Custom Strat Style Build – Part 3 The Pickups

March 1, 2017 Leave a comment

DIY Pickup Winder

One of the limitations which I have learned of myself is that I have limited mechanical skills. My dilemma, I want to try my hand at hand winding my own pickups but I don’t want to spend $300 for I consider to be a so-so winder. I was tempted to purchase the $500 winder which looks to be quite nice but I couldn’t quite convince myself that I should spend that much money on it. What to do? I’ve actually spent a couple of years now looking at the plethora of DIY winders but couldn’t quite come up with my own plan….. until now. As is the case with many problems, Harbor Freight is the answer! lol.

I came across this image on Google and that was it, this was the “plan” I was going to attempt.


Of course I would make this idea “my own” by using parts I had on hand. Although I purchased the Harbor Freight router speed controller, I found it to be useless for this and any other application I could imagine. The controller goes from off to full on with almost no change in the dial. I used a dimmer switch which, although not perfect, worked much, much better. I had already built this module long ago to control the speed of my 1/2″ drill when I hook it to my grain mill for home-brewing. You can see this part below in the upper left of the photo. Now that I have tested this concept, I am considering wiring the motor directly to a dedicated dimmer which (you guessed it) I happen to have on-hand.

DIY winder rudiments.

In lieu of an optical sensor, I choose to use a hall effect (magnetic) sensor for the counter module. I purchased this digital counter on Amazon and I tell you, it rocks! Best $11 I’ve spent recently.


The motor began life as a Harbor Freight 5″ bench grinder which set me back $35. I’m not sure if I had a coupon but 20% off coupons are ubiquitous for HF. I stripped off the grinding wheels and covers exposing the 1/2″ threaded drive shaft on both sides. The left side is reverse threaded so don’t lose the supplied bolt.

For the winding guides, I again used what I had on hand, a Harbor Freight magnetic mount. The stop collars where also purchased (you guessed it) at Harbor Freight. I purchased two packs to get two of size I needed but the other collars will be used on other project. Clearly you don’t need the magnetic mount to make a guide but I already had it and  I liked the idea that I didn’t have to a) build a support and b) it would be completely adjustable. The latter was a big plus because I was making up the plans as I went and having never wound a pickup before, I had no experience telling me how far away or how tall the guides should be. With this design, it didn’t matter I can move it anywhere I put the steel plate. To wind on the left side, I unlock the magnet mount and rotate it 180°. The trickiest part is re-adjusting the stop collar guides which would be necessary anyway depending on the type of pickup bobbin currently being wound.

To assemble the platen, I used 1/2″ plywood and the arbor plates that came with grinder. It worked out that I could use one piece (inward) as a shim. The mating piece would be reversed and held in place with the arbor nut. In this configuration very little of the drive shaft was left exposed beyond the nut. I carefully carved out a recess in the platen for the nut which would be used to drive the platen. The platen is held in place with four small neodymium magnets embedded and epoxied in place. The same setup was made for left and right posts however the left side also houses larger magnet along the rim to activate the counter each revolution. The opposing nut was an attempt to balance the weight. I was unable to weigh them but I’m guessing the magnet weighs more than the nut. Use of magnets to hold the plates on makes it simple to remove them when loading bobbins. I ended up with a 1/2″ hole in the center of each plate (don’t have to but I used a 1/2″ dowel to hold the roughed out disk and trued it up by rotating it against a sanding disc.) Instead of approximating the center of the platen each time I mount a bobbin, I made a bobbin mount out of 1/8″ ply and glued a very then piece of 1/2″ dowel to the bottom. To attach it I put double-sided tape on the bottom and align the dowel into the center hole. It isn’t “machine tight” but it does take most of the guess-work out of finding the center.

Platen detail

I used a squarish scrap board and decided to cover it with 1/8″ white board for better visibility of the magnet wire.

Click image below to watch the first test of the newly assembled device.

DIY pickup winder

Watch a short video, it spins

Three Single Coil Pickups

My first single coil bobbins

After watching as many pickup winding videos as I could stand,  I started by following the Stewmac directions for assembling the bobbins. These kits come with staggered height  pole pieces so I had to be very careful during insertion. I also had to whip together spacers and pole piece insertion/hammering tool both of which were extremely simple to make. Of course, never having used the tools, I had to remake each of them once I knew their exact purpose. Again this was easy and I took my time with the first steps.

