In my quest to build instruments I scooped up a guitar kit from Grizzly Tools during a closeout sale. This kit was normally over $400 but was on sale at half price so I bought it. The kit is a 22 fret PRS style guitar with a rather decent quilted maple top. Here are a few snaps from the build.
I used all the kit parts except the plastic nut which I replaced with bone. As you can see, I also shielded the cavities with copper tape. The kit did have a problem which at least one other builder confirmed (on the web); there was no hole between the control cavity and the bridge so I had to make one to run a grounding wire. This important wire grounds the bridge which in turn grounds the strings. Otherwise it is a reasonable kit with fair hardware.
I have tried to focus on completion of this, my first custom build. I definitely learned a lot along the way. Every thing was attempted for the first time and I have to say a few things did go wrong but overwhelmingly many more things went surprisingly well.
The Problem with Pickups
From the start I struggled with pickups. I was piecing the build parts from various vendors/manufacturers so I had no experience to build upon. I had selected a Wilkinson bridge with 3 brass saddles that I purchased for peanuts and sourced my pickups from Bill Lawrence in California. I found out about them from the Telecaster Discussion Page Reissue (TDPRI) forum where it some claimed these were the best pickups for the money. Perfect, just what I was looking for! The only problem was that it did take almost 2 months to receive my set. I was OK with the waiting but I did get nervous when I received zero communication on the status of my order. Well the great news was they arrived without incident after 6 weeks.
Fitting the Bridge PUP
A problem arose when I checked the bridge pickup screw locations against my bridge they weren’t going to fit. I partially solved this problem by enlarging the holes on the bridge enough so that I could pass the screws through to the pickup but when I did this the screw heads passed right through the bridge. I set this problem aside until last weekend when I dug through my junk drawer and found some black nylon nut caps which were used to cover bolt heads on some patio furniture. I cut off the cap ends and drilled a hole in the middle to fashion black nylon “washers”. First problem solved!
A problem I filed away was to make sure the pickup plate and the bridge were both properly grounded. The pickup base plate has it’s own ground wire (blue wire in this case) but the nylon washers prevented the screws from making contact. I solved this problem by extending the copper shielding tape from the cavity to make sure it contacted the bridge (not shown below however).
Fitting the Neck PUP
I mentioned in a previous post that I was planning to make my own pickguard in the style of Boris Bubbanov from the TDPRI forum page and I hope Boris is OK with this. It appeared to me that with Boris’ pattern, he started with a conventional Tele pickguard and cut his design from it. I began by printing a photo of one of Boris’ guards out to scale. It took be two tries to get it close enough. I then used the paper pattern to rough cut the guard out on the band saw then finished shaping on the oscillating sander. The result wasn’t perfect but it was serviceable.
Next I had to figure out how I was going to form the punch-out for the neck PUP which was not yet mounted. In retrospect I should have strung up the high and low E strings before mounting the bridge and neck pickups. For this first attempt, I tried to judge where a traditional Tele neck pickup cutout should be on a traditional pickguard versus my guard. I marked it, drilled a hole and fed my fret saw blade through it and sawed away much of the waste. I finished cutting to the line using a Dremel armed with a tiny sanding drum, finessing the cut until the pickup just pushed through. Now this a situation where not having precise templates causes many issues. How can I now locate where to drill for the PUP mounting/height adjustment screws when they are underneath the pickguard. So the PUP really needed to be mounted first then located the cutout for the PUP and only then locate the holes to that are to hold the guard in place. I had successfully done everything backwards. The order I would now suggest would be:
- String up the two outer strings to make sure the neck is straight and inline with the anticipated bridge location
- Using the strings align the pole pieces underneath the strings to aid with locating the mount PUP mount locations
- Leave the pickguard oversized and make the route for the neck PUP.
- Mark the guard profile based on the actual neck and control plate locations.
I ended up having to make a second guard because my PUP cutout put the PUP in the wrong location. Notice how the strings are not lined up with the pole pieces. Rats….
Wiring the Controls
So once I felt confident I was going to be able to mount the PUPs, I focused on wiring the control plate. I felt confident that I could make it work but again, I complicated things by going with a 4-way switch option instead of the traditional 3-way. YouTube to the rescue. I found an absolutely perfect tutorial by Northwest Guitars UK which I followed step-by-step with success.
