Homemade lap steel guitars, also called Hawaiian guitars, are relatively easy to make. With simple woodworking hand-tools to shape the body, lap steel guitars can be outfitted with readily available hardware and electronic parts and don't require delicate neck-shaping or elaborate fret dressing. The simplest designs include a straight piece of wood, a magnetic pickup, tuners and a bridge to stretch and hold the strings along the body.
Lap steel guitars are traditionally electric instruments, which don't require special wood for resonance or sound projection. Choose a strong wood that is easy to cut, shape and finish, but avoid plywood or softer woods such as pine. Alder, basswood, maple, oak, walnut and mahogany are excellent choices and are used by professional guitar makers.
Lap steel guitars can be made in any string configuration, with the most common being six to eight strings. Six-string lap steels can use standard electric guitar bridges and tuning key sets, but seven- or eight-string models will require special bridges available from lap steel component suppliers. The type of tuning key will be based on personal preference, but bridges should be of the adjustable-saddle type to compensate for possible string intonation issues.
Most lap steel guitars consist of one magnetic guitar pickup placed under the strings near the bridge, with a standard guitar jack mounted on the guitar for amplifier connection. Additional pickups, pickup switches, volume and tone knobs are optional, but will give the guitar additional sonic qualities. The type of pickup used will be determined by player preference. Both double-coil humbuckers and single-coil pickups are equally as effective but will provide slightly different amplified sounds.
Although simple and flexible in design, string length and spacing should be carefully measured, with other tried-and-true tips taken onto consideration. Lap steel plans are readily available form numerous sources, and can assist in the successful completion of your lap steel guitar project.
Any type of wood finish can be used on lap steel guitars, although nitrocellulose lacquer or polyurethane are commonly used by manufacturers. The primary goal is to apply the thinnest possible finish, allowing wood to breathe and resonate, while achieving protection and good looks.
Since there are so many options available in making a lap steel, investigating the type your favourite players use will help in determining the direction of your project. Many of the world's finest lap steel players use instruments that are very small and quite basic in their body shape, hardware and electronic configuration. Lap steel guitar building lends itself to experimentation, but simpler designs are usually best to begin with, with revisions and improvements made on future projects.