Wiring the Wishcaster’s Electronics

Shielding the back of the pickguard with copper foil tape

Shielding the back of the pickguard with copper foil tape

All wired up and tested!

All wired up and tested!

A sneak peak

A sneak peak

A primary difference between this guitar and the previous two is the electronics wiring and installation. The Surfcaster is wired like a Stratocaster — with the pickups and controls attached to the pickguard instead of directly to the body. This greatly simplifies installation and makes it possible to work on the electronics and the finish at the same time. Or, more accurately, to wire up and test the electronics while the finish is curing.

So, while the finish cured, that’s exactly what I did.

The surfcaster features two single-coil “lipstick” style pickups, single volume and tone controls, and a three-way switch to select neck, bridge, or both pickups. Because these are single coils and not humbuckers, I was a bit concerned about the noise. So before installing the components, I applied copper tape to the back of the pickguard to provide shielding. This shielding will also act as a common and convenient ground for the circuit.

I also figured I’d try wiring up the pickups RWRP (reverse-wound, reverse polarity) relative to each other. By doing this, I would be able to take advantage of the “humbucking” effect when both pickups are active. This was accomplished by opening one of the pickup cases and flipping the magnet around so that one pickup would be north up and the other south. Reversing the wind is simply a matter of wiring the pickup in reverse into the circuit – i.e. wiring the “hot” side to neutral, neutral side to hot.

I attached and soldered in the 250K audio taper pots, 3-way switch, input jack, pickups, and a .22uf capacitor for the tone control and tested the assembly by taping a screwdriver on each pickup while plugged into a small amp. I was pleased with both the output and relative quiet of the circuit. I was even more pleased by the obvious humbucking effect when both pickups were engaged. The low-level of background noise dropped dramatically and immediately.

The newly-wired pickguard assembly was set aside until the final phase of the build – buff out and final assembly!

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Dyeing the Wishcaster Blue

Body dyed blue
Approval from Quality control

Approval from Quality control

Verifying the pickguard drawing

Verifying the pickguard drawing

Laying out the pickguard

Laying out the pickguard

Test fit of the finished pick guard

Test fit of the finished pick guard

Nate applies a water based mix of Transtint on a sample piece of birds eye Maple.

Nate applies a water based mix of Transtint on a sample piece of birds eye Maple.

Sanding the grain fill

Sanding the grain fill

Body dyed blue

Body dyed blue

Headstock dyed

Headstock dyed

Applying the water slide headstock decal

Applying the water slide headstock decal

With the neck now attached, it was time for a quick trip to quality control – my eldest son Sean – for a check. Thankfully it passed and so the project moved forward to making the pick guard.

Pickguard construction began, as usual, with templates. They were prepared from 1/2″ MDF using the full-size drawing. I made one of the full pickguard and another for just the pickup slot – which I then used to route a matching slot on the full pickguard template.

I had purchased a large sheet of white pearloid pickguard material off Ebay from a supplier in China. This is a three-ply sandwich consisting of a plain white bottom, pearloid top, and a black sheet in the middle. I affixed the template to the top with doublestick tape, cut it close on the bandsaw and pattern-routed it to final dimension. This is where I realized my mistake.

Because the template had been atached to the top ply, I was unable to now simply swap bits to route a chamfer on the top edge. Instead I would need to remove the pickguard from the template, flip it around, and re-attach it from the bottom. This wasn’t too big a deal, except that the protective film covering the top came up with the tape.

This left the pearloid plastic veneer unprotected for the remainder of the build, and resulted in a few minor scratches. It’s not severe enough to toss the material, but could have easily been avoided if I’d thought this bit through some more.

The new pickguard was then fit to the top. It fit pretty well on first try, though I did sand a bit around the neck to close up some gaps.

Now the fun bit – dying the body.

I chose to dye the body blue to approximate the Make-a-Wish colors. Also, I thought blue would look interesting and somewhat unique based off photos of 90’s era Charvel Surfcasters. I picked up a bottle of Transtint blue and my son Nathan and I experimented some.

We played around with applying the blue stain directly to the wood, mixing it with a gloss urethane, and applying it over a sanded-back base of black stain in an attempt highlight the grain. We settled on a simple direct application of blue dye.

Because the back is Ash, to get a great, perfectly smooth finish without dozens of clear coats, I applied a grain fill first. It so happened that the same weekend I was doing this, a brand new Rockler store was opening about 10 minutes away. I stopped into the store and picked up a can of their “Wunderfil” to try. This worked pretty well. It’s water soluble, went on easily enough, and the ‘natural’ color matched the Ash pretty closely.

I worked the fill into the grain with an old credit card, let it dry, sanded it back, and was finally ready to dye the guitar.

On the top, I kept with a straight application of several drops of blue Transtint in water. I would have preferred to use DNA, but as the alcohol would dissolve the binding, it seemed like a very bad idea. I wet the wood to pre-raise the grain and sanded back the ‘fuzzies’. I then applied a very liberal coat of stain, allowed it to soak in, wiped off the excess, and left it to dry. Once dry it was sanded lightly once more. For the back, I mixed a few drops of black into the blue stain to darken it up a bit.

Something I neglected to do and now wish I had was to mask off the plastic binding. I’ve watched several videos online with luthiers scraping away the color from the binding following dye or paint application and figured this would be a reasonable approach. Furthermore, it would prevent a witness line from forming where the tape edge meets the stain. Unfortunately, I found scraping back the binding to be a difficult and tedious process. The color scraped off the binding easily enough. However, it required a very steady hand and high magnification for me to keep from scraping the wood as well. I was forced to apply small amounts of blue dye with a cotton swab to some of my “oops” spots. There are still some areas that show the remnants of this less-than-perfect scrape job. Next time I will mask the binding!

For last year’s build, I chose to spray a tobacco burst finish using my Earlex 5000 and tinted water-borne poly (Minwax Polycrylic). A few critical errors were made on that finish that I wish not to repeat. First, the individual coats were too heavy and applied too often. Consequently, the finish came out soft and ultimately several cracks formed in the top polished gloss finish as the lower layers continued to cure and shrink. I also neglected to sand between coats.

