Building to a cost – is Sapele an answer?

Wandering around my local hardware store, I happened across a few off cuts of Sapele in early December. I had just built myself a guitar with which I had planned to start playing live again, but one of my customers had taken a shine to it so I let it go. So it seemed an opportunity. Could I turn cheap offcuts into a gigging instrument?

Brian May famously made his own guitar from reclaimed wood, I wasn’t thinking of quite so grand a project. But a good instrument on a budget, why not. It would prove once and for all that much of what we sell as luthiers is about the quality of the work, not just expensive parts.

The Wood

Here are the off cuts.

I went to put them through the planer/thicknesser. Unfortunately, the cold had got to it and it developed a fault. So another challenge presented itself.

Planing Sapele

Sapele presents complex grain. Planing it therefore becomes problematic, because the ribbons flow in opposing directions. Often, one way to approach thicknessing or removing cups from it is to use a gouging plane blade, across the grain at positive and then negative 45% angle. The gouging plane can be made cheaply by using a cheap and nasty plane, and rounding the end of the blade. I took a little depth this way from both halves of the body and then went to the smoothing plane to prepare the back. (The front is going to be carved).

The smoothing plane has to be used in the best direction possible – it will dig in if you work against the grain, but the complex grain causes some tear out. To reduce this, the edges of the smoothing plane are rounded slightly, the blade sharpened to a fine polish, and the depth of cut is set to the shallowest useful point. There is still a little tear out, so sanding had to be rigorous.

Jointing the two parts of the body is done by the usual method. The two pieces are placed faces together in the vice, and the joint surfaces are squared with the plane, and tested for straightness with steel edge.

The two halves are joined together in sash clamps, but I have seen joints like this made without clamping at all – either bound or held between bench dogs. It’s not going to under much strain.

Making the Neck

Taking the solid block, it’s clear that the headstock is not going to be very wide. The block had to be squared up, so that the truss rod could be laid in. That’s done with a router, a domestic use 1/4″ one rather than anything more industrial, and a 9mm bit. The rod, a biflex twin part one, is designed here to sit under the fretboard alone – the access to it is carved in to the headstock with a gouge.

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The reason for squaring up in two directions is to put the headstock through the bandsaw and get a vertical cut. (Of course this could be cut with a sharp handsaw).  This is then planed back with the No5 Jack plane and a hole drilled through to the truss rod with a had drill.

The Fretboard. This was a piece I had to order in, (at about £25) – it was a second grade Ebony blank (A grade, but not AAA grade!). That said, it was a good piece, and worked nicely. I marked the shape for the fretboard, cut slightly wide of it with the bandsaw, and then used the no5 plane to run a smooth edge back to the line on the Shuting board. The centre line was marked, and then it was stuck down to a block with double sided tape and that block held down to the bench between the dogs. The rough radius was put into the fretboard with the plane. Then it’s removed and the frets marked and sawed.

The neck is still a solid block, with the headstock angle in the top. The Fretboard is glued down to it with standard bench clamps creating plenty of pressure. I use a staple at each end, gunned into the sapele and then cut off to create a short spike, to stop the ebony moving about under the clamping pressure.

Dots are then drilled into the fretboard with a 6mm drill bit, then the fretboard is sanded, carefully checking that the radius and straightness along the length is maintained. Then the neck is cut roughly to size, and the plane used to square up the heel at its full depth.

The Body

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The body block wasn’t wide enough for a normal ‘Les Paul/Strat style shape, so I designed this around a cross between the  Gibson EB-1 Bass made famous by Jack Bruce, and the classic Les Paul shape. I measured up, cut a the shape from my template on the bandsaw, and routed my pickup shapes in based on the middle line I had marked.

Then the neck joint, had to be routed, but the neck is going to go in at a slight angle. So to achieve this, the neck is lined up on the body so the end of the fretboard is in the right place, and two straight pieces are put up against it and clamped. With the neck removed, the joint can be routed to about 3/4 of the depth necessary.

Then the neck joint pitch had to be calculated to raise the strings over the bridge – which is clear from the drawings (always have detailed drawings). This is put in with a hand plane up to the back of the neck pickup to the end of the body, all the way across the guitar. Now the router was returned to the body and the full depth route completed, using the previous edges as a guide.

Then the rest of the body can be carved down. The level edge is marked all around the side, and then the shape is carved down to the edge with a wide gouge. The bridge is the highest point on the body. I used a finger plane to smooth out my marks, then a lot of sanding!

The routing holes for wires have to be made before the neck is glued in – if you forget, you’re in big trouble!

Back to the neck.

Now it can be shaped, the headstock cut out and the volute cut. I made up a pine block to clamp it to to shape the back of the neck.

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The shape was cut with two rasps, but the heel at this stage is left unformed, though cut close to the marked line. This is because its going to be blended into the body. At this point, I drilled the tuner holes and fretted the neck.

The neck was then glued into the body.

Finishing Up

It’s time to drill for hardware, open up the electronics bay, and make a cover for it. I drilled through to the outer edge for the jack socket, and made a template to cut the back plate hollow.

The next stage is sealing up the wood ready for spraying. I used Z-Poxy – but in the very low temperatures of an English winter it takes a while to go off and it’s a messy job. I spread it onto the wood and scrape off the excess, just leaving it filling the grain. But there are other ways – for furniture I often use Shellac and sawdust by rubbing in the shellac with 320 grit paper. The problem it that this will shrink back, so it will tend to allow the finish to sink a little – an interesting effect for ageing the guitar.

Once dry, it was sanded back, and the guitar taped  up and hung for Spraying with Nitro. I have a gun and compressor set up, but you can still buy Nitro in cans from luthier supplies, or more easily from your local car paint store (as they often stock clear Lacquer for restoring old cars, and there are plenty of classic auto clubs still in the UK). The joy of Nitro is that its easy to use. Just spray on lightly and leave, lots of thin coats. If it runs, wait til it’s dry, sand back and do it again. At the end, wait for a week until its nice and gassed off, and flatten any surface with 1200 – 2000 grit wet and dry. T Cut is a great polish (and probably in your garage anyway) for blemishes too. Then its all about elbow grease if you’re buffing by hand.

So then its assembly and set up left to do, cutting a nut and stringing it up.

Here’s the Result:

 

So is it any good, and Sapele a good answer to the price of mahogany? Well it’s half an answer. It’s often very heavy, the grain is complex and can be hard to work. But if you pick your pieces carefully, and don’t build heavy deep bodies, then it works fairly well. The grain can be very striking, and it doesn’t need to be stained or coloured unless you really want to. The more dense it is, the less it tends to soften the attack of the string, so Sapele can give a similar bright strike sound to a maple cap on a Les Paul.

I  like my cheap guitar, I’ve already taken it out and used it at a rehearsal and it performed very well.

Despite the low cost (though well chosen) hardware and pickups, the performance is very good. It does prove that much of what makes a good guitar is in the way that it’s constructed and the care taken over the craftsmanship. So even if you’re having a guitar made by hand by a luthier, it’s not always necessary to use particularly exotic woods – if the materials are stable then it’s possible to make a working guitar from them.

And then there’s the whole debate about ‘ToneWood’…..I’ll let you argue that amongst yourselves!

 

 

 

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