While wiring the pickups and output jack into the control plate I was careful to make sure that the shielding in the control cavity was all grounded together. To this end I ran a wire between the neck and bridge cavities and soldered it to the foil. Overkill perhaps but I felt that everything from the bridge plate, control plate and all cavities should be grounded together. This meant running a a small strip of copper tape from the bridge cavity to underneath the bridge as previously mentioned. Testing for continuity was easy with my multi-meter.
Call in Done
I was excited to see if my guitar would play and I fully expected there to be some bug in the wiring. Imagine my surprise when the everything sounded absolutely stunning! Both pickups worked all 4 switch positions yielded the correct PUP settings. I was amazed to say the least. I am excited to be nearing completion of my first scratch build. I have a few chores yet to do including a fret job, setup and moving the neck PUP but I am now close enough to call it done. She’s not perfect by any stretch yet the experience I have gained during this process is invaluable. I’ve already begun plans for my next several builds and it feels great to be finally be building after 3 years of preparation.
I think I might have turned another corner on my woodworker journey. There have been more than a couple skeletons in my closet and I like many other beginning woodworkers tend to dread finish prep and finishing stages of their project. I had worked a bit more on my neck and noticed that I had some pretty big scratches to address so I procrastinated. Sunday I decided it was time enough and went to work.
I have made great use of my heavy Record metal vise by adding these lovely magnetic rubber chucks. I found that it holds my neck securely without any damage whatsoever. They look like this although mine are orange not green.
Applying three basic concepts I was able work through the neck prep in a reasonable amount of time. These were 1) have a range of grits of high quality sand paper 2) start at the highest grit which is appropriate but not too high 3) use low angle lighting (raking light) to see scratches. Starting with too fine a grit will take forever to remove large scratches so don’t “mess” up a nice finish by starting too low but also don’t be afraid to step down if the grit isn’t effective. Even after I had moved to a finer grit I would pull out the coarser one to work a small area if it was needed. Being able to see the surface with the raking light and having high quality papers made this work go surprisingly smoothly.
It was on to body preparation. The body was mostly sanded but it did (unfortunately) have a fair amount of road rash. For the dings I pulled out my clothes iron and a wet rag. One of the punctures disappeared after this trick. Another one was much better and much harder to find. A third ding on the back still needed some work.
There were areas on the edge of the body that looked fine but I could feel imperfections with my finger tip so I put a fresh edge on a card scraper and went to work. A trick I remembered almost by accident is to wet edge grain before paring and this works especially well when using the scraper.
I have given great thought to how to finish this black limba body and basically I wanted to do as little as possible and let the natural figure shine. Limba is quite porous however so I did want to fill but without adding color. I was hoping for a clear filler and I was not disappointed with Aqua Clear. I learned about it from a Robbie O’Brien Luthier Tips du Jour video and decided to give it a try.
Easy to apply, dries quickly and results in a stunning surface. I love the product thus far! I am not an expert but I have used Timbermate and this was a lot easier and less messy to apply.
The neck will be getting multiple coats of TruOil over the next week or so and I’ll be spraying General Finishes “High Performance Top Coat” water-borne finish on the body.
What do you think, will I ever finish this first guitar?
I think I have mentioned this before but I’d like to reinforce the fact that it well worth it to purchase CNC/laser cut templates, especially if you are new building. It really can save a lot of time and potentially make your work much neater. I chose to make my own using paper patterns, existing parts and by eye. I was partially successful learning along the way. It is difficult to explain just how challenging it is to not only use tools and jigs for the first time but also knowing that it has to be “just so” or it won’t play properly. As I figure out work holding, jigs and templates I fully expect the precision of my work to improve. Having said all that, “If you don’t go, you’ll never know!”
Where to start you ask?
It seemed appropriate to me to start with the neck as I couldn’t locate the bridge without first making sure of the scale length. In order to make a neck pocket routing template I relied on two resources 1) Online Electric Guitar Building – Class offered by O’Brien Guitars and 2) Project Electric Guitar – How To Carve a Neck Pocket. Having previously watched both of these I blindly began working in my shop only to realize that I had absolutely no idea what I was really doing. The first neck pocket routing session was a complete bust. Regrouping, I decided to watch the videos again and this time I really paid attention. Now I was getting somewhere and once I got a handle on using some straight pieces to form the pocket template I was ready to route.
