What is an Acoustic Guitar?
An acoustic guitar is a stringed instrument, made with a hollow wooden body and neck.
They differ from electric guitars in many ways, mainly how they amplify sound.
Acoustic guitars are unique because the sound is resonated through their bodies, where electric guitars use pick-ups and an amplifier to create a louder sound. Acoustic guitars are used in a wide variety of music.
The process of designing and building acoustic guitars is a practice performed by Luthiers. Although this shouldn’t stop you from having a go yourself.
Many people have made guitars at home, it’s a fun and rewarding process that requires a few ingredients and a fair amount of hard work. But at the end of it, you have made a new guitar!
This is a fairly complex procedure, with woodworking experience and power tools required.
The guitar design should be planned well in advance, ensuring all tools and equipment are purchased ahead of time. Otherwise, there is a risk of getting to a stage in the process and realizing you are missing something very important which can create problems in the build.
You will need a clear workspace as this is a messy job, if you decide to paint your guitar, it will need a safe place to dry in.
Kits vs Scratch
There are two choices for building a guitar, either building it from scratch or using a kit.
DIY Acoustic guitar kits can be great for beginners as they provide all the parts and have had most of the difficult tasks done.
An acoustic guitar is harder to build than an electric guitar due to its hollow body design. Although working with the wood of an electric guitar is harder because they use a solid block, where acoustics use thinner pieces.
When you build a guitar from scratch, there are more processes involved than using a kit. Power tools and saws need to be used.
This article explains how to build an acoustic guitar from scratch rather than a kit. Most kits come with instructions the explain their building process.
Choosing a style, shape, and size.
There are many different styles of acoustic guitar design, each with unique shapes, characteristics, and features. The specific measurements for each model will differ, usually, templates can be found online.
Popular acoustic guitar types include grand concert, parlor, auditorium, dreadnought, jumbo, archtop, and classical.
The easiest shapes to build are parlor, concert, classical, and dreadnaught, as their curvatures are not as complicated as other styles. Jumbos and auditorium styles are harder to build because of their cutaways and exaggerated curves.
Archtops are probably the hardest style of all, and should only be attempted by an experienced luthier who understands how to carve the soundboard.
Adding electric pickups to acoustic guitar
It’s easy to install electric pickups into an acoustic guitar, this opens up options for amplification, effects, and recording. There are a few different styles of pickups for acoustic guitars, some can be clipped straight in, others need space cutting out of the wood.
If you want to build an electro-acoustic guitar, settle on the pickups you want to use before building, and incorporate them into the design.
How to build an acoustic guitar: an overview.
Before getting into it, here is an overview of the steps we will take to build an acoustic guitar.
- Selecting Woods.
- Cutting and fitting the wood.
- Cutting the soundhole.
- Fitting braces.
- Molding and bending the sides
- Kerfing, inlays, neck fitting.
- Assembling and binding body.
- Preparing the neck.
- Creating and attaching fretboard.
- Attaching Bridge and pickguard.
- Applying Finish.
- Final steps.
The whole process can take anywhere from a couple of days to weeks. This is a lengthy project and takes concentration and patience to do a good job.
The glue and finish must be left to dry properly. If not enough time is left for the chemical process to complete, the construction quality will be flimsy. Stringing an acoustic guitar before the glue has set can misplace or even break the wood.
What you need
Below is a list of items needed for building an acoustic guitar.
- Wood: 4 large thin pieces for the body.
- Spare wood pieces for mold (planks and blocks)
- Guitar neck (premade or blank).
- (rosewood blank or pre-slotted/pre-fretted).
- Glues and Sealant (Superglue, wood glue, Titebond, silicone sealer).
- (as many as you can get, the stronger and more adaptable the better).
- Clothes pegs (50+).
- 6 x (tuning pegs).
- Kerfing Strips
- Clear-Coat Aersol guitar finish lacquer.
- Premade guitar Rossette, or abalone.
- A and saddle.
- Chisels (multiple sizes).
- (coarse to fine grit).
- Files and Rasps (round and flat).
- Orbital Sander
- Electric Drill and Multiple Drill Bit sizes
- Rotary Tools
- Old rags.
- Tape Measure and Ruler.
- Safety Gear: Gloves, goggles, respiratory mask.
Steps to Building an Acoustic Guitar
Building an acoustic guitar requires many tools and ingredients. Not only is a large quantity of high-quality wood needed, but several types of glue, woodworking tools, clamps, finishers, and a workspace are just some of the requirements.
