Monday, April 24, 2017

Homemade Lap Steel

About ten years ago, I played a show with my old cheap lap steel an hour south from Portland, in Salem, Oregon.  After finishing the show, packing up and hitting the road back home, my car's lights started to dim.  Next thing I know the engine stops and I'm coasting off the highway up an off-ramp just outside of Portland.  Dead alternator.   I starting pushing the car into a parking lot, when some guy yells, "bro, let me help you!"  A really nice random guy stopped, helped me push my car, packed my guitar rig up, and gave me a lift home.  I miss old Portland.  After getting home and unloading what I thought was all my guitar stuff, I realized I'd probably left my lap steel in that random strangers car trunk.  I suppose it would have been a nice parting gift for the good samaritan, however most people probably would just see the lap steel as a guitar with really high, unplayable action.  

The simplicity of that lap steel led me to thinking.  I decided building my own lap steel would probably be a fairly easy task, considering there is no action or truss rod with fine tuning.  I just had to get the fret markings and bridge mount carefully measured.  I found this site years ago and had always wanted to try it. I found it to be extremely helpful. At the beginning last year after tearing a fretboard off of a bass neck to swap truss rods, I had a bunch of extra cheap looking rosewood. I ended up tearing the frets off of the old bass fretboard and turning it around to saw new fret markers on the other side.  I painted the new "frets" and markers.  I kind of copied the design of a Rickenbacker and some old lap steels fret marker styles.  I thought the straight line at the edge of the painted frets would act as a good guide while playing. 
I pretty much followed that sites instructions step-by-step.  I did make a few changes however.  I had only hand tools, so the headstock cut I changed to a more sloped one.   I also made the control cavity a bit larger for a tone knob.  I also regrettably tried to make the finish a sparkle finish.  Which I got the idea from this old thread on a tele forum.  the-emeraldcaster-project-aka-son-of-meloncaster

The finish proved to be the hardest and most time consuming.  I basically started painting a base coat of black acrylic, then sprayed a light coat or clear coat and started lightly shaking the glitter on the wet clear coat.  (Warning:  do this over a box to catch the glitter.  It isn't called the herpes of the art world for nothing)  I then started added what seemed like hundreds of coats of clear coat.  He's where
I almost messed it up.  I got impatient and decided to add clear lacquer to speed up the process.  Firstly, lacquer, it turns out dries a lot slower when put on thick.  Mistake number one.  And my second mistake was trying to layer the lacquer.  Lacquer is extremely solvent and melts already dried layers of lacquer and acrylic.  I found gas bubbles and all sorts of nightmares in the finish.  I also had to wait even longer for everything to dry.  So, my finish never turned out extremely smooth.  Even after multiple layers and wet sanding.  Sparkles aren't the easiest finish for a guitar.  If I had to do it again, I'd try to make everything thinner, and keep to one paint type.
The other thing I would have done differently, would be the bridge choice.  The Les Paul Jr. bridge is very simple, easy to mount, and small.  However the direction the strings pull at the bridge is slightly upwards and towards the neck.  I found the wood I had used was a bit too soft to hold the bridge perfectly straight upwards.  It has a slight tilt, even after wood glue and shims.  I think I would opt for something with a screw-on mount like a Strat bridge one a raised piece of wood.

All and all, the guitar is playable and looks good enough.  It was a learning experience.  I might get a better pickup in the future and raise it's position.   I finally have a unique replacement lap steel.  

New headstock slop

Measure 3 times!

Gluing the fret board on

Not the smoothest finish

Basic Telecaster wiring with out a switch.  Also a lifesaving 1250 V ground "fuse".

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