Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bass Gets New Fingerboard

I've been working on getting the new fingerboard on a bass for the past several weeks. It's a very BIG job, and also very messy. Every time I work on basses, I remember why I don't like working on basses! Everything takes longer and the messes are much bigger...and my arms get tired. Yes, I suppose I am whining.

When replacing a fingerboard on any instrument in the violin family, you also have to replace the nut and the bridge. I didn't take any pictures of the old fingerboard before I removed it, and unfortunately I also didn't take any pictures of me actually putting on or even clamping the new fingerboard. I CAN tell you that it was quite a job.

The first thing I did after removing the old fingerboard was to plane the neck surface down smoothly so that there wasn't any old glue on there and so that the surface was straight. Then I took the new fingerboard and ran the back side of it through a planer several times to get it the right thickness, and to get it smooth and straight. Then I held the fingerboard on the bass neck and lined it up where it would be glued. I took a pencil and marked the excess on the sides of the bass. There was about a 1/8" overhang on both sides, so I just left that. If it was any bigger of a gap than 1/8", I probably would have planed the sides down to save time later on.

When it came time to glue the new fingerboard on, I actually used the same clamps for the bass that I use for fiddles. I used a few more, and also supplemented with three additional heavy duty clamps. I put the bass fingerboard in my car in the sun for about 10 minutes before putting the glue on it. Since hide glue is used in the repair, and it starts to congeal pretty quickly, it is much better to heat up the parts that are going to be glued so that the glue doesn't start to gel before you get everything clamped. It also helps to have an extra hand to help with the clamping.

The glue has to set for at least 8 hours before any more work is done. I used a rough, flat file to take the edges of the fingerboard down even with the bass neck. I did one side on one night, and then I waited to do the other side on another night. This was solely for the purpose of preserving my back and arms. That's a lot of filing!

Once the sides were flush with the neck, I started the process of planing the top of the fingerboard. There are several different curvatures that bass players like. Some prefer a completely smooth, arched fingerboard; and others prefer a sort of "line" down the fingerboard on the bass end. This fingerboard was going to get the line. I marked with a pencil at the top and bottom of the fingerboard where the line was going to be, then I used a large straight edge to connect the two marks. when I started planing the fingerboard, this line was a guide for me to plane to. Basically, I was taking some of the curve out of the fingerboard and also thinning it somewhat.

When planing ebony, it is so hard that the wood tends to come off in chunks instead of in small, even strips. One direction is better than the other. You can make grooves in your plane blade to help this. I plane in the "chunky" direction to quickly get the contour I want. Then I plane in the opposite direction to smooth everything out.

After I am satisfied with the contour, I use a large wood block and some 150 grit sandpaper to smooth everything out even more. When the scratches and plane marks are gone, I use 0000 extra fine steel wool dipped in olive oil to make the fingerboard extra smooth and shiny. (It also lowers cholesterol and makes the fingerboard live longer...)

I will write about the nut and bridge in separate entries so this one won't be any longer!

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