Sunday, April 22, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Pickup Problems

Last weekend it was finally time to wire up the electronics for this thing and give it a try. Unfortunately in the first few minutes this happened.
From what I could tell, the ends of the coils were never really attached to the wire at all. I tried for a few minutes to see if I could find the end of the wind of the pickup to re-attach, but decided that for this pickup, it probably isn't worth the effort. I've put in an order for a cheap, but not as cheap pair of rails for the neck and middle position until I spot something better used.

Luckily there was still a little more work to do. I had to drill a hole to connect the grounding wire to the bridge. This kit, like many kits, left that out.
And I drilled holes for a pickup ring at the bridge.
Unfortunately while the pickup ring is standard size for a humbucker, the actual pickup that shipped with the kit does not fit into the bridge route! I didn't plan on doing more than testing with it anyway. But still, you don't expect the pickup that ships with the kit to not fit at all.
I have a Duncan Alternative 8 bridge that I'm excited to dry out so I went to make sure it fits in the bridge. And that's when I discovered yet another problem: the bridge pickup route is too shallow for the pickup mounting screws and springs! Luckily a creative solution here was just to drill a few mm deep under the screws with a large bit with allows the pickup to to be installed.
For now I'm going to wait for the new pickups to come in and work on some other projects.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Using Aniline Dye and Tru Oil to Liven Up an Uninteresting Cheap Neck

This is an older project I never got around to posting.

About a year ago I got a great eBay deal on a cheap telecaster with a flamed maple top, ash body and a maple fretboard. It is a budget guitar from kit quality parts and at the time I thought it would be a great project base. Unfortunately while the body is finished nicely, the neck and the actual fitting of the neck to the body were a disaster. The frets were way off the edge of the guitar, the neck needed some serious shimming and the finish was so thin on the neck and fingerboard that after a few minutes of playing, oil from the strings had stained the wood.
The frets needed a full leveling, beveling and crowning. They were like a mountain range out of the box. Given the wood needed to be refinished anyway one of the nice things was that I could go right at the frets with the tools without doing anything to actually protect the fretboard.
Then after sanding the fretboard until it was back to plain white maple, I took a bit of of the brown, yellow and black dye powders from a Keda five dye kit and applied it. The first coat wasn't very impressive.
But I sanded and repeated three more times. After a few coats what was a very uninteresting bright white maple neck actually started to show some figuring. Especially on the fretboard itself.
After 4 rounds, I started to carefully apply Tru Oil which really made the dyed figure of the maple fretboard pop out from the field of the wood.
This whole process only took a handful of time per day for about a week and a half to go from one of those $20 range cheap telecaster necks to something that is both playable and actually looks quite fancy.
Two things didn't go perfectly. First, I sanded enough material off between the frets that in a few places, especially given the frets weren't seated well to begin with, you can definitely see a little gap between the crown, exposing the tang when you look at an angle. Also it's very difficult to apply Tru Oil to a board with frets on it without making a mess. I'd go slower if I were doing this again and consider thinning it out more as I left some white lines near the frets themselves that are visible only when looking closely.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Locking Nut Adjustments and Mirror Glaze

We're finally close to the finish line with this one. This next picture shows a tip that applies to any of these low end headless kits.
The Steinberger style system relies on a zero fret that acts in the capacity a nut normally would. The locking nut holds the string at a slight angle against this fret. The problem with these kit necks out of the box is that the nut sits a little too far forward to make enough of an angle to keep the strings tense against the fret. I use a sanding drum to take off about a 1mm of wood right above the fretboard and then a grinding wheel to smooth things out.
After making the nut adjustments I used some disposable polishing wheels and Meguiar's Mirror Glaze finishing polish to finish things off on the body and neck. Overall I really didn't do an excellent job prepping the wood on this guitar so I probably could have gone with a more coarse polishing compound first but still it doesn't look terrible.
And there's one of just the body.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Headless Kit Build: The Final Coat

It has been a while since the last update. Many coffee filters have been used. There was a pretty big hiccup along the way.
I managed to over sand the left horn to the point where I went through the sealer, pulled up some dye and messed up the color pretty bad. All things are fixable. They just take time. This mistake along with being pretty much otherwise stretched for time lately added about two weeks to the build.

