Guitar Building: Body Cut Sanding

Here’s a quick update. I decided some time ago to set aside this alder body for sanding experiments. It’s a little over five pounds, and I’m partial to keeping it closer to four. So, I figured that anything I sanded off would just lighten the load a bit.

I wanted to try going further with the belly cut, and get it closer to what Fender has always done with Strats. In my previous posts you can see what I’ve done (for myself and with my builders) with cuts up to now, and it definitely makes the instruments more comfortable to hold and play. My tool of choice, aside from the trusty rubber sanding block, has become the random orbital sander. It’s a great “wood eraser”, in that spot sanding and creating clean lines is easier with it than any other tool I’ve tried.

Check out the photos to see what I mean. On the left you can see where I left off previously. The overall shape is nice and works well, but the edge at the waist of the body is a bit soft. I wanted to try to clean and sharpen that up. In a couple of spots, the cut wasn’t as evenly concave as I wanted, so I tried to get that less lumpy. You can’t really see it in the photos, but it was easy to feel with my fingers. Working those down with the sander let me redefine the body edge, so that I have the opportunity to hand-sand a consistent edge radius all the way around. The third photo shows how much cleaner that edge is now. I’m a happy guy!

On to the final sanding, and then I’m thinking about staining this one. Another thing to learn!

Building A Silicon Fuzz Face Clone

I found this kit on eBay, and bought it for $50. The circuit board is a piece of stripboard, which has copper strips for the circuit traces on one side. You can see that in the “Parts” photo. One very cool feature of this kit is the inclusion of trimpots for adjusting the bias voltage to the transistors. The sound will vary according to that voltage setting. The kit maker provides target voltages, and that’s what I’m using so far.

The BC108 silicon transistors are fuzzier, brighter, and generally more aggressive-sounding than the older germanium types. Fuzz Face fans like the way the germaniums clean up when you turn the guitar down. The silicons don’t do that as well, but I tend to run this thing flat out when I use it, so that’s not much of an issue.

So, it turns out strip board is not that much fun to solder to. The circuit is only a few parts though, as you can see, so that went fairly quickly. Plenty of room for the tiny completed board in the box. It’s nice not to need as much pedalboard space as my old ’71 takes, and the transistors (and the sound) are similar.

No LED or power jack here, just the 9 volt battery. I added a few pieces of weather stripping foam to secure the board and isolate the battery from the switch. The sound is AMAZING, and has a great upper octave overtone. Lots of gain and focus; it’s more controlled than my old pedal, in a good way. I LIKE IT!

Builder News: Re-shaping A Neck

First, a disclaimer: there are plenty of opportunities to ruin a perfectly good neck here! Be sure you feel comfortable with the tools and the overall process before you try this.

I really like Allparts necks. They are consistently well-made, affordable, and fit well with the Clearfork Designs bodies I like to use. But they don’t offer every radius with every fret size and every neck shape, which can be a little frustrating. Their V-shaped guitar necks, for instance, come with a vintage radius and small frets, neither of which I like.

So I was eyeing the neck on the swamp ash Strat I put together, and considering it as a candidate for a little re-shaping. It’s extremely straight, maybe a hair too much so. The truss rod is tightened only enough so that it won’t rattle. This neck doesn’t much care what strings I put on it. I level-and-crowned it, with fallaway above the 12th fret, and it plays very cleanly with a low action.

So it seemed to me that this neck would stand up to being thinned a bit. I play a lot of chord stuff with my thumb over the neck, and I was curious to see if I could sand a slight V-shape and maybe even go a bit asymmetrical, with a little more wood removed on the treble side than on the bass side.

Many videos and internet articles later, I felt I had a good procedure worked out. I taped off the neck as you see, and marked the areas I wanted to concentrate on. I mainly used my random orbital sander with a 60 grit disk. Keeping the sander moving smoothly along the neck was the key to controlling the rate at which I was removing wood, and avoiding high or low spots, which would have been a serious PITA to even out. I’d sand a little and feel the neck. The work went quickly, and I had most of it done within a half hour.

Once the sides were to my liking, I untaped the center line and hand-sanded the whole surface. The sander leaves lines (and very few scratches, yay!), but they were easily smoothed with a piece of 150 and my fingers. I ran the grits to 600, and the neck feels and looks great to me.

