For my birthday I decided that I would try my hand at building an electric guitar from a kit. Now, I had no experience in doing this and I had only moderate hope in creating a useful, working and attractive guitar at the end. As is the common method in these times, I did my research on the internet, and in particular, YouTube. There were a lot of videos and articles about building kit guitars and a lot of criticism, and I must admit that I have watched some very ham-fisted attempts by amateurs. There were a lot of comments about kits made in China, but to be honest, that is where the vast majority of kits are made.
Some people would have been put off by this, but not me, as some guitars made by luthiers were stunning and were crafted in a way that many modern, mass-produced guitars aren’t. I was interested in a Telecaster-style guitar as I don’t possess one and I saw a company called Pit Bull Guitars that is based in Perth, here in Western Australia. I had seen some good examples of their kits and despite being more expensive than buying directly from China, I thought that the support and the service might be better. I looked on the website and found a kit that matched what I wanted and it was a solid-bodied Telecaster-style guitar with a maple fret board and neck. It had an ash body with a flame maple veneer on the top. For those who don’t know, a flame maple veneer is a very thin, maybe a millimetre thick layer of wood that has two sides to create a symmetrical patterned wood top. These features of the wood can be enhanced by using stains and can create a very dramatic front to the guitar. I spoke to my wife about it and ordered the kit prior to my birthday in December 2020.
Within a few days the kit arrived in a flat-packed box and I just checked it was undamaged and then put it aside until my actual birthday. I was very patient, which is not one of my natural attributes and did not touch it until the morning of the big day. That morning, I opened it, checked that everything was present and that the neck was not warped, and fitted into the body snugly. All was well. I had not wasted my time up to the big day and had watched umpteen videos and read a considerable amount. I knew that a lot of sanding was involved and so I had bought the range of appropriate sandpaper. I also knew that Pit Bull sold stains and finishing kits. Since the first Telecaster I had ever seen in real life was owned by David B, who played in our band for a while in the start of 1970, or maybe a year earlier, was a butterscotch yellow lacquer painted model, I thought that I would go for a similar stain, but to enhance the wood, rather than be painted. They sold a kit of Dingotone stain and finishes and I ordered that. This arrived shortly before I was starting the build.
To avoid copyright issues, the kits come with a paddle shaped headstock that needs to be cut to copy the original, or in your own style. Templates are available on the internet and I downloaded and printed one off. It was easy then to cut out the template, draw the shape onto the paddle-shaped wood and then I had to cut it out. I had a jigsaw, it was pretty old, about thirty years, but is still going, but I was terrified of spoiling my build at the first hurdle. I cut out the wood and was careful to leave a border that I could sand back and smooth off. With relief, I looked at it and was quite happy with the result. The next stage was to sand the neck and body of the guitar, but the instructions warned not to sand the veneer as it was easy to sand through it. The veneer was smooth so that didn’t seem to be a problem. About three days later, I had the body in a state that I was happy with. There were holes in the body where the neck was to be screwed later and they allowed the guitar to be hung up to dry when it was being stained and finished. I fixed some green plastic, brush-cutter twine to hang it up and then hung it off a metal beam outside under the pergola. The neck I fastened the same way.
