HOW TO BUILD A PRIMITIVE LAP STEEL GUITAR
I recently got a hankering to build a lap steel guitar. I started looking at pictures and looking for details like string spacing, and scale length. I wanted one that didn’t look much like a traditional guitar. Something like a pedal steel, but with just 6 strings and a little more shape to it. Something similar to this 1960 Fender Champ.
So I went to the store, got some wood and started laying it out. I wanted to use a traditional magnetic pickup rather than a piezo, but I’d never used one before, so before I could do that I had to figure out how to install one. So I started looking through a library book about electric guitar building. To make a long story short, I needed to acquire a bit more knowledge and some materials I didn’t have to build the guitar that I really wanted to build. Problem was, I didn’t want to wait, so I started working on a primitive lap steel guitar at the same time. This project was easily accomplished over the span of a weekend while working on my other lap steel and all the millions of other things I’m usually trying to squeeze into a weekend. Here’s how I did mine.
LIST OF MATERIALS
- Scrap wood – 1.5”x5.5”x~32” (this was just a standard 2×6 I pulled out of a construction dumpster)
- 6 zither pin tuners (available from http://www.resistinstrumentworks.com/tuners.html for 50cents each. You’ll need a tuning key if you don’t have one)
- 2” long ¾” angle iron (piece of a dumpstered bed frame)
- Candy tin
- 2” long screw with 2 nuts
- Half a hinge
- 10 carpet tacks (nearly free from an estate sale)
- 2 piezo transducer discs
- About a foot of wire
- Standard ¼” phone jack
So that’s what I used. You can certainly substitute what you have on hand. If you don’t care about plugging your guitar into an amp, you don’t need the last three things on the list.
So here’s how to put it all together.
Start off by marking a line across the board 5 inches from one end. (I’ll call this the “nut line” from here on out) This section will be the head of your guitar. From that line measure 21” and mark a line across the board. This is the scale of your guitar (the active string length). (I’ll call this the “bridge line”) You can use a shorter or longer scale if you want, 21” is just what I decided to go with. From the bridge line measure another 6” and mark a line across the board. You can cut off the board here.
Now mark the center of each of the bridge and nut lines, and then make 2 more marks an inch away from the center mark on both sides. Now connect the 2 outside marks like the picture below. (Please take note; these pictures are not to scale) This gives you a 2” wide strip down the middle. This will be your “fretboard.”
Now cut a piece of 3/4” angle iron 2” long. This will be your nut. (What the strings rest on at the head of the guitar) Set this next to your candy tin. This will help you figure out how deep your candy tin needs to sit in the guitar. Your nut should be a little taller than your candy tin once the candy tin is installed. Then you can set a screw on the candy tin to act as your saddle. (What the strings rest on at the other end of the guitar) One thing nice about using a screw is that if you don’t get it exactly right you can use a larger or smaller screw to make up for it.
Now center your candy tin on the fretboard and nut line. (If it’s not a mint type tin like mine, just make sure it’s a little longer than 2”) I just eyeballed mine. Once you have it centered, use a pencil to trace a line around it. You’ll need to hollow out a spot for the tin to sit in. I used a forstner bit in my drill to hollow out most of it. Then I finished off the rest with my dremel with a little router attachment. You could also use a chisel. My hollow was about a ½” deep. Once you get it hollowed out, make sure your candy tin will slip down into it and sit level.
Set your angle iron nut on the wood next to the candy tin and find a 2” long screw that when setting on the candy tin is the same height as the angle iron. Putting a nut on both sides of the screw will help it sit level.
Now is a good time to mark your frets if you’re planning on doing so. You can find fret calculators online. One of the most popular is at http://www.stewmac.com/FretCalculator/. Some will print out a template that you can just lay on your fretboard and mark the frets. Some will give you a list of measurements and then you just measure from the nut. I find it’s easier to use the measurement if they’re listed as millimeters as opposed to inches. A 21” scale is 525mm, so when you enter in the measurements just use that as your scale length. It will give measurements down to 3 decimal places, but you don’t have to be quite that accurate. Just get as close as you can. Oh, and always measure from the nut (line) to each fret, not fret to fret. Once you have your frets marked, use a square to mark lines across your fretboard. For a 21” scale, here are the measurements.
