Project: Fretless bass guitar

In the late summer of 2016, after a very long layoff from music, I decided to purchase an inexpensive bass guitar. I found someone selling an Ibanez GIO on Craigslist for around $50. I thought that was a reasonable point of entry, so I bought the guitar and also picked up a small Fender amp from Guitar Center.

The Problem

I got the bass-bug, and ended up purchasing two more cheap bass guitars off eBay, with the intention of modifying them at some point. What I initially envisioned was a setup like Mark Sandman‘s bass: Two strings, custom tuned, and played with a slide. I may still end up doing that at some point, however, what I ended up doing first was converting one bass to fretless.

As an aside: If you’re unfamiliar with the band Morphine, I highly recommend looking into them. They are one of my favorite bands of the 1990s due to their unique noir sound.

The Planning

I had made a couple tweaks to this particular bass already. I changed out both the potentiometers from the original 500K Ohm to 250K Ohm ones. Additionally, when I added the tone capacitor, I opted to install a socket so I could experiment with different capacitors. I’ve played with the capacitor values, but haven’t found one that makes a significant difference in treble cutoff.

Attached to the back of the right potentiometer is the socket with a small capacitor installed.

I read up on fretless conversions, scouring the bass player forums for posts by people who had done it. Mostly what I learned was people can’t agree to anything online. So I took the ideas that made the most sense to me and ran with them. In particular, once the frets are removed the fingerboard, there’s a significant loss in structural integrity. (In addition to being rough surface.) So what do you fill the slots with? Putty? Epoxy? Sawdust and carpenter’s glue? Maybe even superglue? Eventually I found the idea I liked best: use slips of polystyrene and superglue them into the fret slots. With this plan in mind I set to work.

The Project

I called the local hobby store to make sure they had 0.020″ polystyrene sheets available (they did) and picked those up. I’d already pried the frets out, so, all that i needed to do was glue the styrene in place, sand and finish the neck, then bolt her back together.
I used a Japanese style pull saw to clean out the fret grooves before gluing the styrene in.

Frets removed, and slots cleaned out. Fingerboard radius gauges on the right.

The process I used to the styrene inserts was to cut strips that were slightly wider than the neck, and about 1/4″ thick. I had WAY more styrene than needed, so conservation of materials didn’t come into play.

Gluing the styrene strips into the grooves.

The whole neck filled with styrene slips. On the 19th and 21st frets, you can see where I filled voids with sawdust and superglue.

Once the glue had set, it was a matter of trimming the styrene down and fairing the fingerboard.

The styrene trimmed down to a sandable level.

To maintain the curvature of the fingerboard, I used a radiused sanding block which matches the fingerboard’s convex shape. After knocking down the rough bits and ensuring the entire length of the board was being sanded, I moved through several grits of sandpaper. Starting with 80 grit, and working my way up to 220.

I believe this was somewhere in the 150 grit range. Starting to feel pretty smooth.

Once the fingerboard was sufficiently smoothed out, I applied three or four coats of wipe-on polyurethane, letting each coat thoroughly cure before sanding with 220 grit paper, and applying another coat. After making a huge dusty mess in my office, I was finally ready to bolt the neck back on, and try it out!

All done, and looking alright.

My completed custom fretless bass.

Project: Table riser

The Problem

My good friend Nick is an avid board gamer and enjoys hosting game nights at his house. He had helped fund a Kickstarter for the Duchess gaming table. The setup he envisioned for his house was a bar-height table with stools. Essentially, he needed a way to raise his top of his table about 10 inches, and came to me for advice on how to do that.

The Planning

I thought the most stable solution would be to create a box with a lip that ran along the edges so the table couldn’t slide off. I made a quick sketch of that idea, and started brainstorming for lid ideas. I figured since the riser would be a big box, it should have large access panels for storage. I toyed with using a piano hinge to have doors that opened, though I ended up not going that route.

