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Telecaster Style Neck

The July 4th three-day weekend allowed me some most-excellent quality time in the shop. At long last I am working on my first build and seeing that the previous three years of preparation haven’t been in vain. You saw from last post that I have roughed out the solid body blank and before moving in to any routing I needed to see if I could build my first neck. No doubt there will be some missteps but as with any project, “you don’t know if you don’t go”.  Sorry we used to say that when planning exploration in my cave diving days, but it is true in the shop as well. You can read about all you want (a good think I might add) but you are never going to produce any work unless you get into your shop.


Unless you are a martyr for punishment (as I apparently am) I highly recommend you buy a set of high quality templates for your builds. I will very likely do this for future builds but for my first, I’m using multiple drawings which I have collected from around the web. After doing so, and gathering information from my own guitar and Internet forums it becomes obvious that a Tele, is decidedly not a Tele, is a Tele. There are many variations on a theme historically and even among models currently produced by Fender. This is one reason a laser-cut/CNC  template is a great starting point. I on the other hand had to build a template based on what I’ve read and what I can deduce by asking questions like, what are the dimensions of the neck pocket, how long is the neck, how many frets “typically”, etc.. Some things won’t matter for example, the exact thickness of the body, the exact shape, to belly-cut or not to belly-cut, etc. Some things do matter for example, a properly fitting truss rod, straight neck and to a degree, it’s shape. Of course the finger board has to be right and for this I broke down and purchased the Stew-Mac steel slotting template and table saw blade. I couldn’t see spending more money their precision hand slotting jig when I already own a table saw. And before you ask, I did spend a couple of shop sessions deciding on whether or not I could make my own slotting template and came to the conclusion that, a) it’s definitely possible but extremely problematic and b) who wants to scrimp on the thing that matters the most about an instrument, how it plays!

Template Making

If you are planning on making a template, I have found it quite useful to have a working example of the object you wish to model. I do have a MIJ Telecaster which I used to trace the body shape and I found the resulting template adequate for this build. A paper template would have been just as good a starting point but at the time I made the body template I didn’t have one handy. It was before I built my light box. I wanted to make my own neck (you have to start somewhere) but as a back-up plan and a working model, I went ahead and purchased a neck from Stew-Mac. I can use it for study and if I have a total fail on mine, will use it on this build (or the next…)

  1. Get a functional model if possible
  2. Take your time. A template can be traced and roughed out in little time but it is the attention to detail that ultimately matters. If you plan on using the template more than once, the fewer the flaws the more it will payoff in the long run. I spent a lot of time with the rasp, scrapers and sandpaper to get the edges faired.
  3. Make as many as you need until you get it right. It took me three times to get the neck template the way I wanted it. The first attempt was a crude trace of my Tele neck. The second was from a detailed drawing which I printed out. Number two was pretty good until I slipped on the belt sander and made the neck at the nut too small.
  4. Don’t throw out the rejects as you can always use the parts you like as templates for the one your building. I used both my rejects and the purchased neck to make my third and final template the way I wanted it. I used the finished neck and a center punch to get the tuning machine holes “perfectly” aligned. You have to start over but you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch.
  5. At first I was perplexed how to joint the neck edges which slope toward each other towards the headstock. Can’t use the jointer and really can’t even use a handplane at least near the headstock. One approach would mean separating the headstock and using the jointer but I wanted a one piece template if possible. Then it occurred to me (duh) that I simply line up a jointed stick and use that to route that edge straight. Just be careful to stop as you get close to the headstock. I used this trick and the other two “failed” templates to route the successful third.

Some tricks you can learn from others and some you just have to learn along the way.

Neck Template Making

Protoypes one and two. On Sunday I made a third that I actually used.

Roughing the Neck

After lots of template cutting, measuring and truing I was ready to make my neck. My blank is birds eye maple which I’ve had in the shop for several years now and I was elated and nervous to be at this point. The template was sound, I re-measured all the important locations, including width at the heal and the nut. I was armed with some lovely Whiteside template bits but even so, the routing is a beast. It scares me and makes me worry every time I get even close to the end grain on the headstock and heal of the neck. In general it all went well. I always have to use the right-hand rule to identify which way the bit will spin and which way I need to feed the stock but I got it done and the neck looked great so far. Only one noticeable flaw (a bump you can feel but can’t see) which I carefully worked with my rasp and scraper until it went away (closed my eyes as I ran along the edge with my finger).

Third neck template was "the charm"

Third neck template was “the charm”

The routed maple neck takes it shape.

The maple neck takes shape.

 Truss Rod Route

In an attempt to simplify the truss rod installation, I went with the Stew-Mac low-profile dual action truss rod. Here is my reasoning.

  1. The traditional single action truss rod must be installed in an arc. Looks complicated, and a bit dated and if you get it wrong your neck is ruined.
  2. I wanted a dual action (modern) truss rod. The Stew-Mac hot rod versions were my first choices but after reading some of the reviews I wasn’t in such a hurry to purchase. Some say that they came with corrosion on them and they’re larger requiring a fair amount of wood be removed from the neck.
  3. I didn’t want to have to remove the neck to adjust the truss rod. Although this is traditional it doesn’t seem desirable to me. I could go with the spoke nut hot rod that adjusts through a route at the end of the neck but that also requires some additional installation steps. This was my second choice.
  4. The low profile 2 way truss rod requires a standard 1/4″ route 3/8″ deep which I can do with my new Whiteside 1/4″ spiral bit. It can be installed in either direction and it was less expensive than the alternatives. I didn’t buy the piloted reamer that is used to route the round hole for the end of the truss rod. At this point I was thinking about winging it without it but the jury is out.

