Because of their simplicity and the minimal amount of woodworking required, a lap steel guitar makes an excellent beginner's musical instrument-making project. They first came to popularity in the 1920s and 30s and became best known for their prominent role in early 20th century Hawaiian music. Over time, they became popular in country, blues and rock music. Well-known players include Jerry Byrd, Sol Ho'opi'i, David Lindley (famous for his work with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt), and Jerry Douglas (known for his playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station).
The first thing you need is a sturdy piece of wood, big enough for the entire lap steel guitar. Choose a solid, dry piece of hardwood, such as maple or mahogany. Woods like pine and balsa are too soft and tend to absorb the vibration of the strings. Use a wood lathe or band saw to cut the wood to the desired length. Ideally, you will need to cut a piece of wood 34 to 42 inches long, 5 to 10 inches wide (some steel guitars are wider, and include two sets of strings that you can tune to different open chords). Carve a recess into the wood near your picking hand, big enough to hold a pickup and another recess for a volume and if you desire, a tone control. Drill a hole for a cable jack, and cut a hole between these recesses that you can run wires to each part. Carve a notch fitted to your nut up near the headstock, where the tuning pegs go. You may need to wait until you buy hardware to do this.
Unless you have a first-rate home machine shop and can craft sophisticated, polished metal parts from scratch, you will need to purchase most or all of your hardware from a music retailer or steel guitar specialty shop. You will need two sets of tuning gears, one for each side, a raised nut, which holds the strings up about a half-inch to an inch above the wood on the tuner side -- this is normally the left side of the instrument as you play it. This part is usually made of metal or bone. You will also need a saddle, which holds the strings up on the pick-hand side. You'll need a potentiometer for each volume or tone control, a cable jack, wires and a pickup. Lastly, you will need a fret chart. Note the scale indicated on the fret chart. You will need to refer to it when building your guitar.
You can choose between two basic types of pickup. First, the single-coil, which generally delivers a bright and clear sound, but also is vulnerable to interference; this can create signal noise or "buzz." You can also select a "humbucker" pick-up, which is a double-coil pickup. The two coils are set adjacent to one another and they tend to cancel out buzz, though they can also cancel out some of the brilliant high-frequencies that single-coil pickups can transmit. You may find their sound quieter, fatter and mellower, with a little less treble.
Putting It Together
If you are familiar with guitars, installing the hardware is self-explanatory. Stain the wood with whatever lacquer or finish you prefer and let it dry. Cover the interior of the guitar, where you have carved the recesses for the pickups or controls with metal or foil. This will help shield the electronics against interference. Drill holes into the "headstock" section and screw in your tuning gears. Glue your nut into the recess you carved with wood glue. It should fit snugly. Screw your potentiometers in place for your tone controls and screw your pickup or pickups into place. Screw your instrument cable jack into place as well. Use a soldering iron and solder to attach the wires according to a wiring diagram. Don't try to do this step unless you have a diagram or you are already familiar with instrument circuitry. New pickups often come with wiring schematic diagrams. The fewer pickups and knobs you have, the simpler the job. Screw your bridge into place. Place your bridge precisely at the spot indicated by the scale on your fret chart. If your fret chart calls for a 34-inch scale, you should have exactly 34 inches between the nut and bridge. Otherwise, your fret chart will be off. Some bridges are designed to hold the ball-ends of strings. If your bridge does not hold the strings' ball-ends, you will need to install a tail-piece. Glue your finger board chart into place.
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