This is one of the easiest homemade guitars I’ve ever built, and it took me only an hour to make.
This lap steel was made from an extra 2×4 I had in my shed, with just a few saw cuts to the wood. I even used a pre-wired acoustic sound hole pickup, so there was no wiring needed. Anybody can build this lap steel guitar!
The lap steel plays great, too. It’s set up with a standard 23-inch scale, just like the store bought-lap steels! The whole thing feels great on your lap and looks absurdly cool.
Here’s a quick video (below). As you can tell, I’m still learning how to play this properly.
These plans will give you a very basic, yet absolutely playable lap steel. It might look like a lot of steps, but trust me, this instrument is easy to build. You are basically just marking down a few lines, making a couple cuts to the 2×4 and installing simple hardware.
At the end of this article, I have included a few mods to this design.
• 32” section of 2×4 pine lumber. (Note: Due to harmful chemicals, do not use pressure-treated lumber!)
• Two (2) 1/2” diameter allthread rods, 3.5” long (Allthread rods are like bolts without a head. You can find these at hardware stores. I found a box of them at a flea market.)
• One pack of guitar tuners, three-to-a-side (such as this $8.29 pack of tuners)
• C B Gitty Gold Foil pre-wired pickup
• One pack of medium-gauge electric guitar strings.
• Electric drill + two drill bits: 3/32” and 5/16”
• Table saw or circular saw
• Small screwdriver.
01. Cut a standard pine 2×4 into a 32” length.
02. Cut out the headstock: Turn the 2×4 on its side and mark a vertical line 4” from the left end. Mark a horizontal line 5/8” from the top (as pictured). Cut away the bottom portion in the headstock area (shaded are in the picture). I used a dado blade on my table saw. You can also do the same thing by running the saw in multiple passes over the shaded area and then using a chisel to remove any extra wood chips. (Still unsure? Here’s a link to a quick tutorial.)
03. Optional: I smoothed out the underside of the headstock on my belt sander. It also provided a little heel curve.
04. Drill tuner holes: Mark your tuner holes on the underside of the headstock. I went in about 5/8” in on each side and spaced the tuners roughly an inch apart. Use a 5/8” drill bit to drill the tuner holes.
05. Turn the 2×4 back over and the following marks on the board, starting from the butt end and going up toward the headstock:
a) 1.5” (this will be our through-body string feed)
b) 3” (bridge location)
c) 4.5” (pickup cavity)
d) 6” (pickup cavity)
e) 26” (nut location)
06. Cut out the pickup cavity: Notch out the wood between the 4 ½” and 6” line. Go about ¾” deep. Use the same dado technique as above with the headstock.
07. Drill the string feed holes. Use a 3/32 drill bit to drill six holes for the strings to feed through the body. Quite honestly, I eyeballed these holes. The rough measurements from left to right are: 3/4”, 1 1/8”, 1 ½”, 2”, 2 ½”, 2 ¾”
08. Mark your fret guides: Measure out the frets by starting at the 26” nut location and making pencil marks for each fret location. Then use a contractor’s square to draw the fret lines. (I used a Sharpie for some quick and dirty fret lines. You also can paint or woodburn them if you want.)
09. Optional: Carve grooves for bridge and nut. Use a wood rasp to notch grooves at the 3” mark and the 26” mark. These grooves will keep the allthread bolts from moving. (You can see these grooves in the picture at Step 13.)
10. Install the tuners and bushings at the headstock. For tips, see this video.
11. Install the pickup. Depending on the pickup you choose, installing could be one of many different ways. As you can see, I just bent the cheap mounting tabs down on my pickup and shoved a couple screws into them to mount to the guitar. My pickup cavity was too deep, so I put a little bit of cardboard to raise it up. Ideally, you want the pickup to rest approx. ¼” away from the strings.
Sidebar: Check out these new instructions for modding a Gold Foil Pickup into a vintage looking top mount pickup. It’ll give you a better look than just bending down the mounding tabs…
12. String up the lap steel, but leave the strings slackened. If the strings start to pull through the soft pine wood, place a small nail through the ball loop of the string to keep it anchored.
13. Carefully wedge the allthread bolts into the 3” and 26” marks. These will act as your nut and bridge.
14. Space the strings evenly over the pickup, using the threads on the nut and bridge bolts as your string slots.
15. Tune the guitar. Try an open D chord to start (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high).
16. Optional: If the strings keep pulling out of the threads on the nut, use simple roundhead wood screws to act as string trees. Simply slacken the offending string, position the screw beside the string (so the screw head holds the string down) and insert it just deep enough to provide tension on the string.
17. Crank it up! Use your choice of slide or just grab a beer bottle and go. In the video qt the top of this story, I’m using a deep well socket!
NOTES: If you can’t find allthread rods to serve as bridge and nut, try other bolts, pipe pieces with notches cut into them or sections of ham bones.
ADDITIONAL FEATURE: EXTRA MODS TO THE 2X4 LAP STEEL:
Humbucker Pickup: Hardwired to Backward Strat Jack
The original lap steel had a simple sound hole pickup that was easy to install, but it gave me a bit of buzzing sound in concert due to lack of grounding. For this second guitar, I opted for a cheap and gnarly $20 dual-rail humbucker from C. B. Gitty and hardwired it to the guitar jack.
In true Eddie Van Halen fashion, I screwed the pickup directly to the wood. Since I’m technically stupid when it comes to wiring, and because this pickup had so many wires, I went to Seymour Duncan’s wiring guide page and got the PDF diagram for a humbucker pickup and one volume knob. I didn’t have a volume pot; I just disregarded that part and sent the hot and ground wires straight to the jack.
I used a Strat-style jackplate and turned it backwards for ease of mounting. It sits next to the pickup cavity. I had to remove a little bit of wood underneath to make room for the jack.
I also added a ground wire and placed it in the groove where the bridge bolt sits. It was a simple solution and works just fine. A couple of staples from a staple gun keep everything in place.
Woodburned Fret Markers and Tack Fret Dots
Instead of just drawing the fret markers on with a Sharpie like I did with the first lap steel, I used a common wood-burning pen and burned the fret lines into the wood. I had some decorative furniture tacks in my shop, so I used them as my fret dots. When the tacks ran out, I continued with some industrial screws. Finishing it off was some smashed beer caps on the 3, 5, 7, 9 and 12 frets. Because…why not?
Old “Church Key” Bottle Opener String Retainer
I improved upon the string tree screw idea from the first lap steel by using an old Schmidt’s beer bottle opener to hold the strings down at the headstock. I just drilled two holes in it and used two long screws to keep it in place. I left about ¼ inch between the bottle opener and the wood to give the strings room to run underneath. It works great!
String Ferrules In the Back
I was originally going to drill small holes for the strings to run through the body at the butt end of the instrument, but I discovered a bunch of Gitty string ferrules in my cabinet. These were simple to use. I drilled the original string holes with a 3/32-inch bit and then used a 5/16-inch bit to drill about 1/3 inch in from the back. The ferrules are lightly tapped in with a hammer. Now I won’t have to worry about the ball end of the guitar strings getting embedded in the wood from tension.
Beer Caps and Brass Corners
What better decoration for a hobo instrument than a bunch of old beer caps! I use beer caps in a lot of my art and always keep a box in the woodshop. I collect them from bars where I play and have been known to buy them in bulk on eBay, too. I also added some brass corners to add some class. Topping it all off is an emblem from a York air conditioner, because I’m proud to live and play in York, Pennsylvania. (We’ve got one of the most vibrant music and art scenes in this little town.)
If you build your own 2×4 lap steel, email me pictures at email@example.com. I might use them in an upcoming column.