Part 3: Shaping Necks, Making Dust, and Drilling Holes

Part three of how it happens. This isn’t “THE” only way and not the only way here either – but this is to give you a peek at some of what happens most of the time. There are many methods to get the tasks needed done and on to the next, and keep the instruments going from one bench to the next in the correct order.

So while our body has made the journey from inspiration (part 1) to plank and blank (part 2), our neck is still in the wood! In our world, the instrument is built around the neck. If you build one-offs then you DEFINITELY build around the neck. It tells you where everything else needs to be and how it all needs to line up to work together. The neck has three main things going on – its basic construction, the fingerboard, and the truss rod that goes in a channel under the fingerboard inside the neck. The rest is just cutting and shaping. Lots. That cutting and shaping can be done from a hand tool process without anything even plugged in all the way to a room sized state of the art factory CNC computer controlled machine bangin’ out 20 at a time. I like it in the middle – I think technology has its place and if it has its place in guitar building it should be in the areas of extreme precision – which technology is great at, almost like delegating a certain task to a member of the team who is the best at it – and also in sparing the craftsman some physically abusive grunt work. I have always had a lot of help with necks whenever possible – still do. Smaller and bigger CNC shops roughing out the basics and slotting to accuracy several zeros out, to other luthiers crafting them to 80%, to helpers in the shop. All necks, by the time they hit sanding, are to a set of proprietary specs I worked out at the beginning. The 31” scale, for example, is not an industry standard. You won’t find that on any bass but ones related to our workshop. The Birdsong bass neck won’t bolt onto anything else and work – what we do was designed around IT.

Our necks most of the time start as maple stock chosen for grain orientation. The template is actually of the profile of the neck – its side including heel and headstock angle. Most of our standard necks are 3 piece construction though others have happened – so the blank is glued from the maple strips, dimensioned, then we trace & cut – the cutting, the shaping, and even the sanding once its all together, happen in intermingled stages so it’s still flat here to do THIS, or rough shaped there to gauge THAT, do this other thing before you drill, get this perfect now to measure over here… it’s not complicated but there is a way to do it efficiently. Everything starts with the fretboard – that gets cut, slotted, trimmed. The neck blank gets the channel routed for the rod, in it goes, on goes the fingerboard, and you clamp the hell out of it. Work the heel, work the headstock, trim, trim some more, dress the end, dress the nut area, sand the slight curve (radius) into the board, carve, dress more, fret, trim, edge, carve, sand, detail, shape more, then it’s ready for final sanding. It’s a whole chapter in a book all by itself and one of those processes you learn by doing over and over again. It’s brutal on the hands and wrists. But a great neck doesn’t just happen, especially if you’re not doing copies.

That body meanwhile, over on the routing bench, has really become a bass body rather than a blank! A centerline is drawn on in pencil and templates for the various routs and cavities are lined up to this, and placed very precisely (we use millimeters in the shop because juggling fractions is just a stupid error waiting to happen) longitudinally. This way everything is in the right place! The templates help guide the hand router as its bit removes the wood where the pickups, neck, and controls & wiring will go. Like everything else, there are multiple ways to do this. I still do it the way I did my first – though I’m much better at it now – with a hand held plunge router and a bit with a bearing that runs up against the inside of the template cutouts on the last few passes. Also in the templates are locating pilot hole locations for the bridge. The basic templates are clear lexan, laser cut by the same small business that has burned the logos into our headstocks for years. Other templates are my original plywood templates still in use.

Once the body has its neck pocket and cavities routed, with other bits and chisels and rasps, the rounding over and any access carves are done. Then it’s time for drillout – pickup cavities through to the control cavity and other wire routes are drilled, the jack hole on instruments with the jack on the side (edge) is drilled through, neck screw locations are marked in the neck heel area (every one is a little different because by the time a body is cut and edged there is a little variation here) and the body leaves the routing bench and goes over to Uncle Johnny’s old drill press. Uncle Johnny wasn’t my uncle – that was what he was known as in town and he was a woodworking mentor of mine, showing me how to turn my guitars into wood art while I showed him how to turn his wood art into guitars. He’ll turn up later… but his drill press has drilled the neck screw pilot holes, countersunk for those eyelets, and drilled the string through holes on just about everything from the spring of 2007 on. Now we have a body that just needs contours before it is handed off for sanding (next week – sanding & finishing in part 4) – so the forearm and belly cuts are chiseled, rasped, filed, ground - some combo of these - into (or out of, more correctly) the wood. Are there more efficient ways of doing all of this? Good God yes. Of course! But there are Ferraris and there are Hondas. There are specialty shop crafted hot rods and there is basic assembly line transportation. There is craft beer and there is Bud Light.

And yeah, we DO do things a little differently. “Why don’t they do it this way” “What’s with that” “Why?” There’s a method to the madness of creation, of manifesting things into existence from the intangible inspiration; and there’s also madness to the method too, where there’s magic and alchemy and mysteries coming to dance a recipe beyond the best of its ingredients – let’s not forget here, a musical instrument is a talisman. You might not see it that way, it may be “only” the tool for notes to you, but that doesn’t define anything but your own relationship to it. These things were alive once, there’s something in there. Pieces for ceremony crafted from old bones… On the level of features and specs alone, though, a Birdsong is what a Birdsong is, and they have spoken for themselves in thousands of hands over about 20 years now.

We now have not just pieces, parts, lumber – but a bass guitar that’s just not together yet. Seems like semantics, but it’s more – we are now on the other side of this transformation. In the hands, it’s a neck that had the best of both worlds built into it and a completely bench-crafted body. Both need some serious sanding. But backing up for a moment – all those fancy body engravings and turquoise inlays, this is when they would get done. Unless something is really ragged after being worked, in which case it’ll get some initial sanding first, this is when I’d dive into all of that kind of work. Then, handed off to the hands of the unsung heroes of Birdsong past & present, into sanding they go!

And into the weekend… go I. Make it a good one!

Listening to: Bruce Springsteen autobiography audiobook, TAD, Dave Brubeck, count Basie, Bob Marley, and lots of The Pixies. If that isn’t variety, I don’t know what is! All out of the same twelve notes and all feeding my soul.