Well, its not really half of a Strat. Its just half of a build.
Sometimes life seems to point you in a direction. The best outcomes I have ever had in life is when I go along with that flow 🙂
Many who know me know that I’m not really building guitars anymore. It wasn’t really a viable source of income, and for my own personal use I only really need 2 or 3 guitars. I know players with a dozen or more, but really IMO thats more about acquisition and having. Its not fulfilling a real need to own that many instruments from a player perspective.
4 seems a good number for me, that meets my need to be able to get different kinds of sounds.
Anyway, I digress 🙂
I had no intention of building a new guitar at this point. I barely played the ones I have, not being in a band anymore. A few weeks back, however, my former bandmate invited me to start playing with them again, and I accepted. A few days after that, I got an email out of the blue from a guy I sold my favorite Stratocaster to about 2 years ago. He wondered if I would build him a new neck as he had concluded he preferred a thicker neck than the one I had sold him. He was not suggesting that, after 2 years, I had any obligation with regard to replacing the neck, just wondered if he could pay me to build another.
I’m not really tooled up for building necks these days, since I’m more or less into blacksmith work in my shop, but I did make him a deal. I offered to buy the neck back from him at a reasonable price and he could use the proceeds to buy an after market replacement neck, which should drop right in. He accepted, and so I got what is arguably my favorite Strat neck back 🙂 In fact, I only sold it in the first place because I needed the money at the time. I didnt really want to part with it.
Well, so here I am with my favorite Strat neck which, by itself, is pretty much useless 🙂
In the world of guitar building, making a body for a Stratocaster is arguably one of the easiest, fastest things you can do. It was the last week of August, and one of the two time per year where the weather is amenable to shooting a guitar finish was right around the corner. It needs to be warm, but not hot, and the humidity needs to be low or the lacquer will blush. I checked the forecast, and the long range showed that the following weekend (Labor day weekend) was going to be dead-on perfect. This gave me 5 days to get the body built, and I could shoot the finish on the holiday weekend. Start to finish, about a week.
OK, so life was clearly suggesting to me I should build a body for my disembodied neck 🙂
Bonus is that I had all the wood and other hardware, as well as lacquer, in my shop all ready to go. No purchase necessary.
So, to the specifics!
This time I used Alder for the body. Ash has a nicer look, but tends to be a bit “twangy” with regard to tone. Alder tends to emphasize the mid-range more which is really much more to my taste. Sadly though, Alder is not nearly as nice looking as ash. Its a bit bland by comparison, but I have a solution for that. A drop top I made about 4 years ago thats a 1/4″ thick and made from a very nice piece of angel step quilt maple. Its been waiting around here for the right project, and this is it. It will add a little bit of work to making the body, but book-matching and gluing is already done so the additional work is relatively minimal. I just have to do the arm carve on the alder piece, and then glue this to the top, bending it over the arm carve.
Heres the Alder body blank.
Here is the quilted, book-matched top…
Some might suggest I not cover half the quilted top with a pickguard. A valid suggestion, for sure, but the fact is with no pickguard I would need to do a LOT more work. Pickup cavities would need to be routed differently, pickups mounted differently, and the control cavity would need to be routed in from the back. Switch slot and knob holes drilled through the front, etc. I know its a lot more work because thats exactly what I did on the guitar pictured below it. that was a custom job for someone else, though.
That work would be worth doing if not for one thing. To me, a Strat without a pickguard just doesnt look like a Strat. They look naked. I dont care for the look, and I dont want to do the extra work. Nuff said.
Like my other Strats, this will be a hard tail. Its the only kind I like. So it’ll have the same Gotoh hard tail bridge as all my previous Strats.
The pickups will be a set of three Seymour Duncan SSL-5’s. These are true single-coil pickups, but a bit higher output than the classic SSL-1. These, like the alder body, tend to have a bit more mid-range and “a little off the top” 🙂
Tossed the blank on the anvil this afternoon and hammered out the rough body shape. OK, thats not what happened. I cut the rough outline on the band saw. I say outside the lines because I’ll use a router and template to make it perfect. This just gets it close.
Now the body is WAY too thick. Almost 2″. A Stratocaster body should be exactly 1 3/4″ thick.
Additionally, since this guitar has an alder body AND a maple top, the two combined in this case have to be 1 3/4″. The maple top is 0.2″ thick, so I have to reduce the alder piece thickness to 1.55″ thick. Once the top is glued on, the total will be 1 3/4″
Now, since I’m 3/4 blacksmith these days, I’m going to use a metalworking tool called a 2×72 belt grinder to shape the arm and belly carves of the body. I rigged up an intake for my dust collector using a “cone of shame” that was used by my dog. This grinder cuts through stell like butter, so you can imagine what it will do to wood. It’ll reduce it to poweder so fast that it will just become a billowing cloud in the air and settle on everything. This big vacuum intake handles that problem for me 🙂
It also made really short work of the belly carve. This took about 90 seconds
Next, the arm carve gets smoothed out…
Belly carve as well…
In order to help bend a piece of wood thats almost 1/4″ thick over the arm carve, I used my dremel to carve away some channels on the underside of the top. These channels are about 1/2 the thickness of the wood.
