The Spare Parts Les Paul

In July 1997 I responded to an ad that I saw in the "Trader's Post", a classified ad newspaper sold in the Middle Tennessee area. I called the man who placed the ad in the paper and he stated that he had a large amount of Gibson guitar parts. I got directions to his house (located off Nolensville road in Nashville) and drove over. When I arrived at the house, I discovered that he had a small guitar factory in his basement.

He had an incredible assortment of what appeared to be authentic Gibson guitar parts in his basement. The parts literally covered every corner of what looked like used to be the family den. It was very 60's: dark carpet, dark paneling, and some Tiki décor. He had ES-335 bodies, rough-shaped Les Paul Standard bodies, etc. He claimed that he had bought the parts in big lots over the previous two years while he was on a "quest" for wood to use in his guitar factory. I think it would safe to say that most of his stuff came out of the trash bin at the Gibson factory

I looked through the piles of bodies he had on the floor. What caught my eye was what appeared to be Les Paul bodies. I eventually bought one because it was peculiar. It was a two-piece mahogany body that had rear cavities similar to a Les Paul '55 made in the mid- to late-70s. The pickup selector cavity was set-up for an SG-type switch. Laminated to the top was a 1/16" flame-maple laminate with a Les Paul Standard-size binding channel. The top had holes drilled for four standard pots and a mini-switch in the lower bout, plus a LP type pick-up selector in the upper bout. The mortise was routed, but there were no cavities routed for pickups.

The fingerboard is rosewood with low, mid-70's frets. It has dot inlays and cream binding. This is similar to a Les Paul '55.

The neck is a Les Paul Standard three-piece maple. The headstock veneer is ebony with "Gibson" inlaid. It has a 1983 serial number: 80673532. The neck angle was set at about 4.5 degrees. Based on the cut of the angle, it was clearly setup for an arch-topped Les Paul Standard. Two 1/4" holes were drilled though the tenon of the neck -- obviously an attempt to deter would-be luthiers like me. However, the truss rod was intact and operational.

Putting it together

When I started doing the analysis on the neck, I decided to fill the holes in the tenon first. I checked the function of the truss rod at the shop in Nashville, and I was confident that the neck was sound. For some reason, whoever burned the holes in the tenon missed the truss rod and placed no more holes in the neck. The holes were 1/4" in diameter. I took a maple dowel and glued a piece in each hole with Gorilla Glue. I am confident that the dowels will never come out of the holes.

Next, I decided to strip the dark finish off of the neck. In retrospect this was probably meaningless, but for some reason I wanted to ensure that the wood on the neck was sound. The finish was typical for a tobacco sunburst. The wood was not stained; rather, a light shader was sprayed over the neck and the neck was sunbursted near the heel, but not on the headstock. This is strange, as I would have thought that the wood was dyed. I also supposed that the necks were finished separate from the body, or at least initially they were separate.

The treble side of the neck had pulled apart, and there was a crack between the outside edge and the center piece of the three-piece neck. I stripped the finish, and forced Gorilla Glue into the crack and clamped it. The Gorilla Glue oozed out of the crack, and the crack was closed. I feel confident that the neck is sound. The neck had a Les Paul Standard neck angle cut into the heel. This was about 4 1/2 degrees. I had to get the neck angle to a more Junior-like 2 degrees to be able to use a Tune-a-Matic bridge and stop tailpiece setup. I had considered "profiling" the top like one of my custom guitars -- this would allow the fingerboard to rest directly on the top while attaining the proper neck angle. I surmised that this would be impossible because the maple top was so thin, I would hit mahogany prior to reaching the correct depth, thus destroying the maple-top effect. I had to use a spacer to lift the fingerboard off of the body like that of the '50s Les Paul Special. I had done a great deal of analysis on this guitar, and I believe that it paid off in this decision. A critical reference during this period was Melvyn Hiscock's book "Make Your Own Electric Guitar." His discussion of neck angle on pages 25-28 was very helpful.

In addition, because of the offset of the mortise on the body, I had to move the centerline of the tenon to ensure the edge of the neck was flush with the cutaway on the lower side of the body. In retrospect, this is very strange: the LP Standard's neck was not centered in the body's mortise. I own a Les Paul '55, and the bottom side of the neck is flush with the body in the cutaway. There is no ledge like on a 1950's Les Paul Special or Junior. Literally, I have no idea what kind of neck this guitar body was supposed to have had.

First, I tried gluing shims of maple to the neck to avoid having to cut the heel. Once I tried this, I was dissatisfied because I knew I couldn't make the shims appear transparent with a sunburst finish. I cut a template out of clear Plexiglas that would allow me to assess the proper neck angle. I removed the maple shims, and cut a 2-degree angle into the heel. I used a wood rasp and file to shape the heel. This was a very time consuming effort because I knew if I cut the angle wrong, I could not go back and redo it.

