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October 18, 2010
Mark is Building a Custom Guitar!
It's going to be a lot of fun, but a lot of work, too, for both of us. Mark is currently shopping for all the wood, hardware, and electronics, which Mark has quickly discovered is hard work.

If you buy a guitar from a music store, you get to select from only what they have hanging on the wall.  Even when ordering through a large custom manufacturer like PRS, you are still limited to the items for which their machines have been previously set.  A small custom builder does not have computer-controlled machines nor set templates from which to work.  Everything is one-off and made to order.  Rumors aside, Mark is in complete control!

I'll update frequently, so please tag along for the ride.
October 24, 2010
Mark has finished personally hand selecting his own wood (that's only one adverb away from sounding naughty).  Check out his choices: Flamed maple for the front face, mahogany for the back, and Bolivian rosewood for the neck.  Definitely some of nature's best.  Beauty is in the details, so please click on any of the thumbnails to see the images in their full glory.  Got wood ;)? 
November 15, 2010
This guitar will be built especially for Mark to his exact specifications, which opens it up to unlimited possibilities.  Considering pickups alone, Mark found that there are literally hundreds of manufacturers from which to choose.  It's a daunting task, but certainly an enjoyable one.  In the end he will get exactly what he wants without compromise.

There's a lot of stuff to buy for a guitar; let's hit the highlights.  Mark selected Planet Waves self-trimming tuners, an LR Baggs piezo bridge, and Tesla Opus-1 pickups.  You can tell from the palette that there will be some gold on this axe.
January 31, 2011
You can generalize and brainstorm some design elements beforehand, but you can't really tie down the details until you have all the parts in hand.  Only then can you develop a precise layout of the neck, arrange your knobs/switches, etc.  I never make an assumption on dimensions unless I put the calipers on it myself.  The price is too high for even being a millimeter off.

Here's a quick glimpse of Mark's dream: Megan Fox is reclining on the beach in a string bikini.  The scent of freshly applied coconut oil permeates the air.  Glints of the tropical sunset dance off the sweat drops which, like the morning dew, are randomly scattered across her beckoning brea ... whoa, um ... while Mark serenades her with his double-cutaway body, ruby red burst high gloss finish, 24 frets, and gold hardware.  It'll be stunning (the guitar, that is)!
February 13, 2011
Dammit, let's start cutting some wood already!

Mark wanted a Bolivian rosewood neck, and for good reason.  It's very dark and rich looking, it has a very tight grain making it great for a neck, it's stable and hard as a rock, and I'm allergic to it.  Seriously, for me, I might as well be cutting poison ivy.  I had to don a hazmat suit and a respirator.  Rosewood is fairly difficult to come by.  We couldn't find a single piece large enough to make the neck, so we glued up two pieces of rosewood with a thin pinstripe of maple between them.  It'll be striking.  And the person with the most clamps wins!

The back body panel was glued up as well.  It's African mahogany.  Mark made me pull out every (100 pound) piece of wood in the bin to find the one with the most pleasing color and grain pattern.  Again, 14" wide boards are tough to find, so we glued up a couple smaller pieces.  The mahogany doesn't have a distinctive grain pattern and we'll be staining it very dark, so you'll never notice the seam ... unless you look closely behind the guitar while Mark's playing it and you put your nose directly at crotch level.  By then, I believe something else might garner your attention.
February 16, 2011
After taking off the clamps and cleaning up the boards, I think it's time for a little preview.  As mentioned, the neck will have a thin pinstripe running down the back of it.  The contrast between the rosewood and maple is quite dramatic.

The pretty front wood is flamed maple which will be stained a deep red color, perhaps with a burst pattern.  Those tiger stripes look three dimensional, holographic!  And you're probably asking yourself, "Who would own a towel that particular shade of pink?"
February 20, 2011
The first temptation is to simply cut out the final shape of the body, but it's a lot easier to take care of the inner channels and chambers first while you still have some square edges to help your layout and some extra wood to support the router.

I prefer to make templates of all the various cutouts.  That way, if I make a mistake, I waste $2 worth of MDF, not $40 worth of mahogany.  Routing away the pretty wood can then be done confidently.

The large horizontal recess you see is the neck pocket.  The neck will penetrate the body all the way past the bridge.  The large hole at the bottom is where all the electronics will be wired up.  I know this makes absolutely no sense now, just stay tuned and it will become clear later (maybe).  Mark was so completely taken with the slab of wood that, in homage to Bo Diddley, he is choosing to retain the rectilinear shape!

