Can a car influence your taste in guitars? It did with me. I could never imagine the Telecaster in any color other than sonic blue with a white pick guard, polished chrome and maple neck. After an extensive search I realized that the only option was that I had to build one myself. Had I ever done this before? No, but once I get my mind set on something it won’t change. I was going to build myself a telecaster the way I wanted and in the colors I loved.
How was I going to do this? I decided to build it at work during my lunch break from work or after I knocked off for the day. There was more room there to work with compared to my New York apartment and I could keep my tools locked up in the equipment shed. It was going to be put together piece by piece during any spare time I got. It would be a long process but hopefully worth it. The first step was research. What tools did I need? What parts would I need? How much would it cost? I set about outlining exactly what this guitar was going to be made from and ordered the pieces one item at a time. All items and cost are detailed at the end of this blog post.
Simple, I found the Internet to be a very frustrating way to gather information and I wanted to outline what I done in the hope that it helps someone else. That’s all. The vast majority of people who read this will find it boring, but it’s not aimed at them. If you read this blog and it helped you in anyway, please let me know. It’s the only reason I spent so much time writing this up. The Internet is a great tool for something, what exactly I’m not sure. All I know is that when I really need it, it fails me every time. I hope I can make this blog post an exception.
My first purchase was a single piece of Swamp Ash. I got it pre-drilled due to my total lack of drilling facilities at my New York apartment/office. This particular piece was ordered from Warmoth.com
Why did I choose Ash? I chose ash because it is light, VERY light and has a bright, spanky twang to it. Most Telecasters are made from this wood or the slightly heavier alder wood. Heavy woods like Mahogany or Rosewood give a nice warm thick tone but that’s better suited for a Gibson Les Paul. I was building a Telecaster so Ash it was. I was lucky to find a single piece of swamp ash. Hard to get a single piece like that sometimes as they tend to be two pieces glued together. FYI – It smelled great too.
Unlike rosewood or mahogany which have tight well knit wood grains, Ash needs to be treated. The large gaps between the grains allow water to penetrate the wood. This will cause problems later due to heat changes and will cause warping and the paint to crack.
Some of the early stages I could do at my apartment. I prepared the balcony for some grain filing. I quickly learned that the work involved in getting the body ready was the hardest. I laid down some papers on an old table and got to work. It was a beautiful spring day. The neighbors often see me singing and playing the guitar on the balcony most nights. To now watch me build a guitar must have looked like I was travelling back in time.
The first process was to lightly sand down the guitar and wipe away excess dust. A bottle of dust remover “borrowed” from the office helped clean off any dust and pieces of dirt that got stuck in hard to reach places. In the pictured below you can see a paint brush for the grain filler and a screwdriver to get the lid of the can. Harder than you think. One tip I learned: Use an old credit card to wipe off the access grain filler.
I admit that very early on I had become enamored with the unique wood grain patterns and realized that it would have been great for a transparent honey blonde finish. Unfortunately I would be completely covering up these beautiful pattern with a solid coat of paint.
I used Colortone Water Base Grain Filler which I bought from stewmac.com. It was highly recommend that I use an oil based grain filler from reranch.com but they do not stock it anymore and it was quit difficult to find elsewhere. The water based filler was my next choice and worked like a charm. No problems here. Yes, there were pages and pages of people arguing over this too.
pre-drilled battery box and ferrule holes here.
I left it for a few hours before lightly dry sanding with #220 paper and repeating the grain filling process again. I repeated this step about 4 – 5 times.
I brought all my parts and equipment into work and proceeded from this point on building the Telecaster on my lunch break or after work . It was a long slow process of progress in small parts. Some days I was too busy while others I stayed back up to two hours. Some days I got a lot done, others I set my self back to square one.
Sand and Sealer Coating:
After the grain had been filled and dried it was time to give it a Sand and Sealer coating. This is a clear nitrocellulose filler. It fills in the grain along with the grain filler on very porous woods such as in my case, Ash. It also levels out any imperfections and depressions in the wood surface giving a level base for the primer. I sprayed and left it to dry overnight. The next morning I gave it a rough dry sanding with #400 grade paper. I used up the whole can on 3 – 4 coats repeating this process as I went. After the last coat and sanding I wiped it down so it was free of dust and grit for the application of the primer.
After the sand and sealer had been applied it was time to coat it with primer. I pretty much sprayed it, left it to dry over night, lightly dry sanded it and sprayed it again. I continued until the primer was used up. 5 – 6 coats perhaps. I used a white primer and one can was enough. It dried to a matte finish. More on this later.
