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Liutaio Mottola

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for builders of stringed musical instruments

Building the Neck Blank for the


Steel String Acoustic Guitar
In the broadest sense the process of building a neck has two
major operations. The first is building up a blank that is the first
order approximation of what the finished neck will look like, and
the second is successively taking away wood from that blank to
yield the final shape of the neck.

There are a number of ways to construct the blank that will


eventually become the neck of the steel string flattop guitar. The
method detailed here is probably the one that uses the least
amount of wood, a good thing as the prices of mahogany and
other woods traditionally used for the necks of acoustic guitars
continue to climb. This neck blank makes use of a scarfed neck
joint and a built up heel block. It can be implemented using hand
or power tools.

The headstock scarf joint has a lot of advantages in addition to


being miserly with wood. It makes for a strong headstock, plus
the joint is completely covered in the finished instrument on the
top (by the headplate) and on the sides (by the headstock width
extension pieces) so even if your joinery is less than perfect it is
mostly hidden from view.

Last updated: Saturday, November 25, 2017

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C on t e n t s
Critical Measurements
Choosing Material for the Neck
Dimensioning the Stock
Cutting the Stock into Major
Pieces
Making the Scarf Joint
Marking Reference Lines
Routing the Trussrod Slot
Gluing up the Heel
Trimming the Heel
Cutting the Neck to Length
Cutting out the Horizontal
Profile
Attaching the Headstock Ears

C rit ica l M e a s u re m e n t s
I make the neck blank from a single piece of wood. The
dimensions of the piece of wood you'll need to start off with will
depend on a number of critical dimensions of the instrument you
are building. Before starting, the following dimensions must be
taken from the instrument plan:

1. NL, the length of the neck from where it joins the body of
the guitar to the start of the headstock;

2. DL, if the neck joint has a dovetail or straight tenon, the


depth of that dovetail or tenon;

3. HL, the length of the headstock;

4. NT, the thickness of the neck shaft at its thickest point;

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5. HT, the thickness of the headstock;

6. FW, the width of the fingerboard at the body join;

7. LL, the length of the neck heel, from the underside of the
fingerboard to the bottom of the heel;

8. LD, the depth of the neck heel;

9. HA, the angle of the headstock WRT the fingerboard


surface;

10. LA, the angle of the surface of the neck heel that
contacts the body WRT the fingerboard surface;

C h oos in g M a t e ria l f or t h e Ne ck
The traditional material for acoustic flattop steel string guitar
necks is Honduras Mahogany. This is an ideal wood, offering
relatively light weight, high stiffness, stability, and ease of carving.
It was traditionally pretty inexpensive too, but the price is now
going up dramatically. I'd still recommend that first time builders
stick to Mahogany, but any species that offers similar stiffness,
density (weight), carve-ability, and stability can be used to good
effect. Sapele is a good alternative to Mahogany and (to me) it is
generally more visually appealing. Do keep in mind that stability is
a very important quality of the material for a neck. Mahogany has
an interlocking grain that makes for an amazingly stable material.
It does not change shape much with changes in humidity. You can
certainly use less stable wood like soft maple for an instrument
neck but it is wise to be sure the billet you use is perfectly quarter
sawn. Unless you hand select the piece (and even if you do)
perfectly quartered wood is close to impossible to find these days.
So if you use maple or a similar wood I would highly recommend
building up the neck blank billet out of laminated pieces. Three
pieces of rather haphazardly (with respect to grain orientation)
slab cut maple glued together will make for a very stable billet

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from which to make the neck blank.

Let me say a few more things about laminated neck blanks before
proceeding. I will laminate up a neck blank for any of three
reasons. The first as mentioned is in the case where the species of
the wood I want to use doesn't have a history of being stable.
There are ways you can get an idea of the relative stability of
wood species, looking at how much they shrink when drying and
how easy they are to hot bend, but for the most part I don't
bother and simply err on the side of caution. If it isn't mahogany
(or Spanish cedar for classical guitar necks) I laminate the neck
blank. The second reason I'll laminate a neck blank is if the wood
is not generally available quartersawn. And the last reason that I'll
laminate is for looks. Necks can look fancier if made from
laminated blanks.

D im e n s io n in g t he S t o c k

It is a lot easier to see what you are working with if you first
surface the stock you are using S4S – planed smooth on the broad
faces and with both edges ripped and planed straight and smooth.
For a single neck I start with a board that is about 1⁄4'' wider than
the width of the fingerboard at the body join (FW); a bit ( 1⁄64'')
thicker than the thickness of the neck shaft at its thickest point
(NT); and long enough to build the headstock, headstock side
extensions, neck shaft and heel block, plus about 4'' extra. To
figure this length, start by adding together NL, DL and HL * 2,
plus another 4'' to give yourself a little breathing room. The

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reason to use two times the length of the headstock is to provide
some material for the side extensions or “ears” of the headstock.

