Shaping a neck

Neck shaping is a part of guitar building in which you can connect with your inner craftsman. You are removing wood and hoping you will leave a shape that will be functional and playable. There are a variety of ways of shaping a neck – some are more “crafty” than others.

In shaping a neck recently, I took the more “craftsmanlike” approach, using hand tools mostly. I’ve seen people use only a grinder and a sander.  Some companies use a huge rounding over router bit to shape the neck. And, of course, there is CNC shaping of necks. What fun is that?

I used four different hand tools in my attack on this neck: a surform, round Microplane rasp, spokeshave and scraper.

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Shown in the picture above are the round rasp (wooden handle,), surform (yellow handle) spokeshave (two blue handles( and scraper (rectangular piece of metal).

Here’s my setup. I have a clamp at the end of my workbench. I clamped a two by four board into it, and then clamped the neck onto the two by four. This picture shows a clamp at just one end; when I did the shaping, the neck was clamped at both ends.

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I started off by using the round Microplane rasp to cut away the area near the place where the neck bolts onto the body. This neck hopefully will be the neck of a Telecaster-inspired guitar. The neck is mahogany; the body also will be mahogany with a maple drop top.

I like to cut out the areas by the base of the neck and by the headstock to establish cutting depth. I’m careful not to go too deep. You can always take off more wood, but you can’t put it back on!

Let me stop here and say you should be very careful not to remove so much wood that you expose the truss rod. The truss rod is going to be underneath the center (lengthwise) of the neck. I draw a line down the center to help me visualize the shaping, but to also help me remember where the truss rod is located.

You might be able to see where I drew lines on the neck to guide the wood removal.

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After cutting out the areas near the headstock and base of the neck, I went to work with the surform. This tool removes wood quickly. Be sure your blade is sharp; otherwise, you might get very frustrated! My surform is a Stanley model that is available at most hardware stores and home improvement stores, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. Replacement blades are easy to find and install.

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The surform lets you rough-shape the neck. After I roughed it out, I went to the spokeshave.

The spokeshave is an intriguing tool. To me, it’s also been frustrating.  I’ve owned a spokeshave for  years, but this was the first neck project in which I used it productively. The difference? I did some research and learned how to sharpen the blade! I bought a honing jig and a sharpening stone. I removed the blade and sharpened (or “honed”) the blade. I carefully re-installed it and set it so just a little of it was below the surface of the spokeshave.

It worked beautifully. I could pull the spokeshave toward me and wood would curl out of it. The spokeshave also helped to smooth out the wood, which was kind of rough from the surform shaping. I used the surform a little bit after starting off with the spokeshave. There still were some areas that needed a fair bit of wood removal.

The spokeshave got the shape pretty close to what I wanted. As far as shape went on this neck, I was eye-balling it. If you want to be precise about a neck shape, make or other otherwise obtain a neck contour template.

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Periodically, I would unclamp the neck and hold it as I would hold it while playing it. This helped me get a feel for  the neck and see if it was turning out the way I wanted. This is one of the real “crafty” stages of neck shaping.

At this point, I started to incorporate the scraper. A scraper doesn’t scrap; it’s actually a small “micro-plane” with a hook built into the side of the blade. If sharpened correctly, a scraper can do a great job of removing wood and smoothing the wood. This was the first time I had used my scraper seriously , so it was factory sharp. It removed the wood easily. It took a bit of practice to get the result I wanted. I obviously have a lot to learn about using a scraper.

After all of the work with the spokeshave and scraper were finished, it was time to go with a power tool. I pulled out my stationary belt sander. I hadn’t used it in a long time, so it needed some adjustment. Once I got it going, I gently rolled the neck across the sandpaper and lightly sanded various parts of the neck.

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This stationary belt sander has been used on a lot of necks over the years!

Following the belt sander treatment, I re-clamped the neck and pulled out a small hand sander, or orbital sander. I used it for the final shaping and smoothing. There wasn’t much shaping left to do; it was mainly a matter of smoothing the surface of the wood.

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This won’t be the last sanding. The final step is to hand-sand the neck with progressively finer and finer grades of sandpaper to make the neck finish-ready.

The neck turned out to have a v-shape, which is fine with me. I suspect I was worried  about cutting too deep and exposing the truss rod, so I didn’t round the neck as much as I could have.

Helping this project was the fact that the neck was made out of mahogany, which is not as hard to cut and shape as maple, another frequently-used neck wood.

Overall, it was fun to pull out the hand tools and connect with my inner craftsman.  The hand tools were reasonably safe, didn’t require hearing protection, and enforced a fairly relaxed pace of work.

Get in touch with your inner craftsman – carve the neck on your next guitar project!

 

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