Brakleen – A brake parts cleaner. It dissolves the Nitrocellulose paint incredibly fast. Two of the cans of color paint I ordered clogged, one on arrival in the box and one from usage. I brought the can to a local car shop for help and they suggested I use the brake cleaner as it dissolved paint in seconds.
Thanks to the guys at Midas in Maspeth for this suggestion. To this day they ask me about my guitar every time I walk past their shop. “Mr. Dempsey, how is the guitar?” they scream from across the street. They also ask me about my old 1991 Jeep Wrangler which spent more time in their shop getting fixed then being driven by me around New York. I tell them that I sold it to a man from Sri Lanka which is true, but they continue to ask me as if their cash cow will suddenly reappear for them in these recessionary times.
In short, the Brakleen cleaned out the nozzles with ease anytime they clogged. I can’t recommend this enough. It also helped with the misc. needs for paint removal. You’d be surprised where it ends up.
A very important item I bought was a fine sandpaper pack. This is essential when doing your own finish which in my opinion was the hardest part of the whole process. The pack was supplemented with sandpaper I bought from the local Pepboys car center. This is the same car center where this funny incident happened. The papers were graded from very rough to super smooth via a numbering system: #200, #400, #600, #800, #1000, #1200, #1500 and #2000.
#200 thru #800 was for visible flaws that needed to be removed aggressively.
#1000 thru #2000 was for fine finishing to bring the coat to a glass like smooth finish.
The process of sanding and smoothing out the primer was done by DRY sanding. I used #600 or #800 for this.
For the color coat I WET sanded with #800 and gently working up to #2000 which gave it a glass like finish. I let the color dry over night. The following day I would spray again and repeat the process.
The process of WET SANDING was done by soaking the papers an hour before use. I filled a small bucket and kept the papers in there most of the time as I was using them everyday. I also bough a sponge block to wrap the papers around. You wont feel like you’re removing much paint but you are. This can be seen by observing the small pieces of colored paint left on the paper and also floating in the water. I kept the water bucket with me at all times to keep the papers wet.
This whole process is not only a total pain in the arse but during the summer the water attracted mosquitoes which not only landed on the guitar but attacked me with fury. Most of my frustration was not really knowing if I was doing it right. The guitar at no point ever looked like a finished product.
Spraying Primer – Process:
I bolted a piece of wood to the neck connection and used some imagination in hanging it while I sprayed the body. I believe this to be a bunk bed ladder that was sitting in some local trash. Thank you very much, I’ll take that.
Primer was the first to be applied so as to give the guitar a good base to start from.
Prime, dry, lightly dry sand.
Prime, dry, lightly dry sand. (Ignore the Mexican kids shouting from the apartment next door)
Inspect…then prime, dry, lightly dry sand. (Yawn)
Inspect, sand off the rough parts, spray again and then leave to dry (Yawn! Zzzz)
Promise the Mexican kids next door that you will gladly build them a red guitar if they shut up and leave you alone. Ignore their opinion that guitars are better when painted red not blue.
I sprayed the primer in the cavities also. There was no need for this but I done it anyway.
Never having done this before I tended to check up on the guitar quit often like a first time father and their child.
Due to the air quality of New York City I decided to bring the guitar indoors for the last two coats. Dust and mosquitoes were particularly attracted to the primer and were quit frankly a total bitch to remove. A little dab of Brakleen helped.
The only issues I had was finding the correct distance from the guitar to spray from. Unfortunately I came too close on occasion and drips occurred. These would be lightly sanded off when dry. If I sprayed from too far away I got an orange peel effect where the primer dried too quickly and did not form a uniform cohesion on the surface.
Spraying Color Coat:
The day arrived when I decided to spray the first color coat. Sonic Blue. I was a little nervous about this to be honest. Again, like the primer before I brought the guitar indoors after spraying. You must always spray outdoors as the fumes are both toxic and quite overpowering. I pretty much repeated the same steps I took with the primer.
Spraying outside I used what ever little tricks I learned from applying the primer. The color coat went on a little easier than I had expected although I was always worried by that little voice in my head telling me I was doing it wrong or had forgotten something.
Just checking up on it again! I could only bring it into the office when I was alone as the smell of paint was quit strong.
Like the primer, dust, dirt and mosquitoes had a tendency to stick to the drying paint. These could be removed if spotted quickly with a carefully place burst from the dust destroyer. If not, I went nuclear and took out the Brakleen.
