Sometimes, the final steps of a build are what can make or break your instrument. If you’re already in this rabbit hole that is the art of lutherie here are 5 tools that may bring your finishing skills to the next level.
During the setup and before putting the strings on your instrument, it is important to devote a good amount of time to your frets. After leveling them and removing any irregularities, a good set of double-edge diamond fret files will bring the crown back to your frets in a jiffy.
When it comes to finishing touches, binding and purfling is really important, even though it is dealt with a while before entering the final stages of the build. Purfling is more of a decorative addition, but the binding serves more of a functional purpose, not least of all, protecting the edge of the instrument against random hits. Also, variation in humidity is always a great worry with instruments and having a binding edge will seal the end grain and prevent it from losing moisture at a different rate than the rest of the soundboard/backboard. A gramil will considerably increase the precision and quality with which you can accomplish this task.
(Check out my video showing how to make your own gramil for a fraction of the cost of purchasing one.)
Double-edge nut files
How your strings will sound depends a lot on what and where they are sitting. People have different preferences as to what a nut or bridge/saddle should be made out of, but everyone should agree that a good nut setup is paramount. A set of double-edge nut files will make a tremendous difference in creating the proper round bottom with the proper size gauge for every string, whatever your instrument may be.
When starting your lutherie journey, lots of woods will be easier to thickness since they will be most likely be devoid of figure and easily thickness with hand tools. When venturing into higher wood grades that have figure like curls, quilt, bird’s eye, etc., the thicknessing of such sides and back can quickly transform a very enjoyable part of the project into a nightmare. A drum sander, although expensive, will not only create a perfect surface ready for steam bending but will also prevent any problems that can occur when you are in the process of thicknessing highly figured woods.
Fret end dressing file
You have just put hours and hours of labour into an amazing-looking instrument—you certainly don’t want to feel the scratch of every fret while moving your hand on the neck. This is where fret dressing comes in. Although this step can be achieved with a triangular file (and a lot of care and patience) the fret end dressing file will make it a breeze and will prevent any digging into the fretboard and/or binding since it has 2 soft edges: one flat and the other round. Little details like these make a big difference when it comes to getting your lutherie skills to the next level.
This is not a tool, but rather a relationship. Finding a wood supplier that provides quality woods and that you can trust is a must. Since at this stage of your craft you are probably selling or wanting to attract customers, having a wood supplier that is reliable and stands behind their products is essential to building quality instruments. Even though I am aware of many good suppliers I will not shy away from recommending mine, which is outstanding: Bow River Wood to Works at www.woodtoworks.com
Check out my companion video to this post to see these tools.
Introducing…The Gramil (not Gremlin, but you still shouldn’t use it after midnight)
A gramil is a tool that has been used by luthiers since the time of Stradivari (his is still housed in the Stradivari museum in Cremona, Italy). It is used for cutting the purfling edge and/or the binding line. Using the gramil first cuts the soft wood fibers, preventing splits or chips that can occur when going back with a chisel or router. It’s also great for cutting lines on the hardwood back and sides.
Although the two tools are similar, a gramil is more versatile than a purfling cutter, as it can also be used to cut binding. Some luthiers have both tools and may decide to use one of the other, depending on the task at hand.
Unlike a marking gauge, a gramil will actually cut (instead of simply scribing) a line.
There are many models of gramils on the market available to purchase, although they can be expensive. Mine, which I made myself (based on a design by Richard Schneider), is flat on one side and radius on the other. The radius allows me to cut in the tight waist areas with greater precision than the flat side.
Check out my video demonstrating how to make your own gramil cutter for less than $15 in hardware.
Even if you already have a shop set up, you’ll need some specific tools to get started in the art of making stringed instruments: lutherie. Here are five of the most important luthier tools to get you started:
In lutherie, this jig attached to a workbench is most useful for jointing (for example, creating and gluing the joints for the soundboard and backboard). There are many different sizes and ways of building these using plywood or MDF. Check out some YouTube videos to help you decide what is most appropriate for your needs.
Japanese Fret Saw:
Even though it’s called a fret saw, this tool has multiple uses in lutherie: crafting the dovetail joints on instrument necks, cutting channels for butt strips, and, naturally, making the fret slots. StewMac sells an affordable model that matches the tang of their fret wire.
You need to keep your project still, but heavy clamps could damage it. Keeping a set of around 24 spool clamps on hand will keep you covered. They are available to purchase online for around $7-10/clamp, or you can easily make them yourself.
This is used to shape the sides of an instrument by heating up a pipe via flame or electricity and using the steam produced to bend the wood. Purchasing side benders can be expensive, but you can also make you own.
A coping saw is an affordable (starting at around $15 for a Stanley Fat Max) way to cut curves. It is able to do the jobs of a band saw, scroll saw, and jig saw combined. Obviously, if you have these tools, use them, but this is a great way to get started without a huge investment.
Patience. This is free, but can be obtained more easily with regular breaks, long walks, and remembering that mistakes are opportunities to learn.
You can learn more about the above tools by watching my YouTube video: 5 Tools You Should Have to Get Started in Lutherie.