Build Your Own Guitar – Week 1

The Background

I decided to get back into music earlier this year (long story, not worth the telling). When I saw an ad for the Australian Guitar Making School I figured there would be no better incentive to start playing again than to build my own instrument.

AGMS is based in New South Wales but it’s run by a former Tasmanian – Strato Anagnostis – and he runs an intensive guitar build once a year back in his home state. That’s the course I’m doing at the moment – six days a week for three weeks.

Strato’s been building things out of wood for the last 30+ years but he began his training building musical instruments and he’s trained under some of the world’s best luthiers both in Australia and overseas. Strato started the Australian Guitar Making School in 2007 and it now has outlets in New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania.

This week was our first week at the course and it’s been an absolute blast. Strato prides himself on being able to guide anyone through the process – male, female, young, not-so-young, skilled or unskilled. And it’s true. Our course has six participants, three of whom are retired, two of whom are retired ladies and four of whom have never built a guitar before. And let’s face it, if you can teach a guy with two left hands like me, you really can teach anyone.

The Build

Below is a brief description of what we’ve done this week. It doesn’t seem like much but believe me, there’s a lot of hours tied up here.

First, this is where the magic happens. It’s a private workshop just 5 minutes south of central Hobart, in a suburb called Dynnyrne. It’s a wonderful setting and we’re lucky to have access to it.

I don’t know how other guitar building courses run. I suspect some of them give you a kit with a shaped body, neck, etc, and show you how to put it together. Nothing wrong with that.

When you build your own guitar at AGMS, however, you start with half a dozen bits of raw timber:

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The back and sides will be made from tiger myrtle. The front is a species of spruce that I can’t remember right now. The neck is made from Honduran mahogany grown in Indonesia and the fretboard is an Australian timber called gidgee.

The first job is to join the two pieces that make up both the front and rear panels (i.e. two pieces each for the front and the back).

The secret to this is something they call bookmatching – getting the grain and the patterns in the timber to match and complement one another. The edges are planed using a special technique to ensure the edges are straight and vertical, and then glued and clamped to form one large panel from which the shaped section will eventually be cut.

Click to enlarge.

The same technique is employed for the tiger myrtle panels that will make up the back of the guitar, which is also cut to a rough shape on a bandsaw.

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We also started crafting the neck using a piece of mahogany with another block glued at one end that will be carved to form the ‘heel’ that joins to the body. The neck building starts with a 17 degree cut to form a scarf joint that will become the head of the guitar.

A leftover piece of tiger myrtle is then glued to the head piece as a more attractive veneer. The whole head will be shaped later on in the process.

We cut a curve out of the heel block and then begin to shape it, first with the chisel and then finishing it with sandpaper.

While some of the photos show Strato demonstrating techniques, I can assure that we’ve all been planing, chiselling and sanding our butts off. This is 100% hands-on course.

Next, the rosette. The shape of most acoustic guitars is a basic choice with few variations. You choose either standard shape or cutaway. There are a few areas, however, where you can customise things and make it more personal. The shape of the head, the choice of hardware, the selection of timbers, and of course, the rosette, which is the decoration around the sound hole. I’m using a ring of tiger myrtle with some black-white-black purfling and a ring of abalone shell to set it off.

We used a Dremel attached to a special luthiers jig to do this job. The first task (after locating the centre-point of the sound hole) is to route out the channel for the rosette. Next you glue the purfling to the tiger myrtle ring and glue the rosette in place in the channel. Then you plane and sand this down to match the soundboard. Finally, you create another channel for the abalone and glue that in. A whole bunch of scraping and sanding later and you’ve got a rosette. I don’t have a photo of the finished product here but it looks amazing!

Today we did the bracing on the back of the guitar.

The first step is what they call the ‘marraige strip’, which is glued down the centre of the back panel. It’s glued along the join we did on the first day and the grain of the timber strip goes cross-ways to the grain on the panel. We cut three grooves in this strip and then glue-in some shaped braces that we made earlier in the day, which give a slight curve to the panel. All this goes into a jig and is secured by the forest of clamps you see in the last photo.

Other work completed….

Today I also did the first cuts on the head of the guitar, which still has to be scraped and sanded. No photos of that, however, as it’s something I’ve designed specially for the guitar and I’ll save revealing that for later 🙂

We’ve got a LOT of work left to do but so far, the experience has been superb. It’s great to see the instrument taking shape and extremely satisfying to be doing it with my own two hands (with some amazing tuition and help along the way).

This course isn’t exactly cheap but then the quality of the finished instrument is amazing. It’s above par with anything you’ll buy in a shop because of the quality of the timber and the quality of construction. We had a few of last year’s participants call in through the week with their instruments and the finish – and most importantly, the sound quality – was just stunning.

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If you’ve ever wanted to build your own guitar then I say jump in. Go for it. Find a good teacher, pay your money and enjoy one of the great experiences of your life.

I’ll post another update next week.

Thanks for reading.

Link (again) – Australian Guitar Making School

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13 Comments

    1. She’s got me well and truly covered there. I barely play at all and it’s been a long time since I have. But hopefully…..

    1. Well, this course is the main reason why there won’t be much, if anything, happening with the Fulvia over the coming weeks. As mentioned, it’s six days a week with another 2 weeks to go, so there won’t be much time for Fulvia-ing. Plus, we’re trying to gets Geoff’s Fiat up and running first.

      That said, I will be taking a lot of Fulvia photos today, as a record of the starting point and for an introductory post here on the site.

  1. This is great. The sort of thing we all wish we were doing when we’re at our desks but somehow rarely get around to starting. Bravo Swade and may this be the first of many classes you enjoy – working with aluminium must be up next?

    1. I reckon I’ll contract that out to an expert 🙂 . Enough on the plate just dismantling at the moment!

  2. I’m glad you’re enjoying this. I built a guitar using Tasmanian timbers in an Adult Ed course in the 80’s, and it was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

  3. Impressed, very impressed. What is it with Tassie and guitars? I’m sure you know the dulcet tones of Carey Lewincamp on a Sunday at Salamanca? Blew my mind, and his blonde guitar is something else entirely.
    Woodworking skills do translate very well to cars. Especially bodywork. Just so you know…

    1. Well, actually…..

      Here’s Carey drilling out the Huon Pine archtop he’s building right now 🙂

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      Carey’s actually involved with the running of the course and it’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know him. His site at Salamanca is about 30 meters from our site so I hear him play every week. He’s a great guy.

  4. Absolutely great, Swade! I’ll be watching the progress closely. It’s on my list to build a guitar someday. First up, a garage!