February 23, 2011
Mark personally selected his own chunk of curly maple from an internet retailer.  Shopping sounds like fun, but that one seller alone had about 300 billets of maple from which to choose.  I sliced the block apart, folded it open like a book, and glued it back together.  It's always a little nerve racking taking the first slice out of a really expensive block of wood.  Mark went with a thin rosewood accent stripe down the middle.  Color-wise, this will help tie the neck to the body.  It's a simple yet elegant detail.
Now you see it; now you don't.  Ha; heard that on the honeymoon!  Guitar building exercises one's patience.  Even though I make templates to get things to fit generally, they still need a lot of love to get them to fit perfectly.  This is the control cover on the back of the guitar which hides the electronics cavity.  Guitars you see in the store will punch this out of a sheet of plastic.  This is a one-off custom guitar, and it's really no more or less work for me to make it out of the same piece of wood that the body panel came from.  Why not go for the seamless match?  It took close to an hour of careful sanding, but when it fits right, you don't even see it.
February 27, 2011
Ok, it's time to get this thing looking like a guitar (no offense Bo)!  I made a template by gluing a pattern onto a piece of 1/4" MDF.  That will give something for the router to follow.  Normally I like to work fairly clean, but Mark helped glue on the pattern, and his grimy little mitts left smudge marks all over it!  Just for the record, I'll have you know that I do provide toilet tissue to all of my guests.  Apparently, the three square allotment was not used effectively.

Ooo!  Now check out that block of wood after the routing's done.  The rosewood stripe is looking hot.  Notice the neck pocket running behind the pickup cavities.  And if you click on the thumbnail, you can see the pilot holes for the knobs and switches.
March 6, 2011
Another custom touch!  Pickup bezels are usually these cheap, rectangular blocks of plastic - not very elegant.  And as you can see in the body photos above, we have very smooth flowing lines and a very round shape - not very rectangular.

We have plenty of rosewood leftover from the neck, let's use it to make something that will better compliment the guitar as a whole.  That requires more routing templates.  This time, one to properly size the center hole, a second for the outside shape, and a third (not shown) to plane the tops off 2.5 degrees, the angle the neck tilts back from the body.  Big tools make working on small parts challenging.  Thankfully, I still possess all my digits.

The final product is a perfect fit!  They're tight to the pickups, they have smooth rounded lines, and they're made from rosewood which picks up the tones of the neck and body stripe tying it all together.

March 14, 2011
Before we get too far along on the body, we should probably work on the neck a little.  These two things will have to intimately talk to each other, so we better catch the neck up on the conversation.  If you recall, we have a longitudinal white stripe running down the back of the neck.  We've also added what will be a linear stripe across the top.  It looks like a large expanse of white now, but only the thin edge will peek out from under the fretboard.  Layers of flavor!  The truss rod trench has been routed, and the tilt-back on the headstock was established.  And there's a lot of whittling yet to go.
March 18, 2011
A guitar's neck is skinnier at the headstock end and gets wider where it meets the body of the guitar.  We first had to take our block of wood and taper each side down the full length.  Then we cut out the profile of the neck, which are all the ups and downs and angles you see here.  Without getting into a long discussion of why, let's just say that there are a lot of cuts and a lot of sanding to get everything smooth and true.  And, yes, that is a gas mask on the back of the workbench.  I've found that I have to keep one on hand since Mark's high roughage diet tends to lead to a little gastrointestinal unpredictability.
There are several different ways of attaching a neck to the body.  This guitar will use a "set-in" neck design.  It has a much longer pocket than typical guitars extending well past the bridge.  That lends a lot of surface area for a strong glue joint and it helps establish accurate alignment.  Again, sand, sand, sand until they mate perfectly.  Ultimately, we will add the top layer of pretty wood and you won't see this joinery at all.
March 22, 2011
We went to a lot of trouble to taper the neck down, now we have to add a little meat back on so we can make an attractive heastock.  First, a few side pieces to gain some width.  Then a couple thin layers on top to make it look cool.

