Chain Reaction

Experimenting with dyed epoxy and brass

Experimenting with dyed epoxy and brass

The atom routed out

The atom routed out

Atom filled with colored epoxy

Atom filled with colored epoxy

Atom inlaid with blue abalone

Atom inlaid with blue abalone

Shop helper applying base coat of red dye stain.

Shop helper applying base coat of red dye stain.

Layering amber on the sanded-back red base

Layering amber on the sanded-back red base

"Nuclear burst" stain complete

“Nuclear burst” stain complete

As this is the “Atomic Age” Surfcaster, it seems fitting to inlay an atom on the 12th fret. I’m naming the fretboard inlay design “Chain Reaction.” The basic idea is this is the chain reaction leading to the “nuclear burst” finish applied to the body and headstock.

I wanted to do something colorful and beyond typical MoP inlay. So I picked up some brass rod and tube and experimented with dyed epoxy. For the atom, I cut a single oval out of a piece of 1/2″ MDF to use as a router template. The router was outfitted with a 1/16″ bit. I routed around the inside edge of the oval, and then rotated it 120 degrees and repeated the process. Once the basic atom ‘electron orbits’ were routed, I mixed up some 5-minute epoxy with dark brown dye and filled the newly-routed path. After the epoxy cured, the nucleus was cut from abalone and inlaid into the center. For the electrons, I used 1/8″ brass rod inserted into holes in the rings and trimmed flush.

The fret markers were made from brass tube inserted into an appropriately sized hole and then filled with the same epoxy dyed red. For the motion lines between particles, small strips of Padauk were cut and inlaid as well.

While the epoxy cured, I enlisted a couple helpers to work on the “nuclear burst” finish on the body. This is a yellow-orange-red burst finish designed to look a bit like the surface of the sun when applied to the roiling grain pattern of the Maple burl cap.

We started by pre-wetting the top and sanding back the raised grain. Next I mixed up some Transtint bright red dye in water. This was liberally applied by one of my helpers using a soft rag. The red was allowed to soak in a bit and, once dry, sanded back with 220 grit paper. This left red stain only in the more porous sections of the grain.

Next we mixed up some Transtint amber and applied that over the entire top.This was allowed to soak in and dry – but was not sanded back. On top of this we added more red, though this time it was feathered on with none in the middle of the guitar body. The still-wet yellow rag was then used to feather the edges as well and transfer a bit of the red tint closer to the middle.

The result leaves the distinct impression of the chaotic and fiery surface of a star.

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Simple Machine Shop Upgrade

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Power and dust collection hanging over the workbench

A view from up high

A view from up high

Pulleys and cord

Pulleys and cord

High-tech counterweight system

High-tech counterweight system

The system fully retracted

The system fully retracted

I love my shop.

The power tools, the hand tools, the padded luthier workbench, and the integrated dust collection. Especially the dust collection. One point of frustration however, is the relatively limited storage space. And so I’ve had to find spaces in every crevice and corner, and install shelving and hooks around the wood-paneled walls.

A particularly frustrating problem was the lack of convenient power and dust collection on my main workbench/tablesaw outfeed table. The router table is here. It is also here where I typically work with the random orbital sander and hand-held routers. Consequently, I frequently need both power and dust collection in this area.

I’ve never found a good spot for a power strip right on this bench. I will sometimes pull the retractable cord from the ceiling box at the back of the shop over to this area. However this results in a long cord running along the length of the shop – a hazard to both my work pieces and myself. More often I will unplug the table router to “borrow” it’s power cord for whatever tool I’m using. This is always a bit awkward.

As for dust collection, I have a 4″ port on the wall a the far end of the bench. But didn’t have a good space to store the large flexible hose to hook into it. I would normally store this on the floor behind the joiner. This meant kneeling down and feeling around behind the joiner to retrieve it. It also meant that whenever I would slide the joiner out of its cubby and away from the wall, the hose would expand a bit and make sliding the joiner back a hassle. I needed a solution that would get me fast and easy access to dust and power that would easily stow away out-of-the-way when not in use.

The solution was to mount a 4″ dust collection hose to a ceiling-mounted retractable power cord. It is hung so that the power is accessible though still out of the way even when the cord is retracted. When I also need dust collection, I can simply pull down the hose.

