Milling Your Own Wood for Guitar Building

Milling wood for guitar building can save you a lot of money. Wood for guitar back and sides can be milled from large planks if you have the equipment.  And if you can find suitable wood. It is also an activity best suited for the strong and fit.

You can either buy large planks from a wood dealer or you can cut the tree yourself. Either way it works best if the planks are at least 2″ thick. This way you can get the graphics you are looking for by cutting it a certain way. Your choices are limited with a thin piece.

Do not cut planks to length right away. The length of usable wood you will end up with (due to end checking) cannot be guessed at beforehand.Sticker them and set them aside until they are dry before you start re-sawing them. Wood being stored should always be stickered (see photo) to get air on both faces to prevent cupping. The two to three inch thickness will take more time to dry but will result in less waste.

Re-sawing

Milling wood for guitar building - a flitch cut treeCutting wood for guitar backs and sides means that you will be re-sawing wood at least 8 inches wide. That will require a good band saw with a minimum power of 3HP. Generally the larger the band saw,the more horsepower, the better.

Only use quarter sawn to rift cut wood for guitars. Depending on the diameter of the tree, you will get only the center  3  to 5 slabs. Use the rest of the wood for furniture or something else. Flat sawn wood is too unstable for guitars and should be avoided since it will cause problems down the road. Quarter sawn wood, if cut properly, should slice up pretty thin without problems and remain flat.

The thinner slices you make, the greater the yield. But make sure it is dry when you slice it up. If the wood is wet it will twist and cup as it dries after you cut it. On the other hand, slicing it too close to the final dimension is not recommended either. After milling and clean up it may be too thin and will result in more waste, so you have to judge how much extra to leave for safety. This will depend on how well your bandsaw can re-saw wood this size.

Sizes for Best Yield

When milling wood for guitar building purposes the optimal size piece for re-sawing backs and sides is 40″ lengths about 8′ wide. For every two slices you will get two book matched backs. Slice the backs to about .150″. Another two slices will yield two sets of sides. If you are laminating the sides they may be sliced thinner than the backs, or about .085 – .090″.

If you estimate how many sets of backs and sides you will end up, make all your back cuts first and save all your side cuts for last. This way you can cut  8 niches off the length before you cut your sides. This will give you enough wood for bridges and headpiece veneers. This is how to get the best yield from your wood.

Be sure to visit the section on guitar wood on the web site for more information about the desired characteristics of wood used in making a guitar.

4 thoughts on “Milling Your Own Wood for Guitar Building

  1. One other question – more on design and technique, but,… In general woodworking gluing two pieces of wood together with one running at 90 to the other (grain direction) is a no no. The difference in the rate of movement due to moisture between along the grain and across the grain is so great that it is almost guaranteed to cause a problem, usually with the glue joint partially delaminating. With the guitar several of the top braces and all of the back braces are typically glued across the grain. Why does this not cause problems more regularily? Why hasn’t the design evolved? There are a few I know who are putting all or most of the braces at an angle, or to arch them so that they are glued only on part of the top or back plate but have open areas where movement could take place.

    • The back braces are glued across the grain to add stability to the back and to set the shape. The braces themselves are narrow so their movement is negligible. This is also true of the transverse braces on the top. On the top transverse braces provide support for the tension of the strings pulling up the neck and pushing down on the top. Personally I have never seen either of these brace arrangements cause a problem. Without them I think there would be lots of problems. The reason for the open areas you speak of on the soundboard is to allow vibrations to easily pass to the upper bout, not for movement.

  2. How did you arrive at the sizes you use to laminate sides (.045″ for the inside layer and .065 for the outside layer) Why not use the same thickness for each?, does this not create an imbalance. Typically in a lamination woodworkers would do 3 layers with the center layer at cross direction and the 2 outer layers as equal as possible, but guitar building seems to break many of the regular woodworking rules. Or other sizes altogether, (.35 and .55, .45 and .45?). I have never done a laminated side but I like the idea, keeping sides perfect without any distortion helps in all the other steps and helps keep any unwanted stress out of the guitar. It also makes the structure more rigid which you comment that you found beneficial with the use of solid vs kerfed linings. – I know that several prominent Spanish builders laminate the sides on their top models so it is a method that is in one sense traditional but not common. My next guitar I am definitely going to try laminated sides, I have some Spanish cedar that would be perfect, I just need to make these final decisions about size.

    • You are quite right. Laminating sides is not new to lutherie. All the older high end Ramirez 1A classical guitars had laminated sides, and Daniel Frederich laminates all his sides as well. There are so many good reasons to do it. You have named a few, you can find more good reasons in the technique sections laminating page on this web site.

      I started laminating my sides after seeing it on the plans for the Ramirez 1A which was one of the first guitars I made (My teacher had one and I really liked it). The plans called for an outer lamination of .065″ and an inner lamination of .040″ as I recall. Since there had been so many of these guitars in existence I figured it would be a good place to start. I had done lots of laminating as a furniture builder/cabinet maker and had good results. I preferred it to steam bending for many reasons. It is a superior way to bend wood accurately used by just about every high end furniture/cabinet shop in the world. Only those without knowledge claim it is inferior or like plywood.

      Anyway, from my experience with furniture the general rule is the more and thinner the laminations the more accurate the result and tighter curve can be achieved. On guitar sides since the finished sides are so thin things like cross-grain laminating don’t really matter (this is typically used on thicker laminations used to produce far greater surface areas.

      I find that using 3 laminates, one for the outer wood (Indian rosewood or whatever) about .065″ is just right. The two inner laminations are .6mm or .022-.024″ veneer. You want the outer lamination to be bit thicker than the others so that there is absolutely no possibility of sanding or scraping through it during the entire the process to preparing for finishing. The combination results in a total thickness of about .115″ which is about the thickness of my table saw blade kerf. In this way I can cut the side slots on the table saw with a .100″ blade and they need very little trimming to fit. The three laminates creates are very stiff, stable and accurate set of sides. These are highly desirable characteristics in a set of sides from a number of vantage points. The sides can be likened to the rims of a drum. The stiffer they are the better the drum head vibrates. The more accurate the shape the greater consistency in resonate pitch of the box from guitar to guitar. Stability speaks for itself. I have never had a problem with the sides on any guitar that I have laminated.

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