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Essential Guitar Building Hand Tools

There are a fair number of essential guitar building hand tools you’ll need to build a guitar. Many of these tools are common woodworking tools you may already have. Regardless of how automated you have made your process for making guitars there will still be an amount of work that will have to be done by hand. You might as well know how so you can be successful. A few years ago I toured the Martin Guitar factory in Pennsylvania and it was no surprise that there were a number of people stationed at different parts of the process using hand tools. There is simply no way around it. You will need some hand tools and you will need to develop some skill.

One of my missions is to keep the craft alive and teach people the art of using their hand tools properly. If you plan to build a quality guitar you will need to know how to use these hand tools properly. That is what separates the really good guitars from the mediocre. Using your tools properly means being relaxed when you work. If someone looks awkward or like they are straining while using their tools they don’t know how to use them properly. They probably fell awkward as well. I can always tell how much experience someone has by how well they handle their tools. Learning how pays dividends. You will be more comfortable working and you will produce better results if you do. You will also not expend as much energy when you know what you are doing. If you are flailing all over the place you are wasting motion and energy. There is an optimal way to work. In my videos and all my classes I try to teach everyone how to properly use their tools so they feel comfortable while getting optimal results.

The list of hand tools below includes what I would consider essential hand tools for building guitars. You will find the types and sizes of tools you will need as well as some of the reasons why you will need them. Planes and scrapers are so important they have a page all to themselves.

Chisels

Cleaning glue with crook neck chiselYou will definitely need a set of chisels to make your guitar. I only use the four sizes listed below. If you are using chisels on softwoods like spruce and cedar the chisel needs to be very sharp. If not sharp the chisel will crush the fibers of these woods and not cut them.

Chisels are sharpened just like plane blades. Learn to use them and sharpen them properly. There are videos on using and sharpening chisels in the members section .

Gouges are not chisels and should never be used like one. Turing a chisel upside down to “carve” is a sure fire sign that you do not know what you are doing. Using a chisel like this makes it difficult to control the depth of cut. And with carving its all about the depth of cut. You want to be taking a fine cut in order to control the shape you are trying to produce.

carving with gougeGouges are ground and sharpened very differently than chisels and are a bit more difficult. It takes some practice to become good at sharpening these.These days carving tools come sharpened, and they are well sharpened.

Many people have the mistaken belief that carving with a gouge or knife will take longer, is way more difficult, and therefore unnecessary. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you know how to properly use and sharpen a gouge carving a heel becomes very fast. There is a video  from the dvd series on carving a heel in the members section.

Learn to carve by making something like a decorative box or something like that before you take your carving tools to your guitar. I promise you will not regret the time invested in learning how to use these tools.
Recommended chisel sizes:

2mm  (not typically available in inches), 1/8″ (3mm), 1/4″ (6mm), 1/2″ (12 mm) or 3/32″ chisels

Gouges

I have been woodworking a long time and I have picked up a few of things along the way. One thing that I am especially grateful for is learning how to carve. I simply love carving. For carving you need a couple of  gouges and a knife. Gouges and knives are the ultimate hand tools and they are used quite a bit in guitar building. To use these tools you need skill. To get skill you need practice. There are tons of simple carving projects that can get you started. To use chisels and gouges properly they must be extremely sharp. Otherwise too much force is required to cut which always leads to disaster. Learning how to properly sharpen these tools should come before learning how to cut with them. If you can create good work with knives and gouges you can use any hand tools.

Recommended carving tools:

  • large 30mm #1 gouge
  • 12 mm skew
  • Long blade carving knife

Japanese Hand Saws – Thin Blades, Thin Kerf  – Excellent for Joinery

Hand Tools for Guitar Building - a dozuki sawAs an apprentice cabinet maker one of the most often used hand tools in my box was a western back saw. These things can cut through anything but take time to learn to use properly. When I started making fine furniture I switched to Japanese hand saws because it was so much easier and more accurate cutting dovetails by hand. It was the only way to easily get them to fit perfectly right off the saw. Western saws will certainly cut a piece of wood but it is very difficult to achieve a high level of accuracy and produce great fitting joinery with one because the blade is so thick. Japanese hand saws are very well suited for guitar building. They are typically used on soft wood or plywood, but the hard wood used in guitar building is generally thin and cuts very well with these saws.

