (Being very aware that a situation is dangerous is
most of the battle, though; I was Extremely careful.) I set the blade height for one
inch, put the high fence back on the saw, and sort of turned the body around,
cutting the ledge around most of the body. I kept hands well clear of the blade!
Next I set about the arduous and challenging job of carving the top into a
graceful and elegant profile. First thing you'll notice if you try this is that there's
a LOT of wood to be removed. I have used every tool at my disposal to get
down to the goody here: tablesaw, belt sander, hand power sander, hand saw,
planes, chisel, gouges, scrapers. I'm about to get a method figured out, though,
and I should be able to finish the carving in another couple of sessions...as of
right now (9/22) I'm around halfway through. Here's a shot in progress,
showing the 'ledge' created by the operation shown above..
I took the body in pretty much this shape up to a guitar store in Charlotte so I
could compare it with an actual Les Paul and try to get the contours in my
head and in my hands. I'm doing ok I think... more later.
|THIS IS NOT MY GUITAR.. THIS IS THE GUITAR I WAS TRYING TO
EMULATE. To see my finished guitar, click here.
|THIS IS NOT MY GUITAR.. THIS IS THE GUITAR I WAS TRYING TO
EMULATE. To see my finished guitar, click here.