This was the first take at re-applying dye. The hard part at this point is that sealer and oil have already soaked into the grain.
So while it started to come back together in the picture above, it actually took two cycles of this, the second being far more angry with a lower grit, to start to get close to the picture below.
And finally, if you're not looking for the spot (which is now lighter than it was) it finally fits in with the overall randomness of the colors on the rest of the body.
Here's a shot that includes the back of the maple neck which is already looking pretty good with many slow coats. The body has a lot more surface to cover so as I'm working toward the last coats, I apply a few drops of oil to a filter, then to the body. Then with the filter at the end, I apply whatever is left on the filter. Meaning the neck gets a far more generous number of coats each with far less oil.
I'll let this dry until the end of the week and then over the weekend move on to buffing out the finish on the body, doing the fretwork, installing electronics and hardware and hopefully I'll have something playable by sometime next week!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Wet Sanding

During the first week of the finishing process, I have been pretty generous with oil applications. Before the oil builds up it soaks right in. So it helps to be a little aggressive (a few drops) at the start if you're going to use a coat/wait/coat approach. The downside is you get some bumps, mini dust bunnies stuck in the muck and ridges in the finish. The key to getting rid of those is wet sanding!
This involves soaking a paper towel with water, squeezing a few drops out, and then sanding out imperfections with a grit that depends on the severity of the "unsmoothedness". I use between 800 and 1500 grit. As you sand you build up a slurry of powdered oil and water. I find it works really well to get the gloves off and have my fingers in the Tru-Oil mud so I can feel the texture of the surface as I'm sanding. Wiping it off with the wet paper towel, the surface looks a bit duller than before the sanding.
After it dries, you can see the remaining "mud" stuck around the imperfections. That effect will go away with a naphtha wipe down and additional coats of oil.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Three More Days of Tru-Oil

At this point, I've almost worked my way all around the sides of the body and the back. The top is still to be finished. Here's some progress over three days with three to four coats per day.

You may wonder what I do with all the coffee filters. Especially since Tru-Oil has a habit of spontaneous combustion. I hang them up so the oil can cure in my shower. There's a lack of flammable material nearby. And the room has good ventilation. So far this has worked out.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Headless Kit Build: First Six Tru-Oil Coats

I'm about a day and six coats into Tru-Oil application. Five on the back and one on the sides. That seems like a lot of coats for just over 24 hours. Especially considering I was not home most of today. But with thin enough coats (just a few drops) it is possible to re-apply every three hours or so. As soon as the last coat is no longer tacky. I enjoy this approach because it means even on a workday between the morning and the evening I get at least two, maybe three chances to spend 5-6 minutes moving the project forward. In a busy week, I'm still able to make a lot of visible progress with less than an hour of time to put into it.

Here's a bottle of Tru-Oil. The big bottles like this are a slightly better value but unfortunately because Tru-Oil does thicken and get hard as it is in contact with oxygen if you don't use it fast, all sorts of bad things happen. The texture changes. It yellows a bit more (might not be bad, depending on what you're going for). And you get "crusty attacks" all around the cap. Little critters that jump off the bottle onto your project.
So I definitely recommend making a very tiny hole in the foil gap and to slow this process. It also helps to avoid pouring out too much of the oil.
In this case, the hole I made was actually a little too big. I use cheap coffee filters (like the ones from Duane Reade) to apply Tru-Oil. I have read that some people use specific filters like Melitta natural browns. I tried a few kinds. And in the end, the finer filters fall apart too quickly on me and I end up needing to sand fibers out of the finish after a few coats. The brittle white paper ones are perfect to fold over a few times and sturdy enough to not come apart against the surface while spreading oil around.
Here are the first five coats on the back.
 And finally, tonight I started around the sides.
As this moves along I'm going to need to start wet sanding the oil level as it builds up. This will dull the finish a little but the goal is to get it thick enough and flat enough that we can go back and buff it out later. The key thing is that the thinner each coat is, the less work there is sanding out mistakes later. Another big problem is dust getting onto the sticky oil as it hardens. That is unavoidable in a small workspace. More sanding. More patience.

Headless Kit Build: Sanding and Scraping Binding

There's a bit more before applying the first coat of oil on this one. Sanding was straight forward. After the sealer applied in the last post dried, I worked up to 1500 grit and made all of the surfaces smooth to the touch. Because the dye is now protected by the sealer, I did not have to worry about accidentally removing dye.

