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How to Build an Acoustic Guitar (With Photos)

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Jim is a retired software/electrical engineer who enjoys the outdoors. He likes to challenge himself with creative projects at home.

My completed first homemade acoustic guitar.

My completed first homemade acoustic guitar.

There is plenty of information available online about how to build an acoustic guitar, so I thought I'd focus on the challenges I encountered as I built my own. As with any new project I've attempted, each step along the way is unfamiliar to me. Some turned out to be just as difficult as I thought they'd be, while others, equally worrisome, were a piece of cake.

This project was a learning experience. How will the guitar play and sound? I will not know until some time after I have finished. Will I use the experience I've gained to build another? Not sure, but after I built my first wooden canoe, I built another and two kayaks, so I'll just say . . . maybe.

Getting Started

My first task was to choose reference material. I picked a book titled Build Your Own Acoustic Guitar: Complete Instructions and Full-Size Plans by Jonathan Kinkead, but my purchase was rather impulsive. This author walks the reader through how to build a guitar similar to the Martin OM (orchestra model), which is smaller than the common dreadnought, with a shallower body. The book includes lots of photos and even full scale plans, which are handy, but it lacked information I needed.

For instance, the author thoroughly describes how to complete a certain step but does not go into the "why" so much. He doesn't explore alternate methods too much either. I'm a little rebellious and don't always have the tools I need, so providing explanation and alternatives are two things I would have liked to see in the book.

One other difficulty: The author is British. They way he describes some things, and the words he uses, make it a bit hard to interpret at times. The dimensions are all in metric and English, however the English dimensions are in very fine, hard-to-read, print.

All that said, the book is sufficient and I did use it, along with online resources including blogs and "how-to" information provided by Stewart-McDonald and other luthier supply sources.

Materials I Used

I go into more detail about the materials I used, and how much they cost, in another article. But briefly, here's what I used in this guitar build:

  • different types of wood (see below)
  • wood glue
  • lemon oil
  • sealer
  • sandpaper
  • clamps
  • a rotary tool and router
  • a circle cutter

17 Steps to Making an Acoustic Guitar

  1. Selecting the Wood
  2. Trimming and Fitting the Wood Pieces
  3. Sound hole, Rosette, and Back Inlay Strip
  4. Assembling the Bracing
  5. Making the Mold and Bending the Sides
  6. Making the Kerfing Strips and Tail Piece Inlay and Fitting the Neck
  7. Assembling and Binding the Body
  8. Preparing the Neck
  9. Making the Peg Head Inlay
  10. Making the Fret Board
  11. Attaching the Fret Board
  12. Making the Truss Rod Adjuster Cover
  13. Making the Pick Guard
  14. Attaching the Bridge
  15. Finishing
  16. Attaching the Bridge II
  17. Final Steps
Claro walnut for the back and sides, western red cedar for the top.

Claro walnut for the back and sides, western red cedar for the top.

1. Selecting the Wood

Selecting the wood to use for the body was the source of some consternation. The book recommends specific wood: Sitka spruce for the top and rosewood for the back and sides. Being the rebel, I didn't want to do that, so I chose different wood. There is a lot written about different tone woods and how they affect the sound of the guitar. Deviation from the normal popular varieties of tone woods is heresy to some makers, while others consider it a sign of creativity. Once you think you want to deviate from the norm, deciding what wood to used can be a daunting task. Cost was a big consideration for me, as some woods can be very expensive.

Western red "sinker" cedar for the top.

Western red "sinker" cedar for the top.

I chose western red "sinker" cedar for the top (or sound board, as it is called) and claro walnut for the sides and back. I purchased both from suppliers on eBay. The cedar top is supposed to create a "warm" sound. I don't really know what that means, but it didn't seem like a bad thing to me. "Sinker" means it came from a cedar log salvaged from a lake or river bottom and is therefore probably pretty old. That idea appealed to me. Claro walnut is highly figured walnut from the American Northwest. Walnut in general is supposed to be similar to rosewood or mahogany. It is said to create a bright sound. I don't know what that means, but "warm and bright" sounds pretty good to me. I also like the rich, dark color of walnut and the fact that the wood I chose is not exotic or imported.

