A Somewhat Heath Robinson Spray Booth

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It’s been a busy few weeks since Christmas, including being Best Man at my best friend’s wedding on Saturday.

I did however manage to get a brief hour in the workshop yesterday to get things set up in advance of spraying the lacquer for the Telecaster build.

Having tested the compressor and airline equipment I then erected a small freestanding greenhouse to use as a spray booth. Given that my current workshop is a 1950s prefabricated garage I stand very little chance of keeping it entirely dust free while spraying, but the greenhouse should provide a clean space in which to hang the guitar while applying the finish over the next couple of weeks.

In preparation for spraying the lacquer

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After a busy December in which I was unable to get into the workshop, I have been making good use of the festive break to get in some good workshop this week. A separate blog post about fretting the Tele-build will follow shortly, but today I want to write about preparing to spray the lacquer.

Having finished the fret work just before Christmas, most of this week has been spent final sanding the body and neck to 220 grit to remove any remaining tool marks and minor dings. Because I will be using a water based lacquer I then damped the sanded timber to raise the grain, and then re-sanded with 220 grit paper. This will ensure that when the lacquer is sprayed the grain won’t fuzz up or warp in reaction to the moisture in the lacquer, particularly on the end grain or the figured maple of the neck.

Both the neck and the body were then treated to a coat of amber shellac (mixed to a 2 pound cut) primarily to act as a sealer, but in the case of the neck also to make the figure in the maple really pop. The result is that the birdseye, as well as some lovely and entirely unexpected flame, now really stand out. This neck, complete with the dyed sycamore laminate under the fretboard, and black pearl fret markers, should be very eye catching.

Being an open pored wood, the swamp ash body then needed grain filling. I ragged on a transparent grain filler, and then removed the excess using an old credit card as a squeegee. Once the filler had dried overnight I sanded the filler back with 220 grit paper, and then gave another coat of shellac to really seal the filler in.

All that remains on this build is to spray the lacquer, and then do final set up once the guitar has been assembled, and I shall document both processes on this blog.

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All strung up

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All strung up

Today I started levelling the frets on the Telecaster build. But before I did so, last night I assembled the full guitar (save for the electrics) for the first time, and put a set of strings on her.

This was mainly to assess the effect of string tension on the neck before working on the frets, but also an opportunity to review the neck shape and decide on any last minute tweaks to the neck profile prior to spraying the lacquer.

Of course I couldn’t resist playing her – this was the moment of truth when she stopped being a piece of furniture and started to be a musical instrument! Initial impressions are very good – the combination of swamp ash body and maple neck gives a nice bright, percussion twang, especially when hybrid picking country licks. The vintage neck profile fills the hand, but isn’t not too club-like. That being said, I may remove a little more material between 1st and 5th frets, just to increase comfort a touch.

I will write about the fret levelling process in a separate entry. But for now, I shall leave you with a picture of the guitar, strung up, on our dinning room table.

No actual eggs were beaten in the writing of this post

Today has been my favourite sort of workshop day. There has been visible progress on the Telecaster build, with problem solving and practice at fundamental hand tool skills along the way. Perfect.

Before the wedding, I had got the Telecaster to the point where the next stage was to fit the neck to the body. Although the neck pocket in the body was routed early on in the build, fine fitting the neck and drilling the holes for the neck screws doesn’t happen until quite late in the build process.

Before I started drilling any holes however, I wanted to fit a more substantial table to my drill press to support large pieces such as the Telecaster body. Out of the box my drill press only has a 4″ wide table, which is fine for drilling small work pieces but is somewhat lacking for larger work. Rather than buy a third party table, I decided to make one out of a spare piece of 1/2″ thick plywood I had kicking about. This would give me a substantial 24″ square table which should be more than sufficient to support any workpiece I’m likely to introduce to the drill press. Having drilled and countersunk the mounting holes, and cut a recess to accommodate the drill pillar, I then discovered that the throat of the drill press wasn’t deep enough to reach the location of the holes on the Telecaster body. Damn. It looked like I was going to have to drill these holes the old fashioned way after all. This wasn’t time wasted though, as it’s a job I’ve been meaning to do for a while. When I next get an opportunity, I’ll also fit a fence to the new table.