Then I started on the binding. I've never scraped binding before. I don't have a binding scraper like this one so I first went at it with a razor knife. That wasn't going really well. I almost slipped a few times trying to dig into the binding. So then I went at it with sandpaper. That created the nice white powder all over the body but wasn't getting the binding looking nice, clean and well defined.
So I went back to the knife. It took a little while but keeping the angle fairly perpendicular (a small angle) to the wood and just being confident with fast, brushing like movements, sort of like whittling, started to take off material. And the box cutter provided just enough control for me to keep the lines straight. The blade itself is so small, the few times I missed it didn't make noticeable marks in the sealed wood.
By this picture you can see, if you look closely, especially along the right edge, that the binding line is starting to pop out a bit more.
Here's after vacuuming it off and doing a wipe down with naphtha. In the brighter lighting you can see the binding now creates a clear outline without any leftover color. You may also notice some dull spots on the neck (near the heal) and on the top. This was the result after sanding back some of the sealer. You'll see later that with the oil applied, those areas will shine right up.
I mentioned cleaning with naphtha. Naphtha seems to be the one stop shop cleaning solution for guitars in general. I use this one.
The bottle has a nice safety top on it which is something that is valuable if you're doing all of this in a small apartment. You can find this one here. Naphtha coated rags take the extra dust, both plastic and wood, right off the body and leave it in good shape to apply a coat of oil. That is coming next!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Final Color After Sealer

I'm going to sand and start oiling today but here's the final color after the Birchwood Casey Sealer has dried overnight. I do not plan to apply any grain filler. The grain is pretty closed as it is, except for the end grain.
Despite there usually being almost no figuring in basswood, if you look on the left side of this picture closely, you can see a bit of light flame. It only appears on this side though. Hopefully it becomes even more apparent after a few coats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil.

You can also see one of those little yellow pads on the right next to the guitar.
That is what I use to apply the sealer/filler. I like these over a rag because they're just spongy enough to soak a little up and spread it. The sealer is tacky so it is nice to be able to pour it on, pick some up and move it quickly. They're cheap so they're great for one time use. The sealer is going to pretty much destroy them. Here's a link to get some on Amazon.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Color After Birchwood Casey Sealer

The build continues today with an application of the Birchwood Casey Sealer and Filler after a light 1000 grit sanding. This is with just a bit of sealer in different areas to show the contrast. Even after it dries, the color difference won't be much as it keeps a "wet" look with the sealer on it.
And here's the back.

I went back and sanded the end grain a bit more to keep it from just consuming all my sealer. You can see how basswood darkens up at the end grain on the bottom of the body and around those bottom corners.
These little bottles are $6-something a piece. I was also sad to find one of my half bottles had dried out over the months. You have to use it fast. Now I wait for it to dry. And try to avoid the fumes. This is by far my least favorite part. Excited to start the oiling.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Finished Steinberger Spirit Clone DIY Kit Build with Dyed Basswood

This is the first kit guitar I put together.

I started this project January 2017 and it has been playable for some time now. I've referenced it in a few other recent posts. I believe it is also an ammoon brand kit but I can't 100% remember what the box said. It was definitely on sale on eBay after the 2016 holidays. I think it was around $80. Somewhere I do have some pics of the build in progress. I'll eventually post those along with tips I can recall for others who want to attempt one of these. They're still for sale here and there though I have been seeing ~$125 as the going rate.

The Materials

The body is multiple pieces of basswood. It is somewhat "assembled from scraps". The neck is two pieces of maple with a rosewood fretboard on top. Because this is a set neck, the tenon is a separate piece of wood that extends lower into the body of the guitar.

The Finish

The body is died with various coats of yellow and blue aniline dyes (Keda) mixed with both water and isopropyl alcohol. The general technique I used is "wipe it on, sand it, repeat until something looks appealing to me". I forgot exactly how many cycles I went through. I did not dye the neck. If I did it again, given it is a set neck, I would have gone to make them a matching pair. But at the the time, I just didn't think of it.

