Luthiery is essentially a form of woodworking. Therefore, all the garden variety tools are needed; table saw, planer, disc sander, jointer, band saw, routers, etc. Of all the power tools in my shop the band saw and routers are by far the most used. The band saw gets rough lumber close to the finished shape and routers get it even closer. Routers are very versatile tools. Many styles of bit can be used for almost endless possibilities.
The router itself can be used in different ways, either held in the hand, installed in a table or in tandem with a jig to guide the results, insuring accuracy and repeat-ability. Routers are the real workhorses in my shop and, like real horses, differing tasks require different breeds. Bigger routers are better for heavier operations and smaller routers are better for more delicate operations. Here are just 5 of the roughly 15 hand held routers I use regularly. I have so many in order to avoid changing bits and settings whenever possible, once a router is set up for a particular function, it is beneficial to production to leave it as is, until the bit dulls. Sometimes it is better to bring the workpiece to the router as opposed to bringing the router to the workpiece. In these instances a router table is in order. I have 3 router tables. Each one possesses different qualities that may make one more suitable for a particular operation over another. It’s nice to have options. This one is a honey! Old Rockwell over/under. The under router acts as a router table and the upper can be used as a pin router or for general purpose. Lotta power in these motors. One speed…really fast…gotta pay attention with this machine.
After the routers have done 90-95% of the work. It’s time to finish the surface by hand. Whether it’s with scrapers, rasps, chisels, gouges or sandpaper, every single surface needs some sort of hand treatment. Here is an assortment of hand tools used for measuring and finishing surfaces. This is a drawer full of small violin planes and hand scrapers used to carve and finish arched tops. Sanding
When the woodworking is done, all surfaces need to be sanded in preparation for finishing and between coats of finish. I never use sandpaper held in my hand. Depending on the shape of the surface, specie of wood and grit of sandpaper, each sanding function requires a particular density of backer behind the sandpaper. None of my fingers are the right density for any function I have run into yet. Below are a variety of sanding pads in different shapes, sizes and densities. Some are foam, some hard or soft rubber, some glass or plastic and they are all placed on a granite surface plate, I use this for jointing glue surfaces.
Gotta have lots of clamps. Believe it or not, sometimes this doesn’t seem like enough. Luthiery is a unique trade and unique tools are needed to practice the craft. Below are some specialty tools for installing and finishing frets. These are the tools needed just to produce the string nut. It starts on the mini milling machine and gets finished in the small jeweler’s vice. Some of the small files are gauged slotting files for creating accurate string slots, the others are for the final shaping of the nut. Also seen is a way cool equal spacing divider. Some luthiery tools are so specific that they need to be made in house. Many of the tools and jigs in my shop have been made with the Sherline mini machinists tools seen in the photos directly below. One is a milling machine, the other is a lathe. Both are capable of incredible levels of accuracy impossible to achieve by hand. These are mostly used for jig and tool making, however I do use the milling machine for surfacing string nuts and it doubles as a pin router for some inlay work. The lathe occasionally cuts side dots, makes potentiometer knobs and switch tips or cleans up notches in frets. Here is my router skimmer/ planer. I use this jig on almost every flat surface on my guitars. It’s simply a router, fitted with a 1 1/4″ bit, attached to an extra wide base, riding on rails, allowing it to move freely in the x and y axis. I can surface areas up to 18″x30″ to within .010″ of perfectly flat without any blowout or imperfection, regardless of grain direction or figure. I can also surface small pieces like headstock veneers to less than 1/16″. I have so many jigs that I need to build more walls just to have a place to put them.
Below is a shop built duplicating carver. It’s essentially a router affixed to a chassis that has 3 axis of travel and follows any 3-d pattern within its size restrictions by means of a tracing stylus. This is a real timesaver. A few days worth of work can be done in a few hours with this tool. This is my fleet of shop made inlay routers, made here in my shop with a Sherline mini milling machine and Sherline mini lathe. They are all made of 1/2″ Plexiglass and I used self lubricated linear motion bearings for the plunge machanism. The system is powered by a Fordom flexi-shaft and a foot operated switch. I have 4 cutter heads and 4 bases. All are interchangeable and all serve different purposes. I used to make do with 1 cutter head, but I regularly use 4 different sized bits, so I took the time to make 3 more heads and forego the frustration of constantly changing bits and therefore repeatedly setting the bit depth. The bit sizes are .040″, .045″, 1/32″, and 1/8″. The .040″ & .045″ are for cutting the inlay pieces and their corresponding pockets, the 1/32″ is for freehand routing and routing the ring pocket for my logo and the 1/8″ is for general purpose. The 4 bases each have different tasks. 1 for circle cutting and 1 for freehand routing. The other 2 have collets installed in the baseplate for template work, 1 has a 3/16″ collet, the other has a 5/16″ collet. This is the base I use for jig guided fretboard inlay. The little silver collet sticking out from the bottom rides the jig. These are the jigs that guide the router. This base is a radius cutter, note the adjustable pivot pin on the bottom of the base. For freehand inlay routing I use this base. With a bigger collet and usually run in tandem with the 1/8″ bit, this one is for slightly rougher work. I call this the pancake vice. Small steel dowel pins can be moved around from hole to hole to clamp irregular shapes. I made this router sled for radiusing fretboards. It rides on the rail carriage seen to the left. In the photo it is set up for a 12″ radius. You can also see the sled rails for 7 1/2″, 9″ and 16″ radii hanging below the router. This is a modified wet/dry grinder that I made into a lapidary wheel to cut and surface inlay materials. I don’t do this for every instrument as it is not at all cost effective. I usually buy MOP and abalone in slab form, but sometimes it’s fun to watch a crusty piece of shell transform into iridescent, jewel like slabs. It also gives me the opportunity to select the grain and patterns I like. This is my sanding station. This table has a squirrel cage blower in the box creating a downdraft and filters to capture the sanding dust. I use this whenever I am doing lots of sanding in order to keep the dust out of the air. Cleaner shop, healthier air…if I remember to flip the switch. These are some small hand tools I made way back when I had time to do that sort of stuff. 2 small chisels, an awl, a pin vice and a brush. This is my favorite shop fixture. It is a 1960’s hydraulic dentist’s chair base. Outfitted with a 90° tilt base, it has 16″ of height travel and 360° rotation. This beauty used in tandem with various holding fixtures,or the pattern makers vice, allows me to get any part of a guitar anywhere I want it. This thing gets a lot of use. It is anchored to the floor and has almost zero play when it’s all cinched up. Rick Maguire, Luthier