Bass guitar and a break in the heat

It’s been really tough to get much shop time for much of this summer–I worked pretty consistently in the shop until the end of June, but then vacation and work-related travel took me away for the first three weeks of July, and ever since I returned, it’s been beastly hot (and my shop has no A/C).  Plus, with all of that travel in July, I’ve had some busy weeks trying to get caught up at work.

But this week the heat finally broke for a while, and triple-digit temperatures have given way to much milder weather (80s and 90s), and I’ve managed to squeeze in some shop time and a couple of small projects here and there.

Even during some of the hot weather in late July I was able to spend a couple hours on a few mornings working with my young friend, Dereck, a high-school senior who attends my church.  I’m helping Dereck build an electric bass guitar from scratch.  Dereck is a talented musician (he plays the violin and the drums already and is teaching himself to play the bass), but he’s also the sort of kid who is industrious, hard-working, tenacious and creative.  What he lacks in practical experience in woodworking, he makes up for with sheer desire to get things done, and he’s accomplished a lot of amazing things with minimal tools and almost no training.

We first began talking about building a bass after he showed me a bass he built out of plywood and pine.  It worked, but not particularly well, and with the materials he used, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before that instrument broke apart in his hands.  So we decided to pursue the construction of a “real” bass guitar, and learn together (I’ve never built a guitar before).

We visited my dad’s shop first–my dad gave us several pieces of wild cherry, left over from a project he had worked on, and we glued them up to create a body blank for the bass, about an inch and a half thick.  I had some scraps of hard maple, so I ripped up some pieces and glued up a laminated blank for the neck.

Progress on the bass is going slow, as we’ve only been able to get together to work on it for two or three hours at a time, about once or maybe twice a week.  But we’ve enjoyed the process, and we can’t wait to see how it will all turn out.  Dereck took the body home while I was away in July and cut it out with his hand-held jigsaw, then spent hours sanding and smoothing the edges.  Since then we’ve routed the pickup cavities in the body, cut the peghead from the neck blank and glued it on at the appropriate angle, routed the truss-rod groove in the neck, and cut and milled the fretboard blank (also from hard maple).  Last week we took a trip to Kansas City and stopped in at a “real” hardwood supplier (all we have in our town is Home Depot), and found some offcuts of Honduran and Bolivian rosewood to use for the bridge, the headstock veneer, the truss-rod adjustment cavity cover, the controls cavity cover and any other accents we need.

We’ve also done some initial rounding of the edges of the body blank, but there is much more shaping to do on both the body and the neck blank. Then comes the really tricky stuff–the cutting of fret slots, the routing of the neck cavity and fitting of the neck, and the joining of the neck to the body.  More on that another time.

One of the coolest things about this project is that it is collaborative and educational, for both of us.  We’re sharing the labor–he’s doing a lot of the hand-tool work, and I’m doing a lot of the power-tool work that he’s less comfortable with.  But he’s learning, and I’m doing my best to help him learn how to use the equipment safely and properly.  We’re both learning a lot about making an electric bass (I’ve got my sights set on making an electric guitar at some point), and frankly, I feel like I’m making an investment in a young man who will accomplish great things somewhere down the road.

Other shop stuff

Through the wonderful magic of Father’s Day and a July birthday, I have acquired some new tools and accessories over the past few weeks–my daughter and son-in-law gave me a set of router guides for my Bosch 1617-series router, which is cool.  My lovely wife got me a stacked dado set, and my other daughter gave me a gift certificate to Woodcraft, and since there is a Woodcraft store in Kansas City (less than an hour away), I now am the proud owner of a new Stanley spokeshave, a tool I’ve wanted for a long time, and which will be put to good use in shaping the bass neck over the next few weeks.

My stepmother is retiring this month, so I’m also using some of that scrap cherry to make her a little keepsake box.  I actually resawed some of the 3/4-inch thick stock on my table saw, then planed it to a quarter-inch in thickness on my thickness planer.  I’m ashamed to admit that I finally figured out that by using the cutter head lock on my planer, I could reduce or eliminate snipe on the stock.

I also may have solved a mystery that has dogged me for months…I had some old drawer fronts that I had salvaged from a broken-down chest of drawers, and I’ve used much of the wood to make small boxes.  But I could never tell exactly what kind of wood it was, and it was driving me crazy, because I loved the aroma of that wood as I worked on it. Well, in the hardwood store the other day, with dozens of species of wood all around me, I started sniffing boards to see if I could find that wonderful, sweet familiar scent.  I limited my sniffing to boards of the appropriate color, and after smelling about two-thirds of the species in the store, I found it: hickory.  Nice.  I see some hickory projects in my future.

Happy woodworking!

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