On D-Day Saturday I spent a fair amount of time figuring out where I was going to place the spool of wire. I reasoned that most wire breaks would be caused by poor placement and consequent unnecessary tension on the wire feed. The directions pointed out that the wire should spool off the top of the spool from about 24-36″ from the winder. I found a location to clamp a length of 3/4″ dowel angled (pointed) directly at the winder/bobbin. I took my time with this and my greatest fear was stupidly walking through the wire while mounting the bobbin. Because of this I didn’t load the spool onto the dowel until the wire had been thread on to the bobbin and bobbin had been mount and I was ready to wind. Only then did I “arm” the spool.

One down and two to go.

Given these are my first pickups, I had to rely on the recommendations of other with respect on specifications. I used Alinco 5 pole pieces for the neck and Alnico 2 in the middle and bridge pickups. This solely based on the Stewmac pickup kit product pages. The Stewmac document that comes with the Schatten pickup winder provides stats on vintage and modern numbers of turns on Strat pickups all of which were south of 8,000. I decided on 7,700 for the neck, 7,800 for the middle and 7,900 for the bridge. None of these would be considered “hot” pickups but then again, I have no reason to wind hot pickups for my guitar. I play in my bedroom on a Mustang I amp. No stadium metal for me.

The neck and bridge pickups would be wound clockwise with South polarity and the middle would be wound counterclockwise with North polarity for hum canceling in the 2 and 4 switch positions. I was very fortunate to wind all three pickups with the correct number of winds (for my target) without any breaks. I was quite pleased with this first run at it!


No special equipment here. I heated water on the stove and suspended a quart canning jar of  paraffin wax in it. Once the water was close to boiling and the wax started melting, I turned the burner down. Further on I turned the stove off once all the wax was liquefied. The three pickups were submerged for 15 minutes and then one by one retrieved and the outside carefully wiped free of melting wax.

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I was a little concerned the pickups were crowded but I couldn’t think of any ill effects that resulted. If concerned the pickups could have been potted one at a time or a larger jar and more wax thrown at the problem.

Wiring the Pickguard

I love this part. Actually I loved the wiring and soldering of connections part but before I did that I decided to shield the entire pickguard with copper shielding tape. I’m not absolutely convinced that this was necessary or even wise but I just couldn’t make myself proceed without doing it. So I did and I sliced my thumb in the process. But that is typical for any day I spend in the shop!

Pickguard shielded

I found several examples of a tidy job using Google images and then used the Stewmac supplied document as the actually guide to connections. Once I was satisfied that I had done a really professional job, I attempted to fit it to my body only to discover that I had to rearrange the wires to get them to seat/fit properly. Tip: I used the cavity routing template to visualize the space and see which wires needed to be rerouted. I like my first plan but that had to be modified to work in “the real world”.

Loaded pickguard

All that is left to do is to wire in the jack and test.

Can you feel the excitement growing?

Custom Strat Style Build – Part 2 The Body

March 1, 2017 Leave a comment

Templates Arrive

As previously mentioned, I was going to afford myself the benefit of accurate, laser-cut templates for this project. When they finally arrived I couldn’t have been happier. Step one was to make copies of the originals out of 1/2″ MDF which I would then use for the build. This gave me the opportunity to improve my routing skills on a forgiving material, MDF. MDF is soft and has no grain direction. I began by tracing out the template outer (body) shape on to a piece of MDF. This was cut close to the line on the bandsaw then taking to the router table to be cut flush. So far so good. The original was stacked upon the blank and the pickup/control cavities were trace upon the blank. Waste material was hogged out with the largest Forstner bit that would safely fit the area.


Making a template copy from the original.

After further refining the wasted areas with a chisel, the stack was then ready to be carefully routed flush at router table.


The Router

Leading up to and including part of this build, I have had a love-hate relationship with my router. Being honest, it has mostly been a fear-hate relationship. It’s not that I haven’t used the router or had any successes with it, more like I’m never really sure how the cut is going to react. I have tried to systematically improve. I use the “right-hand rule” to determine which way the bit will be spinning, purchase quality bits and use the router table whenever practical. Two important concepts have plagued me. First taking too much off in a pass i.e. cutting too deeply. You might get away with a heavy cut is the grain direction and The Force is with you but Woe Unto You when you end a bit of end grain! Which leads directly in to my second biggest problem, end grain tear out. For this, one trick works quite well when dealing with a rectangular piece and that is to route the end grain ends first. Following up with the long grain routes will effectively remove any small bits of tear out from the end grain pass. This works well but it won’t cover up tear out from a botched heavy first cut. So why all the discussion about router usage? Well because one of the first things to happened to me on this build was to blow out a 1/2″ chunk of black limba while routing the upper bout just before the upper horn. Bummer dude…..

