A guitar kit may need a little or a lot of fitting and assembly so it is important to go through the instructions first to plan the work.
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Building an Electric Guitar Kit
Bringing the sounds of woodworking to life
Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz
Woodworkers tend to have wide spread interests when it comes to the projects they build. While scratch building a guitar is a formidable task, particularly getting the frets, fingerboard and neck right, there are kits on the market now that supply virtually finish-ready necks along with shaped and routed bodies. That puts these kits well within the skill range of even relatively new and minimally equipped woodworkers.
There are a few things to know about building these kits that will help you come away with a playable, nice-sounding guitar. In this story we will go through the building and setup process of a typical, basic guitar kit. There are many price points in guitar kits and naturally, you get what you pay for. In the cheaper kits the electronics, particularly the pickups, control pots and wiring are cheap as you should suspect. However, once you build one of these kits and it actually works you can hot rod one of these guitars with better pickups, switches and wiring. Very often these are simple bolt in swaps that do not require changes to the guitar body or neck but they can have dramatic effects on the sound you can generate.
The all-important first step with many guitar kits is to test fit the major pieces – even if the instructions do not call for it. This is the best time to find problems with the fit of the neck to the body or missing parts like screws. All of these problems are probably more prevalent with the cheaper kits but remains a possibility regardless of price point because of the numbers being sold.
Though it is not common for you to have to fit the neck to the body it is crucial to double check the factory work before you go too far. In the case of fitted, glue-in necks we need to be sure that the neck is straight to the body when in its socket. We also will have to mark off where to mask the glue surfaces to prevent them from getting contaminated during the application of finish which usually happens before the neck is permanently installed.
During this test fitting I like to put the groups of hard parts like screws and fittings into logical bagged groups using closing sandwich style bags. We often have to destroy the cheap plastic bags the parts come in so grouping them in sandwich bags just helps insure they stay where we put them. This can also be a system that lets you know that you have already been through a parts group because it is now in your plastic bags rather than the ones they came in.
Before finishing you may have to install things like the bridge or tailpiece or drill screw holes for securing some parts. It is important to remember that anything having to do with the alignment of the strings is critical so we need to take our time on those procedures.
If you have to install the bridge and/or tailpiece I like to use a long straightedge to extend lines down the body from the neck that is temporarily clamped in position. These lines seldom actually align with the holes for bridge and tailpiece fasteners but they do give you a very accurate “sight picture” to work with. That makes it much easier to get these critical components properly aligned with the neck and fingerboard. Just draw them lightly on the unfinished body or lay down masking tape first and draw the lines on that!
A high quality machinist type yardstick with fine graduations (down to 1/64ths is helpful) is needed to lay out the position of things like bridges and tailpieces when the kit requires you to install these parts. Take your time and get the dimensions listed in the instructions right! It is important to know that the distance to the bridge (actually the center of the bridge mounting fasteners) specified in the instructions is from the front face of the nut. The “nut” is the piece of plastic or bone over which the strings rest on their way to the tuning machines.
The distance from the rear of the bridge to the tailpiece that supports the strings is sometimes left out of instructions yet it is important. The tailpiece needs to be far enough from the bridge so that the strings can pass over their saddle in the bridge and then angle down to the tailpiece without resting on the back edge of the bridge body. I have measured a bunch of guitars and it seems that the tailpiece is often 1-1/2” to 2” behind the bridge but try to get the correct specification on your kit from the kits manufacturer.
Depending on the wood your kit is made from the options for finishing can run the full gamut. I finished my first guitar using nitrocellulose lacquer in the sunburst pattern and that was a chore. On a later kit I used clear lacquer on the neck and on the body, several coats of red engine enamel topped with several overcoats of clear enamel.
Normal woodworking finishes will certainly work, again depending on the wood you have to deal with. If you have visually appealing wood displaying the grain using stain and any of the clear protective woodworking coatings will work just fine. Polyurethane is very popular and can provide a very tough surface.
