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Friday, December 20, 2013

From Bench to Guitar

Chengal wood in Telecaster Shape

Life is like a box of chocolate; haven’t we heard this infamous line before, right? Indeed I was given a unique opportunity to pick a piece of chocolate that I considered it the least expected one. In April this year (2013), I received a phone call from a friend. He was one whom I didn't expected to get into conversation about guitars. He requested to have a custom guitar to be made by me. While I aspire to be like Jeffrey Yong in guitar making, I must stressed it was rather unbelievable. While making a guitar isn’t easy, most regular guitar-making projects are doable. However this project was all but usual.

At the onset, I was presented with a set of woods that were once outdoor benches, of 50 years in excess. He asked me if I could build a guitar out from these chengal woods. At that point I have no idea how these chengal benches was like, especially their structural conditions. To make guitars, it is important to start with suitable materials. Imagine to entertain the thoughts of making guitars from woods that were weather beaten for 50 over years and with uncountable number of cracks. I think it would be nerve wrecking for any luthiers to take on this challenge. As I visually inspected the woods, I began to evaluate the varying dimensions, the structural conditions and surface appearances. My aims were to evaluate all conceivable information and factors before proposing the appropriate build to my friend, also my client.

I spent some time to study on it. Eventually I have decided to propose an actual copy of the famous Fender Telecaster. The chengal woods were heavily weathered and there were lots of surface cracks. Some were up 3 to 5mm deep and that pretty much ruled out an acoustic guitar build because acoustic guitar wood thickness is typically 3mm or less. Moreover bending crack wood was as good as throwing the wood into the bin directly. A golden rule for making acoustic guitar is when the wood can’t be bent, it will not make.

Telecaster Outlined
Arguable Fender’s Telecaster was the best choice because the body design was primarily flat. The flatness will help to retain the weathered surface cracked lines which was the essence in turning these chengal benches into guitar. Any bevel or slop-off features on the guitar body will take away the surface cracks. Armed with all these considerations and facts, I proposed to build a Fender Telecaster copy. The body will be made from chengal wood, hand selected the recovered stash. All electronics parts will be from Fender or Hosco and the neck will be from quilted maple. This project meant a lot to my friend and it was imperative for my proposal to work. I could understand his apprehension initially. Nevertheless, he has agreed to a Fender Telecaster copy.

Hand Selection

With my study on the design of Fender’s Telecaster also considering the well-weathered wood, I have in mind several factors to help in this process. Firstly, it was explicitly expressed to retain the well-weathered appearances of the chengal woods as much as possible. While there are many well-weathered pieces I saw from the pile, I didn’t think random picking will do it. Careful visual examinations were necessary in selecting suitable pieces. During the selection process, I kept the body shape of Telecaster in my mind throughout. With the absence of clear guidelines, applying experience-based judgment became imperative. It was not like I can make references with other similar products because this project was probably first of its kind.

After the initial excitement of the design processes, it was time to get my hands dirty. The next step was to transfer these selected woods to Jeffrey Yong’s workshop in Kuala Lumpur.

The Building Process

Chengal wood is heavy and dense. It is one of the rare woods that sinks when submerged into water. It is commonly used in outdoor settings like the decking of pontoon, floor deck of patios and the sleepers for railway. From the batch of chengal wood I have handpicked, it was time to refine the selection to a few blocks that would be shaped into a Telecaster body. Taking into the necessary factors and considerations, I have handpicked six blocks. Without delay, I carried them to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia so that I can work on them in Jeffrey’s workshop.
Mocking Up

The building processes for the body was as followings,

1. Wood drying
2. Wood joining (Gluing) to make the top and back
3. Rough cutting into Telecaster shape
4. Chamber the back
5. Join the top and back
6. Cut and sand to Telecaster shape
7. Route out neck joint, pickup cavities and control plate openings

Rengas Neck
At the onset, I have selected a maple blank fro Jeffrey’s shop for neck making. Jeffrey has suggested not using maple as it wouldn’t best match the chengal body. He suggested Rengas instead. Rengas can be found in Borneo and Indonesia region. Its heartwood is deep red with darker streaks, while the sapwood is a lighter pinkish-brown to almost white. It has fine to medium texture with typically straight or slightly irregular grain. It is a sub-species to the dalbergia family a.k.a. Rosewood. As it turned out, Rengas was an excellent choice to match the deep dark tan tone of chengal. Jeffrey has great foresight indeed.

The tricky thing about using Rengas was retrieving the Rengas blank in Jeffrey’s workshop. He has stashed his Rengas blanks on a platform that was roughly 3m in vertical height. There was no need to guess who did the climb and retrieval. It reminded me of my sports rock climbing days. We went on to cut the required portions from the blank. I undertook all the rough cut and shaping. The finishing touch was left to Jeff’s mastery work.

Tele Pickup
The neck and body was done within days. Their fittings were also tested and it passed with flying colors. It was lacquer spraying for the next few days. High gloss finish was not suitable weird because there were very limited flat surfaces on its body. We opted for a satin coat and the outcome was beyond our expectation, it was splendid.

Jeffrey went on to complete the setting up and electronics of this special guitar. Within weeks the entire guitar was completed. Jeffrey’s contributions have been invaluable in this special guitar project.


Finally this one of a kind chengal wood guitar was built. It wouldn’t be meaningful unless it has someone who will deeply appreciate it. My friend was updated of the completion status and he threw another surprise. He wanted me to present this chengal Telecaster his younger brother as his birthday present. We decided to organize a dinner gathering to make this precious moment happen. It was a cozy gathering attended by a few close friends.

Chambered Body
With the chengal guitar, I made my way to the venue. All these were kept from his younger brother and he finally stepped in, I plugged in the guitar and started playing tunes on it. That attracted their attention. So I went to play for them. His younger brother plays guitar regularly was intrigued by the unusual appearance of the chengal Telecaster guitar. There were some questions regarding the guitar and I wasn’t going to spill the beans right away. So evading certain questions and I narrated the entire building process of this special guitar with the help of photo slides projected on a flat screen. It took only a few pictures for his younger brother to connect the dots. He realized that the body of this guitar was made from that outdoor benches immediately. He was in awe and amazement. He went to ask me all kinds of questions from wood selection, building, designing, etc.
Initial Coat
The party wouldn’t be complete without his younger brother giving a go at this chengal guitar. I handed the guitar to him and it was second nature, he started playing a chord progression of a tune. And his wife simply jumped into the rhythm and started singing. It was spontaneous, it was great, it was meaningful. My work was done at last.

I must thank my friend for his vote of confidence in commissioning me to design and build this special guitar for his brother. Not forgetting Jeffrey, my mentor who has contributed greatly to the completion of this meaningful project.

More detail pictures of the completed guitar below!





-end of article-


  1. Great job Adam! I love the idea of recycling wood that might otherwise be discarded. You've made its weathered appearance a real feature, and just think, after 50 years of use and abuse, it's unlikely to develop any new cracks!

  2. I claim no credit in this amazing project. Without Jeffrey, I wouldn't have made it. In fact, the outdoor benches carry deep sentimental values to my clients.