Building a Les Paul - 2
October 27, 2003
So here's the next installment. I finished carving the top into a pretty close approximation of
a fair curve. I have no doubt that the top is not shaped QUITE like that of a genuine Gibson
Les Paul. I suspect that mine is a hair squarer on top, but I'm satisfied. Eventually I got
into a pretty good rhythm with gouge, curved scraper, and sandpaper, so the second half
went a good bit more smoothly than the first. The curves are a good bit fairer than the
image pixellation reveals, by the way.
Warning: Long text discussion follows:
Once I had that done, I began working on the fretboard. I had a large false start, which
I'll describe because it's instructive. But first, let's talk a bit about fretboards. This is
where the frets are seated, where the left hand forms the chords and/or selects individual
notes to be played. It is easily the most critical area of the instrument both in terms of
'accuracy' of the notes and the 'feel' of the guitar. In other words, I didn't want to
screw it up. A guitar fretboard is usually made of rosewood or, as in this guitar, ebony,
and it starts life as a flat and square piece of wood, but ends up with its edges tapered
and it surface radiused (rounded over) to ease playing. The frets are set into slots cut
into the fretboard. Where the slots are cut is extremely critical for note accuracy; in
guitar construction guides fret slot measurements are often given with four decimals.
So to simplify construction and try to ensure a certain level of quality and accuracy, I
purchased a fretboard that was pre-radiused and pre-slotted. This would spare me from
the two most exacting tasks. All I'd have to do was inlay the mother-of-pearl position
markers and taper the sides. So I began inlaying. But there was trouble. The position
markers I had slected are large, and occupy most of the space between the frets. So
when I started cutting in the edges with a chisel, I began blowing out whole chunks of
the fretboard between my chisel and the fret slot, which was only a couple of milimeters
away. Having done this a few times I decided to take another tack. I bought an
unradiused, unslotted fretboard blank and used the preslotted one to mark the fret
locations, which I scribed into the new fretboard with a marking knife. I marked a
centerline down the fretboard and also on each position marker. Then I used
double-sided tape to hold the markers in position while I carefully scribed around them
with the knife. The photo below shows this stage. You can see the scribed fret
locations; the mother-of-pearl markers are resting on the surface of the fretboard. For
those of you keeping score, yes, the inlays are appropriate to a Les Paul Custom, when
my stated intent is to build a Les Paul Standard. I'll be happy to discuss it with you if
you ask me.
I then roughed out the inlay recesses with a router bit mounted in the drill press and
finished up with chisels. I glued the inlay into the recesses with epoxy mixed with ebony
sawdust, which fills gaps wonderfully, leaving them almost invisible. In the photo below
the inlays have been glued in and sanded flush, and you can see penciled arrows marking
remaining gaps that needed to be filled with the epoxy/sawdust mixture. By the way
again, pixellation does squirrelly things to diagonal edges... I assure you all the inlay
pieces are nice and straight!
The photo also shows the neck with the headstock veneered with ebony and bandsawed
to profile. The hole in the headstock allows access to the truss rod and will be covered
by a plastic plate. The only trick here is that the bottom of the headstock veneer will
meet the back side of the nut. Since the headstock angles away, that edge of the veneer
needs to be beveled so that there won't be a gap at the nut. This was easily done (before
gluing on the veneer) by carfully cutting that edge of the veneer with the blade on my
tablesaw set to that same angle. On a Gibson, the headstock is not veneered but painted
black with a "Gibson" logo inlaid and the "Les Paul" logo silkscreened. Since I am
passing on those two embellishements I figured I'd just veneer it for a classy, understated
OK, now I traveled to Paul Lloret's Virginia workshop for some serious neck work and did a
few steps without keeping up with photo documentation (sorry). First, I cut the fret slots
using a miter box specifically designed for fret slotting that Paul happened to have. I then
tapered the edges of the fretboard to their final profile using the tablesaw. I marked on the
neck the profile of the finished fretboard (including binding) and roughed it out to that line
on the bandsaw. I then glued the fretboard to the neck, which left a nice little ledge to
which to glue the binding using plastic cement. The neck and the top edge of the body are
both bound with creme-colored plastic, which lends a refined air while protecting the thin
edge grain of the top and the fretboard. Here is the neck after all this has gone on. I will
shape the back of the neck after fretting.
I mentioned the radius of the fretboard earlier ...most Gibsons have a 12 inch radius, so that's
what I went with. Paul happened to have a radiusing caul on hand (one of the reasons I went
to Virginia to work on the fretboard!), which is shown below along with the newly-radiused
neck. Adhesive sandpaper and some elbow grease is all that's required for this step. The little
block below the neck tenon is just a temporary extra handhold.
...And here's the man himself: Paul Lloret, luthier, mentor, father-in-law, bon vivant, assisting
me by cutting fretwire to lengths that match the slots. Note the fret holder with numbered
holes that conveniently keep cut frets in order.
So once the frets are cut they must be prepared. Fretwire is mushroom shaped in cross
section, with the round top being the portion that the strings contact and the 'stem' (known as
the 'tang') fitting into the slot in the fretboard. The tang has teeth that help hold it fast.
However, on a bound fretboard the binding is not slotted, so the tang must be trimmed back.
Also, the fret must be bent so that it will follow the radius of the fretboard. Actually, it is
overbent somewhat, so that the ends can be tapped into the slot with a fretting hammer, and
then (in this case) the fret is pushed into place using a caul of the correct radius mounted in a
drill press. A little glue is placed in the slot first to help hold the fret tight. Traditionally, frets
are seated entirely with a hammer, but the press-in method is much easier and more accurate,
especially for the beginner! In the photo below, the pressing caul is the little gizmo in the
center with the red and white label. This is Paul's drill press, and we're ready to fret!
And here are the first two frets in place. They will of course be trimmed and filed flush with the
edge of the binding, then careful leveling and dressing of the frets will commence (and be
described later). The dark vertical mark on the side of the neck is a wormhole, common in
mahogany. It will pretty much disappear when I do the final shaping of the neck.
Back at home, I completed the pressing-in of the frets and did a bit more work on the
body, drilling out the control cavities in the back. Some solidbody guitars (notably Fenders)
have essentially solid backs. Knobs and wiring are all installed from the front, with the
holes and channels hidden by pickguards. Les Pauls, among others, have the electronics
installed from the back. Below I am roughing out the control cavities using a Forstner bit
in my drill press. These cavities are connected with each other and with the pickup
cavities in the top via a long channel that enters at the jack hole on the edge of the guitar
and ends in the switch cavity in the upper bout, running through the center of the body.
For this I borrowed an extra-extra-long (15 inches or so) 3/8 inch bit from Paul. Worked
like a charm. In this photo you can see just how thin the maple top becomes at the edge of
the body; the body is being held in a jig I made that supports it around the edges, allowing
it to rest level while the 'belly' protrudes below.
As of today (10/27/2003) I have completed machining the control cavities and holes in the
body, drilled the holes for the tuning machines in the headstock, and mostly finished installing
and dressing the frets. (Photos will be provided eventually!) Next steps are to rout the ledge
for and install the body binding and do the final shaping of the neck. Then, drum roll please,
glue the neck to the body and prepare for coloring and finishing. That promises to be
exciting. Then I'll wire up and solder the electronics, install the hardware, fashion the nut,
tweak the setup, probably discover a half-dozen serious construction problems.... but I'm
getting ahead of myself...