Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, part the last

This is the second time I've written this post -- the first time blogger did a fun little switcheroo with an identically titled duplicate draft and tricked me into deleting the whole thing. If it seems badly written and confused, it's probably because I was too fed up to write it any better.

This is the last of my interminable posts about the battered Ibanez EX370 that I found in a bin. So, the story so far. I found a guitar with a busted neck. I tried to fix said neck and busted it worse. Time passed, I got married. I made new neck, glued it together and fretted it. All that remained for me to do was paint it and set it up.

I was a little nervous going into this last stage. On the one hand, I knew it was be pretty damn difficult to irredeemably wreck the guitar at this stage, but on the other, there was the issue of my rather checkered record when it comes to refinishing guitars. I lack the patience, equipment, and time to make a good job of it. I still try, but I usually cock it up. Going into this project I had tried refinishing a guitar three times and buggered it up... well, three times.

This time I was determined to do everything by the book. I sanded the neck until it was as smooth as a greased-up teflon baby, then liberally smeared it with sanding sealer. A few days later I repeated the process and left it to dry. The paint I was going to use was some matt clear lacquer I had left over from another project (I say left over – it's more that I never wanted it in the first place. I made the mistake of placing an order with Montana Cans, who are a bunch of complete fucking shysters. Go with MTN Nottingham if you're looking for spray paint -- it's good paint and they won't try and rip you off.).

While it was entirely not what I wanted for the other project, the matt lacquer was ideal for sealing up the neck. I don't like the feel of gloss lacquered or oiled necks -- too sticky under my thumb -- but I knew that if I didn't put something fairly heavy-duty on it the neck would be coated in finger-skank before I'd played my first riff. I took advantage of a late summer warm spell to get to work in my spray booth (the end of the garden) with the neck placed my my special painting cradle (I dangled the neck from the branch of a tree using a hook made out of a bent coathanger).

Much to my annoyance, I discovered that it was very good paint. I hate to give a good review to such a staggeringly unethical company* but I have to say it went on nicely, dried quickly and gave a good finish. The neck was finished within three days. I didn't take any pictures during this stage for some reason, but there wasn't really a whole lot to see.

Once the finish was completely dry I put my maker's mark on the headstock. Since Kristen did about half the work, I figured I should give her half the name, even if Hollingmore does sound like a 1950s kitchen appliance company. I'd intended to do the lettering with one of my chunky italic pens, but it wouldn't stick to the finish so I had to use a sharpie. Suffice to say, calligraphy isn't easy with a sharpie marker. It's supposed to be based on a 16th century Flemish alphabet that I can do quite well with a pen, but with a sharpie, on a awkwardly shaped block of wood, the results aren't so hot.

With that done I wired in the old pickups from my brother's guitar (see this post for how they came to be not in his guitar). Again, no pictures of this stage. I can practically do with blindfolded now (although I still periodically burn myself on the soldering iron) so it didn't strike me as novel enough to photograph.

At this point, when I was just a few meters from the finish line. It all went to shit. Well, not all of it exactly, but an important bit. You see, when I strung it up the first time I didn't really bother with all the rigmarole that goes with setting up a Floyd Rose tremolo – I just ran the strings through the machine-screw holes in the back of the saddle-blocks and left it at that. As long time readers would know, I'm really emphatically not a fan of the FR. What happened next has made me even less of a fan.

To attach a string properly you need to wedge it between a little square block of metal an the saddle-block, then tighten the whole thing up with a set screw. I did this to the first string with no problem, but when I tried to do it to the second on the string pinged out when I tried to tune it up. I put it back in and tightened it about a half-turn more than I'd tightened it before. This caused the saddle-block to shatter like a piece of porcelain.

Now, in all fairness, this isn't exactly the fault of the Floyd Rose design. ‘Original’ FR tremolos (as in ones actually made by the company) are made from machined steel, and you'd need a colossal amount of force to break them. The fact that this one broke is mostly down to it being a cheap-ass die-cast licence made copy. Still, you can make a Fender tremolo from the cheapest materials possible and it still works just fine – I know, I've played an Encore strat copy.

