A few months ago, a dear friend gave me an incredible gift. He hired Rick Toone, a luthier, to build a custom bass for me.
Since the age of 15, I’ve been a Fender guy. I have a couple of 70’s Precisions, a more recent Jazz, and even a low-cost Fender acoustic bass guitar. So the idea of designing my own custom bass was all new to me. Browsing Rick’s site, I decided this was a great opportunity to take a completely new direction.
Stumbling upon a bass named “Orchid” I thought it looked like a piece of art. I kept browsing, and I kept coming back to Orchid. I soon discovered a demo video along the way, and that video sold me. I let Rick know that a customized bass, based on Orchid, was the bass for me.
Rick decided to build two basses: a 32″ scale and a 34″ scale, to see which one I prefer (I’m betting heavily on the 34″, but you never know until it is in your hands).
Rick guided me through all the important decisions, from wood choices and neck scale, to pickups and electronics. As we navigated this process, it occurred to me this would be interesting to document as we go, and share the experience. Rick agreed, and has been keeping an electronic journal since the beginning of the build.
So, here’s part one, in Rick’s words:
Layout & Headstock Joining
Yesterday I sourced a beautiful piece of hickory that will become the fretboard and face of the headstock. It has a bold grain pattern to match the swamp ash on the back of the instrument body, as well as a light/dark sapwood/heartwood striate that will be positioned along the length of the neck.
Now that this necessary last piece of wood has been obtained, it’s possible to envision my way forward toward a final aesthetic. In gathering materials and attempting to color (and grain) match across species, it always amazes me how much tension vs. relief there is in the process. My brain feels “edgy” and “off balance” until materials click into place. Once resolved, the creative work flow begins.
Saws and planes are sharpened. Shop is cleaned and organized. Cameras loaded. We’ve got great weather for the out-of-doors initial labor…
Today is Day One.
The first few days are dedicated to determining structural and aesthetic pairings for the woods. There is both art and science in selecting grain, figure, color and pattern. Wood is an organic material that expands, contracts and bends with changes of temperature and humidity. Finish can ameliorate those effects somewhat, but the better strategy is to place forces in opposition. If our hickory fretboard wants to curl forward, and our maple neck wants to curl backward, then gluing those two pieces contradictorily will result in a dimensionally balanced structure.
Thirteen degree Spanish luthier’s joint (scarf joint) tilts the headstock in relation to the neck, causing a natural pressure point for the strings, at the nut, effectively transferring vibration. String “trees” are not needed. More importantly, the wood grain strength of both the headstock and the neck is maintained, as the longitudinal fibers of each are left intact.
On this second day, I set up the camcorder with an overhead view, and attempted to capture some of the choreographed dance resulting from glueing complex angles in limited set (drying) time.
The fretboard-to-neck contact surface is trued using a Lie-Nielsen 22″ Low Angle Jointer hand plane. Experience has taught me a hand planed neck exhibits less tendency to twist or warp.
Unlike power jointers, that tear wood fibers with circular cutter head motion, each pass of the hand plane smoothly slices wood fibers, gradually leveling peaks and valleys until a perfectly flat surface is achieved.
A well-honed blade will remove continuous shavings in long strips, thin enough to clearly exhibit both wood fibers and figure patterns.
Cutting Fret Slots
Hickory for the fretboard and headstock facing is matched between the two basses. We are seeking “in the spirit of” rather than “identical” such that they are clearly a matched pair of instruments, yet with distinctive personalities.
Light sapwood (near outer bark) contrasts with dark heartwood (near central core) in a smoky undulating line positioned to meander through the centerline of the neck. If my hands are steady, the figure line will flow — implied and unimpeded — through the nut and into the headstock.
Because fretboard scale lengths and offsets — relative to multi-scale (fanned fret) instruments — constantly vary between builds, it is more efficient to layout and cut each fretboard by hand rather than template. Shallow initial fret slot positions are cut with a sliding compound miter saw.
In contrast to double bass or cello, contemporary electric bass designs require long neck spans, unsupported by the body of the instrument. Neck wood, alone, is incapable of withstanding the longitudinal tension of bass strings.
This engineering challenge is met using some form of adjustable or rigid stiffening material inside the neck. Most builders use an adjustable truss rod, however my ear has noticed significant loss of vibration transmission — tone — when mechanical devices or, more importantly, air is introduced into the structure of the neck. Sound waves, or vibrations, travel differently through air vs. solid materials.
My solution is to epoxy a precision machined “D” profile aircraft-grade aluminum neck core, embedded into a fitted channel. Lightweight, musical and incredibly stiff — as you can imagine for a material withstanding tens of thousands of flight hours supporting aircraft wing forces.
I find the moderating vibration absorbing qualities of wood and encapsulating the inherently tuning fork-like responsiveness of aluminum combine to organically yet efficiently transfer sound. The neck core will help define the soul of these instruments while contributing exceptional strength.
Check out the 4-part series on the making of Orchid.