I paid about $30 for the cedar top and about $75 for the walnut sides and back. Depending on the type and grade of wood (A to AAAA) you can expect to pay from about $25 to a few hundred for the top and from about $60 to several hundred for the sides and back.

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I felt satisfied that I had started the project and made some decisions, which is sometimes the most difficult part of starting any new project. So at this point I had wood for the top, back, and sides.

2. Trimming and Fitting the Wood Pieces

Time to dive in. The sound board and back wood arrived, each in two pieces that needed to be joined together. It is desirable to minimize the visibility of the glue line, so the edge of the wood needed to be trimmed flat and even, to make them fit tightly together.

My book recommended using a block plane. I have a few block planes, but they are dull and I've never really been very skilled at using them for finer, detailed work. Remove a lot of wood, yes, okay, I'm good with that, but making edges perfectly flat—not in my skill set.

As flat as it's going to be.

As flat as it's going to be.

I clamped sand paper to a flat surface with a long right-angle block of wood (which was also clamped to that surface) to complete this job. My thought was that if I ran the edge of each piece of wood back and forth on the sand paper and along the block of wood, the edge would end up flat. So I thought.

The problem in drawing the wood back and forth is that I exerted uneven pressure on the wood. When I placed the edges of my wood pieces together, and held them up to the light, I saw light coming though the joint. You're not supposed to, if you have a perfect joint . . . so they say.

I continued this process but still could not make the joint "perfect". I resorted to sanding parts of the joint surfaces by hand until I got it good enough. I still saw faint light through parts of the joint, but I knew I would not get it any better by continuing.

Holding the two pieces together with weights.

Holding the two pieces together with weights.

To clamp the wood pieces together, I placed two long and square pieces of wood (2 x 4 foot, 3/4" thick) on my flat surface and held them in place with clamps. The distance between these was slightly less than the final distance across the two pieces being joined. When the edges of each piece of wood were placed against the frame and then pushed down at the middle joint, there was sufficient pressure to hold them and squeeze out some of the Titebond Original glue. I placed some weight on top to the wood to hold it down.

Once the glue had set for a day, it was time to make the sound board and back the proper thickness. My book suggested 2.5mm for the top and 3mm for the bottom, but it didn't tell me the consequences, difficulties, or disadvantages of leaving them thicker or making them thinner.

The book suggested that the way to get the wood to the proper thickness was to use a thickness planer or drum sander—two power tools I do not possess. It also said I could use a hand plane. That was something I was not about to try because . . . well you know about my skill with a block plane, or lack thereof, and all my planes were too dull, and I didn't want to sharpen them.

Hand sanding to achieve the proper thickness.

Hand sanding to achieve the proper thickness.

I decided to try hand sanding. With rubber cement adhesive, I attached a piece of 80 grit sandpaper on a flat piece of 8 x 10 inch plywood, onto which I fastened a crude handle. I placed the wood loosely between two long blocks of wood clamped on to my flat surface. At the ends of the wood, to keep it in place while I pushed and pulled the sanding block, I clamped a thin piece of wood on one end and an aluminum yardstick on the other.

More sanding . . .

More sanding . . .

. . . and even more sanding.

. . . and even more sanding.

I began to run my homemade sanding block back and forth across the wood, flipping the wood over end-to-end occasionally to try and keep things uniform. I had to remove about 2 to 3mm of thickness. It took a long time. The problem was that in drawing the sanding block back and forth, I exerted uneven pressure, resulting in some spots being slightly thinner than others.

It wasn't terrible, however, and when I got close to the final dimensions, I quit. I figured I'd leave some thickness for finish sanding.

I used the same process to get the side wood to the proper thickness. I tried for less than 2 mm since the sides needed bending and thin wood is easier to bend.

