Portland, OR USA
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The central element in a bass is the neck. I start making the neck by selecting the wood. I look for straight even grain without any waves or traces of knots and flatten one side of it on a jointer, square it, size it with the table saw and thickness planer. This plank is then cut into two matching sticks that will form the outer bulk of the neck blank. These outer pieces are folded around the 3 inner laminations to form a 5-lamination neck.

I usually wipe down all the gluing surfaces with acetone and scratch them up with an old saw blade for the best possible adhesion. The glue gets rolled on in an even layer and the whole neck gets wrapped in wax paper to keep glue off the floor. I place the neck in my gluing press and tighten the 10 screws that hold even pressure of about 4000 lbs. on the neck unit for 12 hours or more.

Once the neck has sat around for a week so the moisture from the glue has had a chance to escape, I can square up the blank on the jointer and planer and layout the two necks it will make. The necks are nested back to back to save precious wood. Each neck gets slotted to accept the truss rod and carbon fiber reinforcing spars. The ends get squared on the table saw and checked for absolute square-ness. I prepare the fingerboard from straight-grained, quarter-sawn wood, after careful flattening and thicknessing, the fret slots are cut on the table saw with a jig that places the slots accurately to within 1/1000" over the whole length. The fingerboard is located on the neck with pilot holes and pins and then glued with hide glue in case it ever needs to be replaced.

The taper of the neck is established with a fly cutter on the milling machine. The edges of the fingerboard are trimmed using a taper jig on the table saw.> I like to let the neck sit for another week to let moisture escape from the fingerboard.

I can then install the truss rod and using a temporary neck cap adjust the rod for a small amount of back bow so that when I sand the fingerboard radius, the fingerboard will have a small amount of relief built in. I use a compound radius an all my necks which I accomplish freehand on a big belt sander, I can check the radius at each end with templates.

I re-adjust the truss rod to get the neck dead flat. I clamp the neck to a neck jig, which supports the whole length with adjustable pillars allowing me to scrape, sand and check results knowing that the neck isn't being affected by my pressure or by gravity. I will adjust the relief with a sanding block, adding more on the bass side to account for the greater motion of the large strings and to counter the increased tension of the smaller strings.

Once the fingerboard is perfect, I burnish it with steel wool and attend to the fret slots; these usually need to be deepened on each end a few thousands deeper than the tang of the fret wire I'm using. I also chamfer the slots to prevent tear-outs when the neck is refretted.

Any inlays are laid out and installed along with edge-markers so they can be leveled before the frets are installed.

I love the bass fret wire from DiMarzio. It's hard and comes beautifully polished, also the tangs are narrow and don't need to be filed down. I clean the fret wire with acetone to remove any grease and oxidation that might interfere with glue. I bend the wire to match the radius of each slot, cut it to length and press it in with a flexible brass caul on my Dake, 1 ton press. The caul flexes to match the radius of each fret and with practice I can get perfect fret depth so I never need to dress the new frets.

With ebony and other very hard fingerboards I need to "set" the fret tangs in to the sides of the slots by standing on the fingerboard while it is supported at each end, otherwise the tight frets will force backbow into the neck. (Also it's nice to know a neck can stand a little abuse before it leaves the shop). I'll inject a drop of super glue into the end of each fret slot, it gets spread instantly by capillary action.

Shaping the back of the neck is a crude business, I use a ferrier's file (normally for filing horse's hooves) to rough out the shape and follow up with a small block plane and thin metal scrapers to do the heel and the flare at the nut. The end cap is machined and then shaped with a drum sander on the neck with the nut so that the flare is continuous.

The final neck rounding and profiling is done with a wide strap of sandpaper and checked with templates and a straight edge. Fine sanding can wait until the body is ready for final sanding. Ideally the customer can come in and check the neck profile and thickness at this point or I can email tracings of the profile for their approval. Getting the neck this far takes about 15 hours of work depending on the inlays.

The rails are prepared generally using the same wood as the neck laminations or fingerboard for the sake of color coordination. Dowels hold the rails in precise alignment while they are glued and clamped. The rails add enough width to the neck blank to hold the pickups and bridge assembly. The cavities for these parts are routed using a vertical milling machine to exact tolerances with a slight added width to account for wood shrinkage in dry winter weather. Channels and tunnels for wiring are milled and drilled along with cavities for batteries and electronic tuner. The dovetailed slot for the battery cover is also cut on the mill.

Woods for the body wings are selected according to the figure, color and sonic properties desired by the customer. I usually use a harder, heavier wood on the front with a softer, more resonant piece on the back. Curly and quilted maples are favorites for the beautiful figure and bright tone they impart. The deeper the figure the more troublesome it is to carve and shape but the more rewarding the results. The highest grades of maple are of a uniform bright white color that backlights a stain or tint with stunning results. Other popular body tops are walnut, koa and zebrawood. Body backs are often of alder, swamp ash, butternut, sassafras, soft maple, walnut or narra.