Still. I was annoyed. I had no spare saddles and I definitely couldn't fix the broken one. After a great deal of rummaging around on eBay I managed to find a replacement set, but they were £30 and were probably no better made than the ones that were already there. I really didn't want to spend money improving a piece of hardware that I consider to be fundamentally flawed, and that I'd never use, but at the same time I really didn't have any other choice. After about a week of procrastinating I bought the new saddles and string it up. This time it went without problems, and while the saddles are a noticeably different colour to the old ones (new gold finish vs extremely worn gold finish) they seem to work fine.

I tweaked the action a little, adjusted the intonation (which takes fucking ages) and declared it finished. I then took pictures to prove it.

It sounds nice, and plays well. I think I might make a few more very minor adjustments to it at some point (the nut could do with being filed down about 0.5mm and the fretwork is ever-so-slightly buzzy on the top-e with the action down really low) but they're not really a priority. For now I'm just going to keep it in playable condition and, well, play it.

Perhaps I'll make a serious effort to learn some jazz guitar, just because the idea of playing jazz on something with pointy horns and a Floyd Rose tickles me.


*The whole German Montana vs Spanish Montana (MTN Color) affair is a fascinating story that I need to tell on here one day. Suffice to say it reads like a ‘big-business vs the little man’ story from a left-leaning children's TV show.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the third

So, here I am again. Today I will tell you a tale of glue, swearing and drills.

I left off at the point where I put the neck back in the box it came in, along with all my tools and the larger offcuts (my experience the previous year taught me that you should never turn up your nose at offcuts of good wood) and took it home. I would have liked to do the rest of the project in the workshop, but sadly I only had a few days off work. I'd done all the things that had to be done in the workshop though, so it wasn't a major problem.

The first task, which had to be completed before I could do anything else, was sorting out the slightly squiffy trussrod rout. This was a time consuming but not particularly difficult process – I sat in my attic watching Doctor Who while gradually widening and straightening the rout with a selection of teensy chisels and files. While doing this I also evened out the shape of the router's little excursion into the heel of the neck. The next day I cut a handful of thin slivers from the veneer-like piece and shoved them into the unwanted rout until they filled it with no visible gaps. I then took them out, slavered them in titebond (which is so much easier to work with than gorilla glue) and jammed them back into the gap with a mallet. When dried and planed flat, you could barely see the repair. At about the same time I took another veneer-piece and glued it to the side of the heel where I'd drifted off the line during the jigsaw phase. Once trimmed and planed to the right shape, it got the neck back to the right shape.

I was pleased with myself, work could now continue.

The next stage was attaching the fretboard, which involved a great deal of persnickety measuring and minute adjustments. It also involved a lot of clamps. Like this.

The neck, held in place with three clamps attached to a big bit of scrap pine. The strange mutant in the background is a scrap of pine that I radiused with a plane and then banged frets into for practice. 

Once the neck was firmly glued in place (I kept it clamped securely for two days to be sure) I set about trimming the fretboard to the same size as the neck. It would have been quickest to do this with a saw, but I was terrified of cocking it up so close to completion, so I did it the slow but certain way – with planes and rasps. After I'd done this, I gave the neck back to Kristen so that she could drill the tuning peg holes with the big pillar-drill in her workshop. 

 The neck after I'd removed all the excess material. It was just balanced on the body for the look of the thing in the picture – I'd not actually bolted it into place yet.

It was through experiments with this mutant neck shown above that I figured out a fretting method that seemed to work pretty well. Like the old method, it was still fundamentally clawhammer based (perhaps one day I'll buy a dead-drop hammer in a fit of wild extravagance). It had, however, a few crucial differences from the old method. First of all, I was using Jescar fretwire, which comes pre-radiused (joy), rather than the flat stuff Stewmac sells. This meant that the curve of the fretwire was consistent and even. Secondly, I found a ratty looking old chopping board in the kitchen made out of a funny sort of rubbery plastic that seemed to have just the right amount of bouncy-vs-hard. This latter point sounds a little odd, but it was possibly the more important of the two developments mentioned so far. By cutting a little square of this and sticking it to the end of my hammer, I was able to knock the frets into place without marking them or exposing them to too much shock and vibration. Finally, I bought a big new pair of end-nippers which Kristen reshaped on her grinding wheel at work, fixing them so that the cutting edge was flush with the face of the nippers. This allowed me to cut the frets pretty much flush with the edge of the fretboard, eliminating the lengthy process of grinding the ends down with a file (a process which often shook frets loose). The whole process of fretting, much to my surprise, went smoothly and only took about an hour and a half.