Some parts of the guitar including the truss rod, nut, inlay, tuning posts, and electronics are very difficult to self-produce, so it is advised you purchase these as pre-manufactured parts. The metal parts need to be made using high-quality machining tools, something you probably don’t have access to or know how to use.
We recommend you buy a premade neck, fretboard, and bridge. A blank neck can be a great option as they have carvable headstocks for your design, whilst saving time on the fiddly measurements and sculpting of the neck’s curvature. Manually carving a neck is difficult without specialized power tools, and if made sloppily it won’t feel good to play.
1. Selecting the Wood
The first stage is to select the wood pieces for the acoustic guitar. This is a very exciting stage and will define much of the finished guitars’ look and tone.
Choosing the right kind of wood isn’t as simple as buying a couple of planks from the hardware store. Many professionally made acoustic guitars use special wood that is farmed, dried, and cured specifically for the guitar-making process.
Each luthier has its preference for wood materials, even the way the wood is treated and stored after being cut. Understanding guitar wood is almost a bit of a dark art, wrapped in tradition and folklore.
A few different types of wood are needed. The front-facing soundboard should be a different style of wood to the side pieces – traditionally the sides are a darker wood like mahogany, and the face is lighter.
The neck and headstock wood is also important and has a huge effect on sustain, weight, and resonance. Electric guitar necks are often made from maple, and acoustic necks usually use mahogany woods due to their strength and lightness.
Fretboards are usually made out of rosewood. Making a fretboard from scratch is a pretty complicated process that requires perfect precision, otherwise, there is a risk the instrument won’t play in tune. For this reason, it can be a good idea for new Luthiers to start using premade fretboards. Creating fretboards takes a lot of effort and is easy to mess up.
Each wood has a different sound, based on its physical properties. Generally, more porous woods absorb more overtones, creating a warmer sound. Harder woods tend to be brighter with shorter decays. Studying the acoustics of wood is a whole field of knowledge in itself.
Also, not all wood will work well for a guitar, if the wood isn’t dried or treated properly, there is still room for chemical changes to happen, which will warp the guitar. Make sure you buy and use real guitar tonewood, not some random piece. Imagine, you go through all the effort of building a guitar, only to realize the wood you used wasn’t right, so the guitar sounds terrible and doesn’t tune!
These are the pieces of wood needed:
- The Top (Soundboard)
- Body Back & Sides
Following is a breakdown of wood materials and their suitability for different guitar parts.
- Cedar: Warm, Brighter than Spruce, easy to work and find
- Koa: Expensive, Beautiful look, ages well, starts bright, and matures to mid-range.
- Mahogany: Denser, heavier, darker, warmer sound, expensive, and harder to work.
- Spruce: Most common top material, light but strong, easy to work with. Medium bright sound, striking look. (Sitka, Engelmann, European, and Adirondack Spruce varieties are favored.)
Back & Sides:
- Koa: Strong choice for back and sides, great color, and warm resonance.
- Mahogany: Also dark color, strong mid-range tones. Use with a mahogany top for thickness, bluesy mid-range sound, or pair with a Spruce top to mellow it out.
- Maple: Less resonant, shorter decay, and fewer overtones. Compliments the soundboard without too much interference, brighter than mahogany. The light color look.
- Rosewood: High-end resonance, brighter playing response, dark look. Sharp attack with rich overtones. A holy grail of tonewood combinations when paired with a Sitka Spruce top.
- Walnut: A darker-mid range wood, similar to mahogany but lower resonance, brighter than rosewood.
- Mahogany: A common choice for neck wood as it is strong and sturdy, whilst carrying a good amount of resonance. This is commonly used in acoustic guitars with steel strings.
- Spanish Cedar: This wood is often used in nylon-stringed guitar necks due to its mellow tone.
- Maple: Lighter, this wood is more used for electronic guitar necks
- Maple: Bright sound with many overtones. Maple has tight pores, the overtones are not absorbed into the wood, and are left to propagate. Light Colored. More common as an electric fretboard than acoustic will require finishing for the best feel.
- Rosewood: This one of the most common choices of fretboard woods as it produces a warm tone, thanks to its oily pores which absorb much of the overtones. Does not require finishing like maple, nor need much maintenance. Darker than maple but not ebony.
