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_ The Story
When men reach a certain age, they begin to do stupid things. Some sail around the world in a small boat. Others go on an expedition to climb Mount Everest. My obsession became the quest to reproduce as precisely as possible a Gretsch 6120 of a late 1958 to early 1959 vintage. This is a picture of one of the famous instruments that today reach astronomical prices on the market. The incomparable Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats raised this instrument from relative obscurity to an iconic status in the eighties.
Today’s Gretsches are really fine instruments, no doubt about it. However, they are totally overpriced. Furthermore they do not have much in common with their famous ancestors, if you start looking into the details. And that is what I did.
_ The Plan
First of all, the project needs a name. I call it “G59” for obvious reasons. Secondly, I need a drawing with the relevant dimensions. Gretsch used to be quite generous about them in the fifties. You will hardly find two instruments that are exactly the same. On the other hand, two 6120s of today certainly are. Thanks, “Quality Control”! Fortunately the sloppy QC of the fifties leaves me quite a bit of freedom to re-create such an instrument.
I fix the scale length to 625 mm (24 ½ ‘’), the nut width to 43 mm and the end width of the fretboard to 57.4 mm. The body width at the lower bout will be 394 mm with a depth of 70 mm along the sides. And this is the plan:
_ The Parts
No, I do not intend to sand cast aluminium to build a vibrato tailpiece. So I need to do some shopping. The best source I can find for Gretsch parts is Darren Riley's Guitar & Amp Shop in North Carolina. I place the order in the evening of Christmas day – next day Darren is ready to ship and December, 27 off we go. January, 2nd the parcel touches ground in Germany. Or should I say it touches German cuuuuuuuuuuuustoms? Wake up, Officer, I am waiting!
This is what I am waiting for:
• a Bigsby B6CB vibrato tailpiece,
• three 500 kΩ audio taper pots,
• a tone and a pickup selector switch, along with a set of caps,
• a 0.01 µF and a 0.003 µF capacitor (yes, this is the modern version of the otherwise useless tone switch circuit).
All of this goes for 223 bucks including international shipping – excluding taxes: “Hey, Officer, still sleeping?”
What I do not order are the three G-Arrow knobs and the knurled strap retainers as I will be using the ones from my ‘91 Tennessee “Rosie”, who feels quite well with three plastic dices and Schaller Security Lock end pins.
9. January 2012: Good news, “USPS Track & Confirm” tells me customs clearance is complete after ONLY five working days!
10. January 2012: The parts arrive! Thanks, Darren, I don’t know you but I love you. German taxes make another 32 € on top – so to say 6.40 € per working day. Correct, Officer?
_ The Pickups
When it comes to pickups for a Gretsch one name is all around: TV Jones. I decide to buy two Nickel plated TV Classics from “No. 1 Guitar Center” in Hamburg. Until G59 is finished Rosie has the pleasure of letting them ring. And, believe me, she does. Great pickups! Not cheap, though. I paid around 240 € including the pickup bezels. But this purchase started the project back in September 2011.
_ The Neck
Before I start crafting I have to ask Frank Müller, a local carpenter, to prepare a suitable neck blank from the two maple beams I purchased at Cropp Timber in Hamburg. As I do not want to ad “wings” to the headstock, what I do is quite a waste of wood. But an extraordinary guitar deserves this effort. This is what I receive back from him:
The headstock angle is 10° and the neck angle with the body 4°. Frank Müller adds both angles to the neck blank. The dark stripe in the middle is 1.5 mm of rosewood veneer. No idea, if it is there for aesthetical reasons or to add stability to the neck. But it was there in the fifties and it is being continued on most maple neck Gretsches today. I decide to install historically correct a simple traditional truss rod system as opposed to the high-tech rods of today’s guitars. I build it from a long 5 mm steel rod and use a short 10 mm steel rod as an anchor. Both are joined with an M5 thread that I “spoil” after fitting with some strikes of a hammer. This joint will never turn loose again! In the picture you see a 10 mm hole drilled into the wood with a Forstner drill. This hole will accommodate the anchor. Next step is the routing of the truss rod channel:
The easiest way for me is to screw and nail two wooden guides directly to the top of the neck. I place them at 17 mm distance from each other, such that the copy ring of my handheld router fits snugly in between them. Adding small wedges of wood underneath the guides gives me the desired bow of about 5 mm along the track. The screw and nail holes will later be trimmed away with the excess wood. Two little nail holes remain in the middle section but they will be covered with the fretboard later on. And this is the result of a week of thinking, an hour of preparation and a few minutes of routing with a 6 mm router:
By the way, the brass nut is a simple domed cap nut of which I remove just enough of the cap, such that the M5 thread of the truss rod passes through. It yields a couple more windings compared to a normal nut and saves money compared to buying a special one from a luthier supply shop.
