A Guitar From a Kit: The Perfect Start

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This article is from Issue 12 of Woodcraft Magazine.

It’s easier than you think to build an acoustic guitar. Modern kits are well designed and precisely fabricated, and material quality is at an all-time high. 

By Bill Cory

Acoustic guitar kits are available in all body styles. You can order a bluegrass-pickin’ dreadnought or a fingerstyle triple-O, a jumbo or a parlor guitar. Many woods are offered as well. Choose back and sides of rosewood, mahogany, bubinga, padauk, blackwood, koa, cocobolo or other hardwoods. For the top, it’s usually sitka spruce or cedar, but redwood and others are also used.

Kits cost less than you might think. Still, if budget is a major consideration, order a kit with back and sides of laminated hardwoods instead of solids. The laminates are in some cases made from choice woods, such as Brazilian rosewood, that you can’t get in a “solid” kit. Solid spruce tops are the norm with these.

Though experienced woodworkers won’t need as much assistance as novices, help is available. Kit manufacturers all include instructions and offer customer service and tech support.

Why Start With a Kit?

Starting with nothing, selecting woods, and creating a finished guitar from them is a huge undertaking. It requires experience and a lot of specialized knowledge, such as an understanding of the physics of sound and excellent math skills. Working from scratch is just not the practical way to start.

Kits, on the other hand, make educated choices for you. The tone woods in kits, though not “master” grade, are perfect for building a very good, playable instrument. The parts are all there, from bracewood to fretwire. Necks are shaped, sides bent, tops and backs joined and thicknessed (if you want), and critical neck-to-body joints are precisely carved.

Specific guitar-oriented procedures are already done. Because of that, specialized tools such as a side-bending apparatus and fretboard-slotting jigs, are not needed. Most of the tools you’ll need are already present in your shop. (My first kit guitar was built in my garage shop with a set of files, some clamps, a small fine-cut saw, and about 30 minutes on a friend’s drill press and bandsaw.)

The instructions and plans included in the kit tell you what to do with the materials from start to finish. For $250 to $500, building from a kit will teach you things that would take months or years to research and practice on your own. While learning, you create an instrument you can enjoy playing or proudly give as a special gift.

GUITAR KITS promise enjoyable building and a guitar you’ll show off with pride — all in one box.
SUPPLIED WOODS for guitar bodies are available in various stages of completion. You can choose to join and bend the larger pieces yourself, a serious challenge for beginners.    

CARVING TOP BRACING is an art form, but well within a beginner’s reach. Instructions and some research can provide guidance.

What’s In a Kit?

With the usual exceptions of tuning machines and strings, every part you will need is supplied in a guitar kit. It’s a long list of wood and steel parts, but you aren’t necessarily stuck with the woods kits come with. When I built my first Triple-O from a Stewart-MacDonald kit, I didn’t want a spruce top. I couldn’t substitute in the kit, so I purchased a western red cedar top from Luthiers Mercantile International, for the warmer tone the cedar could provide. With any company’s kit, you can make substitutions through additional purchases.

Recently, Luthiers Mercantile launched a new Web site feature called “Kit Wizard,” a user-friendly program that lets you choose kit parts from all those available at LMI. Seventeen kit options are offered as a starting point, and practically endless substitutions may be made. Changes are allowed for every part of the guitar, from fretboard side-dots to backs and sides. A running tabulation of what’s in your custom kit and what it will cost is always present onscreen. Just clicking through all the choices can be quite educational.

You will have to purchase glues and finishing materials separately. Standard wood glues will do most of the job. When it comes to the finish on an acoustic, the primary directive is to retain resonance. This goal is attained by using a very thin, hard, non-soaking coating. Various finishes are favored by guitar builders, some waterborne to avoid toxicity, and some as touchy as nitrocellulose lacquer. It becomes a personal quest to find the one you will favor for sound quality, ease of use, health concerns, appearance and longevity.

Last, but possibly most importantly, all kits include instructions. Your finished guitar’s quality, and your peace of mind, will depend heavily on the documentation in the kit. 