We're not done yet. Now we need to figure out how much stock
we need for the pieces of the built up heel. To determine the
number of pieces needed to make the stacked heel block you can
divide the length of the heel (LL) by the thickness of your stock
and ignore any fractional part of the result. Multiply this number
by 3'' (or 4'' if your neck will attach with a dovetail or straight
tenon) and then add another inch for the saw kerfs. Now add this
subtotal to the subtotal calculated above, and you have the length
of stock you need for the entire neck blank.

A note here for folks that will use a planer to do the planing. If
your planer tends to snipe the ends you'll need to add some extra
length to deal with that.

C u t t in g t h e St ock in t o M a jor P ie ce s
The first cuts will cut off the pieces needed to make the stacked
heel. These are each 3'' (or 4'') long. I use the table saw and
miter gage with the fence set as a cutoff guide:

Next, a piece HL long is cut off the stock. This is the piece that will
be used for the headstock ears, and it too is put aside for later.

The next step is to cut the piece for the headstock from the neck
shaft with an angled cut so the headstock piece can be scarfed
back onto the shaft piece. A mark is made at NL + 2'' from the

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end of the stock. Then, using a protractor a line is drawn on the
side of the stock at the mark and of angle HA such that the piece
that will be the neck shaft will end up being longer than the length
of the stock to the mark:

In this picture the line across the top of the stock was marked at
NL + 2'' from the right end of the stock, so the right hand piece
will be the neck shaft. As you can see, due to the angle of the cut
the neck shaft piece will be longer in length than to the mark.

Now the stock is cut on that line. This can be done with just about
any tool – band saw, Japanese crosscut saw, etc. I do it on the
table saw with a taper jig:

You can cut right on the line. There is still enough extra material
on both ends so that we don't have to worry too much about
critical dimensions at this point.

The next step is to plane down the thickness of the headstock

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piece. I try to make this piece about 1⁄16'' thicker than its final
thickness. The headstock on my finished instruments will be about
5
⁄8'' thick. The headplate and headstock veneers will be about 1⁄8''
thick so the final thickness of the headstock itself will be about
1
⁄2''. So here I plane the headstock down to 1⁄16'' over that, or
9
⁄16''. A planer makes short work of the job:

Note that the headstock should be planed with the cut face up.

M a k in g t h e S ca rf J oin t
Even on the table saw with the taper jig the cut used to separate
the neck shaft from the headstock will not be perfect and so the
cut faces will have to be planed to flatten them and straighten
them up. One way to do this that is simple and quick is to clamp
the pieces together so the cut surfaces are aligned as best you
can:

and then sand the faces flat and straight using the stationary disk

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sander:

Another way to smooth and straighten the joint surfaces is to back


up the pieces with another piece of stock (the cut off that will be
used for the headstock ears) and plane the surface:

However you do this, aim for a nice flat surface the edges of which
are perpendicular to the sides of the stock. After the surfaces are
flattened the headstock piece is flipped around and glued to the
underside of the neck shaft piece. The orientation is like this:

Set up for gluing on a flat board. I use Melamine covered particle


board (one brand name is Melguard) which is cheap, flat, readily
available in home centers, and glue doesn't stick to the Melamine

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surfaces. Yeah, that's gen-u-ine wood grained plastic in the next
picture. But a regular flat board, well waxed or covered with
waxed paper will work fine. First position the pieces on the board
so the joint area and all of the headstock piece are completely on
the board. Then clamp down the neck shaft piece to the board
using two clamps:

Tighten the clamps. Then position the headstock piece and place a
clamp right up against the butt end of the headstock piece and
tighten it. This clamp is used as a stop so the headstock piece
can't slip out when the joint is clamped.

Now spread glue on the face of the headstock piece to be glued.


As usual with gluing and clamping, it is a good idea to do a dry
run of all of this before actually committing to the glue.

