Monday, May 4, 2009

Guitar Kits

When the subject of guitar building comes up I am frequently asked if I use a kit. It sounds like a simple question with a simple answer, but it's not. The answer depends on what the person means by a "kit."

I don't cut down trees to get my wood, nor do I go to a lumberyard and pick out a chunk of rosewood, some mahogany, ebony and spruce, then take it back to my workshop and re-saw it to the proper dimensions. The Big Boys at Martin, Taylor, Yamaha etc. can afford to have the equipment needed to buy whole logs and then re-saw them themselves, but smaller builders and hobbyists don't do that. (If you are interested in see a some wood go from log to guitar backs, Taylor's website has a two-part video showing that process on a beautiful koa log. Here's Pt. 1 and Pt. 2. Look around at the other videos to see how the factories do it.)

But I don't just assemble pieces from a kit where the majority of work has been done. Here's a picture from a kit that you can buy from Grizzly Tools:
As you can see, most of the work has already been done. The top and back have been thicknesed and profiled, braces glued on, the sides bent, and the body assembled. The neck has been shaped and is ready to be installed on the body. Then the fretboard, which already has the frets installed, needs to be glued on the neck and the position markers glued in. Everything needs to be sanded and the finish applied, afterwhich the bridge can be glued on, and that can get tricky. After that you just have to install the tuning machines, string it up, and you are jammin'! Depending on the type of finish you use, it's a two- to four-week process, most of which is spent waiting for the finish to cure.

This is not a bad way to go if you are just starting out. The really hard stuff has been done for you, so the chances that you will screw up are small. That's good, because some mistakes can be costly. This kit costs just $80 + p & h, so your investment is small. (You can get it at You won't end up with a great-sounding guitar (the back and sides are made of poplar, not a premium guitar wood), but if all you want is a great-sounding guitar, just go buy one. In these instances it's the process that is more important than the product. If you aren't sure you want to really get into guitar building, this is a cheap way to dip your toe into the water

At the next level of guitar kits much less has been done for you. Here's a picture of a kit from Martin:

Much more work to do here. The sides have been bent and the top has been profiled, but the back still needs to be joined and profiled. The braces have been cut, but I can't tell if they've been shaped. The neck has been shaped, and the fretboard is cut and fret slots cut, but the frets haven't been hammered in. There is a lot of work to be done here. This is a good kit to purchase if you want a good sounding guitar that you can say you made yourself. The back and sides are either mahogany ($360 + p & h) or rosewood ($438) and the top is spruce, traditional woods.

This is also a good kit if you are pretty sure you want to make more than one guitar and are looking for a good introduction into guitar building. I would recommend that you buy a Robert O'Brien's DVD "Build a Steel-String Guitar" (or "Build a Classical Guitar" if that's your interest) as well as the Bible of luthiery, William Cumpiano's "Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology." I pretty much read this book through before I went to the Vermont Instruments workshop, and I still refer to it, as well as to O'Brien's DVD.

You can get both of these products at amazon, or at Luthier's Mercantile International (, which is where I get my supplies, as well as the kit that I use. At LMI you can get a kit like the Martin kit, or you can go up one level and get a kit that has virtually nothing done for you. That's where the fun is, and that's what I use. But more on that later.

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