How Gibson Makes Guitars
What can I say when it comes to the Gibson Guitar manufacturer. What a history to say the least, what with all the changes in ownership, manufacturing techniques, material used, it's quite the story for those of you interested in this great guitar company. I was thinking about all these things when I decided to write this article on how they make their guitars now, today. I've had four Les Pauls at various times in my life. Boy wouldn’t it be grand to have half of the guitars you wind up running through in the course of a career? But that's another article in itself huh?
Let’s just see how they do what they do today to make the Les Paul Guitar.
First off, you have to have the wood. Mahogany and Maple to be exact . They grade their Maple wood plain to AAAA. So now you know all those solid colored guitars are not going to have the AAAA rating. I guess that's because you'll never see the grain anyway. Now they dry these in a kiln, then they match the maple to the mahogany backs, cut down the center of the Maple for the Book matched look on the Standard Sunburst guitar, and then glue those puppies together and put them on ''trees'' to let them dry. After which they are mated to the mahogany back and glued together and put in a press to let them dry. There are some great examples of how they do this on the net if you feel the need to look at how that is accomplished. Next they take these ''Blanks'' and cut out that famous shape of the Les Paul, they can do 12 bodies at a time now. I wonder what it was like in the early days; did they have craftsmen cutting all those blanks by hand??
Next are the neck ''Blanks'' that are made of mahogany also, and they cut out the rough shape of the neck on a band saw. Then they place the Truss Rod in a channel in the neck blank. This is a Gibson invention that allows the user to adjust the relief or tension of the neck. It sure does help in the adjustment factor as the weather, humidity, tension, all effect the straightness of the neck. Next the fingerboard is applied to the neck. Rosewood is the choice for most Les Pauls, although they also use ebony, and another wood called ''preciosa'' for their necks. Myself, I've used the rosewood and ebony fretboards, and I must say I much prefer the ebony fretboard. A much denser wood that feels so good and helps resist the wear and tear that come to bear on the surface, to say the least. Inlays used are ''Mother of Pearl'', my favorite or acrylic Pearloid, which is then glued into the fretboard. They wet-sand the inlay on a diamond wheel to make the inlay flush with the fretboard. That sounds like fun doesn’t it? But that's how they make the whole fretboard so smooth. Believe me; you really appreciate this while you’re running your fingers up and down the fretboard. And don't forget the frets themselves. They still do this by hand, as well as the neck binding, to make sure there is even pressure on all the frets down the neck, after which the necks are placed in a jig to dry. Gibson’s' use of the neck binding is a little added touch to smooth out the area where the frets meet the edge of the neck. Believe me; this really makes the neck a lot more comfortable in the playing dept., not to mention it makes the neck really professionally finished.
The Headstock veneer is made out of a fiber material, with either a pearl inlay, or silk-screened logo, and that is glued to the headstock of the neck. That must be one of the ways of figuring the price of the model you choose. A press is used to glue this to the headstock. They actually use a real person to hand-roll the back of the neck on a belt sander, so you might want to check a few guitars for the feel of the neck, there could be small differences in the neck feel, I know they check the roundness for the specs their looking for, but you never know, it's worth a shot.
Now back to the carved bodies, you should see how they rubber-band these puppies to hold them in place while they dry. Next stage is cutting a groove all the way around the body, front and back sides, to put the binding in. This feature really makes the guitar stand out from others. They use a special saw called a ''Rabbet'', to make the groove all the way around. This feature really protects the body against damage that might occur.
And I'm sure that it is a time-consuming process, which is probably why most manufacturers don't do it. They also do a 45 degree angle cut on the binding to help it match up line-wise, cool huh? Next is the slack-belt sanding process for the face of the guitar, it looks like the person doing it is holding one of those old time irons over the belt to apply pressure to the belt to the face of the guitar. This is done to smooth out all those ridges that are left in the face of the guitar and get that really smooth face. I could use some of that myself. Then it is rim-sanded to smooth out the binding on the back and face to make sure there is no excess glue and it is perfectly flush with the face of the guitar.
Now let’s set that neck into the body of the guitar O.K.? Gibson uses a set neck, rather than a bolt on scenario. Each neck heel is hand chiseled to fit perfectly into the guitar body. Take a look at the point where the neck meets the body next time your in your favorite music store and you'll see what I'm talking about. Then they slide the neck into the body and use a dial indicator to check the neck to body angle, usually around 17 degrees. Once the fit and angle is correct, the neck is set into the body, glued, and clamped and set out to dry. It takes about 30 mins to dry in another drying tree.
You know they use what they call a CNC (computer numerically controlled) router to take care of routing all the holes and cavities in the body of the guitar. You know the holes for the pick-ups, tone and volume controls, as well as the bridge, stop piece, input jack, and the space in the body to house the electronics. Then it's off to make a check of the frets with a file and straight edge. They use #280 grit sandpaper on the body to get it ready for painting. This is done twice by hand and small sanders to accomplish this task. Then they use a ''Pore Filler'' to fill all the little pores and pits that might show up once the guitar is finished. This makes the wood take an even coat of paint over the entire body when it's finally painted. Mahogany is pretty porous and soft to say the least. Now wipe off that excess filler.
The painting of the solid and opaque finishes is done in an electro-static paint booth. The guitar is charged positively, and the paint is charged negatively, so they get a real good use of the material without any waste. Seems to me they paint cars and the golden gate bridge the same way. Seems to me this might be one reason the newer guitars weather differently then the older ones. Efficient yes, but I wonder how the difference in the thickness of the Paint measures up to the old ways. Just a thought! They do ''shade'' the guitar color on the sunburst models by hand, with a spray gun. That makes every guitar just a little different sunburst pattern wise. Take a look sometime. Then they scrape the binding by hand, to remove any excess paint etc. That sounds like a labor of love to me . Then each guitar gets six to seven layers of lacquer, and is scuff sanded to level the lacquer, so as not to get an orange peel finish. The top coat is one to two layers of lacquer, and then they hang the guitar up to dry for four to five days drying time. Then its a little emory board work to clean the fretboard of any paint, lacquer, excess glue, after which the fingerboard is oiled. They use either a linseed based oil, or lemon oil, I guess flavor of the month? Then it's off to the big finishing Buffer Wheel to put that famous shine on the entire guitar.
Now let’s put some electronics in this beauty. First the pots are soldered to the switch and jack. And the machine heads are mounted on the headstock, after reaming the holes to get rid of any excess paint, etc. The guitar is set up with strings, and the plastic pieces are put on the guitar. Then it is cleaned again to rid it of all fingerprints and dust etc... By the way, Gibson uses 6/6 101 nylon from DuPont for their nuts on the guitar. I have used a poly-carbon nut, and a nut made of bone, just a thought for those of you willing to experiment. And there you have a general idea of what it takes to build the Gibson Les Paul. Still quite a feat even today, but the end result is a classic sound and design on a par of its own.
Till next time, have a great day making music