How did Fender cut the veneer fingerboards?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by AndyPanda, Jul 29, 2016.

  1. Forgive me if this has been discussed to death already - I searched and couldn't find it. I found plenty of discussion about which is better and why it might have been done (cracks - or cost saving/less wasted wood etc.) ... but my question is simply HOW was it done?

    I mean did he cut a thin slice of flat rosewood and bend it? Or was he able to cut a block of wood to those thin curved shapes? What sort of machine would be used to cut a board to curved slices? Some sort of modified bandsaw?

    Or did he cut thick slabs and then shape them before putting them on the neck? You'd think Leo wouldn't waste all that wood. I've seen posts suggesting he did exactly that with the intent to preserve more of the sound of the maple neck (and contradicting posts saying Leo didn't make decisions based on tone, only on cost) .... and other posts suggesting he cut them from the block in that shape so he could get more fingerboards from the same block of wood ... but never a post explaining how he cut a block of wood that way.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  2. Hopkins

    Hopkins Supporting Member Commercial User

    Nov 17, 2010
    Houston Tx
    Owner/Builder @Hopkins Guitars
    Well, I can pretty much guarantee that Leo did it that way for cost savings, or for manufacturing reasons, tone was not even considered. That being said, I have no idea what the process was, I would assume they cut the rosewood in thin strips, and steam bent it to the maple radius while simultaneously gluing the board to the neck with hide glue.
  3. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    I'm pretty sure that they were cut to shape, not bent and glued. The sequence would be to start with a flat fingerboard blank of about 1/4" thickness. Run it through a shaper to cut the concave on the bottom side, with the top remaining flat. Meanwhile the maple neck blank goes through a pin router (back in those days) to cut the truss rod slot, and then a shaper to put the convex on its top surface. The truss rod hardware and filler strip are set in and the fingerboard is glued down onto the neck blank. After it's dry, the whole neck goes through another shaper to cut the convex radius on the top surface of the fingerboard.

    My understanding is that reason for this "veneered" fingerboard was to allow them to raise the truss rod up a little higher in the neck, to give it a little more power and allow for looser manufacturing tolerances. It was done to improve the design and quality of the necks, not to save money. But then they later decided it wasn't worth it and went back to the old way.
    giacomobass likes this.
  4. If he cut thick pieces of material and then carved out the bottom to fit the radius of the maple neck ... he would have gotten fewer fingerboards from the same block of wood vs. cutting thin slices and bending them or somehow cutting them to shape from the block. And this is what prompted my post. I've seen people claim he cut it like the picture in the OP because he got 50% more fingerboards from the same block of wood. But I don't even see how it is possible to cut a board that way.

    Example. If he carved them out after cutting slabs - he would only get 3 fingerboards from the block in the picture I drew in the first post that had 5 fingerboards in it.

    So my question ... is it even possible to cut fingerboards from a block of wood like the picture in the first post? (the picture with 5 fingerboards) Could a band saw have a long enough cutting area to cut a fingerboard standing on end? (looks unsafe to me)

    Or is it possible to make (does such a thing exist) a bandsaw with a curved cutting area? Something like this?
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  5. TonH


    Jan 26, 2011
    The Netherlands
    Here a closeup of the trussrod and veneer fingerboard of a Precision Special of 1982:


    You can see the trussrod is high(er) like Bruce Johnson said.

    But maybe the fingerboard was bent and glued to the neck.
    Oddly likes this.
  6. My feeling is that it is not possible to have cut the board like this:
    So I am hoping to debunk (or learn how if it is true) the posts I've seen claiming he cut them like this picture for the cost savings of getting more fingerboards from the same board.

    I've had a few vintage Fenders (ages ago) and the grain never looked to me like it was bent (though I'm not actually sure I could tell) so I always believed he carved them to shape where the structural advantage (fewer returns of defective necks) was better cost saving than the cost of the extra labor to carve the fingerboards.