Now you’ll need to drill 2 holes in your angle iron so it can be screwed to the guitar. Line it up on the nut line so that the center of the metal (the highest point) is directly over the nut line. Screw it down with 1” panhead screws.
Now you’ll need to mark where the strings go on the nut, and file a little slot for each. The outside strings should be 3mm from the edge of the nut. The rest of the strings should be evenly spaced (about 8.5mm apart) Mark them and then use a 3 sided file to make a little slot to hold the string. It shouldn’t be very deep, just enough to keep the string from sliding over.
Now you’ll want to install your zither pins. The first ones (closest to the nut) should be about even with the edges of the fretboard. The next ones should get progressively closer to the center. I half measured/half eyeballed mine. Mark where each one of them goes and then drill a 3/16” wide hole (nearly through the wood) on each of those spots. Try to get the holes as vertical as possible, and don’t wobble the bit around. The hole needs to be a tight fit or the zither pin won’t work correctly. Zither pins are usually used in hard wood, and the soft wood of a 2×6 can allow them to slip a bit. If you want to avoid this problem, you can put a few drops of super glue in each hole. Use a tooth pick to coat the walls of the hole. This will sink in and make the wood a bit harder once it’s dry. Now turn your zither pins into each of those holes so that the string hole on the zither pin is a few millimeters above the wood.
Now you’ll need to work out a tailpiece. On mine I used half of a hinge. I pulled the hinge pins out of a hinge and that left 3 cylinders about 8mm wide. If I slipped a string through from either side, it worked perfect… well, almost. The largest 2 strings were a tight squeeze. If you can find a similar hinge, great. If you can’t, all you really need is an anchor for your strings. You could use a hinge, a drawer pull handle, another piece of angle iron. Pretty much anything that you can drill 6 elevated holes in. If you can find a similar hinge, just center it on the board a couple inches from the candy tin and screw it down. However, don’t use the little screws that normally go with it. This will be under a lot of stress. Use a couple 1” long drywall screws.
If you can’t find a hinge or figure anything else out, I say go with another piece of angle iron. Set it up similar to the nut. Drill 2 holes to attach it to the guitar. Then drill 6 small holes near the bottom. The holes should be spaced the same as the slots on your nut. Screw that down a couple inches behind the candy tin.
It you want a pickup on your guitar, now is the time to add it. I used two piezo transducer discs. I have these available on my website, or you can buy them from Radio Shack. Wire them up like this: connect a wire from the outside ring of one piezo to the inside of the other. Then solder a wire to the center of the first one, and a wire to the outside ring of the other one. Depending on where you buy them, the wires may already be attached. If there are two center wires just twist them together and treat them as one wire. Don’t attach the ¼” phone jack until you have the piezos installed. Using 2 part epoxy glue the piezos inside the top of the candy tin, right under where the bridge will sit. Set the candy tin in the hollow and drill a hole big enough for both wires to pass through the bottom of the tin and all the way through the board.
Now figure out a good place for your jack (pretty close to the candy tin is good) and using a forstner bit drill a 1” hole almost all the way through. When you’re very close to the top, drill a 3/8” hole in the center of that one. Then continue drilling the 1” hole until you can pass your jack through the 3/8” hole and put the nut and washer on. Now you’ll need to cut a channel connecting the hole from the candy tin to the hole for the jack. I used my dremel, but you could use a chisel. Feed the piezo wires through the hole. Solder them to the jack and then install the jack.
Find a thin piece of wood (or metal) that will cover the wiring on the bottom. Get the wire down in the channel and then screw your cover over the wiring.
If you want them, now is a good time to add fret markers. I just used some carpet tacks I picked up for next-to-nothing at an estate sale.
Now all you have to do is get it strung up and tuned. Set the screw-bridge on top of your candy tin. Feed the strings through your tailpiece and over the bridge and nut and to the zither pins. Tighten them until they are just snug. Measure from the nut to the bridge along both outside strings and make sure both measure 21”. If not, move the screw until it is. Finish tuning up the strings in your preferred tuning (DADGAD was suggested to me as one that will work with a standard set of guitar strings, so that’s how mine is tuned), find something to use as a slide, and start playing.
Here’s my finished product: (to see full sized pictures go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/hobonickelmusic)
For similar plans check out my book How and Why: A Do-it-yourself Guide
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