Because poly requires a mechanical adhesion and doesn’t “melt in” like a lacquer, when I began final sanding of the initial top coats, cured poly began peeling and flaking off instead of sanding smooth. Ultimately I wound up literally peeling off the entire first finish and doing the whole thing over again.

Additionally, much of the grain fill wound up coming out with the first finish when I peeled it off. This resulted in a less-than-ideal surface which required many many coats of clear to smooth out entirely.

In order to prevent this from happening again, I decided to apply wipe-on clear top coats of oil-based Polyurethane instead. One of my favorite wipe-on finishes is Homer Formby’s Tung Oil finish. This isn’t really Tung oil at all – it’s a wipe-on polyurethane that goes on quite easily with a soft rag and builds to a beautiful sheen. I’ve used this stuff many times in the past on furniture pieces and was therefore very familiar with it and knew what to expect.

I applied two coats a day for several days, scuff sanding lightly in between with 400 grit wet/dry paper. For the headstock, after the second or third clear coat, I affixed a water slide decal forever identifying the guitar as the “LCA Wishcaster”.

After around the 10th coat I performed an initial leveling of the finish. Though I sanded through the top at one edge, it was a small enough area that I was able to apply a bit of stain and make it almost disappear.

The back, however, was a bit more problematic.

While leveling I was sure to use well-lubricated, clean sandpaper with very light pressure. I was careful to watch carefully what I was doing. I was careful not to hover in one area for very long. And yet I still somehow managed to sand through a decent-sized section of finish. Ugh!

I briefly considered sanding the entire back down again and essentially starting the back over. In the end I wound up applying additional stain in this area and topped it with another 16 very thin coats of wipe-on poly. The results are far from perfect, and though still months away, I’m more concerned with this guitar being ready on time. I’m going to move forward with the next build and if that comes out OK I may consider redoing the back of this one. Or I may just consider it “character” and a learning experience and move on.

After a little over 24 hours of cure time, I started the final sanding. I worked from 400 – 1000 grit wet/dry paper, briefly soaked first in a small container of water with a drop of soap. After 1000 I paused and buffed out the top a bit. Although I knew it wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, I was anxious to make sure it *would* buff out. A little bit of brown compound applied to the buffer was all it took to bring out a very nice shine, albeit with very fine (1000 grit) scratches.

So I went back to sanding, using first 1500 and then 2000 grit before buffing it out again and then polishing with Meguiars’ M7 as I’ve read many do. I’m not sure if it’s the way I applied it or the finish, or what, but the Meguiar’s didn’t seem to add much if anything to the shine. Fortunately I was already happy with it before the application, so no concerns there.

Next up is wiring up the electronics and final assembly!

The headstock with decal

The headstock with decal

leveling the finish

leveling the finish

Mmmmm....shiny!

Mmmmm….shiny!

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Carving the Wish-caster Neck

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Gluing the scarf joint

Gluing the scarf joint

Installing the side dots

Installing the side dots

Side dots installed

Side dots installed

Truss rod installed

Truss rod installed

Gluing on the headstock veneer

Gluing on the headstock veneer

Gluing on the fretboard

Gluing on the fretboard

Aligning the neck with a laser before routing the pocket

Aligning the neck with a laser before routing the pocket

Neck pocket routed and corners cleaned up

Neck pocket routed and corners cleaned up

Binding ledge cut in headstock

Binding ledge cut in headstock

Binding the body

Binding the body

Carving of the neck begins

Carving of the neck begins

Finished neck profile

Finished neck profile

After a couple weeks away, I was finally able to spend a weekend in the shop.

Returning to the fretboard, I gave it a bit of thought and ultimately decided rather than try and fix the bad frets (there were probably 8-10) and paint the fretboard with CA (see the previous post), I would basically pull most of them and redo the work.

This allowed me to scrape back the glue-stained areas until clean. I also discovered that the reason I had so much trouble the first time is simply that the fretwire wasn’t bent enough. I hadn’t thought it critical that the wire radius match the fretboard perfectly. However, when I decreased the radius of the wire (by increasing the bend), the frets slotted perfectly without gaps at the ends. My guess is that matching the bend becomes more critical on bound fretboards where the tang on the ends is cut away to clear the binding.

In any case, the refret job left me with a much nicer fretboard with properly-seated frets and a nice, clean surface.

Using a 3/32″ bit, holes were drilled in the fretboard for the side dots. These were “glued” in by dipping the plastic stick in acetone, which acts as a solvent for the material, and then pushing it into the hole. I scraped the side, leaving a clean, flush black dot in the appropriate fret positions.

the Headstock Scarf Joint

The original Charvel Surfcasters featured an angled “Gibson-style” headstock. I’ve worked with both angled and straight and much prefer this style. Though Fender’s single-piece neck is easier to construct, I dislike the need for string trees and I wanted to match the original Charvel for this build as well.

Though I’d yet to finish a neck build (the last two electrics I built featured mass-produced necks), I have started several acoustic necks. These were made with scarf-jointed headstocks.

Consequently, I’d already built a jig for the band saw to help make this angled cut. It was just a matter of dusting the jig off and putting it to use. The band saw left a rough, hollow cut, which is to be expected. A bit of sanding and scraping was all that was needed to true this up before gluing the neck together.

The headstock veneer was cut from a piece of birdseye Maple left over from the body cap. This was first angled at the nut side to match the headstock angle, and then glued into place using nails to ensure it didn’t wander under the clamps. I cut a template from MDF and used it to mark the headstock. I used a nail set to punch an indent to mark the tuner hole locations and help align/guide the drill bit. These were drilled out and the headstock and neck were cut just oversize on the bandsaw. Fearing tear out in the end grain side, I opted to sand the headstock to final size rather than using a pattern-routing bit on the router table.

