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Rounded and Radiused

 In this chapter of the scratch built guitars saga I will continue the work on the necks...  In the last chapter I slotted for the frets and installed fingerboard marker dots...  Now I will round the back of the neck and put a 9-1/2" radius on the face of the fingerboard, and install the marker dots on the sides.

 First up is to round off the back of these boards so that they actually start to resemble a neck..

There are more than a few templates out there that have profiles of the neck available on them.  Generally, these profiles are taken at around the first and thirteenth fret or so, and then its just a matter of equalizing the radius between the two.  Some use a series of small templates at more stages along the neck - I figure that I've done enough shaping of wood that I should be able to get by with just the two ends, we'll just have to see if I do...

First, I printed off the pair neck profiles from one of the templates I had and made a pattern for each out of 1/4" hardboard.  I then brought my Strat (a 1996 Strat that was the precursor to the Jimmie Vaughan line) out to the shop and compared that profile directly to it's neck:

You can see it's not even a close match.  My neck is listed in its original papers as having a "soft V" shape, though I suppose that it's debatable what they mean by "V", as it doesn't seem that way to me...  The profile I made the templates from was supposedly a Telecaster profile, but man it seemed awfully thick, especially when compared to my Strat's neck.

I wanted to make sure that I rounded off the necks to a profile that I liked - and I like the feel of that particular Strat, so some modification to the template was in order.  First, I used a profile gauge on the neck of my Stratocaster so I could see that there was a difference and that I had cut the template correctly.  I had, and there was:

   The profile gauge tends to lose it's accuracy a bit right at the edges of the fingerboard - so, being I had it out there already, I just used the oscillating sander on the template and messed with the template until it fit the Strat neck as best as I could make it: 

  Then I repeated the process for the template at the other end of the neck. 

 With the templates shaped to a neck I like, I could move on to shaping the neck itself.  Ordinarily, I would have probably used a spokeshave, rasps, and files to shape the neck by hand, but since on this project I was embracing the body electric I decided to push forward using the oscillating spindle/belt sander.  The Rigid model I own, I have to say, I'm very impressed with.  It's not quite as well built as I would like - it seems a bit light in some areas - but its usefulness has made its purchase very well worth it.

The belt sander is just about perfect for the length of a neck, though you have to watch yourself at each end or it will get a little wavy on you (the space between the roller and the pad for the belt can leave a little bump), but with care you can get it right.  I did practice on a scrap first to make sure I had the process down,  but then jumped right in.

 I took each neck all the way on the sander - in retrospect, I think it would have been smarter to bring it close, but do the final little bit with a good file, just because it's too easy to go too far with the power tool.  In any case, I just stopped and checked my progress against the templates I'd made often, and It all worked out in the end, and I ended up with three nice, roughed out necks:

For the transition areas at the headstock and heel of the necks, I proceeded on with a good half-round file to finish off the roughing out, then switched to sandpaper (either wrapped around a dowel or on a stick) to finish out the shaping, and used the templates I'd made to further refine the shape of the neck.

The transition areas are also very important to get right.  I don't like to use a power sander here because it's too easy to round everything over and make all your work look like driftwood - keeping transitions smooth and maintaining a crisp body line is one of those things that - to me, anyway - makes or breaks the quality of a project.

Your hand is an amazing tool - you can feel every little nuance of shape along the length of the neck, and adjust it until it feels right.  But it can still be very hard to see those body lines, and here feeling just isn't enough.  That's why I like using a north opening door to let daylight in, it aids so very much in keeping an eye on that aspect of the work, as you can see in this shot taken while working on the headstock transition

 I got everything down to about the 150 grit or so - it's not the final sanding, but the shaping is mostly done, save for a little bit at where the fingerboard joins the headstock.   That will have to wait until after the fingerboard is radiused...  Speaking of which...

Guitars generally have a slight radius to the fingerboard, to make playing them more comfortable.  The size and geometry of the radius depends a lot on the manufacturer and the period in which the guitar was made.  Early Fender guitars have a 7-1/4" radius, the modern versions are 9-1/2".  Martin acoustic guitars use a 16" radius, Gibson Les Pauls have a 12" radius.  Some guitars have a compound radius (the radius changes from one end to the other). 

My Fender has a 9-1/2" radius, and I like it - and since these are based on that, it makes sense to go with that radius.  To make the radius, it's just a matter of using a radiused sanding block and sanding until the radius is achieved.  StewMac sells radiused blocks (I have one of their 8" wooden ones), and I have since seen there are cheaper versions (just as good) for sale on Ebay.  Anyway, I just clamped the headstock to the bench and started sanding away:


 I started out by screwing a "guide" (a 2x4 directly parallel to the neck) into place that would make sure I sanded straight - I removed it, however, as it got in the way more than anything and I found it really wasn't necessary.  Pencil marks on the face of the fingerboard suffice, as you can gauge that you are proceeding evenly along the entire length of the board: 

I started with 100 grit paper, switched to 150 about half to two thirds of the way through, then ended with 220 for the last few strokes.  I used spray adhesive to adhere the sandpaper to the block, and removed it as soon as the paper was finished so the sandpaper wouldn't become permanently attached to the sanding block.  I did stop and re-saw the fret slots when they were getting shallow, so I would not lose them to the sanding.

I can see where if you were doing many of these that a jig and power tool of some sort would be of great help.  I've seen several that use a router, and a few that use a stand you mount the neck into to run them through a belt sander that look fairly easy to make - however, for just a few - while it's a bit of work to do by hand, it's really not going to save you any time to build a jig. 

 Next it was time to install the side marker dots.  They are a pretty simple matter - after marking out their location and marking it with an awl, it was a trip over to the drill press to drill the holes.  Then it was just a matter of a little weld-on cement on the end of the little plastic rods sold for the purpose and inserting them into the hole, then cutting them off with a pair of cutters. 

 Once dry, it's a simple matter to cut and sand them flush with the neck: 

 Once the side markers were installed, I sanded the necks with 220 grit paper, leaving only the transition from the headstock to the fingerboard as the sole remaining shaping left to do (which is quite minor and I will address in the next edition as this post is getting rather long).

When that's complete, the next step will be installing the frets.  Stay tuned!