The Big Cheese

       The Big Cheese

Hello. It’s been a while since I updated the website so better late than never. A few weeks ago I completed my latest homebuild instrument ‘The Big Cheese’ as I call it. It’s a tenor uke with a low G string.

I built the box using two blocks of pine at each end with mitred sides and then attached top, bottom and sides made of thin (around 3mm I think) plywood. The neck is made of Sapele and the fingerboard is ebony. The headstock is scarf jointed to the neck.

20150209_0030This instrument uses friction tuners. My first experience of these types of tuner and to be honest, I don’t think they work particularly well in this instance. Perhaps the string tension is too high on a tenor uke for friction type tuners. It sort of holds it’s tuning but is prone too slip out a bit too readily for my liking. The tuners themselves are decent quality so I think it’s down to the tension being nearly too much for them to hold easily. They look nice anyway!

Friction tuners

                 Friction tuners

The black mesh type material is made from an aluminium sheet that came from a rotten bird feeder I had. It was a feeder designed for birds who prefer to eat closer to the ground and consisted of a low tray with this mesh as the base to let water go through. I cut the mesh into the various shapes I needed and sprayed them with matt black paint. I bent the corner protectors using a Veritas vice held metal bender. This just a small, cheap device that fits in your vice and can bend small pieces of metal when you close the vice.

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20150209_0037I cut the ‘retro space age’ sound holes out using a Bahco deep throated fret saw with spiral blade. The shape is very loosely based on a shape I saw on a weird old Gibson instrument from the 1930’s. I adapted it and mirrored it and ended up with what you see here. I put more aluminium mesh inside the box (screwed to the central neck part that runs the length of the instrument). I stuck some copper foil sheeting underneath the mesh to give it a reflective colour. It now looks a bit ‘Star Trek’!

Beam me up Scotty.

Beam me up Scotty.

I made the floating bridge using scraps of wood left over the the neck / fingerboard. It has an ebony base with an ebony insert at the top. It’s topped off with a plastic saddle.

Crop circles bridge.

I’ve been asked on YouTube, why I use a classical bridge/saddle AND a floating bridge. Well, for three reasons. The reason I use the ‘classical’ bridge / saddle is that it is the easiest way to secure the nylgut strings to the instrument. The reason I also use a floating bridge is because I’m not very good at making instruments! I leave making the floating bridge until right at the end. I can then make it as high (or low) as is necessary in order to give me a decent action. i can fine tune the action by shaving down the saddle before gluing it to the bridge. i can deal with the nut end action by working on the nut. Having a floating bridge also gives me more leeway in getting the intonation right. If I just had the classical bridge on it’s own i would need to get it’s position right first time when I glued / screwed it to the top and to be honest, I couldn’t trust myself to do that!

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There’s not much more to say. Sound wise, its not that loud compared to my ‘Dolphin’ uke, mainly due to the smaller body size I expect. It’s got a bit of a ‘plinky’ sound. Not a good description I guess but i suppose what I’m trying to say that its not a full bodied, rounded sound. There’s not a great deal of ‘body’ to the sound. It would be OK if you mic’ed it up and could add a bit of mid lows to the sound.

I am experiencing a bit of vibration when certain notes are played. I’m not sure if it’s the top panel vibrating against the sides or the ‘scratchplate’ vibrating against the top. i shall probably glue the scratchplate down as it’s only screwed down at present. I may even spread a thin layer of flexible silicon sealant between the sides of the box and the top as I can’t see any reason why I may need to take the top off in the future.

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20150209_0043Thanks for reading this. I may put a short video on YouTube showing the Big Cheese. If I do, I’ll add a link to it here. My next (and possibly last) build is a double neck creation using two old plywood guitar bodies I had lying about (old projects that have been dismantled). I’ve already started it and have been taking photos during the work. The bodies have been joined so it shouldn’t be too long before it appears here although I’m planning to do some ‘flower power’ type artwork on it so that will probably hold things up!

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Dolphin Tenor Ukulele

Dolphin Tenor Ukulele

This is my fourth home build project. I’ve gone for a tenor uke this time. The body is made from a wooden box (pine I think) that I bought from a crafts shop on eBay. It was too big as it was so I cut it down both lengthways and height wise to make it easier to handle as a uke. The box was pretty robust, the corners being finger jointed. The top and bottom are made from thin (about 3mm) ply.

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The neck is made from Sapele. On this build, I made a scarf joint at the headstock to give a break angle after the nut. The fingerboard is made from ebony. It has a 17inch scale length. The nut is a cut down plastic guitar nut. I filled the original string slots in using the superglue and bone dust method (I had some bone dust that I saved when shaving down previous bone nuts). After the glue had dried, I sanded the nut smooth and cut new slots in the appropriate places.

Headstock

Headstock

The shaped headstock is made from three pieces of sapele. The central piece is the original neck and the side bits are made from offcuts of sapele. These were shaped and roughly thicknessed before being glued to the sides of the original neck piece. The whole headstock was the sanded level with an orbital sander.

The neck was shaped using a combination of spokeshave, scrapers and sandpapers. This is my favourite part. I use a profile gauge to check that the profile is OK as you go up the neck. Like a guitar neck, I make the neck thinner and flatter near the nut end and gradually make it more chunky as it progresses towards the heel end.