Japanese hand saws are great for fine woodworking and joinery because they have very thin blades with a very small amount of set to the teeth which makes a very narrow kerf. Set refers to the angle the teeth make with the surface of the blade. Teeth are not in line with the saw blade but splayed out to get the dust and chips out of the kerf as you cut. These saws also have many more teeth per inch than a western saw and because of this leave a pretty smooth surface behind that is easier to clean up. Japanese hand saws also cut on the pull stroke. This has always felt more natural to me. I also feel its easier to follow a straight line, adjust your cut with one of these saws.

If you are new to this type of saw I suggest you practice cutting on some scrap wood until you can cut straight and square. Then progress to a simple woodworking project to try out your newly developed skill. Once comfortable with using the saw you will be off and running completely capable of using it on your expensive guitar wood. Once mastered the saw will be one of your most often used hand tools. You will find yourself using it rather than your band saw at times because its fast and quiet.

Types of Japanese Hand Saws

You can get by with one Japanese saw, a dozuki. Dozuki saws are generally used for cross-cutting. They have a stiff rib along the top edge of the blade which keeps the blade from twisting, keeping it straight while you cut. This rib limits the depth of cut you can make with the saw but this should not be a problem with any of your guitar wood unless you are cutting it from large planks. The dozuki can cut anything up to about one inch of thickness without a problem. If you are  cutting thicker stock a ryobi saw is the way to go. A ryobi saw has no rib on top and has cutting teeth on both edges. One edge is for cross-cutting, the other is for rip sawing. Without a rib this saw can be used to cut thick stock but takes some practice to make a perpendicular cut because the blade twists easily. I use mine mainly to cross-cut planks as sometimes planks are too thick to cut with a skill saw. And sometimes I just don’t want to deal with the noise. If you have never used one of these saws I highly recommend you try one. These saws may take some practice to use with confidence but you will not regret the time spent learning how.

Here is a short list of recommended saws for guitar building:

  • A short thin blade dozuki saw (blade thickness .026″, saw length about 6″, 26 teeth per inch
  • A long thin blade dozuki saw (blade thickness .026″, saw length about 12″, 26 teeth per inch)
  • Thin blade Ryobi saw (18 teeth per inch)

Files & Rasps

filingFiles and rasps are hand tools that are used in just about every craft from metal working to woodworking. To build a guitar you will need some files and rasps. Rasps cut quickly. For guitar building you only really need one, a #50 pattern makers rasp. Pick this rasp up at an industrial supply company if you can. It will only cost you more at a luthier or woodworking supply company. This rasp cuts very fast and is a tapered half round often referred to as a “rat tail” shape. I use this rasp to set the shape of the barrel o the neck after initial shaping with the spokeshave.

Auriou rasps are made in France. These are excellent rasps but they are expensive. If my pattern makers rasp gets lost or is broken I will definitely be replacing it with one of these. These rasps cut incredibly fast and are very sharp the teeth are set by hand.

Files are very versatile hand tools. In guitar building I use them for a host of things They are great for shaping the tuner slots on the headpiece, flushing the ends of frets, rounding the edges on the instrument before finishing and fitting bindings and purflings. There really aren’t any other tools that will be able to shape your tuner slots without causing a lot of damage. I also use them to clean up the barrel of the neck after using the rasp before sanding.

Try not to use these to do all your shaping. This is not a good or efficient use of hand tools. The idea is to get most of the work done with cutting type tools and just leave the clean up for the files and sandpaper. So carve or plane to as close to the final shape of size as you can. Then use the file to clean up the hard to reach places. Its faster that way. A little practice with your planes and carving tools and there will be very little filing or sanding. Here’s a list of files:

  • 8″ Half round mill bastard file
  • 8″ Rat tail smoothing file
  • 8″ and 6″ Mill bastard file
  • 3/8″ Round file
  • A couple of small rifler files
  • Set of needle files

Measuring & Marking Tools

Measuring and Marking

It goes without saying that you are going to need some tools for measuring and marking. There are a variety of measuring tools you will need. They are covered in the video above. For marking your best choice is a knife. The thin tip makes a very accurate mark. The shallow cut left as a mark will not come off easily which is a good thing. Pencil marks are easily wiped or sanded away before you get to make your cut. If you mark with a knife or sharpen your pencil to a knife edge you marks will be much more accurate. And if you havae taken the time to learn how to use the rest of your hand tools your results will be more accurate as well.