Now it was time to glue the fretboard into place. I used an old plastic Gibson-size nut as a spacer to help position the fretboard. Then using a trick I picked up online, I covered the truss rod with a piece of 3/4″ wide masking tape before applying glue to the neck. This is removed just before the fretboard is clamped in place and prevents the glue from immobilizing the truss rod, rendering it useless. The radius sanding board was used as a clamping caul to maintain even pressure and ensure a good tight joint.

Once the glue dried, and while the neck was still a rectangular block, I used it to mark out the neck pocket on the body. A laser level was used to line up the neck with the body center line, ensuring this line passed through the center of the nut. I then clamped the neck and body in proper alignment and blocked out the neck with boards on either side and the end of the neck blank. Once these were in position, the neck was removed leaving the boards in place as a neck pocket template. With this setup I was able to route a 5/8″ deep pocket exactly matching the neck.

I tried using masking tape on the sides of the boards where the router bit bearing rode to ensure the hole was a hair undersized. Unfortunately, the router bit wound up tearing this tape up (guess I needed to keep the tape at bearing depth and above). I used a chisel to clean up the corners, which for this neck are anglular and not rounded as the bit had left them. Because the tape trick proved ineffective, the pocket was slightly too big and the neck fit rather loosely. To fix this, I ironed on a strip of edge banding to the inside side of the pocket. This worked brilliantly and the neck was now snug.

Binding

I’d cut the binding rabbet in the body a few weeks ago. I used the router table to route the ledge in the headstock and proceeded to bind the headstock first. The Stewmac “Bind All” adhesive works reasonably well, but it sure is messy!

Using the heat gun to help bend the plastic binding I was able to complete the job, covering my fingers with cement in the process. I repeated the procedure on the body and set it aside to cure for at least 12 hours before scraping it flush to the top.

Carving the Neck

Now I was finally at the bit I was most anxious about: hand carving the neck. I’d successfully carved a scroll for a dulcimer peghead, and the contours on an SG-style guitar for my first build. But neither of these impacted the instrument’s actual performance. The neck was entirely different. The neck is the primary interface with the player and one of the first things most players will notice and comment upon after picking up the instrument. It seemed a daunting task to carve this with sufficient precision and with an appropriate feel. But, it was next and it certainly wasn’t going to carve itself – so I dug in.

I first drew a straight line down the center of the back of the neck to act as a reference. I also freehanded some lines near the head and tail to mark the transition points and took some measurements and traced the profile of my favorite neck (my Ovation acoustic).

With my Fender Squier Strat sitting on a stand within eyeshot to act as a reference, I began carving, alternating between a rasp and a Stanley Sureform tool. It took a bit to get the neck clamped reasonably securely. I definitely need to invest in or devise a better clamping jig. The rasp worked a bit faster but also tended to chew up the wood. The sureform made smooth or rough cuts depending on how I used it, in what direction in relation to the grain it was pushed.

I started working my way from the edges toward the center. Once the edges were curved to meet the fretboard, I began working toward the still flat center. About a third of the way through I stopped using the rasp, preferring the cut and control of the sureform.

Once the top 2/3rds was reasonably close, I flipped the neck around and carved down to the tail end, blending it toward the center. As I neared what seemed like a final profile, I began testing it out repeatedly. I would first chord the Stratocaster, then move to the carved neck to compare the feel. At some point I decided it was “good” and that I should be done. However, I wasn’t completely convinced it was perfectly to my liking. It was certainly acceptable and I began to fear going too far and ruining the neck with a careless move.

I brought the guitar into the music room and compared it to my other guitars. It certainly was slinkier than my Epiphone Wildkat. But the Wildkat can be a bit tiring to play for an extended period. It compared favorably to my old Les Paul copy as well, though I wasn’t certain it was any better or even necessarily as good.

I decided to take a break from carving and instead align and attach the neck to the body. Before I could do that, the binding, now cured, needed to be flushed.

For the body this was fairly easy as the binding was only slightly proud of the top and sides. A card scraper made quick work of it. The headstock was a different story as I had intentionally routed a much shallower ledge to more closely match the binding on the side of the 1/4″ thick fingerboard. I decided to use an X-acto knife to first trim back the plastic binding a bit before scraping.

Unfortunately, I also ignored the voice in my head that said never to cut towards yourself! The blade slipped and while the cut across my thumb didn’t hurt too much, I donated a significant amount of blood to the headstock. Thankfully this cleaned up with a bit of sanding — after sitting down for 5 minutes to apply pressure to the cut. At least now I can truthfully say I literally put my sweat and blood into this build.

Once the binding was flush, I turned back to joining the neck with the body. They aligned quite easily and I found having the neck attached to the body provided the extra support I was missing on my first round of carving.

Ultimately I decided I was going to continue to work on carving the neck until I was certain it was, if not perfect, something I’d want to play routinely. At this point I switched to my scrapers. With these I was able to achieve a smooth finish and a final profile that feels and looks like it came from a factory. It is quite comfortable to fret from top to bottom.

It was a lot of work, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared and I’m quite proud of the results. I’ll just have to wait and see what my guitar-playing friends have to say after trying it out for the first time!

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The “Wish-caster” Fingerboard

Preparing to fret the fingerboard
The Wish-caster design

The Wish-caster design

Cutting out the star with a jewel's saw

Cutting out the star with a jewel’s saw

The line art transferred quite nicely from the laser printed output

The line art transferred quite nicely from the laser printed output

Layout of the completed shell pieces prior to inlay

Layout of the completed shell pieces prior to inlay

I placed the numbered pieces in a dixie cup for safekeeping

I placed the numbered pieces in a dixie cup for safekeeping

Inlay complete

Inlay complete

Preparing to fret the fingerboard

Preparing to fret the fingerboard

Binding secured with tape while glue dries

Binding secured with tape while glue dries

A clearance slot filed into my Radio Shack nippers to make fret tang cutters

A clearance slot filed into my Radio Shack nippers to make fret tang cutters

Frets installed. A few of the frets aren't fully seated yet.