Neck joint.

Neck joint.

The neck joint is like my previous builds. Again I’m using the old metal hinges and other bits that I rescued from an ancient wood wormed winged table I chucked out of the shed! These bits make almost perfect neck plates. No need to drill screw holes or anything. The holes were already there, chamfered too.

Once again, I’m using soffit leftovers for my corner protectors.

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The dolphin shaped soundholes were cut out using a hand fret saw (Bahco deep throat with a spiral blade, most useful). I found a stock photo of a leaping dolphin on the net and copied it onto a piece of paper. I didn’t want the dolphin shaped cutouts to consist of just one cutout so I divided the dolphin into various segments that still defined the dolphin shape but made it more interesting. I then cut out the paper dolphin segments, put the paper on the plywood top, and drew inside each segment onto the ply. I then flipped the paper over to reverse the dolphin shape and did the same opposite. I then used the fret saw and a Dremel, along with small pieces of sand paper to smooth out the curves.

The dolphins.

The dolphins.

Ive used a floating (non fixed) bridge on this uke. Normally ukes don’t have a floating bridge. They normally use a classical guitar type bridge/saddle which is glued to the instrument top. My uke does have this classical bridge too but the reason I’ve added the floating bridge is that with a floating bridge, I have more control over the uke’ s action when I first string it up. If the strings are too low, I can either knock up a new bridge or shim the saddle part. If the action’s too high, I can shave a bit from the bottom of the bridge. Without the floating bridge, I would lose that control. I could shim the classical bridge to raise it but there would be no way I could lower it. Also, as the neck has no truss rod, I don’t have any control over the neck relief.

I did glue the classical bridge to the uke top using Titebond 3 but I also screwed it down. Belt and braces I suppose! I was going to make the classical bridge / saddle myself but I decided to forgo that pleasure and chickened out and bought a cheap one from eBay! It is a uke bridge but the string spacing was a bit out for my neck width so I filled the 2 end holes with a mixture of PVA glue and sapele dust and drilled 2 new ones using my Dremel Workstation. The holes go through the bridge at a slight angle so the Dremel’s ability to drill at an angle worked really well.

 

Wave inspired floating bridge.

Wave inspired floating bridge.

'Classical' saddle / bridge.

‘Classical’ saddle / bridge.

Going back to the other end of the uke, I bought the machine heads from Eagle Music in the UK. They are not branded but I think they’re marketed as Leader machines. They actually work very well. The strap buttons were bought from Axes R Us.

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Back to the body, the box was bare wood originally, so I painted it with (sprayed) white primer and then a few coats of Rustoleum Painters Touch Sunshine Yellow (again spray paint). I painted the inside of the box black using matt black spray. The palm tree design on the back was also sprayed using the matt black paint. i masked up the body after the yellow paint had fully dried with Duck Tape Easy On Easy Off tape. I then drew the design onto the tape with a pencil and then cut it out with a craft knife. Once it was dry, I peeled off the tape to reveal nice clean edges to the design. Very satisfying!

The back design.

The back design.

I’m very happy with my uke. It sounds pretty good to me and is unique (I hope!). I enjoyed building it too. Now for my next project …..

I have posted a video on You Tube waffling on about this uke so please have a look if you’re interested. I also give a quick demo at the end so you can hear it in action.

Here’s the link.

 

Cadbury Cookie Tin dulcimer

Cadbury Cookie Tin dulcimer

Here’s my third homemade instrument. I saw this biscuit tin on sale at Christmas in the local supermarket and thought it would make the basis of a new build. The biscuits weren’t bad either!

 

 

The tin.

The tin.

 

 

I made the neck from sapele and the fingerboard is maple. The machine heads are a mixture of various generic tuners.

Tailpiece

Tailpiece

 

 

The tailpiece is made from a piece of metal that came from a very old table that served as a bench in the shed. I salvaged a load of old rusty hinges and bits like that from this bench. I cleaned the rust off the tailpiece bit and bent up the end using my Veritas metal bender device that you fit to a bench vice. A very useful bit of kit but only useful for bending small parts. I then primered and sprayed it with some silver car paint.

 

Neck plate

Neck plate

 

The neck plate is also made from a hinge taken from that old bench. On this part,  I took most of the rust off and left it at that. It was nearly the correct width for this neck and only needed a bit filed off the sides. The original holes were just the right size for the screws I used.

 

Banjo style bridge

Banjo style bridge

 

 

I made the bridge from a cutoff piece of maple I had. It’s based on the bridge on my banjo. The saddle is made from an old guitar nut I had. I filed it down to get rid of the original slots and then cut new slots. In the end I had to shim up the bridge a bit as it was just too low. I stuck a couple of thin strips of plastic and stuck them on the bottom of the saddle which was then stuck on the maple bridge once I was happy with the height.

 

Warman pickup

Warman pickup

 

The pickup is a Warman which was cheap and works fine. I used a bit of old scratchplate material to cover up the rough edge of the hole I cut in the tin lid for the pickup. It has just one volume control (the knob says ‘tone’ but it was all I had).

