Unfinished Neck

The unfinished hard Maple neck has a long way to go. The nut needed to be hand shaped to fit properly. The neck was a perfect blend of a vintage look and modern features (12" raidus and jumbo frets). The fret ends were very harsh, so laid a couple of layers of tape and each side of the neck and the finished the frets by hand filing them, and then using a soft rubber block with varying grads of sandpaper to really round and polish the fret ends.

Personal Choices

I don't like the hard edge on the rosewood, just before the nut, where the angle sloping from the head meets the flat deck of the fingerboard. I gently sand this area to round it off and make it less noticeable. This works for me because, unlike Fender, I do not lacquer the rosewood as it meets the head nor on the sides of the neck.

Initial Nut Fitting

You typically need to do a fair amount of fine tuning to the dimensions of the nut (I use Tusq) to get it to fit, but also to have it look nice and play right. I usually sand a little off the bottom to lower it just a bit (I will have more to say about the bottom of the nut, in another posting). I also find that I have sand the sides just a bit to get it to fit in the groove and I always have to take a bit off the sides, and the round all the edges gently. I am using a caliper to measure the width to match the neck width, but it is not necessary, as you can just check it for fit between sanding a little material off each end until if fits.


I find that the frets on the lower cost (around $100) Allparts necks need some TLC. I use a sanding pad (like a firm sponge) and graduated grads of sandpaper (working my way down to very fine, such as 800). I sand at varying angles, in the vicinity of 45 degrees, running up and down the neck at length. The pad helps to round the edges of each fret by partially conforming to the bump that is created as each fret protrudes, yet keep the sanding on the wood to a minimum. I do this until I find the edge of the neck no longer unpleasant for playing.

Final Nut Fitting

The underside of the nut needs to mate with the bottom of the groove for the nut. Please note that some neck have this groove cut flat, and some have the bottom of the groove cut to match the radius of the neck. Most nuts come with a little tab that needs to be left on if the groove is cut flat, otherwise, remove the groove and shape the bottom of the nut to match the radius of the neck. I use a Dremel tool for this with a round sanding drum in the bit.

Nut Installed

Here is the finished vintage style Stratocaster neck, which I did in a rush (don't ask why, but it illustrates how forgiving nitrocellulose lacquer can be), so I dried the lacquer between coats with a hair dryer (it was below 40 degrees F, way to cold for lacquer), that way I could complete this project in about 24 hours (most of which was further finish cure time before rubbing and polishing).

Freshly Stained

Just stained, the new and unfinished AllParts neck looks just that... new. It will take a few more steps to achieve a vintage look.

Waterslide Decals

The waterslide decals are carefully cut out by hand. The curves are smooth and stay pretty close to the text.

Vintage Gold

Everyone must come to their own conclusions on how to take a fresh Maple neck and obtain a vintage looking finsh. I start with some oil stains. Once I start to apply clear lacquer, I mist the neck with an amber/walnut lacquer to move the color from a bright golden to a slightly more subdued hue, looking older and more authentic.

Vintage Decals

I was able to procure vintage (early 60's) waterslide decals. These are getting increasingly hard to find by the way (trademark issue with Fender). This neck is an AllParts neck, licensed by Fender, and if I was ever to sell it, I would definitely declare that this is an AllParts neck with decal applied (basic ethics, not to mention a legal issue - trademark enfringement).

Once the waterslide decals are applied, I then mist with several light coats of clear lacquer before applying some wet coats and then wet sanding smooth. Then end result is very authentic looking.

Installed Tuning Machines

These vintage Kluson Deluxe double row (two rows of stamped name and model) tuning machines fit perfectly.

Tuner Bushings

The Kluson vintage tuning machines use a bushing, which is designed for 11/22" holes. There are 3/8" bushings available if you want to adapt a neck that was drilled for other tuners. These bushings are a tight fit, and are a little tricky to successfully press into place. Avoid the temptation to tap them in with a hammer. I use a drill press and drill bit that just barely fits inside the bushing so that it holds it straight.

