Making a Carved Top Electric Guitar…Without Any Carving (Part 2)

So, in the first part, we did the initial carve and were left with this…


Next, I always lay out and rout for the pickups and neck pocket and drill pilot holes for the bridge.


With the addition of a recurve and a little light sanding to knock the edge off of the flat part, you’d pretty much have a “German carve”. But that is not the fate of this instrument, so we are going to move on to the “carving”.

Using a random orbit sander and 80 grit paper, I start to round over the flat top. Be careful to not hit the egdes (the “binding”) while doing this, but if you do it can be blended in later, but do be careful.

P1000986after one disc

P1000988after 2 discs

Now that there is a nice transition from top to the edges, I use a curved scraper to start a slight recurve. The recurve is the little drop from the edge of the guitar that transitions up into the slope to the top. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it definitely looks more professional when finished. Plus, when the light hits it after it’s lacquered, the few minutes it takes will be well worth it.


In Part 3 I’ll finish it off and show you some photos of the finished instrument. Cheers!


Making a carved top electric guitar with natural binding…without any carving. (Part 1)

For anyone with some wood working skills and the correct numbers, building a flat top electric guitar is really pretty simple. But a carved top seems like more of a daunting task. Well, it isn’t. With the right tools and a little finesse (and confidence) it can be accomplished quite easily. No CNC, no gouges, no planes. All you really need is a router and router table, a panel cove router bit, a router speed control, a random orbit sander and discs, and a cheap curved scraper. This is a bit of “guerrilla luthiery” for ya’ll…

Start by designing your instrument. Make a full size drawing, measuring carefully along the way. This method will not work well on a guitar shaped like Norway, so rein in the craziness. Just about any “guitar” shaped guitar can be made with this method so if it’s your first time, think Les Paul or PRS, not F5 mandolin! Once you’ve arrived at a shape, cut it out and glue it to a piece of 1/2″ MDF. Then cut and sand to the lines, and there’s your body template. That can then be double stick taped to a body blank and you can cut and sand to the edge of the template. Remember you generally want the edge of the guitar to be in the neighborhood of 1 3/4″ AFTER carving, though it’s possible to make the guitar thinner at the edge, so make sure you plan, draw, and double check your design…numbers are important in this business. Once your body is shaped, you’ll end up with something like this…


¬†Once the sides are nice and smooth, you are ready to set up your router table. Everything I used for this project I purchased at Rockler, and all in all, it was not that expensive. First, the router bit…a panel cove bit…
As you can see, this bit is big. Too big for the table insert. So it’s chucked into the Porter Cable 690 router OVER the insert. Then you can make a simple table surface from a piece of 3/4″ MDF. Just cut out a hole that is larger than the bit diameter and attach some small blocks to the bottom that will fit into the track on the table.
This surface will allow you to adjust the bit height correctly without it grinding on your table insert. Secure it with a clamp or two to keep it from moving into the bit while you’re cutting. Then you can adjust your bit height. This guitar has a 5/8″ quilted maple top. I want to leave 1/4″ of natural binding around the edge, so I simply take a piece of scrap, flatten one edge, and cut out a crude depth gauge for 3/8″.
So, now you’ve got your router table set up. BUT, if you turn on the router right now it will sound and feel like the whole thing is going to take off like a helicopter and fly around the room. This might be unlikely, but anything that detracts from your sense of security while building is dangerous. Confidence is important. So I always use a router speed control.
With this I can dial up the speed to a level I’m comfortable with. The extra advantage to this is that the speed can be set to a point where you are forced to take small, short, sweeping cuts into the body. If you try to just hog it all out in one pass, the decreased power to the router causes the bit to slow and you will hear it and know to back off. If the sound of the router stays constant, you’ll know you’re cutting the right amount. So, turn on your router at a slow speed and dial it up until it is nearly to take off speed. Then, using some scrap wood, make some test cuts. ALWAYS cut into/against the spin of the router!! NEVER let the bit climb or it will throw your yet unborn guitar thru the wall, or worse!! Now, you’re ready to cut.¬†
Lay the body face down, turn on your router, and begin making small sweeping cuts INTO/AGAINST THE SPIN OF THE BIT. Hold the body tight against the table, keeping your hands away from the bit. I generally stop at the tip of the cutaway(s) and just short of the neck pocket on a single cut guitar. These areas I will just do by hand later. So, make small sweeping cuts until you’re able to run the guitar all the way around with the bearing touching the body edge.
When you’re done, it will look like this…
As you can see, you have a nice even bit of natural binding and a very uniform slope up to the top surface…and the hardest part is done. Look for the rest of the “carving” process in Part 2. Cheers!