The Fix

The fix was to debride the wound and to find a grain match from the original off cut. Glue it in, sand it flush and hope you did an OK job.  Had it been a small tear-out I would have simple altered the shape of the body and called it good. This mistake required a repair.

Routing blowout repair on strat body.

Other than this terrible mistake, the body route came out satisfactory. I left the area between the horns and the neck which I cleaned up on the oscillating spindle sander.


Routing Cavities

I was determined to do a better job routing the cavities than I had managed on my previous build. The templates were going to really make the difference this time. Using double-stick tape and a hand-held router, I made shallow passes until reaching the proper depth as indicated on my plans. The control area is routed more deeply so I fabricated a “plug” to isolate the pickup area and proceeded.

Cavity and neck pocket routes.

I was pleased with the result! Small victories and knowledge gained.

Edge Roundover, Arm Bevel and Tummy Cut

Next I used my largest round0ver bit on the front and back faces of the body. I stopped the roundover on both sides of the neck pocket and this was blended together using the spindle and by hand sanding.

Mostly completed body.

The tummy cut and the arm bevel areas where penciled in based on information I took off my MIM Strat. I mostly used the oscillating spindle sander to make the cuts.

Testing the Neck Fit

The neck pocket was snug but with minimal sanding on the sides of the neck I was able to get a tight fit. I haven’t yet drilled the holes for the neck plate screws and before I do I’ll want to make sure the neck is straight and the neck angle is going to be workable. After I’m happy with the neck fit, I’ll be able to lay out and drill for the Hipshot Hardtail bridge placement.

Test fitting the neck.

It’s starting to look like a guitar.

Next, I’ll need to fret the fingerboard, “There be monsters there…”.


Artist’s Pencil Boxes

February 27, 2017 Leave a comment

For the last several years I have made Christmas gifts for my family in the workshop. No one would call me a master craftsman but I enjoy my time in the shop and I feel that a handmade gift beats mass-produced every time! Well not every time (let’s be real) but you get my drift. This year I didn’t really start my project early enough because I was excited about completing my first scratch electric guitar build. I needed a project that could finish in time and without too much nashing of teeth. Enter “The Artist’s Pencil Boxes”, a plan which I had but never really thought I’d actually make.

Milling the Stock

I began by going through my wood reserve and landing on a lonely but willing cypress board. For this project most of the lumber was 1/4″ or less in thickness so I began by jointing and planing and cutting.

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The result, materials for six boxes.


Making the Box

Next I routed and cut pieces to fabricate the boxes.


Once I knew they were going to work I glued them up, then sliced them longitudinally.

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Then a peg was inserted in the bottom half and the top fit to the bottoms for each box.


Getting each of the tops to slide smoothly was chose but I kept at it until I was satisfied they would open on Christmas.


Six completed boxes and ready for a simple shellac finish. No time for anything else really!


Pack ’em up and ship ’em; Christmas isn’t going to wait!


Hopefully I’ll plan ahead for next year but…. don’t count on it!!!

Categories: Woodworking Tags: ,

Custom Strat Style Build – Part 1 The Neck

February 27, 2017 Leave a comment

This project is my second electric guitar build and I decided to build upon what I learned in the first. Having made a Tele Style neck gave me a lot of insight toward making a very similar Strat neck. The only thing I planned to do differently from the start was to make the neck much thinner less baseball bat and more like a modern neck. Radius would remain the same at 9.5″ and use the same truss rod but I would eliminate the overhang required for the 22 fret and limit frets to 21. I also decided to purchase a template set instead of making my own. Making your own templates is a good thing in general but for a new builder it adds one additional level of complexity that isn’t absolutely required. I learned I could make them but for build #2, I wanted it to be “more precise”. That said, my template maker is very slow, much slower even than his website and business statement would indicate. I like the product but you can’t be in a hurry.

Starting with the Neck

While waiting for templates to be made, I decided to go ahead and work on building the neck. It would have been easier if I had waited, but I didn’t. I started with the template that I had made for the last Tele build and made a new one from it with the Strat headstock. I used this to cut out two maple necks from one board.