I completed the binding on the top of the guitar in May 1998. The binding was bought from Stewart-Macdonald when I was putting the "Jeff Beck Les Paul" together. I glued the binding to the body with Duco glue. I taped the binding down with brown Stew Mac binding/masking tape. When I took the tape loose there were some loose areas on the binding. I glued these loose spots down with super thin CA glue. I scraped the binding flush with single edge razor blades. I did not put a hook on the blade before I started scraping. After looking at some older Les Pauls, it is clear to me that the binding channel on this guitar is deeper than those found on regular Les Pauls. The binding is very deep compared to my black Les Paul Standard.

Fitting the Neck to the Body

Fitting the neck and the body was a significant emotional event. Because the body is flat and the fingerboard must rise above the body, there must be a shim between the body and the fingerboard. This shim raises the fingerboard so that the neck angle is correct and the bridge is at the proper height for playing and adjustment. The original shims I made for the guitar were made from mahogany. The wood came from the guys I originally got the parts from; it was part of a "second" USA Map guitar, and it was huge. I got a chunk of the Western USA -- Washington, Oregon, and California.

After several frustrating tries, I made a shim out of a block of Eastern hard maple. While I screwed up the angle, the shim was what I was looking for. Maple will be key because of the finish I plan to put on the guitar. The shim will be bursted like the top and a grain match between the top and shim will be important.

I finished the Blue Ash guitar in November 1998, and then started working through some challenges with the Les Paul. I got out my trusty poster board and started going over the calculations and measurements for the neck. It was clear that the Gibson-Schaller tune-a-matic had to be set at the proper height for the neck angle. So, like I had many times before, I went to the computer and drew the angles, then followed it up with pencil on posterboard. I believe the shim is correct, but I have to ensure that the fingerboard is high enough off of the body to make the bridge workable.

On 27 November 1998, I started to work on the shim once again. I realized that the computer-based drawings were incorrect because I had measured the length of the shim incorrectly (NOTE: HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN. I have had numerous episodes of measuring parts incorrectly -- it is almost inconceivable, yet very common. I suppose that is the difference between The Big Boys and me...). I made yet another series of measurements, and determined that the shim was too high on the neck side, but just about right on the body side. I double-stick taped the shim to a piece of 2x4 and started sanding with a sanding block holding 100-grit sandpaper. I sanded until the rise was smooth from the front's 4/64" to the rear's 12/64". This let me have a bridge height of about 41/64", which I determined to be optimal. I was difficult to gauge at this point what the neck-body joint would look like. I could not see daylight through it, but I did seem a bit loose. Also, I determined that the tenon would need a shim of about 11/64" to fill up the mortise. That would be relatively easy to fix because it is out of sight. Throughout this maneuver I have been filled with self-doubt, and I was constantly concerned that I may screw up the neck angle beyond recovery. Also, the position of the neck would determine the pickup cavities and the bridge position. If I ruined these, the guitar would be firewood.

Prior to gluing the neck, I used a very small chisel from Woodcraft to refine the neck-body joint. Using a piece of scrap mahogany that was flat on one edge, I worked the joint until I was satisfied it could get no more "plum". Once the joint was set, I decided the time was right for gluing the fingerboard to the neck.  Once I get the fingerboard on the neck permanently, I will affix the shim to the neck.

On 28 November 1998, I glued the fingerboard to the neck. I remade one of the 1/4" dowel plugs in the neck (to align the fingerboard), and made sure it was completely aligned. I used Titebond glue (and a lot of it) to glue the fingerboard down. I used masking tape to protect the fingerboard and the neck -- good thing too. The squeezeout was just awesome. I clamped the two pieces together with five clamps and pieces of 2x4.

Next, I glued the shim into place. The neck wound up being just about perfect. Because of my awesome work schedule during the first two weeks of December, I hardly touched the guitar for the next month.

January 1999

After returning from Christmas, I was rejuvenated -- I wanted to work on this guitar. I visited my luthier friend Jim Grainger, and I knew that it was my mission!

I continued to wring my hands over the bridge height. I measure all three of my Les Pauls and I determined that all three had bridges that were about 22/32" high above the body on the D and G-strings. This was the height I was looking for on my new Les Paul. I continued to clamp and measure, clamp and measure ad nauseum looking for the optimal height for the shim under the fingerboard.

