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Experimental build #1 (revision b)

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About this time last year, I decided to try and build a strat.  And before I had a workshop set up (which is a bit of a challenge in an apartment anyway).  I found a few suppliers of after market strat bodies and figured maple necks on aliexpress.  On delivery they were unusable crap.  The roasted quilted maple necks were stunning but were over cooked and so twisted they rocked on a flat surface. 


Because I lived in the mainland, I had the option of sending the necks back and recieved a refund.  I kept the bodies because they were remarkably lightweight and one piece.  I also found a place away from Aliexpress that made necks and they could also accommodate custom requests. They sent a sample strat neck which looked good so I ordered two necks both with 44mm wide nuts.  One had a 57mm heel to match one of the bodies the other had a 56mm heel to fit my Chandler Strat.  (Because it has a quilted maple body, I had an aspiration to bring it closer to Valley Arts spec.)


Cut a long story short there was some issue with the alignment of neck pocket vs bridge rout but I modified the bridge rout to allow for the neck angle and got the build sorted.  But as I was finishing it off, I discovered the electronics cavity was out of alignment with the neck pocket.





But I finished the build, dressed the neck and plugged it in anyway.  Not to flatter myself much but it was simply the best strat I had ever played.


A total revelation.  


OK so it had a rough looking body finish (deliberately) but it was very comfortable, had very low string tension and very low, buzz free action, playing was effortless.  The Dimarzios gave it a mellow archtop tone on the neck pickup and a nice, thick overdriven tone on the bridge.  It was everything I had been hoping for and then a bit more.



All of this made the alignment issue even more irksome than if it had been a dog to play. 


The amount of faff and the uncertainty over whether re routing the electronics cavity would result in a final solution or make the problem more complicated lead me to  trash the body (both bodies actually) and chalk it up to a learning experience.

More recently I reconnected with the supplier of the necks to see if they could provide a couple of bodies...which they did and the neck pocket was in alignment with the bridge and control cavities.  This was very encouraging. 




And the neck joint was perfectly tight - it passed the friction test.



I also had them do a bit of drilling for anchor posts on the HSH body just to save me the hassle.  One issue I've had here is finding drill bits (and drill presses!) which don't wobble!  Everything I have bought so far seems like a factory reject.  So the body supplier was set up to do the job more quickly (and cheaply) than me. 



I figured I would document the process of two builds here, maybe give some insight into the trials and tribulations of building using Chinese made parts and it might be a pleasant surprise to learn what might be possible. 


Build 1 (revision 2):  The Mean Machine.  (Build objective: Let's just see how many genres we can cover with one instrument and make it look as punk as possible.)

HSH strat, sapele body (1.5kg), flame maple neck with 22 fret ebony fingerboard, Wilkinson VS100C trem, Dimarzio custom humbuckers (Mo Joe and PAF Joe plus no name RWRP single coil), super switch for both humbuckers on in position 3 (pull vol to split humbucker coils) hand made Clapton style mid boost (25dB @ 500Hz, push pull tone to activate), Machinehead locking tuners (Sperzel style), Graphtec nut.


Everything apart from the bridge and Dimarzio pickups was sourced in China (although the pickups are available here).

Build 2: The Scream Machine (Build objective: Tone hunting - let's see how close we can get to Phil Collen).

HSS strat, sapele body (1.4kg), flame maple neck with 22 fret ebony fingerboard, Kahler X trem, Fernandes 401K sustainer kit, Dimarzio Dual Sound bridge hhumbucker (+ pull vol for coil split), super switch for neck and bridge pickups together in position 3, Machinehead locking tuners, Graphtec nut.


Everything apart from the Dimarzio pickup was sourced in China.  The body was a special order because it had a side mounted jack and no bridge rout.  I needed to rout a cavity in the back for the sustainer PCB (which would interfere with the standard strat output jack) AND a top rout for the kahler bridge. 


(NB: I'll edit the above for a link to the build diary for the second build once it's under way.)


