How to make custom hardwood tuning machine buttons

IMG_6978I recently picked up a set of geared banjo tuning machines with broken buttons for $15. These tuning machines usually cost about $100 for a set, so I felt pretty chuffed about getting them at such a low price.

I really wanted to make the tuning buttons out of some nice scrap hardwood I have. I searched online for instructions, but everything I found used more finely tuned equipment than I have access to. I tried using my table top drill press to put holes into little blocks of wood, but I couldn’t get a straight hole. Even if I had been able to drill a straight hole, it wouldn’t have fit the flattened cylinder shape of the tuning machine shaft.

I puzzled over how I could put straight holes with flat sides into small bits of wood and remembered that knife blocks are often made by cutting slots into blocks of wood and gluing them together. I gave that a shot and am really happy with how it turned out.

I used a belt sander and a bandsaw for this but, with some patience, you could make these without any power tools.

Tools:

  • pen or pencil*
  • square or straight edge*
  • Chisel
  • course file
  • saw with depth stop (Fret saw is perfect)*
  • Bandsaw
  • Belt sander (medium or coarse grit)
  • Glue*
  • Clamps*
  • Misc Sandpaper (I used 100, 200, and 320 grit)
  • Tru Oil

*Absolutely necessary tools

  • Start with a fairly thin scrap of hardwood. The piece I used was ⅜” x 3” and 3 ¾ long.

  • Decide the approximate max width of the buttons you want to make. Measure half of that number in from the outside edges. I wanted roughly 1” buttons, so I measured and marked ½” from the edges and marked the midway point between those points as well.

  • Measure the widest part of the stem of the tuning machine. The machines I was using had 3/16” stems. Measure half of that number on either side of the lines you marked.

   

  • Use a square to make vertical lines at each of those marks.

  • Measure the thinnest width of the tuner stem and set the depth stop of your saw for half of that number.

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  • Cut along your lines with depth-stopped saw

  • Use a chisel and a file to remove any material left in the slots.  
  • The slots should fit the wide part of the tuner stem and be about half of the thin, flat side of the tuner stem.

  • Use a square to mark the edges of the inside edges of the buttons. For mine, I measured 1” from both edges.

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  • Use a square to mark the horizontal center of the wood and use the bandsaw to cut the wood in half horizontally.

  • Cut the lines between each button. Each of these sections is half of a button.

  • Put a thin coat of wood glue on either side of the slot on each half button, then alight the slots and clamp so that you have a straight hole for the tuner stem. Don’t worry if the edges are not exact. Allow the glue to set overnight.

  • Make a template of the shape of the tuner you want to make. I made a trapezoid.img_6980.jpg
  • Mark the center of your template and align that with the center of the stem hole and the base of the template flush with the bottom edge of your button. (Note: if the bottom edges of your button are not aligned, use the shorter of the two edges)

  • The best way to cut out your button will depend on your design.  I used the band saw to cut off the excess wood on the top.

  • Then, I used the belt sander to make the angled sides and remove the thickness. (Note: You have to really hold the buttons tight for this. Using the belt sander for these little bits resulted in a few smoother fingerprints and several instances of tuner buttons rocketing across the garage).

  

  • I used the rounded edge of the belt sander to make the width concave.  Be careful not to take off too much material if you do this.

  

  • Once you have the rough shape and thickness, try fitting the buttons onto the tuners. If a hole is too small, use a drill bit or a Dremel tool to slowly open it up.

  • Use sandpaper to round off the edges and get the buttons smooth. I used 100, 220, and 320 grit paper wrapped around a pen.

    

  • Finally, use a finish that holds up well to use. I used about 4 coats of Tru-oil.
  • That’s it! Custom hardwood tuning machine buttons!

 

Let me know in the comments if you made these, or if you have another way you make tuner buttons.

I can make custom hardwood tuner buttons for your guitar too! I have a variety of hardwoods and can adjust the shape of the buttons to your specifications. Contact me for pricing info:

 

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The GBH (Great Bazouki Heron)

img_4258Right now I am working on rehabbing this bunch of broken and unwanted instruments in the creative manner of Dr. Frankenstein. First up is the unassuming little First Act kids size acoustic (second from the left above) that I picked up at a local Goodwill. My idea for this was to convert it from an standard acoustic guitar into a trichordo bazouki. I considered making it a resonator guitar as well, but since the bridge and soundboard were all in decent shape, I decided against that route. Besides, I have already made a resonator bazouki, the Dog Bowlzouki, so why not try something new?