Bringing the neck into a rough shape is quite a massacre with Forstner drill, circular saw, jigsaw, foxtail saw, rasp and Japan saw:
But finally the job is done and for the first time the log can be identified as something related to a guitar neck.
To press the truss rod into the bowed grove I prepare a straight 6 mm maple strip with my router and carefully glue it in with a minimum amount of wood glue. I don’t want excess glue to be pressed onto the rod. It is not necessary to shape the strip to match the bow of the grove – pressing it in with ferrules takes care of that and this is the result:
The remains of the strip are then trimmed away with a router, a chisel and a file.
The body end of the neck needs an extension that will later support the fingerboard stretching out over the body. I found the expression “cantilevered fingerboard” for that. The small piece of maple for the cantilever I cut with a foxtail saw from the remains of the neck massacre (see above) and use wooden guides to enhance cutting precision:
To end up with a final thickness of 7 mm and to level the surface precisely I use the router again. As I do not own a plane router, I just use the face of a 8 mm groove router bit. It works. The difficult part is to construct a jig that holds the workpiece and guides the router parallel to the desired surface. Imagination helps a lot!
_ The Fingerboard
For the fingerboard I have an ebony blank. I bought it at Cropp Timber along with the wood for the neck and a small piece of rosewood which I am going to use for the bridge, later. I mark the positions of the frets at this early stage wirh a neat little chip carving knife from “Kirschen” tools. Incidentally, these highly professional woodworking tools are from a small factory in the town where I was born. They still use manual fabrication methods just like 150 years ago, when the company was founded. I also use chisels, cabinet scrapers and the japan saw from “Kirschen” and I love them.
I drill the cavities for the “thumbnail” markers with matching Forstner drills – 20, 17, 14 and 10 mm, two cavities of each size. Then I cut the fingerboard to its final shape, first using an electric hand saw and then my router with a trimming cutter. This was a lesson to be learned - I never knew that ebony could be brittle as glass. Be extremely careful!
I glue in the markers that I prepared from a pearl mosaic I bought at an arts and craft store with a fine-bladed fretsaw. It is tedious but rewarding because the ebony-pearl contrast is gorgeous. Just because I am so curious, how it will finally look like, I temporarily glue some white plastic strips to the sides. Then I pre-cut the fret slots with a special 0.5 mm saw.
Again, this is an extremely difficult job and I will only know, if the result is good, when I finally install the frets. So I am going to worry about that later. For now I am happy with the result.
_ The Headstock
Judging from the images that I find on the web, the headstock veneer of the ’59 vintage seems to be mahogany on most instruments. I use five layers of 0.5 mm sheets which I glue down with alternating grain direction. This adds additional strength.
Next I manually prepare a pre-template for the headstock with fretsaw, file and sand paper. To get the exact dimensions I stick a printout of the shape to its surface. I use this pre-template to cut the final template with the router, which results in sharper edges. I drill down six 2 mm mounting holes to the places where the machine heads will eventually reside and fix the template with screws to the back side of the headstock. On this image you see the template and the current state of the neck with the still slightly oversized cantilever loosely attached to its end.
By screwing the template to the back side of the headstock I can use the front surface as the guide for the router. It works perfectly. For the top edge it is highly recommended not to cut at full speed as the router tends to burn the surface when it cuts perpendicular to the grain.
_ The Inlays
Yes, you may call it an attempted counterfeit, but I will write “Gretsch” to the headstock. Just as FMI/Gretsch still writes long expired patent numbers on the pickups – “for historical reasons” as they claim -, I use the old logo for historical reasons. As I do not intend to sell my instrument, I think this should be legally okay.
