The DIY Musician: How to Build a 2×4 Lap Steel Guitar
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. (I built it so that I could learn how to play it).
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.
This is my first prototype 2×4 lap steel. I have a second one on the shop table right now. Look for a followup column on installing better pickups and adding some cool “hobo” mods.
• 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)
• Pre-wired acoustic soundhole pickup (such as the $13.49 Gold Foil pickup here)
• 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.)
Fret markers*: 1 1.29” 2 2.50” 3 3.65” 4 4.74” 5 5.76” 6 6.73” 7 7.64” 8 8.51” 9 9.32” 10 10.0” 11 10.8” 12 11.5” 13 12.1” 14 12.7” 15 13.3” 16 13.8” 17 14.3” 18 14.8” 19 15.3” 20 15.7” 21 16.1” 22 16.5” 23 16.9” 24 17.2” 25 17.5” 26 17.8” 27 18.1” 28 18.4”
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.
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. Please spread the word and share this story on Facebook! Wanna build more? Read my story, How to Make a Mailbox Dobro.
*I used the Stewart MacDonald fret calculator for these measurements. (Thanks, StewMac!) They have been rounded off to the nearest hundredth.
Shane Speal is the “King of the Cigar Box Guitar” and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal’s latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.