Here is a list of measuring tools recommended for guitar making:

  • A long flexible ruler at least 700mm long in mm and inches
  • 36″ Rigid ruler
  • 24″ straight edge
  • 12″ ruler in mm and inches
  • Small 6″ ruler in 1/16th and .1 increments
  • 3″ adjustable T-square
  • 12″ adjustable T-square
  • Bevel gauge
  • 4″ or 6″ calipers in mm and inches
  • Exacto knife
  • Flat edged Japanese marking knife
  • Silver or white colored pencil

Sanding Pads

Sanding

I prefer to let my tools do most of the work so there is very little sanding to do when I am done. In the shop I the mot coarse grit sheet sandpaper I have is 220. I usually have on hand 220, 320, 400 and 600. I use micro mesh in 2400, 3200, 3600 and 4000 grits for finishes. For sanding you will need a variety of pads in different sizes and shapes. You also need pads made of different material to fit the application.

I consider sanding pads hand tools. Many of mine I have fashioned myself for better results in certain applications. Neoprene sanding pads are soft and great for finish prepping. You should always use neoprene pads for micro mesh. For anything where you want the surface to remain perfectly flat such fitting and joining a harder pad is necessary. You can make your own with some plywood and gasket cork. Use Baltic birch plywood as it is flat. The gasket cork will not crumble from use as regular cork will.

Here’s a list of sanding pads I use:

  • a couple of different size neoprene pads
  • a couple of pieces of 1/8″  gasket cork with different shaped edges
  • few hard pads of different sizes
  • Hardwood sanding blocks with 180 grit glued to face – one for edge joining and one for surface smoothing

Miscellaneous Items Used in Guitar Making

glue roller in use

Glue Roller, Squeeze Bottle & Brushes

During my apprenticeship we did a lot of laminate and veneer work. when applying glue for these types of jobs you need to get it on quickly and evenly. To do this we used rollers. Once you use one you will always use one. Glue rollers work best on large surfaces. They get the glue on quickly and evenly.

There are many instances where you will need to apply a thin bead of glue. Examples of this are edge joining, and gluing on braces, patches and just about anything less than 1/2″. Small accordion type squeeze bottles are ideal for this. The long narrow stem enables you to get just the right amount of glue on these types of surfaces. There are glue rollers and squeeze bottles available in the store.

It goes without saying that you will need some glue brushes. The  small black bristled brushes sold at woodworking supply companies are  perfect. Sometimes a glue brush is the only thing that will get the glue on in a certain place. It would be difficult to put a top and back on without one.

Timer, Tape, Steel Wool & Hygrometer

A small kitchen timer is indefensible in the shop. I use mine to alert me when enough time has gone by to clean glue squeeze out. If left on too long it can be a bear to get off. If removed too quickly it can make a big mess. With the timer set it always gets cleaned at the right time and comes off easily. I use a timer throughout the guitar making video for just that purpose.

I could not build a guitar without masking tape. I go through about one roll of masking tape every two guitars. That’s a lot of tape. The type of masking tape I recommend is the blue tape you see in Home Depot. Do not use the beige painters tape. It does not come off as well.

There are a couple of different adhesion strength tapes. Medium adhesion and high adhesion are recommended. They used to sell low adhesion tape but sadly not any more. Low adhesion tape was great for masking off the top for the bridge. Medium will have to do no. High adhesion tape is used for so many things. Installing the bindings and purflings is where most of it is used.

Double sided tape allows you to clamp things where you cannot possibly use a clamp. Tuners use this tape to hold bowls onto the face plates of their lathes. That’s how strong it is. Make sure you buy turners double sided tape at a woodworking supply company. This stuff really holds.  The rest of the stuff on the list is pretty obvious and needs no explanation.

Items List:

  • Small roller for applying glue
  • Small glue squeeze bottles
  • Glue brushes
  • 15-minute Kitchen timer
  • Scissors
  • An artist brush
  • Double sided tape
  • 3M blue masking tape: high and medium adhesion
  • 0000# Steel wool
  • Hygrometer