I used the plans that came with the book to trace half of the body shape onto a piece of cardboard and then transferred that to a small sheet of 1/8 inch thick clear polycarbonate plastic to use as a template. Finding the glue joint in the top and bottom pieces of wood, I used the template to trace the shape of the guitar body on the wood. Good thing the glue joint was not so perfect that I could not find the center line. Next, I trimmed the wood to shape within a 1/4" of the line with a band saw.

One more step complete!

My apprehension was beginning to build, however, thinking about the next steps. For those, if I made an error too big, there would be no way to fix it.

3. Sound Hole, Rosette, and Back Inlay Strip

Now things were getting serious. Time to cut a hole in the soundboard. I searched blogs and found out how other people accomplished this. It seemed as if a high speed rotary tool and router bit would give me the best results. I looked at Dremel tools, but after reading reviews I purchased the Black and Decker RTX-B at about 1/3 the cost of a Dremel.

To my purchase from Amazon, I added the Dremel circle cutter attachment, which is compatible with the B&D rotary tool.

I used Titebond wood glue to anchor the rosette.

I used Titebond wood glue to anchor the rosette.

Cutting the Sound Hole

I overlaid the paper plans on top of the cedar soundboard and marked the sound hole center by pressing a tack into the wood. Then I drilled a pilot hole slightly larger than the diameter of the circle cutter pivot pin. I did the same on a scrap piece of plywood and set up the attachment for the inside diameter of the rosewood and abalone rosette I had purchased (also from Amazon). The book suggested inlaying thin purfling (decorative) strips for the rosette, but I liked the looks of this one and thought it may be easier to inlay.

After carving the inside diameter circle in the scrap wood, I checked the depth and diameter and marked the circle cutter tool brace arm with a permanent marker. Then I cut the outside diameter and all the material in between it and the inside diameter, checked the fit of the inlay, and marked the brace arm. I did the same for the soundhole diameter on the scrap wood. I now had three marks on the tool for the adjustments.

I started with the inside diameter, then the outside, then removed the in-between wood, and then cut the sound hole. The top was ready for the rosette. As it turned out, this was NOT the best way to do it. I was slightly off on the brace arm marks, resulting in an outside diameter for the inlay which was slightly too large. I should have transferred the cuts to the sound board once I got the jig set up on scrap wood before moving it.

The rosette glued in place.

The rosette glued in place.

Filling in Around the Rosette

This was the first of what was to be many mistakes. I added a fill around the rosette made up of super glue and walnut sanding dust, of which I had plenty. I dabbed super glue with the head of a pin, dropped a pinch of sanding dust on top, and then sanded it down immediately with 240 grit sand paper. I repeated the process until the gap was filled, but the fill still looked a little coarse.

Front and back.

Front and back.

Decals to cover flaw.

Decals to cover flaw.

Adding the Back Inlay

Often there is a decorative strip inlayed on the back to cover the seam. I thought I would inlay a strip of curly maple cut from the scrap pieces included as packing with the order of back and side wood. I wanted to put thin, black-and-white accent prufling strips along each side of the maple strip, so I routed a channel for the maple strip. Perfect fit, looking good. Then I widened the channel for the accent strips. Success again, I thought.

Here was the problem: The back was about 2.5 - 3mm thick and the strips were about 2mm + wide, so the inlay channel was shallow. The narrow accent strips just wouldn't stay in the shallow channel. Now I had a channel that was too wide, so I decided to make my own, wider accent strips from a mulberry that I cut a few years ago. It was a yellowish color.

While widening the channel for the new strips I accidentally gouged the maple strip that I'd already glued in, but I kept on. Once the new yellow mulberry strips were glued in, I leveled them and sanded the back, accidentally sanding completely thorough the maple and mulberry strips at one end. I was tempted to end the project then and there, but I filled the gouge and decided maybe to put a decal on the back over the missing portion of the accent strips . . . or just leave it for character.

Laying out the bracing.