 

The nut is made from buffalo bone. I did the main shaping using my newish Axminster bench disc/belt sander. So much quicker that using the old Dremel! I cut the slots using a combination of homemade nut files (made from hacksaw blades/fretsaw blades and a set of those dodgy cheap nut files they sell on eBay! They’re better than nothing but a proper set of nut files would be great. I just can’t justify buying a proper set yet. I get by with the stuff I’ve got.

 

Body bracing

Body bracing

 

I braced the inside of the tin to give it a bit of rigidity. I used a bit of oak at the front and pine (I think) at the back. The two ‘wings’ either side of the neck are there for the pickup screws to drive into. I attached them to the neck using dowels. I also had to chisel out s shallow section of the neck where the pickup sat, otherwise it sat too high on the body. I glued a small block of sapele to the side of the tin where the strap button would screw into.

Neck bracing

Lid bracing and electrics fitted.

 

The lid is also braced using a piece of metal from my old boiler and a thin piece of ebony that was lying around. These bits were glued to the lid using Araldite metal glue followed by ‘Sticks Like S**t’ ‘ (by Evostick).

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Machine heads

Machine heads

I may add a couple of string trees to bring the string break angle down as it’s a bit flat at the moment. I’m going to experiment with a couple of ideas I’ve got for making DIY string trees.

 

It has a 24 inch scale length. If I made another, I would make it a slightly shorter scale, perhaps 22 inch. It’s fretted to a dulcimer’s spacing so no wrong notes (oh really!). No, it’s actually very easy to play. Soundwise, it’s a cross between a mandolin and a banjo. A very delicate, pretty sound. Not loud. I’ve tuned it GDG (unison top strings).

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I’m happy with this instrument and it’s been a pleasure to build it. Once again, I learn something with every build. Next time, I’ll make sure the headstock is big enough to accommodate the  machine heads comfortably! It was a tight squeeze this time but I got away with it. Also, one of the simplest lessons I’ve learned is to use the correct size screwdriver! It makes so much difference and you are much less likely to round off the cheap screws you get. Also it makes a lot of difference owning some basic workshop machinery such as a bandsaw, pillar drill and bench sander. Now to plan my next instrument. Perhaps a tenor ukulele?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMqQMgUFW6A&feature=youtu.be

 

Here’s a You Tube video I’ve made so you can hear how  it sounds (eventually, after waffling).

 

Stella the steel guitar.

Stella the steel guitar.

Here is my second fully homebuilt guitar. This one is called ‘Stella’ the 4 string steel guitar. The body is made from a steel sleeve I rescued from my old boiler after it was replaced by a more efficient model. The ends of the box were formed from other bits from the boiler, as was the tailpiece, grill and jack socket.

The neck is made from Sapele and the fingerboard is made from ‘B’ stock ebony. The scale is 25.5 inches.

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The sleeve was originally rust and water stained with other black stains all over it.  To begin with, I was going to leave it in it’s ‘feral’ state but eventually decided I would try to smarten it up a bit.  So after quite a bit of sanding, I got most of the stains off.  The spot solder marks and weld spots are still visible but that gives it a bit of mojo!

I made the end pieces from other bits of sheet steel that came from the boiler.  I used a friend’s sheet metal bender following his tutelage.  Afterall, I hadn’t done any metal work since being at school over 40 years ago!

The sleeve.

The sleeve and ends after sanding.

 

Although it looks like a fairly simple guitar, in fact it caused me quite a few headaches! The first problem to overcome was the fact that in effect, this was a closed box and any work inside the box would have to be done ‘blind’. As this would be almost impossible to do, I had to come up with another plan.  Enter ‘the sledge’.

 

The sledge in an early guise.

The sledge in an early guise.

My plan was to build a ‘sledge’ unit that I could attach the neck  supports and corner reinforcements to and then slide the ‘sledge’ into the box and then bolt on the neck. Originally, I had just glued the supports onto the ply base but this proved too weak so I ended screwing all the supports to the base. I sprayed the ‘sledge’ black to try and disguise it when it was inside the sleeve.  Needless to say, although the idea was sound enough, in practice I had to fine tune it a number of times to get the support pieces level and at the correct heights.  The sledge in the picture is not quite how it ended up at the end but it gives you an idea of my workings. The steel sleeve and two ends screw into the corner posts.  The string anchor screws into the central spine of the neck support.  All of the supports are made out of hardwood off cuts (a mixture of old oak skirting board and Sapele off cuts).

The sound hole surround is made from a Peugeot wheel trim, kindly donated by my garage owning friend, John. The grill came from inside the old boiler.  It was a bit marked up so I gave it a few coats of silver spray paint.

 

Sound hole decoration by Peugeot.

Sound hole decoration by Peugeot.

I now had to get a hole cut in the steel sleeve.  I bought a ‘nibbler’ handtool to do the rough cutting.  In case you don’t know (I didn’t until John told me), a nibbler cuts sheet metal without bending it.  In the end, the nibbler wasn’t accurate enough (or I wasn’t accurate enough more like) to cut close to the line so the trusty Dremel took over from there.

Nibbled hole.

Nibbled hole.