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Last night I decided to check the new neck out.  I have had issues with necks sent in the past when they had a new guy working their production line.  He recycled a discarded ebony board, basically flipped it over and glued the slotted side to the new neck and reslotted the blank front face then attempted to disguise the fret slots showing on the side with black dye - which I discovered after I cleaned the wood with meths.  I didn't actually agree to them using a used ebony board either.  It's a bit sneaky.  

However, using a set square on the frets revealed something more serious. 




 The frets are inline with the square when checked from one edge but not when checked from the other.  This basically means the frets are trued to one edge of the fingerboard rather than the centre and this will produce a guitar which can't be intonated accurately.

So I got back to them and they've agreed to build a new neck.  This could only happen in China but this supplier is honourable so it means mistakes can be corrected.  It's the second time this has happened though.  Once is a bit of a howler...but twice...?  Still, it gives me an opportunity to correct a few other things, like asking for a little more flame on the maple.


I also found a supplier of custom glass pieces.  Normally he does optical glass but he's got 19mm thick glass which is enough for a sanding block for fret levelling.  I use a steel beam already but glass is...well, one better...er, innit?  And I'm determined to up my fret levelling game in these builds so I can sort out my other guitars too.

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The intention today was to make some templates for the cavities holding various forms of electronics going into both guitars.  I did really well with the Kahler trem cavity, OK with the 9v battery compartment and the mid boost circuitry PCB cavity under the scratch plate.   I spent the entire afternoon trying to rout the Sustainer PCB cavity and a template for the lid recess.  I really should have stopped at the PCB cavity.  It was clean, it was square and it was the right size.  But oh no, I got cocky as an excuse to use a new rebating bit with a variety of thrust bearing sizes.  What I didn't notice was that the router bit had came loose as I was using a copy of the PCB cavity template to rout the slightly bigger lid recess and ruined both.  And to add insult to injury, I managed to ruin the original one as well (see pic, top right) for the same reason because it was only then that I realised what was really causing the chattering. Grrr.  So I started from square one again and stopped while I was still ahead.  I'll rout the lid recess directly into the body with the rebate bit.  Need to keep an eye on that in future.  




The rush today was because today winter arrived like Kramer making an entrance in Seinfeld.  Eight degrees and a cold, heavy rain.  Next week will be back up to 23 though which is near perfect painting weather so I wanted to get the cavities done, body sanded and pore sealed with superglue.  I've done all my necks in superglue and it's a great finish.  Easy to repair and fill in the case of dents in the future.  I did apply with a lint free cloth previously but this time I'll probably try a credit card on the flat areas instead just to see what difference it makes.

I'm in two minds about an undercoat because I'm basically going to spray bomb with dayglo acrylic paint.  It can pretty much go on anything regardless of prep.   Anyhow...that's something for the future.

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This weekend was a bit mundane.  Coating, sanding and recoating one of the bodies in superglue.  It works well as a pore filler but not as well as epoxy.  Experimentation on both bodies so far suggests at least two coats are needed to fill the pores and it takes a lot of work to build up a finish for use as a primer, even when I use an accelerator.  It might be simply more convenient to use two-pack epoxy. For the next buid, I'll check out pre-catalysed lacquer instead.  But for necks it's worth using CA glue for a premium and versatile finish.




I also broke out the new Makita orbital sander and it's doing fabulous work, so much more controllable than it's no brand predecessor.  However when I ran a white base coat over the 2 point trem body, all sorts of bumps and sanding imperfections revealed themselves that I swear were invisible before.  So note to self: Check the surface up against an oblique light source next time.  The base coat turned out to be gloss rather than matt - I think they made a mistake with the order but no matter.  I roughed it up with some 320 grit and after a few days to harden, hopefully should be good for the dayglo graffiti colour next weekend.



I also marked out the location of the rout for the Kahler bridge which is taking the sustainer.  That went a lot more smoother than I thought...I checked the markings, cross checked them and measured again, everything seems lined up as expected.  I'm still bracing myself for some oversight.  It makes the decision to rout a little harrowing.