- Ebony: A harder denser wood with a brighter tone and darkest look. Requires less conditioning than maple, as it absorbs oil from the fingers, creating a slick and lubricated feel. Harder to cut and carve than other woods though.
Higher quality wood will have a better tone. Using cheap laminates and compound wood may be nice on the wallet, but not so much on the ears.
The way the wood has been cut will also change its aesthetic. Some guitarists like to find book-matched wood that has a balanced and symmetrical look.
Some common wood textures include Quilted, Flamed, Striped, Curly, Spalted, Bookmatched. These affect both sound and aesthetics, as the texture is a result of the quality and growth of the wood.
Nicely matched pieces of wood can make breathtaking guitars that look excellent when polished. think spalted maple makes hella sexy guitars!
When choosing the woods, make sure the pieces are large enough size to be worked from a single piece, joining wood together should be avoided where possible.
Fundamental VS Overtone
Some woods have a more pronounced fundamental, others have more overtones. Ç
The fundamental is the core frequency of each note, and the overtones are the higher harmonics that are produced sympathetically to the fundamental.
More overtones result in a brighter sounding instrument, fewer results in a warmer and darker sound. Generally denser woods produce more overtones than softer types.
Finding the right balance between the frequencies requires both art and science. Luthiers will experiment with many different combinations of wood before settling on a final design.
The guitar’s wood is not the only factor that defines its sound, which is also affected by the skill of its creator, and the quality of the other parts.
2. Trimming and Fitting the Wood Pieces
The size of the wood depends on the intended style. Each design has a specification for the top back and sides measurement.
For example, a dreadnought model requires:
- 2 pieces of wood for the top and back, 8 ½ “ by 22”
- 2 side panels 5” x 32”
Once you’ve acquired all the necessary wood, the next stage is to start trimming it down to the right sizes.
Sometimes you can find pre-cut soundboard pieces. Other times you will need to draw a design and cut it down yourself with a manual or band saw.
If gluing multiple pieces together, use a clamp and lock the pieces together before gluing. Keep clamped until firmly dry, and chisel off any excess dried glue.
The wood may need to be sanded down to the appropriate thickness. The exact measurements depend on the design, but for a common style:
- Top Panel = 2.5mm
- Back Panel = 3.5mm
Start sanding with around 80 Grit sandpaper. Wrap it around a wooden block for support and sand away at a consistent pace. Using an orbital sander will save a lot of time here.
A useful tip is to make a template of the guitar body shape on a piece of clear plastic. This template can be used to trace the shape onto the wood for cutting. This will provide more accuracy and reliability than drawing by hand. Drawing freehand is a very risky idea and you could end up with a misshapen guitar.
You can find many great templates online, either buy a preprinted sheet or print your own. Choose a design that suits your playing style, you may or not want a cutaway or a particular body shape.
Place the template on the wood, and follow the border with a pencil.
Once the template has been drawn onto the wood, it’s time to cut the wood using a band saw. An electric saw will provide a cleaner edge than a handsaw.
Avoid cutting right to the pencil line, aim to leave around ¼ ” overhang as we will be removing the excess with sanding and more accurate tools.
Once the rough outline is cut, sand and file the edges closer to the pencil line. Be careful not to remove too much wood, as there is an opportunity to refine it later. But if you cut or sand too far in, it’s harder to fix the gap.
Repeat this process for the backplate.
3. Sound Hole, Rosette, and Back Inlay Strip
Cutting the Sound Hole
The next step is cutting out the soundhole. The sound hole is an essential part of the guitar and acts almost like a “mouth” that emits the amplified sound waves emanating from within the body.
There are a few different techniques for cutting soundholes, although some are restricted by access to certain tools. Most acoustic guitar factories use high-power rotary tools or dremels, which may be too expensive for a hobbyist.
In this case, a hand-sized rotary tool, such as this Dremel Kit, is a more affordable option that will also come into use at other stages of the process. These are relatively inexpensive investments that are really essential for anybody who wants to take the guitar building process seriously.
Again, use a paper or plastic template to mark out where the soundhole needs to be cut.
Typically acoustic guitars use a perfectly circular soundhole with an average diameter of 76.5mm. However, this may depend on the size of rosette you can purchase.
Unless you plan on making the rosette decoration yourself (which is fiddly and hard), the best choice is to buy a premade rosette, usually rosewood and abalone.
A larger instrument will need a larger soundhole and vice versa.
