I’ve seen several questions on scarf joints recently. Since a quick search didn’t reveal a recent tutorial, thought I’d contribute.

Disclaimer: I’m not a woodworking or scarf joint expert, guru or genius. Just building instruments in my garage, like many of you. I also know that there is more than one way to skin a cat, so this isn’t presented as the ultimate solution. There are other ways to do this, but I’ve found a method that works for me and am sharing. We’ll be using power tools, so safety first!

This method uses a table saw and scarf joint jig. No room here to describe the jig, but there are plenty of plans on the internet. Here’s a good one:

A quick note on table saws. If you don’t have one, get one. I know, they’re messy and take up room, but it’s also the single most valuable tool in my shop. I bought mine on Craigslist for $75 and, while I’d love to upgrade, it’s built cabinets, flooring, speakers, cajons and many stringed instruments.

What angle do you cut your scarf joint? I’ve seen this question many times and there’s really no right or wrong answer. The general consensus seems to be that anything from 10-15 degrees works great. I chose 11 degrees for several reasons: research, works well with my zero frets and I like the look. Just pick an angle, it will be fine.

You’ll want a sharp, high tooth-count blade. I’m using a 60-tooth and that seems to work well. Also make sure your blade is dead square to the table. If it’s not, you’ll get a slightly tilted joint (not impossible to fix, but why make it hard?) And cut your stock to a workable length since it’s difficult to accurately scarf an 8-foot stick.

Clamp your stock squarely and securely to the jig and make a deliberate cut - not too fast, not too slow. Let the blade do the work. Tip: when the blade makes it cleanly through the stock, stop the saw and wait for it to spin down, then slide it back. Sometimes, when I pull the stock back through the running saw, it messes with the square of the cut and/or adds lots of saw marks.

Now, you have a neck and a headstock. Since 1x2 lumber is ¾” thick, you’ll need to resaw the headstock so your tuners will fit properly. I cut mine to ⅝” since that works great with the Gitty economy tuners. Also, most commercial headstocks are similar in thickness, so check your tuners and cut accordingly. With the fence set and the scarf toward the blade, run it through your saw - and be sure to use a push stick! Sharp spinny things are dangerous!

With your freshly cut neck and headstock, it’s time for some glue. What kind of glue? Any good woodworking glue is fine. Titebond, Elmers, whatever. Gorilla Glue and PL Premium will work too. Just follow the directions. If using woodworking glue, spread a decent coat evenly across the joint. You don’t want gobs on there, but a little extra won’t hurt anything. Squeezeout is your friend. It tells you there’s plenty of glue in the joint.

I use 3 “A” clamps on my scarf joints and that works for me, but whatever clamps you have should be fine. Be aware that clamping pressure will make the joint slide some. One simple solution is to sprinkle a little table salt on the glue (just a pinch). It will create some friction for clamping and dissolve in the glue. Or, you can just manhandle it into submission, which is what I do most of the time. Wipe your excess glue with a damp rag and place the joint on a hard flat surface to cure. Check back in about 10 minutes to make sure things haven’t shifted. If they have, you still have time to square them back up before the glue sets. With woodworking glue, give it at least 2 hours before you remove the clamps. Longer is better. Overnight is best.

When your scarf joint is set, it’s time for some sanding. If you got it perfect, you’ll have a flat, level neck, ready for a fretboard. Mine are never perfect. In fact, I deliberately set the joint just a tiny bit proud of the neck so I can sand the whole thing flat. To do that, I clamp an old belt sander belt to to top of my (flat) table saw and work it till I’m happy. You can check your progress with a metal ruler, looking for gaps and oversanded spots. Sand till flat and you’re ready to go.

You’ve probably noticed that I do my scarf joints in the “over” position rather than the “under” variant. All of my instruments have a fretboard which covers the joint and provides an extra layer of stability for the scarf joint. Everything here works for “under” too.

One final tip: inevitably, I end up with small gaps - either in the joint, around the joint or along the fretboard. This is usually due to minor chipping, etc. Fixing this is pretty easy. Once you’ve identified a place you’d like to repair, clamp the neck for aggressive sanding. Run a bead of superglue in the gaps, let it sit for a few seconds and then wipe the excess off with a rag. Grab a medium grit sanding block and sand the area till you see it disappear. The pressure of sanding will push the sawdust into the gaps, mixing with the superglue and creating an almost invisible repair! Larger gaps may take a couple of passes, but when the superglue is fully cured, the color will match since you’ve filled it with actual joint material. This is a great fix.

I hope this tutorial helps those of you with scarf joint questions. If I missed something, or you’ve got a better idea, please post below. Now, get scarfing!

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Comment by turtlehead on April 2, 2017 at 7:08pm

Excellent write up here Hal. I fall into the doing it by hand category, but a lot of that can be chalked up to laziness and impatience for building jigs. I'm sure my old man is rolling in his grave hearing me say that because he was the king of power tools and jigs, so I suppose I'm rebelling against my roots ;)  It's got me thinking about making an adjustable version of this jig though so thanks for the post.

