At RockRabbit Guitars, we love guitars that just plain feel good to play. And many of our favorites have been guitars sporting a lightweight Telecaster body. There is just something special about the simplicity of a Tele that makes one smile, but with the ever decreasing supply of quality tonewoods available in the marketplace we’ve been asking ourselves how to get creative and build lightweight Telecaster bodies from lumber that would normally make for a guitar that’s too heavy for comfort. The obvious way to put this Swamp Ash Tele on a diet would be to route out sections of material in the wings and then cap it with a top, like a Les Paul. But I’m also of the mind that simply hogging out some material from a solid body doesn’t make it a proper semi-hollow body. Let me also state that hollow body and proper semi-hollow body guitars are super cool. When I got old enough to really start getting into my music, one of my favorites was George Thorogood. If a genie could grant me a wish to play like only one of my idols, then I’d most likely pick that growly, bluesy sound George gets from his Gibson and P90s. But, here we’re interested in seeing how much weight we can shave and still keep this lightweight Telecaster body solid.
We have the hypothesis to mortise out a section in the middle of the Swamp Ash and replace it with a tendon of lightweight tone wood, which will not only reduce the weight, but could also strengthen the joint between the two halves of the guitar body. Researching our tendon options, we of course need something very light, preferably with a good strength to weight ratio, and a wood that is acceptably used in other types of musical instruments would be a big plus. We considered balsa (not a tone wood), spruce (maybe not light enough), and some types of cedar, but we decided to try something new- Paulownia.
Paulownia (also known as the Empress Tree) is similar to Balsa in weight but about twice as strong. It is used in Japan (known as Kiri) to make stringed instruments called koto.
We measured and weighed the pair of Swamp Ash boards that we’ll be using to find their density, using pounds per board foot (dried wood at shop temp). These two come out to 2.70 lb/bf. Measuring and weighing our Paulownia, it is .832 lb/bf. Next, we marked off a Tele shape and the tendon rectangle, keeping plenty of Ash around the edges and around the neck pocket.
This body is going to be lightened rather conservatively, with a tendon size about 1 x 7 x 10-3/4” (.523bf). Given a standard Tele body volume of about 1.84bf:
1.84bf x 2.70 lb/bf = 4.97 lb solid Ash
.523bf x .832lb/bf = .435 lb Paulownia
1.32bf x 2.70lb/bf = 3.56 lb Ash
3.56 + .435 = 4.00 lb guitar body
= .97lb weight savings
OK, a one pound weight savings looks promising enough to move into the woodshop and to figure out how we’ll actually make this lightweight Telecaster body a reality.
With the centerline and edges marked, we’ll start by just removing a bunch of the excess material with the hollow chisel mortiser and also using it to square up the corners of the mortise.
Next, we need to cut a clean bottom and straight sides. Our heaviest plunge router with a ½”x3” bit is the best tool for the job, but we had to fashion up this jig that allows us to securely clamp the Swamp Ash and to give us a level platform with straight guide rails.
The router leaves us a smooth mortise,
But we still have to sharpen a chisel and clean out the corners by hand. And then carefully sand down a square piece of hardwood until the outside dimensions, with sandpaper, match your mortise size and then sand down all the tight spots. This step takes time and patience, but it must be done to get a proper fit without any gaps.
Now that we have a mortise that is clean and measures evenly, it’s time to sand the Paulownia down to a perfect fit. Again, no secret to just working the machine slowly until it’s just barely too snug and then switching to a hand sanding block with 180 grit and gently working it down. It should be tight enough not to have ANY wiggle, but you should be able to dry fit the pieces by hand. By that, I mean to clamp the bottom piece of Swamp Ash and work them together apart without the use of tools to press them.
These pieces took three trys of fitting, dissembling, sanding and re-fitting until we were happy. There is a very slight gap in the middle of just a few thousands of an inch, which will be clamped tight when it’s glued up.
Not our usual method of clamping up a lightweight Telecaster body, but the tendon gave it so much strength that we really just had to make sure that the Swamp Ash joint was tight along its length and that we had the two extra Jorgensen clamps in the middle.
And after letting it dry overnight, here it is off the planer. Notice that before planing we marked the edges where the mortise is located, so we can center the lightweight Telecaster body over the Paulownia tendon. At this stage of constuction you can feel the difference as the tendon side is noticeably lighter than the other side.
Thoughts on our lightweight Telecaster body idea
While we were very happy the results, the amount of time it takes to make a perfect mortise and tendon is substantial. If someone wanted purely a super lightweight Telecaster body, it would be more cost effective to pay the extra money for a hand-picked lightweight Swamp Ash guitar blank and then live with the natural weight that you end up with. Perhaps if someone was super weight conscious and had to have just the lightest Tele body (and willing to pay for the shop time), then I’d say maybe. But, the customer would have to keep in mind that starting with a lighter piece of Swamp Ash would result in less of a weight savings. You’d be subtracting less total weight of Swamp Ash. Imagine if you’re Ash was only 2.0lb/bf to start with, then running the same numbers as above would make for a solid Ash guitar of 3.68lb vs a Paulownia tendon guitar of 3.08lb. Only a .6lb savings.
I’m thinking that this might be most useful in looking for excellent alternatives in exotic species that might otherwise be a little too heavy for a Tele. Use this technique as a way to take what would normally be a 8-1/2lb guitar and turn it into a 7lb guitar while keeping the grain and figure untouched. Many cool guitar blanks are two pieced bookmatched sets anyways, so some players might like this look better than making the guitar body out of a lighter, chambered wood base with a heavier, figured top?
We don’t have immediate plans for this blank that we made, so perhaps we’ll come up with an idea for this and see how the finished guitar turns out. I think that we’ll also have to keep our eyes open for just the right two-piece guitar blank to try to make a lightweight Telecaster body that’s exotic with a wow factor. Stay tuned!