I had previously made a longer Plexiglas base for my Bosch Colt trim router which I really like using for the guitar. The downside is that I don’t have the plunge base which has made it iffy getting precise depths of cut. For this maneuver I was super nervous and checked all my settings several times before starting.
I didn’t put any tape on the inside of the template to snug the fit but it probably isn’t a bad idea to do so in the future. When I tested the purchased (Might Might) neck it fit but a little loose in the pocket. My neck however was too big which was exactly what I wanted. I called the route good and fit my neck to the pocket by systematically taking about 20 strokes off each side of the neck base and testing. Process was repeated until the neck was just beginning to fit then I quit before making the fit sloppy! I trimmed off the outer portion of the (cut out) side and rounded it where it began to join the body. This is my first build and I worry about everything but after placing a straight edge down the neck it looks like the neck angle will be good as is without further tweaking.
Pickup and Control Cavity
So this is where things really got crazy. I had already swallowed the pill and committed to making my own templates so I crafted one out of MDF using printed material and actual parts to test fit. It would have been a lot better to just buy an accurate set, just saying.
The actual location of the neck pickup and the control cavity were less critical but the bridge (and thus the bridge pickup) had to be exactly right. That is why I found it critical to get the neck installed first before committing the bridge route.
While routing for the neck pickup I made blunder and hacked out areas that I didn’t mean to route. This error was once again related to accurately controlling the depth of my cut. After making a first pass with the template on, I removed the template and was going to use the lip of the first pass as my guide. This was solid however, I first needed to adjust the depth of my cut because I was lowering the router by 1/2″ (the thickness of the MDF). So far, so good right? Well I ended up raising the bit so much that my bearing was now above the router base and now out of the picture. I was routing unguided and off I went out of my pickup and into the middle of the body. You can see the affected area in this photo although I “cleaned” it up. I suppose I now have a “Smuggler’s Tele”.
For the control cavity I first hogged out most of the waste at the drill press using a Forstner bit. The dilemma here was not drilling through the back of the body. The plans and my existing Tele all indicated that I should cut to depth that was dangerously close to the backside of my instrument. I had little choice but to keep going until certain that my 4-way pickup switch would fit. It’s all the little things that make this whole process a complicated puzzle.
With the cavities routed it was now time to drill the two holes (didn’t need the third one now that I mangled that area). For the first hole between the control cavity and the neck, I pulled out my 1/4″ twist drill bit, angled the drill and drilled through. Easy, no problems at all. For the second between the bridge and the control cavity I had problems. The angle was much steeper and I drilled all the way to the end of my bit without getting through. Humm, I need a longer bit. I could have used my 3/8″ long auger bit but I wanted to stick with 1/4″ so I pulled out a spade bit and went at it. No problems, it was plenty long enough to drill right through the back of my body, missing the control cavity all together. Bollocks! Perhaps it was time to put down the tools for the evening. Lessons learned, you need a very long 1/2″ drill bit and you need to protect the body from contact with the drill and bit.
So my first inlay is actually a patch on my first build. Who know? I started off on the right track but got off a little on the grain match. The match was quite good when I started but by the time I fit the piece I was off a bit. It will for always remind me of the great distance I have come and how far I have yet to go.
That went pretty well so I went ahead and drilled the 3/4″ hole to connect the jack with the control cavity. Pucker-factor = High!
The Tummy and Belly Cuts
On a Tele, sacrilege! Don’t like it, go make your own guitar I say. Personally I wanted the utility of these cuts and I also like the looks of them. Really they are hard to even tell they are there and it makes the guitar feel so much more inviting.
For these I began on the spindle sander, holding the body at an angle. When this proved to be a too slow for my taste I pulled out my StewMac dragon rasps and refined the shape. Once I was happy with the basic shape, I took it back to the sander to even out and refine it.
There is something therapeutic about carving a feeling I don’t yet get while routing.
Now that I had finished all the routing and repaired the body, I could begin fitting parts. First I drilled and bolted on the neck. Reasonably straight and I think the angle will work, check. Next to line-up and drill the 4 screw holes for the bridge.