I began by sanding off all of the original finish and paint and replacing the nut and saddle with threaded rod. I had considered trying to make use of the original saddle and nut, but to get the strings lined up in proper choruses (the strings are in pairs, like a mandolin, which are called choruses) I needed the nut and saddle to hold them in place, and the original plastic bits just were not going to be able to do that. Incidentally, the threaded rod I used came from inside the cedar cooking plank I used in the Chinook bass.

I got it all strung up and took it to the weekly Vacuum Tube Collective meeting to have the tubesters put it through it’s paces. It held up well, but the general consensus was that the rustic, beat up guitar look wasn’t quite as charming as I had thought. Niels also pointed out that it needed a pickup, and promptly supplied me with a neat little single coil and a chunk of an old Fender Stratocaster pick guard to install the hardware in.

I am constantly looking for ways to combine my passion for guitar making with my love of drawing comics, so I decided that I would use some leftover India ink to draw on a border/binding and then fill the inside of the guitar with a dry brush technique. I was a little conflicted about this because I think paint is used on a lot of guitars to cover up lower quality material, so I didn’t spend a lot of time making sure the borders were exactly the same thickness all over.

The border and dry brush looked better than I expected, but once I got the pick guard shaped and the pickup installed I felt like it still needed some flair. I did a google image search for bazouki’s and my instincts were confirmed; bazouki’s are some flashy instruments. I don’t have any idea of how to do ornate pearl inlay, but I do feel fairly confident with a brush and ink, so I set to work. The vine design is inspired by some of the designs I saw in the image search. The Great Blue Heron is was inspired by the paintings of John James Audubon and by the bird herself, which we have the pleasure of sharing the Willamette Valley with.

All that is left now is a few coats of Danish Oil to protect the art and give it a nice finish, a little bit of spit shine, and some fancy knobs and it’ll be ready to go!

2016… so far

2016-buildsWelp, another year of high hopes for regular blog posts has just about passed, C’est la vie. While I have done a poor job of getting any writing done this year, I have acquitted myself fairly well with my instrument building.

When I last wrote I had just sent off The Ponderosa Pine Tenor, and was working on a bass, a ukulele, a banjo, and a bazouki. The Ukulele was a bust, as the pirate tin proved unstable and inspiration waned. The Banjo is in a similar place, I have the neck built, but inspiration has just moved in a different direction. I suspect something will come around to revive those builds, but for now they are gathering dust on my bench. I would feel bad about not finishing those builds if the other stuff I did this year was less cool.

First, The bass and the Bazooki were finished in early February. I spend a lot of time playing the instruments once I finish them, and I find that it’s a little like spending time with a new friend or with your kids, learning about them, what they do well, their quirks, and how you would change them if you could 🙂 Both the Chinook Bass and the Dog Bowlzouki were a lot of fun to play. I have always wanted a fretless bass, and playing this one was just as fun as I hoped it would be; it tapped into the freedom and fullness of the sound of an upright bass without the hand cramps and inconvenience. The limitation of the 2 stings was fun too, as it forces you to innovate new ways to play. Suz Doyle, who bought it from me, has since been experimenting  with the tuning and I wish I had thought to do that more myself while I had it.

Suz also bought the Bowlzouki, which was an instrument I build without ever having played before. I have been interested in playing more traditional Irish music since I started studying the Irish language, and the bazouki is really quite similar to the 3 string CBGs that I have been building over the last few years; it is a bit like the 12 string guitar version of the CBG. Anyway, I couldn’t play that thing enough. That was also my first foray into the world of scarf joint headstocks. It worked really well for that build, but man is it a pain to do.  I was really happy with the way the tailpiece and headstock came together on this build too, as both bits are from the same pie server. I was recently told that my grandmother had the exact same server in her personal silverware set.

The Irish theme continued to my next, and easily my most ambitious build to that point: the Easter Rising Centenary Harp. I built the harp for a fundraiser for the Friends of Irish Studies in Idaho, where I studied Irish  from 2013 to 2015. I found a couple people who had built similar instruments on Cigarboxnation.com, but there was relatively little information about how they did it. I spent ALOT of time researching how harps work, how the tension of the strings is directed, and how to brace everything so that the instrument would sound good without crushing itself. I used a skinny cigar box for the sound box with an oak center strip, a couple pieces of scrap Alder to build the neck and column, and another strip of oak to connect the neck and column and brace everything. working with the Alder was particularly enjoyable, as it smells like baking bread when you cut it. I used the Easter rising lily symbol to decorate the neck and the sound hole, and also engraved little bits of copper plate with the dates 1916 and 2016 to cover the joint between the neck and column. Finally, I made a stand for the harp out of more leftover Alder and engraved the shape of Ireland into it and used india ink to write in the names each of the ancient provinces on it, “The 5 Provinces of Ireland” below it, and “Ar scáth a chéile mhaireann na daoine” (trans- “people live upon each other’s shadow”: we all depend on one another) on the neck. It was a bit tricky to navigate all of the political implications of the symbols, and I am really grateful to Síne Nic an Ailí for helping me get the language and the message right. Sometimes I still can’t believe this worked.