Instructions from the three major companies differ widely. C.F. Martin & Co. kits include just a sketchy 16-page booklet. LMI takes a TV- and computer-based approach, offering an online tutorial and including in the kit a DVD and full-size paper plan. But the leader in this area is Stewart-MacDonald, which provides a VHS video (updated DVD coming soon), a full-size plan, and a 36-page detailed and well-illustrated manual, as well as Web site tutorials. All three companies offer phone and email tech support.

YOUR GUITAR TAKES SHAPE as the completed back and top are glued onto the rims.

SHAPING THE NECK to your liking is a rewarding stage. The neck determines the playability.

THE GUITAR YOU CREATE, no matter what type, will be a prized instrument for a long time.

Choosing A Kit

Whether you are first a guitar player or a woodworker might have a bearing on the kit you choose. If you’re a guitar player, you already know the woods and guitar types you want. If you’re more of a woodworker and not an experienced player, you might want to go in the direction of the most popular body type, a “dreadnought.” Its sound is generally favored for strumming and by bluegrass players. (The body shape became popular in the early 1900s and was named after the largest battleship of the era.) 

Other popular kits are the OM and Triple-O, usually chosen by fingerstylists for their “sweeter” tone, slightly smaller body, and overall length. The larger “jumbo” and smaller “parlor” sizes are also available if you’re willing to search for them. If you aren’t familiar with these, a little brain-picking at the local guitar shop might be in order.

As mentioned above, wood selections can be from standard varieties, or you can purchase substitutions or laminates. Laminates are somewhat less expensive. Woods can be selected for their appearance or sound qualities; some are harder to work than others, and prices vary widely. 

Regardless of woods, all kits will teach the same basic lessons about guitar construction. Quality levels of materials from the three major companies are all about the same.

Finally, documentation must be considered. If you know guitars and woodworking very well, it might not matter as much. However, if you’re new to woodworking, or new to guitars, more complete instructions are preferable.

Kit Assembly Requirements

Sometimes people suffer from the false impression that  the parts of a kit can simply be taken out and glued together. Being made mostly of wood, the guitar components require molding, shaping, bracing, compensating here and there for problems, extremely precise measuring, cutting, clamping, gluing and finishing. It’s not all done for you, by any means. 

No matter how tightly controlled, wood will often do whatever it darn well pleases. This is true with guitar tone woods, which are thinned and braced so that their vibrating qualities and strength will be balanced. Thicknesses can be .085” to .125” and some woods are bent Acclimating the wood to your ambient relative humidity is necessary to prevent warping: Maintaining humidity of 40% to 50% at room temperature is a good idea, to avoid problems like cracking of wood or loosening of joints.

The standard tools in your shop will do most of the job. Of course, some specialized tools are required. You might want a bent-shaft chisel for shaping braces, a guide for your laminate trimmer, some fret files, and fine files for the nut. 

Building a guitar, even from a kit, will exercise just about every one of a woodworker’s skills. Block out 60-80 hours of building time. 

And When You’re Finished?

Your new guitar will surprise you. Many kit guitars sound better than some midrange factory-made instruments in music shops. Even if you are a novice, building from a kit will teach you quickly; your second guitar will be greatly improved. But whether it is a showpiece or not, if you are its player, you will love it. You will have made a musical instrument that can be played and enjoyed for decades.

If you are interested at all in building a guitar, don’t hesitate. Get a kit and go for it! It will be a fulfilling experience and will create a prized possession, not to mention giving you a potentially absorbing new hobby.

Kit Providers
Stewart-MacDonald (Stewmac) stewmac.com
Luthiers’ Mercantile International, Inc. (LMI) lmii.com
C.F. Martin & Co. (Martin) martinguitar.com/1833/

In addition to these, luthiers often offer assembled kit packages; search for “luthier guitar kit” on the Internet.

Bill Cory is a writer and amateur guitar builder living in Colorado Springs with his family. His website, KitGuitarBuilder.com, offers more information and instruction on acoustic guitar kits.

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