Looks like the parts are going to fit.
With the bridge mounted it was on to drilling the string through holes and enlarging on the back for string ferrules. Make sure to use a backing board when you drill a through hole, even if you think you are just poking the tip of the brad point bit tip through and even though it’s a tiny 1/8″ hole! Don’t ask me how I know this.
Note to self: Although Black limba is relatively easy to work, it is a very porous wood and has a tendency to tear out along the grain.
That is all that I have gotten done over the long Labor Day weekend. I’ve given thought to making the pick guard and have decided to take the minimalist approach because I really would like to cover up as little of this wood figure as possible. I made the decision to use traditional front routes a long time ago but that doesn’t mean I have to use a traditional pick guard now does it.
Boris Bubbanov, your chopped pick guard is absolutely awesome my Telefied friend! I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your idea on my build, I love it!
Lots to do but at least it’s starting to look like an instrument now……
Welcome back everyone! Of course I’m the one that has been away a while; to France actually for wedding. Now that I’m home I’m desperately trying to find shop time between all the built-up house chores. This project is straight from Project Electric Guitar and there will be many small and large projects from this from this community in the future. To ease myself back into the shop I started with this simple but useful Neck Support Caul build.
Steps in the Build
- Mill up some 3/4″ thick scrap pieces at least 12″ in length
- Laminate the pieces into a block
- Square up the blank using methods at your disposal. I took a short cut and used the jointer on top and bottom surfaces. Should have actually used the planer but they were visibly true enough for my purposes
- Set up a cove cut jig at the table saw. This was the trickiest part and the new skill builder for me. I referred to Matthias Wandel’s – Cove cutting table calculator and pretty much winged it.
- Most difficult part was locating the exact center of my table saw blade. I suggest running a test piece through to see how close you are to center.
- If you don’t nail this and your cove is slightly off-center, you can cut the cove then run the wider edge through the table saw to even up the sides.
- Used PVA glue and cork “shelf lining” to line the cove. Applied clamping pressure to the cork with a piece of foam pool noodle.
- Trued up and smoothed edges on the oscillating belt sander.
- Applied a coat of Teak Oil Finish.
Length: 12″ (or longer for bass neck, etc.)
Thickness: 3/4″ (or thicker if you mill your own stock)
Width: 2 3/4″ (wide enough for the cove with room for an edge)
While I had the cove jig setup I went ahead and ran some 2″x 4″ material through it for future use in jig building/neck clamping.
I could have used these when I was fretting my neck, at least I’ll have them ready for my next build!
You’ve been getting back into the shop with the Turtlecove Builder
The neck building saga continued this past weekend. Out of clamps and with the finger board secured, it was time to make a pass on with the template bit to flush up the finger board to the neck and figure out how to add side fret markers. There was a problem with the latter, I didn’t have any 1/8″ maple dowels to use for dots so I was going to have to make some.
Side Fret Markers
I did have a 1/8″ poplar dowel but I wanted to keep it consistent and use maple. After some minor experimentation I realized it was going to be just a tad tricky making them.
I started by finding a small sheet of mild steel from my junk bin and drilled a 1/8″ hole in it. One would normally facet the blank then pound it through to size it only at 1/8″ faceting wasn’t an option. I ended up riving several narrow strips from off cuts from the maple neck. They were way too big and irregularly shaped so I chucked them up in my hand drill and took them over to the edge sander. With the drill powered, I brought the edge of the piece close to the belt and sanded to slightly over-sized with a narrow taper on the end. I realized that using calipers to gauge the diameter would save me time in the long run. Still hammering such a delicate piece through an 1/8″ hole was a dicey proposition. Fortunately the end that had been held in the drill chuck was beefier allowing a hammering surface and the dowels didn’t need to be very long, I was making fret marker dots so 1/4″ to 1/2″ was plenty long enough as long as they were somewhat round!
Using my best brad point 1/8″ bit I drilled a hole in a test piece to make sure I was going to have a proper fit and was pleased to see that it was perfect. I was ready to set the fence on my drill press table and using the still flat neck back as the reference surface set-up where to drill. I ran a piece of masking tape down the top side of the neck and marked the fret marker locations and made a best guess at setting the drilling depth stop. I wanted them deep enough so as to not sand through them on accident.