I decided to go for it with the neck.  I went to wood shop and routed out the front pickup cavity. Here was the thought process: I decided to route the front cavity because once the neck was installed I could not place the Plexiglas template flush with the body. Therefore, I would route the front pickup, install the neck, ensure the centerline on the body is correct, then route the back cavity and drill the bridge holes. On 18 Jan 99, I tried out my Stew-Mac cavity routing bit for the first time. I got an incredibly clean route on the guitar's front cavity. I also drilled out the jack hole -- the original hole was very small. It appears to be the original hole from the factory.

It is now 20 January and I am still worrying about the alignment of the neck. The tenon has a good fit, but I am still worried that the neck will not fit properly in the mortise. I have decided to attack the problem and glue the neck in this weekend.

Oh by the way -- Jim Grainger showed me how to apply a hand-rubbed sunburst finish. I practiced on several scrap pieces of maple, and I must say the effect is stunning. The dye? McCormick's food coloring -- yes, food -coloring. The yellow is absolutely awesome, and the red makes a great vintage sunburst. I am considering this finish for the Les Paul. I tested the finish on a piece of maple given to me by a luthier friend. The pale sunburst is beautiful!

On 23 January, I decided that I had had enough fun with the neck. I measured the height above top (neck clamped in place, straight edge down the middle of the neck -- measure the distance between the straight edge and the position of the bridge.) The distance was 20/32" -- exactly the same as my '61 SG reissue, and my three other Les Pauls. I was not completely happy with the fit of the shim against the top, but I was sure that the small gap would be filled with glue squeeze-out. I was finally prepared to glue the neck to the body. In my opinion, I could not make the joint any better than it was. I felt like I was panicking!

On 24 January, I removed the clamps and...the neck looked great! The fit really turned-out well, and the gaps in the shim were nearly undetectable. It is clear that --

1. The maple shim was the correct choice.
2. Cutting the neck down at the heel was the correct choice as opposed to gluing shims to the heel.
3. Taking your time does pay dividends -- that is if you have the time.

Placing the Bridge

To place the bridge, I had to reconfirm the centerline of the guitar. I used some fishing line with a wood screw attached. I hung the line from the headstock, put the guitar on a stand, and watched where the line hung. I maneuvered the guitar so the line would bisect the position markers -- this reconfirmed my centerline.

Using my trusty Stewart-Macdonald Les Paul blueprints, I remeasured the position of the bridge. I also made a template using an acrylic sheet from Lowe's. I place the sheet over the blueprint and marked the position of the bridge and tailpiece in relation to the centerline. I also have to measure the relation of the rear pickup to the bridge before I can route that cavity.

I continued the analysis, but found the Stew-Mac blueprint did not correspond 1:1 with several of my Gibson guitars. Specifically, it appeared that the dimensions of the stop tailpiece and bridge were slightly narrower on the blueprint than they were in "real life". The first acrylic sheet I did proved that -- it was back to the drawing board with the actual parts I would use.

On 31 January the weather was beautiful, so I filled a few gouges in the mahogany with Famowood Mahogany wood filler. As noted before, the bodies were kind of banged up. I wanted to fill the holes before I started finish sanding the body.

Over the course of February I continued the analysis on bridge placement. When I returned home I continued to measure, remeasure, and remeasure again the placement of the bridge. I used fishing line to simulate strings, and continually repositioned the bridge based on scale length measurements. I was becoming weary with this process -- I had not been consumed with this much guitar self-doubt and it was getting to me.

On 14 March 99, I finally decided to go final for the bridge and rear pickup cavity. I went to the woodshop and drilled the holes and routed the pickup cavity much as I had with my other guitars. The holes looked right, but I still needed to do some reaming to ensure the studs countersunk properly.

I decided to insert the tailpiece studs in the wood prior to beginning the finishing process. The reason for this was twofold. First, I was afraid that forcing the inserts into the wood after the finish would cause the finish to crack. Second, I was afraid that if I had to route some more wood that I could never touch up the finish to standard. I decided I would get the top of the inserts just under the surface and mask the tops during the finishing process. The bridge studs top-mounted -- if I want to ensure a mirror-like finish on the top, these could not be installed prior to finishing. This was a lesson learned from my blue ash guitar.

I suppose the biggest lesson learned would have been to mount the bridge, tailpiece, and rear pickup ring on a 2x4 ensuring they were at the proper spacing. Once installed, I could have marked a piece of acrylic with the placement and had a nice template. Because I did a lot of the placement on the guitar itself, I took some unnecessary chances. I could have also relieved some of the panic I felt when I was drilling the holes.

On 20 March 99, I continued to test fit the bridge and tailpeice studs in the holes. I used my Dremel tool and a ruby burr to grind out some of the wood. Once the studs were fitting properly, I drilled a ground wire hole to the cavity closest to the control pocket. This is always a nervous moment for me, but this one turned out perfectly.

Now to finish it up!


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