To ensure the hose “hugs” the wall to the side and doesn’t merely hang limply over my counter space, I tied a cord around it a few feet from the end and rigged up a counterweight system using a pulley and some nylon cord. When the power cord is pulled down, the rest of the hose “follows” and comes to rest a few inches from the countertop. When I no longer need it, I release the retractable cord, sending the cord and hose up. When the cord retracts, the counterweight engages to pull the rest of the hose out of the way as well.

The system works surprisingly well and I now have a self-storing power and dust collection solution for the hardest working bench in my shop!

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Inlaying My New Logo!

Cutting my new logo from a MoP blank

Cutting my new logo from a MoP blank

Logo inlay cavity cut

Logo inlay cavity cut

Dissolving plastic pearloid binding in acetone

Dissolving plastic pearloid binding in acetone

Logo inlaid into headstock

Logo inlaid into headstock

Binding ledge cut

Binding ledge cut

Binding glued on

Binding glued on

Now that I’ve a new logo, time to get it inlaid into the headstock.

I again used the “iron on” trick to transfer the laser-printed logo line art to a pearl blank and then cut it out by hand with a jeweler’s saw and fine tooth blade. I then staged the pieces on a bit of double-stick tape. Because the tape is translucent, it was fairly easy to see a printout of the logo through the tape to aid in aligning the pearl. I then exposed the adhesive on the bottom side and affixed the assembly in the desired location on the headstock.

Using a sharp blade, I was able to cut around the logo through the tape and score the Maple headstock. I removed the excess tape and shaded the open areas around the pearl with a pencil. This made the areas to route out very obvious once the pearl pieces were pried from the headstock and the tape residue removed. A small trim router with 1/16″ bit made quick work of evacuating the cavity. A little bit of fussing with the pieces with a small file perfected the fit and the pieces were pushed into place. Thinset CA glue was applied to secure the pearl.

A lesson learned here – Because most of the time I’m inlaying into darker woods, I typically use white chalk to highlight the score lines. In this case, the pencil showed up much better against the light-colored Maple. However I neglected to sand the graphite off before applying the CA glue. This had the effect of washing some of the graphite into the crevice surrounding the pearl, leaving a dark line around the inlay. Thankfully these lines shouldn’t be very noticeable once the headstock is stained, but it is something to avoid in the future.

The small “tuner dots” in the logo were too small for me to cut by hand. I couldn’t manage to hold onto the pieces and lost at least 3 as they fell to the floor and “hid” amongst the sawdust. I decided to instead drill 4 tiny holes and fill them with white plastic pearloid binding dissolved in acetone. The results look acceptably like pearl, though they aren’t nearly as prominent as the rest of the logo. I may wind up purchasing pre-cut pearl side-dot material for the next one. Or dream up some alternative means of cutting these tiny bits!

Speaking of binding, this guitar top will be bound with the same white pearloid plastic as the previous Surfcaster. Binding is pretty simple — route the rabbet ledge and glue it on, using a heat gun to bend the plastic around the tighter curves of the top horns. Again I used StewMac “Bind All” and their orange “binding” tape to finish the job.

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My New (Not-So-)Secret Identity

Building guitars is becoming a bit of an obsession. Funnily enough I know two other guys in my software engineering group who are also luthiers – perhaps it’s contagious? In order to support this habit without going broke I’ve decided I need to begin offering my guitars for sale.

And for that, I’d need an identity.

Working with a designer from fiverr.com, we developed my new logo:
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And here it is executed in mother of pearl in my current project’s headstock:

Logo inlaid into headstock

Logo inlaid into headstock

Now, back to the shop!

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Mahogany and Padauk Neck

Preparing the scarf joint to ensure it's perfectly flat.

Preparing the scarf joint to ensure it’s perfectly flat.

Gluing up the scarf joint

Gluing up the scarf joint

Gluing the Maple and Padauk veneers to the headstock

Gluing the Maple and Padauk veneers to the headstock

Roughing out the neck taper on the bandsaw

Roughing out the neck taper on the bandsaw

Side view of the veneer sandwich

Side view of the veneer sandwich

Headstock cut and sanded

Headstock cut and sanded

Completed neck blank with fretboard attached.