Once the soundhole tracing has been marked, cut a pilot hole in the center of the zone. Use the rotary tool to carve away any wood, taking it to within ¼” of the template marking. Once the hole is roughly carved, use sandpaper, rasps, or a file to shave off any excess wood.
The rosette should now fit into the soundhole and can be glued in place
Filling in Around the Rosette
Once the rosette has dried, there may be some gaps between it and the top wood. This space can be filled in using clear shellac or leveling gel. Fill the gaps with the gel using a knife, ensuring it is properly sealed. Remove any excess and leave to dry. The rosette should be fastened tightly to the soundboard without any wobble or air holes.
Adding the Back Inlay
On some guitars, the backwoods are joined together, which can leave a visible construction seam. This can be covered up with a back inlay. Not only does this hide the construction lines, but it adds a central focus point, and is an area for extra artistic detail.
Measure a length that covers the entire seam, and cut a thin strip of wood (<3mm). This is then glued over the seam.
The inlay piece should then be sanded or filed down until flush with the back panel. This may require additional sealing and shellac for a perfect join.
Bracing is an essential part of both the acoustics of the instrument and its durability. Follow a guitar bracing template that shows the best places to place the braces. The bracing wood choice will affect tone, but cedar is most commonly used.
Cut the brace pieces down to their rough sizes as given by the template, ensuring the grain runs longitudinally. They do not need to be fully carved at this stage.
Align the brace pieces before gluing to check they all fit as intended. Once happy with the arrangement, glue each piece to the board. Ensure each piece is clamped to the board as tightly as possible while the glue dries. Keeping the braces locked in position as they dry is essential to the overall integrity of the guitar. For this reason, make sure you have an adequate amount of quality clamps.
Once dried, shave off any excess wood on the braces, either with a chisel or router tool. Any unnecessary material will bulk up the build and will diminish resonance and sustain. Remove any bracing that covers the edge of the soundboard.
5. Making the Mold and Bending the Sides
This is probably the most complicated and difficult part of the whole process, but also mostly unavoidable. Sadly trees don’t grow in the shape of guitars, so the wood needs modifying.
The sides of guitars are made out of flat pieces of wood, so they have to be bent and set into the right curvature.
The mold (aka fixture) is required to lock the top and back to the sides, whilst they are being glued together, otherwise, the guitar would fall apart before the glue dried.
Acoustic guitar factories have custom-made metal fixtures that make bodybuilding a breeze. Fortunately, consumers can buy similar devices, usually made from wood. Buying a premade guitar mold can save several hours of work, but it will restrict you to only making guitars with that particular body shape and dimensions.
Making a guitar mold is relatively easy, and it can be reused and modified for successive guitar building projects.
Making the Mold
To make the mold, take 2 large, flat pieces of wood (large enough to fit the entire body size in), cut the body shape out of both pieces.
Next, take a load of wooden spacers (the height that you want your guitar to be deep), then sandwich these in between the 2 flat pieces and glue, and screw/nail together. The finished result should look similar to the image below. This mold needs to be fairly sturdy as it will fight a lot of resistance and tension from the bending wood. If it isn’t strong enough the fixture can snap apart, and the wood will lose its shape. If this happens the process must be restarted.
This allows the sides to be bent and locked into position whilst gluing to the top and back.
Alternatively a mold could be made from layering slabs.
Bending the Sides
Bending the sides can be a difficult process, using steam tools can make the wood easier to work with, and help with setting. When steaming the mold should be boxed in so the steam is trapped. A homemade steaming machine can be made using a kettle of boiling water, placed in a bowl inside the mold.
Place one side in, activate the steaming machine to increase flexibility, then clamp the panel in place along the border of the fixture so it takes the shape of the guitar side.
Additional blocks can be placed inside the mold, holding the side against the edges.
This may take several hours to set. Once set, repeat with the other side.
Trimming and Gluing
Sometimes the sides may take a bit of sanding and trimming to get to the perfect, flush dimensions. Some acoustic guitar designs taper the sides to create a less blocky, more rounded look.
The edges of the sides that join together need to be sanded to a flush crossover before gluing. Once it looks like the sides fit together accurately, apply glue and clamp tightly until dry. Keep the sides inside the mold to assist with the bonding.
6. Kerfing Strips, Tailpiece Inlay, and Fitting the Neck
Kerfing strips are an internal addition to the guitar body that improve the strength and solidity of the body. Kerfing strips are usually made of Basswood or Mahogany and are long slotted wooden strips that are glued to the interior edge of the side pieces.
