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 look.
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'
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...