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Hand Tools

Essential Hand Tools for Guitar Building

Hand tools are essential in guitar building.  You are not going to be able to make a guitar without some hand tools. When purchasing hand tools always buy quality tools. It always pays in the long run to buy the best.

Initially  you may think some of these tools are too expensive. Try to think of it as an investment. Buying cheaply made tools will not produce optimal results and at some point will have to be replaced. They will end up costing you more in the long run.

Below are the recommended hand tools for guitar making. This list 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.

Recommended Hand Tools

Hand Planes for Guitar Building

If you are using only files, sandpaper or power sanders you are creating tons of dust and noise. Learning to properly use a hand plane will change your entire guitar building experience – I guarantee it. Hand planes not only make your work more enjoyable but if you can use them properly you will work faster. You will sand less – creating less dust, and it will be pleasantly quiet in your shop – just how I like it.

Planes in General

A guideline on planes in general – avoid the big heavy metal planes. You may think they look cool but every time I see someone using them to making guitars I wonder why. They are unnecessarily heavy. If dropped or used improperly they can cause quite a bit of damage to your soft guitar top. They are unnecessarily expensive. It is difficult at best to get them to take a fine shaving. They will wear you out and may cause chronic problems with your fingers, wrists and hands.

Make yourself a bench plane. For guitar building a plane from 10 -12″ long will do just fine. Its light and its capable of taking the finest cut if made right. And the wood on wood action leaves a burnished surface and is very pleasant. I have a DVD on how to make a bench and compass plane in the store.

The bottom line is you don’t need a bunch of planes to make a guitar. Below is a list of hand planes and their uses in guitar building:

  • Low angle block plane – preferably the adjustable throat kind. you can use this plane for just about everything since the wood you are working is small in dimensions.
  • Shoulder plane – the blade on the shoulder plane is the same width as the plane itself and is used when you need to plane a surface right up against another like the nut end of the headpiece veneer stack.
  • Compass plane – this plane is absolutely the best thing to use when making dished work boards. You will have to make one. Watch the preview of my plane making video.
  • Bench plane – this plane is great for thicknessing, flattening, and edge joining.
  • Spoke shave – A spoke shave is  great for rough shaping a neck quickly. The best spoke shaves are old ones you can pick up anywhere they sell  antique tools. The old ones have narrow flat bottoms.


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 .

Recommended chisel sizes:

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


carving with gougeI 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.

Recommended carving tools:

  • large 30mm #1 gouge

  • 12 mm skew

  • Long blade carving knife

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.

Gouges 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.

Scrapers are Essential in Guitar Building – Ideal for Difficult Wood

Some types of wood used in guitar building are not easy to plane. These are known as rowed woods. The grain changes direction in adjacent parts of the same surface making tear out one way and not the other You will notice unsightly divots in the wood from your plane.  This is a job for a scraper.

A scraper can be used on these types of wood without making divots. Scrapers are slight curved during use leaving a slightly dished surface. This makes them ideal for removing marks in the wood that are too deep for sandpaper. They take off less wood than a plane, and more material than sandpaper.
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[/wpmem_logged_out] Scrapers are typically used to remove the plane marks in the process of surface preparation. They do it quickly without a lot of dust. Scrapers are not a substitute for a plane. Do not use your scraper to thickness or size your wood. Used properly they will leave a surface that is smooth and will only take a few passes with fine sandpaper to be ready for finish. There are videos in the members section on how to use and sharpen your scrapers. Here is a list of recommended scrapers and sizes for guitar building:

                                          • Two  types of Curved scrapers – a french curved shaped scraper and a simple radiused scraper



                                        • A thin scraper apporx .020″ thick



                                        • A medium scraper apporx .030″ thick



                                        • A collection of small hooked scrapers as in the video



Japanese Hand Saws – Thin Blades Thin Kerf Excellent for Joinery

Japanese hand saws for guitar buildingWestern hand 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. I switched to Japanese hand saws years ago when I started cutting dovetails by hand. It was the only way to easily get them to fit perfectly. The reason Japanese hand saws are great for fine woodworking and joinery is 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. There is a video on using Japanese hands saws in the shop talk section of my website under skills for guitar building. In this video I describe the types of hand saws I use in guitar making and how to use them. If you are new to this type of saw I suggest you start with the exercise demonstrated in the video. Then progress to a simple woodworking project to try out your newly developed skill. Once comfortable with using the saw you can then proceed to using it on your expensive guitar wood. Japanese hand saws cut on the pull stroke. This has always felt more natural to me. I also feel its easier to follow a line and cut straight with one of these saws. You can get by with one of 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 also limits the depth of cut you can make with the saw. A ryobi saw has no rib 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. If it feels right chances are you will have more confidence and get better results.

Japanese Hand Saws for Guitar Building

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. 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

filingTo build a guitar you will need some files & rasps. But try not to use these to do all your shaping. 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.   Rasps cut quickly. For guitar building you only really need one, a #50 pattern makers rasp. 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. Files are great for shaping the tuner slots on the headpiece. There really aren’t any other tools that will work for this. I also use them to clean up the barrel of the neck after using the rasp as well as to round over the bindings before finishing. 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 for Guitar Building

There isn’t much to be said about measuring and marking tools. If you watched my dvd you may have noticed how many things I do with the small T-square. I simply would not know what to do without this thing any more. I tend to work in millimeters and inches which bothers some people. I was trained in inches but most classical guitar plans are in millimeters. So I learned a little about millimeters but I can only approximate small distances in millimeters. So if you prefer one to the other you only need to get rulers with one of the other on them. I highly recommend using knives for marking. If you make this one small change you will see vast improvements in your work.

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Measuring Tool List

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


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.

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 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.

Here’s a list of the 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 useThere is an assortment of fairly common items needed for guitar building. My own collection of things can be seen in the photo on the left.

Glue Brushes, Roller & Squeeze Bottle

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.

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.

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 3/4″. 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. Both the rollers and the glue bottles are available in the store

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