The Dremel grinding discs took a hammering on the steel but they did the job (although very noisily!).  I also needed to drill the 6 holes for the ‘pseudo’ studs (these are in fact dummy screws and are made of plastic). I could have made my life a lot easier by just making the main hole big enough to encompass the studs but I didn’t! I bought a step drill bit to make the holes as I didn’t have one.  It proved to be a very useful bit that will come in useful for other jobs.  It’s an Irwin step drill bit, and cost a bit more than other I looked at but it was worth it.

Hole one done.

Hole one done. Nibbler and aviation snips in foreground.

Stud holes being drilled.

Stud holes being drilled.

 

The worker in action. Yes, it was cold!

The worker in action with the step drill bit. Yes, it was cold, hence the gloves!

 

Please note that I’m presenting this build in no particular order!  I had no plans to go on and just did things on an ad hoc basis.  Obviously, some jobs could not be done before others had been finished.  I can’t remember now which order I did things so the steps I’m writing here are not in chronological order.

After the sleeve was done, I concentrated on the end pieces.  The front end would need a recess for the neck to slot into and the rear end needed a jack socket, as I planned this to be an electric guitar.  From the start, I had an idea that I’d like to use a bit of the old boiler brass work on this guitar, so as I had a nice brass threaded section with accompanying large brass nut, I thought this would make a great jack socket! I used an old piece of scratchplate to attach the actual jack socket to and originally glued it to the brass body. Again, gluing failed so I ended up using 2 short self tappers to attach the plastic to the brass.

The jack socket minus the jack! The hexagonal backing is a piece of scratchplate.

The jack socket minus the jack! The hexagonal backing is a piece of scratchplate.

The finished jack socket.

The finished jack socket.

OK, the string anchor.  This is made from another piece of steel from the boiler.  I think it held the ignition switch.  I cut it to give it a more interesting shape and bent one end using my Veritas metal bending jobby (a small device you fit in a vice to bend small bits of sheet metal).  I gave the piece a bit of treatment with sand / emery paper to clean it up a bit.

The string anchor shaped but not yet drilled.

The string anchor shaped but not yet drilled.

Next up, the bridge.  The base is made from a piece of metal coat hook that I cut and shaped.  The posts are those things you get in flat pack furniture etc.  The threaded rod is a piece of threaded rod I bought from Screwfix!  The posts are glued to the base using Araldite metal glue.

The bridge.

The bridge. Oh, there is a piece of the boiler’s burner on the thread in this picture although this was not used in the end.

 

The front end needed a section cut out for the neck.  I think I used the Dremel again for this.

Taped up ready for cutting.

End piece cut, waiting for the top bit to be cut. The piece of wood showing is the neck support piece which in turn is screwed to the ‘sledge’.  The neck is screwed to this piece using 4 screws.

End and top cut for neck.

Section cut for neck.

On to the neck.  I had some Sapele wood left over from my first build to use for the neck and had bought some ‘B’ stock ebony for the fingerboard.  I carved the Sapele neck using a combination of surform, spokeshave, Dremel, orbital sander and manual sandpaper.  The headstock shape was formed by gluing the 2 pre shaped wings to the sides of the headstock and leveling the whole lot.  I then filled any small gaps using a mixture of white glue and Sapele sawdust.

 

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This was my first experience of working with ebony. In general, the ebony wasn’t too bad to work with.  My problem came with the B stock stuff.  It would be absolutely fine if I’d had the machinery to get the wood into a relatively flat state but I didn’t!  The hours I spent trying to plane this stuff level!  I eventually got to the point where I thought that I couldn’t have got it any flatter.  I cut the fret slots and installed the frets.

 

Installing the frets.

Installing the frets using a bigger hammer than usual! Proper fret hammer in background which didn’t have a heavy enough blow!

 

I did a trial attachment of fingerboard to neck using clamps and couldn’t see any gaps but immediately after I glued it to the neck, the gaps were obvious!!  I even snapped a metal G clamp in two trying to tighten it down!  So in a panic, I decided that I wasn’t going to wreck the whole thing at this stage so I ripped off the fingerboard before it set.  What was I going to do now?  I’d had enough of hand planing the fingerboard so another approach was called for. Enter the Proxxon surface planer!

 

Proxxon Surface Planer.

Proxxon Surface Planer.

I ended up buying the Proxxon as I still had 4 more pieces of B stock ebony that would need flattening.  I could have spent less and bought a planer/thicknesser but I decided to spend more on a quality unit that was also smaller than the cheaper planer / thicknessers.  Space (or lack of) plays an important part in my decision making!  Anyway, the Proxxon did a great rescue job on the fingerboard, even though it ended up at being half the original thickness! It’s now a thin board, approx 4mm thick.  I will flatten out any bows in the remaining ebony pieces before doing any other cutting.

This time the fingerboard mated perfectly to the neck (which also had a bit of Proxxon treatment).  I then added the dot markers to the neck once everything had set.

Dots being leveled using a Crimson Guitars spot leveling file.

Dots being leveled using a Crimson Guitars spot leveling file.

Next step was doing the fret leveling, dressing, polishing etc.   Crimson Guitars do two very nice fret polishing ‘rubbers’ which I used for the first time during this build.  I also bought a 16” fret leveling bar during this build in a pre-Proxxon attempt to get that fingerboard flat! I stuck 2 grades of sandpaper to it with double sided tape. It didn’t work for leveling the fingerboard but it did a good job on the fret leveling which is what it’s designed for.