Again I use the fret saw and small files to cut the letters and the horseshoe from a piece of pearl I got from a local goldsmith for reasonable money. I am only 80 % satisfied with the precision I achieve but compared to the images of actual 50s models this seems all right. I stick the inlays to their final destination and cut along the edges with my “Kirschen” knife. All this sounds easy, but dont underestimate it. It is a lot of work. The final grooves are then cut with a Dremel tool:
I also use the Dremel to open the truss rod adjustment cave again:
I had a black Strat pickguard lying around for years. From that I cut the truss rod cover. To be historically correct again, I sand away the black bottom layer of it because on old Gretsches this cover had two layers. And this is a first impression of my personal copy of the famous headstock. I love it:
To select the right material for the binding I hesitate quite a while. In the fifties there were not many (if any) alternatives to celluloid – one of the earliest industrial thermoplastic polymers invented in 1869. Today you can easily get much better plastics. Celluloid on the other hand is hardly produced anymore and correspondingly difficult to find, especially if you are looking for the right colour and dimensions. I realise that trying to be historically correct should respect reasonable limits. For me this is one. Being a chemist I basically understand the chemical and corresponding physical/mechanical differences between celluloid and modern ABS-polymers. Most people don’t, I am sure. I select ABS for the binding and it is a good decision.
For the coating I use nitro-cellulose laquer (“nitro”) – historically correct again. It just looks nicer than other coatings and it undergoes a natural process of aging which gives the surface a kind of living touch. For the first two coats I use soluble orange stain with the laquer. The top coates are pure clear nitro. The next image gives a preliminary impression of the result.
I installed the machine heads just to make it look nice just for the photo. As the historical machine heads are no longer available, I decided to buy Schaller M6 locking tuners – certainly some of the best tuners available. Notice how differently headstocks of the same period Gretsch guitars can look like.
_ The Neck (Part 2)
For the neck joint I use a dovetail router bit to shape the sloped sides of the tenon. The neck is attached to a jig that guides the router base in plane with the side of the tenon facing the body. As the router does not cut deep enough, I chisel away the remaining millimeters of wood.
For someone like me, who has limited skills using woodworking tools, using the router seems to be the safe way. The result at least looks good. In the picture you see the neck with the extended fretboard support and the fretted fingerboard already glued to it.
I put the frets into the fingerboard before attaching the binding and glueing the unit to the neck. I use Wagner Typ 9665 fret material made in Germany. These frets compare to Dunlop Jumbos, just a little bit higher. I don’t want to write much about the fretting. Only, it is probably the most difficult part, so far. It is important to have a good fret saw – which I lack. So I work my way through the ebony with so called “Einstrichsägen” from Rockinger. Somehow I manage to get it done but it is blood, swe at and tears. You can take the first two literally.
I insert the frets the traditional Gibson and early Gretsch way. The fret ends are trimmed flush with the edge of the ebony and are then bound with the fingerboard. Between the frets the binding is filed and scraped down to the fingerboard level leaving little humps that cover the face sides of the frets. Apart from Gibsons most guitars today, also modern Gretsches, are bound the other way with the fret ends extending over the binding. I don’t see pros and cons for either way but I like the way, my old Gibson SG is made, and on Gretsches it just looks “fiftyish”. The nut on this picture is only an ABS-dummy:
After fretting all is glued together, the neck is shaped with final accuracy, painted using a lacquer roll, polished and – to cut a long story short – here is the result. I made only one neck; image processing does the doubling trick:
At this stage the painting is only done for my personal satisfaction and to protect the wood from dirt. I plan to apply another coat of clear lacquer after the neck has been attached to the body. At that stage also the infamous screw will be driven through the heel into the neck block in the body. The whole unit will get another polish treatment. This will then also remove a few glue traces still remaining on the fingerboard.
Finally, I level the frets using my 12’’ radius block and special fret files I borrowed from a friend (thanks, Frank). The whole fingerboard is then polished with type 000 steel wool and I am done with phase one, the neck:
_ The Nut
I went to a local fair in a little village nearby. The fair was organized by one of the larger butcher shops in the area. They still slaughter cows and pigs themselves and gave presentations of their production of meat and sausages - without a live demonstration, fortunately. I went up to the "master butcher", told him about my project and that I was looking for some bone material for the nut. He did not seem to understand me completely but I had a black plastic "demonstrator" in my pocket. He took me back to is "work bench", grabbed a big cow bone and cut it into handy pieces for me. Thus I had a good soup for Saturday evening as well as plenty of nut material for the project and maybe more guitars to come. Of course, I could buy me a nut blank for 4.50 EUR, but that would be no fun.