"Why so many clamps?" you say.  I don't know.  I suppose I could have tried two clamps first.  Then when I don't get a tight glue joint, I could sand it all off and try it again with three clamps; and maybe again using four clamps.  I just jumped straight to thirteen clamps and saved myself a lot of extra work.  If I may be trite, better safe than sorry.  The final result is a beautiful canoe paddle.
March 25, 2011
For you guitar novices, the string ferrules are just little cover plates to dress up the holes where the strings pass through the body.  All these various bits of hardware must be installed to make sure they fit and work right.  Then everything must be taken back off so the finish can be applied.
March 27, 2011
The boss came by to help today!  We took that square canoe paddle and put the sexy on it.  Take a close look and see how that thin strip of light colored veneer is working for us.  The band under the fretboard ties right into the band on the headstock, and it's exposed to the front by the circular beveled feature.  Damn, that gold hardware is looking hawt!?
March 27, 2011
Fretboard time!  After some careful measuring and marking, we cut the fret slots.  If you haven't noticed, everything on this build is done by hand.  Well, I did use a saw here, but I think you know what I mean.  Mark wasn't happy with the wood color so we painted it white with some of this edible paint.
March 31, 2011
Mark found a cool lotus-dove graphic online and thought it would look good as a fretboard inlay.  The problem is that the graphic looks awesome blown up on a computer screen, but this thing will only be 1 1/2" wide on the fretboard.  So it soon became my job to just shut up, make it work, and get it on there.

I had to simplify the shapes a little so they could be cut successfully from the abalone shell material.  Then I strapped on my magnifying visor and started in with my trusty saw (equipped with a blade about the width of a human hair).  A few of those pieces are about the size of one of Roosevelt's boogers.
April 2, 2011
The term "inlay" is actually what it means: take the tiny pieces you just cut out, then rout tiny little cavities to lay them in.  First, we laid out the pattern in the right spot on the fretboard, then traced around the pieces etching their outlines into that white paint (the eyes ain't what they used to be).  Rout and test fit, rout and test fit, rout and test fit, in!  Repeat twenty times.  We made a paste from two-part epoxy and some rosewood dust, filled up the holes, and pressed in the pieces.  We sanded off the epoxy ooze, template paper, the white paint, and voila!  Easy peasy!  10 hours of "fun", but the result was worth it.
April 6, 2011
Time to glue on the fretboard.  Repeat to oneself, "Do NOT forget to put in the truss rod!"  Pretty much impossible to do afterwards.  And I really do think it is all about the clamps.  There's probably some clamps on there that aren't really doing anything and were added solely for visual impact.  The next day we crowned the fretboard and refined the fret slots.
April 10, 2011
Mark is getting some unique fretboard banding.  Instead of side dots which are the norm, we're actually breaking the banding and putting in full blocks of color.  There is a good reason why side dots are the norm, because this was maybe just a bit on the tedious side.  Tiny strips of wood, a tiny saw, and a tiny miter box make tiny blocks of maple.  My wife said that everything will come out just fine since I should be used to handling the small wood; I have no idea what she meant.
Mark stopped by the shop to supervise the color testing.  That's what building a custom is all about, getting it exactly the way you want it without compromise.  Mark was this symphony's conductor and I was first chair piccolo (insert small flute joke here), but the red wasn't coming out quite to his liking.  The only way to get that rich, blood red tone was to make a "personal investment" to the composition.  Anyone got a band-aid?  The guitar will also get a subtle, variegated fade to black around the edges.  Wow!  Simply fuckin' WOW!  The rabid tiger maple has been unleased!
April 13, 2011
Where was my shop helper tonight?  Sanding and buffing out the fretboard is just a little bit labor intensive.  Fifteen grits and a Popeye forearm later and we have spectacular results; silky smooth.  Check out those fret marker blocks.  I don't think I've seen that approach before.  And the bloodwood banding offers just the right amount of contrast.
April 17, 2011
After a few final checks, we contoured the top.  Sorry, no actions shots here.  It takes 100% concentration and a steady hand.  An angle grinder with a sanding disk is not what one would call a delicate, precision tool.  It's made for removing a lot of material quickly.  One mistimed blink or sneeze and that $150 piece of lumber suddenly becomes firewood.
April 24, 2011
Having a custom guitar made just for you has its advantages, especially with regard to personal preference and playing comfort.  Today Mark came to the shop for his fitting.  No, not for those wicked cool shades, but for guitar body and neck shaping.  We took precise measurements of Mark's boob and his nipple-to-nipple dimensions.  Seriously, playing comfort is important to all of us.  A little contouring and relief on the back of the guitar goes a long way, and Mark was able to stop by to make sure it fit perfectly.
The neck's profile is very important.  It's the part of the guitar your hand is on constantly, so it has to be comfortable.  What, do you think the trunk of a tree is round?  Wait, I guess it might be ... but not after they get done cutting into a square stick.  Then we have to make it round again.  So Mark air-guitared, then I carved a bit; Mark did some scissor kicks and windmills, and I carved a bit more; Mark channeled some Santana and fingered some Black Magic Woman, and we fine tuned the fit perfectly.  Everyone's hands and playing preferences are different, but there is always one supreme constant: No matter the size or shape of your fingers, you can always manage to fit one in your nose.
April 28, 2011
Before we get too much farther along, we need to check that everything will actually fit inside the control cavity.  This guitar has a lot of electronics!  It's much easier to make any necessary adjustments now rather than later.  We did some fine tuning of the knob and switch mounting depths and made some room for the circuit boards.  Then we installed the knobs on the front to get a little pumped up.  Look at that bling!
May 1, 2011
Today was a moment of truth, a major milestone.  Up until now the guitar has been a jigsaw puzzle of separate pieces which we could disassemble to make working on the various areas a bit easier.  But now the time has come to permanently mate those parts together.  Mark lent his savvy brush to the task.
May 4, 2011
I think I need more clamps!  The top was glued on!  There's no turning back now!
May 8, 2011
The next week or so will be mostly be spent in preparation for finishing where we'll be adding the color and clear coats.  All the remaining hardware needs to be installed, including these strap locks.  Once the strap locks are installed, it is imperative that a proper and professional test drive be conducted - after making sure the neighbors aren't watching, of course.
Mark requested that the jack plate be recessed.  It's a gratuitous finishing touch, but it's a custom guitar and anything is possible.  No, the eyes aren't quite what they used to be.
May 15, 2011
Sand, sand, sand.  One can't fathom the amount of sanding it takes to make it perfect.  This is a very important step since even the smallest scratch will be visually amplified once the stain soaks into it.