 

During the build, I’d had a couple of those cheap coffee filter pots break (the cheap, thin glass usually cracks) and I noticed that the parts could come in very useful in the build.  Nearly everything has a use nowadays!  I cut a couple of pieces of old black scratchplate to put behind the filter discs and voila, decorative control knobs!

The coffee filter parts.

The coffee filter parts in position.

 

Electrics wise, I installed a Soho piezo and a Schaller Oyster piezo.  One is on the treble side and the other on the bass side.  I need to fine tune the positioning of the pickups over time.

Should I need to get inside the box, I have to remove the neck, undo every screw and slide out the sledge! Not the most practical thing I know but it doesn’t take too long! I attached the piezos to the 3 way switch and volume knob using spade connectors so I can detach them as I slide out the sledge.

This has been a complicated build for a novice builder but I have learned a lot from the process and in the main, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it!  There have been moments when I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew but I’m glad I didn’t throw the towel in as I’ve now got a unique instrument that I’ve designed myself.

Nearly forgot.  How does it sound and play?  It plays very nicely and stays in tune all the way up the neck.  Sound wise, it’s not that loud un-amplified and has a refined, rounded sound (not surprising for a steel box).  Amplified, it sounds like a louder version of it’s un amplified sound!  The Schaller Oyster is louder than the Soho.  I will be re-positioning the Schaller when I next change strings to lessen the volume a bit when compared to the Soho.

 

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I’ve strung it with the top four strings from a guitar set and tuned it (high to low) D,B,G,D.  I made the nut from a piece of buffalo horn I bought from eBay.  It was a sod to grind down to size even with my Dremel.  In the future, I may splash out on a bench disc/belt sander which should save me a lot of time.

 

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One more thing, the steel was polished with Solvol Autosol after sanding with 320, 600, 1200 and 2500 grit sandpapers and the neck is treated with Tru-Oil gunstock finish.  The ebony fingerboard was given a couple of washes of lemon oil after sanding down with fine wire wool and 2500 grit sandpaper.

 

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All done.

All done.

Thanks go to:

My brother Terry.

My friend John.

Ben Crowe from Crimson Guitars who I spoke to at the Birmingham guitar show and who’s videos I’ve watched on You Tube.  Recommended viewing for anyone interested in luthiery.  They also make some nice tools!

 

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After tinkering around making guitars up out of pre made parts, I finally made the jump to creating an instrument pretty much from scratch. I was inspired by my friend John who has made a few instruments out of various materials, so I have to thank him for the inspiration. I must also thank him for the box itself which he got from the local bistro. The lid and the body didn’t come from the same manufacturer but that matters not.

Before starting this project, I read a couple of books about making cigar box guitars to get the gist of what it entails. Originally, I was going to chicken out and use a pre made guitar neck but in the end, I thought, sod it, let’s give it a go and make a neck from scratch! This of course did mean that I would need to buy a few specialist luthier tools but I reasoned that I could always sell the tools if needed and recoup some of the outlay.

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The specialist tools were fret leveling files x 2, a fret dressing file, a fret crowning file, a soft fret hammer, fret slot saw, fret rocker tool (simple but very useful) and some cheap nut files. I also bought a spokeshave which I haven’t used, a profile gauge to help with neck shape profile, a small block plane and a ‘Parrot’ vice. I already owned plenty of other general DIY tools which were crucial to the build (things like saws, hammers, chisels etc). The Parrot vice (bought from Axminster Tools) is really useful, not just for luthier work either. It rotates and you can also turn it into a vertical vice. See the Axminster site for a better explanation! It’s called a parrot vice because the jaws look a bit like a parrot’s beak.

I won’t go into any depth about the construction (trade secrets LOL!!) but I will say my Dremel came in handy A LOT! I used the Dremel to profile the neck (sanding drum attachment). I planned on using the spokeshave but the Dremel worked fine and gave me good control. A B&D Mouse sander was also used quite extensively which has consequently given up the ghost. That’s two knackered now so I will try a different manufacturer next time! Perhaps a Bosch?

The original box was just pinned together and was big enough for six wine bottles. Way too big for me so I had to cut it down to size. I also used my old school woodworking ‘skills’ (from over 40 years ago and I was very average at best!) to make some rather iffy finger joints for the corners, to strengthen the box up. A hardwood block glued in each corner also gave it added strength. The original base of the box was poor quality, thin,  tongue and groove type wood. I replaced that with some old packing box ‘wood’. I think it’s some sort of ply made to look like wood panels. It was all I had lying around so it would have to do.

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Some of the more unusual parts I used were three bottle openers from this year’s Christmas crackers for the tailpiece! I also used a metal bookmark for the jack plate (also from a Christmas cracker). The corner protectors are made from some leftovers from when my brother had his soffits at home done. Thanks Terry.

The bridge base is made from a bit a spare wood left over from the neck (sapele). The upper bit is fashioned from a old black piano key (thanks again to John) and the saddle is a shaved down guitar nut. The nut at the top end is made from bone. I bought a couple of bone guitar nut blanks off eBay which I cut to size and shaped.

