Hand Building a Strat – Pt.1

I’m back in the workshop this week (in fits and starts as per usual between repairs), to start on a new build. The purpose of this one is to build a 1960’s type Stratocaster – basically a ’61 in terms of how the guitar feels and sounds, but with some refinements of the modern age which will make it a touch easier to deal with in service terms.

So starting with the neck, a rosewood boarded 21 fret bolt on with a figured maple back, I thought I’d break down the process to show you what goes into a totally hand built guitar.

Preparing the blank

First thing is to create a ‘reference’ plane on a thicknessed maple board.

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I use a planer thicknesser for the first part of the operation (the board was fairly flat to start with) so there wasn’t any major problem with the board being flexed by the rollers.

The board started at a depth of about 1″ – but the thickness required for the project is only about 0.8″.

I put the board through the machine both faces up at any depth, and only take about 1/32″ at a time as I get close to the required depth.

 

Now we have a flat thicknessed board, the plane is sharpened on my Japanese waterstones to a fine edge and polished, ready to create the reference edge. This is always done with my trusty No.5 Bailey Plane, the old fashioned way. It’s just a case of planing the edge totally flat and straight so it will take a router guide without deflection, and this edge is going to support the square for marking the blank.

Marking the Neck

At this point you have to decide how you want the figure in the wood to appear on the finished neck. that will tell you which way the neck will face on the blank, and which side of the blank will be the back. Having made that decision, I mark the centre line of the neck using the square from the reference plane and mark it on the wood.

Then I use the template to mark the shape and the nut position against the centre line.

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The next job is to lay the truss rod into the neck. For this neck I am using a spoke wheel truss rod, so that it can be adjusted from the body end without removing the neck from the body. For me, this is the best design of truss rod. Also, it’s a biflex rod so the object of the exercise is to make sure the rod sits in the channel with the flat bar absolutely level with the surrounding wood – it will be in contact with the fretboard. The truss rod however, isn’t a constant depth. So the depths will be cut in sections.

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A router is not designed to remove large amounts of wood, its designed to make a smooth edge into a recess. So the best way to cut the channel is to remove as much material as possible from channel before using the router. So a drill is used to hole the channel to a set depth (in this case about 8mm with a 6mm brad point drill bit. I’m using the press drill with a depth gauge to make this simple.

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Then it’s just a case of straightening out the channel with the router. I’ve got my router set up with a long fence, that I’ve stuck to it ‘Valerie Singleton’ style with double sided Sticky tape.

Then each area of the rod can be checked for depth with the router depth guide, and the reference plane used to make a straight route down the neck blank. At the points where the rod is deeper and wider than the 1/4″, then a wider router blade is used, and the depth set appropriately. The end doesn’t have to be tight as its just the spoke wheel adjustment. It’s only important to have the moving flex of the rod tight to the fretboard underside to prevent a rattling fretboard.

To fit the truss rod into the channel to check the depth, in this case the end of the neck needs to be sawn to shape, taking the edge up to the heel. that way the spoke wheel will lay totally free at the end of the neck (there’s no fretboard overhang).

The Fretboard

The rosewood fretboard blank has to go through the thicknesser in the same way as the neck blank. This time the blank is thinned to about 8mm. That’s just a bit deeper than we really need, but allows for the work to leave indents on the front of the fretboard without being permanent damage, as a good layer will be removed as we shape the fretboard.

Then it’s marked with a pencil, a centre line (so we can line it up with the centre line of the blank back) and then the shape from the same template. Remembering that there’s going to be a good 3/4″ left over at the end of the nut before the taper into the headstock, the blank is cut on the bandsaw down to the rough shape.

A word about routers…

I had a metal based router table, I used it occasionally for cutting out fretboards against a template.  I didn’t like it, it all felt too light, so I built a heavy wooden router table and spent a lot of money on a 1/2″ router and an imported lifter platform insert to fit it to.

I almost never use it.

The problem for me is that the blade is upright and exposed. Now I know I don’t really need to put my fingers anywhere near it, but I’ve developed a real dislike for it (bordering on paranoia). Also, in the UK I find it impossible to find a decent sharpening service, so router blades are almost never sharp unless they’re brand new – causing me to have lost a few blanks to ‘grabbing’ and even scorching. So I don’t use it unless I absolutely have no choice.

To clean up the fretboard edges from the bandsaw, I go to my small Stanley plane. It’s a low angle ‘block’ plane and was a gift from an old friend when I first started out. And then I just take the edges by eye until they meet the pencil marks. Old fashioned and simple – and what’s more, it takes me less time than setting the router and taping it to a template.

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The fretboard has to be slotted. I use the Stewmac slotting jig to mark it. More double sided sticky tape, and the trick with the 25.5″ template is that when you put the blank on the steel plate the nut line should sit at the ‘cut off’ line to make the blank sit correctly. I mark these lines on the steel plate. I also mark a centre line on the plate to line the blank up square (no point in having slanted frets!)

The saw lines aren’t deep, I’m just marking it at this point. Once I’ve got the neck glued together I start cutting them to depth. At this point it’s just being done because the whole neck won’t go in the jig so easily.

The end of the fretboard needs to be shaped to match the template, I do this with a file. Normally this doesn’t have to be done until the neck is glued, but this one had the spoke wheel hanging out of the heel, so once that’s in the heel can’t really be touched.

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Now it’s time to glue up – with the truss rod in place…

Gluing up

There’s a trick to this, which I’m going to divulge….and it makes it very easy.

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I put staples in the blank, then I use my fret tang cutters to cut them off with only a tiny bit of the leg left showing out of the wood. I then take the blank and line it up with the blank, and force it down on the spikes. This means that under pressure the fretboard can’t move (and the glue will make it slippery).

Usually, I would use a hide glue for this, but in this case I’m going to use a locally sourced white glue. There’s three reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a bit cold and the hide glue will probably go off too quick as it cools. Secondly, it’s a bolt on neck and therefore if something goes wrong with the truss rod it will be cheaper to throw the neck away and build another one than try to repair it – the point of hide glue is that its easy to steam open. Thirdly (and most unusually), I’ve been asked to make a guitar by a vegan, to vegan rules (i.e. absolutely no animal products). So I’m using this to test the glue I’ve chosen to use for that job as that one is going to be a set neck and therefore a total pain if the glue fails!

The truss rod is sealed in plastic, so it’s not a problem if a little glue gets on the sheath, so on goes the glue and it’s time to clamp up. The fretboard drops back onto the holes that the staples have made in it, so I don’t have to hold it while I clamp it, and I can also push it down by hand and just clean away some of the excess glue, before obscuring the work with clamps.

I’m using a flat wooden caul on the top to even the pressure out, and I’m using a lot of pressure from the clamps. Also, I’m clamping it not just to itself, but to a very flat work surface (made from kitchen top) which is very stiff. This means that I can’t bend the work and end up with a slightly twisted or bent blank because the clamping surface has distorted.

And there it is, the first day of work on the neck. It’s going to dry overnight. As soon as I can, I’ll start work on the body.

Until next time…

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