Carving the Neck
In a long line of “firsts” this one had me concerned. I had a plan but until I started, I was never going to know what to expect. I must say doing it once has been a great learning experience and will definitely help me a lot on the next one. I started by marking cut lines as a surgeon might do before an operation.
I followed instructions as detailed by David Fletcher during his Stratocaster Build on his YouTube channel. My notes read something like this:
Draw Center-Line (CL) down back of neck Measure 5 mm either side of CL at the 1st fret Measure 10 mm either side of CL at the 12th fret Connect the lines Draw a line down both sides of the neck measured 2/3 of the way up from the bottom Draw a line across 85 mm up from the heal (this will fit in the neck pocket of course) From there draw a point 35 mm up on the CL. Connect lines to from a V To from the volute, extend the curve of the head-stock back toward the CL Complete the volute by connecting that end point the lower side of the head-stock forming a similar angle Begin taking facets leaving plenty of room at head and heal of neck which should be blended in later. The very back of the neck should be left mostly intact if you want a beefy neck. You'll have to figure out the side of heal which angles from the end of the heal line side back towards the head. Middle of the 13th fret (check example)
These instructions along with the Fender authorized replacement neck I purchase as a model/template were invaluable in this learning process. And a learning process it was to be sure.
I began with my StewMac course dragon rasp and began hogging away the first large facet. I was tentative and it was pretty slow going. Later in the process, I pulled out my block plane and spoke shave which I think I use more of in my next build. The first facet on both sides requires quite a bit of material be removed and was slow going even using a course rasp.
I worried a little about the transition areas at the head-stock and heal but actually these areas are fairly straightforward to blend especially given that I had two example Telecaster necks on-hand as a reference. With these area there can be a fair amount of creativity they are predominately cosmetic.
It would also seem that I was not “brutal” enough taking facets for after three “sessions” my neck was and remains very beefy. I finally decided to go with it as it seemed comfortable enough although time will tell if I really like playing a baseball bat or not!?!
So ever onward I figured I would try my hand at adding frets. This is where things got a little wonky. This is my first build and I either don’t have the specialized equipment or I’ve made it myself for the occasion. Such was the case with the fret wire radius bending machine that I made ages ago. This was my first opportunity to use it and I found problems with it. First off the groove is too wide for the fret wire tang which allowed the wire to twist during the bend. Secondly I haven’t calibrated the adjustment so the first time through it was on the most gentle bend which I thought was enough and started cutting frets to length. Only later did I realize that the needed a tighter bend but at that point it was too late to use the machine. Instead I pressed the wire in a vise pulling the wire to arc in the correct direction. This mostly worked but sometimes the wire twisted on me.
I also didn’t have a special fretting hammer so I used a regular medium weight hammer and a block of wood. Results were mixed but it mostly worked. The most difficult frets were due to a) not enough radius b) twist. I did take the advice of one YouTube luthier and ran a triangular modelers’ file through the fret slot to add a slight bevel to both sides of the fret slot opening. This worked well although care must be taken every time a file, saw or rasp is engaged on or near the finger board. I’ll learn.
After installing the 22 frets I cut the excess wire off using a rotary tool with a cutting wheel being careful not to nick my neck. The last bit was to bring the frets flush using my fret bevel 90 then after to 35 degrees. I was like a bull in a china shop and managed to mar the top of some of the frets in the doing. I’ll learn (see above).
I’m finally ready to fit the neck to the body and route for pickups and control cavity.
Are we having fun yet!
This weekend I was focused on the fingerboard. I began on Saturday morning by slotting the Ziricote fingerboard blank on the slotting gear which I had successfully tested late last weekend. The question at hand was how deep to make the fret slots knowing that when I sand the radius into the board, the slots would end up much shallower. I made my best conservative guess and carefully slotted the board without incident. I was careful to lift the sled above the blade and return it “home” before advancing to the next slot pin. Each slot was passed through the blade only once.
