Lets Build A Guitar

My boss has been playing guitar for something like 30 years. So, unsurprisingly, we talk about guitar a lot since I started down this path. One of the things he likes to do is modify and rebuild guitars and that is a subject we keep coming back too. All that talk got me itching to build a guitar of my own. Besides, it’s one of the cheaper ways to add another guitar to my collection. Like I need another guitar. Needless to say, I bought a kit and put together a guitar. There were some ups and downs, lessons were learned, and patience was tested. In the end, I’m pretty satisfied with the result. Let’s talk about that process.

I looked at a bunch of kits for different guitar styles; expensive kits and cheap kits. I decided to stay on the cheaper end of things for my first try at this. That way, if things went badly I wouldn’t feel too bad about throwing the whole thing in the trash. The Saga TC-10 would be my guinea pig. Not the cheapest at $160, but not anywhere near the expensive kits.  It’s a simple, single cut (cutouts only on one side) telecaster style kit. All the electronics are pre-soldered and have plug-in connectors. All that there is to do is cut the headstock shape, finish the thing, put it together, and tune it up. There you go. Ready to play. Sounds simple enough, but I had some ideas. Things I wanted to change. Adjustments I wanted to make. Of course I did. I wouldn’t want this to be too easy.

I didn’t want to go with the typical Fender headstock design, so I had to come up with my own design. I felt like the body was a little bit too much of a slab, so I wanted to change it up a bit with a few cutouts. A few other ideas came to me as I worked through the project, some of which I implemented, others I decided against. There were some successes and some failures. Let’s start where I did… the body shape.

I did not change the classic telecaster outline, but I did add some sculpting to the back side, a belly cut and a neck cut. The first for more comfortable playing and the second for better access to the frets at the bottom of the neck. I also did a half-inch round over along the entire body just to soften the look and feel of the thing. I liked it so much that I ended up doing it on the front as well. Also on the front I beveled the body to add a little more comfort for my strumming arm. I used my router for the round over, but a combination of my belt sander and a few wood files took care of removing all the wood for the other modifications. Once I had that worked out to my liking, I sanded it down to 220 grit, primed it, and set it aside to work on the headstock.

I sketched out a few different designs for the headstock before settling on the one I liked. I wanted something original. Something of my own. I did not want the same Fender design that I see all over the place. I was going for something sorta knife-like. This was actually based on one of our kitchen knives, at least that’s how it started out. Once I had my design, I taped the template to the neck and went to town with my jigsaw. So far, so good. I cut it a bit large and then used my belt sander, strapped to the workbench, to smooth out the cut and get the curves right to the line on the template.

The part where things start to get dicey is that I wanted the headstock to be two tiered. The intention was to use the factory thickness for the tuners, but then to step down an 1/8-inch and taper it down to about 3/8-inch at the outside edge, sorta like a knife blade. I started with the dremel, chisels, and an assortment of sandpaper. This mostly worked, but my lines were not crisp and the initial cut wasn’t very clean. I had the ‘brilliant’ idea to use the palm router to clean things up, which it did, quite nicely. But I was doing it by hand and without any sort of jig to keep the blade from wandering. Which is why the final design is notably different than the template I was working from, the blade strayed from my marks in a couple places and the design was changed to accommodate those incidents. I don’t hate the final product, but it isn’t exactly the design I was going for.

With the body cut and the headstock formed it was time to move on to the finishing of the guitar.

I knew it was going to be yellow. That was never in question. I knew the headstock was going to be painted. I even knew which Rustoleum paint I was going to use, Sunburst Yellow. What I didn’t know was how much work was going to be involved in getting a nice finish. I primed everything with a white primer to keep the yellow nice and bright. Then I sanded the primer smooth, sanded through the primer in a few spots, reprimed those areas, sanded them back to match the rest of the work, and it was ready for paint. Or the beginning of the real headaches, whichever way you want to think about it.

The first coat of yellow went down either heavy or two many coats too far apart. Whichever was the cause, I ended up with some weird wrinkles in the finish around some of the curves where the paint looked like it sagged. And then I picked it up before it was dry enough and left fingerprints embedded in the finish. So, a bunch of sanding later and I had the flaws removed and I added another couple coats of paint to clean things up, but I went to heavy at the top and ended up with ripples in two spots. To add to my issues, a bit of paint the size of my thumbnail chipped off the head stock between two of the tuning holes, that needed to be fixed as well. More sanding. More paint. Finally satisfied I set to smoothing out the paint. If you’ve ever painted with spray paint from a shaker-can you’ll notice that it dries with a bit of an orange peel texture to it, it’s not quite smooth and that’ll really show once you add your gloss coat. So, level-sanding is the process where you wet-sand it just enough to level out the paint, but not so much that you sand through the paint. I did this by going from 220 to 300 to 400 to 600 grit sandpaper. I was very happy, and quite surprised, to not ruin my paint job while doing this.

Not satisfied to put a regular clear coat on this project that had absorbed so much time and effort, I went with a 2-part clear coat. The reasons for this are; faster dry time, harder finish, smoother application. All good things. The other side of that coin is this stuff is $25 a can as compared to $5 a can for regular high gloss clear spray. I ordered a 2-pack and got a slight discount on the price. Good thing I did, too, because I used both cans before this was done. Much like the paint, the clear went down but took a couple coats due to wrinkles that needed to be sanded out, sanding through the gloss coat, and like the paint…. let this dry completely before you ever touch it with sandpaper. If you don’t, you’re going to have a mess. Once I had a nice, consistent, shiny coat of gloss on the body and headstock, it was time to scuff it all up by level sanding to flatten the finish.