Over the weekend, I also dabbled in a spot of electronics.  My preEB MM Stingray preamp opamp has died but can't be replaced due to being covered with epoxy.  I have a replacement Retrovibe one coming but thought I might investigate the possibility of doing one myself.  The cost of parts is peanuts here. The only issue is getting reverse log 1 meg pots, they aren't available in China.  So I have ten coming over from Switch in the UK as well.  Not cheap but...well, y'know.  That experience also got me wondering about effect pedal circuits and then I found myself going down a rabbit hold trying to find a circuit that might get close to the Yamaha E1010 delay (with 4 BBD MN2003 chips).  Nothing out there after a day of intermittent searching...

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This weekend was supposed to be finishing...off the bodies.  As planned I routed the unfinished body for the Kahler trem.  I did have a template prepared but lost the nerve to use it after checking against my linework on the body and finding things weren't totally square. I wasn't sure which to trust more but I went with the line work.  So I removed the guiding woodwork from the template and stuck it directly to the guitar body and made sure it squared up. It turned out kind of OK although it still doesn't look square, it's still better than the template. So I reached a point where good enough had to be good enough, so long as the bridge sits in the right place.



I also decided on a dayglo camoflage pattern for the Mean Machine. I liked the juxtaposition of a pattern designed to hide something against colours that were designed to be seen.   Yesterday I coated the body in dayglo pink and was really happy wiht how it turned out.  No drips, blobs or runs - thanks to putting the can in some hot water for 10 minutes before I used it.  For the camo, a bit of online research online suggested laying down the lightest of three colours first and then applying two more through stencils on top.  I found a camoflage stencil and printed it out on two sheets of A3 for cutting out and the lightest colour out of either green, blue, purple or pink was pink. I cut out and reinforced the stencil for both stencils and found a need for low tack double sided tape to keep the stencil close to the surface and minimise excessive blurring.  




However after spraying this morning, the whole thing was a total write off and for multiple reasons.

1) The combination of pink (as the lightest) and the next lightest (blue) make the guitar look more like eighties hair metal than something ironic and urban.  Plus the blue on top of the pink is so dark that it makes the final, darkest purple lighter.  It's not what I was hoping for. 



2) I was impatient with stencilling the back coat. The front coat was touch dry but I didn't realise it was still soft.  So it has marks from being laid on the cardboard backing.  I know, I should have put it on something like tooth picks or can caps or something.


3) The flourescent paint isn't opaque.  Dayglo colours don't seem to play nicely with each other so any finish that involves layering on one top of the other is not really going to work without white undercoat.   Plus, trying to get a layer of colour to line up with the under coat while there are blurry edges is adding another level of complication that can probably only be best resolved with extra time to cure and masking tape.  Camo is really too much faff to mask off with tape, and the thin, flexible masking tape I have doesn't stick anyway.  I've tried.

4) The undercoat revealed all sorts of minor dings, scratches and over sanded edges anyway, which I thought might be hidden by subsequent layers but weren't.  It's not that big a deal for my own guitar but I want to do better.  The factories can do it with minimal effort so I probably can, too.


Hmmmmm, you live and learn I guess.  But it's going to mean at least a 2 week delay to assembling the guitar because the acrylic needs so long to finish gassing off and harden - assuming I continue to use acrylic.  Either way the whole lot off is going to get sanded off and I'm going to start again.  Maybe the original spray bomb idea was still the best after all.  However I'm going to abandon super glue finishes on bodies as anything other than sealer because it's time consuming to apply and sand evenly and consistently over curved surfaces.  Using a sanding tool also sometimes creates more problems on the body sides than it solves because of the speed, even if I think I'm being careful.  So...in terms of alternatives to superglue there is 2k sealer but that still leaves a question over primer. 