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Position the headstock piece into place. Then loosely position two
clamps to hold the headstock piece onto the clamping board. Now
two well waxed wood or plastic cauls are placed on both sides of
the scarf joint and two clamps are used to clamp the joint. Tighten
all four of these clamps together so that the headstock piece
remains square to the clamping board and the joint is clamped
square. Here's one look at the clamps:

and here's another looking from the top:

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Let the glue dry for at least an hour before un-clamping. Now the
top surface of the scarf joint and the sides need to be cleaned up
as both will be gluing surfaces in the future. I clean up the sides
with the hand plane:

and then run the top surface once over the jointer:

or if you don't have a jointer plane down the top surface flat with
a plane. You'll remember that the headstock piece was planed
1
⁄16'' over its final thickness. All but about 1⁄64'' of that will be
taken off here. Note that in addition to cleaning up this surface for

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later gluing on of the headstock veneers you'll also want to make
sure the edge of this face where it meets the top of the neck shaft
is perpendicular. The headstock part of the neck blank is a few
inches longer than the final headstock will be. I've made it longer
on purpose, so that it could be surfaced on the jointer without
danger of sniping it.

M a rk in g R e f e re n ce Lin e s
Now a reference line is scribed across the top surface of the neck
at the start of the slope for the headstock. This line marks the
forward edge of the headstock veneer, the back edge of the nut,
and will be used as a reference for the ultimate length
measurements for the neck blank.

Use a square to be sure it is perpendicular to the sides.

If the edge of the headstock surface is not quite straight then


scribe this line a bit away from the edge and then plane the

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headstock surface to that line using a plane.

Now on the top surface of the shaft measure the thickness of the
nut down from the line just scribed and scribe another line. This
one marks the front of the nut and the end of the fingerboard.

Next measure down from the initial line NL, the length of the neck
from the body join to the start of the headstock, and scribe
another line here. This one marks the place on the neck where it
will meet the body. If your neck will be attached to the body using
a bolt-on butt joint then this line will represent the end of the
neck, too.

If your neck will be attached to the body using a dovetail or


straight mortise and tenon joint, measure down from body join
line just scribed the depth of the tenon, DL, and scribe a line here.
This line will represent the end of the neck if the neck will have a
tenon.

R ou t ing t h e T ru s s rod Sl ot
If your instrument will have a trussrod, now is a good time to
route the channel for it, before we add the heel and the headstock
ears.

Gluing up the Heel


The neck shaft is a bit longer than it will be ultimately and now it
will be shortened closer to its final length. Extend the mark that
shows the end of the neck (the body join mark or, if your neck will
have a tenon, the end of the tenon) around to the underside of
the neck. Make another mark approximately 1⁄2'' further from the
headstock end than this one and cut the neck off at this mark.

The heel pieces are stacked up and glued all at the same time,
using a piece of Melamine covered board or other flat glue-proof

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surface to keep the pieces square to the neck shaft. You don't
have to worry too much if all of the heel pieces are perfectly lined
up with the end of the shaft at this point, but don't let then skew
all over the place when gluing. Here's a picture of the clamping
arrangement:

Trimming the Heel


The neck shaft and heel pieces are loosely clamped together, then
the whole thing is clamped down on its side to the glue-proof
board using a glue-proof caul on top. The reason the assembly
was glued clamped to the board is to try to keep the sides of the
heel block as close to perpendicular to the top surface of the neck
as possible. We do this because we still need to do a number of
operations that require that perpendicular relationship. But even
careful clamping of a glued up stack like this will result in a bit of
skewing:

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At this point you'll want to square up one side of the heel so that
it is perpendicular to the top surface of the neck. I do this by
running the neck top down through the table saw, up against the
fence to just trim the side of the heel, but this operation can be
done with a stationary disk sander or with a plane just as well. No
fine work is required here, just a bit of quick squaring up. Note: if
you have a choice, trim the right side (when the neck is viewed
headstock up and looking at the fingerboard surface) to square up
the heel. In the picture above, this is the side which is up. Doing
so will make it easier to cut out the horizontal profile of the heel
on the bandsaw later.

If you've followed the measurement instructions for determining


the number of heel pieces then the heel is either just the right
length now or it is a little too long. Now is the time to trim the
length of the heel and to add any heel cap and veneers that you
want. Some measurement is now required to figure out how much
to trim. I won't give any instructions here for that, but will point
out that if your finished instrument will have the bottom of the
heel flush with the back of the instrument that it is a good idea to
make the heel a bit longer now than its finished length and to do
the final trimming once the neck is on the instrument.

The instrument I am building here has a neck with a heel that falls
a little shorter in length than the back of the guitar. It also has a
heel cap and veneer, and the end of the heel is trimmed to a bit of
a rakish angle that does not follow that of the dome of the back. I
trim the heel on the table saw using the taper jig:

but other tools could certainly be used. After it is trimmed the cap

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and veneer are glued on and clamped.

So I don't have to square up the side of the heel again I use a


heel cap that is a little bit narrower than the current width of the
heel.