These can be self-made, but to save time I buy them pre-made. You will need enough length of kerfing to glue around the entire edge of the body, on both the front and backside. So measure around your template and make sure you purchase the right quantity of strips.
These are attached to the sides using Titebond Glue, with around a 1mm overhang. Now it’s time to bust out the clothes pegs! Hold the kerfing in place whilst it dries by pinning it to the sides with clothing pegs, use around 2 pegs every inch. This could take around a day to dry.
Once dried, chisel off any protruding edges of the kerfing, ensuring it is flush with the top edge of the sides.
Next, a block of wood needs to be installed for the Tailpiece Inlay. This helps strengthen the guitar and creates an area of sturdy wood for strap pins to be attached to. This will bear the weight of the guitar so it needs to be glued very securely. The wood material is up to you, but it should be the same height as the sides, and about 1 inch thick. Using the rotary tool, a ⅛” channel can be cut into the block to make room for the inlay. Once the inlaid wood is carved to the right size, it should slot in and be glued.
Fitting the Neck
The neck needs to be attached firmly to the body. Buying pre-carved necks will save a lot of time and stress. Carving necks is a detailed and precise task that needs to be performed by a professional, or a machine, for the best results. Having a low-quality or scrappy neck will lower the playing quality of the guitar, creating severe intonation and tuning issues.
Pre-made necks often have the truss-rod and headstock installed, which is a huge bonus.
Bolt-on necks tend to be the easiest to install and most sturdy. First, a neck block mortice needs to be glued to the inside of the body. Next, cut out a section of the side panes that is large enough to slot the heel of the neck into. This should be as tight and precise fit as possible. Some sanding may be required.
Mark out bolt hole areas, by lining up the holes on the neck heel with the mortice block. Then drill these holes through the side panel and mortice. The neck can now be bolted into the mortice block and glued. Ensure the neck is aligned properly before gluing.
7. Assembling and Binding the Body
The next stage involves gluing the top and back panels to the sides, and creating our guitar body!
Place the faceplate face down, then place the sides on top and align them so they match the edge of the soundboard. Mark any places where the bracing comes into contact with the kerfing.
Some areas of the bracings may need trimming to fit correctly.
Once is lined up use a generous amount of Titebond glue to stick the soundboard to the sides. This should be clamped tightly together whilst drying.
Once the top and sides have bonded and dried, the back can be attacked. The process is similar. Make sure it is aligned and any excess bracing trimmed. Then glue and clamp with Titebond.
Voila, we now have a beautiful acoustic guitar body
Binding the Body
Binding is the fancy edging that covers up the joining seams where the top and back connect to the sides.
Binding materials are up to you, get creative! Most acoustics use a lighter colored binding, sometimes curly maple or spruce. You can also use synthetic materials.
These strips may need to be left soaking in water overnight.
Align the binding to the edges, making sure it covers any seams well. Add a small blob of glue to the start of the binding, and hold over the edge.
Progress along the length of the binding, adding more glue every couple of centimeters to ensure a consistent seal. Dab off any excess glue with a cloth before it dries!
My advice, start by binding the backside first, that way you can get a feel for the process and any mistakes will be less visible and hidden at the back of the guitar.
Once one face is fully dried, move onto the other side and repeat. Finally, trim off any excess binding, sometimes there may be some overlapping pieces that can be cut, then sanded flush.
8. Preparing the Neck
Depending on the neck purchased, it may need additional preparation before attaching to the body.
First, the butt of the neck may need cutting down to length, often the blanks are made with longer butts that overhang the body. The butt should be flush cut to line up with the sides, not extending beyond, sometimes a little sanding is needed for the perfect alignment.
You may want to stain the neck wood to match it to the body of the instrument. To stain the wood, sand it down with 240 grit, then apply a coat of stain (Behlen American is good). Once the stain dries, resand and apply another stain coat. Finish by rubbing with steel wool.
Next, we need to plan out the headstock, including plotting and drilling the holes for tuning pegs.
It’s worth making a paper template to play around with placements and dimensions before committing it to the wood. Make sure you have measured enough room for the tuning pegs to fit symmetrically, with access to turn the pegs easily. Make sure the pegs are free to turn and won’t get stuck on the wood.
