2016-07-11

In the Lap of the Gods

I've been thinking on and off about building some kind of instrument. And as I'm a mediocre woodworker at best, I have to aim at the low-hanging fruit. So, lap steel it will be.


Why on earth a lap steel?

It'd be very cool to build a standard guitar, but there are a few crucial spots I'm pretty sure are way over my head. First of all, the fretboard. I understand a 1/1000" precision is needed when positioning the frets, which is more or less the thickness of a human hair. No idea how that's even possible with hand tools. On a lap steel fret lines are only guides for where to move the left hand. And besides, as the strings won't be touching the fretboard, it can be made from pretty much any material and not just the hardest woods you can find.

Second, the string height or action. Guitar strings need to be pretty close to the fretboard, but not too close. To achieve that, the neck has to be mounted at a small but precise angle, which might be tricky. And to have a straight neck (or bent in exactly in the right way) while keeping it thin enough, a truss rod has to be mounted. I don't have a router, nor have I ever used one, so that's probably a recipe for failure. I'd rather build something where the strings only need to be high enough that they don't touch the fretboard when pressed a bit and the neck can be as thick as one chooses to make it.

A pre-sawed fretboard or a factory-made neck would take away some of these worries, but there'd still be the mounting of the neck at the correct, very precise angle to consider. The surface finishing and electronics work is pretty much identical for both cases, so that doesn't weigh heavily for either side. On the other hand, I've never played a lap steel so it could be that it's not my cup of tea after all, but I'll give it a shot anyhow.

 

Hunting for parts

I decided I'll go looking for hardware first, and design the exact details around that. Clicked away into a site selling guitar parts among other things and had to take a deep breath... there are so many variants to choose from when putting something together from scratch! Starting from the color of the hardware, should I get chrome, gold or black parts? Or should I go the "backwoods" route and DIY as far as possible? It's way too easy to get stuck in indecision.

So, I put my foot down and decided that I'd only buy tuners and pickups, the other hardware would be salvaged from pieces of junk metal I have lying around. Not that I'm cheap or anything, but I'm counting on this first one being something of a throwaway thing. And besides, there'll be time to change that later and install a "real" nut and bridge.

A design for life

Fender Stringmaster, maybe something to copy?
But what should the finished instrument look like? I'm leaning towards something simple for this first build, but the sky's the limit, really. Maybe add a monkey grip and neon colors, maybe something else... I guess I'll surf around for inspiration while enjoying the short Finnish summer, but I'll save the actual woodworking for colder and rainier times.

To be continued...






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