Before I could fit the neck I needed to have the bridge fitted and drill the stringing holes through the body. I screwed the bridge to the bridge pickup (and there will be a future post about pickups in the near future) and placed the bridge pickup in it’s cavity. This then located the bridge in the correct position, which was checked from the front edge of the neck pocket and against the body centreline.

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I was then able to drill the four holes for the bridge screws, and the six holes for the string channels, the latter going all the way through the body. Drilling through 2″ thick swamp ash using only a decades old egg beater drill is not for the faint hearted, and a good exercise in drilling perfectly straight. While I was at it, I flipped the body over and widened the string channels (which had been drilled with a 3mm bit) to a 10mm diameter and 9mm depth to accept the string ferrules.

Next, and still using the egg beater hand drill, I drilled four holes through the body for the neck screws. Then came the clever bit. The neck currently has a good tight fit in the pocket, but because I have left some room for the lacquer on both the neck and in the pocket itself, there is a little side-to-side play. I want the neck to be dead straight when fitted, so that the outermost strings are a constant distance from the edge of the fretboard. To check this I installed the nut and the tuners for the outermost strings in the neck, and attached the bridge to the body. I then ran lengths of string from both tuners to the bridge, adjusting the neck laterally until everything was true, after which I pushed a 3mm drill bit through the holes in the body to mark the position of the four screw holes on the bottom of the neck. After that it was a simple enough task to drill the four holes to depth in the neck (yet again, using the egg beater drill because by this point I was growing quite fond of it).

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You’ve got some neck

Today I’ve been sequestered in the workshop carving the neck for the Telecaster build. The neck is a nice piece of birdseye maple, with some unexpected subtle flame across the back, and a birdseye maple fretboard. To add some visual interest, but stiill stay true to the simple workhorse appeal of Tele type guitars, the fretboard and neck are separated by an accent line of black dyed sycamore veneer. The scratch plate is black/white/black laminate, and along with the black tahiti pearl fretboard inlay and side position dots, creates a consistent theme with the lack veneer.

Earlier this summer I had inlayed the black pearl dots, and shaped the fretboard to a vintage correct 7.25″ radius, and the next task was to carve the neck. This guitar is largely based on 1950’s Telecaster’s, and so for neck profile I was aiming for something quite chunky with a “boat” shape rather than the modern “C” profile – I never get on particularly well with super skinny necks. One of the real advantages of having an instrument custom built is the opportunity to have a neck profile carved specifically for your hand size, and playing style – no matter how good an off the shelf guitar is, the neck profile will always be something of a compromise. Unlike modern Fender guitars, the neck on this guitar is a constant 1″ thick across the full length of the neck. As with the neck on Esmerelda, I decided to leave a little more material on the bass side of the neck to create a slightly asymmetric profile which supports the thumb. I first read about Brook Guitars using this on their instruments, although I think that the Fender SRV signature models may also have an asymmetric neck profile.

The following is an old picture which shows roughly what the neck was like before the carve, although as I mentioned earlier, the fretboard had been radiused and the inlay fitted between taking the photo and carving the neck profile.

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I start by establishing the profile I want at the first fret, and immediately before the body join, by rasping in a rough profile. I use Auriou rasps exclusively; a 9 grain cabinet rasp, and a 13 grain modellers rasp for fine work. The 9 grain is aggressive, but leaves a good finish and is still precise enough to allow you to work up to the line.

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I then join the two roughed out profiles using a spokeshave – this particular spokeshave is an old Record No.51 of my grandfather’s which I have recently restored.

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The profile is then fine tuned with a block plane (pictured is my Ray Isles tuned Stanley block plane) tracing the 6 string lines, and staying clear of the centre line of the neck. The rasps are also used to tweak the profile along the length of the neck, until I am happy that the neck is the right shape and that there are no flats, humps or hollows. The final stage is removing previous tool marks and smoothing out the profile using sheets of 150 and then 180 grit paper in what I’ve heard referred to as the “shoe shine” method. Occasionally, there is still a corner or ridge just below the edge of the fretboard, and this is gently eased out with some 80 grit paper and light finger pressure, followed by the 150 and 180 grit papers again.

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Here you can see the final profile and the transition from the headstock to the neck profile, which was carved using the small modellers rasp and some tightly rolled 150 grit paper. Also visible is the black veneer sandwiched between the neck and fretboard.

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The finished neck profile.