First drill 6 pilot holes, then expand with a larger drill bit or rotary tool. These holes need to be a perfect size to tightly fit the tuning pegs (aka Machine Heads), so measure their radius and choose a matching drill bit, usually around ⅜”. If possible, use a drill press for extra accuracy and consistency.
The pegs are not fully screwed into the wood until after finishing, so remove them and place to one side for now.
9. Headstock Logo Inlay
It’s a cool idea to add a logo graphic or text to the headstock. This adds some extra unique creative flair and is a good way to advertise your skills as a luthier.
Most guitars include a logo and the name of the guitar manufacturers, have some fun and design your guitar logo!
Once you are happy with the design, transfer it to a paper template, and trace with a pencil onto a headstock. Using a router or chisel, hollow out the design area to a depth of around 2mm.
Now you need to select a material for the logo, this could be anything really, maybe a contrasting wood color, or some shiny abalone or mother of pearl. The logo material is then precisely cut into the desired shape, which should hopefully slot into the hollowed area. Ideally, this material will be the same depth (~2mm) as the hole.
Mix Titebond with graphite powder, fill the hollow channel with the glue mix and insert the logo piece. Tap it in with a hammer until it is firmly wedged in the slot.
This will need to be clamped until dry. Afterward, sand off any glue remnants, and file down the logo until it is flush with the headstock.
For more precise designs and perfect text fonts, using a CNC or laser cutting machine can mechanically cut the headstock and logo material. This is how most guitar factories install the Peg Head Inlays.
Doing a text design by hand rather than a machine will take a great amount of skill and practice.
Alternatively, using stickers or decals is a cheaper way to get custom logo designs on the headstock of your guitar.
10. Fret Board
The fretboard is a very important, and sensitive component of the guitar. If the fretboard is even slightly wrong, the guitar won’t play well or could be completely unusable and untunable.
Because of the maths involved with guitar string tuning, the fretboard must conform to perfect measurements, else the scales, octaves, and chords will not function properly, and could sound out of tune.
Fret positions are calculated based on a complex formula. Fortunately, some tools help calculate correct fret placement measurements.
Buying a fretboard
If this is the first guitar you are making, the best idea would be to get a premade fretboard, or at least pre-slotted. This saves tonnes of time and mitigates the chance of messing up the fret measurements and scale length.
Premade fretboards have the fret slots cut and fret wires installed, also the inlays and binding are often included. Pre-slotted boards have the fret slots cut, but not filled, so the fret wires and binding will still need to be installed.
This is an example of a fully premade model neck with headstock and frets,
To make your fretboard, you’ll need some wood (typically rosewood), , more binding material, some abalone or mother of pearl for the fret dot inlays, patience, and a keen eye for measurement.
The advantage of making a custom fretboard rather than using a premade one is that it can be customized to your needs and playing style. The fretboard radius, scale length, fret sizes, fret count and shape can all be purpose-designed.
You can try to copy the dimensions of a guitar design that you know and love. For instance, if you have a fondness for the feeling of a Stratocaster neck, the information about fretboard lengths and dimensions is often listed on the manufacturer’s website.
Once the wood is cut to the correct fretboard size, the fret slots need cutting in. The frets should be measured out with a mathematical template and marked with a ruler and pencil. These marks are then cut with a band saw, followed by some planing and sanding to clean the edges.
The cuts need to be the right depth to fit the Fret Wire so that the frets are raised around 1-2mm from the surface of the fretboard. Installing the fret wire can be a bit fiddly. Once all the slots are cut, take the wire, lay it into the fret, then cut each end, so the resulting fret is slightly larger than the fretboard.
Apply some super glue below the fret wire to bond it to the fretboard wood. Tap it into place with a hammer, then use a snipper to cut each end closer to the wood, leaving around ⅛” excess on either side.
This excess is then hammered flat so that it is covered by the binding when applied.
For the inlay dots, use something like a Fortsener 1/4” bit to cut the reliefs holes, then insert the abalone dots and test. Use the Fortenser to make small holes at first, slowly expanding them until the dots fit tightly.
Holes can easily be expanded, but not so easily shrunk, so be careful to avoid removing too much wood! When the holes are the right size, apply some superglue to the relief and insert the dot. Remove any excess glue and sand until flush to the fretboard.
Its common practice to put 1 dot on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 15th, 17th, and 19th frets. Then two dots at the 12th fret. This pattern helps players identify key areas on the board and visually breaks down the notes.