After the harp, we moved to a new home and I got a new garage to work in. I decided to break it in properly by building an upright bass using entirely reclaimed materials. I purchased an OLD suitcase, a set of waterskis, and a spatula wish from a local thrift shop and got to planning. I decided to rip a waterski into three long strips and then laminate those strips together to make the neck. I had thought that the ski was a hardwood, but I am fairly certain just cedar, which made all the cutting and hand planing a lot easier than it might have been. I discovered a tiny old  black and white photo of a woman in the suitcase, which was as delightful as it was enigmatic. I used the tip of the ski cut in half to form the headstock and, in another daring choice, decided to use quick releases from bicycle seats as the tuning pegs. Although I had to play with the organization of the machines on the headstock as they relate to the strings because of the size of the quick release nuts, the quick releases work rather well and are fun to look at too. The risk/spatula works as the tailpiece, and the bridge is made from a cabinet handle. The saddle and nut are made from what I was told is petrified mammoth tusk, which I was given by a member of the Vacuum Tube Collective. The Piezo Pickup and Pre amp are the only things in the build that were purchased new, even the strings are weed-trimmer line. The bass is quiet when played acoustically, but I believe that instrument grade strings would likely make a significant difference there. I had hoped to use a small camera tripod for the endpin, but that has proven to be unruly, heavy, and misleading in its ability to hold the bass by itself, so I am switching to a small table leg. I don’t know if there is any market for this sort of instrument, but I am really happy I made it and with how well it turned out.

dsc_1210While the bass took several months to complete, the Oregon Centennial Wine Box Resonator took just a couple of weekends. I bought the decorative Oregon plate in Idaho a couple of years ago because it was interesting and had a nice ring when struck, but I never had a box big enough to use it in. Finally, I found this Robert Mondavi box at a thrift shop here in Oregon. The neck came from a guitar I was given by another Vacuum Tube Collective comrade. According to him, the guitar belonged to his daughter-in-law, apparently her father smashed the guitar in an angry fit, and she had no more use for it. I felt bad tearing the body of the guitar apart to get at the neck, but the body was far beyond my skill to save. Probably the most difficult part of this build was deciding what to do about the incredibly stereo-typical image of a First Peoples “brave”, complete with loin cloth, single feather, hooked nose, and actively making smoke signals. The image conveniently lands in exactly the spot where the bridge goes, so it is mostly covered, but even that raises questions for me like, “is it ok to just cover up the only image of a person of color in all of Oregon?” and “what about the two cartoon white people?” So, I have decided that when the guitar sells I will send 50% of the money to Standing Rock. #NODAPL

Next, I had the great pleasure of building a guitar for one of my best friends and brother-in-law, Cameron.  Cameron has been a huge help to me as I have tried to make 4ist guitars a semi-viable thing, so I was really excited to get to give him something back. This was a surprise for him too, and he has never played guitar before. In fact, this was to be the first musical instrument he ever owned. This is exactly the sort of build I get really excited about, because the entire time I am thinking about how this will be the guitar that will shape the way he thinks about his ability to make music, the one he will play his first song on, the one that will either be a source of solace and joy or aggravation and self-doubt (and likely a little of all of those things). I used a box from our hometown candy shop which has an image the town’s ever present elk on it. I fretted it diatonically (like an Appalachian dulcimer) because I think that makes the instrument more approachable and helps train your ear (in my opinion, anyway). Cameron is left handed, so this was my first time building a left handed guitar. I had to really pay attention to what I was doing to make sure all the holes and components went in the right places, so it was a lot of good brain exercise. I have been sitting on these sound hole covers (drawer handles again) for a long time, so It was nice to finally use them. Since Cam got the guitar, I have been sending him occasional notes and videos on how to play, and it has been so fun to work with him as he learns.

