The Lap Steel Project

The Lap Steel Project

Time to talk about the lap steel project. More fun every day. My friend Neal reminded and suggested, I incorporate my signature Cowboy Boots, ( inside all of my Dreadnoughts), into this design. I listened, made some Pearl Boots, and placed them on either side of the fretboard beyond the twelfth fret. Because when you get up there, you’re Kickin’ It!

It has been one long winter and I have had no time since mid-December to even think about an instrument build. I keep a list of things I want to build and when it’s time I choose randomly from that list as rule. Recently from the list I heavily favored an Octave Mandolin and a pair of “Ham Jr.” aka “Hambone” guitars from Sapele. Then, while searching my lumber pile I found a nice plank of Walnut. It was quarter sawn, 8/4” X 8” about six feet long. I had used part of this piece for a couple of mandolin necks. I thought of using it for an electric guitar body and that’s when it hit me. Lap Steel.

This piece looks perfect to me. Quartersawn dead center on the heart of the log with a perfect circle at the tail. After sizing this chunk of wood via planer and bandsaw I began to layout the body shape and consider other design elements such as fretboard wood, pseudo fret material, inlay and trim. I did a lot of research, reading everything from forums to product pages covering construction and playing techniques as well as a myriad of individual preferences, in order to determine exactly what I wanted based on which design elements are necessary to build a precision instrument and which ones allow me to be creative.

As with any guitar, the bridge/saddle and nut placement are critical, yet the scale length or distance between the two can vary as long as fret placement is correct. However the hardware required is, or can be quite different. Most notably, is that due to the string height, the bridge/saddle and nut heights are quite a bit higher that a standard nut and saddle. In order to help facilitate this I made my fretbaord 3/16”, used a top mount hardtail bridge and made the nut from 1/4” X 1/2” cold rolled steel. With that figured out I designed the body shape, placement of hardware, trim, inlay type and placement.

The overall plan is done and I have my hands full at first trying get this board shaped and the headstock formed. What I have is a one piece Black Walnut body, Maple fretbaord, Maple nut backer, Maple binding, Maple headplate veneer, MOP inlays, Golden Age overwound bridge pickup, CTS 500k pots, Gotoh tuners, wood purfling for frets. It is 39 inches long, has a 25 inch scale and although most lap steel’s are 22.5 inch scale some are like mine, the same as a standard steel guitar which just makes it seem correct to me.

Once the body is shaped and sanded I rout the pickup and control cavities, create a wire tunnel between the two and pre-drill for the control shafts. Drilling the tuner mount holes was again a bit tricky clamping and holding this thing in place on the drillpress. Before drilling the jack mounting hole I will rout for and install binding. This was a lessoned learned while building my second electric years ago. It’s not nice to guide a router around an edge with a large hole drilled in it.

After successfully installing the binding and drilling the jack mount hole I am only several sheets of sandpaper away from spraying on sealer coats. Prior to spraying I will locate and fit all hardware including drilling pilot holes and inserting screws temporarily.

Finished product:

Body : Black Walnut 39” long

Fretboard : Flame Maple 2.750” x 19.5” x .187”

Binding : Flame Maple

Pick Up Ring : Flame Maple

Headplate Veneer : Flame Maple

Inlays : Mother of Pearl, Thanks to Neal Crowley for suggesting the boots.

Pick Up : Golden Age Overwound Bridge

Bridge : Golden Age top mount

Tuners : Gotoh enclosed mini

Pots : CTS 500k w/ .022 cap

Nut : Cold Rolled Steel .187: x 2.750” x .562“

Strings: .013 to .038

Now that I have finished the Lap Steel it’s time to admit I was wrong first time around on string choice. Something I read made me think a heavier string would give me a meaner growl and that may be true to some degree with a shorter scale length, but with 25” the sixth string, (lowest) was so slack it would rattle under the slide. If I raised the pitch to suit a different tuning then my third string would likely break before reaching pitch.  More research, some strings added,  some moved, success. 

Author: Rick

A life long woodworker, I've been building guitars for just over ten years. I build acoustic dreadnoughts, electrics, and the "Hambone", a Terz guitar. I am a North Carolina native and am currently located near Charlotte, NC.