I rigged up a work board using plywood and screwing scraps to secure the neck for routing. I then secured a jointed fence parallel to the neck center line. I had recently made an auxiliary base for my Bosch Colt trim router which gave me a stable footprint and suitable edge to follow the fence. Would be nice to have the plunge base but I made the route in two passes and controlling the “plunge” was fairly straightforward because the base had a small amount of flex.

Routing the truss rod groove.

Makeshift jig for routing the truss rod channel.

Well, I said two passes but in reality it was several because I didn’t want to make the channel too deep. I wanted just flush so it wouldn’t rattle with the fingerboard installed. Also, there is a hump just behind the round nut end which is taller and wider than the rest of the rod. I routed deeper in this area but used a chisel to slightly widen the area. It wasn’t perfect but it was clean and functional with a good fit. Once I got close I used a piece of blue tape around the end to give me a way to remove the truss rod while fitting the groove.

It fits!

It fits! Notice the blue tape as a handle to remove the truss rod while fitting.

Headstock and Tuners

On to drilling the tuner holes. I decided the best way to approach this was to get as absolutely close to perfect as possible. Previously when marking holes from paper templates I noticed that I couldn’t get them a perfect as I though they should be when lining them up. This time I had the purchased neck to use as a guide. I aligned the neck over my template and used a 3/8″ transfer punch to mark the center of the holes on my template. I then chucked up an 1/8″ drill bit in my drill press and precisely drilled 1/8″ holes through the dimpled marks. I then took my template over to my neck and used an 1/8″ (actually was one size smaller) transfer punch to mark the locations on my actual neck. Next I chucked up my 3/8″ Forstner bit and set the depth so that only the tip will break through on the back of the neck. I also took the time to put in a clean backer so the neck would lie flat and I used a couple of clamps to control the neck making sure it didn’t move during drilling. When all the holes had been drilled I flipped the neck over and once again took the small 1/8″ transfer punch to ever so slightly enlarge and identify the pilot holes on the back. I then carefully lowered the Forstner bit spur into this tiny hole, started the press and gently lowered the bit to finish the hole. I was pleased everything worked out well.

Turner holes completed.

Turner holes completed.

Things had been going well and so it was at this point that I got ahead of myself. I reasoned it was time to plane the headstock down to 1/2″. I took the neck back to my work board and using scrapes, formed a U to hold the neck heal and two straight pieces to along the length of the neck. I would free-hand the route but the depth of cut would be uniform so all I had to do was watch and not cut into the nut area. I made some marks, set the depth of cut and went for it. It went but it didn’t exactly go well. The groovy 1/4″ bit was better on the channel than on creating a uniform surface. Also my work holding jig wasn’t perfectly suited for the task which resulted in an uneven surface. I reasoned that I could clean it up OK on the belt sander and to some degree I was able to do so. The next time I do this I’m going to do a better job at it giving it more thought up front. I’m also thinking this step should have waited until the finger board had been glued on so that the transition between neck and headstock would involve both the maple neck and the fingerboard material. Build and learn, overall most things have gone surprisingly well so far.

Fret Slotting Gear

After two full and successful days in the workshop I had to pause to do some major house keeping. My shop was so cluttered, I could barely walk around in it. I had been putting things off for too long. I spent the majority of July 4th sweeping, rearranging machines, fixing my dust collection, throwing away scrap, etc. It had to be done, I just couldn’t function without taking some time to clean. Up until yesterday it had been “Death by a thousand cuts!” The great news is that I must have fixed a hundred things that had been nagging me. I won’t bore you with details but how refreshing it was to be able to function again!

Towards the late afternoon I had been satisfied with the day’s clean-up efforts, enough so that I pulled out the fret slotting gear. The concept is simple enough, use double-sided tape to attach the steel fret template to the back side of your fretboard. The notches in the steel template exactly fit the 1/16″ diameter pin which is supplied. The pin is to be inserted into your cross-cut sled fence 3/64″ above the “top of the fretboard”. Two problems that I can see, first I had to build a cross-cut sled for slotting. Yes, I already have a sled and gave consideration to using it but from what I could gather looking at the product, the sled bottom has to be made of very thin material or you won’t be able to extend the saw blade through it. I made mine from 1/4″ plywood which wasn’t as flat as I would have liked. Dan Erlewine suggested using masonite (hard board) which is even flimsier than my ply. I ended up making it 36″ wide but only 7″ narrow to reduce the warp and add some stability.  This will end up being a pretty specialized appliance. I really got lucky truing up the fence to 90 degrees so I cut a test piece out of big box store poplar. I did (do) have questions about at what depth to cut the fret slots. Conventional wisdom would dictate, cut them to the depth of your fret wire tang of course. But once the fretboard is radiused, the slots won’t be deep enough toward the edges. Maybe I worry too much but I have no experience yet on which to base the depth. Should I go with the exact depth and if so, how would I deepen the slots later? I suppose I’ll just run my Zona or X-acto saw through the slot as required and call it “good”.

First test slotting for frets. This was piece of poplar from the home center.

First test slotting for frets. This was piece of poplar from the home center.

Next Steps

Well it is definitely a process with many steps ahead. Next I need to slot my actual fretboard, then apply the radius. Of course then there are the fret markers, truss rod installation (silicone sealer to secure and stave off rattle), all before gluing the fretboard to the neck. I learned patience years ago so it takes, as long as it takes and I’m loving every minute of the build. Well…. almost every minute…..

You are making “functional art” with the Turtlecovebrewer”

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