The chosen planks are cleaned up to expose the figure and then clear plastic body templates are moved around until the best match of figure is obtained. Often I try to incorporate swirls or patterns in the grain that follow the body outline. I spend hours and even days contemplating (agonizing) how to make the best use of a given piece of wood for a body. Once the outlines are traced and cut out on the band saw, they get cleaned up with the belt sander. The gluing surfaces are flattened on the jointer and then thicknessed before they are painstakingly scraped and fitted for a perfect joint. The tops and backs are glued and clamped heavily to eliminate the possibility of 'creep' along the glue lines. The wings are then milled for electronics cavities and to establish the outlines of the carved areas. I use a band saw to rough out the contours and round off the corners before doing the heavy carving with gouge, round bottom plane, rasp and scraper blades.

The wings and rails need to be carefully mated to avoid glue lines, I use chalk on one part to see where the high points rub on the other. Dowels line up the wings and I try to glue them as soon as things are tight, before the wood gets a chance to move on me. I can usually get by with 2 clamps, doing the lower wing first and then the upper. For final shaping, some broad areas and convex curves can be cleaned up on the belt sander before I resort to hand sanding with blocks and pads. With heavily figured wood, I must alternate scrapers and sanding with special free cut files. Sometimes a scrap of broken glass is the only tool that can work figured maple.

Sanding is an all-day chore best done out-of-doors if weather permits. I designed and built a down draught table to filter out dust for indoor sanding but it makes for a noisy environment. I own 4 different orbital sanders that I've tried over the years but now do most sanding by hand to keep dust down and to have complete control over the complex curves of the body and neck. Final rubbing is done with 0000 steel wool. By this time I can see the glow of the wood and pick out even the slightest scratches or undulations of the surface.

Holes are drilled for the pots, switches and output jack along with mounting holes for the strap buttons and tuners. The whole bass is then dusted, vacuumed and washed down in acetone. Stain is applied, sanded then touched up and re-sanded. If oil is the final finish it is applied with cotton pads under a heat lamp to promote deeper penetration and even drying. The first coat is allowed to dry overnight and the second coat is applied with coarse burlap to meld into the first coat and avoid sanding. The third and successive coats are applied alternately with finest steel wool or bare fingers and rubbed into the grain pores until these are filled. If a high gloss is desired a thin coat of oil is rubbed in with the fingers as it dries it can then be burnished to a gloss with the heat of friction. (A great way to get blisters).

Once the bass has sat a few days I can paint all the interior cavities with conductive shielding paint, running it down through the wiring tunnels. I don't do lacquer here so I won't get into that except to say it adds 2 weeks and 10 hours to the construction time. It's a real trick to keep the lacquer out of the sliding control covers and to get it into the recesses of the D shape. I use razor blades for leveling, 4 grits of sandpaper and 4 stages of compound and paste wax on lacquer. Buffing it out is an art that takes lots of practice. The overhead investment for spraybooth, explosion proof safety wiring, compressor, spray guns, polution and dust control filters, special lighting and buffing equipment have kept me from from getting involved directly with lacquer.

The titanium truss rod is hand threaded in several passes because the material is so hard. The rod is bent double using heat from a blowtorch and a gigantic machinist's vice to forge the bend precisely. HardwareHardware milling is done in batches of 5 or 10 sets of each string spacing. 10 sets equals 190 separate parts and takes at least 2 weeks to complete. My mill is a cheap Taiwanese machine that I've rebuilt and improved many times but I still need to check tolerances on every part with a digital caliper. Figure 10 hours per set including de-burring, sanding, buffing, polishing and cleaning. I send out plating and anodizing to avoid EPA waste treatment regulations. Plating is an art in its own right and I don't mind paying the $50 to get it done well. Plated parts need to be resized to account for the 1/1000" additional thickness. Mating surfaces need to be lapped on a diamond-encrusted plate to flatten them again.

Pickup mounting is done with thick foam rubber for springing them up and soap on the screws. The main electronics cavity is further shielded with conductive, adhesive-backed copper foil, which is seam soldered and grounded to the conductive paint. The pots and electronics are pre-wired on a jig before final connections are made and the pots installed. The active modules need to be fastened in place with Velcro or foam double-sided tape. All the ground areas are tested for continuity with a meter before the hardware is installed. String slots can then be cut into the nut and strings installed. Fretwork is checked once again on the neck jig under full string tension with the truss rod adjusted. Intonation at the bridge is set and then checked at the nut as well. String spacing and bridge height is optimized before a final intonation check.

Batteries are installed and the bass is tested and played for an hour or two to determine proper pickup heights and finalize the set up. The best test is a rehearsal or a gig so I can really hear how it sounds up against guitars and drums. I'll often get someone else to test it for me just to have a clean opinion. I'll note down any idiosyncrasies or general observations on the order sheet for future reference. Strings are removed to allow the frets to be polished and to remove any steel wool threads from the pickups. If new strings are needed they are installed before the bass is packed with its instructions, tools and invoice.

Total time about 100 hours over 3 months. Total cost: wood; $200- $500, metal and plating; $100, electronics; $300, strings, screws, oil, etc; $25.I figure I can make $15 an hour if I don't screw up too much. If I add in wood shopping, travel, time messing with computers, time cleaning the shop and rebuilding machinery. Time harassing, threatening and cajoling suppliers and talking to earnest customers, I can count on $5 an hour.

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Updated October 18 2006