Frets, behold their shinyness. There's only two strings on there because I was just lining up the neck at this point.

With this done I drilled the holes in the headstock for the tuning peg screws, the string trees and the neck attachment bolts. The last of these was probably the most nerve racking. I did it with a hand drill because I was paranoid about drilling through the front of fingerboard. I'm not entirely satisfied with the fit of the neck in the pocket, but it seems good enough to play. With these things done, I wired up one of the pickups and strung it up.

All these things done I gave it a very simple, cursory set up to get the strings somewhere near the fretboard (this involved shimming the neck pocket a little to increase the angle) and plugged it into my amp. I think you could probably have heard my Dr Frankenstein-style laughing from the other side of the street when I figured out that it worked. The frets were even and level, no buzzes or dead notes, the neck felt good in my hands. I gave the truss-rod a tweak and it did what it was supposed to do, correcting the ever-so-slight bow caused by putting it under tension for the first time. 

But, of course, I could not call it finished just yet. So after a few more minutes’ playing, I took the strings back off, dismantled it, and prepared for part four: finishing and set up. Do stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of this saga.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the Second

A few posts ago I told a tale of a little guitar that couldn't, and of my hamfisted attempts to get it working again. I will now bring things up to date.

Part one ended in the autumn of 2011, with the guitar disassembled and thoroughly buggered. It stayed that way for the next 8 months or so. I cannibalized some of its electronics (including the one nice pickup) for a refurb of my little sister's Yamaha Pacifica, and considered throwing the rest of the instrument away on more than one occasion.

I didn't entirely give up on the project though, and once the post-wedding daze had subsided I started thinking about what to do next. Considering the thorough wrecking I'd given it the previous year, I figured I had to either make a entirely new neck or throw the whole thing in the bin. Last year making a new neck would have been completely beyond the realms of possibility (there's only so much you can do with hand tools and a shitty black+decker workbench in your garden) but now I had a wife who worked in a big carpentry workshop. 

This was, I admit, bordering on underpants-gnome logic (Step 1: Wife with workshop, Step 2: ?, Step 3: Guitar Neck!) but it was enough to make me seriously consider how I'd go about building a neck. I bought a few books, read a lot of blog posts, looked into suppliers of wood and parts. I also drew up a set of blueprints for this hypothetical neck using Adobe inDesign. (I know that autocad probably would have been a more appropriate medium, but it took me three years to reach this level of proficiency with inDesign, and so I reserve the right to use it for damn near everything.)

The neck blueprint. Clicky to embiggenate.
The pale blue bit is the truss rod rout.

At about this point Kristen learned that most of her colleagues were disappearing over the summer, and that all her students would disappear also. She suggested that if I came in she could teach me how to use all the tools I'd need and help me with the guitar. In return, I'd be someone to talk to. This seemed like a good plan, so I booked a few days off during the summer holidays and bought the parts I'd need.

I still had a rosewood fingerboard left over from the previous fuckup, so all I needed was fretwire, a trussrod, and a slab of a maple. I bought them from Tonetech Luthier Supplies, who are based in the UK, meaning that there was no interminable wait this time around.

The first tool Kristen taught me to use was a handheld Jigsaw. Once I'd shown I could use it without chopping my fingers off or setting fire to the workshop, she let me loose on a big pile of scrap wood. I cut a load of practice necks from pine offcuts and a couple of dummy headstocks from plywood (I couldn't make practice necks from plywood as plywood has no grain and, therefore, can't be carved)

For the first day and a half I did absolutely nothing to the maple blank itself. I simply made batches of practice necks with the jigsaw, and then carved them with my spokeshaves and rasps. I quickly learned that pine is a tricky wood to carve. This isn't because it's tough – it's barely harder to carve than balsa wood – but rather because it's full of knots. I quickly learned that knots are effectively grain randomisers, once your spokeshave gets within about an inch of them, you have no way of knowing which way its going to go. Nonetheless, I made progress, with the necks looking increasingly neck-like as I went on.