dsc_1119My most recently completed build is the MacBook Pro Tenor. This guitar gave me a lot of grief in the building process. I started it way back in July and was planning on using an electric guitar neck with a broken headstock. I got all of the computer components removed, the aluminum keyboard panel cut out, JB Welded hardwood flooring inside, cut out and installed the single coil pickup, and cut the neck to fit the cavity I had left for it. I also spent a ton of time trying to fix up the headstock, and it wasn’t looking great, but I had finally gotten it to a workable place. I screwed the neck on for a test run and put on a single string…and the neck started bending in with the string as I brought it up to tune. The issue was pretty clearly that the body just wasn’t solid enough where the neck connected, So I decided to scrap that neck and build one myself that was just a little bit longer. Everything was going alright with that until I got to making the scarf joint for the headstock, where nothing was working and I ended up shaving too much off of the neck for what I wanted. I was also getting suspicious that this neck was going to bend just like the other one, and I was worried that the hardwood flooring wasn’t connected well enough. I decided to give it one more try, using a big oak trim board and not try to hide it all inside the computer body. The design is unusual, but man did it work. The neck is rock solid now. one of the fun things about this guitar is that the bridge/saddle and the nut are both made from the aluminum from the interior of the guitar. The bridge is part of the harness for the hard drive and the nut is from a section near the space bar. The fretboard is stained using steel wool and vinegar, and you can still see the nail holes in the neck from when it was used as a trim board (they are filled with superglue to preserve them and prevent any irregularity). I really enjoy playing this guitar, I have never felt comfortable on 6 strings, so this lets me play guitar without the stress of all those extra strings :).

dsc_1233I have also made a few little radio amps recently that I think are pretty cool. They are a bit noisy, but the look good and get the job done.

img_4258On the bench now I have a mandolin, a 6 string electric, another bazouki, and a speaker cone resonator. Hopefully I’ll get to share them with you before another year passes!

 

End of the Year Update

It has been a while since I posted anything, so here is a quick update on things here at 4ist Guitars.

The Hermersberg Guitar and the Ponderosa Tenor Guitar arrived safely at their homes.

The Ponderosa Tenor was a Christmas gift and waiting for it to be given was excruciating, but the payoff on Christmas morning was well worth it.

Right now, I am building four instruments. First, I am still working on the Chinook Cedar Plank 2 string Bass.I am still sorting out how I want to run the wiring, but it is not far from completion.

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Chinook Cedar Plank Bass

Second, I am working on a Ukulele for Suz Doyle of The Wallop Sisters. The hope was to convert a postcard tin for the body, but the sound wasn’t there, and the tin bent with the slightest pressure. I am in the process of switching it to a cigar box body now.

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Uke for Suz
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Uke for Suz (note the bend in the tin)

Third, am slowly putting together a short scale 5 string banjo. There are a lot of new things I am trying out on that one, including using a piece of hardwood flooring as the fretboard and configuring the drone string correctly.

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Short Scale Banjo

Finally, I am really excited about this Trichordo Resonator Bouzouki that I am nearing completion on.

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Trichordo Resonator Bouzouki
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Trichordo Resonator Bouzouki

The resonator cone is a dog dish, and the tailpiece is a pie server. I am still working on getting the action down, but I thing this is really going to be a fun instrument.

If you are interested in purchasing any of these instruments or working with me to design your own custom one, contact me via email at 4istguitars.gmail.com or message 4ist Guitars on Facebook!

 

Tree String Guitar

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The inaugural 4ist Guitars build is complete, and I am really happy with the result. There was a moment when I first put the strings on that I was terrified that it was not going to be good enough. The action was too high and the strings were just barely touching the bridge. I had to re-imagine how I used the hinge tailpiece so that the balls at the end of the string didn’t push the hinge up. I really like the resulting design.
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This is the first three string I have built with full fretting. I have done 4 string and 6 string guitars that were fully fretted, but all of my 3 string guitars have had dulcimer fretting. I was tempted to do the dulcimer fretting on this one as well, but I am really glad that I didn’t; it is just so fun to have the versatility of all the frets with the simplicity of just 3 strings. It’s like the blues just pour out of it. I have already come up with a bunch of new tunes and licks, and I am working on a song I think I’ll call “My Kids Won’t Take a Nap Blues”.

IMG_1972The pickups also turned
out really well. I have used small speakers for pickups before (Paul’s “Lucille,” for instance), but they have been a little underpowered and prone to squealage. For this one, I wired two speakers in parallel and that seems to have solved both problems. The guitar is just as loud through an amp at half the volume level as with a single speaker, and I have yet to get any squealing (Paul, next time I see you I’ll bring my soldering iron and another speaker for Lucille). One speaker is from a talking greeting card I got for my birthday (Thanks, Phil and Lura!) and the other was from a portable dvd player that I put my knee through on accident over Christmas break( #repurpose).