Building the guitar on ten minutes a day at the office meant that I had to move it around quit a bit. Bringing it in and out of the office each day. This resulted in some unwanted nicks and dents. I’m a perfectionist but I decided to accept that this would happen and I’ve never been crazy about shiny new perfect guitars anyway. I have no idea how this one happened.
I had the same problem with the paint at the edges as I did with the primer. A tricky part of the process. The main thing was not to over-sandpaper. I done it a few times and had to wait for the paint to dry before going back and reapplying.
The color coat slowly built up and I sandpapered each coat using the method as described before. I sprayed until I used up the two cans. I left a small bit of paint in one of the cans for misc. repair I might need down the line (and did).
I bought the clear coat spray from Reranch also. The clear coat needs a few days to harden and then will continue to harden up to 60 days later. I applied it in the same manner as the color coat. Spray, leave to dry and wet sand. After almost a week I decided to polish the guitar and begin installing the components. To be honest I found the filling, sealing, priming, painting and sanding process frustrating and was glad to proceed to the next part. The clear coat remained soft and had to be treated carefully when moving the guitar around.
Once I was happy enough with the paint finish I bought a polishing disk attachment that I connected to a regular drill. Using a small dab of polish I gave the guitar a going over. I recommend testing on a section that will be covered up later. I held the drill to close to the paint and the friction created enough heat to discolor the paint. Luckily I would cover this section with the scratch guard. Thankfully I ended up with a glass like polished finish I was happy with. The most frustrating part of the process I believe was the most rewarding.
It was recommended that I cover the pickup cavities with copper foil. I bought DiMarzio Copper Shielding Tape, 24″ x 3-1/2″ from amazon.com and a single roll was just about enough. I would buy two to be sure. I covered all three cavities which is trickier than you would expect and also the back of the scratch guard to entirely encase the electronics in a copper shield. I left a narrow strip of copper to extend out onto the face of the guitar so it would connect to the copper tape at the back of the scratch guard. This whole process was done as to avoid external electrical interference with the guitar’s electronics.
For the pick ups I done a lot of research or as I call it in my case “reading a lot of websites and forums on Telecaster pick ups”. This is were I found large quantities of twats talking like douche bags while acting the Muppet. I’m convinced these guys when not screaming at each other in forums are getting drunk on Baily’s Irish Cream, flicking through old family photo albums crying while wearing their mother’s old wedding dress before lashing out at the dog. God only knows why people do this, personally I think its intimacy issues and loneliness. I found it all unbearable to read and very frustrating. Little or no actual information was offered up, hence me writing this blog. I really hope this helps at least one sane person out there.
I took a leap of faith and went with what had the best reviews coupled with the descriptions which matched best what I was looking for. I almost bought Seymour Duncan pick ups but for some unknown reason at the last minute my gut went with the Custom Shop Texas Special Fender Telecaster Pick ups. They offered a large presence and a good mid range with a clear warm tone, at least that’s what I was told. Honestly it was gut instinct and reading close to 50 reviews. The bridge pick up had height staggered magnets and a copper bottom plate. They are specifically designed to work with the 4 way switch. I did not know this at the time and ordered a three way switch. This would cause problems when wiring. I drilled pilot holes and then screwed in the bridge and neck pickup into the cavities. This was a little trickier than I thought, especially the neck pick up due to rubber supports pushing back at the screws. It was a tight fit to say the least.
For both pickups I ran their wires through the body of the guitar and tied them off at the control cavity for later connections. I also installed a battery box at the back which I did not need (my bad) but I left it in place in case I decided to use it sometime in the future.
The neck pick up can be seen here along with the copper tape. The neck was the only area I did not prime or paint. I did fill the grain to prevent any water penetration.
I actually looked forward to what some people would say was the hardest part. Being a nerdy engineer I couldn’t wait to get the solder iron out and set up the electronics.
Something very obvious to an experienced guitar builder was not so obvious to me. The pick ups I chose could only be wired with a four way switch. This caused me a lot of confusion but I went ahead and tried to wire it up to the three way switch I bought not knowing that I would later have to come back and fix it with a four way switch.
Connecting the earth to the back of the volume pot was difficult. I found the best way was to place a dab of solder on the pot first and let dry. Then I held the wire to it and reheated it with the solder iron. The solder became liquid, the wire melted into it and when I took the iron away it all fused nicely together.