The Project

I work with, and sometimes at, a guitar shop in Scottsdale called Guitar Gallery, I have since I was 15 years old. Occasionally we get people bringing in some beautiful classic guitars. One day a lady came in with 8 instruments. There was a ’57 Gibson Switchmaster, a ’78 LP Jr, a ’52 reissue tele…great guitars. The last one she showed us was in her words, “some ugly piece of junk”. At first glance, she was right. Strat style body with a terrible spray paint refin. But, I immediately noticed the neck, a well aged Lake Placid blue Jazzmaster neck with the transition headstock, so mid ’60’s. Having worked in this business for 20+ years I knew there was something to this guitar, ugly as it may have been. So I told her I would investigate what was up. She was prepared to give it to me, but I couldn’t in good conscience take it, not with the feeling and vibe it was giving off. So I began…


The neck was indeed a ’65 Jazzmaster neck with schaller tuners on it, an ill advised mod on an old Fender because to function correctly more string trees are needed, and this had them…so the neck’s value was pretty much shot. The Fender neck plate dated to 1972 and I began to piece together a theory. Perhaps sometime around 1972 a Strat had suffered an unfortunate accident? Perhaps, since at that time a ’65 Jazzmaster wasn’t valuable, the neck had been replaced…hmmm. Well, the body WAS something special. My first clue was the tremolo, a wonderfully aged, but relatively clean Strat trem with “Pat. Pend.” stamped saddles, SCORE! With the pickguard removed I was able to completely date everything, body, pots, switch, cap, and the pickups to 1960. This was a gem, not a terribly valuable vintage guitar (besides the pickguard, of course), but a dream for a player. So I thought “I’m a player, and even after 30+ builds, I’ve never built a guitar for myself”. I called the lady and proposed that I buy the body and neck, and broker the sale of the very valuable 1960 pickguard assembly, which she agreed to quite ecstatically, having believed that this was a junk guitar. It was now my future guitar.

I immediately got to work stripping the finish.


I quickly found the signs of the original guitar’s, and it’s neck’s, unfortunate demise.


Since this part of the guitar isn’t actually very structurally important, this was an easy fix with a flood of superglue and some wood putty. Upon further inspection, I also discover it’s original color behind the tremolo claw, Fiesta Red.


She must have been a beauty.

As I prepared to lacquer the body, I decided to not use the Jazzy neck on my finished instrument. The tight 7.25″ radius just didn’t fit my playing style. I wanted a compound radius, 7.25″ to 10″. So, I made a new neck, one piece birdseye maple.


I chose to lacquer the guitar in black and with that neck, and for a Pink Floyd fan, there was only one option for the rest of the hardware and pickguard, right? So I made a pickguard of 1/8″ black acrylic, rounded the edges, collected the parchment parts together along with some Tone-Pros vintage style Kluson tuners, and with the lacquer cured, set to putting together my new instrument.


I loaded up the pickguard with Curtis Novak’s vintage Strat pickups, Mojo CTS pots, a vintage NOS Russian military capacitor, and traditional cloth wiring.


Then I assembled my new instrument. Here she is…


She’s light weight, plays like a dream, and sounds fantastic. I am a happy man, a happy man who plays a vintage 1960 Strat…almost!