_ Veneer For The Body
We all know, Gretsch used maple veneer for the 6120. But I hardly find any more information. What I see from many images is that the guitar tops and backs do not have a center line. So both faces need to be 16” wide and seamless. There are basically three different types of veneer in the market. It is unlikely that Gretsch used sawn veneer. Most likely to me as a layman is, that they used rotary veneer. At least the figured grain I see on many pictures indicates that. I inquired for weeks, but to cut a long story short: it seems impossible to find maple rotary veneer in Germany. But I found a couple of places that sell sliced veneer in the required width. The grain pattern is different to rotary veneer, however. It is not as wildly figured as some rotary veneers. One supplier, http://www.furnierprofi.de/ delivered the wood almost to my door at no extra cost because he incidentally planned to pass by my home town anyway. Friday I called him, Saturday the veneer was mine. Thank you, Mr. Gutzer, great service.
I prepare a body mould according to the information I found about classic Gretsch Guitars using multiple layers of plywood and solid pine. The outer sides are trimmed in order to deliver faces that can be used for clamping the sides as tightly as possible to the inner walls. Actually, it would have been better to have a constant wall thickness of the mould all around. But this is again a lesson to be learned.
The sides of the guitar are build from four layers of my 1 mm thick veneer. I pre-shape the veneer strips using a bending iron. I do not alternate the grain direction. This may be wrong, but I am confident they will be stiff enough as the curves will also contribute to stiffness in z-direction of the guitar.
The four layers are glued on top of each other and clamped overnight. I do this separately for the treble side first, and then for the bass side:
Next I glue in the neck block and tail block which I shaped from solid maple. I attach the kerfing, that I prepare in the traditional manner from four single strips of maple veneer, each. I use clothes pegs to clamp them layer by layer to the sides. The wooden clothes pegs are rather weak, the plastic ones are pure crap! For my next guitar I will need to find a better solution. But it worked this way with the help of a couple of rude swear words.
The first impression of the result looks already very “gretschy” and encouraging:
_ The Top
To laminate the top from three alternating grain layers of my 40 cm wide veneer I use a press that delivers three tons of force to the system! The press consists of a vacuum bag purchased at Ikea and a laboratory vacuum pump. I put a cloth on top of the pile that distributes the vacuum evenly. The mould consists of a MDF plate of 50 by 60 cm that supports the arch made from multiple layers of MDF and filler material. The surface of the mould should be very well smoothened in order to yield smooth faces of the finished plywood.
I apply the pressure for a couple of hours and from time to time I ventilate the system and apply vacuum again to remove the moisture from the wood glue. The result is al nicely shaped and very stiff plate of arched plywood:
The next steps unfortunately do not find their way into my camera – I am too nervous to remember taking pictures. These next steps are
• roughly cutting out the shape,
• drilling the holes for switches and pots,
• shaping the bracings from spruce and glueing them underneath the top,
• routing out the pickup cavities,
• cutting the f-holes with a jigsaw sandpaper an files,
• binding the f-holes with two layers of ABS plastic and Acetone.
I did take pictures of the result, though. I loosely put the parts together and see a very raw but beautiful 6120:
_ Bracing and gluing the top and the back
I must admit that building the guitar is much more exciting than writing about it. The status of my project has thus made much more progress than this documentation. So I decide to summarise the rest in brief – mainly pictures of the genesis of my personal ’59 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins with a few headings and very little explanation.
Parallel bracing material: consumer grade spruce from a building supplies
store (sorry, no pic.)
Trestle bracing: Douglas fir normally used as decking board.
To attach the top to the sides I use my body mould, MDF and a bunch of screws.
Then I glue the typical Gretsch trestle bracing on top of the parallel braces.
You see in this photo a couple of steps that I did not document properly:
• as mentioned before the parallel bracing,
• the neck and tail blocks both made from the same piece of maple as the neck,
• a piece of maple veneer between the top and the neck block to support the beginning curvature of the top (which involved a lot of sanding),
• the routing (pickup cavities), sawing (f-holes) and drilling (pot and switch holes) of the top and obviously
• the binding of the f-holes made from carpenter grade ABS (not the expensive stuff you get from luthier supply stores).
Then I glue the back to the whole unit using the same technique as I used for the top. I use little spruce blocks as feet for the trestle bracing. They can be seen in later images.
_ The homage to Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats
Although this instrument is unique and not part of any batch it gets an interior label and a serial number. Guess which number I choose. Number 007? Wrong! Number 33024? Bingo! This Gretsch 6120 is clearly inspired by the famous Stray Cat guitar, Brian Setzer’s famous 1960 model year Gretsch.
