How to build a Red Special…
Without a doubt the most complex guitar I will ever be likely to build. I have been working on the guitar for the best part of five years on and off, with many roadblocks, and issues arising along the way. As this is a one-of-a-kind guitar, originally built by hand by Brian May of Queen in his garage when he was a child, acquiring parts for this build has been a long and daunting project. I would suggest attempting to build the components yourself, as this may be a quicker approach to finding affordable parts anywhere!
The following is a complex tutorial on how I went about building this red special, up to where I am at the moment in the build. I will try to explain every step as in-depth as I can, as I know finding this information can be next to impossible for anyone attempting to build one for themselves. If anything is unclear and you require more info, please email me from the link above, and I will do my best to answer.
although this may not be very clear to see, I have done the usual block and join for this guitar. I have also marked out everything I need to rout out, including handwritten notes on the timber of how deep, as some areas are part way though, and some are completely through, as this is a hollow bodied electric. This guitar has two large acoustic chambers, with components inserted into one of them.
I have linked to the templates I used, and they will be available in the final step. I have also included a layered Illustrator / vector file to show how they all go together, as well as some extra info that may be required, I recommend reading the tutorial, learn the templates and THEN begin shopping for timber!
Apologies for the lighting in these shots, I was in the workshop, and it was very hard to capture photos in there!
These show you how to rout out the shape. I did not have access to a band saw for this build, so, I very carefully routed the shape in three passes, ensuring I left some free space between the router blades and the pencil guideline. This can be adjusted later using a file, a sander and a spokeshave/plane.
Take your time here, these sides will need to be smooth, as later you will be attaching veneer to them.
Rollover for a look at the final shape routed out and ready for some final smoothing.
Once the outer shape is done and is all smooth, the fun part of routing the inner cavities begins.
Once all the cavities have been routed (take your time!) you can sit back and admire your work! You may notice, this looks almost nothing like what it should. that is ok, as the veneers will cover up this timber, and get it closer to the ‘red’ colour it should be.
I have also included an image of the neck that I was lucky enough to have made for me by a guy in Italy. This neck is different from other guitars I have built, as it is a ‘through-neck’, meaning that the neck is not simply bolted onto the body, rather it runs into the body and under the pickups. Many arguments arise from which method is better, however this method supposedly allows the vibrations of the timber to flow more freely along the length of the guitar. For authenticity reasons, I have chosen the through-neck approach.
In these photos I removed the fretboard, as I needed to get access to the trussrod channel. The neck is made of Honduras Mahogany, which is what Brian used to build his from, so the colour is accurate (once stained and dyed, it will look fabulous!
This is also the same species I will be getting for the veneering stage.
Notice in the neck pocket, there are darker stripes. These are dowels from when I had joined the two pieces. I usually use 8 or so dowels to join, but it is preference. The more you use, in theory, the stronger the join will be.
Some other parts to take notice of at this point are the fretboard which I had removed from the neck, and the pick guard which I had to construct myself, as they are hard enough to find for a right hander, and as a lefty, I didn’t even bother to search for one.
The fretboard is made of oak and is painted black, in the same manner as Brian has constructed his. If you have the money, and the cost is not an issue, I would recommend an ebony fretboard. I am keeping the oak one though, as I am trying to do it as close to the original as possible.
The pick guard was made over roughly one week out of 3mm Black Perspex bought from a kitchen bench manufacturer. The end result was reached using a fret saw, multiple files, sandpaper of various densities, and a lot of patience. I haven’t worked with plastics since highschool, and even then it was very basic. This is from the template that I will provide at the end.
Notice that the holes for components do not have holes drilled for mounting screws. The components are all mounted on a separate plate that sits below this one. this allows the black plate to remain as minimal as possible.
Apart from the pick guard, there is also a tremolo cover, a truss cover and also three pickup surrounds to be made from the perspex. All of these are included in the plans provided.
I managed to track down a supplier in Port Melbourne who had the correct Mahogany in stock, and also had a new shipment of Flame Top Mahogany that had just arrived. After much persuasion, he allowed me to purchase a single leaf from the batch, although very uneven and wrinkled, I was assured that flattening it was not a major job.
To flatten out and prepare it to be used for what it was intended, I purchased a bottle of Glycerine from a chemist, diluted it in warm water, and sprayed the veneer until it was soaked in the mixture. After allowing it to soak for approximately 15 minutes, a second coat was applied. I them placed it between two large pieces of brown paper, sandwiched between two large pieces of timber, and placed the whole thing under my weight bench to disperse the weight. After several days, the whole process was repeated.
Again, once it was removed from the home-made flattening rack, it was then glued to pieces of ply that I had already cut to the shape of the main body. This was aligned so I would get the best quality of timber, as well as the nicest grain of the piece. I used a coating of PVA glue on the plywood, spread evenly, but not too thickly.
Once the veneer was placed on the plywood, it was carefully placed into the ‘flattening rack’ again, to allow the veneer to be pressed tightly against the ply, allowing for the flattest possible surface.
Once the glue was dry (I waited a week to be sure) a simple craft knife was used to trim the veneer to the same shape as the ply.