IMG_1971The tuning machines on this one are nicer than the ones that I have used previously, so I keep having to remind myself that the string is still attached when the knob feels like there is no resistance. I took the machines off of a DIY guitar that I bought at Second Chance Books here in Independence. I was a little reluctant to take that guitar apart, as it was project that the guy who worked there had done with his son. Unfortunately, they had used pressboard for the body of the guitar, which completely killed the sound. I made sure to let him know that I would be taking it apart, and he was gracious enough to sell it to me for the cost of the parts I would be using.  I felt pressure to make something that justified taking that instrument apart throughout the build, and am relieved that it seems I was able to do that.

Take a listen:

If you are interested in buying the Tree String, email me at 4istguitars@gmail.com. I am asking $250.

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Here are the Tree String specs:

Strings: 3

Fretting: First octave – full, second octave – dulcimer

Neck: White Oak

Pickups: 2 Speakers mounted under the bridge

Nut and Saddle: Bone

Box: Macanudo Crystal Cafe

Stain: Steel Wool and Vinegar

Finish: Tung Oil

Scale: 23.5″

Getting Started

To launch 4ist Guitars, I am giving away this rehabilitated soprano ukulele: 
IMG_1694The bones of the instrument are from a World Wide Trading Company pink toy uke that I got at a flea market in Kingman, AZ over Christmas of 2014 for something like $5. The strings were shot, the paint was hideous, and the fret board and saddle were misaligned. It sounded terrible and looked worse. Even though I knew I probably would not touch it again for a while, I immediately sanded off all of the paint so that I could at least bear to look at it. I didn’t take a picture of it because I did not want to preserve the memory of that monstrosity, but this wasn’t just a pink ukulele. It was neon pink, radio active Pepto-Bismol pink. The manufacturer slapped a flower decal on it as well, as if to say, “I am totally authentic and Hawaiian, and, since I am pink, I am clearly a great gift for you to bring back for your niece/granddaughter/daughter/nanny.” I had to set whatever wood was underneath free. The uke was noticeably smaller with all the paint off, but I was happy to find real wood there.

Since then, I have taken the fret board off, resized it and reset it to play in tune. I also replaced the nut, saddle, and bridge (the originals were used on a Macanudo uke I built last summer). As with all of my instruments, I stained it with my all-natural and homemade stain (made from vinegar and steel wool), and I redesigned the headstock with the 4ist Guitars tree logo. I will be using that design (or a similar one) on a lot of my future guitars. I am pretty happy with the result, and I think whoever ends up with it will be able to get some solid mileage out of it. Here is a short video of it in action.

I will be posting about each instrument periodically as I build it. I have a 4 projects in the works now, so here is a little about each of them:

IMG_1872Name: Tree String

Instrument: 3 String Guitar, dulcimer fretting for 2nd octave

Box: Macanudo Crystal Cafe

Neck: White oak, through

Pickup: Piezo

I can’t say it is for sure, but this guitar really feels like it could be my signature instrument. Fully fretted through the first octave and then dulcimer fretting for the upper octave. Tree headstock and sound holes.

IMG_1854Name: Chinook

Instrument: 2 string bass

Body: Cedar salmon plank (made by Chinook Planks)

Neck: Bolt on

Pickups: TBA

When I saw this plank in an Idaho thrift store, I new that it needed to be a guitar. I began working on the neck in the kitchen of our Pocatello home, the headstock is a pocket joint and I am anxious to string it up to test its strength. I am still working out what sort of pickup I want to use as well as what tuning machines.

IMG_1855Name: TBA

Instrument: Tenor guitar

Box: Arturo Fuente

Neck: White oak, Through

Pickups: piezo and reversed speaker (parallel)

This guitar will be a lot like the Irish tenor banjo I built earlier this year, here is a quick video of that one in action:

IMG_1860Name: TBA

Instrument: Psalmodicon

Box: Thrift store cabinet

Neck: Ash

Pickup: TBA

Bow: Apple wood, nylon string

The psalmodicon is an old Swedish folk instrument, made so that churches in remote places with small congregations would have something to sing along with, even if no one there could play. The dulcimer is likely a dependent of the psamodicon, and since my family is Swedish, I feel like I need to make one of these. Making the bow will be particularly fun on this one. See more about the psalmodicon here.