Woodworking Equipment for Guitar Building
Woodworking equipment will make guitar building less labor intensive and may in the long run save you money. If you have the equipment to mill your own wood it will save you money every time you buy wood. If you mill your own wood you get to choose how it is cut so you can minimize waste. These things add up. Do not discount this if you are guitar building for a living. When I purchased my re-saw band saw the machine paid for itself in the first six months. The money I saved cutting my guitar necks, backs and sides from planks I had purchased saved me a fortune. And by cutting it up myself I was able to wiggle some bridge blanks, heel blocks, center patches and countless other parts out of that one piece of wood.
Your work will be easier if you have some woodworking equipment to help with your guitar building. Contrary to what some hand tool purists believe – there is nothing wrong with using equipment if it is available. The right equipment can save you time and sweat. Machines are used to perform the labor intensive tasks, but the final sizing and fitting should be done by hand. You simply cannot get as good a fit or approach as fine a surface with a machine as you can by hand.
There are only two pieces of woodworking equipment for guitar building that I would consider essential – a band saw and a drill press. Anything else can be considered a luxury. That doesn’t mean that having more woodworking equipment is unnecessary, especially if you are a professional luthier. Time is money. Those planers and joiners will save you time, and hence, money.
If I only had enough money for one piece of woodworking equipment, I would spend it on a band saw. A band saw is very versatile and will perform any number of tasks such as cutting out shapes, re-sawing, and even joinery. Any 14″ band saw should be adequate to the guitar making tasks since the wood we use in guitar making is relatively small.
If you are planning to mill your own stock and re-sawing more than 5” of width something a bit beefier is required. A typical 14” bandsaw can re-saw up to about 5” in width. For cutting wider stock you need power, at least 3 HP. The 14” bandsaws typically come with 1HP. With a 3HP bandsaw with the right blade and is set up correctly cutting 12” wide stock will not be a problem.
I have a band saw that is primarily used for re-sawing and dimension cutting, and the other for cutting patterns and plywood materials. The re-saw band saw in my shop is a carry over from furniture making days and is very powerful (re-saw up to 12″ stock). This is very helpful when buying wood in as logs, billets or flitches as it will enable you to re-saw for maximum yield while getting the desired grain and effects.
Another piece of woodworking equipment highly recommended for guitar making is a standing drill press. Although a bench top model will perform most tasks as well as a standing model, the extra throat depth, stroke length, and height adjustment are indispensable at times. The price difference is minimal when you think of all the benefits you are getting.
The throat depth on a drill press is one half the capacity. So a 14” drill press has a throat depth of 7”. For guitar building a throat depth of at least 8” is recommended if you want to drill near the center of your work board. Therefore a 16” or 17” model will work just fine. Mine is a 17” model and I have not regretted getting it. I also use it for things other than guitar building.
A drill press is versatile. It can be used on metal as well as wood, and may also be used as a light duty drum sander by using a platen mounted in the quill. Sanding sideways on a drill press in this way should only be a last resort. The machine was not designed to do this.
You should always use your woodworking equipmement for the purpose for which they are intended. If you are using your drill press to sand avoid putting any perpendicular stress on the quill of a band saw as this will eventually result in some wobble in the quill. This will result in holes that are not the intended side and also reduce the effective life of the press.
A drill press is one of the best investments you can make. It is relatively inexpensive and a decent one will last a lifetime.
The Table Saw
A table saw is great piece of woodworking equipment to have. Table saws are used in all types of woodworking applications. There are many uses for a table saw in guitar building. Table saws are great some types of joinery and for repetitive cutting. If you need to cut 10 pieces of wood to 5″ out of one long piece a table saw is the way to go. Table saws are also a must have for cutting sheet stock.
If you are thinking about getting a table saw, get a good one. I had a cheap one 40 years ago. I suffered years of frustration with it. The plain fact was that it just didn’t do a good enough job. If you do more than just guitar building in your shop it will be worth every penny.
I have a PowerMatic table saw with an aftermarket fence for fine adjustment. Whatever model or brand you buy make sure it has a good adjustable fence. Preferably with fine adjustment capability. In guitar building this will really come in handy.
Cross-Cut Box for Your Table Saw
Cross-cutting on a table saw can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. The mitre gauge that comes with the saw is only marginally useful. Using a cross-cut sled makes cross-cutting much safer. It will also make your cross-cuts more accurate. The cross-cut box is easy to make. Members can download a free drawing for the cross-cut box. You can also purchase a pair of UHMW runners for your cross-cut box in the store.