On the clear coat I level sanded with 1000, 1500, 2000, and finally with 3000 grit sand paper. This was just as nerve wracking as level sanding the paint, but actually went pretty well. After that I used a polishing liquid and a sponge applicator to buff the whole thing to a shine. This was disappointing. I don’t know exactly why, but I did not get a high gloss finish. I ended up with a nice smooth finish, but it’s more matte than gloss. Eventually, I may take the body appart and try another polishing technique on it, but for now I’m just glad it’s done and doesn’t look bad.

A couple lessons learned and the big mistake.

I used water slide decal paper to put the Rampant logo on the headstock and it took six tries before I read the directions to learn that you have to spray the printed design with two layers of clear coat before you apply the decal. If you don’t do this the paper has no strength and wrinkles uncontrollably which has the added benefit of having the inkjet design float right of the paper in a million tiny specks. So, spray it and let it dry before you try to cut it out and apply it. Second lesson about water slide decals, you’re going to see the edge of the paper. This is a peeve of mine. Had I thought about it I would have cut the design large enough to cover the whole headstock and then trimmed the paper around the edges once it dried. I think that would have eliminated the lines where the paper edge shows through. It’s not terrible, but it’s noticeable.

A different, but related issue, is that the white paint I used on the headstock is noticeably different from the white on the pick guard. This is partially due to the paints I had on hand, but I also think that the clear coat has a slight yellow tint to it. I wish it was a better match. If I ever work up the gumption to make any changes to the headstock design, repainting it and fixing the decal will be on the list of things to fix.

Through the body strings.

Use a drill press to make sure you’re holes are in a straight line. I didn’t and it shows. I used a drill guide and tiny 1/32 bit to drill through the holes in the plate to back on the outside holes. Then I moved the plate to the back, lined it up with those two holes and drilled the 1/8-inch holes, again using the drill guide. Still, not quite a straight line of holes. Looks sloppy. Not the way I’d do it in the future. I’d use a drill press.

After I set the ferrells and tapped them into place I noticed that they were not quite level with each other. I had the idea to take a steel block, set it across all the ferrells and tap them level. That is where those cracks come from. Doing this caused me to shatter the finish around the head of the ferrells. It looks terrible, but lesson learned and nobody can see the back when I’m playing or when it’s hanging on the wall.

One of the other changes that I made was to fill the predrilled holes for the cord jack, expand the passthrough, and install a recessed jack plug. This may have been the only modification I did that had no complications or miscalculations. I feel like the holes could have been better filled and smoothed, but it turned out nice.

Another lesson that has more to do with painting and not necessarily guitars, when spray painting in the garage build a tent. I through down some tarps on the ground and covered some of the stuff on my work bench… this was insufficient. There is yellow paint overspray on everything in my garage. That stuff drifts around quite a bit. Yellow tint to the stainless refrigerator in the corner, yellow on the outlet covers, yellow on my lawn tractor, pretty much yellow on everything. I would have benefited from hanging a plastic sheet from the rafters and created a box. I’ll remember that in the future, because if the garage was finished I would be pretty upset with myself.

I did not have any problems putting the poly acrylic on the neck, but I was a little surprised at how many coats it took. I think I ended up applying 10 or 12 coats of satin finish, wipe-on poly to the neck. Sanding with some 300 grit sandpaper every couple of coats just to smooth things out. It turned out pretty good, not great, but I’m impatient.

I sanded the fret board the wrong direction initially and it looked like ass. The easy way to sand is between the frets, going parallel to them. But this is across the grain and really shows up when you oil the wood. I learned that the hard way. So, don’t do it like that. Take the time to sand with the grain but don’t scratch up the frets or you’ll be polishing them afterwards. Once the fretboard was nice and smooth I applied some lemon oil to finish it off. Really brought out the rosewood and that dark color looks very nice with the yellow and white colors.

With all the all that done it was time to add the hardware and assemble the parts into a whole. This was an easy task. All the predrilled holes were in the right spots on this Saga kit and the solderless electronics made this a snap. I did have to get online for one little bit that wasn’t clear in the assembly directions, that being where the ground wire goes. Simply strip it back a bit and it gets fed up behind the bridge. Once you tighten the bridge down it’s secure and not going anywhere.

I’ve never strung a guitar or intonated one, hell, the whole set-up thing was new to me. Setting the string height, the distance between the strings and pick-ups, tweaking the neck, and adjusting the bridge. It was all a bit of a challenge that involved lots of assistance from Google. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it tunes up nice, surprisingly stays in tune, doesn’t buzz much, and plays pretty nice. You’d never mistake it for a guitar from the Fender factory, but not bad for my first go at it.

There are a few things I didn’t do.

I didn’t level sand the clear coat on the headstock and as a result there is a noticeable difference in the sheen between it and the body. The headstock is really shiny, the body is more matte. I like both, but the look I was going for was shiny. Again, I may be able to polish the body up with a bit more work… someday.

I purchased some extra pickguard material with the intention of making a truss rod cover, but decided not to go that route. The bright white of that material would just emphasize the color difference in the whites. And I couldn’t come up with a design that looked good with the headstock.

One thing I didn’t do, but might still get around to, is have the neck plate engraved with the particulars of this build: the kit number, serial/build number, Rampant name and yelocaster model. I just think it’d be a nice touch. But at some point I just wanted to put the thing together and see if it played, so that didn’t happen.

I had some fun building this kit, spent way more money than just the cost of the kit, learned some things, and now I’ve got a pretty nice little addition to my collection. I’m quite satisfied with the results.