Home > Lutherie > Custom Strat Style Build – Part 3 The Pickups

Custom Strat Style Build – Part 3 The Pickups

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 what I would 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.

img_1559 img_1561

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?

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