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Making a top/lid for your Fender Rhodes - DIY

Morgen SharpComment

We just finished building our dozenth top enclosure so I figured it was time to disseminate some of the tips and tricks we've picked up along the way.

New over old. Rounded corners, screws mostly covered and routed for heavy duty butterfly fasteners.

New over old. Rounded corners, screws mostly covered and routed for heavy duty butterfly fasteners.

Warning: to do this project you will need some basic woodworking tools and general knowledge of how to use them.

For some reason, most likely either due to weight or faulty hardware, there seem to be a ton of Fender Rhodes out there missing their lids.

There are several styles of cases used throughout the years and we'll talk about a few of the differences but we are not going to go into any actual dimensions. The reason for this is because there is enough variation box to box that it's better to precisely measure your enclosure rather than rely on any figures we might give you. That said...

Step 1: Measurement

I'm omitting a common first step because it isn't totally necessary but we often disassemble the Rhodes, removing the feet and pulling the action from the base enclosure because more often than not we're doing a re-wrap. The advantage of this is you get a clean slate which is easier to measure and you can take the opportunity to repair any dings or gouges on the base.

Either way it's time to measure. The easiest way to mess up is using the rounded edges to get your measurements which can leave them short all the way around by anywhere from 1/32"-1/8". If you need a measurement from these dimensions it's often best to tack a flat piece sticking up over the edge so instead of hooking your measuring tape you can butt it up against the overhanging piece. Make sure the piece you tack on is tight against the side. Clamps will also work well.

If the corners are rounded you're measuring the bottom of the base, which is generally a good idea, but beware because often the manufacturing at the Fender factory was not that precise and the open sides may have slightly different dimensions than the bottom. Suffice to say it's best to get as many measurements as you can before you make any cuts.

Also note the angle of the various pieces. Typically around 15 degrees. Some cases level off in front of the keys giving a flat surface for the case in front of the keys while later models slant the key rail and back rail. This change makes for a less conventional key rail but an easier build. If you end up building both top and bottom this is an easier way to go.

Step 2: Materials

We typically use 3/4" project 5-ply and find that a single sheet is plenty. Project ply will have one sanded better quality side and one rougher side. Since you're most likely wrapping the case it isn't super important which side ends up facing where, we just find this plywood the most well suited that is commonly available. Wait to fill in any voids or knots until after assembly so you can address any chips or cracks from cutting and construction. 

We use the project ply for the sides, but for the long rails we use clear or fine quality 1x boards because they cut easier with fewer voids and in the case of the front rail can be shaved down well with a hand plane.

I've seen people only use glue on their joints but we glue and screw because you never know when your drummer is going to get a call on his cell phone while you're carrying your board up a flight of stairs. Drummers amiright!? Anyway, you'll need wood glue and screws #8 or #10 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches. And some wood filler for later.

And of course, don't forget the tolex and spray adhesive. Or shag carpeting, we're not here to judge.


Routed for the new butterfly latches. These don't need to be super precise so were done freehand - but be careful!

Routed for the new butterfly latches. These don't need to be super precise so were done freehand - but be careful!

As long as we're talking about materials, we may as well talk about hardware. I personally prefer to do away with the Fender stuff and install things that are really road worthy. If this board is not going to leave your house for the next decade and you want that original look - by all means go for it. Most importantly have an idea of what hardware system you want to use before you begin...or even better have your hardware in hand. Oh and don't forget corners and handles.

Step 3: The first cut is the deepest.

It's tool time. So you need

  • circular saw or jigsaw
  • table saw
  • clamps
  • router and round over bit (3/8" i think)
  • drill/driver
  • straight edge/level and square
  • countersink

That's not such a crazy list for a DIYer so hopefully most people don't need more than one or two of these smaller things. 

General rule of thumb- big cuts first so get the big top piece out of the way. I sometimes free cut it a little oversized so it's easier to guide through the final passes on the table saw. 

Plenty left over for the sides even if you mess one up. Draw everything out first. Essentially you're mirroring the dimensions of the base....so if it's 3" tall on the front board and 9" high on the back the front of your top will be 9" high and the back will be 3". You can extend these dimensions taller as long as you do it proportionately. Double check the clearance with the fiberglass cover in place over the tone bars.

Finally, once you have your sides complete, start running your long boards through your tablesaw at the proper angle cut. We usually do several passes starting on a very cautious oversized cut and slowly decreasing until we have a very close fit. Make sure you temporarily clamp the boards to accurately check the fit. OR wait to get the proper fit once the sides are installed.

NOTE: Some people prefer doing a lap joint, which Fender did for quite some time. Any jointing is possible and can make a for a wonderfully built enclosure. The limitations being your time, skill and equipment. 

Once everything is cut and you're happy with the dimension it's time to assemble.

Step 4: Assembly

We have the luxury of many good clamps and workspaces and I hope you do too because these boxes are pretty unwieldy. One way or another you need to set your pieces, preferably with glue, and then screw them in place. We highly recommend countersinking fairly deeply. The reason being that after your box is assembled if you want to round the edges you don't want to run into any screws! On that note, we usually start our countersinking slightly away from the edge and angle outward just a bit. Making sure to not miss the piece above but giving a little extra margin for the router coming after.

Start with the sides. Make sure they are square (perpendicular) to the big top piece. Sometimes we wait for the sides to be installed before we finish milling the long boards. Either way, same deal, install the long boards. We use a screw about every 6 inches or so. We drive the screws down pretty far so the heads are about 1/8-1/4 below the surface - again because the of the round over. If you used lap joints this is not recommended because you risk splitting your thinner overlap.

NOTE: We've ignored the hinged storage section for this DIY, but adding a storage section can be really useful and not very difficult.

Step 5: Finishing

The hard work is mostly done. Now it's time to sand, putty fill, sand again. During this stage we sometimes route for specialized hardware, but if your hardware mounts on the finished lid then it's time to wrap.

Wrapping your board should take some time because while it's simple it also easy to mess up. Start with the ends of the enclosure cutting 45 degree slits at the corners and then bending /wrapping the tolex around the outside corner about a 1/2 inch beyond the inside corner. This is by far the hardest part but once your corners are set the best thing to do is use a single piece cut exactly to length. Start at the inside  corner and work your way all the way around the lid. Use plenty of spray adhesive and keep a rag handy for any drips or spots.

I would normally finish with some cheery saying or motivational platitude but it's late and I'm sleepy so good luck out there. Comment or question and we'll try to get back to you.