At this point I wet the maple on the top and underside where I need to bend it and give it time for the water to absorb fully. then I heat it with a heat gun. This all helps to make the maple more flexible. Then I use clamps to slowly force it over the shape of the body. Its important to do this a little bit at a time because if the top cracks, your screwed.
I leave it clamped like this until the wood is cool, and completely dry. Once the clamps are removed it mostly retains its new shape. It does spring back a little, but can be easily conformed to the top again with minimal pressure.
Next, a thin coating of UF (urea formaldehyde) glue is applied to the top of the body. I use UF glue for this because it cured harder than glass. This is a better transmitter for acoustic vibrations that regular wood glue and since the bridge will be screwed directly to the top, this helsp assure that nothing dampens vibrations as they pass from one type of wood into the next.
After the glue is applied, and a couple screws help keep the top right where it should be, I put the whole thing into a vacuum pressing bag. A high powered vacuum pump then pumps all the air out and the internal mesh and the bag combine to put about 1700 lbs of pressure evenly across the entire top. This creates a perfect joint between the top and body
It stays in the bag for 14 hours, then comes out
The router table and template are used again, this time to shave off the overhanging edge of the maple top and make it flush with the rest of the body.
Next the control cavities are routed. The template is used to draw where the cavities will go using a pencil. then the drill press, with a forstner bit is used to remove the bulk of the wood. This is faster than trying to use a router, and also saves a lot of wear and tear on the router. The drill takes the wood to almost the right depth. Neck pocket is 5/8″ deep. the pickup cavities are 3/4″ deep, and the control cavity and output jack area is 1 1/2″ deep.
Once the drilling is done, templates are fastened to the top and a hand-held router with a pattern bit is used to finish them off, leaving a smooth bottomed, perfectly shaped cavity.
Then a 7/16″ “roundover” bit is used to put the rounded radius on the edges. Apart from some holes to be drilled, (and of course the finish) at this point the body is essentially done.
Test-fitting the hardware 🙂
OK, enough fun and games. This next bit is what will make the guitar look awesome, and thats important too 🙂
The color I’m going for, a medium-dark aqua-blue woukd never work with the natural color of the maple. it has too much brown/tan coloration, and that would make the blue look like muck. The solution is to bleach the top white so that the natural color of the maple isnt working against me. For this I use a 2-part wood bleach. Part A is sodium hydroxide (Lye), and part B is hydrogen peroxide. Lye, as I’m sure you already know, is extremely caustic all by itself. this peroxide is a 30% solution, so is 10x stronger than the perox8ide you may be familiar with. If you tried to gargle with this stuff, youd wind up with no tongue 😉
Mix is 50/50. Apply to the whole top, and allow to dry. Repeat 3 times, and then wipe the top with a solution of white vinegar. This will neutralize any remaining acids from the bleach. then allow the whole thing to dry thoroughly.
Next tomes the actual color. I use 3 colors to make this top. These are water based aniline dyes. I like these because they are very light-fast. Meaning that exposure to UV light wont fade them as quicjkly as other types of dye. For the record I do my best to not allow my guitars to sit in direct sunlight because UV light just fades colors. Its universal. I like my color to stay bright for as long as possible, and since sometimes you just cant help it, I choose dyes that resist it as much as possible.
Before any blue shows up, the first thing I do is dye the entire top black. That might sound odd, but theres method top the madness.
Once dry, I sand the black off, leaving only the color that absorbed farther into the wood because of the figure. The figure is just regular distortions in the fibers of the wood, and the fibers are essentially tubes. Where the tubes intersect the surface perpendicular to it, the dye flows deeply into the wood, and where its parallel, it just sits on the surface, so when sanded it leaves dye only where it penetrated into the wood.
At this point the blue dye is wiped evenly across the top. It has to be the right intensity to get the color you want on the first wipe, because wiping more than once will start to re-activate the black. One wipe and done, or you are wrecked 🙂
Last, the black lacquer is shot on the sides with a very slight gradient overlapping onto the top at the very edges. This blends the transition rather than just having a clearly defined line between black and blue.
After that, a good 6 layers of clear lacquer is shot over the entire top, sides, and back.
After shooting all that clear, the surface will have a bumpy texture known as “orange peel”. This all has to be sanded flat so that we can get the hard, mirror shine on the finished instrument. thats normally done at the very end after the laquer hardens for a month, but we can get a head-start on it now which saves a lot of elbow grease at the far end. I used a random orbital sanded and a 320 grit disk to knock down the orange peel leaving a flat surface thats evenly thick.
Then a final “flowout” coat of lacquer, thinned with reducer and retarder so that it spreads more quickly and takes longer to “flash off”, and leaves a beautful, flat surface that will be very easy to sand and buff in a month. Now it gets put away to hang undisturbed for 4 weeks while the lacquer hardens…