One is to go back to the japanese made 'Mr Hobby' undercoat ontop of superglue sealer.  But its pretty expensive and provides a standard of finish that is way smoother than the 320 grit I really need.  It's more than is needed.  Another idea is to use 2 pack polyester resin.
Over the summer I made a guitar with Jon Shuker. After applying sealer Jon went and thickly applied a mystery finish which I sanded back.  It had drips and runs in it which surprised me because Jon is pretty skilled in applying just the right amounts of finish.  Jon later revealed it was 3 pack polyster resin (resin + catalyst with a separate accelerator) diluted with acetone for spraying thickess. .  A quick search on Google revealed that sprayed resin was quite the health hazard requiring a full hazmat suit and ventilator with air supply.   He said it could be brushed on which seems to be a safer option.

Polyester resin is really cheap and easy to find in China so that may be worth a try just to see if I can lift the standard of finish before the colour coat is applied.


In other news, I started on the cavity cover for the other body, where the sustainer PCB would go.  I was surprised at how difficult it was to find 3 ply acrylic sheet online so settled for a 2mm thick plastic trem cover for about 70p which is just big enough for the cavity cover.  And it's thin enough that I can glue some sapele veneer to it and sand it flush once shaped to fit.  Then seal with superglue and primer.   I'm having to improvise with final sanding that shape though owing to a lack of benchtop sanding tools.

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This weekend was mostly squandered on sorting out last weekend's screw ups.  I was at a loss to know how to remove thick layers of partially set acrylic paint without resorting to gallons of acetone.  I thought about a heat gun but there was too much risk of singeing the wood.  I tried sanding but the paint gummed up the sanding disks and then I had a moment of inspiration.  Given acrylic was pretty much a thermoplastic, and a heat gun was too uncontrollable, why not heat up the paint with an iron to soften it and then see if I can scrape it off? 


I got out the iron and set to with some paper towels to protect the iron against the paint.  It softened the paint nicely but the paint cooled before I could get a plastic scraper under it. So I thought about heating  up the paint under paper towels and seeing if I could wipe it off.  When the towel was strong enough, I had some limited success but the paper tore too easily and basically made things worse but what I noticed was when I pulled on the paper towel while it was under the iron, it took paint with it.  I tested again and was stunned at how cleanly it took all three paint layers off down to the undercoat. If only the towels didn't tear. 



Then I had another idea and decided to try out an old t shirt and it worked even better.  The fabric actually wicked the paint up as it melted and gave me a near clean result.  If only I had discovered this before embedding paper towel in the paint...!  Still I managed to clean up the sides quickly and the area around the neck joint.  All this heat had the added advantage of curing the paint that was left...which lead to another problem.  

At 9pm the Mrs came into the bathroom upstairs wanting to know what the smell was and pretty much lost it because she thought I was spraying.  The smell of warm plastic had wafted downstairs and she wasn't happy due to concerns it might be carcinogenic. She calmed down a bit after I explained I was removing paint by warming it up but only a bit.  But yeah I didn't close the doors because I didn't think the smell would travel so far.  So I'm now banned from doing anything with paint inside. Oops.

I test sanded a bit in the middle of the week and the paint came off like it was fully cured.  Saturday rolled on and I broke out the sanding equipment and managed to burn out the brand new Dremel 4000 after less than 20 min total use since delivery...FFS.  




Still, 120 then 240 and then 320 grit...and a couple of coats of superglue to reseal the wood and then a couple of coats of undercoat.  The edges are starting to look over sanded in a couple of locations now because of the need to grind off thick spots of finish.  It's not going to look as good as it could have.  With the undercoat on, I'm also still seeing pores showing and I'm at a loss to understand why given they should be filled with glue.  Next time I'll switch to a spray sealer and then 2 pack poly resin, it'll save so much time in touching up.

Sunday I had a 3m3 crate of personal stuff delivered from the UK including a load of music kit so I got the colour coat in before the truck arrived.  No blue this time.




There will be stickers and various details drawn in with paint pen and spray stencils as well.   It'll get a week to harden off before I finish and assemble, we've got snow forecast for next week.