I have given great thought to fret markers and inlay in general and have found many alternatives. For this build (my first) I wanted to keep it simple and classy so I used my 1/4″ plug cutter to cut maple dowels from the neck off cuts. I began by running a strip a masking tape down the center of my fingerboard and marking a center-line. Remember it’s always a good practice to measure from your jointed edge. Fret markers for all but the 12th fret could be located by centering between slots. For this I used vernier calipers measuring the span of the slot, dividing by two then resetting my calipers to the half mark. As a check I made a dimple on my center-line from both directions and tapped a small divot with my awl to mark the location. A similar technique was used to find the center of the 12th fret span with each marker being offset equidistant from the center line. The offset I simply took off my purchased Fender neck. Although it isn’t a critical measurement, you must remember that your finger board blank is much, much wider than you neck with ultimately be so you need to keep it somewhat “centered” and on your final work.
For future reference, I transferred the center-line mark to both ends of the finger board blank using a tiny piece of masking tape and pencil.
After an hour or two of curing I taped off the rest of the top surface of the fingerboard (so as not to mar it) and used my flush cut saw to cut the maple dowels reasonably flush to the surface.
Using my 9.5″ radius sanding block and sticky backed sandpaper I began leveling the fret board. To keep my sanding block centered I attached guides on either side of the fret board all of which have been secured to my table saw bed with double-sided tape. The mistake I made was beginning the work with 150 grit paper and after sanding what seemed to be an hour or so, I broke down and switched to 80 grit which quickly did the job. At that point sanding up the grits from 120, 150, 220 and 320 went quickly.
I was making progress on the neck and almost ready to glue on the finger board. Before doing so I need to route access to the end of the truss rod which will lie under the fingerboard just below the nut. I hadn’t done this yet because I uncertain about how I was going to do it but in the end I chucked up a 3/8″ straight bit and routed towards the head stock. I made several passes lowering the router bit time until I was level with the bottom of the truss rod adjustment nut. I also limited travel on the deeper passes leaving a stair stepped effect which I turned into a ramp with my 1/4″ chisel. Using sandpaper around a dowel I smoothed out my work and called it good.
I took this opportunity to sand out the imperfections from where I frightfully thinned the head-stock to 1/2″ leaving all sorts of divots and problems. Sandpaper and a card scraper along wasn’t getting it so I pulled out my StewMac Dragon rasp and went to work removing material. When I was happy with it I used the card scraper and sandpaper to get it right. One of the spots that needed additional work was the transition area just past the nut. This is where the rasp shined. I will need to revisit this area once the finger board is in place.
With the center-line marked on both the neck and the edge of the finger board, I placed a brad on either side of the truss rod one towards the nut and towards the heal for registering the fret board on the neck for glue-up. I didn’t actually have any small brads so I snipped off the legs of some small steel staples I had on hand. Using reasonable wisdom, I tried them on some scraps first. They were tiny and worked perfectly.
Before tapping the pin into the neck I drilled a very shallow 1/8″ pilot hole. My greatest fear was allowing the drill bit to run away and drill all the way through my finger board. That would have been disastrous! I took it very slowly, deepening the recess on the underside of the finger board every so slowly until it would seat onto the face of the neck. It would have been best to not even use a powered drill but I was careful and it worked out this time. Just to bring this point home I did drill right through a test piece before I even knew what happened.
I placed two strips of masking tape on the underside of the fret board so that I could trace the outline of the neck on to the tape making sure the finger board was properly registered using the pins. I then carefully cut just outside the line using my band saw so routing the flush would be straight forward after the glue-up. Before glue-up I applied a strip of blue painter’s tape to either edge of the neck to minimize the impact glue squeeze-out.
Nervous but ready at last I applied two dollops of silicone caulking into the truss rod channel at each end of the truss rod. I inserted the truss rod and wiped away any caulk squeeze out. I then applied blue tape over the truss rod and coated the neck surface with glue, removed the tape and registered the finger board on the pins. Applied cauls and clamps and called it a weekend.
Thanks for following the build.
Although I don’t have a Master to teach me in my shop I sometimes feel like I have learned from Masters through the magic of YouTube. Many (most) of the tricks I employed this weekend were learned from David Fletcher of Fletcher Handcrafted Guitars. His guitars are amazing and if you really want to learn a thing or two about how they are made you absolutely must subscribe to his YouTube channel. Cheers to you David!