Frets installed. A few of the frets aren’t fully seated yet.

The Design

The first two electrics I built were constructed with factory-made necks. Having never fretted an instrument before, I was apprehensive about taking on that part of the project with a hard deadline. For this design I wanted a custom inlay on the fretboard featuring the primary ‘star’ component of the Make-a-Wish logo. Last year I acquired a fretting jig and table saw blade made for the task and used them with much success on the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer project. This time, I would build the neck from scratch.

I’ve still got a decent stock of Cocobolo in the shop, so the fretboard will be made of that. I also purchased a few ounces of white mother-of-pearl blanks from stewmac.com. Using CorelDraw and a vector graphic of the logo, I scaled and arranged the bits I wanted over a full size drawing of the fretboard.

Preparing the Fretboard Blank

I prepared a 1/4″ thick fretboard blank of Cocobolo and slotted it to Fender 25.5″ scale length using the aforementioned template and saw blade. I chose a 9.5″ radius for this guitar, mainly because my favorite neck is on my Ovation, which is only slightly shallower at 10″. I’ve seen a few radiusing jigs online, but they were either overly complicated or required tools I didn’t possess. I did see someone who built a drum sander sled that carries the fingerboard blank through at a slight angle, taking off the edges. I chose not to build that and instead got started with the sanding block. Hand sanding the radius, however, took quite a bit of time and paper. The corners took a long time to drop down, wearing out the paper at the edges well before the center even made contact. Next time, I’ll build the drum sanding jig!

The Inlay

A neat trick I learned from Mary May’s online carving school is how you can easily transfer a design from normal laser printer output using a household iron. This had worked for me for transferring template designs onto hardboard, so I thought I’d try it out on the pearl blanks. The completed design was printed, cut out, and laid toner-side-down onto appropriate size pieces of pearl. A hot iron was held on top for about 30 seconds. Rocking it back and forth a bit seemed to help to ensure a good transfer. The lines came out dark and clear on the flat, brilliant white pearl pieces. Perfect!

Each piece was then numbered to match the numbers assigned on a separate print out of the design and cut out with a jeweler’s saw and fine blades. This operation required a magnifier visor I’d picked up at Harbor Freight some time ago. Though this appears to be a tedious job, the blades actually made fairly quick work of cutting out the parts and I was able to track the line closely.

Another trick I learned online was using masking tape and super glue to temporarily attach the pieces to be inlaid to the fretboard. It basically works like this: I affixed a piece of masking tape sticky-side-up over a print out of the design. The tape is sufficiently translucent to see the design though it. As the pieces of shell were cut, they would be placed into position on the sticky tape. Once the pieces were all cut, a second piece of masking tape was put on the fretboard. I then applied some CA glue to the top of the masking tape on the fretboard and glued the tape and inlay assembly into proper position on that (see photo). When the CA cured, I carefully scored the fretboard around the inlay pieces through the two thin layers of tape. The tape and shell pieces were then removed from the fretboard and white chalk rubbed into the score lines, making them sufficiently visible for routing.

A 1/16″ bit was used to evacuate cavities for the pearl pieces. I don’t have chisels fine enough for the small shell pieces I was inlaying, but an exact-o blade did a nice job of trimming back the Cocobolo until the pieces fit snugly. Once in place, super thin CA glue was applied to the inlay, which wicked around the pieces, holding them firmly in place. After sanding again with the radiused sander, additional CA glue was added to “lock in” the Cocobolo dust now filling any open spaces. The resulting inlay came out great though there was a bit of the star that didn’t survive the final sanding. The cavity wasn’t quite deep enough at the edges. I’m still quite pleased with the result and decided against trying to fix this by adding a separate piece.

Binding

I knew that binding the fretboard would add significantly to the build time. Each of the fret wires would need to be “nipped” to remove the tang on the ends and gluing them in place would also be a bit trickier as I couldn’t just drop some CA glue in the slot at the sides. However, the guitar simply wouldn’t look complete (to me at least) without a bound fretboard. The actual binding process is pretty straightforward. I did find that the curved binding — it’s packaged and shipped in a coil — was far easier to apply to the straight fretboard if I first heated it with a heat gun and spent a few seconds working it flat. Just as with the sound hole, I used the StewMac “BindALL” cement and secured it with that orange tape until dry.

The 5/16″ binding was nearly twice as tall as needed due to the thinning at the fretboartd edges from the radius. I started leveling this off with chisels first and then finished with sand paper and finally a scraper. The biggest issue I had here was cleaning up the corners – there was some glue squeeze out that was tricky to scrape away. Also, when I wiped the Cocobolo clean with some DNA (acetone would eat the plastic binding!), some of the wood’s oils rubbed onto the white binding, yellowing it a bit. I scraped the binding lightly to restore the color, but will need to be careful in future to prevent this from happening again.

The Frets

At the same time as I purchased the fret blade and template, I also picked up a fret wire bending machine. I considered making my own, but I plan on building quite a few guitars and don’t feel the need to learn from my mistakes at bending fret wire by hand. The machine makes quick and easy work of bending the fret wire, highly recommended. Once I finished cutting all 24 pieces, I began the process of pressing them in place. Again here I had purchased special tool that chucks into a drill press to push the wire into place. I’d hammered them in the fretboard of the dulcimer, and it wasn’t all that bad. However, it was also fairly easy to put a noticeable ‘ding’ in a fret, or otherwise warp it. This tool includes inserts for common neck radiuses and applies even pressure along the curved surface. Very helpful.

Because of the binding, the tangs at the ends of the wire would need to be removed. I first attempted to use my end cutters, but these aren’t truly flush – they would need to be ground for that and I don’t have a bench grinder. Next I tried filing the tangs away with a small file. Although this worked, it was awkward. Holding the wire proved difficult and would require a jig of some sort to do well. Filing was also slow work and one of the pieces I tried this on wound up a bit bent from the effort. I knew that I could purchase a specialty “fret nipper” from StewMac, but that would mean waiting a few days to continue the job. I did, however, have a PC board “nibbler” tool I got at Radio Shack years ago for electronics work. The tool needed some modification as there wasn’t any clearance for the fret top. But by filing a groove into the top of the tool, I was able to quickly and easily “nibble” away the tang…for most of the frets. Until I tried to “improve” the tool further by deepening the slot. Bad move – it essentially stopped working consistently at this point and I returned to hand-filing the remaining fret wires.