The fretboard inlay is a great space to experiment creatively, it doesn’t have to be simple dots. Some guitars have beautiful, complex fretboard inlays made from shiny and rare materials!
11. Attaching the Fret Board
Once the fretboard itself is finished and dry, it’s time to attach it to the neck. Necks that have a truss rod, often have a slightly open channel in the area below where the fretboard is normally attached.
Any channel like this must be filled or covered before attaching the fretboard.
You can route an extra indent around this cavity so that a strip of wood can be slotted in to cover it. This strip of wood should be glued, then sanded till perfectly flush with the rest of the neck’s top face, any gaps can be filled with a silicone sealant.
Apply some sanding to the face of the neck a little to increase adhesive bonding, then apply a layer of glue to the face. Stick the fretboard onto this glue, line it up with the neck, squeeze tight and wipe away any glue drips.
This will need to be clamped at both ends, and usually in the middle. Necks have a slight curvature to them, which means the flat fretboard sometimes bends away. This should be clamped as tight as possible until fully dried, to prevent the fretboard from coming unstuck, and so that its shape conforms to the neck shape.
Once the glue has dried, remove the clamps, and chisel or sand off any excess dried glue. The edges of the fretboard should line up perfectly with the edges of the neck. This join area can also be sanded until smooth. Any ridges left here can interfere with playing.
12. Making the Truss Rod Adjuster Cove
Depending on the style of Truss Rod design in the neck, there may be an exposed cove, which provides access to the truss rod for adjustment. This cove will need to be covered, but not permanently, or else the truss rod is locked away and will be prevented from further adjustment.
Measure the edges of the cove, and cut a piece of wood with the same dimensions to fit in the slot.
Use a router to carve a small channel around the cove for the wood to sit on, with an appropriate depth for the wood to fit flush.
Rather than gluing, this piece of wood should be screwed into the cove so it can be opened later. Find a screw long enough to connect the lid with the cove. Drill a hole through the lid piece, place the lid on the cove. Then put the screw in the newly drilled hole and screw tightly into the routed lip of the cove.
This crafty technique allows the cover to be unscrewed, so the truss rod can be easily adjusted without having to break the neck. When a new guitar is born, often it takes a while for it to set, and adjust to the tension of the strings. Due to this, you may find the truss rod needs to be adjusted frequently at the start of the guitar’s life.
13. Making the Pick Guard
A pickguard will prevent scratching and wear around the soundhole and is just an essential part of the guitar’s visual style.
Get creative here, the pickguard can take any shape! The classic design is a teardrop shape with a slight cut-in that wraps around the soundhole. Look at your favorite guitar designs and make a template.
When you have a template you are happy with, trace it onto a piece of wood or plastic, and cut the shape out with a band saw or similar. The edges may need sanding down for smoothness.
Aim to use materials slightly thinner than 1/16th of an inch for the pickguard. This can be a great opportunity to recycle any wood scraps leftover from the body of the instrument.
Put the finished pickguard to one side, it will be attached once the guitar has been coated.
14. Measuring the Bridge
Now it’s time to attach the bridge. Don’t underestimate the requirement for precision at this stage. The bridge must be at a specific distance from the nut for working intonation, it also must be perfectly centered for proper string spread.
Buying premade bridges, pins, and saddles is a good idea, as they are usually made very precisely by machines, and are very fiddly to make manually.
Use tape to mark out the bridge area. Carefully measure the distance from the nut to the bridge.
To calculate this, take the scale length of your fretboard (e.g 24 inches), and half the number (12”).
This is the distance that the bridge must be placed from the 12th fret.
So with a scale length of 24”, the bridge must be 12” south of the 12th fret.
Measure the distance from the nut, and align the bridge, ensuring it is at a perfect 90° angle to the neck, perfectly straight. The measurement from the top of the bridge, to the top of the nut, and the bottom of the bridge, to the bottom of the nut, should be identical.
Sometimes it helps to sand the wood’s surface where the bridge is going to get glued, to help with bonding.
Draw a pencil line around the bridge, then tape up this area. We are not gluing the bridge until after the finishing coat.
The next stage is slightly messy, so using painter’s tape, cover up any areas that do not need a finish coat applied to them. This usually includes the bridge, soundhole, fretboard, and headstock inlay.
We are getting close now! The last few stages involve finishing the guitar, this means applying a coat of chemicals to seal the wood from the outside atmosphere. If you wanted to paint the guitar, do so before applying the coat of finisher.
