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A list of tools that can help DIY Guitar Builders assemble and finish kit guitars to a high standard.
The right tool for the job.
Chances are, most of us have heard the saying, along with other gems such as measure twice, cut once repeated more than once. And, while repetition tends to
dull the impact, when it comes to building kit guitars, having the right tools , along
with a knowledge of how to use them correctly are important.
Not just for the success of the task at hand, although it certainly helps, using the
correct tool is the safest way to work and helps maintain the other tools in your
arsenal, saving you from using them for jobs they’re not designed for.
In the following article, we’re going to take a look at some essential luthier’s tools required for building DIY guitar kits, along with a couple of specialized tools.
We talk about guitar kit finishing (painting) in detail here: Guitar Finishing 101
Perhaps, it’s a stretch to call a workbench a tool but your first consideration should always be your work space.
A workbench with luthiers vice (e.g. with soft faced jaws) is ideal, but if you don’t have this option look for a large well lit and well ventilated area that you can safely work on your guitar without increasing the chances of scratches and dents occurring.
Finishing products have the capacity to cause serious health issues unless you take the necessary precautions. And, while a well ventilated area is important, using a dedicated mask is essential - learn more about Guitar Finishing Safety Tips.
But, you need to be using the right type of mask.
A standard N95 particulate mask is effective in preventing dust but largely useless in protecting you from paint fumes. Choose a P100 rated ventilator with activated carbon.
If you are assembling a kit with a bolt-on-neck, you can probably get away without using a cramp.
But if you are assembling a set neck guitar, you’re going to need at least one cramp (ideally two) to maintain pressure on the neck joint as the glue dries.
If using a cramp, be sure to use padding to protect the guitar and prevent compression dents.
While you can use a screwdriver and it’s actually preferable when installing smaller screws, using a powered drill will allow you to work much faster and allow you to drill pilot holes for the screws of smaller components such as tuners, strap knobs, and string guides without risking cracks developing.
If you are planning on using a powered drill and have the option, choose a cordless drill, they’re just a lot easier to work with for jobs of this nature.
You should also reduce the torque if possible so you don’t inadvertently countersink your screws or risk the components damaging the paint which can happen if over tightening strap knobs and pickup surrounds for example - Common Mistakes to Avoid When Building an Electric Guitar Kit.
You can reduce the torque by adjusting the clutch settings (the numbered section on the drill’s collar). Use a medium or slightly higher setting.
A small hammer, or ideally a builder’s malette is required if you are working on a guitar that features a Tune-o-Matic bridge as the bridge and tailpiece pins need to be tapped into place.
Note, you should never hit the pins directly if using a standard hammer. Always use a cushion (plywood works well for this purpose) of timber to cushion the impact and avoid scratching the hardware.
This is also useful if your aim is off, as it will prevent denting your guitar. If using a timber malette, consider drilling a hole in a section of play wide enough for the pins as this can serve as a collar and prevent dents.
If you are doing the wiring yourself, you are going to need a soldering iron.
Soldering is best done, once you understand the basics. You can read more about how to correctly and safely use a soldering iron here.
Also, keep in mind a soldering iron can be useful for repairing dents. A combination of heat and a damp rag can reduce the impact of a dent if held over the dent until the timber swells.
If you plan on shaping your guitar’s headstock, a coping saw (or electric jigsaw) is required.
Coping saws feature thin, flexible blades (similar to a jigsaw) which allows more precise cuts and curves to be made when shaping your headstock.
Always remember to mark the outline using a lead pencil and be sure to cut well outside the lines to compensate for the thickness of the blade while leaving sufficient room for sanding.
You are also going to require a way to measure the scale length of the guitar, along with measurements required for aligning smaller components.
Ideally a set square can also help improve efficiency and accuracy, but if you don’t have one a reliable steel rule and a good eye can still be effective.
Rags are considered a consumable rather than a tool per se, but finishing (staining or painting) is a large part of any DIY guitar kit project and you are going to need rags, lots of them, for applying stain, protecting the guitar from scratches and cleaning up.
If you don’t have any lying around, you can normally pick up a bag for under $10 that will contain more than enough rags to complete your build. If your local hardware store doesn’t sell them, check online.
If you are using rags to protect the guitar from scratches, ensure the rag is clean, is not soaked in anything that will damage the paint e.g. thinners and is free of materials that could scratch the guitar e.g. metal shards.
The last tool I’d consider essential is a hardwood sanding block.
Flexible sanding blocks conform to bumps or non-uniform sections when sanding, preventing a flat finish and making it much more difficult to achieve a professional finish - learn more about Sanding a Guitar Body Prior to Painting.
While the tools listed above are essential, if you plan on performing fretwork (leveling and shaping frets) the tools below are also required:
Fretting Hammer: For seating frets (if required).
Leveling Beam: Used to ensure consistent fret height on your guitar’s neck.
Fret Shaping Files (fret end dressing file, double-sided files): Used to dress e.g. shape your frets
Fret Rocker: Checks the level of adjacent frets
Along with the tools listed above, it’s also useful to have the following consumables:
Keep in mind, if attempting fretwork yourself, research the steps and practice on a spare neck or less valuable guitar first. In short, be sure you know what you are doing before working on a guitar you particularly value as you run the risk of requiring a refret which will usually cost $200 or more.
The video below should help.
While you do require some tools for assembling a guitar kit. The good news is, with the exception of a dedicated power drill, many of the tools listed above are relatively common, inexpensive and simple to use.
Remember, a great looking guitar should also sound great.
Once you have assembled your guitar, don’t neglect the guitar setup, as this can often be the difference between a great sounding, highly playable guitar and a guitar that gathers dust in the corner because it looks pretty but sounds poor and/or is difficult to play.