_ Fitting the neck
I actually routed the mortise for the neck before installing the top and the back, when I still had birch plywood sheets as preliminary top and back nailed to the sides to support their shape. I fix the body vertically to my work bench and route the mortise using a copy ring and an exact template that I nail to the side of the guitar. The four nail holes are later covered by the neck.
As the depth of the mortise does not suffice I do the rest using chisels.
It takes a little patience, sand paper, files and chisels to fit the neck. Carbon paper helps to determine the uneven spots and get rid of them. Eventually, however, I have to use a shim from thin mahogany veneer to get the neck fit really tight.
Now back to real-time – top and back are attached.
_ Routing the binding channel and binding the edges
I build a jig to do the job. This jig relies on perfectly planed sides as the height of the guitar’s rim over the table determines the depth of the cut. It works okay, though I whished I had built the more advanced version with a vertically moving router and a guide to keep a constant cutting depth. You find an example for that at the web site of Andreas Rall
(http://www.rall-online.net/andreashp/a_index_eng.html), who also carries the required special router bit in his web-shop.
If you intend to route binding channels, take the warnings not to tear out wood in certain problem areas of the guitar very seriously. These warnings are right and you should be careful even if you use a brand new router bit. There are many internet threads on this topic.
Binding the sides with carpenter grade ABS strips using super glue for the black strip and acetone for the white strip. I prefer super glue as it binds so much quicker but acetone is considerably cheaper.
Here we are with the bound top. As you can see I have covered the openings with paper from the inside before closing the box. I used water soluble glue to be able to remove them in the end.
_ Applying laquer and attaching the neck
The stained back side, of course “nitro” – I love the colour. The stain is applied using a roller.
Fine tuning the mortise for neck adjustment.
Attaching the neck.
I do not believe the bolt in the neck heel helps but I want an original 1959 Gretsch 6120.
I close the neck bolt with a 10 mm disc of rosewood (prepared by hand!) and level it to the surface.
I cannot help, but I have to get the first sounds from my guitar, so I preliminary install some hardware and a set of old strings. And believe me, the sound is ... – well, it makes me happy!
Then I stain the sides and prepare for the final clear coat.
Clear coating is done in my bathroom. I use cans of nitro lacquer (almost 20 EUR each!), which cause a lot of trouble due to bad product quality. The can stops spraying after just a few seconds. It sprays again and stops again, sprays again and stops again – you can hear me invent new (German) swear-words. The cans go back to the supplier and leave me with a half-finished guitar and a surface that feels like 80 grit sand paper. I am about to explode: “I’m TNT, I’m dynamite ...”
Now I am waiting for new cans. I hope I can finish the box over the weekend.
_ Finishing the Project
Finally the new cans of lacquer arrive. It is the same material, Super Duroffix® 1K-Klarlack SDF-H from Zweihorn (AkzoNobel), because alternative material is hard to find. And who knows, if that would be better. At least the cans have a more contemporary label design so I hope, that the faulty performance of the first delivery was due to old age.
I prepare my bathroom and the guitar again like before and start spraying. The cans work slightly better but I am not satisfied at all. Far too often the cans stop spraying but somehow I manage to empty the cans completely. No idea, what fraction of the lacquer ends up on the guitar. A lot of it falls to the floor as fine white dust. Is it normal, that I have to use up the whole two cans, 800 ml?
Anyway, so close towards the end of the project I am not willing to give up and have it sprayed somewhere else.
After letting the guitar dry over night I do a little wet sanding of the quite rough surface with 1200 grit sand paper and start the final assembly. I use the method described by TV Jones himself on a couple of his YouTube videos. I have to learn a couple of trics to get every pot, every switch and the output jack into the right place. But eventually, in November 2012, the 1959 Gretsch 6120 is finished and here it is:
The sound of it is awesome. It fulfills or probably overfulfills all my hopes. Using my Fender Twin Reverb it deliveres Rockabilly sound at its best. Using my Marshall JCM 2000 it also proves to be a very versatile rock and blues guitar. I am totally satisfied.
Two weeks later I disassemble the guitar again, do another wet sanding and apply three polishing steps using two differen car polishs and a buffing wheel for my drilling machine and furniture polish in the last step.
After re-assembling the guitar I declare the project G59 finished. It is Christmas time and I am going to rock 2013 with my brand new 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins guitar.
Thanks for following this guitar building story. Have fun with it,