Rebuilding a guitar neck headstock

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Project by Tennessee posted 04-10-2015 10:08 PM 2762 views 2 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Have not posted a project in quite a while, mostly because I keep on building the same things.
I’ve built over 70 guitars now, and to date, I have never built a neck. Why? Because it is the most labor intensive part of building a guitar, and there are just too many good CNC builders out there making necks, which lets me concentrate on the body, sound and my wooden pickguards and sustain. I do refret necks and repair them as part of my business, but I won’t build them. Just too time consuming and a general pain in the toosh.

But often, I do not have available the headstock that I need or want in a neck. Such as a maple on maple neck with a Gibson style headstock. Or possibly a strange style headstock that no one makes in bulk, but my commission desires it. (My latest build is a bass, with a Gibson Mockingbird body, and a Parker Fly style headstock veneered with the two woods the body is made of.)

Both the guitar necks shown at the right started out life as Stratocaster Six-On-A-Side necks.

So I developed a way to remanufacture a headstock. The pictures will be shown below, since there are way more than what I can show in the thumbnails above.
Often I not only build a new headstock, but have also developed a way to make it have a back angle like Gibson headstocks. Not as strong, but still there. The 12 string in the six photos to the right has a back bend. But that is another project!
The two I choose to show were both wide nut necks people commissioned from me, and I bought the original necks from an outstanding neck supplier called Big Lou Guitars in California. He will sell you an outstanding neck with really great fret jobs for a lousy $80. But he only sells Strat and Tele style headstocks, and lots of times I need something else with a wide nut. So I just change it myself. I can do the steps quickly, clamp it and lay it aside while I work on the body or some other project.

Enjoy the process shown below in pictures, and as always, use it if you desire!!

First, you have to draw a line to eliminate the existing tuner holes, since they are in the way and will not be used.

Then, you cut them off at the very inside of the holes, and flat sand it to make the cut dead straight.

Then you take your replacement maple, (Usually white maple from Lowes is good enough), and I plane it down to where it is about the same thickness. You can also resaw it in your bandsaw, if you want. You will sand it all later.
You make the lines for the biscuits and cut in the biscuit holes. I find that biscuits work best, since it is not easy to put a groove in the headstock still being attached to the neck, and dowels do not provide enough area for strength.

With the biscuit holes cut, you now can glue up your first side.
This will give you one half of a huge paddle style headstock you can go almost anywhere with.

Here is the first half glued up with my trusty Harbor Freight clamps. I leave every glueup for a full 24 hours since the glue is essentially trapped inside the biscuit hole.

Here you can see that I have sort of put on a rough design of what I want, so I know where and how much I need to remove. That curved edge rolling into the neck itself can be problematic, since it gets thicker there, so it is important to remember that if you cut some of that away, you have to replace it with a thicker piece of maple, so you can blend it in later.

Second cut, done on the bandsaw and flattened on the belt sander, then on a granite block with 220 grit taped to the granite.

Second piece, ready to attach.

More biscuit lines!

Here’s a shot of my biscuit cutter, ready and at the right height. Get the cutter as close to center thickness as possible. I use the smallest biscuits.

Second piece of wood, glued down and freshly wiped with water to remove excess glue.

Now I need a final template. In this case, a reproduction of an Epiphone style headstock, three tuners on a side.

Here I fold the template over in half, and closely trim the paper to make sure I have a true mirror image so I don’t end up with a lopsided headstock!

I use the line I have drawn on the paper template to match that to center and align it with the dots on the neck so I know I am in line with the headstock I will cut out. Then I proceed to cut it out with the bandsaw, ever so slightly larger so I can repair any mistakes while hand sanding.

Here’s the new headstock, freshly off the bandsaw. It is very close to my template but needs some sanding and touching up.

Here’s the headstock after sanding everything flat on both sides. Notice how the maple is starting to blend in well. In this case it does not matter, since I will eventually veneer this headstock. Amounts of veneer vary. Sometimes just the front, sometimes the front and back, and one I even did the lower sides, but stained the top edge. Once in a while, someone doesn’t want veneer, and I have to make sure the maple is the same color as possible.

The bandsaw always leaves some marks on the sides that are much easier to take off with a power oscillating sander. You can hand sand it, but it is time consuming. Light touches here since it is almost the proper size all the way around!

The last step is to soften the edges, and blend in the lower contours where the headstock meets the neck on the backside. I also will use a small drum sander to do the top edges.

Here’s the final headstock, ready for tuner hole layout, and my logo, which goes in the middle.

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

9 comments so far

View DocSavage45's profile


8722 posts in 3042 days

#1 posted 04-11-2015 12:58 AM

Do you play the guitars you build? I’m guessing you have the process down providing no glitches. About how many hours do you have in an average build?

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View Tennessee's profile


2893 posts in 2714 days

#2 posted 04-11-2015 11:47 AM

All the guitars I build these days are already sold. I am usually 2-4 behind. I have serial number one that I built, (the prototype) back in 2009, and number 57 which was built for a show with two others, did not sell, and is my demo now at my shop for people to try out a kind of a middle-of-the-road build. Every other one right up to number 71 which is being assembled now is sold, including #’s 72 thru 74, which I have deposits for.

I actually don’t play very well. I can still do a mean blues riff, and do rhythm playing, but not much in the way of any lead work. I used to play a lot better, but no time to play, actually. I find that I am in my shop either building guitars, jewelry boxes, hat racks, wine racks, and a LOT of local guitar repairs and setups. Last two weeks alone I have done major repairs on an old acoustic Washburn, a really old Bacon and Day banjo, and a Fender Acoustic that needed new frets. It all takes time.