Completed neck blank with fretboard attached.

Ready to route the neck pocket

Ready to route the neck pocket

Before routing the neck pocket in the body, we need a neck.

This guitar again features a Gibson-style angled headstock made with a scarf joint. The bulk of this neck will be African Mahogany like the body. For this guitar I decided to also laminate a “racing stripe” down the center of the neck.

A neck blank of 3/4 Mahogany was prepared and then cut down the middle. A sandwich of Maple and Padauk was then laminated down the middle of the blank. The bit of birdseye Maple I wanted to laminate in was a good bit shorter than needed for the neck blank. However, since I plan to veneer both the top and bottom of the headstock, there’s no real need for the stripe to continue the full length. So instead of cutting this neck from a single 32″+ blank, I prepared a “striped” blank long enough for the fretboard portion and then cut a separate solid Mahogany piece for the headstock.

When the lamination dried I cut the angle on each blank on the bandsaw and trued up the cut using a combination of sanding and scraping. The headstock veneers would be composed of a thin piece of Padauk and Maple on the top and bottom. Because these were shop-cut veneers, I left them about 1/16″ thick. To arrive at a final headstock thickness of around 1/2″, the Mahogany center was planed down to around 1/4″ thick. The scarf joint was then glued up as usual.

Crisis narrowly averted

The next step is to route the slot to accept the truss rod. I will typically make a mark on the center of the end of the neck blank to aid in setting the router table fence. In this case, the center stripe was a bit short of the end, so I was unable to make a readable mark. To remedy this, I figured I’d lop off the end of the blank to flush it up. At this point I had already marked the top of the neck blank where the truss rod would end. But when I went to the chop saw to flush up the end, I briefly confused this mark with the total length required for the neck blank and proceeded to randomly cut the neck a couple inches beyond this mark – thinking that this would leave plenty of extra length to work with.

Immediately upon finishing the cut, I realized my mistake and grabbed for the tape measure. Ugh! I had cut the blank 3/16″ shy of the needed length. At this point I weighed my options. I had already prepared and slotted a piece of birdseye Maple for the fretboard. This was cut to a 25.5″ scale length. I could cut a new fretboard at PRS-style 25″ or even 24.75″ Gibson-stlye length.

Alternatively, since the nut is 3/16″ wide, it could be moved just above the headstock angle. Since the original surfcaster – and my copy and templates – were all 25.5″ scale length, I decided to just move the nut back. It would be a relatively simple process to cut into the headstock veneer to make a flat-bottomed slot for the nut. Whew.

For extra interest, a 3/32″ veneer of Padauk was glued to the bottom of the fretboard. I made it relatively thick as I plan to inlay the side dots into this piece instead of directly to the Maple fretboard.

I had just enough off-cut left from the Maple burl body cap to use as the headstock top veneer. A piece of birdseye Maple would be used for the bottom face, with Padauk sandwiched between.

Once the veneer sandwich was dry I roughed out the headstock profile with the bandsaw, and then took it to the OSS to finish up the curves. I then roughed out the neck taper on the bandsaw and taped down a straight edge to it to true it up with the router and a flushing bit.A quick angle cut for the end on the chop saw and the neck blank was now ready to be used to measure and cut the pocket in the body.

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Atomic Age Surfcaster

Preparing to cut the cap

Preparing to cut the cap

Gluing up the African Mahogany body

Gluing up the African Mahogany body

Gluing up the burl Maple cap

Gluing up the burl Maple cap

Binding complete on the soundhole

Binding complete on the soundhole

Gluing the cap to the Mahogany body

Gluing the cap to the Mahogany body

Gluing the cap

Gluing the cap

Roughing out the pickup and electronics cavity

Roughing out the pickup and electronics cavity

Visualizing with the gold hardtail bridge

Visualizing with the gold hardtail bridge

With the charity guitar (the “Wishcaster”) complete, it’s time to start the next build.

Though I still haven’t completed the acoustic, I really want to build another Surfcaster – this time for me.

A few weeks ago I acquired three burl Maple bookmatched caps for the next few guitars. Perhaps it’s the fact that during most of my shop time, the Science Channel is playing in the background, but the burl pattern reminded me of close-up shots of the Sun’s surface. I imagined what this piece would look like dyed in a red-orange-yellow burst.

