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Hand Carving An Archtop Guitar: Time-Lapse Video & Photo Timeline

Hand Carving An Archtop Guitar: Time-Lapse Video & Photo Timeline

This Time-Lapse Guitar making video shows the process I use for sculpting the back of a 17 archtop guitar from my personal collection of master grade flame maple. It is a time lapse, and It goes by pretty quick, so I put together a timeline below that you can use to see some of the steps that are going by so fast in the video.

The video shows about 10 hours of work in around 30 sec. Enjoy!

Hand Carving An Archtop Guitar Time Line

Carving an archtop guitar 1

Begin with a mandatory coffee break to visualize the arch and get settled clearly on what I am about to create.

Carving an archtop guitar sanding

After the two halves have been carefully joined together, they are sanded smooth to the proper thickness, usually around 7/8″ thick. Then the slab is cut out in the rough shape of the guitar body. Next the bottom surface of the rough back plate is sanded smooth and flat to ensure a good gluing surface around the perimeter where it will be attached to the sides of the guitar later.

chainsaw sculpting

The final thickness of the outer edges is marked around the perimeter as a guide when carving and thicknessing the edges. A chainsaw wheel and right angle grinder are used to rough in the shape of the arch and remove the bulk of the material that is in the way of that final graceful arch that I will be creating.

Carving an archtop guitar pin router

Once the arch is roughly carved, a special bit and a pin router are used to evenly thickness the perimeter of the top.

Carving an archtop guitar chainsaw sculpting 2

One more time around with the grinder and chainsaw wheel, being extra careful not to cut too deep. One slip and this piece of wood will have to go in the trash!

Carving an archtop guitar carving

Then it’s time to start carving with my hand planes. I begin with a larger 1″ plane to smooth out the rough ridges left by the chainsaw wheel. I bring the shape of the arch closer and closer to the image I see in my mind. Its a tough job, and still hurts even after doing this so many times over the years. I tape my finger and thumb to help lessen the blisters from hours of carving. Then I switch to a smaller plane and start to refine the shape of the arch even more. I have a specific shape in mind that I have engineered just for this guitar to give it the best response and voice. I refine the arch further with a scraper. Sometimes on extremely figured master grade wood like this, the flame is so intense that it wants to chip or tear regardless of how sharp my scrapers are. I sand the surface between each session of scraping in this case, which helps to smooth things out and most of the time, makes the scraping process a little easier to do while minimizing tear-out in the flamed grain pattern.

Carving an archtop guitar scraper

I use the shadows to see the contours and ensure that they are even and smoothly flowing like I need them to be in order to make the instrument as efficient and as beautiful as possible. Once I have the outside shape of the back plate created and smoothed, I then mark the inside of the plate so I will know where the sides, neck block, and tail block will be glued. This helps me smoothly flow the arch up to the edge and preserve these flat areas.

Carving an archtop guitar drill press

I then set the drill press and stop to a rough depth and drill a series of holes into the inside of the plate. These holes act as a depth gauge and help me to quickly see how much material I am removing without stopping to check the thickness over and over with my dial caliper as I carve out the bulk of the material.

Carving an archtop guitar chainsaw 3

Then another visit with the chainsaw wheel to rough things in

Carving an archtop guitar carving inside

Then back to my hand planes again to start making things beautiful. The larger plane to get things roughed in and then, the smaller one start refining the look and sound.

Carving an archtop guitar caliper

At this point, I’m am beginning to hear what this piece of wood sounds like for the first time. I then start a long process of removing material from different places on the plate and then flexing and listening to the piece. Each time I listen to the way it responds to my tapping and flexing. I remove more material little by little, listening and feeling how each new change affects the sound and behavior of the plate. I repeat the process until I sense things coming into focus and moving in the direction I need them to go for this instrument.

Carving an archtop guitar tapping

Once I hear and feel that magic moment approaching when the plate comes alive and begins to ring in a musical and pleasing fashion; when it begins to flex in the ways that I need it to — I can do a final round of sanding and scraping to finish this phase.

Now the plate is ready for one more round of fine tuning and sanding the next day when my ears and aching muscles are fresh and focused. After that, it’s ready to be glued onto the sides of the guitar. Once the body of the guitar is assembled, I will continue to tap and flex and refine the top and the back plates until they are working together in harmony both in sound and vision.

making an archtop guitar final

making an archtop guitar

making an archtop guitar 2

making an archtop guitar inside

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About the Author

TomTom Bills has been hand crafting one of a kind custom guitars for the top players and collectors around the world since 1998. Tom is also the author of the guitar making book/DVD set - The Art Of Lutherie - published by Mel Bay, and has written for and been featured in may publications both in print and online as well as several television and film spots. You can view and learn more about his guitars by visiting his website: tbguitars.comView all posts by Tom →

  1. Leo Hall
    Leo Hall03-03-2014

    Tom, you make it seem too easy. How long does it take to do the top, both top and bottom. And your sides look like they’ve been cut out of piece of wood. What time of dimensional lumber do you use for it.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this for us to see!


    • Tom

      Hi Leo,

      It varies in the amount of time it takes me. Most of the time I trying something new, so I move slowly and listen to the changes of each small step to guide me as I go. I might spend a whole week just carving the top and back (working on other things in between carving sessions). I work in short bursts so that my ears don’t get too tired, and I can be focused and clear as I work.

      By sides, do you mean the linings? If so, I re-saw them from Spanish cedar neck blanks and laminate them to a final thickness of 1/4″


      • Tom

        Hey Leo,

        I just realized you may have mistaken the plywood holding cradle that I’m using to carve the back, to be the sides, maybe? Sorry for the confusion.
        let me know if you have any other questions.


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