Building my first electric guitar - the Headstock Overlay

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Blog entry by thamar posted 10-14-2014 12:19 AM 3998 reads 0 times favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch

In this part of my blog, I’m going to describe how I built the headstock overlay for my Les Paul inspired electric guitar.

The overlay is in keeping with my No Plastic theme. I wanted it to have flame maple bindings and real Mother of Pearl inlay.

I made a half hearted attempt to hand cut a bit of the inlay. I don’t have 18 year old eyes and 30 years to master the craft of detailed mother of pearl cutting. In spite of wanting to avoid learning more computer “stuff” I had to resort to learning to do a bit of CNC work.

To begin with, I have zero room left in my little shop. I could not fit a large CNC machine into what little room I had left. Secondly, The headstock is about the only part of the guitar that will need fine inlay work. It is a small part 8” x 4” or so. Thirdly, I didn’t want to spend years learning AutoCAD or other advanced CNC type languages.

What I ended up with was a very small Click-N-Carve CNC machine. It basically is about as small as a computer printer (and I was able to recycle an old computer workstation desk for it). It’s about $1,200 for the basic machine.

The bundled software didn’t do the job, so I had to shell out another $700 or so for Vectric V-Carve Pro. It takes a few days to get comfortable with it, but it wasn’t all that difficult to learn. Unfortunately, you also need V-bits (which don’t come with the machine). I was able to order a selection of them from the UK manufacturer of the machine. (all I really ended up needing was the 30 degree V-Bit).

The MDF Les Paul template that I purchased had a “full sized” headstock. I wanted to reduce that size a bit to allow for about a 1/8” flame maple binding. To get to that point, I made a duplicate of the template and then used a bearing bit on the router table that cut about a 1/8” “ledge” around the blank. I then used a normal pattern bit to take off the ledge. When it was done, I had a nice little new headstock template that was 1/8” smaller than the sides and top (but not the bottom!) of the old template.

Next step was to take a scanned image of the headstock template. I cleaned this up as best as I could in Microsoft Paint (a .bmp file). It looked like this (had to convert it to a jpeg for this blog):

Then I put on a 2mm straight milling bit in the CNC and carved out the blank. Here’s a picture of the little CNC machine at work:

Here’s what it looks like when it comes off the machine:

Next up was getting the artwork done for the name of my shop (“Nautilus”) and a design of a nautilus shell. The word “Nautilus” was done completely using the V-Carve Pro software. The Nautilus Shell design was copied out of the internet and then modified in Microsoft Paint.

The V-Carve inlay idea is really great. You can get sharp corners on the inlays by using the tapered V-bits. You have to remember to flip one of the images over before you cut it. The Vectra software site has a good little tutorial on this which really helps you understand what to do.

Here’s a picture of the Nautilus shell inlay. My little trick was to use white glue to glue down the inlay blank onto a piece of wood. After the inlay was cut on the CNC I just soaked it overnight in water and eventually the white glue will dissolve away. (otherwise its just impossible to hold down the shell. I tried double sided tape but it crept out of alignment a bit under the strain of the CNC machine).

The flame maple binding was bent on a heated bending tube. Quite honestly, I haven’t found anything that works well in terms of bending flame maple. I’ve tried some chemical softener stuff that was supposed to “plastisize” and flatten out veneer (didn’t work on 1/8” maple), I tried a steam box (didn’t work), and even the heating tube only worked for the bend on the two sided of headstock.

I resorted to cutting out the flame maple binding at the top of the headstock because nothing that I tried to bend seemed to hold up.

I think I’ll try to mill that little piece out using the CNC for future headstocks.

Once I got everything glued in, I then ran it through the surface sander under I got it down to 1/8” thick. Here’s a picture of the first one that turned out reasonably OK. (sorry about the camera angle that distorted the image). Like everything else in this project, it seems like I go through about half a dozen failures before I find the way that seems to work best for me.

I’ve now got the fretboard blank construction down pat and the headstock overlay came out OK. Next is the neck construction.


As time has progressed, I’ve changed the approach somewhat. I now CNC the entire binding out of one piece of flame maple. In this way, there is no cross grain to contend with and no mitre corners to cut.

I also fixed the size and orientation of the logo.

The headstock looks a lot more professional now (at least in my opinion). (bear in mind that the picture below is not yet fully sanded and finished)

3 comments so far

View nmssis's profile


174 posts in 2063 days

#1 posted 10-24-2015 01:39 AM

btw, any thing come of this build?

-- Learn something new everyday!

View thamar's profile


42 posts in 3702 days

#2 posted 10-26-2015 01:48 PM

It’s been some time since I updated my progress. To date I’ve completed 3 guitars and I’m at the finishing stage in #4 (and started #5.

My third build was a Koa version. Here’s a couple of pictures:

View helluvawreck's profile


32122 posts in 3944 days

#3 posted 10-26-2015 01:57 PM

This is so interesting. I don’t know very much about it but it sure looks like very fine work.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

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