I reinstalled it on the guitar, and put new strings on it. Sure enough, it’s as straight as ever; this neck has strong opinions. It’s a very soft V now, and I removed enough of the bulk that wrapping my hand around it is easier. I’ll play it this way for awhile, both to see how it settles in, and to decide whether or not I want to sand any further. It feels great with no finish, but once I’m sure about the shape, I’ll get a few coats of Tru-Oil back on there.

This is a pretty common modification. It seems like it would be a mistake to try to drastically take wood off; that is, if your neck is a tree trunk, go buy a new neck that you like. There are more than a few stories out there of people sanding into the truss rod, which would trash the neck. So, as always, you need to know your limitations, and work carefully. Still, it’s a cool option for a bit of customizing. I like it!

Guitar Builders: Redwood Thinline Tele!

Here’s the first Thinline that has come out of building classes! The top is figured redwood, beautifully bookmatched and glued to a mahogany body. It’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to cover that top with the usual enormous pickguard. The builder found a great solution and executed it beautifully.

He routed a lip around the control recess, which is normally not visible, and then cut out a perfectly-fitted tortoise control plate. The shape works nicely in balance with the single F-hole. The use of the tortoise plastic is a ballsy move here, because both the plate and the top are busy visually, and then there’s all that gold! I think he pulled it off; it’s fancy, and a real pleasure to look at.

No stopping there! He cut a 1/4″ radius with the router all around the top. That radius looks softer than the Tele usually does, but it’s not as rounded as the Strat. Very pretty. This took some guts too, because the least bit of router tearout could have ruined the look of the whole top. But the job is perfect, and adds something extra to the iconic Tele body shape.

Barden pickups, Gotoh bridge, and the cool inlaid control knobs are all present and accounted for. And the guitar kicks! I was expecting it to be a bit more mellow-sounding, but there’s a lot of attitude on tap here. Here’s to taking chances and really getting it done. NICE!

What My Builders Are Up To: Fretless ’51 P-Bass

We are having a great run of very nice instruments coming out of the building classes, but this one really stands out. It’s the second completed bass (mine was the first), but the first fretless bass. That’s cool enough, but what is unique is how well worked-out the builder’s design for this instrument was.

When she approached me, I was not completely encouraging about what she wanted to do. It was a great plan, but I anticipated some problems with the execution. Nicely finished black parts can be really tough to locate, and a lot of items that look fine in website photos really don’t cut it when you have them in hand. She also had a very specific sense of the overall black-and-blonde color scheme, right down to which parts should be matte and which glossy. And she wanted arm and belly cuts on the slab ’51 body!

So, a tall order. Well, it turns out she has a great eye and mad skills with coping saws and such. She drew up and patterned the control plate, pickup surround, and the trim plate at the neck pocket, and made them from matte pickguard material. Really clean work, and they contribute a lot of visual interest and unity. The piece at the neck heel was necessitated by the fact that the body’s neck pocket is square at the heel, but the modern P-Bass neck from Allparts has a rounded heel. It fits fine, but leaves small gaps at the corners. Nobody manufactures that part, so she made it herself. She figured out how to sand in the body cuts. The Hipshot bridge and tuners are beautifully finished and work great. Even the lustre we got on the nut was a topic of discussion. As I said, she knew what she wanted!

The pickup is a Joe Barden. The body, as always, came from Larry Robinson at Clearfork Designs. The whole instrument is lightweight, resonant, and a real pleasure to look at and to play. This time, my role was to get it assembled and working right, but the visual concept was entirely hers, and she nailed it!

What My Builders Are Up To: Obeche Tele

This was the last day for this one, and it is beautiful! We finished connecting the pickups and jack, tested the wiring, and placed and installed the control plate and pick guard. We got the nut slots perfect and installed the string guide. The strap buttons are on, and the knobs, too.

Final setup was perfectly straightforward. Truss rod, saddle height, intonation, and pickup height all fell right into place. The pickups are Duncan Vintage Stacks, which look and sound great, and are very affordable. I always discuss pickup choice at length with my builders, and more than half of them choose a noiseless option. These are actually more authentically Tele-sounding than the Bardens, and are less than half the price. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Bardens and have them on a Tele, a Strat, and my ’51 P-Bass. I also know that great pickups are critical to the overall tone and response of the guitar. But not everyone can justify that price tag. Fortunately there are several good, and quiet, options out there.