More Exotic Custom Strat Necks

This is a Warmoth neck consisting of a high grade Birdseye Maple and a Rosewood fret board. I lightly stained the maple with an amber oil finish using vigorously rubbing and multiple applications. Going with a Warmoth neck is not necessarily inexpensive. This neck cost $345 after nut and fret installation, shipping and taxes. On the other hand, I got exactly what I wanted in every regard.

The Rosewood was very carefully masked using blue painters masking tape along the sides and both ends. This was left in place for the staining and lacquering (satin nitro) process and even the wet sanding (more on that in my next posting). The tuning machines are Kluson Deluxe DR (SD9105MN DR).

Subtle Choices on your Custom Strat Neck

I am presenting two Strat necks. The top image is from a Fender Deluxe Strat and the second is a Warmoth Custom Strat neck. I have always thought it was odd that Fender applied a gloss finish over the Rosewood where it meets the Maple on the face of the head. Esthetically, this seems like a convenient shortcut rather than the best solution.

When I stained and finished this Warmoth custom Strat neck, I painstakingly masked the Rosewood on the sides of the neck and both ends, paying special attention to where it meets the maple on the face of the head. It is my opinion that this looks more finely executed, but the point is not whether my opinion is right, rather. that you get to make these sort of decisions for yourself when you finish your neck.

Once I was done applying the multiple nitro lacquer coats and performing the wet-sanding, I removed the masking tape and wet-sanded the edges where the nitro lacquer on the Maple meets the Rosewood fretboard so there would be no edge that would distract you when you play.

String Tree

A vintage style string tree is installed for the E and B strings. There many different types of trees/guides used a different times, sometimes just one, and other times two. There were times and models that used staggered pole heights on the tuning machines in an effort to maintain acceptable string breakover angles at the bridge.

Preliminary Body Prep

This is a little unconventional, in fact, I have never found anyone else to do it. I fill all of the screw holes with wood filler. I push it in with my finger, so that there is a very visible depression at each hole (that way I can find them later). I do this so that no water gets into the holes during the wet sanding sessions. I found that there is a slight raising that occurs when water gets into these holes and then make it harder to get a smooth, flat finish. You will see, in later steps, how easy it is to remove this filler.

Ready for Painting

Using fine sandpaper (i.e., 600 or higher), I sand the original finish, trying to get alot of the old paint off, but not going through the surface. This helps to keep the final finish fairly thin, and provides a surface that the new paint with bind with readily. I also using some sort of wax and grease remover to ensure that the surface is very clean and will not result in any fisheye imperfections.

Under Coat

I tend to use a vintage white, warmer than olympic, as an undercoat. This provide a consitent color as a base for your new color and help to inhibit and bleeding through of the original color, which is more of an issue when using lacquer because the new coats dissolve down through to the lower layers (both good and bad).

Color Coats

I use a coat hanger to suspend the guitar body so that it hangs vertically. I use this method for the numerous color coats, periodically interrupted by wet sanding. I seem to be able to get a great finish from just a little less than one aresol can from Guitar Reranch (a great source for vintage colors in nitrocellulose lacquer). http://reranch.com/

Final Clear Coats

Although I do most of the painting with the body hanging vertically, I do the final clear coats with the body horizontal so that I can spray a wet coat that is very glossy. This sort of coat would run if I had the body vertical, also, the wet coat actually dissolves some of the prior coats and further helps to leave a smooth finish for the final wet sanding and polishing.

Wet Sanding

I tend to graduate in grades of sand paper as I work my way from the initial coats to the final wet-sanding of the last clear coats. Starting with 800 and working up to 1200. I use a wooden block when I am specifically trying to work out an imperfection, such as a run. I use a sanding sponge, a firm foam block, for most of the sanding, and sometimes, I just use my hand to conform to the curves of the body.

I use just enough water to lubricate the process and carry away the debri, some people use a drop of detergent to help with the lubrication. Her you can see I have sacraficed a clean soft rug as a work surface.


There are many techniques and opinions regarding the best approach for achieving the final polish, and I do not claim to have 'the' answer. What works for me, after wet-sanding, is hand rubbing using rubbing compond, and then a combination of a buffing wheel and hand rubbing using Finesse-it.