I also try to play golf, which I am better at that than playing guitars. I do have a local reputation for doing an excellent job of setting up guitars, and people will bring me their guitars for just that. All that, and I am supposed to be retired!

Time wise, total it takes me about four-five weeks to finish a build, but to be honest, over two weeks of that is in the finishing process which is mostly drying. And a lot of times, I glue up something and it has to sit for a day, or I do one thing and then another project is in the way. My best timings of actual build time is about 20-24 active hours, depending on the build and how strange it is. I try to make $20 an hour on the active shop time after all expenses. Most of the time, I think I am closer to $17-18, which is still not bad, considering I am in my own shop, my own home, fridge with beer and a nice radio in the shop. I do carry liability insurance, and pay all my city, state and federal taxes and my city and county business licenses, which are also a drain on profits, but is figured in.

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View Scott Oldre's profile

Scott Oldre

1102 posts in 3631 days

#3 posted 04-11-2015 01:56 PM

Beautiful way of showing how through your pictures. Thanks for sharing. I have my plans for a Taylor GS all rolled up in a tube, but haven’t started the process yet.


-- Scott, Irmo SC

View Fuzzy's profile


298 posts in 4188 days

#4 posted 04-11-2015 04:09 PM

Great idea … and, well executed. Have you ever considered making your add-on pieces out of the same species as the body ? Do you think it would “bring it all together” or would it be a distraction ?

Just a thought … thinking never was my strong suit !!!

-- - dabbling in sarcasm is foolish … if you’re not proficient at it, you end up looking stupid … ... ...

View SCOTSMAN's profile


5849 posts in 3785 days

#5 posted 04-11-2015 05:59 PM

I was recently given an ovation guitar with a very badly broken neck{ now mostly removed,} would it be worth repairing I e making a new neck or buying a used neck or throwing the body to the sharks.The body is also a bit rough so I don’t know.I think I would enjoy doing it later in the year but need advice?Alistair

-- excuse my typing as I have a form of parkinsons disease

View DocSavage45's profile


8722 posts in 3042 days

#6 posted 04-11-2015 06:07 PM


Thanks! Reason I asked is I’m pretty sure you needed to play one to know about it’s fitting the customer. I’m betting you are underestimating your costs. :<)

Retired is not a great state of mind! Live! LOL!

You probably don’t have a bucket list?

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View ColonelTravis's profile


1932 posts in 2094 days

#7 posted 04-11-2015 07:27 PM

Very interesting. I thought all headstocks would be one piece because of string tension. Guess I’ve been an idiot all along! I’ve wanted to build my own guitar, the neck hasn’t been an issue for me, but getting the fretboard radius right has me really concerned. I don’t know how I could do that with what I’ve got in my shop at the moment.

70 guitars, that’s awesome. Great job here.

View Tennessee's profile


2893 posts in 2714 days

#8 posted 04-13-2015 12:41 PM

Fuzzy: I think the different species would look wrong, since I have to leave that inverted V attached to the main neck to have a strong place to glue all the add-ons to. Veneer usually takes that role.

Scotsman: If it is one of those Ovations with the plastic backs, I have to be honest, I am not a fan. A few of those have come through my shop, (Usually with necks off or bridges popped), and they have to epoxy the neck to the plastic since they don’t have any wood to work with, and the front is a thin laminated sound board. To be honest, just a poor design that sells well. Who knew? If the neck is splintered at the crack and already off, it all might be not worth it. If it is a traditional wooden body style Ovation, you can buy replacement necks off eBay fairly cheap. And I have not seen a wooden acoustic body yet that I could not fix.

Body work is in the eye of the beholder. I once had a very, very old Gibson thin hollow body electric come through that someone had stepped on, crushing the sides. Literally splinters. Apparently on stage, someone came up quite drunk, knocked it off the stand and in their attempt to pick it up managed to step on the right side of the guitar, crushing it. The owner sold it to my local dealer I work with, and he called me and asked if I could make it whole again. (He took a chance…) Otherwise, he planned to harvest the neck and the pickups which were very, very old and valuable.
After gluing the puzzle all back together, and staining it very dark on the sides, I was able to resurrect it to a very nice playable condition and save the instrument. It was a pre-WWII unit, so it was worth saving. He still plays it to this day in his band that he does on the side.

Travis: If you look on the Grizzly site, (owner is a master luthier), and other guitar parts sites, you can buy a fretboard with all the fret grooves already cut in. My personal problem has always been in just the amount of hours needed.

And Doc, you may be right on me underestimating my costs. But I have noticed that in the last year or so, multiple custom builders have found a way to build units under the $750 cost, which is kind of a breakoff point for Asian guitars. They are mostly all under $750, or at least the bulk of them. To compete, you have to figure out a way to get under that price point, or you lose a lot of sales to really nice instruments coming out of Asia.
Most of my builds go between $600-700. Figuring about 23% for parts, that leaves me about $500 for labor and business costs. Am I making the $20 all the time? No way… But I know I’ve never hit below $15, unless I made a major mistake and had to start over on something, and that has only happened twice in five years. For a retired guy working at home and not having to do festivals and such, I’ll take it. Repair work is mostly a bonus. Some of it is very lucrative, some not so much.

And no, my bucket list is fairly non-exsistent. Funny, I never even think in terms of a bucket list!

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View DocSavage45's profile


8722 posts in 3042 days

#9 posted 04-13-2015 05:09 PM

Thanks! :<)

And I’m sure you are really appreciated.

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

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