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I had to buy the hardwood for the neck and fingerboard. The 26 inch scale length neck is Sapele and the fingerboard is Maple. The bits of wood supporting the neck are made from old skirting board (oak I think) that my brother in law had earmarked for firewood!! Thanks Dave for the wood. Inside the box there are various shaped hardwood support blocks made from the Sapele and Oak.

John supplied the pickup (thanks again) and the other guitar bits (knob, pot, output jack, tuners etc were left over from previous projects. Fret wire was bought, as were the dot position markers and bone nut. My brother supplied the small steel plate I used for the neck plate. I drilled the holes at John’s garage.

The box was finished with Ronseal Antique Pine varnish. The neck was finished with Tru Oil (a gunstock finish) and the fingerboard finished with Liberon Tung Oil.

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So, how does it sound / play? Very good on both counts actually! I’ve tuned it GDG using the ADG strings from a string set. It has a plummy yet ringing sound when played acoustically. I love it!! The pickup doesn’t have a high output but sounds good when plugged in and no hiss!! I wrapped the pickup wires in copper foil and put the volume pot inside a copper foil lined yoghurt pot! Intonation is slightly out when you get high on the neck but it’s a good first effort if I say so myself. I’m pretty chuffed with it actually and the next project is now in the planning stage. I think it will be a three string, dulcimer fretted, biscuit tin based instrument. I’ll perhaps go for a bit more ornamentation on the next one. My previous experience with knocking guitars up from parts helped me with this build but if you have a hankering to give it a go and don’t have any experience, there is plenty of info on the net and in books.

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Thanks go to:

John R

Terry M

Dave A

Gary Nava ( Pro luthier who was kind enough to answer my basic wood selection / wood supplier questions).

Steve H (for the use of his bench saw) and everyone who has helped me (whether they knew it or not!).

The Christmas cracker manufacturers!

Everyone else who has made instruments and inspired me to give it a go.

Recommended reading. Handmade Music Factory by Mike Orr and Cigar Box Guitars by David Sutton. Also very good is Guitar Player Repair Guide and How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great, both by Dan Erlewine. These are very good if you want to tinker with your normal guitars and are also useful for wine / cigar box guitars as they cover loads of topics including fret jobs and nut slot cutting.

Oh, and the reason why she’s called ‘Rianon’ is that one side of the box has ‘Trianon’ stamped on it. The ‘T’ is now almost covered by a corner protector and thus she is christened ‘Rianon’.

Update: The wine box guitar has now made it’s first public appearance and performed extremely well. Sounded very good through an amp and pedal board at gigging volume and NO FEEDBACK!!

My next project is now underway too. The biscuit tin guitar is on hold and I’m now concentrating on an ‘industrial’ type of creation, metallic and stark. The bodywork is coming along and I’m collecting ‘hardware’ where ever I find it. This guitar will be a 4 stringer. I’m coming to the conclusion that this home building malarkey is really an art form in itself and I’m loving doing it! It is so much fun and really satisfying to use ‘rubbish’ and turn it into something unique, useful, beautiful to look at AND to listen to. It’s  quite addictive and I constantly find my self thinking of potential ideas and looking into skips for inspiration! Magic.

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My latest acquisition, a brand new orange Gretsch G5420T, made in Korea. I’ve always fancied a big hollowbody guitar and have been on the lookout for a while. I got an email from a shop in the UK saying they were offloading their guitars and amps to concentrate on strings and accessories. The email said they would be cutting up to 25% off. My cynical mind immediately thought that that meant they would give you 5% discount at best but it was worth an email just to see. So i shot off an email to ask what price they’d sell the Gretsch for and was more than surprised that the price they gave me was very generous. Not quite 25% off but close enough for me to hand over my credit card details! Next day delivery was included in the price too. Excellent. Great service from Strings Direct.

Neck joint. Very clean!

Neck joint. Very clean!

 

Set neck.

Set neck.

 

Build

Body Material: 5-Ply Maple
Body Shape: Single Cutaway
Body Finish: Gloss Urethane, Gloss Urethane, Gloss Urethane, Gloss Urethane
Bracing: Sound Post
Body Depth: 2.75″ (69.85 mm)
Number of Frets: 22
Fret Size: Medium Jumbo
Fretboard: Rosewood
Neck Material: Maple
Scale Length: 24.5″ (62.2 cm)
Bridge Pickup: “Black Top” Filter’Tron Bridge Pickup
Neck Pickup: “Black Top” Filter’Tron Neck Pickup
Controls: Volume 1. (Neck Pickup), Volume 2. (Bridge Pickup), Master Volume, Master Tone
Bridge: Rosewood-Based Adjusto-Matic Bridge
Tuning Machines: Vintage Style Open-Back
Hump-Block Fingerboard Inlays, Bound Body Top and Back, Bound Sound Holes and Fingerboard, Silver Plexi Pickguard, Knurled Strap Retainer Knobs, Adjustable Truss Rod, Bigsby®-Licensed B60 Vibrato
Bigsby licensed vibrato.

Bigsby licensed vibrato.