Single-coil fans, I’m with you, too. No noiseless pickup I’ve heard is exactly the same as the old-school stuff. I have guitars with those pickups, too, because sometimes you need the most twang you can get, you know?

This builder’s wife told him she thinks this is the best-sounding guitar he owns! And it’s never a bad thing to get support at home, is it? This is another cool guitar!

Building The BYOC Silver Pony, Part 2

Once I was into it, I decided to go ahead and finish building the pedal in a single session. The twenty-nine resistors were followed by five diodes, a dozen or so capacitors, three chip sockets, the battery clip, and several short lengths of purple hookup wire.

Once the circuit board was completely populated, I had to mount the 9V DC jack in the enclosure. Bringing everything together involved setting in place but not yet soldering the three potentiometers for the controls and the yellow LED on the board. The board had to be held in one hand while I guided the LED and the control shafts into their holes with the other. After aligning the board and checking to be sure nothing would short out, I soldered everything and tightened up the mounting hardware.

After that, I installed and wired the input and output jacks and the 9V jack. I then installed the on/off switch and connected it to the board with six more lengths of hookup wire. Finally I plugged in the three chips, checked everything over once more, snapped in the battery, and screwed the box shut.

I’m pleased to say it worked perfectly, right away! This project required a LOT of patience and cost me a little eyestrain, but the Silver Pony sounds amazing. I took it along on my mini pedal board to a jam last night and it was on the whole time. Finding a sweet spot (many are possible!) was easy, and I just rode my guitar volume knob the entire night. I have a bunch of nice pedals, and my bigger pedal board has two Lovepedals I really like, but this thing just seduced my Alessandro amp and gave me great clear, warm sound with nice compression at a pretty reasonable volume. Totally a success, and it fills a role that none of my other pedals can.

And of course, BYOC has discontinued it. I appreciate and applaud their position, which is that the original Klon builder, Bill Finnegan, has a new version of the Centaur available again, and they didn’t feel right in offering a clone kit for sale while the original is still in production. I’m very happy to have gotten my kit, had a lot of fun building it (but I have some weird ideas about fun), and plan to play it a whole lot!

By the way, the available knob colors on the BYOC site were a bit limited when I ordered, so I worked out a color scheme that made sense to me. Red is the gain knob, yellow controls treble, and blue controls the output volume. And the DC jack is green because it’ll remind me to use fewer batteries…or that’s just what they had.

Building The BYOC Silver Pony, Part 1

BYOC is a company called Build Your Own Clone, and they manufacture and package kits for guitar pedals and such. I’m on their mailing list, and recently they sent out a notice that they had decided to discontinue their Silver Pony kit. They would sell off their current stock, and that would be it. So, I went right to the site and placed an order.

This pedal is interesting because it’s a clone of the silver box Klon Centaur. The Centaurs are much sought after, and used ones trade for insane (to me, anyway) prices. The pedal has a long and interesting history, at least if you’re a pedal geek. They’re no longer made in their original form, but are available in an updated version called the KTR. I’ve never owned one, or had a chance to check one out at any length, so I figured it was worth the gamble. BYOC has a pretty convincing comparison video, and their version sounded amazingly close to the original.

So the order comes in, as you see it. Instructions are available as a download, and I thought it best to look at them on my laptop. I don’t own a color printer anymore, and for this, I need to see the colors! The hardest part for my aging eyes is checking and matching the resistor color codes, which are tiny bands on tiny parts. Very time-consuming. But everything on the list was there, so I got to work.

To build a pedal like this, you “populate” the printed circuit board in stages. Resistors are first. Once each is in its proper place, you turn the board over and start soldering. The solder pads are also small, so I did the soldering in a few stages, working from the outside in. I didn’t want to overheat the PCB or any of the parts, so it’s important to make the solder joint in a few seconds. Shiny is good.

I didn’t get a photo of the forest of resistor wires, since I was busy soldering and snipping, but in the last photo you can see that everything went in as it should. Also, my soldering job is super clean, and yeah, I’m bragging a little.

What My Builders Are Up To, 1/24/2015

This session had a whole lotta WOW going on! The guitar is a Tele Thinline-style, with an amazing bookmatched figured redwood top, from Clearfork Designs. The builder got the idea of routing the control compartment to create a lip that would support a custom control plate cut from a piece of tortoise pick guard material. He couldn’t imagine covering the beautiful top with the normal huge guard that you see on Thinlines. This is his solution, and I think it looks fantastic. The gold hardware looks killer, and the whole guitar is going to be a knockout. It will play and sound great, too.