I decided the theme would be something to do with nuclear fusion, and maybe retro style rockets to go along with the already retro-style Surfcaster. Hence the working name – the “Atomic Age Surfcaster.”

While I continue to hash out the final design details, I started the build process. To cut down a bit on weight, I chose African Mahogany for the body. This wood should also work a bit easier than the harder Ash from the last build. The neck will also be of Mahogany, but feature a birdseye Maple fretboard and a “racing stripe” down the back.

As usual, the first step was to prepare the body blank – plane and joint the 8/4 Mahogany and glue the halves together. The top was jointed and planed as well, and glued up. It took a bit more time to select the appropriate edges of the burl to join that would yield the most satisfactory pattern and banish any blemishes to sections that will be either removed for the electronics cavity, or hidden underneath the pickguard or bridge. The acrylic Surfcaster template makes this task much easier.

I cut the soundhole by hand with a coping saw this time and took a bit of extra care to getting the lines smooth and square, and the corners tight. This is because with the last one, I needed to spend some time filling some small gaps where the binding meets the Maple. The cuts looked good, but minor variances in the edges appear when you attach the plastic binding. The extra care paid off – the binding came out very tight and professional looking. Definitely an improvement.

I used the “body base” template to route out the hollow under the sound hole. Sadly this marked the end of that template – the “fresh” double-stick tape I recently picked up is clearly much stronger than what I’m accustomed to. When I attempted to pry it off the body, the tape held firm and the template cracked. D’oh!

From this point on I started injecting acetone into the space between the template and work piece to prevent this from happening to any more of my templates. Fortunately this template is fairly easy to recreate if and when I make another Surfcaster.

Before gluing on the top, I added a small amount of dark brown dye to sanding sealer to darken the mahogany in the cavity.  This will also help seal it to stabilize the body wood. The top was then glued on with Titebond III and clamped with just about every small clamp in the shop.

About the time the clamps came off, I received the gold hardtail string-through bridge from China. I routed out the electronics cavity, first with a forstner bit and then by template routing. I then set the bridge loose on the body to visualize the completed piece and see how well it covers the knots.

You can tell from the pictures that there was one knot that I wasn’t able to remove or obscure. This will be filled with epoxy resin. I may consider dying the epoxy red to add some interest, but otherwise the knot will remain where and essentially as it is.

Think of it as a sun spot.

Now that the body is shaping up, I need to build the neck blank so I can route an appropriately-sized neck pocket. After that the body can be bound and the remaining holes drilled for the output jack and bridge grounding wire.

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Final Assembly and Setup

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Body shot

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Star detail on 12th fret

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The back

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The completed “Wishcaster”

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Headstock

Once the finish cured, I sanded with wet/dry paper starting with 400 grit and then working up to 2000. After than, I polished it with brown jeweler’s rougue and buffed it out to a high-gloss near-mirror sheen.

I attached the neck, installed the pickguard and bridge, and then attached the strap pins and tuners. For the nut, I cut a blank from a white sample block of Corian I’d ordered some time ago. This was slotted with files and filed down to the right height. Finally, the guitar was intonated, the action adjusted, and I got a chance to play her.

A couple of issues arose from this first session. First, there were a couple rough spots on the neck where the binding meets the wood. These were quickly and easily handled by sanding lightly with some 2000 grit paper. A bit more serious was a problem with a few of the frets. The high “E” string got caught in a gap between the bottom of the fourth fret and the fretboard. Closer inspection uncovered a few frets with this same problem. I believe these were loosened while the neck was clamped in the vice during final shaping/sanding.

Thankfully, I was able to superglue these back into the slots and then proceeded to reshape the ends a bit and polish them back up. This worked perfectly.

A friend and neighbor of mine owns a business doing product photography. As this guitar was built for charity, he offered to take some pictures of it for free!

I happily lent him the guitar and he produced the beautiful “glamour shots” on this post. If you need some professional photos taken of your product, check out his site.

All that remains is to show her off at the holiday party – perhaps playing her in a song or two – and then hand her over to the lucky winner!

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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

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

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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