Soldering Iron

A high quality soldering iron gets hot fast and allows you to make quick work of the soldering. This not only is a benefit to your patience, but it help reduce the likelihood that any of your pots or switches will be damaged from heat during the soldering process.

Pots, Switches and Caps

Everything makes a difference in the sound, even the wiring. CTS 250k pots are often used, but 500k pots are sometimes used (typical in Telecasters) and will change the sound. For single coil guitars like my Strat, the pot resistance should be 250K Ohm. The volume pot should be audio taper (also called logarithmic) and the tone pots should be linear taper. You can raise the value of the pots to 500K, but this will make the guitar a bit brighter, which you don't usually want on a Stratocaster (especially with a maple fretboard - which is brighter sounding).

You can see different capacitors in the picture above, and I tend to like .047 or a .064. Most guitars and basses with passive pickups use between .01 and .1MFD (Microfarad) tone capacitors (caps) with .02 (or .022) and .05 (or .047) being the most common choices. Larger capacitors will have lower cutoff frequency and sound darker in the bass setting because a wider range of frequencies is being reduced. Smaller capacitors will have a higher cutoff frequency and sound brighter in the bass setting because only the ultra high frequencies are cut. Strats often use a .022. Experiementation is the only way that you can find what works for your tastes in combination with your guitar.

Lastly, you might notice and unusual volume pot in the picture. This is a push/pull switch that allows the neck and bridge pickups to be mixed.

Testing the Electronics

Once I have the electronics soldered and installed on the pickguard, I use aligator clips and do a mock assembly so I can run the pickups and switches through some tests. Using a pocket amp, I test the wiring, pots, switches and pickups by validating that each pickup is working at the right switch settings. Success is measured by no unwanted noise, and sound only when tapping (lightly with a screw driver) the pickups that should be giving sound at a particular switch setting.

Neatness Counts

As I continue to assemble more and more guitar electronics I am finding that neatness really does count. You will have less chance of problems with your wiring, easier troubleshooting if problems do arise, and a much easier time of installing the loaded pickguard, if you take the time to trim each wire to length and zip-tie them together in a tidy path.

Here is a fairly clean and simple set of electronics on a early 60's style pickguard. The pickups are Samarium Cobalt Noiseless (SCN), so the each have three wires instead of two. Also, I employed a push/pull volume pot that works like a Stratocaster Deluxe S1 switch (connecting neck and bridge or all three pickups). Lastly, I installed .47uf Spraque orange drop capacitor.

All of this together was about $150 upgrade to a Mexican Strat that I have been building up as the guitar I am less afraid to get damaged. It sound fabulous and the $150 custom neck I put on in it (including vintage tuners) adds great feel and playability.

Copper Shielding

If you really want to reduce the chances for electrical noise, you can use SCN (Samarium Cobalt Noiseless) pickups and copper sheilding. For lots of ideas on customizing and improving your electronics, you should check out the great and in-depth resources at Guitar Nuts http://www.guitarnuts.com/index.php

Shielding Paint

Here is another body with the shielding paint being applied in an effort to reduce any electrical noise that may build up, especially with hot pickup and an overdriven sound. Patience is critical when doing this so that you avoid getting this shielding paint on your painstakenly and perfectly finished body (this was a copper metalic).

Neck Pocket

I use a Dremel tool with a sanding cylinder attachment to clean-up the neck pocket. It should be a good fit, too tight creates the risk of a cracked body, or at least finish. Too loose is no good as the neck alignment will not be stable and for optimal sound and sustain, you need the neck and body to be as intergral as they can be, given that the neck and body are not joined as solidly as they are on Les Paul or most PRS guitars.

Shielding Paint

I use a sheilding paint, which is water soluble, for the body cavities that house the electronics, including the the output jack. It helps alot if you start with a body that has the minimum amount of material taken out for the pickups and switches. Ther were bodies during the early CBS era that had one large all-purpose cavity for all the pickups, which was prone to electrical noise (hum).