Table riser


I also made a miniature cardboard mock-up of the plan to show him a 3D representation of the riser.

The Project

On the advice of a friend, I used CutList Plus to help me lay out the cuts for HomeDepot to hit with their panel saw. You enter in the dimensions of the pieces you need for your project, and the application figures out the most effective way to cut it from standard size stock. Really, the riser was such a basic thing, I don’t think was necessary, however, if I had a more complex task I would likely use the software again.Rather than taking home full sheets of MDF for the riser, most lumber / big box hardware stores will have a panel saw and can cut the full 4 by 8 foot panels down. This makes transporting the stock materials much easier. I managed to fit all the sections plus scrap into the back of the Subaru.

I love having an Outback. So handy.

I try to start all my assembly projects by organizing the pieces and test fitting before i get out the nail gun or the glue.

MDF stock and tools ready to start assembly.

It’s difficult to see in the smaller pic here, but I have laid out the pattern for the lids. Straightforward geometry, mostly. I think three inches from the short side, and four or five on the long side. I used an old coffee can to get the radius on the corners. It’s not fancy, but it works.

Guide lines sketched onto the riser top.

View of the inside of the riser. All the table’s weight is going to be at the four corners. The table will rest on the MDF top, which rests on the 2 x 4 support chine. (I’m not sure if you would those chines in non-boat-building woodwork, but that’s what I know them as. Woodworkers: please feel free to correct me.)
The point I was attempting to make before derailing myself with lexical semantics, is this riser is incredibly robust. Note that there is a a couple inch gap between the top of the 2×4 and the top of the sides. This gives the lip inside which the table rests, keeping it in place.

2×4 sections nailed and glued to the sides.

Test fit of the top within the box frame. Not much to add at this stage other than I breathed a large sigh of relief when the top slid into place. I’m not used to building with a high level of precision. Most of the things I work with have a fairly large margin of error, so I was pleasantly surprised when this came together so nicely.

Test fit of all the parts. I think this might work!

Next I needed to remove the access panels. I still hadn’t exactly decided on how to affix them. I knew They would need some kind of support from inside to keep them from falling in. Even with a hinge, the panels are pretty long, which would have a lot of strain. MDF doesn’t handle torque very well. It tends to burst if used as a lever. So I would need to make some kind of lip for the inside.

Circular saw plunge cuts for the straight lines. Jigsaw for the curves.

Access panels cut out.

Because I wanted to make the nicest possible product for my friend, I went and bought a router. I know, I was basically broke at the time, but I might have been eyeing routers anyway and I figured there no time like the present to add one to my collection. I wasn’t sure how the MDF would react to the router, so here’s my first two test cuts. I was interested to see how the corners would turn out. As it happens, they turned out great.

A word of advice though when using any kind of power tool on MDF: It makes and incredible amount of dust. Make sure you’ve got a dust collection system running, or you’ll be hacking up MDF for weeks.

Testing how the MDF and router play together. As it turns out, they play quite nicely.

Sometime around this point of the process, I decided to forego hinges, and instead have the simplicity of a single finger hole in each panel. Less hardware, less alignment, more wiggle room. All good things in my book.

Finger hole for door. Routed with a 1/4 round bit for comfort.

I keep buying clamps, and I never have enough of them. It’s silly. I should start asking for them for xmas gifts. To prevent the panels from falling through, I added in small MDF strips on 2 sides of each access hole. The center two run the entire width of the top, offering stability to the lid in addition to keeping the lids in place.

Clamping the side and door supports in place. One can never have clamps.

Access panel test fit.

I didn’t have any images of the painting, but really, who wants to see that? What’s far more satisfying is seeing the table riser in action! Behold!

The finished product in all its glory.

Nick asked if I could put in some holes for running electrical up the leg so people could charge their phones while gaming, and fortunately, I measured accurately. This isn’t like me at all! Look at that fit!

Access hole RIGHT where it needed to be. Hooray for accurate measuring in the planning phase.