Playabilty
The first thing I noticed was that I immediately felt more comfortable having the guitar strapped on way higher than I usually do! In a real 60’s fashion to be sure. It just seemed the correct way to have it when I played it standing up. Weird. Perhaps it’s something to do with the thick body (the guitar’s, not mine!). Anyway, in a John Lennon stylee, I started to play…..
First thing, it was pretty much in tune straight out of the box, having endured the company of the courier for a few hours. Impressive. Set up wise, it was pretty much spot on for me. I did lower the bridge slightly on the treble side but only a couple of turns of the knurled knob. The guitar comes with a piece of thin foam under the bridge for protection so you need to get that out. Just loosen the strings enough so you can lift the bridge slightly, enough to slip the foam out. This is an ideal opportunity to check the intonation and get the bridge in the right position. Gretsch have video instructions on how to do this on their website.
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The Gretsch has a slightly shorter scale than I’m used to but it doesn’t take much time to get used to it. It plays nicely and I’m totally satisfied with it. After a few minutes it developed a vibration when certain notes were played. I narrowed it down to the scratch plate vibrating against the treble pickup cover so out came the screwdriver and after a very slight adjustment of the scratchplate, taking it away from the pickup by a millimetre, the vibration disappeared. Great.
This is my second experience of a Bigsby trem. My very first electric guitar (a Harmony H75 semi acoustic from the 60’s) had a Bigsby on. That was a ‘real’ Bigsby whereas the one fitted to the Gretsch is a ‘licensed’ Bigsby. I assume this means that it was not made by Bigsby but another party who are licensed to make these with the Bigsby name on. That said, this Bigsby works OK. It doesn’t ‘dive’ much, only about a semitone but that’s enough to give a rockabilly ‘shimmy’. It doesn’t take much pressure either to push the trem arm down. Nowhere near as much effort as my Tokai Strat does.
The tuners seem to be OK. The guitar keeps in tune well, even after a bit of Bigsby bending!
The volume and tone controls are quite linear. By that I mean that for 2/3rds of their travel, not much happens but near the end of the travel, things change quickly. Personally I don’t find this a problem but some people might be put off. You could always change the pots to taper types. Having worked on a semi acoustic before, I won’t be rushing into doing this job!
In conclusion, an easy guitar to play. Chords and lead lines roll off it easily.
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The sounds
It always hard to describe sounds with mere words so I’m going to use other guitars as comparisons to the Gretsch. I plugged the guitars into my Fender Stage Lead (transistor) and my Matamp 1224 (valve) combo. The guitars I used were:
1) Gibson Les Paul Standard with a bridge Burst Bucker and a Seth Lover neck pickup.
2) Yamaha SA500 semi acoustic with Seymour Duncan JB (SH4) in the bridge position and SD Jazz (SH 2n) in the neck.
3) Tokai Springy Sound Strat copy with standard Tokai single coil pickups.
4) 1978 Fender Telecaster with stock pickups.
The first thing I noticed was that the Gretsch Black Top Filter ‘Trons had less output than all of the other pickups. Not a problem.
Right, now how did it sound? This may or may not help but here goes. Imagine a big old church bell and a selection of hammers to hit it with. I’m using the bell analogy as all the guitars had a bell like quality to their sound to some degree. I’ll describe each guitar sound to the sound of the bell being hit with the different hammers.
Les Paul, Tokai Strat and Tele = Bell hit with a metal faced hammer.
Yamaha SA500 = Bell hit with a nylon faced hammer
Gretsch 5420 = Bell hit with a wooden mallet
That’s probably no help! In plain language, the Strat, Tele and Les Paul sounded the most trebly (surprised the LP sounded so bright!). The Yamaha was quite a dark sound. The Gretsch had the most ‘wood’ in the sound. i can’t explain what I mean by that exactly except that you could tell that the sound came from something made of wood! That is a very good thing in my book. It certainly stood apart from the other guitars in a good way. This is a guitar that adds another colour to your tonal palette as they say.  Less bright than the Strat, Tele and LP and brighter than the Yamaha. A nice middle ground with a twist of woodiness!
Black Top Filtertron pickup.

Black Top Filter ‘Tron pickup.

Back to the Gretsch in isolation, the three position pickup selector gave a nice difference in sound in each position. Each had it’s own character. Some guitars sound very similar no matter which pickup you select but the Gretsch definitely had 3 different usable sounds ranging from a nice plummy neck with some chime to a middly middle position (good for rhythm) and finishing with a more trebly bridge position but as mentioned above, not as trebly as the Strat etc.
I didn’t try the Gretsch with any distortion type sounds. I just plugged straight into the amps with no pedals. I wanted to test it so I could hear any subtle differences.  I wouldn’t envision using the Gretsch as a heavy rock guitar. I see it as a guitar that would take a crunch setting OK and would excel at country, rockabilly, rock ‘n roll, blues. That said, I just know that there will be people out there that are getting killer rock sounds from their Gretschs!!
As with all semi acoustics, feedback could become an issue when you crank the volume high.  I think the Gretsch is built with some support inside the middle of the body which helps reduce feedback but you’ll still get it if you crank up the amp.
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Hmmmmm
Here’s something a bit different that I’ve not seen before. The strap knobs are unusual. Instead of a knob with a screw holding it to the body, Gretsch give you a threaded stud that’s already fitted to the body. I think the idea is, you put your strap over this stud and then screw the actual knob onto the stud to hold the strap on. My strap had a large enough hole so i could put it over the knob without having to unscrew it. If you had a strap with only a small hole, then you would unscrew the knob, put the strap in place and then screw the knob back on. Anyway, it all works OK, just make a habit of checking that the knobs haven’t loosened otherwise you may find your Gretsch taking a nosedive to the floor!
The strap stud.

