Nothing has renewed my motivation for practicing the guitar like destroying a perfectly good guitar and turning it into a novelty guitar. Oil can guitars are seriously as fun as they are cool to look at, and even if you don’t play the guitar, it’s hard to deny that this would make a rock’n focal point in your home decor.
The process of making an oil can guitar doesn’t really take 500 steps, but I did browse about that many Youtube videos and websites after learning about these gritty instruments a few weeks ago. Not interested in making an oil can guitar, just want to hear what it sounds like? First subscribe to this site and then check out the Youtube video of my test run.
How to make an oil can guitar?
Below are the major steps you’ll need to take to build your own oil can guitar. I haven’t gone into great detail in places that can easily be figured out with a moderate level of mechanical inclination, foresight, and planning. Sorry, no tips on how to use sandpaper to make wood smooth; just the basics off the top of my head. Good luck and please ask questions in the comments below if you get stuck.
- Acquire the neck of a guitar or banjo. I harvested mine from the first acoustic guitar I ever owned, in what looked like a Nirvana instrument-smashing encore in my driveway—minus fans, music, and Courtney Love. The guitar was in really good condition, but had played Knockin on Heaven’s Door too many times in high school to have accumulated any sentimental value. No tears were shed.
- Acquire a one gallon vintage oil can. Ebay is a decent place to look for these, but you might also try an antique store or your grandpappy’s outbuildings. I scored this one for a reasonable $20.
- Drill as big and deep of a hole as you dare into the butt of the guitar neck.
- Buy a hardwood dowel that will either fit the hole you drilled, or can be necked down with a grinder or sandpaper to fit. The intent is to insert the dowel into the hole you drilled in the neck and make the piece that will internally span the length of the can to the bottom.
- Use wood glue to join the guitar neck and dowel. At this point the dowel should be excessively long to accommodate the length of the can. The dowel will get cut more precisely later.
- Think hard and then measure where you think the middle of the dowel should poke through the top of the oil can. I decided to put mine in the only place the can would accommodate without major reconstruction of the can. The spot between the handle and the spout worked great. The neck of the guitar is not centered with the can, but the asymmetry adds some nice style. Draw a circle on the top of the can in the correct spot that is the same diameter or slightly smaller than the dowel you used. Use a sharp flat-head screw driver and a hammer to punch through the can around the circle until you can pop out the metal leaving a perfectly sized hole for the dowel to go through.
- Think hard again and then measure how long the dowel will need to be if everything goes as planned and the neck seats perfectly on top of the can. Cut the dowel.
- Push the dowel through the hole you made in the top of the can and get the neck level, parallel with the can face, and aligned left and right. Once everything looks good try to guess where the dowel is touching the bottom of the can and drill a hole in the bottom of the can (there’s probably a better way to do this). If you are lucky you will see the dowel. Drill a pilot hole in the bottom of the dowel to keep it from cracking and screw in an appropriately sized lag screw with a big washer.
- Buy or make a guitar bridge and saddle for the lower string contact point. The tallness of the bridge you will have to experiment with until the strings are the right height above your fret board. I plan on playing my instrument as a slide guitar so my setup is quite high (1/4″ or more). Technically the bridge should sit so that the 12th fret of the guitar lies right in the middle of the total string length. With most necks off an acoustic guitar this will not be possible unless you have a very tall can. When I measured where the location of my bridge should be it was around two inches off the back of the can… hovering in midair. Banjo and electric necks are long enough that this is not a problem. If you do use an acoustic guitar neck and don’t want to modify it to be longer somehow, and you intend on playing with a slide, you will not necessarily need the frets to be in the right place and you can do like I did and put the bridge wherever it looks good. The frets will still work as a sort of visual reference, though in the wrong place, after a lot of practice, trial, and error—still pretty easy compared to a violin or other classical stringed instrument. On mine, I now know that the 3rd fret needs to be barred with the slide a quarter fret behind the physical fret, and the 5th fret needs to be barred a half fret behind; and so on up the neck. If that sounds like a pain, get an electric or banjo neck with more frets below the 12th.
- With your bridge in place and some string or a long ruler, figure out where your strings should attach to the bottom edge of the can. Look at a real guitar to gauge how much space should be between the strings at this attachment point. Using a tiny drill bit, just large enough for the diameter of a low E string, drill holes in the bottom of the can and the face of the can, like shown in the pics above. This makes a killer way to attach the strings and is far superior to other homemade tail pieces you will see online. The best videos I found online about making oil can guitars used a dinner fork homemade tailpiece for string attachment. While creative, I can’t imagine there is much stability, and probably causes a lot of need for frequent retuning.
- String up the guitar, but with just enough tension to keep the bridge on the face of the guitar. It will be what is called a floating bridge and is only held in place by string tension.
- With the strings tight enough to hold the bridge in place drill or grind a hole or two in the back of the guitar straight below where your bridge is going to be (see pic above), but just to the side of where the dowel runs through. Cut a dowel to the exact depth of your can plus 1mm for tension (I used a carpenter’s pencil). The hole size should be just large enough to accommodate whatever you chose, dowel or pencil. Stick the dowel through the hole until it pushes from behind on the front of the can where the bridge is sitting. Then using a screw driver push the dowel through the back and off to the side of your hole, so you no longer see the back of the pencil, but it is wedged between the front and back of the can. The purpose of this is so that when you put the final tension on the strings the bridge will be opposed by not only the can face, but also the pencil, preventing it from caving in the front of the can. It also transfers sound waves down the dowel to the back of the can for further resonance.
- Tune it to your preferred tuning, mine is DADDAD (a Ben Harper favorite), and start rock’n.
Good luck building an oil can guitar and do send pictures when it’s rock’n. Ask questions below if you get stuck and please subscribe to The Recreationalist.
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