Laying out the bracing.

The top bracing with some bulk removed.

The top bracing with some bulk removed.

The top and back bracing.

The top and back bracing.

4. Bracing

Inside an acoustic guitar there is bracing for the top and bottom. I believe this is just to make the thin wood stronger, but the positioning of the bracing, its thickness, and the properties of the wood can affect the sound.

My book called for Sitka spruce bracing. I didn't have Sitka spruce and I wasn't going to purchase pre-cut Sitka spruce bracing, so I decide to use cedar. Maybe this would add to the "warmth of the sound." I purchased a piece of 5/4 deck planking that looked like it had most of the grain running longitudinally. Then I followed the bracing shown in the plans to cut the pieces out of the plank with my table saw, trying to keep the grain longitudinal.

I traced out the bracing pattern on the back side of the top and bottom body pieces. Before gluing down the bracing, I "strategically" removed some material with the mini-drum sander bit for my rotary tool, to allow the strength to remain but eliminate some of the sound-deadening bulk. Sounds like I know what I'm doing, right? I don't.

The book also suggests curving the bracing to give the top and back a slight arch. Now it didn't suggest a radius for that arch, but it did say you could avoid this with the top and just make it flat, which I did.

I did add a slight radius to the bottom bracing by making a template on a piece thin wood. I placed a metal ruler between a finishing nail driven into my flat work board for the center, then one about nine inches to either end of the longest brace and 1/4" below the center nail. Next, I flexed the metal ruler between the nails, traced the line onto the template wood, and cut it on my band saw to transfer to the back bracing. I sanded the bracing to the curved lines with the drum sanding bit in my drill press.

Not the best method, but it worked.

Not the best method, but it worked.

Clamping and gluing the bracing on the top required an array of creative clamping methods, extensions, and wedges. The back required slightly different methods, since the bracing was slightly curved. All seemed to work out however, but I did end up removing more of the bracing bulk before gluing the whole body together, as I fondled and tapped on the soundboard, listening for any hint of resonance.

Okay, making some progress. Wondering if the cedar bracing will work out and if the wood is thin enough to make the body "sing."

Two halves of the mold.

Two halves of the mold.

The mold halves together.

The mold halves together.

5. Making the Mold and Bending the Sides

Making the Mold

A fixture, or mold, is needed to hold the top, back, and sides in place while they are glued together. The book I followed suggests two methods of constructing the mold: One is to cut the shape of the body into several small, thick sheets of plywood and glue them together, resulting in a heavy, 4-inch thick, fixture. The other is to use two sheets of plywood separated by spacers. This was the method I chose. It gave me the opportunity to use the Porter-Cable pneumatic finish nailer that my neighbor found in the garbage and gave to me in need of repair.

I used a 3/4", 2' x 4' project panel from Home Depot and scrap pieces of 2 x 4 cut to size for spacers. This gave me a 24" x 24" mold, which was sliced in half and then bolted together again with tab extensions. The guitar shape was a little uneven, but only slightly. It seemed to work out fine.

The Stewart-MacDonald bending iron. Not what I used.

The Stewart-MacDonald bending iron. Not what I used.

Bending the Sides

Now for bending the sides. I read that this can be a daunting step in any project, and indeed it was. It was suggested in the book, and in many blogs, to use a bending iron. This is basically a piece of tubing which is heated to several hundred degrees, over which the thin side wood can be bent to the desired shape in small incremental steps, using the shape in the mold as a guide to compare your bending progress.

First, any wood bending requires steam. This is achieved by soaking the wood for several hours in water and then applying heat. The disadvantages I saw with using a bending iron, although the traditional method, were:

  1. I didn't have one. I could make one. Several suggestions are available if you search online. Some seemed simple and clever while others, eh . . . I'm not so sure about. I could buy one for a couple hundred bucks. Ahhh, I don't think so.
  2. Making the shape exact seemed difficult with this method.
  3. The wood could easily get burnt, and so could I.