    But I am hoping someone knows for sure how it was done ---- and then the "wannabe inventor" in me is extremely curious about if it's even possible to cut boards like the picture here and if so what does the saw look like that can do that?
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  7. HaMMerHeD


    May 20, 2005
    Seems to me that Bruce is probably correct, in that it was done to ease manufacturing, rather than to cut materials cost. Time and tooling are worth more than the few bucks it cost for a fingerboard slab.
  8. Hopkins

    Hopkins Supporting Member Commercial User

    Nov 17, 2010
    Houston Tx
    Owner/Builder @Hopkins Guitars
    @Bruce Johnson 's explanation about them doing it to get the truss rod higher in the neck is the most likely reason. It really wouldn't waste anymore material than cutting a 1/4" fretboard blank
  9. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier

    Yes, it's possible to make up a bandsaw that can cut curves; I've seen a few like that used for specialty rough cutting. But that would be really slow and too imprecise and rough to be used for surfaces that are to be glued. And, like Hopkins said, the basic fingerboard blank would be the same thickness as the flat installation. The only difference is that you are cutting away some of the underside of the rosewood before gluing.

    The maple neck blank has to be a little thicker, though. But that may not actually have been a cost increase. All of the rough maple boards are going to be run through a planer anyway, so that small change to the finished thickness of the blank probably didn't change their specs for ordering rough maple boards.

    Overall, this "veneer" fingerboard installation is a cost increase, not a savings. It adds two extra cutting steps, plus maybe a little extra material cost for the maple. They did it as an engineering improvement to reduce returns of necks with broken truss rods. But, after a while, they decided it wasn't worth the extra cost and went back to the flat fingerboard.
  10. thisSNsucks

    thisSNsucks I build Grosbeak Guitars and Basses Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 19, 2004
    Yonkers, NY
    Grosbeak Guitars
    I've seen a builder do the veneer board on a Strat once. Basically sanded the radius in the neck blank and then ran the fretboard blank through his table saw.

    The fretboard was run at a 45 degree angle into the blade. I think he used a 14in blade to get the convex radius right.

    More trouble than it's worth IMO. Lol but it was cool. I'll stick to slab boards on my builds.
  11. Oddly


    Jan 17, 2014
    Dublin, Ireland.
    I'd never realised this was a I want one so bad!
  12. Maple

    Maple Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2016
    San Francisco Bay Area
    I made my first bass this way. I had some scraps laying around and just started hacking up a neck through bass.

    I cut a flat piece of Macassar and just clamped it to the radiused neck stock. No steaming. It didn't crack and the glue held fine.

    Edit...I should add: I was able to do some shortcuts. Neck blank was rough sanded to the desired radius on a belt sander and was not done in a fussy way.
    The veneer was fine sanded while flat on a thickness sander.
    When the veneer was glued, the result was a nice consistent radiused and smooth neck.

    So from that experience I assumed that fender was cutting corners. I never revisited that technique.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2016
  13. LUCE


    Jan 9, 2015
    Denver, CO
    Historically, there are slabs and veneers. The original design of slab boards gave way to veneers due to differential expansion issues that caused neck problems (war page, twisting, etc). By reducing the amount of fretboard material, the differential was minimized.
    TrustRod likes this.
  14. bassexplorer


    Sep 29, 2008
    2 Reflexions come to my mind:
    1) Why did Fender use the word "Veneer" , because it is normally used for very thin sheets of wood. Is it the terminology Fender used at the time? That would be interresting to know. Because traditionally, veneer material, could be bent into a curve, and that is my point. After all, what if Fender chose to call it "veneer", a precise, technical word, not because of the thickness (the veneer fretboard is way too thick to be called veneer, they are more "thin slabs" with 4 mills) but because they actually could bend it and apply it "Like a veneer"?
    I cant possibly imagine they could bend it without cracking the upper side of the rsw, it is too thick (see pic of my 68 Precision). But I could be wrong.

    2) If the veneer fretboard was introduced in order to position the truss rod higher, when they went back to the slab fretboard, did Fender do something else to tacker with the truss rod issue they wanted to solve?