Strat Neck Template Enough for two Strat Necks Two Neck Blanks

Shaping the Headstock

Nominal size for the Fender style bolt-on neck is 3/4″ for the maple and 1/4″ for the fingerboard material yielding 1″ total thickness. The headstock is nominally 1/2″ thick with a sloping and/or rounded sloping beginning about 1/2″ past the nut and ending about 1/2″ into the maple. This is place where I screwed up on the last build and I repeated again for this one.

My mistake was to use a router and a straight bit to level the headstock area, leaving the transition to be shaped by hand. My setup was not precise and instead of a clean flat route, I ended up with uneven spots, swirls and gouges. By the time I could level this section it was too thin. The problem with the headstock being too thin is that the tuning machines wouldn’t now fit. Dang it!

On the last build I found some thick washers to use as spacers on the tuning machines. This time I thought I’d “fix it” but making a applying a headstock veneer. In theory this was a reasonable, perhaps even a good idea. In practice I only got it partially right. I should have cut the veneer about 1/2″ thick so that I would have material for the transition (sloped part). I also ended up tearing out a piece when drilling out the tuner holes. It wasn’t that I didn’t know better but I botched it, none the less.

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After successfully resawing and prepping the veneer, I made a mistake drilling out one of the tuner holes and ended up with blowout. Here are a couple of shots of the blowout repair. I stated with a rubbing to visualize the area then cut a piece to “fit”. Well almost…..

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And with the transition area worked.


Not perfect but decided to move on.

Finger Board

I prepped the finger board as I had previously done with the Tele build. I used my Stewmac fretting saw blade on the table saw and a specially made crosscut sled. In both cases the slots ended up too shallow once I had radiused the surface and once again I deepened them one by one using a thin kerf handsaw. This was a time consuming step that should be unnecessary now that I have modifed my sled to allow the slotting blade to raise higher. For the next build I just need to come up with a magic number of how deeply to cut these slots so they are deep enough after the radius has been sanded into it.

Two 25.5" Finger boards

The board on the left above is Macassar ebony and will be used in this build. The board on the left is cocobolo and will be used on a future, yet to be determined project.

Fret Markers

I repeated the process of making fret dots with my plug cutter. On the last build I made maple plugs but this time I went with black limba, the same as the body and headstock. The difference isn’t striking but I know it’s there.

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Neck Shaping

The neck was shaped by hand primarily using coarse and fine rasps. I’m pretty sure I outlined the general method of marking and cutting facets until the neck shape is rounded and proper thickness in the Tele build. I’ll have to check that. This time I was determined to keep going until the neck was quite a bit thinner than my previous attempt. At this point, I’m pretty happy with it although I’ll give it another check prior to prepping and applying finish.

Strat Neck Shaped


So I have reached another screw up point in my build, inserting frets. Last time I didn’t like having to hammer them in so I purchased the fret bit thingy from Stewmac and pressed them in using my drill press. This worked OK actually but I did have a lot of problems due to my POS fret wire bender. I had wire that wasn’t bent enough so it wanted to pop out OR the wire had a twist in it so the fret wasn’t straight and didn’t line up with the slot. Lots of trouble followed by lots of wasted fret wire. I wasn’t happy and ended up having to apply thin super glue to several of them just to keep them down.

Inserting Frets using the Drill Press

I had so much trouble in fact, I may end up removing them all and starting over. Now that they are superglued in place, that would add another level of unnecessary complexity. This neck seems a bit snake bit but it is all part of the overall learning experience. If everyone could do it, it wouldn’t be very interesting to write about now would it.

Stay tune the build continues in Custom Strat Style Build – Part 2 The Body

Grizzly Heirloom Guitar Kit (H6083)

November 4, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

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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.

Categories: Lutherie Tags: ,

Telecaster – Pickups, Pickguard and Bridge

November 4, 2016 Leave a comment

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!

Fitting the bridge pickup.

Screw heads fall through holes after enlarging them to fit the PUP screw pattern.

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).

Shielding cavities on the Tele project

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.

Making the pickguard

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:

  1. String up the two outer strings to make sure the neck is straight and inline with the anticipated bridge location
  2. Using the strings align the pole pieces underneath the strings to aid with locating the mount PUP mount locations
  3. Leave the pickguard oversized and make the route for the neck PUP.
  4. 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….

Tele neck pickup pole pieces not inline with strings.

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.

Tele control plate wired for 4-way switch option.

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.

Finally, my first custom build has been completed.


Categories: Lutherie Tags:

Telecaster – Prepping for Finish

September 26, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

Finish prepping the neck.

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.

soft vise pads

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?

Categories: Lutherie Tags: