3 Tips For Better Guitar Binding
Less Stress & Better Results
Back when I first started building guitars, the process of gluing the binding onto the guitar body and making sure it was perfect was filled with dread, and stress, and drama. And I wasn’t always confident it was going to turn out good this time. That all changed when I discovered the three things I’ll be explaining in this article.
Okay, so you know that moment when you put the glue on your binding and you’re about to begin gluing it on the guitar? Things seem to be going okay. You’ve got dreams of flawless perfection floating in your mind. And then all of a sudden, there’s a gap. It doesn’t want to close, or maybe there’s another problem, or something else happens. Suddenly you realize that the glue’s beginning to dry. And you’re freaking out.
I don’t know if you’ve been there…I’ve been there. Thankfully, though, over the years I’ve refined my binding process. And I discovered a few things that have really helped to transform the entire process from something I worried about to something I look forward to, and that’s a lot of fun, and that produces really consistent, excellent quality results on every guitar.
And I don’t have to be doubting whether I can pull it off this time.
So I was binding a guitar the other day. And I was kind of thinking back to those times when I used to freak out about it. And I was just feeling so glad that now it’s this meditative, enjoyable experience. And I thought, “Maybe I should make a quick video, and just take a couple points that I think are important and transformative, and kind of help to reduce that stress, and improve the consistency of quality.” And so that’s what I did. I made a video for you, and I put together this article. I’m really excited to share with you these three tips to help you improve your binding process and hopefully enjoy it a little more too.
The Guitar-Making Mindset
Okay, tip number one. I really like this one because it has implications where you can carry over the mindset I’m going to tell you about—the mindset this tip requires. You can spread it out to other aspects of your guitar-making. The tip is to perfectly fit your binding. I mean perfect, and purfling. They should be perfectly at rest when you put them into your binding channels.
What a lot of people do is use something like a side bender, or maybe just a bending iron. They’ll bend the bindings. They’ll maybe clamp them in the mold overnight or something like that to let them dry. And then the next day they’re like, “Hey, we’re ready to go ahead and put these on.” And they start to try to put the glue in and begin actually taping or roping on these bindings, depending on which method you like to use. And they’re skipping a very important step: doing a flawless fit so that the binding is totally at rest.
The first thing I do is turn my bending iron on, and while that’s heating up, I really just kind of have myself slow down and relax and start doing a preliminary visual inspection to see how the binding is currently fitting on the guitar, which places could be problems, which places are already perfect. And I begin to take some mental notes and get a feel for what the fit is like.
It’s important to start with a little reference line so you have a point to work from, and that’ll give you a reference point for each time you come back from the bending iron to check your work: you can line up with that reference mark.
Next, I take my white pencil and I begin making marks on the places I’m identifying as places that either need more bend or less bend. Once some of those marks are made, I can take my first trip to the bending iron. Make sure it’s hot—hot enough to make steam.
And then I can start making these micro adjustments. If I hit a spot that’s really stubborn and just doesn’t want to go, I’ll put a drop of distilled water and just use it as a spot treatment and slowly and carefully work it. Don’t think of this as a big bending process. We don’t want to use a lot of water. And in most cases, I actually avoid using any water unless it’s really necessary. This is a quiet process, and I’m going to do quite a few trips between the guitar and the bending iron to make subtle adjustments and bring the binding back again and again to make sure everything fits.
The key technique to finding the places that do need work—because it can be a little frustrating at first when you’re trying to understand where the spots are that need help—is putting the piece of binding in and then using my fingers to sort of rock the piece of wood back and forth. And by doing that, you can identify the center—the fulcrum, is that the right word?—that’s causing this to teeter-totter back and forth. And once you identify that, you can mark it and then go to work on it. And then once it’s done being bent, you can bring it back and check to make sure that spot is right.
When I’m placing the binding on, and I check for that rocking motion or for open gaps or anything like that, and I can’t find any, and the guitar binding is just sitting in there, nice and comfortably, then I know I’m ready to go ahead and begin the gluing process.
The interesting thing I’ve found is that when you’re in a hurry and…not really in a hurry, but when you’re just feeling pressure, the pressure of life, the pressure of your profession to make guitars, to move forward and stay on schedule, taking this much time makes you feel like you’ve stopped, and that might feel excruciating. It depends on your personality. But the thing to realize, the thing I’ve discovered, is that you’re going to spend almost the same amount of time.
So here’s the way I look at it that makes me feel better. I can choose whether I want to spend an extra hour fitting these pieces of binding now, so that the binding is fit and it’s going to be super-easy when I glue it in because there’s nothing…I mean, the tape’s not going to be pushing and bending anything. It’s literally just holding it in place. But do I want to spend the time to create that now? Spend an hour on that? Is that enjoyable to me? Yes, actually, it is enjoyable.
Or do I want to spend an hour later on, extra time wrestling that binding into place, or even worse, trying to figure out how to hide binding gaps and flaws that occurred. So it’s just deciding which way you want to spend your time. And it’s kind of a no-brainer when you look at it that way. And that kind of helps me slow down and get into this fun state and really takes my work to a higher level. And this can be applied to any area of your guitar-making if you stop and look at it from that perspective.
And the other thing about this is that when there’s not a lot of tension being forced during the gluing process—or tension to hold the shape, I should say, like to hold a waist in, or a cutaway in, or something like that—then the chances of your binding remaining stable forever, or for say the next hundred years, are much better.
And the chances of that binding never showing up like lines through the finish or anything like that because it’s moving around, it’s just so much better. It’s just so much more stable. And it makes me feel better, it’s more enjoyable to put on, and it gets me better, more consistent results. And I can feel good knowing it’s going to be stable for many years to come. So that’s tip number one.
The All-Important Sealing Process
Tip 2: Seal The Whole Guitar Before Binding
Tip number two. When I’m doing my binding, the first thing I do is seal the entire guitar with shellac. I use shellac as the final finish on my guitars, but I also use it as the seal coats as well. It does a great job, and there are a few really important benefits that come in doing the sealing process before I begin the binding work.
Now for me, I’m using a CA or superglue binding method. So I’m gluing the binding in with a CA glue. And when you do that, it’s really important to seal the binding channels as well before you put in your superglue. That is because that thin superglue can wick out into the wood, especially on softer top woods. It can actually destroy the guitar. If that superglue would go out into that wood, it could leave a mark that you couldn’t sand away.
That’s another reason I like to seal the entire surface, especially on the top, because while I’m working with a superglue, I could accidentally have a little drip of glue or a run of glue that I wasn’t expecting. It could go in a wrong place and could actually ruin the guitar. So if you’re using superglue, that’s a very, very important caution. Now, if you’re using Titebond or some other water-based glue, then the sealing of the binding channels is something you do not want to do, because water-based glues need a wood-to-wood connection to get the most strength for the binding. So if you’re using CA glue, seal the binding channels and purfling channels. If you’re using water-based glue like Titebond, do not seal the binding channels.
In either case, no matter what kind of glue I use, I find it really helps to seal all the surfaces on the outside of the guitar. There are a couple reasons I find this so helpful. One reason is that when the shellac, in this case, is coating the fibers of the wood, it gives the tape a better adhesion to the wood. And on top of that, and actually very important to me, it seems to strengthen the softer woods, like the spruce, just a little so that when I’m removing the tape, there’s less chance of tearing out some of the grain.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but if you have, you know it’s not fun. And no matter what you do, even if you do seal it, you’ve got to be careful when you remove that tape. But it seems like it does help in that area—it helps the tape stick better, and it helps reduce the chance of doing any damage to that softwood fiber when I am removing the tape.
The other thing I love about sealing the guitar at this point is…well, there’s a couple of things, I guess. It gives me a chance to see how beautiful it is. That’s just for my enjoyment, to get a glimpse of how gorgeous the wood is going to be when that finish goes on, which is exciting and inspiring. But the thing that’s important is when that shellac goes onto the guitar, it’s also going to give me…it’s sort of like a preliminary test of what it’s going to look like when I begin the finishing process.
There have been times when I thought I had everything perfect and I went to start finishing the guitar and suddenly realized there was a little bit of glue somewhere, or maybe there was a sanding scratch that didn’t get removed. And it’s never fun to have a surprise like that, right when you’re about to start…or right after you started your finishing process. So this is a preliminary sort of little glimpse to see if there were, by chance, any kind of deeper sanding scratches or glue in a place I wasn’t aware of. That’s just a little precaution there, a bonus in addition to the other benefits of sealing the guitar before you start the binding process.
Binding Tape: Avoiding Bloody Knuckles
Tip 3: Use The Right Tape & Tape Dispenser
Tip number three is that you have to have the right tape for your binding work. And there are two parts of this one—the right tape, and a great tape dispenser. Both of those are very important. Let me explain. So the type of tape you use is going to change…or what the right kind of tape is will change, depending on the kind of glue you use. That’s the approach I take.
So if I’m using something like Titebond or Hide Glue or something of that nature—maybe Fish Glue, some people use—then one of these brown kind of binding tapes, brown paper tapes, you can get from Luthier Mercantile or StewMac or something like that. That tape works well for that. But if you’re using superglue, you really want to avoid a paper tape because the superglue can wick into that tape and create a big mess. It can actually glue that tape to the guitar and just make a really-hard-to-get-off mess.
So you don’t want to use that. When you’re using superglue or CA glue, the tape that I absolutely love is actually the tape I use for any kind of glue. If I’m using Titebond or superglue, I feel like it works even better than the brown paper tape. It’s just regular fiberglass strapping tape that you can find at Lowe’s or Home Depot or whatever hardware store, or get online, of course, as well. And there’s a couple of reasons why I love this stuff so much. The biggest one starts with the fact that when you’re using the CA glue, it just doesn’t stick to it. So it’s not going to wick up into the tape, even if the CA glue spills around the tape or something like that. When you go to remove your tape, it’s going to come off clean. That’s probably the biggest, most important thing.
The second most important thing—well, it might be tied for being most important—is that this tape has a really good amount of adhesion. It’s not so much that it’s going to destroy the wood when you go to remove it. It’s got good-enough adhesion, though, that you can actually put some decent force on it, because even though my binding is fit and we spent all that time making it perfect, I still put a really good amount of force on that tape. And I use an amount of tape that many people, including me, would agree is a little excessive, but there’s something about just keeping the glue joint tightly shut that makes the superglue able to wick and glue very well.
The superglue is not good at filling gaps. So holding that joint together tightly—and this could be my imagination—I feel like having a lot of pressure on the binding area and taping it the way I do, a lot of people use a rope to get this effect, to really squeeze that guitar. I don’t know, it seems to subtly change the guitar and make it more responsive. I like the way this works and this system has been really good for me.
So the fiberglass filaments let you pull on that tape and it never breaks, which is amazing because when I used to use the paper tape, a lot of times I would pull pretty hard on it and it would rip on the edge of the binding. And then I would slam my knuckles into the workbench. And by the time I was done, between the tape breaking and the fact that my binding wasn’t fit perfectly, I really had a rough time of it and ended up with bloody knuckles and binding that wasn’t as good as it could have been.
So all that’s different now, in part, because of the things I’m telling you here. I’m hoping it’s going to make a big change for you as well.
One trick I want to tell you about with the fiberglass tape that really makes it even more my favorite is that you can take your spool of tape, or your new roll of tape, and you can actually use an X-ACTO knife to go in and you can load it into your tape dispenser and you can just make a slice right in the center and begin peeling up one side or the other. And what that does is create a piece that’s, for me, the perfect width to be used for binding. And it’s wide enough that you can get a good grip on it and it sticks really well, but it’s thin enough that I can go into even the tightest curves, like inside of a cutaway or inside of a waist area, or something like that. So not only does doing this little trick resize the tape, but it also doubles the amount of usable strips of tape you can get from one single roll. That’s a nice little bonus.
And of course the last piece of the tape, finding the right tape equation for success—I don’t know if that even makes sense—is to make sure you have a good-quality tape dispenser. I started out the way most people start out, which is trying to guess how much tape you’re going to need. And then you pull out all the pieces and you stick them to the edge of your workbench. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, but it ends up being a mess. And it’s just not a good way to do it. Having a nice dispenser is great. I finally, at some point, got this tape dispenser, which is in very rough shape, heavily used. And it’s okay, but not too long ago, I got what is called a tape deck from StewMac.
And man, this thing is so nice. I absolutely love it. And I think I might get a second one, actually. It’s a good, solid metal base, with a dangerously sharp blade on it. I’m just going to warn you about that. There’s a safety guard that it comes with. I removed it. I’m sure that’s not recommended, because you can cut yourself. So be careful if you do get it. But that sharp blade cuts through this strapping tape like nothing. And it’s just been a joy to use. Got a nice rubber bottom that grips to the workbench. Highly, highly recommended. I’ll put links to these things in the description, if you want to go check them out, and I’ll link to a few other things too, in case you’re interested, that I think might be helpful as well.
Keeping The Passion
Remember Why You Started Building Guitars
My hope is that these three things I just detailed will help you improve your guitars and improve your time in the workshop. And that’s really important, because it’s important to enjoy your time. It’s important to build your systems, your methodology, just your own mental approach, perspective, paradigm, framework, in a way that really does prioritize how you feel and how much you’re enjoying each day as a professional guitar maker, if you’re a professional, or even if you’re doing this as a hobby.
We chose this as a hobby or a profession because it’s our passion, because we love it. And if we’re not enjoying it, and if it’s bringing us stress, well, there’s a lot of other jobs that pay much better that have that same kind of stress and dread. So I don’t know about you, but I want to enjoy it. I want to put in the work to keep this fresh, keep it being my creative expression and passion. I think it’s worth it. And to be honest, when you do that, the quality of your work really takes a quantum leap as well, because your heart’s fully in it.