Most of the frets pressed into place fine, but there were definitely a few troublesome slots. The frets didn’t like passing through some of the pearl inlays. Though the slots appeared wide/deep enough, but the ends wouldn’t seat properly on a few of them seeming to bind slightly in the middle at the pearl, causing them to rise a bit. I tried sawing the slot wider/deeper. I tried nibbling a bit at the tang. I tried CA glue to hold them down, but this was also problematic as I had some issues applying the glue and then quickly clamping down and spraying the accelerator. The CA glue would also wick out from under the frets and leave a line across the unfinished fret board. At this point I think I’m going to need to scrape back any ‘bumps’ of glue and then finish the entire fretboard with the CA to get a consistent tone.

The next couple weekends we’ll be out of town, so for now this will need to sit and wait for me to get back and fix the bad ends, file and bevel the ends, and apply the CA ‘finish.’ Even with the issues, it’s looking really nice and I’m confident I’ll get a nice final result…

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Make-A-Wish Surfcaster: Capping the Body

Binding ledge cut
Body templates

Body templates

Wild bark inclusion in the birdseye Maple

Close-up of wild bark inclusion in the birdseye Maple

Choosing the top grain pattern

Choosing the top grain pattern

Binding the sound hole

Binding the sound hole

The sound hole bound with pearloid white binding

The sound hole bound with pearloid white binding

The body base and figured top plate

The body base and figured top plate

Gluing the body together

Gluing the body together

Electronics pocket routed

Electronics pocket routed

Binding ledge cut

Binding ledge cut

With the Ash blank shaped, it’s time to prepare the figured top. I made a “top cap” template including holes for the sound hole and electronics pockets. Two of these were cut: one in MDF and another in acrylic. I wanted a clear version to allow me to see the grain pattern I was selecting for the finished top.

The book-matched cuts of birdseye Maple included a really nice bark inclusion. When initially laying out the top, I’d joined the edges such that the inclusion spots would appear just behind the bridge. I thought this would look amazing filled with colored or even phosphorescent epoxy. I played with this for some time but the tradeoff was there are few “eyes” in this section of wood. If I chose to use the inclusions, most of the birdseye figuring would either be underneath the pickguard or not on the top at all.

When I joined to top along the opposite edges, the center and lower bout featured significant figure, including both birdseye and curl. After agonizing over this for some time, I decided against using the inclusion and sticking with the birdseye. I made sure to leave as much material around the bark inclusion for possible use in a future project.

The top piece was jointed, glued, and thicknessed. I’d originally considered thinning this piece down to between 1/8″ and 3/16″,  similar to my very thin Epiphone Wildkat top. The photos I could find online of the surfcaster however, seem to show a fairly chunky top. This was most evident at the sound hole where the binding looked about as tall as the binding on the sides. I briefly considered trying to resaw the top further and then adding a thicker patch under the sound hole, but ultimately settled on a solid 1/4″ cap.

A template was used to mark and then rough out the top and mark for the sound hole. I template routed the sound hole as much as I could and used a hand saw to remove the rest. Some cleanup with a small file and it was ready for binding.

The binding is a white pearloid plastic matching the pattern of the pickguard. It’s roughly 1/16″ thick and 5/16″ tall. This was attached with some Stewmac Bind-ALL and held in place with paper binding tape. A couple small gaps were filled with sawdust, but it came out looking really great.

Before turning to the neck, I decided to cut the rabbet for the binding. Instead of buying an expensive specialty bit from Stewmac, I grabbed a Whiteside flush trim bit and a spare bearing, 1/8″ smaller, to create a 1/16″ rabetting bit. This cut quite nicely, though I decided to hold off on actually binding the body until after cutting the neck pocket. And to help ensure a tight fit, I don’t want to cut the neck pocket without first building the neck.

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Make-A-Wish Charvel Surfcaster: Starting the Build

The first charity guitar - theLCA SG Jr.

My first charity guitar – theLCA SG Jr.

Charity guitar #2 from last year's raffle.

Charity guitar #2 from last year’s raffle.

The first parts order arrives!

The first parts order arrives!

Template on Ash body blank

Template on Ash body blank

Gluing up the body blank

Gluing up the body blank

Tear-out section after CA glue and sawdust treatment

Tear-out section following CA glue and sawdust treatment

In 2014 I had the idea that I could build an electric guitar (my first) and raffle it off for charity through my company’s holiday party band, the LCA. This resulted in the LCA SG Jr. guitar which raised over $2,100 for Make-A-Wish Illinois. Last year this was repeated with a Lospennato-inspired “Radio star” clone, though I entirely failed to blog about it. That guitar, thanks to a very generous company match, contributed over $5,000 to Make-A-Wish. These guitars were nice, but I really want something special for electric guitar – and charity raffle – #3.

On a recent trip to a local bookstore, I came across Tony Bacon’s The Ultimate Guitar Book and decided it would look nice in my music room. There were some great photos of classic and modern guitars that made for a cool coffee table book. On a whim, I packed this book up with my stuff for a recent week-long camping vacation…and read it.

That’s where I first set eyes on the beautiful Charvel Surfcaster. Built in the 90’s this semi-solid electric featured a retro look with large pearloid pickguard and shiny, sleek, lipstick-style single coil pickups. I knew instantly this would be the 2016 charity guitar.