I used Birchwood Casey Sealer Filler on both the neck and the body. And then applied many goats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil to both. Finally the whole thing, except the fretboard, is shined up with Meguiar's banana scented Mirror Glaze using some dremel buffing pads.
I'm happy the way it turned out. Basswood isn't beautiful right out of the box. I also understand not everyone would call this beautiful. But it is more interesting than a solid paint job to me. One downside though: basswood dents easily. And Tru-Oil is a thin, soft protector. Even over the course of around a year, it has already taken a few dents. On the flip side, it doesn't chip and finish level scratches can be pretty easily repaired with a little sanding, dye, oil and buffing.

The Pickups

These are not the pickups that came with the kit. The pickups that came with the kit were some generic black plastic covered humbuckers that did not actually fit in the pickup routes. I have them somewhere and will eBay them with a lot of other kit pickups at some point. I don't know if they're any good. But beware if you buy one of these kits: they don't fit the route!
Instead these are Dragonfire Quad Rails. I don't have a working recording setup otherwise I would love to be able to post a clip of what they sound like. These are as over-wound as you get. That comes with a lot of string noise. Definitely pickups that benefit from one of those hairbands around your strings if you're not a perfect muter and you don't want a someone closing a car door across the street coming through your AMP. They're interesting. I don't mind having a pair. I wouldn't have two pairs.

I'll also note: even these pickups were a squeeze. I sanded away some of the bottom of the fretboard with a dremel tool in order to get the pickup to fit while still having the neck glued at about the right spot. It works. You can't even see it. But I know it happened.

Another minor upgrade: the tone pot is push/pull. If you check the image above, you'll see how small and narrow the electronics cavity is. One of the most challenging things in the end was getting everything to fit with the push/pull!

The Neck

The neck feels like a modern strat neck. It isn't super thin. But it isn't a baseball bat. I applied the True-Oil both on the maple and on the edges of the rosewood up to the fretboard. The fretboard is left raw. It didn't really need additional sanding. Just some oil. I recall applying about a dozen coats of Tru-Oil, wet sanding between coats at the alter stages. It feels great.

The Frets

There are a few bad frets. They're not all bad. It could be worse. But to assume you won't need to level frets on a kit like this is a little crazy.

The Bridge

Oh jeez. If you can see it there, one side is not even attached down to the body and appears to bend up. And what are those weird pieces of wood in the bridge cavity? 

The bridge and the bridge route are a disaster. The route wasn't made long enough to actually remove and re-install the bridge after installing the base plate. The route doesn't actually fit the base plate's design. One of the screws just has nowhere to go. Finally, the bottom of the bridge touches wood before the wings of the base plate touches the shallow areas of the bridge route. So it doesn't sit on anything! So what you see there are a combination of poplar shims that have been carved down until the bridge sets even and bending that has occurred on the bridge itself under tension (in case you wondered, you don't need to be Superman to bend this bridge). This all sounds really bad. Remember the price tag. And don't expect to float the trem. There's some good news in that it has a built in locking trem block via the latch shown above.

Here's a picture of the areas I needed to chisel out of the body. As I have learned with the more recent kit I'm building where I tried to use a dremel to keep these rounded out, chiseling straight and square like this was definitely the way to go for those who live in a small apartment and can't really invoke a plunge router. It works.
Problems with the bridge, especially on a set neck where the neck angle isn't going to be perfect to begin with, are by far the biggest downside of this kit. At the other end of the bridge, the lock note that holds the strings down over the zero fret didn't sit far enough back either and so I needed to dremel down some of the rosewood and maple near the...head? order to get it installed properly.

I'll also add I need to reset intonation. In making some other adjustments I managed to move the saddles. The saddles are held in by pressure. So you can imagine getting them place just right I have it set up right now with Ernie Ball Skinny Top, Heavy Bottoms.

Overall: A Lot of Fun

This was fun enough to build, when I saw the Spirit GU clones on sale with pretty much the same hardware, but in bolt on form and with a more comfortable body shape, I couldn't help but pick one up. I got a baritone uke case for it because they're cheaper than a Steinberger case and much less awkward to bring to the airport. It is small enough to throw up as a carry on and packs more than enough tone with these over the top pickups.

For Sale: Seymour Duncan Sentient 8

Update: this pickup sold! This articulate neck humbucker sounds great in darker, warmer instruments (ex: mahogany body with a rosewood fre...