Once the veneers are attached to the ply, I attached the rear panel to the main body. PVA was applied to the surfaces on the main body, and then the veneered ply was lowered onto it, aligned and left to dry with some light weights on top to press it down.
Once this glue had dried (a day or two) I applied a special carbon-based shielding paint that was purchased from a guy in Melbourne who makes this to shield mobile phone towers and various other delicate machinery. He had not heard of it being used for guitar shielding, but when I explained it was to stop the electromagnetic acoustics from causing feedback within the guitar, he agreed that in theory it should work.
I have applied three coats to every inner surface of the body, including the tremolo cavity and neck pocket, as well as the back of the front panel (not shown) so that when it is attached, the cavity to the right will be completely enclosed, so now is the best time to do it. make sure when painting the rear of the front panel, to allow room on all edges for the glue to attach it to the body.
You may also notice the square of metal in the middle of the body. This is a knife-edge, used by the tremolo unit as a pivot. this needs to be attached before the front panel is glued in, so make sure you have all of the parts before beginning construction, so you can work though the order that things need to be applied!
The next step, once the front and back panels have been carefully planed or sanded back to the edges of the body, is to attach the side veneer. I have done this using a single piece of veneer, however using scarfing or curfing techniques, you could use multiple pieces (google those terms if you are unsure)
Firstly, I soaked the veneer in a bath of hot water, softening the timber into a workable medium. I then used a hairdryer to steam the veneer into shape, using twine to hold it in place as it dried into its new shape. Do not rush this, as if you do, it can crack or snap, leaving a nasty looking error in your work. if it doesn’t bend far enough at first, add some more water, use a damp cloth with hot water, or even some glycerine, and keep using the hairdryer. You could also use an iron set on the bench on its highest steam setting to assist.
Once you have it in shape, or as close as possible (it will always bounce out of shape, you only need to be able to rest all surfaces to the guitar’s body) you need to apply a thin coating of PVA glue. I used a butter knife, and worked as I went. as the veneer is glued into place, use strips of tape that have been stuck to your jeans to lower its adherity (so it does not tear the veneer). The more tape you use, the better the adhesion to the body will be.
Here you can see the front panel attached, and all relevant cavities exposed. These have been cut using a craft knife to carefully shave them back the edges of the body.
If you rollover the image, you will also see the rear of the guitar after being veneered and stained.
I used a ‘Red Mahogany’ stain available from “Rustin’s” as this is the brand of clear coat I will be using, to keep with authenticity (Brian used the same brand and finish) keeping with the same brands where possible help to avoid any nasty chemical issues that might arise. For example, a water-based paint covered in a solvent-based overcoat will result in the paint disappearing before your eyes.
Stain is applied in one coat using an old t-shirt, and then left hanging in a well ventilated area to dry.
The next step is binding. I have never done this, so I decided to read as much into it as possible, and made sure I was in possession of the binding before cutting any timber, as it’s easier to remove timber than replace it!
The binding channels were cut before the staining was done, but this can be done after the staining, it doesn’t really matter.
I had to construct a special router blade for this job, involving the main cutter, and a bearing tip to create a channel 1mm shallower than the binding. The reason I went 1mm shallower, was due to the next step in the binding process, which is shaving it back with a blade.
Firstly, after the channel is cut and cleaned, the binding needs to be steamed and melted into shape. again, a hairdryer came in handy, so I didn’t need to work it too hard and risk snapping it. Once it was in shape, a small amount of superglue was applied into the channel, and the binding is pressed into the channel, causing the glue to move up each side of the binding and grip it tightly. Again, some tape that has been stuck to my jeans was used to hold the stubborn areas in place.
rollover the image to see the binding channels after routing and completed binding with the binding inserted, glued and the veneers stained.
Once the binding is completed, it is time to apply the clear coats to the body. This will seal the binding under the clear coat, giving it a smooth look on all surfaces.
I have used “Rustin’s Clear Plastic Coating” which is the same coating that Brian used for the original. multiple coats have been applied (at least 25 coats to all sides) as this is much thinner than the previous coatings I have used, as well as much cheaper, so I wanted it to be thick, protective and ready to shine.
I then decided to do a dry run, to ensure all parts fitted where they needed to go, and nothing needed adjusting. You might be able to see my hand reflecting in the clear coat. I decided to show you exactly how shiny this guitar is at the moment!
I have yet to finish this guitar, as I have hit a financial wall (the neck needs some adjusting in regards to the fretboard.)
linked here are individual jpg files, as well as a RAR Compressed Adobe Illustrator vector image of them (right-handed, but easy to flip image for a lefty!) for custom making the pickguards, plates, and body templates. This file contains all perspex parts (Pickguard, Pickup Rings, tremolo Cover, as well as Control Plate for under Pickguard) and all parts are imposed in the correct place on different layers! I guess I love Illustrator, huh?
Weight – N/A
Timber – American Maple / Mahogany Neck
Size – Standard Red Special size.
Time taken to complete – In Progress
So far, routing the cavities, the Veneering process, and finding information and parts!