The Drawing

I initially drafted the surfcaster shape on the computer using CorelDraw and a pretty good, large, top view photo from the ‘net. This came out looking great, but I thought it seemed a little undersized. I had carefully scaled the photo up to a scale length of 25.5″ but the body wound up measuring only a bit over 16″. Clearly my photo reference wasn’t a precise top view, resulting in a bit of a skew. So I did some further searching and found a nice drafting of this guitar, including dimensions. The drawing was a bit too small to simply print out – it was far too pixelated when blown up to use at full size. I was, however, able to scale it up in CorelDraw and then adjust and tweak my original drawing to match by overlaying it on top.

I now had a full-size vector drawing of the guitar, including the sound hole, pickguard, and electronics cavities. (Download the PDF here).

Back from Camp, Down to Work

I returned from camp to find a box from StewMac.com waiting. This first parts order included 18:1 Grover tuners I’d picked out and a couple different bridges to try. I’d decided against installing a tremolo, but am planning on through-body stringing. I also ordered a couple other top-mount bridges just in case I change my mind.

First step for any new guitar project is making templates. The base body template was cut from 1/4″ MDF. I also cut the resonating cavity out of the template. I figured I after pattern-routing the body I could route this cavity before removing the template.

With this first template, crafting the body was fairly simple. I had some 8/4 Ash in stock for the base and my last (gulp!) wide piece of birdseye Maple would be resawn and applied as the top.

The Ash blanks were jointed, glued, and drum sanded to thickness. I didn’t have an exact measurement for the body thickness of the original surfcasters. They certainly look like fairly beefy guitars in the photos and there’d be quite a bit of weight removed from the body when I route out the resonating cavity. I figured they were likely somewhere between 1.75″ and so I’d probably go with around 1-7/8″ to 1-15/16″  finished thickness. I surfaced the Ash blank down to just under 1.70″ and attached the template with double-stick tape and a couple screws. Since the top of the Ash would be hidden under the birdseye, the small screw holes could basically be anywhere and would ensure the template wouldn’t slip during routing.

I cut the basic shape out on the bandsaw, staying as close to 1/16″-1/8″ from the attached template as possible, being careful of course not to cut into it. Turning to my router table, I installed one of my longest flushing bits and began carefully routing the final shape. This is where I ran into that very common and annoying snag – as I rounded the lower bout the Ash tore out pretty bad. This is end grain routing, where tear out is almost inevitable, but I had hoped I’d cut close enough to the final shape, and held the block firmly enough, to avoid it. I was wrong. A better strategy here (next time) would have been to route a portion of the full thickness at a time with the template and bearing initially at the bottom, and then cleaning up with the long flushing bit. The fix for this was to fill the gaps with some sawdust and CA glue and then sand the rest of the body to the final dimension.

Next up: finishing off the body and making the birdseye maple top…

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Assembling the Box, Part I – Soundboard and Sides

Ready for the back
My lovely shop assistants

My lovely shop assistants

Gluing in the head block

Gluing in the head block

Jig for beveling the kerfed lining

Jig for beveling the kerfed lining

Mahogany kerfed lining

Mahogany kerfed lining

Gluing the kerfed lining

Gluing the kerfed lining

Annalise uses a specialty spreader to apply glue to the sides

Annalise uses a specialty spreader to apply glue to the sides

Gluing in kerfed lining for the back

Gluing in kerfed lining for the back

Ready for the back

Ready for the back

The head and tail blocks

The head block was assembled as a 5-piece glue-up with three ‘core’ pieces stacked vertically and a top and bottom glued horizontally cross-grain. This is done to promote stability and strength in both dimensions while providing a side-grain surface for both the sides and the top and bottom.

The top of the head block was angled, about 1/8″ taller in the back per Cumpiano’s drawings, and a notch cut in the top to allow access to the truss rod. Or at least I thought I was cutting the top. Unfortunately, I managed to confuse the top and bottom (even though I’d marked them clearly) and cut an unnecessary channel in the bottom instead. I glued it in place anyway figuring I’d fill the gap before attaching the bottom.

The one bit I struggled with most here was alignment. You need to ensure the head and tail blocks are aligned on center and square to the shoulder or else you can wind up with an odd and potentially problematic neck joint.

The best I could come up with was to mark the centers of each block and overlay the whole assembly on the full-size drawing. This should result in proper alignment, though because of the truss rod notch, the center line of the head block couldn’t be extended all the way to the bottom of the block. The final alignment was done by sighting down the center line from above. This isn’t perfectly precise, but I believe (…er ‘hope?’) that I managed to get this right.

I’ll be sure to research this further prior to the next build and see what I can cook up. Perhaps if I only cut an access hole for the truss rod and not notch away all of the wood up to the top it’ll be easier to get a perfect alignment.

Making the kerfed lining

It seemed oddly difficult to find online examples of people making kerfed lining. The books suggested ramping the side with a hand plane. This seemed imprecise and time-consuming. Though there are numerous references for installing the lining, many of them either neglect to mention how they made it or explicitly state they bought it pre-made. I intend to make all of the wood components for this guitar, including the lining.

A technique that seemed fast, safe, and practical, involved building a jig with a narrow slot cut down the center of a board wide enough to accept the lining blank. This then acts as a carrier for the lining piece which is run through the table saw with the blade angled appropriately to form the bevel in the lining. This did the trick. The bevel came out consistent and my fingers were never in any danger.

Considering options for cutting the kerfs, I found methods for the table saw and band saw. The band saw method seemed less precise and more tedious as it produced a single piece at a time. With the table saw, people tend to tape several blanks together and run them through the saw on a sled at the same time. Far more efficient.

My fret slotting blade instructions made mention of other uses, including for cutting kerfs for linings. So I thought I’d give that a try. The measure from the Cumpiano book was 3/8″ between kerfs. I taped several together and ran them on the table saw sled over the blade making the cuts. A slight bit of sanding on the back thinned it a bit further and the linings were ready.

The soundboard

After  sanding a bit off the sides to true them up to the head and tail blocks, my assistants and I began gluing in the lining to attach the soundboard.

For some of the tighter curves, the 3/8″ spacing and narrow kerfs weren’t sufficient. For the outside bends, the spacing was too far apart. For the inside curves, the narrow kerfs along with the spacing didn’t allow sufficient “compression”. I wound up cutting additional kerfs in some sections of the lining on the soundboard side.