The fretless bass has a body of lightweight obeche, which finishes beautifully with Tru-Oil, our old standby. I used the same wood for my bass, but rubbed it out to a satin gloss. This builder went for a higher gloss, and she got it. It’s really nice! There are two coats of the same finish on the fingerboard to seal it a bit, and all the other parts and hardware are black.

So, this bass is the most visually-designed of all the projects I’ve seen since I started the building classes a year ago. And there are always problems to solve. In this case, except for offering a bit of advice along the way, I had the pleasure of sitting back and watching it come together.

The neck is a modern Precision bass neck, and that has a rounded heel, like a Strat. The body is a ’51 Precision bass type, and true to its Tele heritage, it has a squared neck pocket. The neck fits perfectly, after a bit of sanding along the sides of the heel, and sanding the flat of the heel so it doesn’t sit up too high. But there are gaps where the corners of the neck heel don’t touch the end of the pocket, and it doesn’t look great that way.

Her solution was to design and hand-cut a piece of matte black plastic to fit around the heel of the neck and cover the gaps. It does that, and much more. She also didn’t want a huge pick guard, and the stock model for this body is enormous (check out mine). So she designed and cut a pickup ring from the same material, and then knocked out a perfect control plate for good measure. She does great work!

We got the nuts on both instruments fitted and rough-slotted, the necks aligned, screw holes drilled, and screws and neck plates installed. They look like instruments now, and not just piles of nice parts. We still need to build the wiring harnesses, install the pickups, and get the nuts done before we can set everything up, but the end is in sight.

So, let me make it clear: this beautiful and VERY well-executed routing, cutting, and design work was all done by the builders! I wish I could take credit, and I was able to offer some helpful advice, in addition to, as usual, making sure everything would work right. But they did the tricky stuff and had the vision, and deserve all the credit for imagining these instruments and making them happen. SALUTE!

Meet The Family: The Catalpa Tele

I was eagerly looking forward to the November 2012 Philly Guitar Show, to see what Larry had come up with this time. Don’t get me wrong; I do not need any more guitars! But within a minute of arriving at his booth, I spotted this Catalpa body and grabbed it. He had it out on a stand, and was definitely showing it off. I’d never seen anything like it, and he filled me in. Apparently it’s quite unusual to see one-piece bodies in this stuff (it’s prone to decay of some sort) and the trees are mainly valued for their foliage and for their seed pods, which are used to feed livestock.

The wood is pretty soft, and has a faint greenish cast. As you can see, Tru-Oil worked its by-now-familiar magic and brought a beautiful warm amber tone to the wood, as well as making the grain pop spectacularly. The pictures really can’t do it justice; turning this body under the light is a religious experience if you enjoy cool wood grain.

Because it is a little softer than, say, the swamp ash, I was anticipating a bit warmer sound from it, as well as possibly softer highs. That made it seem like a great platform for a set of Joe Barden pickups with the new Modern T bridge pickup, which has a little more midrange than the familiar Danny Gatton bridge model. Great sound, and they are dead quiet.

I also wanted to build it up with an Allparts TRO-22 neck, which has 22 tall, wide frets. The 22nd fret is on a lip at the very end of the fingerboard, and the upshot of that is that you can’t remove the pickguard with first removing the neck. Big fat PITA! Ordinarily the guard needs to come off so you can adjust the height of the neck pickup, which is screwed into the body. I like the way that sounds, and fortunately an excellent answer presented itself.

I found a modern 3-ply black Fender guard with holes at either end of the pickup cutout for mounting the pickup. My spin on it was to mount the pickup into the wood as I usually do, but use a very thin Phillips screwdriver to adjust the screws through the holes in the pick guard. Quick and easy, and you can’t really see the holes unless you are pretty close.

Other features include a beautiful Marc Rutters vintage-style bridge with compensated brass saddles. Marc machines string grooves very accurately into each saddle, and gets his compensation that way, rather than angling the saddles themselves. Old school appearance, and it plays perfectly in tune. My usual flipped plate, Electroscket jack holder, and red chicken head tone knob ware all included, as are Dunlop Straploks, Gotoh vintage-type tuners, and a bone nut.

My hunch was correct. I got another great guitar, one which has undergone no parts swapping since I put it together. I got it just right the first time.