How to build a Les Paul…

overview

The final chapter of my “family of three” group of guitars. This guitar had more issues and quirks than the first two combined. As this guitar has an arched top, mathematics and careful measuring had to be combined to ensure a uniformed arch across the entire surface. Also, as the bridge and tailpiece are separated, this involved some careful measuring, and a very nervous time drilling holes at right angles to the neck to ensure correct intonation.

The following is a not so basic tutorial on how I went about building this les paul, and also how the issues were addressed, including neck angles, arched tops, bridge angle, wiring and overall balance. This is definitely NOT a guitar to consider as a first build!

step 1

As I have said earlier, every guitar begins with joining two or more pieces of timber together into a larger block, drawing the outline and rout areas onto the surface, cutting the shape out, etc.
I will skip all of that for this one, and assume you have already done it all, and you are ready to do the contouring of the archtop, routing etc

What you see to the right is not a weather report shown on a guitar, it’s called a contour map. Because this guitar has a curved face, a contour map has to be drawn to show where it curves, and how steeply it will drop. there will be six steps carved with a router, dropping a total of 12mm or approx 1/2 an inch for you imperial people. Once the steps are made, they will be sanded or planed smooth to allow a nice uniformed arch.

Before doing this, however, remember to rout the pickup cavities, as once the contouring is done, you will not have a flat surface for the router to sit on. same goes for the neck pocket, which I will discuss later.

gibson1

step 2

I will show a closeup of the bridge and tailpiece area, as this is an area that can easily be screwed up. I am showing this, because I looked everywhere for an accurate diagram of the angle and placement etc.

For anyone building a Les Paul, here are the details. Anyone else, it probably won’t interest you in the slightest!

Bridge Angle = 2 degrees from centre line – the largest gap of the two goes at the high E or 1st string (thin one). This diagram is drawn as a right-hander, as I almost stuffed it totally, as I am a left-hander!
The bridge also has to be 637.7mm (from memory, i lost the diagram) from nut to saddlepiece, straight down the centreline.

Measure these accurately, as even slightly out, the guitar will not have correct intonation, and will be impossible to tune properly. At this stage, only drill small pilot holes, as the depth needs to be accurate once the contour has been done. Drill the pilot holes deep enough that they will remain after the contouring! 🙂

gibson2

step 3

Once the contours are almost done, and the neck pocket area has been left untouched, measure the depth of the neck pocket and rout it out. As the surface of the guitar drops slightly around the pocket, the measurements need to be done at this stage, or else, the pocket will not be deep enough, and the action will be very high. Measuring at this stage will take this into account, and keep the action low. Of course, this is how I did it, you can do it in any order you like, just remember that the falling height in the timber needs to be accounted for in the neck pocket.

Once all the steps have been routed fully, sand them with a belt sander until there are no visible steps remaining. try to sand with the grain, or you will need to sand it down with progressively lighter paper to return the grain to its former beauty. Failing to do this will cause the varnish to amplify each scratch, making the guitar appear dull and dirty.

I should mention somewhere that the pickups planned for this one are humbuckers, or doubles, which require a different sized hole cut for them. notice the large holes cut in the middle ready for them? If you look closely, the holes have a smaller, and deeper hole at either side of them. This is for the mounting screws to hold them in place, as the are held a bit differently from the previous guitar’s setups.

gibson3

step 4

You may not be able to see this too well, however the neck I found for this one was a deep red/maroon colour with black face on the headstock. This simply would not match the others, and, knowing that there was some good Maple under this paint, it was stripped, sanded had artwork applied by yours truly, then varnished.

If you rollover this image, you can see the end result with artwork applied. This is an original piece of art by myself, as I wanted this guitar to be different from the standard store-bought ones.

You will see on the final photos that this neck has a dark line through the back of it, showing the join where it was cut and rejoined in the factory. that is because this style of neck has it’s head angled backwards, and it is required to cut and turn one piece of the timber. Just another reason I don’t build necks…

gibson4

step 5

The final step, after varnishing and much sanding, is to assemble all the parts, wire it all together, check all the angles and intonation. And of course, playing it loudly to check that all is working as it should.

Since building this, I have realised that during the wiring stage, I had used 250k pots. These are generally only used with single coil pickups, and not humbuckers. once replacing them with 500k pots I have noticed a huge difference, both in sound quality and volume, but also tone, and strangely, feedback levels!

Although I wanted all hardware to be chrome, I could not find any chrome knobs for this guitar ANYWHERE! My solution? I have used clear knobs with chrome washers underneath to show through. Not ideal, but gives a little bit of a chrome look to them, and they serve a function of a solid surface for the pots to screw onto.

gibson5

conclusion

As each one is made from the same timber, from the same tree and same batch, covered in the same varnish, same amount of coats, and same chrome hardware from the same supplier, the only difference between these guitars is the sound.

This gives a more true representation of the difference between the different models, without other factors like timber, age, finishing coat etc. coming into the equation.With this in mind, the difference in sound and tone is quite amazing!

The strat has an old-school sound, with a slight vibrato effect rolled in, due to the bullet-tipped pickups (I think). The tele is a more standard sound, nothing too special about it, but still a familiar Fender sound. The gibson has a solid, rich, full tone, plays smooth and apart from the weight, feels comfortable to play.

STATS:

Weight – 5.0kg
Timber – American Maple
Size – Standard Les Paul size
Time taken to complete – 12 weeks

Difficulties
Bridge positioning, Arched-top surface, neck pocket.
(I recommend you make a strat or tele before attempting this one, there is a whole lot more theory and math involved in this build!)

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Comments
  1. Awesome post. I have always fancied building my own guitar, I think that it is something that I should revisit but I will take your advice and start on something not quite so complex. I.e. Brian Mays RS.. (LOL) In my dreams.

    • I found the Tele to be the easiest, as there is no shaping required (strat is a little more complex, but offers a more universal shape and easier to source components etc)
      Keep me posted, I would love to see pics of your finished products! 🙂

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