This worked, but I did find the inconsistent appearance off-putting. Thankfully it won’t be seen unless repairs are needed  – and as this is my acoustic build #1, I’ll consider it a lesson learned. Next time I’ll try 1/4″ or 5/16″ spacing and probably just use the standard table saw blade for the larger width.

Once the linings dried, they were sanded flush with the sides using a large sanding board and the finished side positioned over the soundboard. I marked the intersections of the braces and sides on the kerfing and removed these sections of lining with a sharp chisel.

Finally, it was time to join the soundboard to the sides. Once again, alignment is crucial and somewhat tricky. Fortunately, the side and block assembly fit neatly with almost no coercion over the outline on the back of the soundboard. The curves matched up far better than I feared they would.

The back lining

The back of the guitar slopes gently. The tail end is roughly 1-inch taller than the head. The original side blanks were a consistent width, a bit taller than the tail end. They would need to be trimmed to final size before gluing in the lining.

The process began with a long strip of poster board – actually, two shorter strips taped together – used as a flexible straight edge. I taped one end to the tail at the appropriate height and then wrapped it around the outside of the body, following the curve and angling downward toward the head.

After tracing a line along the edge and repeating the process on the other side, the sides needed to be trimmed down. I initially attempted using a thin razor saw for this. I hadn’t cut more than a couple inches when the blade bound on the side and split it almost horizontally, with the separation ending just below my line!

Many articles I’ve read discuss using CA glue (“superglue”) to fix issues like this. So I pulled out my super thin CA, applied it to the crack and clamped it back into position. With a couple spritzes of accelerator the glue held and the side was whole again. Obviously, the violent motions of the saw blade can damage the sides.

I turned to my chisels. These provided a more controlled cut and the ability to feel when to switch directions as the grain demanded. It didn’t take long to get within hand plane range, at which point a low-angle block plane was used to take the sides down to just above the line, leaving it for a sanding reference. Once again the sanding block was used to ensure a level, even finish. Now was time to glue in the lining in prep for attaching the back.

The linings for the back seemed to fit a bit better than the top. There was no need to cut extra kerfs to coax them into place. As these were essentially the same linings installed around the same curves I guess it’s a case of getting a bit better the second time around. In any case, my helpers and I repeated the glue and clamping process on both halves of the back.

The family then headed out for a week-long camping trip, so the body will need to sit in the shop for a bit. Once we get back, my helpers and I will glue on the back and begin fitting the neck.

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Picking Up Where I Left Off…

In early 2012, I started my first acoustic guitar build and for several reasons wound up putting it aside. Over 4 years, a couple electric guitars and mountain dulcimers under my belt, I finally felt ready to return to this project.

Making the mould

Annalise helps me glue up the mold

The completed bending machine

The soundboard and neck, and back and side blanks

The soundboard and neck, and back and side blanks

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Back plates ready for joining

Making the back braces

Making the back braces

Gluing the soundboard bracing

Gluing the soundboard bracing

Sanding the carved braces

Sanding the carved braces

Back to Prep Work…

The first two tasks were to build a bending form and finish building the bending machine that’s been sitting under my bench gathering sawdust for several years. The machine was essentially complete – all that was needed was to assemble the form by drilling some holes and installing 1/2″ conduit. I also installed the springs for clamping down the ends.

Although I had already built a Cumpiano-style workboard, it’s clear that most luthiers these days use a mold to keep their sides in place during the assembly process. It certainly seemed to me like an easier and more precise way to assemble the guitar.

Additionally, with my somewhat limited and sporadic shop schedule, I knew the sides could be sitting around for several days, perhaps weeks, before being glued up. I wanted something to hold them securely in place to ensure the bends didn’t relax. And so my daughter and I built a mold of MDF.

Bending the Sides

Taking stock of where I left off, the neck I liked the most was made of birdseye Maple. I had also resawn a couple back blanks of birdseye. I just love the stuff and had a couple boards around that would work quite well as sides. So after an afternoon of resawing and thickness sanding the side blanks, it was time to test out the bending form.

Initially, I attempted placing a blank directly on the bending machine and allowing the heat from the three 200-watt bulbs to do the work. However, because my bending form is capped with aluminum sheeting, the heat is trapped by the surface of the form and doesn’t heat the straight slat floating several inches from its curved surface. This approach wouldn’t work unless I wanted to remove the aluminum, leaving the bright, hot bulbs exposed.

Shifting gears I briefly attempted bending the sides with a heat gun; a technique that worked very well with the dulcimer ribs. As I suspected, the extra width – more than 2x wider – of the guitar sides made this significantly more difficult to pull off.

So I pulled out my new steam box and decided to steam the wood before bending it against the pre-warmed bending form. This worked quite well. The pieces bent readily after a 20-minute steaming session. Leaving them on the form with heat applied for an additional 15 or so minutes helped “lock in” the bend. There was very minimal spring back.

The Back Plates

While the sides “cooked” we turned attention to the back plates. They were first jointed and glued. With the back and sides of Maple and top of Sitka spruce, there would be a whole lotta light-colored wood in the body. This would need to be broken up with some contrasting binding which meant ripping up a pile of 1/4″ wide Cocobolo strips. One of these was inlaid down the center of the back.

Mahogany seemed a nice contrast for the center patch. Sitka pieces were cut for the bracing. The 30″ radius curve was laid out on the computer and appropriate arcs printed out. I tried a new technique I learned recently from Mary May for transferring the drawings to the hardboard template: a hot iron was used to transfer the laser-printed curve directly onto the board. I would never have suspected this would work, but it does.  This curve was traced onto the Sitka bracing and they were sanded to shape.

I glued these in place with the back clamped onto the Cumpiano work-board with cork shims around the edge to match the bow.

