How do I make a prop 1965 JB Hutto Montgomery Airline guitar?
September 17, 2008 10:55 AM   Subscribe

How do I make a prop electric guitar?

To complete my Halloween costume this year, I'd like to make a prop guitar -- specifically this one. (No bonus points for guessing the costume.) I'm not looking to make a 100% accurate replica, just something that's evocative, but it'd be nice to have something that really looks like a guitar. My basic plan is to turn that image into a full-scale stencil, use it to carve the guitar out of styrofoam, paint the styrofoam to match, and maybe attach (glue?) on pieces for the knobs, bridge, pickups, pegs, etc...

However, I have a few lacunae in my plan:
  1. What kind of styrofoam? Hopefully, there's something suitable at the hardware store. I hoping to not have to spend too much on the raw materials.
  2. Is styrofoam even going to be strong enough? I'm not planning putting a lot of strain on it, but it'd be a bummer if the neck snapped off.
  3. What kind of paint? How can I get that glossy, lacquered look on styrofoam? I was hoping that spray paint would do since it's easy, but I'm not sure it'd look right.
I'd also be glad to hear if I'm completely barking up the wrong tree and that there's a much better way of going about this.
posted by mhum to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
Why not just get a real one? I bet you could get a nasty used electric guitar for about the price of paint, clear coat, brushes, etc.
posted by ian1977 at 11:06 AM on September 17, 2008

- err, make that a real that you paint/modify to look like the model you mention
posted by ian1977 at 11:07 AM on September 17, 2008

I think styrofoam by itself would be too weak and would likely snap in half before the night is over. I'm having trouble thinking of anything else that would be similarly lightweight and easy to work with but stronger. Balsa wood, maybe? You'd have to glue up a bunch of different blocks to get the right size, and it would take a while.

You might be able to make the styrofoam work if you reinforce it. Cut a big groove down the back side, from head to base, and glue in a 1" square dowel.
posted by echo target at 11:23 AM on September 17, 2008

Oh yeah, and any sort of gloss paint will do the trick. You'll need at least a couple of coats, and if you want a mirror-smooth look you'll want to sand in between coats with some very fine sandpaper.
posted by echo target at 11:24 AM on September 17, 2008

Why not just get a real one?

The short answer is that I don't have access to the necessary woodworking tools nor the woodworking skills to modify a solid body guitar.
posted by mhum at 11:34 AM on September 17, 2008

I think styrofoam by itself would be too weak... You might be able to make the styrofoam work if you reinforce it

That's a good idea. I was thinking of something along those lines, too, except I was thinking of an external plate (made of bookboard? balsa?). An internal dowel would be more esthetically pleasing.
posted by mhum at 11:39 AM on September 17, 2008

Will you really be at costume party with music nerds SO BIG that they'll care whether the person you're dressing up as matches the exact guitar model??! Cause that's one nerdy party.

In my opinion that's a bit of overkill for the situation (or maybe just a party I don't want to go to... for fear that my doc martins would derided for being 10-eye when we all know that [insert obscure 70s proto-punk band name here]'s front man only wore 8-eye boots). Just get a cheapo red electric guitar from craigslist and be done with it. That's so much less work than cutting out all that styrofoam and it would look better to. I guess a real electric could get kinda heavy if you're lugging it around all night, but seriously, any red guitar will be indistinguishable after a few beers anyway.
posted by zpousman at 11:41 AM on September 17, 2008

You can get fairly dense styrofoam in sheets at the harware store. It cuts with a hot wire, which there are plenty of directions for online. It can also be carved, sanded and painted. I would use balsa for the neck (actually I'd use pallet wood, but I have access to tools, since you don't...balsa).

Styrofoam will melt with the application of spraypaint. Anything else should work though, just remember, many light coats. Once it's sufficiently coated, I'd geive it a spray clear coat (again, a couple of light coats) and then I'd use regular paste wax on it to make it uber-glossy.

I used to make props for theater in HS/College. This is the kind of technique we used all the time.

On preview zpousman expresses my general sentiment though.
posted by piedmont at 11:43 AM on September 17, 2008

I think the OP needs that guitar specifically. If he's being Jack White, you can't just go out with a $75 used 3/4 strat. It's not particularly nerdy.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:53 AM on September 17, 2008

You want true Styrofoam (extruded polystyrene), not expanded polystyrene (the white stuff cheap coolers are made of). Alternately, you could layer foamboard (thinner sheets backed with heavy paper). This link gives you an idea of the differences. Real extruded polystyrene will hold up a lot better, but you might still want to use a thin dowel to brace the neck. In the size you need, you can get insulating sheets at the home centers, or check a good art supply store.
posted by pupdog at 12:34 PM on September 17, 2008

Will you really be at costume party with music nerds SO BIG that they'll care whether the person you're dressing up as matches the exact guitar model??!

Honestly, no. This is more for my own edification. I started out with the idea of just using a reddish electric guitar I have lying around. Then, I thought "This is going to be pretty heavy to lug around and anyways doesn't Jack White have some kind of special guitar?". Then, I thought about just spray-painting a piece of cardboard before thinking "That's going to look pretty weak.". And now I'm here. I'm partly going for a way-more-authentic-than-necessary accessory because I'm probably not going to be able to match up physically (e.g.: body type, hair, ethnicity, etc...) I'll need something extra to sell the costume.
posted by mhum at 12:34 PM on September 17, 2008

You could make a plywood silhouette and then cover that with your foam.
posted by lee at 12:35 PM on September 17, 2008

Thanks for all the tips. I'll be doing some small scale tests before I go full-bore on this project.
posted by mhum at 1:33 PM on September 17, 2008

How about starting with a real electric guitar (a cheap, broken one from a pawn shop or something) and THEN mount pieces of styrofoam (or your preferred material) to the corners to fill out the angular shape. You could probably just duct tape the styrofoam on and then paint the whole thing. This way you have the sturdiness of a real guitar and the shape you want.

Electric guitars vary greatly in weight, so I'm sure you can find a cheap, light one that won't be so bad to lug around. Pawn shops, antique shops, thrift stores, classfied ads, craigslists, etc. -- great places to find super cheap old guitars. You can probably find a non-working one for $15 or less, or even for free -- check with your guitarist friends.
posted by Alabaster at 8:34 PM on September 17, 2008

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