The strap stud.

The knob and strap in place.

The knob and strap in place.

I’ve read online that quite a few Gretsch owners upgrade their bridges (a Compton seems very popular). So far, the current bridge seems OK to me so I’ll stick with it for now. It seems solid enough to me.
The verdict
I like it. This is a very well made, lovely looking guitar. I can’t fault the construction. It has a different sound to the more mainstream guitars which is a good thing. I’m very happy to own this and it should give years of happy playing. Now I need to study some of those Brian Setzer videos!
Score 9/10
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Blackstar HT Dual pedal.

Blackstar HT Dual pedal.

My latest purchase is a Blackstar HT Dual pedal. Up until now I’ve been using a Digitech Bad Monkey and a Screaming Blues pedal for my overdrive and distortion needs but recently I’d been thinking about the possibility of using a valve based pedal with my transistor Fender amp with a view to getting a better overdrive sound.

The pedal.

It’s a 2 channel pedal that uses an ECC83 / 12AX7 valve. It runs at a high voltage unlike some other distortion pedals. Blackstar claim that the pedal turns any single channel amp into a three channel amp. I would agree!

Channel 1 can either be a clean boost channel or a crunch channel. there’s a little black button that lets you select between the two. The amount of gain for both channels is controlled by the stacked knobs on the left. Channel 1 crunch ranges from slight to hefty overdrive.  Channel 2 goes from hefty crunch to heavy distortion / lead tones. The output level of each channel is controlled by the stacked knobs on the right. There is only one set of EQ knobs (Bass, Mid and Treble) so both channels share the same EQ.

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Blackstar use a control called ISF on some of their pedals and amps. It stands for ‘Infinite Shape Feature’. They say if the control is turned all the way left, then you will get an American amp sound (think Mesa) and if you turn it all the way right, you will get a British amp sound (Marshall).  The American sound is tighter and more trebly whereas the British sound is darker and more muffled.

It uses a 16V psu so your typical Boss type PSU won’t work with this pedal.

It’s a well built bit of kit and should last for years. It’s quite thick for a pedal (higher than a Boss pedal).

The Sounds

Great! First I tried it with my modified Epiphone Valve Junior (a single channel amp). I set channel 1 to clean but with the gain control turned up a bit to give me a slight signal breakup a la Keith Richards. Channel 2 was set to a creamy lead tone. The ISF was set towards the American side of things but not totally.

My signal path was: Guitar – Visual Sound Comp 66 compressor – Blackstar HT Dual – Digitech Hardwire Reverb – Amp.

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Yes, it turned my single channel amp into a 3 channel amp (but then again, so did my Bad Monkey / Screaming Blues pedals). The difference is that the Blackstar sounded much nicer than the Digitechs. It’s hard to explain, but the Digitechs sound harsh compared the the HT Dual. The Blackstar behaved more like a valve amp. When I turned down my guitar volume knob, the signal cleaned up appreciably, just like a valve amp should.

The Big Test

Now this is one of the reasons I decided to get this pedal. Among my amps,  I have a Fender Stage Lead amp which I’ve never really got my money’s worth out of. I’ve had it for over 30 years but the lack of a decent overdriven sound put me off using it much. The clean sound is fantastic but the overdrive stinks! It’s a solid state amp you see.

So the question was, could the HT Dual pedal bring the Fender back into use as a gigging amp?

The answer is an undoubted YES. The Fender is now back in favour thanks to the Blackstar HT Dual. The crunch and distortion sounds are great through the Fender. I’d not hesitate to use the combination live. None of that harsh, jagged sound I got using the Digitechs with the Fender.

I’ve yet to crank the Fender up with the Blackstar but at bedroom volumes it worked so much better than I’d hoped for. It’s difficult to get a decent sound at low volumes but the Blackstar made it easy. It should sound even better at high volumes.

 

Finally…

I’ve yet to try out the Blackstar with my Matamp 1224 amp. All indications are that it will sound fantastic. I haven’t posted my Matamp review yet but when I do, I’ll mention the result of using it with the Blackstar.

There’s also an emulated output on the HT. You can connect it directly to a PA or mixer or recorder. I haven’t tried it yet but will do. I’ll connect it up to my Zoom R8 recorder and see how it goes.

I’m very happy with the HT Dual. No, I’m EXTREMELY happy with the HT Dual! I’ve had various overdrive / distortion pedals over the years (Big Muff Pi, Boss, Digitech, Coloursound Tone Bender etc) but the Blackstar wins out easily. Yes, there is a large price difference between the pedals I’ve used previously and the Blackstar, but it was worth every penny. I got the Blackstar used off eBay so it wasn’t a huge outlay anyway.

It’s the pedal I’ve been looking for. Simple as that.

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