This guitar will have a two color scheme: red on the front and black on the back.  So to the back first.  Mahogany has open pores in the grain, little craters.  Filling the pores makes it easier to flatten the clear coat later on.  Don't ask me why, but the filler for mahogany is Pepto-Bismol pink.  Putty knife it on and force it into the pores, then yes, more sanding!  We followed that up with a couple coats of black dye.  It's enough black to make the statement, but you're still able to appreciate some of that wood grain texture.  This will richen up even more after the clear coats go on.
May 22, 2011
Putting the finish on this guitar is a multi-step process.  That fancy piece of wood on the top cost a lot of money and we really want to show off that awesome grain pattern.  First, we dyed the top black.  The idea is to get the black dye into those tiger stripes.  Then we sand most of it off leaving those stripes black.  Now we hit it with the red dye.  To pop it even more, we left a band of unfinished wood between the front and back.  Then finally, a coat of linseed oil to bring out the grain a bit more and give it some sheen and that wet look.  Oh, but we're not done yet.  Stay tuned!
May 29, 2011
We'll be spraying chemicals for awhile now.  This week we hit it with some blonde shellac to act as a sealer.  Then we squirted some black dye into the shellac and variegated the edges for a black burst effect.  Stunning!
June 20, 2011
There was a delay in posting not because I didn't do anything, but it's really not that exciting watching paint dry (or lacquer in this case).  This is the point where we spray on numerous coats of finish to build up a thick layer of clear stuff to protect the guitar and give us something to buff out.  This is a tedious task.  Spray on a few coats, sand it a little, spray on a few coats, sand it a little, and so on.  Then you let it completely dry and cure for a week.
After spraying on 24 coats, you end up with a pretty shiny guitar, but it's just not smooth enough.  It kinda looks like an orange peel at this point.  The next step is to sand through 11 grits of sandpaper where forearms of steel are a prerequisite.  This is when all those years of vigorous masturbation pay off.  The first couple grits level the finish, but leave it dull.  Then you step through the polishing grits until you're left with a glossy, silky, smooth, liquid, mirror-like surface.  Finally, a coat of automotive swirl remover followed by a coat of paste wax give it the ultimate pop.
June 26, 2011
This week we put the engine in this car.  First off, we glued in some copper foil shielding.  If you think about it, the only fuel this car runs on is a vibrating string.  The wires inside are pretty sensitive and you can pick up some unwanted hum or your least favorite local radio station.  You need to try to block any errant signals from getting into your mix.

