Building a Les Paul - 4
OK, so after I scraped the binding flush with the top I fiddled around with sanding and put
some pore filler on the mahogany to make the back, sides and neck smooth. I used dark, to
emphasize the grain. I put in black dot position markers on the side of the neck binding
(where they're visible to the player). I glued the neck to the body. Then it was a matter of
waiting around for an opportunity to get up to Paul Lloret's shop again and make use of his
Once there, I first sanded the entire guitar (excluding fretboard) down to 800 grit.
Then I carefully masked the fretboard in preparation for spraying on the vinyl sealer coat over
the entire guitar (less fretboard of course)..
At this point (photo below) the sealer coats have been applied and are dry, the neck, sides, and
back have been masked, and I'm preparing to spray on the first color coat of lacquer. I'll color
the sunburst on the top using tinted lacquer rather than staining the wood itself. It's easier to
control this way, and much easier to reverse if I really mess it up. The first coats are yellow, to
acheive a nice golden color over the whole top; I'll apply the red around the edges afterwards.
These shots show show some of the progress in applying the red part of the sunburst. The
bridge and tailpiece holes are stuffed with paper to prevent lacquer buildup inside. Paul and I
were experimenting with the color density in the lacquer, so it took quite a few coats and quite
a bit of "add more red.. lots more red! And brown!" to get the color right.
And here again I skip some steps, as far as photo documentation. After the color coats, I
removed the masking from all but the fretboard and began applying the clear protective
lacquer coats. I was on a weekend trip and had to go back home, so Paul helped me out
greatly by putting on six to eight clear coats over the next week or so, and It wasn't until
after Christmas that I got my hands on it again. I rubbed the raw glossy finish out to a
warm satin shine with 0000 steel wool and cotton cloths, and then it was time for
hardware, so I first installed the tuners and the bushings for the bridge and tailpiece.
Yes, it sounds good. Awesome in fact, to my ears. And, wonder of wonders, it PLAYS
great. I did a bang-up job on the neck, frets, nut, all those picky, finicky things where a
few thousandths of an inch can make the difference between something good and
something else. I seem to have gotten them all right somehow. Paul says I sell myself
short, that I've been paying my dues and developing my skills over these past several years
building furniture etc., but I really don't know how I built such a good guitar on my first
attempt. OK, yes I do... I studied first, I was very careful, and I had Paul Lloret to guide
Note: the photo below makes the frets look as if they're curved and bending every sort of
way. They're not.
Gibson colors the mahogany backs of their Les Pauls a distinct red, but I liked the look
of the natural wood so I didn't color it at all. It'll darken naturally over time and in the
meantime I think it looks great like this.
Technical data: Dimensions and construction details are per a measured drawing of a
Gibson '54 Les Paul Custom. Body and neck are mahogany with carved figured maple
top with creme plastic binding. Fretboard and peghead veneer are ebony with mother
of pearl inlays. Finish is nitrocellulose lacquer. Fretwire is medium. The neck pickup
is a Gibson '57 Classic; the bridge pickup is a Gibson '57 Classic Plus. Tuners are
Grover Deluxe. Wiring differs from standard Gibson in that I reversed the positive and
negative pickup leads on the volume pot lugs, which allows the volume controls to
operate independently when the switch is in the middle position. (Note: I have since
changed my mind about this and gone back to 50's wiring)
I have had inquiries about building for sale (which is immensely gratifying, thank
you!) but I'm not accepting orders.
When the top was colored to my satisfaction and the lacquer dry, I painstakingly
scraped the colored lacquer off the top of the edge binding. This is the little edge of
the binding that's visible around the edge of the guitar when viewed directly from the
front. I did this by scoring with an exacto knife along the edge between the binding
and the wood, then very carfully lifting away the lacquer with the chisel. In the
picture below I have done most of the upper bout; you can see where the progress
has ended just above the tip of the chisel.
Then it was time for the electrical components: switch, control pots, pickups, and output
jack. Like the binding, this went better than I had expected. I had studied the wiring
diagrams carefully, and also bought a video on "Wiring the Gibson Guitar" with the
redoubtable Dan Erlewine, so I was prepared. I did make one mistake in the wiring that
eventually led to me briefly setting the guitar on fire---twice It's a funny story, remind me
to tell you about it.... Anyway, at this point I was able to make the guitar speak (not sing
yet) by plugging it in and tapping on the pickups. I confirmed that the pickups and all the
controls worked properly, which was a big relief!
Below is the control cavity seen from the back; you're looking at the undersides of the
volume (left) and tone (right) controls, which are knobs more properly known as
potentiometers, or pots. The braided silver wire you see coming in at upper left is from the
pickups, and is soldered to the volume pots; the black wires (hard to see) that come out of
that same hole are the wires to and from the pickup selector switch. The volume pots are
wired to the tone pots through rust-colored capacitors that help bleed off treble as the tone
knob is operated. The red and black wire at the top is the string ground which runs to the
tailpiece ferrule, the white wires carry the ground circuit from pot to pot, and the
blue-wrapped black wire goes to the output jack.
Then I made the nut, which is the piece at the far end of the fretboard that establishes the
endpoint of the vibrating portion of the string, between the tuners and the frets. This was
another tetchy little piece of work, critical to the playability and performance of the guitar,
and amazingly once again, despite my worry and trepidation, I just kind of whipped it out
in no time and apparently I did a really good job. Made it out of bone, by the way. THEN
I was able to plug it in and let it sing and make the final adjustments to bridge height,
pickup height, nut height, etc.
And drum roll please.... here is my new guitar.
The line across the bottom of the back of the
headstock is the rear end of my scarf joint, which
was just a trifle messy. I considered thinning the
whole headstock down to take it out, but decided
not to... next one I make I might just veneer the
back and have done with it. Or leave it a little thick
so I can take it down past this line.. let me think
Here's the back of the neck, showing the joint.