Electric Guitar: Building The Fingerboard

The fingerboard I'm using for this guitar is made out of ebony. As I mentioned earlier in this saga, I purchased the fingerboard pre-slotted and cambered, because I'm lazy. However, there was still plenty of work that I needed to do in order to get the fretboard to a usable state. Because of the dark color of ebony, many of the pictures I took of this part of the process turned out to be black rectangles where you really couldn't see anything, so I didn't post them. Sorry 'bout that.

My original intent for the guitar was to do some neat, one-off inlay scheme on the fingerboard that would really set the guitar apart. I practiced on a scrap piece of wood, and quickly discovered that inlay is an art amongst itself. I didn't have the time or desire to learn it at this point, so I scrapped that plan.

In leiu of inlays, I thought the easiest thing to to would be not have any fretboard markers, ala Parker, but I figured on my guitar that would appear more lazy vs. a Parker where it appears tasteful.

So I settled for simple abalone dot inlays. To begin, I first had to mark the points where the dots would be located. On a standard guitar, the dots are above frets 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21. Above fret 12 is a group of double dots. To mark these points, I took a pencil and ruler and made an "X" from the corners of the fret slots, to mark the center of each square. On the 12th fret, I divided the square into two smaller squares and marked the center of each. The pencil marks on ebony were difficult to see, and about impossible to photograph.

What I should have done next, is drill the inlay holes where I could use a fence on the drill press table as a reference to keep the dots aligned. What I wound up doing was deciding instead that I wanted to taper the fretboard. I used the same method as tapering the neck, where I rough-cut the taper with a band saw, then attached my tapering jig with double-stick tape and used a pattern bit in the router table. I actually use the same tapering jig that I used on the neck, but because I needed to cut the fretboard 3/8" narrower (to account for the binding) I marked different nut locations on the jig. Also, the fingerboard came with quite a bit of material behind the nut slot, so I sawed off all but 1/8".

Cutting the fingerboard to length and tapering.

Next, I drilled the holes for the dot inlays. The inlays were 1/4" in diameter, and very thin. I didn't measure them to discover exactly how thin they were, but for sure less than 1/8". I chucked up a 1/4" brad point bit in the drill press, and played with the depth on a piece of scrap until I had a hole in which the inlay just barely sat proud. I then lined up by eye each center mark I had made on the fretboard and drilled the hole. Had I been smart and done this prior to cutting the taper, I could have set a fence to at least get the dots evenly lined up in one direction. Had I been smart. I discovered that between guessing where the center of the spinning bit was, trying to peer into the dark corner where my drill press sits and see the faint pencil marks on ebony, and compound this with my usual ineptness, the dots holes aren't what I would call "laser precise." My wife says they look fine, but they'll probably always bother me when I look at the guitar. Again, I took a picture, but you can't see the holes so I didn't bother posting it.

Ebony isn't always the rich black color that comes to mind. This particular piece wasn't as streaky as some I've seen, but it did have some lighter brownish grain showing. To try and even this out, I got some black dye from Stew Mac and stained the fretboard. I wanted to do this prior to putting the dots or binding on, so I wouldn't have to worry about the dye getting everything else messed up. I grabbed a couple of Home Depot bags to protect my workbench top.

Dying the ebony.

Once the dye was dry, I then glued in the abalone fret dots. I put a drop of CA (super-glue) into each hole, then pressed in the dot using a scrap of wood. The dots went in tight and didn't require any filler. Whew!

Inlaying the fretboard.

Next, I glued PVC binding onto the fretboard end and edges. I used the binding cement that Stew Mac sells, and learned that you don't have much open time with this stuff. So, the process basically constisted of: smear a bunch of cement on the side of the fretboard, press the binding in place and hold it there until the glue set up. Generally inside of 30 seconds the cement was set enough to let go. I had to reglue a couple spots that came loose, probably because the glue had set before I pressed the binding in place. Also, I learned that it's wise to rough up the back side of the binding with some 80 grit sandpaper prior to gluing. I glued the end piece in place, cut the ends flush with the side of the fretboard, then glued the two side piece of binding in place.

Binding the end of the fretboard.Binding the edges of the fretboard.

After the binding cement had dried, I then took after the board with a cabinet scraper and leveled both the binding and the abalone inlays. The binding was a lot easier to take down to flush with the fretboard. The abalone took a lot more work. I went slowly, trying not to scratch the playing surface. Once the inlays were level, I sanded the areas with 220 grit paper to remove some of the marks left by the scraper. Finally, I went over the board with 0000 steel wool to polish the board. The result was very nice, with the surface of the fingerboard feeling like glass.

Leveling the binding and fretboard inlays.

In addition to the abalone dot inlays on the face of the fretboard, I also wanted some dot markers on the side of the neck. In all reality, these are the markers of which guitarists primarily rely, although they may not even realize it until they play a guitar that doesn't have them (finding a guitar such as this might prove to be a trick.) Even the Parker Fly, with it's trademark non-inlayed neck has the side dots. Anyway, being that I am using a cream colored binding, I thought black dots would show up better. I purchased some side marker material from Stewart MacDonald, which is basically a thin plastic rod. The material I purchased was 3/32" in diameter, so I began by marking the side of the neck and drilling a series of 3/32" holes on the drill press. This time I did use a fence to keep the positioning of the dots even from fret to fret. Again, the 12th fret marker is a double-dot. I drilled the holes deep enough until I started to see ebony dust being ejected by the bit.

Drilling the side marker holes.

Then, I glued the marker rod into the hole with some CA and let it sit for a minute to dry.

Gluing the marker material into the side of the neck.

Finally, I cut off the material flush with the binding, and sanded the dot smooth. I continued gluing and cutting until all of the dot holes were filled.

Cutting and sanding the dot smooth.

With a little final sanding and polishing, the fretboard was completed. All in all, this was one of the parts of the guitar I was a little concerned about, but it really didn't go too bad. For the next guitar, I might even consider cutting my own fret slots and radiusing the board myself. This would give me the opportunity to experiment with some different scale lengths. In any event, this one is completed.

The fingerboard is complete.

With the fingerboard ready to go, we need a place to put it! Let's continue on building the body.
If you missed how we got to this point, you can go back to the construction of the neck.

This page last updated on 02/11/2011