January Newsletter

I’m on a Rampage

In the scope of guitar repair, making parts from raw chunks of wood can be the most challenging, as the properties of the wood are not constant, and the project is in constant jeopardy until it is complete. One wrong move and it’s over.

Our customer Scott loves basses with a bunch of strings, and recently asked me to make him a ramp for his 7-string Elrick, which was poorly fitted with some lucite ramps. Scott usually has a specific vision for the projects he brings in and this time was no different. 

Bass ramps are simply blocks of some type of material, roughly the thickness of the bass’s pickups, that are installed under the strings and between the pickups and/or between the neck pickup and the fingerboard. The ramps alter the feel of the bass, raising the area under the strings to replicate the feel of playing over the fingerboard or pickups. They also act as a thumb rest, and encourage a lighter touch. I've made a bunch of them, but Scott's ramped up ramp idea was as follows:

  • a one piece ramp
  • made from spalted maple to match the top of the bass
  • he wanted it to fill the area between the pickups
  • be 1/2" wide along the treble side of the pickups
  • wrap back filling the space between the neck pickup and the fingerboard.

I knew it would be fairly tricky to make the ramp in one shot, filling all the spaces evenly, and having the correct height to match the pickup and fingerboard heights. If I missed one aspect, the whole thing would go into the firewood bin.

The first thing to do was to get the wood. I needed a piece that was big enough to cover the area, and also had spalting that looked similar to the bass’s top. I exhausted all my normal resources, then lucked into a fine piece of maple on Ebay.

 

Once the wood arrived at the shop, I made a dimensional diagram to rough cut the wood. I resawed the piece to thickness, lined up a nice zone line with the centerline of the fingerboard, then cut the rough outer dimensions.

Taking the neck off allowed me to fit the section between the pickups first, which was fairly easy. I then fit the section between the neck pickup and the fingerboard.

After I got it roughed in, I needed to hand file the openings to smooth them. As I was doing that, snap! It broke in the section between the neck pickup and fingerboard. The problem with spalted maple is that it is basically rotten. The spalting is caused by fungus colonization, and this causes pigmentation, white rot and zone lines. The white rot, which is similar in texture and strength to cork or sponge, is where the ramp broke. Now I was faced with the choice of whether to throw it away and start over, or to repair it and move on. Since the grain was so perfectly matched, I decided to repair it and keep moving. If it turned out to be visible, or a structural issue, I would throw it out later. Eternally the optimist, I glued the pieces together with thick CA (aka cyanoacrylate and Super Glue) and went back to work.

After final shaping and thicknessing, the next step was to finish it, so I got out some scraps to test on. I decided to flood it with thin CA to strengthen it, but the thin just soaked into the wood like water and had no effect on the surface. Next try was to paint it with medium CA. This worked better, but it still soaked into the rotten parts of the wood more than I wanted. Last try, thick CA painted on. This worked really well. It soaked in enough to give a nice rich look to the wood, but stayed near the surface so I could build up enough to sand flat. In addition to the strength the CA gave the wood, it also made the glue line disappear. Yeah!

I then level sanded the CA, and prepared to put finish on the top. It actually looked perfect with just the glue, so I buffed it out, then hit it with some light steel wool to match the matte finish of the top of the bass. The ramp matched the finish, figure and pickup heights perfectly.

 

This seemingly simple project ended up having many tricky turns, and reminded me to always be extra careful when working with materials that I don't use very often. All in all the project came out great, and Scott absolutely loved it.