The stain was a type of oil and had to have a couple of coats spread on the surface of the wood and then be allowed to dry overnight. I hung it up and then waited. The next day I had to repeat the process and the yellow stain looked quite good and I was quite happy. I then had to add the next layer of the finish coat. This was an oil-based finish and was ecologically friendly, and again it had to be wiped on with a soft link-free cloth. I followed the instructions to the letter and waited the required time between each coat and sanding and it started to look quite good. The problem that I noted was that the finish wasn’t curing. I waited and waited for the finish to dry and harden, but three months, yes, three months later I was in despair, as it was still tacky. I was beginning to panic and spoke with someone at the hardware store and finally decided to use acetone to remove the finish and then paint on a sealing coat. I was thinking this was my final action before throwing the kit away and admitting defeat. The next day I went to check and I was delighted to find that the surface was still stained the right colour and was dry. I gave it a light sanding and then moved on to plan B. I had read about high gloss finishes using wipe-on poly. I found what I wanted at the local hardware store and gave it a first coat. I had to wait six hours between coats and sanded lightly between every other coat. The wipe-on approach puts a very thin layer and requires a large number of coats. As an estimate, I think I spent the next ten weeks giving it two coats a day. Gradually, it built up a glass-like layer and I was quite happy until the holding cord snapped and the guitar fell. Luckily, I had a plastic-topped table underneath and so It wasn’t a total disaster, but it left a couple of minor indentations on the edge of the bottom. They are small and no one but me would notice without close inspection, but I was heartbroken.
I carried on with the coating and sanding and I read and watched videos on how to polish the surface to create a mirror-like finish. I had to wet-sand the surface with 2000 grit paper and then use car polishing compound. I have an electronic buffer which saves a lot of elbow grease and effort. The surface was pretty good and I didn’t want to overdo it, but I was quite pleased how good it looked compared to many I had seen on YouTube.
The next stage was wiring in the pickups and controls. I have never really soldered, and some kits come ready-wired and don’t require soldering, but mine did need it. Pit Bull Guitars provide step by step videos and I watched carefully and followed the process. I had to test the pickups with a gentle tap with the screwdriver, but only two of the positions worked. I looked at what I had done and checked the solders through the magnifying lens of my ‘helping hands’. ‘Helping hands’ is a device particularly for soldering as it has a heavy base, a holder for a soldering iron, and two crocodile clips that can be adjusted to hold wires whilst you have your hands free to hold the soldering iron and solder. Mine also has a magnifying glass for close work. Two points were soldered properly. I re-did it and this time it worked perfectly. I had used copper foil tape to line the cavities in the guitar body to prevent earth hums and now I had to position the pickups and instrument plates and scratchboard. It all went fairly easily, but took a whole day. I had to sand out part of the scratchboard to get it to fit properly, but this was easy with sandpaper and some dowel to round the edge of the cutout.
The rest was fairly plain sailing and I had to screw holes in the right places which was a bit nerve wracking, but eventually I had a guitar body and neck fitted and it looked pretty good. This had only taken six months, so not a job for anyone in a hurry. Today I added the strings, adjusted the bridge to get the correct set up and intonation, and now I have a very passable home-made guitar. I have learnt a lot from the process and a few weeks ago I decided to try another, even though my first attempt wasn’t anywhere near complete. I decided on a headless guitar and a Strandberg style. I wanted to try giving this a dramatic stain and that meant using black on the veneer and then sanding it back very carefully. I then had to stain this with a bright red stain. The black and the red bring out the grain and flame of the veneer and I have been very pleased with it so far and I will probably do an update of the final guitar in a later blog.
The Telecaster model that I have finished has a good action and I haven’t come across any real problems. I know that many builders buy better quality pickups and controls, but I haven’t and I am not sure that I will. It appears to all work, the tone seems fine, and seeing as I record directly into the recording DAW and add the guitar effects, I am not sure that it would make much difference. I have not yet really tried it out fully, but I will and will let you hear what it sounds like. It is a pretty guitar, quite heavy, and unless you know what to look for, you wouldn’t be able to pick it out as the home-made guitar in my current ten guitar collection.
Would I recommend guitar kits? The answer to this is that if you want a creative hobby, to learn about what goes into your instrument, and you are patient, then I would say give it a go at least once. My Telecaster probably cost $380 Australian dollars in the end, which is enough to buy a reasonable low budget model, but it has kept me out of mischief for six months, and I am quite proud of it. Some of the costs went on reusables such as the helping hands and soldering iron and so they will be available to use in the future. I have learnt a lot and my next one will hopefully show how my skills have improved.