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.

Headless Kit Build: Second Dye Coat and Widening Bridge Route

I have continued to try to for once start and finish a project quickly!

The first step this morning was sanding off some of the first dye coat from last night to get a more extremely uneven look. I left some of the deep blue areas, really sanded down others. I got rid of the bad runny blotches where possible. There are a few spots where glue from the binding has gone deep into the wood and I'm going to, in the end, live with those. Life is just too short. The sanding was a combination of lazy "paper around the finger", a sanding sponge and a dremel tool.

I also sanded some streaks down the back of the neck as well. Here's the back of the body.
Finally, having built one of these before one of the problems is that the bridge route leaves absolutely no room to take the bridge off, leaving the bottom mount in place, and snap it back in. That's because doing so requires pulling the bridge back so the knife edges can go up and over the bridge posts. Putting it back in requires pulling it back and pushing it down in. Doing this is a lot of fun. But it is even more fun when the bridge sits in the route exactly.

See this Steinberger GU?
There's a little space to pull the bridge back after lowering spring tension. Check out the Steinberger instructions here. These ammoon kits do not have that space.

Now luckily for Steinberger owners, the spring stays on the master screw when you loosen it. Unluckily for both of the "Overlord of Music" R-Trem copies I've had, it does not. So it's a bit of a ship in a bottle exercise to get it out and especially get it back in. With persistence though, it can be done. But it doesn't get done at all if you have no space!

There's always a mishap during a few hours of work. Especially when you're being rushed off to brunch on a Sunday morning. And often they're reversible. Sometimes you just have to live with it. Trying to widen a route with a dremel by eyeballing it is probably the worst life choice you can make. And as you can see, I did a great job on the bass side. The treble side looks...well...eyeballed with a dremel. But there is now some space! Last build I needed to chisel the space out after finishing. No fun.
 Finally the second dye coat. It is still trying off in this photo. But you can see where it is going. The dye mix was a bit different this time. About 2-3X more concentrated. Heavier on the red to blue (5 to 4). No alcohol. This allows the blue to recede a bit and the reds to really come through. I'm happy with where this is going and will check tonight if I need another dye coat.
 That's going to be it for about a week while I travel for work and the wood dyes out. I applied a very aggressive amount of liquid and this basswood sucked it up. So before sealing, I want it to be nice and dry again. In the meantime, I get to go to work on Monday with purple spots all over me...

Headless Kit Build: Dye Coat One

After doing all the drilling and checking the alignment on the pieces for this kit, I began sanding with 150 grit and then applied a mixture of about 3 parts blue, 2 parts red Keda dyes (alcohol + water). I made the dye solution quite light and let it "soak" a bit on the basswood to try to get some variance in the lower/higher spots on the wood of the blue vs. red tones. There isn't much grain at all in basswood which is why people don't usually dye it. But I've found you can get something cool if you're both aggressive with application and into a more unusual look.
I decided to dye the maple neck as well which took the dye more evenly as just plan purple. The top is still a little to grey/blue, there are a few bad spots where the dye didn't take on the edges and there's a few splotches that follow the glue lines too closely. So I'm going to sand a bit off in a few places (unevenly) then go over with a more concentrated dye run today.

Headless Kit Build: Crack!

Who needs a drill press when you've got wood glue?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Headless Kit Build: Routing Problems

Last weekend I posted about the sale on headless kits at It turns out these are are ammoon kits. I wasn't paying attention when buying it. I'm going to spot for a moment to poke fun at their website which I'm going to justify later with a picture of the kit that just got delivered.

First, they take QC very seriously.

You can join their Geek Club. I don't know what that means, but I kind of want to join.

I'm pretty sure this is the Fight Club of budget guitar manufacturing. Ammoon respects your wishes too. They don't just have some privacy terms. Just like you want with real cookies, they offer. Privacy cookies?

Now these are sold as beginner kits. But let's be honest. Guitar building isn't really a beginner thing. So if you're looking for instructions, you should just look for a new hobby.

All that aside though, they make some low budget useful stuff. A lot of it is focused on like "first instrument quality" but the DIY stuff is all real wood. It provides a good baseline for doing something creative. It is not 100% clear to me they're still in business or if there are just warehouses of things they produced a couple years ago being liquidated slowly online. But these are true hobby prices.

I believe this is my third ammoon kit. Only one of them was labelled with the brand name on the website I bought it from. Generally if you find it listed as ammoon on eBay or Amazon, it's more than if it doesn't say the brand at all. The first was the box body style Steinberger Spirit clone. It is done. I play it. I need to do some fretwork. And I did some massive under the bridge surgery on the body to get it to play well. But I'm quite proud of it. The second is a set neck V that I'm still building, breaking and rebuilding (since the summer). And the third now is a Steinberger Spirit GU clone. The first thing I checked is the bridge route and sure enough...

 Maybe if I angle the screws...

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sale on Headless Guitar Kits

It turns out these budget headless guitar kits with the "Overlord of Music" Steinberger R-Trem copies on them are an absolute disaster. I built one early last year. It's almost playable today. But it has been an adventure. It has taught me how to use a chisel. That should say enough in itself.

It turns out, there are some on sale at! Check these out while there are still some left. The U.S. warehouse stock is going for $82. If you like building puzzles. And you like it even better when those puzzles are guitars. This is a great deal!

Use paypal. Or else they ask for images of your credit card. And that doesn't go well.

A considerable amount of drinking over many days is required to turn these kits into playable guitars. But if that is something you can afford, it is well worth it.

I will post up the story of my first encounter sometime in the near future.

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...