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Not a lot done recently as I've had other priorities - unpacking stuff from the UK including my Spector bass which has had two tuners shunted with sufficient force to sheer off the tuner screw heads.  More on that later.  This week I reduced the neck heel width of the fluoro caster by half a mm on each side but when I test fitted the neck to the body, I could tell just by looking that the neck wasn't centred and checking alignment confirmed it.  I'm still cautiously sanding back the shoulders of the heel on one side to get it centred better.  Nearly done...and then I need to fit the bandsaw with a new blade and set it up so I can finish off the control cover plate.  And I'm also going to test spray some 2K clear just to see how well it absorbs minor dings and imperfections in the undercoat. 


Regarding the Spector, I also discovered a neat way to get out sheered off, headless tuner screws from the tuner holes in my spector.  I bought a metal tube implement normally used by potters to make very precise holes in wet clay, usually in teapots for straining the water as it's being poured.  They're made from very thin stainless steel but the perfect size to fit around the screw snugly.  So I inserted one in a drill bit and once the tube was around the screw, just pushed to the right depth.  The bonus was when I pulled out the tube, the screw came with it and it left a very compact hole that could be easily backfilled with wood chips, sawdust and plugged.  Just need to get my hands on some replacement Schaller M4 machineheads as the lookalike spares I have needed bigger holes.

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Over the Christmas NY period I hand sanded the neck heel to fit and managed to get it aligned enough to screw in place.  However the problem with hand tools is that they round off edges and corners and the end of the fingerboard had suffered as a result of over enthusiasm.  After a few days of feeling frustrated, I had another burst of inspiration and, after setting up the bandsaw/sander, I rounded off the corners.  It looked great. 

I also disovered that the electronics cavity was too small. 


It feels like if it's not one issue then it's another.  Anyway I carefully took a couple of mm off the sides of the pickup routs and enlarged the control cavity a little.  Then the HSH pickguard didn't align properly anyway and I double checked with other HSH pickguards and they were all the same.  They were all a bit squashed from top to bottom and didn't sit on the bottom horn attractively.  So I'm not sure if the body is the issue or multiple pickguards from both Chinese and overseas suppliers, it'll need double checking against Fender licensed products.  However the HH pickguard did align a lot better and it's sort of more consistent with a punk/street asthetic anyway so I went with that and applied some stickers...



The pickups are some SD clones by a company called Johnny Eleca.  For Chinese knock offs, they're not bad at all but there doesn't seem to be much difference between split and humbucking modes.  Just a little more edge to the split mode. Currently I'm still applying glue to the neck heel and fingerboard edge using a scalpel blade to dig out any bubbles before backfilling.  Then I'll sand to achieve a fit.

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Last night I tried to fit the pickguard and the neck on at the same time and discovered the neck pocket was probably 1mm too deep.  So I fashioned a shim out of some 2mm sapele veneer I had left over to fit the neck pocket and now the pickguard fits.  It's a less than elegant solution though and one that wouldn't have been discovered until I'd nearly finished the instrument.

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Right, time for an update.  Firstly...it lives!




But just as I thought things were going to get easier, they didn't for the following reasons:
1) The control cavity needed to be made bigger.  I actually bought a SSS strat body template and compared.

2) The pickup cavities needed to be made 1mm wider. 

3) The pickup cavities needed routing out to allow for the depth of the screws (the screws couldn't be shortened enough)
4) The neck pocket had to be shimmed with a 2mm piece of sapele veneer so that I could fit the scratchplace under the fingerboard extension. 

Any how.  The neck, pickups and bridge were all aligned.  I changed the pickguard from HSH to HH because the pickguard fitted better and the electronics were simpler to get sorted.  The pickups are an old set of PRS Mira (non coil tap).  It plays really well although a couple of the frets have been knocked at some point and won't level so I'll need to replace them.  But apart from that, the Mira pickups are giving off AC/DC vibes, plus both the string tension and action are satisfyingly low. 

It's my first unsupervised build and it's not as bad as it could have been.  I'm fairly sure none of the issues would have happened with Fender licensed parts and they would have sunk anyone with just a screwdriver and hex key set.  But I managed to solve all the cavity and neck heel problems and come out with admittedly a cosmetically rough but still very giggable instrument.  I might just need to start making my own bodies after the next build - tone chasing Phil Collen.

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