Joiners & Planers
These machines are for milling stock to size. They are typically used for large pieces of wood. In guitar building most of the wood is fairly small if you purchase it from a tome wood dealer. But if you use a lot of rough cut lumber and mill your backs and sides yourself these machines are a must. There are many different types and models.
A joiner is used to put a straight edge on a piece of wood. This can be especially helpful if the piece of wood is three feet long or more. It is also used to flatten one face of a board before putting through the planer. If you buy rough cut lumber both faces are bump and far from smooth. One face will need to be flattened before it goes in the planer or there will be trouble. For guitar building an 8” model will suffice.
These machines are for milling stock to size. They are typically used for large pieces of wood since these machines are typically a minimum of 12″ wide. Any machine that is designed for more than one purpose usually aren’t that great one any one operations it will perform. I know since I have one. They are also expensive. In guitar building most of the wood is fairly small if you purchase it from a tone wood dealer. But if you use a lot of rough cut lumber and mill your backs and sides yourself wider machines are a must. There are many different types and models.
Planers are used to thickness wood. In guitar building there is always a use for one of these. Tops, backs and sides are too thin to be thickness in one of these but there a plenty of other things you can thickness with it such as necks, braces and the like.
For guitar building a 12” table top model will suffice. I had one of these for while in California as my big one was in storage on the east coast. The only thing I will say about these is they are noisy. They come with what is known as a universal motor which is quite whiney. Get good hearing protection if you have one of these.
Helical Cutting Heads
Helical cutting heads are becoming more and more popular and I can see why. My new planer has a helical cutting head and it is quiet, and easy to maintain.Cutting heads with three blades that run the entire width of the drum are difficult to set right and are very noisy due to the fact that the entire width is cutting at once.
A helical cutting head has many blades. Mine has 96. They are arranged in a spiral pattern around the drum. One tiny blade cuts at a time making the machine much less noisy. But the real perk to one of these is each blade has 2 cutting edges, some have 4. So if you dink one just flip it around and go. replacing them is a breeze and they don’t have to be set. If you can afford one of these go for it.
You can thickness your wood by hand with a plane but it takes some time. Tops and backs are some 15″ wide so that is a lot of planing. So if you are planning to build more than one guitar consider getting a drum sander.Tops, backs and sides are too thin to run through a planer. Running these through a planer is a recipe for disaster. For thicknessing these a drum sander is best.
There are two types of drum sanders, open ended and closed ended. On open ended sanders one side is open and the other is anchored but adjustable. This way you can still sand something wider than your sander. You just have to turn it around and run it through again. These machines work just fine. I had one for years. With these I recommend you only take off tiny amounts with each pass. Any more than .005 – .010” will eventually cause the drum to loosen which will result in an unevenly thicknessed board.
Disc & Belt Sanders
One of these is a luxury really. They are useful indeed but you can get by without one. Mine is pictured on the right. It has both a disc and a belt. I use mostly the disc only occasionally do I use the belt. I suggest you take the belt off when not in use as it makes the machine much less noisy.
There are many uses for the disc sander. You can free shape some parts with it or even square some small stock. I use it to size my nuts and saddles. It is also great for cleaning up end grain quickly. They are fairly inexpensive and can make some jobs easy and quick. And without the belt they make almost no noise.
Oscillating Spindle Sanders
I love my spindle sander. It is not really a necessity but it dose some things so well that I would not want to live without it. If you plan to make your own molds one of these will help tremendously.
These machines are probably the best thing for smoothing out a curve there is. The spindle moves up and down as you sand so that you won’t wear away just one spot on the sandpaper. They come with a variety of drum diameters so they are good for almost anything. My spindle is about 4″ above the table but there are machines where the spindle is up to 9″ high. Some day?
Shapers and Router Tables
A shaper is overkill as far as guitar building is concerned. The shaper really shines for cutting profiles in large stock. For guitar building a router table will suffice.
For our purposes the main difference between using a shaper or a router table is the ease of changing the bits and adjusting the height. There are some really helpful gadgets available now that improve these challenges considerably.
I use mine in constructing the bridge and shaping the inside edges of the linings. I made a cabinet for mine but a stand will serve just the same. For guitar building you don’t need a lot of power. A 1HP router will be enough.