An Introduction to the Luthier’s Hand Tool Shop
Constructing guitars using only hand tools is a step back in time. The process is certainly slower, but it has its advantages. The aspect I find most pleasing about working with hand tools is their near silence. Lutherie is the pursuit of sound, and it’s very inspiring to build guitars while listening to some of its finest music or just calm silence. I do admit that life without power tools also has its downsides. Simple tasks like cutting a straight line, which is easily done with a table or band saw, and making a rabbit, a router’s task of choice, become a simple test of craftsmanship. Overall though, I have found building guitars by hand to be deeply satisfying. This article is directed towards those interested in diving deeper into this amazing craft. It presents a hand tool list and some recommendations.
Firstly, for those interested in building only one guitar, I would recommend taking a class at a lutherie school (see References for more information). Investing in the many tools needed is costly, and not worth the time and money if it’s only for one guitar. At a lutherie school one receives not only helpful guidance but also access to all the needed tools and jigs. If you do decide to purchase your own tools, it makes sense to buy them more or less as you need them during the process. Often it’s possible to make do, or even build your own tools (which is very rewarding) and so I recommend waiting until you feel confident about which tools you need to add to your collection before buying.
Secondly, in obtaining tools, there are many options. From woodworker tool swaps, to Home Depot, to Wood River tools (which seem to be a nice compromise between price and quality), to spendy Lie-Nielsen heirloom tools, I honestly believe you get what you pay for. For those interested in saving money, I recommend buying quality edge tools (chisels and hand planes) and then saving money when it comes to other tools. With the help of a woodworker, many tools can be found, albeit with a bit of looking, at a local woodworking tool swap. While they may require some work to get them in excellent condition, second hand tools can offer excellent value. For those without woodworking tool knowledge, I would suggest buying new tools. LeeValley.com offers an amazing selection of high quality tools at reasonable prices. Lmii.com, while a bit expensive, has a full selection from woods to final polishing materials and Stewmac.com has an amazing array of specialized tools.
Here is a list of the hand tools I think are necessary to build a guitar. It isn’t all inclusive, but I hope it gives you a great place to start!
Work Space and Bench:
Building guitars isn’t necessary a dirty undertaking, but it certainly isn’t clean. While hand tools create mostly shavings (instead of sawdust) that can be easily swept up, it is essential to have a dedicated, out of the way work area with good lighting (especially for the finishing!). A cabinetmakers workbench is very helpful, but a tall table bolted to a wall to make it sturdy will do well.
Block Plane and a Smoother or Jack Plane:
You can make your own (reference Making and Mastering Wooden Hand planes by Finck) or just buy new. Hand planes can be finicky, frustrating tools so I recommend getting tools that will work well right out of the box.
1/8, ¼, 3/8, ½, ¾ More expensive chisels have better steel that will not need as much sharpening. However, I think the most important aspect of choosing the right chisel is that it fit your hand. The chisel is a challenging tool to master as it doesn’t offer much guidance (like a hand plane) and so find a tool that will feel like an extension of your hand.
To shape the neck, there is no better tool. Most classical guitars have necks made with Spanish Cedar or Mahogany , which is light and easy to work. Therefore a high quality shave is not necessary. Get a flat (straight blade) model. LeeValley carries a nice, very affordable “Contour Plane” that will work well.
Probably my favorite tool! Take the time to learn how to sharpen it correctly and you will be rewarded with the ultimate smoothing tool. A thin (0.4mm) scrape sharpened without a hook works softwoods well while a thicker (0.8mm) scraper with a hook will tackle difficult hard woods.
A 6 inch coping saw is affordable and handy. In addition a quality crosscut and rip saw are essential. I could recommend a Japanese rip saw and a Veritas Gents crosscut saw.
Rasps and Files:
A number 49 or 50 patternmakers rasp and a cabinet makers file are very useful for neck and headstock shaping. A set of needle rasps excel at final shaping, but this work can probably be done with sandpaper. While more expensive rasps and files are better, I feel one can obtain excellent results with standard quality rasps and files. Micro planes are a new comer on the hand tool market and are definitely worth looking into. They are very affordable and remove material quickly and cleanly.
Clamps and Vises:
Cam clamps are pretty common in the lutherie world. I could recommend 12- 16 or so with throats varying from 4 to 8 inches. Here’s a link (http://thebestthings.com/newtools/camclamps.htm) to a site that sells quality USA made cam clamps, but you can also make you own without much trouble. You will also need some deep throat clamps for gluing on the bridge. These are available from Stewmac.com About 100 clothes pins are excellent for gluing the kerfings on. Additionally, a universal vise is a must have and I have found the pattern makers vise mounted on my workbench to get use daily.
There isn’t much drilling to be done in making a guitar, but there are a few essential holes… like in the headstock and bridge. A simple, small hand drill or cordless drill will do fine.
36, 12 (with combination square) and 6 inch rulers. A standard caliper and one with a deep throat of 7 inches are necessary. While the deep throat caliper is expensive and not often used, it is essential when thicknessing the top and back.
Flush cutting nippers, nut files, fret files, circle cutter (or router) and a gramil (or router) for cutting the binding channels.
I recommend Japanese waterstones (800, 4000 & 8000 grit) for sharpening your tools. Be sure to get a lapping plate or diamond stone to assure that your stones are flat before sharpening! Also, a honing guide is essential. The MKII offered by Veritas is excellent, but cheaper models will work nicely.
Books and Plans:
Tradition and Technology by Cumpiano (a must buy!), Classical Guitar Making by Bogdanovich, and Finewoodworking Magazines all offer wonderful advice. In addition the Guild of American Luthiers offers instrument plans at luth.org
Other words of advice:
Start with a kit and don’t buy the best woods for your first guitar. In the beginning it can be very intimidating to work on rare, expensive wood. Buy decent wood and embrace the learning process. Your first instrument probably won’t be all you dreamed but your second one will be much better.
Buy a slotted fingerboard.
Consider buying the sides pre-bent.
If you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re not sure: STOP
Making your own guitar is as rewarding as it is challenging. It may well take a year from the time the decision is made until you’re playing your own instruments, but it’s a beautiful journey. Take your time and enjoy the process, and if you have any questions along the way, feel free to ask me.
A list of lutherie schools: http://luth.org/links/schools.htm
Another article on getting started: http://www.elliottguitars.com/teaching.html
A Nice site on Building Your Own Guitar: http://www.byoguitar.com/