    My 68 Precision has an incredible vibe. The body is extremely light (poplar I'd say), and the neck is very thin. My understanding is that the thin neck & veneer board allow for that vibe. I've hab basses that just couldn't vibrate, the whole neck was too stiff like a brick. You can feel the vibe in your left hand and your belly. Contributing to the vibe the neck, which is flat-sawn. My opinion is that the 1/4sawn cut kills the vibe, because the rings are perpendicular to the vibration axis (think archery: they dont glue the wood layers perpendicular but paralel to the bending axis, otherwise it wouldnt bend). And in guitars the wood vibration goes back into the strings and has an impact on the sound/ vibe. That is my opinion.
    Thanks to Leo for that incredible instrument.
    Wood wood wood wood wood, wood vibration...
    veneer my precision 68 20190817_102217.jpg
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2019
  15. I could easily be proven wrong but I doubt Fender called them veneer fretboards when the instruments were new. I’m pretty sure that term came later from collectors.
    giacomobass and Beej like this.
  16. Beej


    Feb 10, 2007
    Vancouver Island
    I also would be surprised to see the word veneer in Fender literature at the time, but you never know. :) On your second question, I'm inclined to agree with Bruce, as it's so logical, and Fender was known for his practicality in his approach to business and manufacturing. It was likely a cost/benefit issue, and the number of returns/failures they had was probably not worth the overall slight increase in cost introduced by the extra steps to make the veneer fretboard. The issue in the first place would have been economic (failures/returns), the change introduced to improve it, followed by recognition the change was more costly, and return to the first path...or something like that :D :smug:

    More pics of your '68 Precision please. :woot: :drool: I'm not a Fender expert by any means, but a poplar 68 precision would be the first I've heard about. :D Wouldn't it be more likely to be southern ash? From the mouth of Fender: Ash vs. Alder: What's the Difference? Poplar is mentioned as a modern addition.

    The more I build, the more stable my opinions and personal analyses of what is going on in an instrument become. :D An instrument is pretty obviously a system of parts and pieces that come together to produce a sound. The system is comprised of components that are largely functionally interdependent - nearly everything affects nearly everything else in some degree. As a result, if you change one thing, there is more likely than not to be effects on something else, and because of this (and a whole host of factors due to human cognition), it can be difficult to predict what changes will occur. It is also difficult to pinpoint the origin of things that are more nebulous or perceptually descriptive in nature (i.e. vibration).

    There are a lot of things that can be pretty exactly measured and implemented that have an impact on tone: scale length, string thickness, distance from nut of pickups, # of winds in coil, coil shape, resistance of pots, height of bridge, etc. Because they can be measured, they can be replicated, but, even with a number of instruments built to those same specs, there can be variation in the sound.

    There are also a lot of factors/components that are less able to be exactly measured, but which are also believed to affect tone: neck wood, grain orientation, inclusion of stiffeners, type of trussrod and mounting, neck design, neck/body attachment (thru, glue or screw), body material, body shape, body weight, grain orientation of wood, chambers and location of same, body thickness, pickups mounted to PG/rings vs. screwed to body, bridge mount to body (depth, mounting plate, 2 piece vs. 1 piece) and more!

    The combination of these measurable and not-easily-measurable components in the system makes it much harder to be able to confidently state that X has Y impact on Z. Many of us builders have landed on softer language that includes the expected variation in the final product, and have moved further away from "tonewood" arguments as time has gone on. :)

    I think your description of the vibe above actually makes some logical intuitive sense on it's face, but it's hard to have confidence that this might be the case when there are so many influences and components in the system. :)
  17. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Gold Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 4, 2011
    Fillmore, CA
    Professional Luthier
    Bassexplorer mentions another good point. Another reason why Leo & Co may have done the "veneer" fingerboard was to raise up the truss rod, so that they could cut the neck thinner front to back. Making necks as thin as possible was a thing for a while. I'm not an expert on Fenders, but I believe many of the necks from that era were cut thinner. Then, after a while, they either had too many problems or decided to not make necks as thin, so they went back to the earlier process.

    Again, this is all just my opinion on the reasons, from a manufacturing/engineering viewpoint. And that was how Leo looked at everything. It was all about a good product, by the millions, for as low cost as possible. The Henry Ford thing.
    dwizum likes this.
  18. HaMMerHeD


    May 20, 2005
    It would be relatively trivial to do this sort of double radiused veneer fingerboard with CNC, but again you would have to ask "why bother?"

    If your goal is to make a thinner neck, it would I think be significantly simpler to cut the TR slot on the neck beam slightly shallower than normal, and put a complementary shallow slot on the back of the fingerboard, so that the TR fits snugly between the two. This works well if you are using mass produced one-piece truss rods like the lo-pro stewmac rods, but probably not very well if you use a truss rod system like Bruce's.