The blanks, carved. The top two were the last ones I did before moving on.

In the afternoon of the second day I decided it was time to start work on the neck blank proper. Before I started to do any of this, however, I had to thin the blank down by about 4mm and level it out. A few trial passes with a big jackplane made it quickly apparent that planing away 4mm of rock maple would take me about a week. Canadian Maple is hard.

Kristen took it upstairs and fed it into the bandsaw. It roared into life, I hid in the corner of the room like a startled kitten (I don't like bandsaws). After an ungodly screeching noise, and a small amount of smoke, Kristen pulled the wood away from the blade, having managed to cut a groove about 2mm deep in one side. Canadian Maple is really hard.

The next day, we tried again with a new saw blade. It went gnuurrrrrrrr-whirr-squeeeeeeeee. I hid. Kristen neatly shaved off a veneer-like piece of maple and handing both bits to me. I spent a lot of the rest of the day planing and planing and planing. By the time came to go home I had a big bruise on the palm of both hands, had pulled most of the muscles in my upper body, and had big salty sweat stains on my clothes. Canadian Maple is insanely hard.

On Friday I traced my blueprint onto the now perfectly smooth surface of the neck and fired up the jigsaw. I quickly discovered that Canadian maple is hard work for a little handheld jigsaw. I had to stop on several occasions because it was overheating to the point where my hands hurt. Eventually though, I managed to cut out the neck. This was the point at which I made my first major mistakes. The first happened when I lost track of the pencil line amidst a cloud of sawdust and drifted about 1mm inside the line near the heel. The second was that I forgot that I needed to do the routing first.

I'm not sure whether it was because I'd removed a lot of material already, or if it's just because routers are evil, but this was the point at which the neck sustained another bit of ‘character’. We clamped the neck into an improvised blank made of plywood and Kristen started to carve the channel (I wasn't feeling particularly confident with the router). When she was about three quarters of the way to the heel, moving with even slowness because the wood was putting up a fight, there was a loud ‘plink’ and Kristen immediately stopped the router. It turned out that the blade had overheated and snapped from the sheer effort of cutting through the Canadian Maple of ultimate hardness. When Kristen restarted a few minutes later the replacement bit caught on some imperfection in the wood and, unnoticed by either of us, drifted off course, cutting a channel that curved about 15mm off the centerline. Luckily it chose to do this in the heel of the neck, where the wood is at its thickest and widest. I figured I could fill the gap by gluing pieces of the veneer-like offcut, which would provide the strength and density needed to hold the neck bolts in place. Having declared the neck to be fine, I set to work carving.

Carving in progress. This was about an hour's work, believe it or not. If you look very carefully, you can just about see the router’s little detour at the heel of the neck next to the clamp.

Needless to say, carving was really difficult. As with the planing earlier, it was a sweaty, palm-bruising process. I first used my microplane rasp (made in Arkansas by wizards) to rough out the curve of the neck at the headstock join and heel, then carefully shaved away layer after layer of wood with my spokeshave (taking care to go with the grain).

Looking up from the heel to the headstock. At this point I thought I was about halfway done with the carving. Hah.

After slicing away enough material that it looked like a neck, I started trying to refine the shape with a regular rasp. I discovered that this was a process akin to cutting through a steel door with a cheesegrater. It made me feel like I was doing something, but I'm not sure it if really achieved much other than to polish it up nicely. Either way, by the end of the day I had something that looked not entirely unlike a guitar neck and felt like I'd been beaten up. Canadian Maple is hard.

How it looked when I downed tools at the end of the day. The weird splodges on the headstock are a mixture of sweat and sawdust. By the end of this few days I was looking thinner and more muscly than I've ever looked in my life. Even if the guitar didn't work, I had at least learned that building guitars is a good workout.


I was originally intending for this to be a two part affair. But now I think I'll have to make it three. Tune in some time in the next week for part three: gluing, fretting and finishing.