Once I had the pick ups wired and connected to the control plate I drilled and screwed it into the body of the guitar. The volume and tone knobs were attached and we were ready to move on to the bridge plate and pick guard.
***Major screw up! I don’t know how I messed this up but I bought small string ferrules and inserted them into the face of the guitar forgetting that on a Telecaster the bridge would provide this function. I realized the mistake when trying to put the bloody bridge on. This is a direct result of my habitual and persistent daydreaming.
I removed the ferrules in a variety of ways. Three were taken out with a pliers, two stubborn ones were heated up with a solder which caused them to expand and increase the hole they were in. Then they could be removed with a pliers like the others when they cooled. One would not budge. After an hour of trying I decided an unusual approach. I screwed a wood screw into the ferrule. The ferrule was a soft metal and the hard wood screw deformed it as the threads cut into its insides. I could then get a better grip on the screw and pull out the whole ferrule this way. Success! This is remarkably my proudest moment.
The bridge was attached along with the control panel. The two wires exposed are power cables from the battery box. It turned out that I did not need it but I decided to run the wires to the control panel anyway in case I changed my mind some time n the future.
As you can see one hole was drilled a little off. The screw had to be “persuade” to join the others. A little brute force never hurt anyone.
I then installed the Schaller Mini Locking Chrome Tuners I chose. The holes needed to be widened in the headstock so I bought a small round file and increased the diameter myself. It took a while but they fit in like a glove. At the time I stuck on a Warmoth decal although I’ve since removed it.
The Finished Product:
After the guitar was completed I brought it home and plugged it in to my Fender Delux Amp. I had adjusted the neck with a shim as the strings lay flat on the frets after I strung it. It sounded great although there was a slight hum on the first switch position. The second switch position was noisy which got worse when the tone pot was turned and the switch for the neck position flat out did not work. I decided to bring it to a Luthier for a set up and to the get the wiring checked. The neck turned out to be fine and the saddles on the bridge had to be adjusted. It was explained to me about the four way switch being required which I had them install. The neck pick up flat out didn’t work. It was defective and was sent to me in that state so there was no way I could have fixed it myself anyway. A week later I got my guitar back with a new switch and the neck pick up was replaced with a Seymour Duncan pick up. I ended up with a little of both in the end regarding the pick ups anyway. They also installed the string tree which I had forgotten to install. Everything else was fine.
The day was coming to an end when I decided that I wanted to get an outdoor picture of the guitar. The sun was setting but you can still get an idea of the color of the finish. I also left in my favorite blue strap for the picture.
I'm exhausted, Col–I'm pretty sure I would've lost patience early on and been overcome by Brakleen fumes. Good for you for sticking with it–it's a beauty!
There were some tears. There were some mosquito bites. There was some weight lose due to skipping lunch. Sings like an angel though.
mind. blown. speechless.
We are playing Prince on this mofo!
she is so beautiful! can't wait to see/accompany her in person :)p.s. your prince reference was hysterical!
Dude does the volume work??? if not you need to solder the third lug ( of the vol pot) to the pot itself, and it's not true you can wire it up with a three way. Any who great job for a first dig!!! Dan ( Liverpool England) if you need any info or help email me on email@example.com
Daniel, the volume worked in the end. It was eventually wired up to a four way switch and sounds great. I'm using it to record at the studio on Sunday. Thanks for your input.
Just stumbled across this blog of yours. Awesome job, man. I'm in the early stages of “building” a Tele myself, not painting it on my own though. You got some guts going for that! Really enjoyed your story from start to finish. It has to be really satisfying to play.
Thanks Jarrett, the painting was the hardest part. I thought it would be the easiest. Playing a guitar you built yourself definitely adds a magic quality to it. Good luck on your own one. Send us a pic or two when it's finished. Colin
Wow, what a great job!!! I’ve just read your story glued to the screen, like I was watching a runaway Chev Impala on black ice, heroically rescued in the end. I feel your pain – I have built a telecaster from parts myself and there are *so many little things* that can go wrong, on such a simple guitar! Things you’d never think about until you do it yourself.
I love your finished guitar, it looks amazing. Hope your still enjoying it and thanks for sharing your journey. (Damien, Sydney Australia)
Thanks Damien, glad you liked it and yes, there were so many little things to deal with. I’ll never refer to it as a “simple” guitar ever gain, quite complex actually. If you’re interested you can here it being payed on the opening track on my band’s (Supersmall) album This Other World. Go to my website at http://www.supersmallmusic.com and the player is in the top right corner. Thanks for the comment – Colin
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