I’ve planned getting a new guitar for a time and somewhere in the middle of 2012 I actually made plans to do so. But instead of buying a guitar I’d started playing with the idea of building my own with the help of the CNC mill from the woodworking shop at the university.
The research started and I settled on the body shape of a Gibson Explorer, but with a longer scale length (25 1/2 inch instead 24 3/4) which I always found to be more comfortable and better for lower tunings. Additionally the guitar should have 24 frets, all black hardware and wiring that allowed for the most flexibility instead of the usual 3 or 5 combinations.
In the end my total list of specs looked like this:
- mahogany body, Explorer shape (close to the original from the 50’s/60’s)
- 25,5″ Warmoth neck (maple with ebony fretboard, wizard profile with compound radius)
- Bare Knuckle Pickups (Nailbomb humbucker set)
- Schaller STM bridge
- Schaller M6 tuners
- 2x 5-way-rotary-switch
- miscellaneous other parts and wiring
The wiring had to take advantage of all the various combinations that were possible with these pickups. The 3-way-switch does the usual switching between neck, neck/bridge and bridge, while the 5-way-rotary-switches enable each pickup to have a different coil combination for the five positions:
neck pickup: neck coil, bridge coil, both coils out of phase, both coils parallel, both coils serial (humbucker mode)
bridge pickup: bridge coil, neck coil, both coils reverse serial, both coils parallel, both coils serial (humbucker mode)
This gives a total of 45 different combinations with a very varied tone spectrum. After a few years of playing one combination has stuck out as most interesting: neck in series and bridge in negative series, thereby giving full humbucker sounds at each end while giving a tinny “radio sound” out of phase effect in the middle position when combining both.
Preparation and Milling
The mill needed a CAD file: I traced an old Explorer shape, modified it for the longer scale and added all the necessary routing for each part.
Details like rounded edges and drilling holes for wiring were done by hand afterwards, as well as recessed routing for the electric compartment.
Building the Guitar
Milling and detail work was mostly without problems, only a few holes required a 40cm drill bit to reach the desired compartments.
After this was all done the body needed to be sanded, stained and clear-coated. I decided to go for a classic “cherry red” which was done by simply staining the wood, sanding it a bit and staining it again in a few cycles to get the deepest color. After that I wiped it with a wet cloth to even out the stain and let it dry for the appropriate amount of time before continuing with the clear coats.
I applied multiple coats per day, let them dry for a day and then sanded them down. Again multiple cycles of this procedure, mostly because the wood absorbed a lot of the clear coats.
Finally I sanded it down using very fine sand paper and polished it by hand. The last detail was using leftover wood to make a truss rod cover for the headstock and paint it like the body. I painted the headstock black and signed it to finish the project.
The final assembly was done by Sign Guitars including the complicated wiring. The electric compartment is done in see through plexiglass so that this wiring is visible.
The only thing I changed a few years later was the pickguard because I was never really happy with the shape. But using a regular cutter, 3mm plastic and a few hours of hard work created the current, better fitting and looking pickguard that I am happy with.