Hey Paul, that's exactly how I do it - measure 3" along the length of the 3/4" board and connect a diagonal line - I like it because it's simple and quick, but I always figured that to be about a 14 degree angle when I checked it after the fact. Just to be sure, I dusted off my somewhat sketchy trigonometry skills and keep coming up with 14.036 degrees on paper. Not questioning your methods, just thought I'd throw in my 2 cents.

Comment by Paul Craig on April 1, 2017 at 4:28pm

I've always done this with a 3/4" thick wood by turning it on it's side and drawing a line across where the nut is supposed to be, measure back 3" towards the heel and draw another line across the piece, then draw a diagonal line linking the 2 already drawn from bottom of neck at the nut to the top of the other line.

I've then cut it in a miter chop saw, flip the end piece over and glue them together. result is a 7 degree scarf joint. It's always best to have the joint under the fretboard for the best strength than to have it on the headstock.

Cutting the wood this way can be difficult to get a straight cut with wood grain problems and holding the piece firmly can be a challenge. I do it this way cause I don't have a table saw. Jigs are always a good thing to use. Some day I'll get around to making one. LOL

Comment by Hal Robertson on March 29, 2017 at 10:02am

My dad went to trade school for cabinetmaking, so I was surrounded by woodworking as a kid. Just had no interest - I liked electronics and music. Now that I've passed the half-century mark, I've come to value care and craftsmanship of handmade items and I guess I'm embracing my roots.

I'm very comfortable (and safe) with power tools, but in the last year, I've learned to sharpen and use planes and chisels. Ironically, more injuries have come from the hand tools. Saw is next!

Comment by Moritz Voegeli on March 29, 2017 at 3:02am

Learning to work with handsaws and files asks for a lot of patience but it's worth the effort: a friend of mine who did a four-year apprenticeship in machine industry told me «the first year we just learnt using a file»: there are no shortcuts for craftsmanship...

Comment by ChickenboneJohn on March 29, 2017 at 2:32am

Clean cut with a cheap tenon saw for a headstock scarf. This is poplar so it is very easy to cut, although the soft timber does allow you to easily drift offline with the cut. ありがとうございます Arigatou gozaimasu...

Comment by ChickenboneJohn on March 29, 2017 at 2:27am

Hal, practice is what is needed, and go slowly. You need to keep a constant eye on what you are doing, and it is easier starting with something relatively soft and even-grained like poplar or cherry. That oak you are cutting on the table saw would be more of a challenge as it is so hard and the interlocking grain can get the saw a bit crossed-up. I use a regular tenon saw - Japanese pullsaws are very sharp, but I find their ultra thin blades can flex and result in a less than flat cut - I don't think I've practiced enough with one -  maybe I need to go to Tokyo to seek out a Sensei master of the dozuki saw.

I do tend to get a bit Zen (or Jedi) with this, but you really can learn to feel what is happening between the handsaw and the wood. That feel of what is happening under the blade of the tool comes with time and concentration on the job in hand. I'm a firm believer that good handtool skills help even when using power tools. I think a lot of power tool accidents happen when a piece of timber is run across a  blade, feeding by hand but without any sensitivity as to whether the grain is going to cause the blade to slow down, then stall or grab casatrophically. That's when the saw or planer grabs the work and either throws it at the machine operator or pulls their hand onto the blade.

Kigar..I'm definitely on the securing the neck and headstock onto the bench on its side to stop the joint squirming apart when clamping it.

Become the saw and feel the Force, Luke....

Comment by Hal Robertson on March 28, 2017 at 10:08pm

Good tip with the glue block Kigar. All you handsaw guys are making me feel inadequate :-) Guess I'll try that next! Regular handsaw? Japanese saw? Don't think I've ever cut a straight line with a handsaw. Practice, practice... and maybe use the Force.

Comment by Kigar on March 28, 2017 at 8:04pm
Nice write up. I do similar cutting but with a chop saw. If you have a thinner and wider piece you can cut it in half with the jig for two head stocks. For the gluing I like the method where you clamp down the neck, place the headstock where you want it, then clamp a block to the bench, butting up against the end of the headstock. That way the headstock can't slide away when you clamp it.
Comment by ChickenboneJohn on March 28, 2017 at 12:52pm

It's a nicely set out "how to" post, and handy for those who want to use a table saw to do the job.  Personally I've never felt the need to do scarf joints in any other way than using an ordinary handsaw, but I do understand that everyone has their own preferred way of doing it, and may feel that a power tool and jig gives them more control and accuracy.  This is my scarf joint set-up - a freehand cut with a tenon saw and one clamp onto the bench. It's somewhat less demanding on the equipment side, but does require learning the basics of controlling a handsaw, which is always a useful skill.

Comment by Ron "Oily" Sprague on March 28, 2017 at 8:36am
You can cut a scarf with a handsaw, too. Just takes a little patience and care. It's actually easier than using a power tool, if you're building one neck at a time, as opposed to two or more in bulk.

Just remember, let the saw do the work, don't force it. And you can always sand it flat. One more thing to mention: leave yourself enough room for an extra long headstock, say 6" long. You can always cut it down, but it's harder to fix, as nearly all of us have found, if you cut it too short.

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