This protects it from moisture and temperature changes which can cause warping and finishes the aesthetic of the guitar with a nice shiny (or matte) textured finish.
Choose an aerosol lacquer finish with the desired texture, gloss is shiny, matte has a smoother touch. This job should be performed in a well-ventilated space, or outdoors, and always using a respiratory mask, as inhaling finish chemicals is not a good idea!
Make sure any areas that don’t need varnishing are protected and covered with tape. This will include the fretboard, bridge, and soundhole.
The technique for finishing the guitar is as follows:
Spray 2-3 thin coats of finish around the entire body. Leave this to dry.
Then take some fine-grade sandpaper and buff this coat to a flat level. Follow by spraying another 2-3 coats. Repeat this process until the lacquer bottle runs out, or around 10 coats are achieved.
Sanding between each coat helps level out the microscopic troughs and peaks in the dried varnish. This helps with consistency, creating a solid layer of finish with no gaps or air bubbles. Without sanding in between each coat the finish may be prone to cracking.
A common stylistic choice is to stain the wood to add a sunburst look. This popular style is fairly easily made. If you want to do a sunburst design on your acoustic guitar, apply some wood stain before applying the finishing spray.
Take something like a , apply to a cloth, then rub around the edge surface of the guitar. Remove any excess. This process should be repeated until the desired design has been achieved. For a traditional sunburst look, using a dark stainer on a light maple is ideal. Generally, the stainer is concentrated more heavily around the edges of the instrument, with only a fine layer near the center.
16. Attaching the Bridge
Once the finish has dried, it’s time to attach the bridge and pickguard.
Unpeel the tape protecting the sanded bridge area. Place the bridge and perform any final alignments. Refer to the bridge manufacture specs and check on saddle depth and angle to ensure it is correct.
Starting with a 1mm bit, drill clearance holes through the soundboard for the bridge pins. This is where the guitar strings are threaded through and held in place with a pin. Ensure these line up properly and that the beaded end of a string can be threaded through easily.
Apply glue to the sanded area, and base of the bridge. This is then clamped into position until dry.
Any final alignment adjustments can be made whilst the glue is still wet.
Once dry, sand away any extra glue. Any gaps can be filled with a silicone sealer.
Attaching the Pickguard
Line the pickguard up with the soundhole, spread a thin layer of super glue around the back of the pickguard, leaving a slightly clear area around the edge so no glue is squeezed out when placed. Then place the pickguard on the soundboard to glue. Quickly correct any misplacement before the glue dries.
Flatten and remove excess glue. If desired, sand the edges flush with the soundboard.
17. Final Steps
Attaching tuning pegs & strap pins.
Now we can insert the machine head (tuning pegs) into their holes, and screw in place.
I like to put all the pegs in and align them before screwing, this assures the layout will be even without having to re-screw unnecessary holes for corrections.
Each style has a unique mechanism, but most machine heads are held in with a nut system, and a small screw to attach it to the wood.
If you want to attach a guitar strap to your new acoustic guitar, the easiest way is by installing some strap pins. These are easily added to a guitar by screwing them into the wood, one at the bass of the body, and one on the side near the neck.
Strings and tuning
All that’s left to do now is stringing and tuning the acoustic guitar. It might take you a while to find the best acoustic guitar strings for your build. Start with something like a 12 gage set, unless you have the taste for heavier or lighter strings.
Start by threading the low E string, then follow with the rest. Avoid fully tightening each string at a time, they should be brought up to tension simultaneously. Tighten each string a little amount each round.
An EADGBE tuning can create over 80kgs of tension, which puts the guitar’s construction strength to the test. Any issues in the build quality will start to show up here.
Depending on your preferences of playing feel, the tension might need to be slightly adjusted to get the desired action.
Tension can be changed by either using a different gage of strings or adjusting the truss rod.
If you find the action too high (strings too far from the fretboard), consider loosening the truss or swapping to a lighter gauge of strings.
It may take a few days or weeks for the guitar to set into the new tension of the strings, after which it will hold its tuning better.
There we have it! Hopefully, you are happy with your new instrument. This fascinating process requires skill, patience, and knowledge, but the reward is worth it.
You can buy guitar building kits that provide all the pieces in one package, which can save you from having to hunt around for small parts and wood. These kits can be a good starter project as they require fewer power tools, and much of the difficult and fiddly work is done for you.