C u t t in g t h e Ne ck t o Le n g t h
Now that the heel cap is on the neck can be cut to length at one of
the lines previously marked. If the neck will attach to the body
using a tenon of some sort then the next step is to cut off the
excess length of the neck at the line which indicates the end of the
tenon. If the neck attaches using a bolt-on butt joint, then it will
be cut off at the line which marks the place where the neck will
join the body.

I do this operation on the table saw, using the miter gage. On my


flattop guitars the necks tilt back slightly to accommodate the
slight doming of the tops, so that neck angle is set on the miter
gage. Then I draw the line at which the saw blade will cut onto the
saw table. A carpenter's level is held against the side of the blade
and then the cut line is penciled onto the saw table:

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Then the neck assembly is positioned on its side with the top
surface against the miter gage and the scribed line on the top at
which the neck will be cut is aligned with the pencil mark on the
saw table:

and the end of the neck is trimmed to length. As you can see in
the picture I use an 80 tooth fine crosscut blade, so the finish of
the cut will be very smooth. This operation can be done using
hand saw and plane, too. In this case the cut line would be
extended down the sides of the heel, using a square or a
protractor if there is to be a neck angle. The end of the neck is
trimmed with the saw and then cleaned up with the plane. After
the end of the neck is trimmed to length it looks like this:

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The step I usually do next is to drill and install the threaded
inserts that will be used to bolt the neck to the body. That process
is described here. If your neck will attach with a dovetail or
straight mortise and tenon, now is a good point at which to cut
the tenon.

C u t t in g ou t t h e H oriz on t a l P rof il e
As mentioned in the introduction, the process of building a neck
has two major operations. The first is building up a blank that is
the first order approximation of what the finished neck will look
like, and the second is successively taking away wood from that
blank to yield the final shape of the neck. Although we are not
quite done with the building up part of the process we do the first
of the stock removal operations at this point, while we still have a
piece which will lay flat on its side.

The first step in cutting out the horizontal profile of the neck is
transferring that profile to the side of the neck from the plan:

The picture shows just the heel portion of the profile penciled onto
the blank. Now a large amount of the waste wood can be cut away
using the band saw:

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The line is further refined using a spindle sander (pictured) or a
drill press mounted drum sander and coarse grit sleeves:

The end result looks like this, again just looking at the heel end of
the neck:

A t t a ch in g t h e H e a ds t ock E a rs
The last step in building the neck blank is attaching the headstock
ears. As should be apparent, this is left until last because once the

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ears are attached the sides of the neck can no longer be used as
reference surfaces, since the ears stick out farther than the rest of
the neck blank. In previous steps we cut off a section of the stock
for use in making the ears. Now that piece is planed to the
thickness of the headstock and then ripped in half.

I use the same piece of Melamine board as a clamping surface for


this operation as was used in previous operations. Glue is applied
to the joint faces of the ears. The headstock and the two ears are
clamped face down to the board using two hunks of glue-proof
board as cauls. You don't have to be too careful about the location
of the ears as they have been cut to the length of the headstock,
but you should keep their ends somewhere between the line that
represents the front edge of the headstock and the point on the
finished headstock where the extra width (over that of the neck
shaft) is needed. Once the headstock and ears are lightly clamped
to the board, two clamps are placed to clamp the ears to the
headstock. All clamps are tightened at the same time. The
clamping arrangement looks like this:

I've aligned the mark indicating the front edge of the headstock
with the right most edge of the gluing board. You can see the ends
of the ear pieces are a little behind that edge.

After the glue dries the front and back faces of the headstock are
flattened for subsequent operations. I usually do the front on the
stationary belt sander:

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but it can be done with a plane or with a large sanding block. This
is a large surface that will receive the headplate and veneers so
you'll want to get it nice and flat. If you use the belt sander be
careful not to take too much material away, as this will move the
line that represents the front edge of the headplate down the neck
a bit. For the same reason it is a good idea to place the headstock
front face on the belt sander top end first, and to bias the
pressure of your hand on the headstock toward the top end and
away from those scribed lines on the front of the neck. If you do
manage to obliterate the reference line while sanding then re-
scribe it now and also scribe a new line that represents the end of
the fingerboard and the front edge of the nut.

The back surface is also roughly flattened at this time.

I'm doing this with a big sanding block. On this instrument the
back of the headstock will not be covered with veneers so I'm not
doing a really picky job of this at this time. But I do want to get it
flat enough so that it will lie flat on a backer board when I'm
drilling the tuning machine holes so that the holes don't get blown
out the back surface of the headstock.

The “finished” blank looks like this:

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ready for subsequent headplate and fingerboard attachment,
cutting out of the vertical profiles, shaft carving, and cleaning up.

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