The piezo bridge Mark picked out will make this electric guitar sound like an acoustic.  Pretty cool!  However, that translates into many, many ... many more wires.  Click on the thumbnail to see what everything does.

July 4, 2011
The frets received their final tweakings.  Everything has to be dead flat for the guitar to play correctly.  We hit the whole neck with some sandpaper on a block first.  Then we made passes up and down the neck several times checking that each fret was level with its two neighbors.  Some careful filing, some clean up with 600 grit sandpaper, then a final buffing with the Dremel.  Damn, that blue neck rocks!

All the hardware went on.  The pickups, the bridge, the knobs, the switches, and the tuners all were installed.  But this photo is all I'll give you until the final reveal; Mark hasn't seen it yet.  Talk about major bling factor; that gold is hot!  And this is as close to a self-portrait as you'll see from me.  That cranium is quite distinctive.
July 9, 2011

This past week the guitar received a little more fine tuning getting the string action low and maximizing the playability.  The neck received a coat of tung oil and a quick buff.  Then the instrument got a final and thorough cleaning and polishing in preparation for the unveiling.

Finally Delivery Day!  I think Mark's smile tells it all. 

Warning, Gratuitous Advertisement:
I will not debate anyone over the fact that a custom guitar costs more than a store bought model.  I do not have a big factory, computerized carving machines, nor dedicated jigs to pump these babies out.  This is a one of a kind instrument and everything is made from scratch.

The trade off is that Mark was able to control everything and achieve a level of detail and personalization he couldn't buy off the rack (at any price).  Mark shopped for and bought his own pieces of wood; he researched and selected all the electronics and hardware; he designed his own signature headstock; he came up with the artwork for the neck inlay; he was present when I carved the neck to ensure the desired thickness and fit; he laid out his knob and switch locations to his ergonomic preference; and he personally supervised the color sampling.  I simply made his dream a reality.  A trite statement, but accurate.  This will be a personal treasure which Mark will cherish and play for a lifetime.

July 23, 2011
A project of this magnitude calls for a commensurate level of documentation.  Will Jackson, professional photographer, was called in to do an on-site "sitting" with the guitar.  The photos will look outstanding, but I found the methods incongruous and a bit humorous that you can get such great pictures from such a low-tech setup.  I guess it doesn't matter how the light gets on the subject, just as long as the light gets on the subject.
Check it out.  Start with my dingy basement, a length of cheap white felt for a backdrop, a piece of white underlayment foam from a laminate floor used as a light diffuser, (2) 500 watt halogens bungy corded to the ceiling, a piece of cardboard with shiny duct tape on it for a light reflector, me holding a flashlight to create a hot spot, 2x4 blocks topped with rags holding the guitar at just the right angle.  But, WOW!  The photos look outstanding!  I can't wait to share them, but they need a little post-production love before they're ready.
August 10, 2011
The photos are in and they look fabulous.  I really think they capture the essence of the instrument and the great amount of love that went into making it.  Please credit Will Jackson, professional photographer, for taking these stunning photographs.  Beauty is in the details.  Click on the photos to see them in a larger size.


Style Electric, 6-String, Double Cutaway, Drop-Top, with Set-Thru Neck
  Dimensions 13" wide x 1 7/8” body thickness x 39 1/2” overall length
  Weight 9.4 pounds
Wood Body Front Panel Book-Matched Flamed Maple with Bolivian Rosewood Center Stripe
  Body Back Panel African Mahogany
  Neck Bolivian Rosewood with Maple Pinstripes
  Fretboard Bolivian Rosewood with Bloodwood Banding & Maple Block Side Markers
Fretboard Frets 25" Scale Length with 24 frets
Crown Height=0.057", Width=0.110", Gold Finish
  Fretboard Radius 12"
  Inlay The “Lotus & Dove” in Green Abalone Abalam
  Truss Rod Cover “Om” in Green Abalone Abalam
Finish Body Front Panel Blood Red Dye to Black Burst
  Body Back Panel Black Dye
  Top Coat Nitrocellulose Lacquer
  Neck Tung Oil
Electronics Pickups Tesla “Opus-1" for Neck & Bridge, Gold Finish, with
Custom Bezels in Bolivian Rosewood
3-way Pickup Selector & Coil Splitting
  Piezo Bridge LR Baggs with Ctrl-X Mixer, Gold Finish
Tuners Planet Waves Auto-Trim Tuning Machines, 3+3, Gold Finish