Taming the buttered ferret

Or: Scarfed headstocks continued.

In the last post I explained why I like scarfed headstocks - they’re stronger, and less wastefull. So - why are they not used on expensive instuments like Gibson’s and PRS’s? The answer is pretty simple - tradition, and aesthetics.

Tradition I’ll set aside for the time being - it’s a whole can of worms. But aesthetics are easier to address. With a little thought, you can make a scarf jointed head look as good (hell - better!) than a 1 piece, and still keep all the benefits it brings to strength and conservation. Here’s how I do it…

After the scarf joint has been cleaned up with a plane, I mark the headstock thickness, and sand a radius upto this line. There are several ways to do this - with the idle roller of a belt sander, with a spindle sander, or with a drum in the drill press. Once the radius is sanded, I thickness the rest of the headstock. In these pics I have used my router thicknesser to thin it, but I now use a drum sander and fence in the drill press, which thicknesses and sands the radius at the same time.

backstrap1.jpg backstrap2.jpg

Next, I glue ears onto the headstock to make up the width. This is another concession to saving wood, but also hides the sides of the scarf joint. I trim the headstock width before attaching the ears, so that after shaping the ears will taper to practically nothing. That way there’s no evidence of the joint in the end grain near the nut.

(Sorry about the crappy pic - I forgot to take one, and had to blow up a fragment from the back ground of another image)


After attaching the ears, I trim them flush front and back with a plane, scraper and chisels. Then, I prepare a piece of constructional (1.5mm thick) veneer. I prebend it, otherwise it’ll crack when I try to bend it into the curve on the back of the headstock. I spritz it with distilled water, wrap it in foil, then heat it with a heat gun. Once it’s steaming, it bends like butter (What!?), and I clamp it up with a matching caul. I don’t apply glue yet - the dry run holds the veneer whilst it cools, and lets me check everything fits nice and tight. After the dry run it holds the curve nicely:

backstrap5.jpg backstrap4.jpg

The glueup is just like the dry run, except with about 10 times as many clamps… no pics I’m afraid. Here it is after drying over night.

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Once it’s dried, I trim off the excess with a veneer saw, shape the headstock with a template and template bit in the router, then profile the neck and carve the volute. Somewhere along the way I apply a headplate to the front of the head, and in this case, bind it too. With all that done, there is no evidence of the scarf joint left - the ears conceal the sides, and the veneers cover front and back.

IMO, every bit as slick as a 1 piece headstock ,and a good deal stronger and stiffer to boot!

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backstrap11.jpg backstrap12.jpg

13 Responses to “Taming the buttered ferret”

  1. Rob G. Says:

    What thickness are your headplate, headstock, and backstrapping? im building a guitar and i want to do headplate and back strapping with the same maple as my top. the head stocks final thickness is to be 5/8″ si i figured headplate 1/8″, headstock 3/8″, and backstrapping 1/8″ is this correct or is it really just preferance. also the neck im using is a 3 peice maple lam. w/ CF rods and a 2way truss.

    thanks a ton, great site and awsome guitars.

  2. Ant Says:

    My headstocks are usually 1/2″ thick, including headplate and backstrap. The back strap is approx 1/16″, and the headplate a little under 1/8″. I adjust the headplate thickness depending on the details of the guitar, and glue it on. Then I thickness the headstock until it’s 1/16″ undersize, so it’ll be 1/2″ after adding the backstrap.

    I think you’ll have a hardtime bending a 1/8″ thick backstrap without scorching it, especially a light coloured wood like maple.

  3. jonnyfontaine Says:

    hi… i got a question… when you shape the headstock… do you shape the head before you attach the veneer? or attach the veneer first? and why… i’m building my first guitar and your website has proved a hugely useful source for info. and an unrelated question… when you glue binding to a fretboard, how important is it to do this before attaching the fretboard to the neck? thanks… keep up the great work, and educatin’

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