A Part Of The Wood's Journey

Having just run a batch of 8 bass bodies across the benches, that’s what’s fresh on my mind. Here’s some of what goes on between the plank and the finishing oil.

Wood selection – there are a few woods I use more than others (mahogany, walnut, and Spanish cedar) but sometimes others are offered or requested, and sometimes combinations of woods are spec’d out. These could be in the form of tops (different wood on the face than the main body), stringers (Bernie Rico’s term for strips included as stripes), or maybe a center block with the outers of the body (“wings”) of a different wood. All of these woods need to be sourced and selected. I keep a stock on hand of some woods I select by the long plank at a specialty lumber warehouse up in the big city and truck back to the nest in my old Dodge truck; others like the Texas woods like mesquite or pecan I locate at various spots a bit more rural, and the exotics I get from all over the country. A number of times a build has begun with a chainsaw in my hands – though, like engine swaps, I try not to subject the hands to that kind of abuse these days. 

Layout & blank prep – in different orders according to the wood sizes and condition and how it will be used, it – now looked at with an eye toward the pieces it will be - is measured and marked, rough cut, planed to thickness, trimmed to dimension, and then edge prepped & joined as one piece. Done correctly, the glue joints will be stronger than the wood around them. Though claimed to be good for much longer, I buy the wood glue in small quantities so it’s used up or rotated out to less structural uses every few months. Now we’ll have, with maybe a final trim and shave, a rectangle that’s really a guitar or bass body – just with everything that’s not the shape we want still attached! Our usual body is 2-piece, with a center join. 99% of what we do gets a natural finish and that just looks best, to have the two halves’ grain and color flow together and come together dead center. Under paint and a thick plastic coating you can get away with anything – when it’s all there to be seen, what is to be seen matters! 

Cut & edge – Once the absolute center is marked with a sharp pencil and a mm ruler (I always do the fine work in millimeters, working in complete numbers eliminates a whole lot of potential for errors in figuring out what half of 3 and 13/64ths is, etc.), out come the old plywood templates of body shapes. Line ‘em up, trace ‘em round, cut ‘em out on the bandsaw and get the body edge smooth and right all the way ‘round. Sometimes when cutting the blank from the plank a chunk is put aside to slice a thin piece for a headstock veneer from or to make a piece of woodcraft out of. Sometimes what might look good as stringers in another build are made from the cutoffs. What won’t be used is burned in late night campfires or as the workshop area equivalent of incense, with the smell of burning wood smoke wafting in through the open workshop doors. 

Rout & round – This is where the body crosses over from being “Wood from a tree becoming something” to “A guitar body that just isn’t done yet.” Using a small hand held plunge router, some chisels, a few bits, and some templates – some made here in the shop too – the pockets for the neck, the pickups, and the controls are routed away and the body’s edge gets rounded over… this move is the real moment it starts looking like an instrument to me, when the edges all go away and turn to curves. At this time I also mark the neck pocket for its holes, and drill long holes connecting the pickup cavities (and for the under-bridge ground wire) to the control cavity. This is done with a long bit, a shallow angle and a good eye. 

Drillout – The body then gets put over by Uncle Johnny Kirtland’s old drill press and there the neck mounting holes are drilled & countersunk, and on some the string-through-body holes are drilled through with a follow up drilling on the back for the ball-end eyelets that get hammered in during assembly.

Carving & shaping – After this with grinder, rasps, spokeshaves, and whatever is the best tool for the wood and curve at hand in the moment, the forearm contour, belly cut and any other special contours are dressed away. This is where I hand the body off for…

Sanding… to one of the expert, focused, total detail-oriented pairs of hands in the Birdsong circle that gets this grueling and tedious task done so I can jump on any of a hundred other things I need to be doing and actually enjoy. Truly if not for wife Jamie, mystery retired furniture maker man, or any of the others who have helped over the years – most who’ve done their time with the paper and the hand-held random orbital - I may be the nutty professor and Captain Manyhands but left to me to sand everything, this would have only been a hobby.

The body now has changed from slabs of tree into a shaped and sanded form, a “chassis” of a guitar or bass-to-be. It is ready for finishing, then assembly, and onward out into the beginning of its new life and journey. It entered the workshop in a state of in-between, uncertain, unpurposed, unfocused in its potential. It will leave the workshop a honed and polished part of something bigger, to serve the music to come. I relate to its journey very much and serve IT.

Listening tosome you’re probably not! : Fleetwood Mac Future Games; RL Burnside My Black Name A-Ringin’; some Howlin’ Wolf; and Stephen Stills’ 1st album… which has been a favorite for a long time.