Soundboard Bracing

Before applying the bracing I noticed that the soundboard rosette wasn’t perfectly flat and flush to the surface. The soundboard itself also felt a bit stiffer than I’d like. I recall being apprehensive about running the delicate Spruce through the wide-belt sander four years ago. After running the birdseye Maple through probably dozens of times I was feeling far more confident. Several passes later and the rosette was flat and smooth and the soundboard stiff yet responsive.

I’d purchased several blocks of Sitka Spruce “bracing wood” from LMI several years back. This was sliced up based on the specs from the Cumpiano book and curved in the same manner as the back bracing. Annalise helped me glue and clamp these into place and did much of the finish sanding after carving was done.

With the sides bent and the top and bottom plates completed, next up is assembling the body…

 

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Finishing “Coco Bear” the Appalacian Dulcimer

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My biggest concern in finishing the dulcimer was sealing the Cocobolo. I’d read that the oils in the wood along with it’s natural density made finishing difficult. Again turning to online forums, people typically recommended sealing the oils in first under a couple coats of shellac before applying your finish of choice.

2 coats of shellac to seal the oily Cocobolo

2 coats of shellac to seal the oily Cocobolo

Cocobolo shines under the lacquer.

Cocobolo shines under the lacquer.

Though I own (and love) an Earlex HVLP gun, for environmental/cleanup issues I use it for waterborne finishes only. The dulcimer is small enough that “rattle can” shellac seemed the obvious choice here. Several layers of lacquer was applied over the initial two shots of shellac. And then I waited.

Hanging to cure

Hanging to cure

Finishing the scroll

Finishing the scroll

For last year’s electric guitar build, I knew I’d need to use TimberMate to fill the deep, open grain of the Ash in order to get a smooth flat final finish. I’d assumed that this step wouldn’t be necessary with the Cocobolo. The grain seemed much tighter – especially after hand scraping the surface. A couple shots of lacquer proved this theory wrong. The grain lines and recesses were definitely visible and made for a less-than-glass-smooth surface.

I sanded a bit but in the end decided I wanted to move on (guitar!) and could live with the “grainy” finish – it still looked beautiful and perhaps some day I can use this as a test piece to improve my finish work.

While it was curing, I cut the nut and bridge from my “sample” block of white Corian and found some decent brass round-head nails to use for the string

pins.

And at last a chance to try it out:

Resting with its cousins.

Finished dulcimer resting with its cousins.

Inlaid mother-of-pearl

Inlaid mother-of-pearl

Peg box scroll detail

Peg box scroll detail

the completed dulcimer

the upper bout

The lower bout

The lower bout

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Glue Up and Carving the Scroll

Back braced and glued to sides. Installing the cherry lining.

Back braced and glued to sides. Installing the cherry lining.

Joining the back and sides went smoothly. The concern I had here, and in general with gluing Cocobolo, is the oily nature of the wood. I’d read numerous articles and blog posts discussing difficulties with getting the glue to adhere. I followed the advice of several commenters in first sanding/planning the edges to be joined and then wiping the area with acetone. The wood’s oils left a brown residue on the wiping cloth. After that, Titebond III seemed to do the trick. So far I’ve not experienced any failed joints; they appear sound and solid.

In guitars, the bracing is typically Spruce. I’m not sure what they usually use for dulcimers, but as the Cocobolo isn’t in any way typical I figured I’d use what I had on hand – in this case scraps of Maple.

Carving the Scroll

Next up was carving the scroll. I briefly considered a more modern guitar-style head but really wanted a more traditional style instrument – and really wanted to learn how to carve.

To work out how to actually carve the scroll, I turned to the Internet where ultimately I discovered Mary May’s School of Traditional Woodcarving. Among her many video lessons were at tutorials on carving at least 3 different types of scroll. Although I’d watched the beginner lessons, I was too impatient to carve donuts and flowers first. Instead I dove right into the scroll.

Scroll blank glued from 3 pieces of birdseye Maple.

Scroll blank glued from 3 pieces of birdseye Maple.

The Kimball book provided no actual peg head dimensions, but there were a few drawings of common heads. I chose one, scaled it to what looked like a proportional size, and printed it out.

I opted to go with a three-part glue up. By leaving a hollow in the middle of the assembly this allowed me to skip the step of chiseling out the peg box.

The carving went quite well, though I did have to use a bit of CA glue to reattach a chip from the center of the scroll that popped off. I also stopped a bit shy of what I had originally intended – the depth of the scroll is a bit subtler than I’d wanted. However, it was looking really good to me and so I decided to quite while I was ahead!

The carved peg head was attached to the body and reinforced with hardwood dowels before turning to the soundboard.

Scroll attached to head block

Scroll attached to head block

The Soundboard

Soundboard glued to sides

Soundboard glued to sides

My assistant and I spent quite a bit of time searching the Internet for the right sound hole design. In the end, we decided to go with a riff on the traditional “f” sound hole design by marrying it with a canted heart design – a dulcimer staple.

The actual heart shape was pulled from Microsoft’s “Webdings” font collection. Though I could probably have drawn my own, I knew this fact would drive my Microsoft Windows-hating co-workers crazy.

Mother-of-Pearl Butterfly and Flower Inlays

Butterflies and flowers inlay

Butterflies and flowers inlay

My very first large scale “fine woodworking” project was a crib and changing table/dresser for my then infant daughter Annalise. These featured my first attempt at inlay – butterflies. As she also happens to be my constant shop companion these days, helping me out with the dulcimer, it seemed fitting to incorporate butterflies into this project as well. After trying, and failing, to cut the shell on my scroll saw, I cut a slot in a piece of scrap plywood and proceeded to hand-cut the abalone. It turned out to be faster and easier than I originally assumed it would be.

Following some very helpful video advice from Blues Creek Guitars, the abalone was glued to the Cocobolo fretboard, scored with an Exacto blade, and routed with a small trim router. The fret slots were cut with my Stewart MacDonald template and table saw blade. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.

After gluing the birdseye Maple neck and inlayed and fretted finerboard to the body, it was ready for finishing.

Next up: Finishing and final assembly!

Ready for finishing

Ready for finishing

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