One trick I have learned in my short guitar building career is that taking the time to buff lacquer or rubbing out the burn-prone enamel gives you a very consistent shine on the finish that looks more “factory”. I almost passed on rubbing out the body on this guitar but did it anyway and am very glad I did. A couple hours of rubbing paid off.
On this kit nearly all of the electronics are prebuilt onto the chip guard that also has the pickups already installed. All you have to do is connect the bridge ground and the pair of wires to the output jack. After fishing those wires through their passages in the body make the connections. Whenever you have metal plugs be sure to isolate each of them from each other and everything else. When we screw the chip plate onto the body the last thing we need is for one of those connectors to touch another connection or a control pot. Bad things happen then.
If your kit has a bolt on neck that will probably be next. Bolt the neck in place and snug the screws down firmly but don’t get carried away. Now install the bridge so we can check the neck alignment. I placed a straight edge down the center of the frets and extended it to the bridge. The kits should give you a specification for this but generally speaking the saddles over which the strings run should be a little higher than the frets. Your kit might call for making fine adjustments to this height later but for now we often will see saddles that are roughly 1/8” higher than the frets.
Some bolt on necks will call for a specific angle and might require shimming of the neck where it bolts to the body. You can make thin shims made from card stock or simple paper if the needed adjustment is small. The good news here is that with modern CNC machining, yes in woodworking as well, the fit of the neck to the body will be within spec right out of the box bot do not assume that! Follow the instructions and check! When satisfied with the neck position go back over the screws and tighten them down a final time but be careful not to strip them.
If you have not already installed the tuning machines do that now. This is a very straightforward job but on guitars with tuners on both sides of the head there will be left and right versions so get those separated first so you don’t have to go back and remove some to put them on the other side. It might help to lay the tuners out or install one loosely on either side to see which ones work best on which side. The tuners are not marked and most instructions do not describe which ones go where. You are looking for what looks nice and lets the tuners function without running into each other.
Strings, Tuning and Setup
It would be nice if a new guitar just played perfectly right away that isn’t reality. The good news is that getting a guitar set up correctly is not very difficult but it still has a huge impact on how it (and you) sounds.
The first thing to do is install a set of strings and go through the basic tuning. If you do not have an electronic tuner yourself there are many applications on the internet and for IPhones and similar devices. You will have to re-tune your guitar several times during this procedure so choose a program or tuning tool and tune your strings for the first time.
Now that the neck has the full pressure of the strings on it we need to check the fret board to see if it is flat or has a curve in it. Ideally when we put a good straightedge on the fret board it will have a slight downward bow, around 0.004” to 0.008” between the bottom of the straightedge and the top of the 12th fret wires. This is called neck relief and makes the guitar easier to play and helps eliminate buzzing from adjacent frets.
If the neck is perfectly flat, turn the truss rod nut counter clockwise ¼ to ½ turn and re-check the fret board. If the center of the fret board is high, tighten the truss rod (clockwise with the nut) ¼ to ½ turn and re check. Make small adjustments and go slow. This adjustment does not change often so taking the time to get this right is worth the effort. Once you are satisfied with the neck and fret board, re-tune the strings as they will change.
Next we want to see how high above the frets the strings are – called the string action. Too low and the strings will buzz on other frets as you play. Too high and the guitar is harder to play than is necessary. I shoot for about 0.085” above the 12th fret wire on the top (thickest) string and 0.080” above the 12th fret on the bottom (thinnest) string. You may want to adjust this later as you get familiar with the guitar but these should be good starting points.
On most guitars we make the string height adjustments by turning the screws that support the bridge. Some guitars have individual bridge pieces for each string so they have to be adjusted individually. Be sure to check the rest of the strings as well, especially if the guitar has individually adjusted string saddles.
When satisfied with the heights of all of the strings re-tune the guitar again. I know this is getting old but all of these adjustments change the tuning, but we are closing in on the end.
Right now the guitar might sound pretty good when playing individual strings or even some chords. However there is a good chance that when you play things like open D and C chords at the nut at least some of the strings won’t sound right. That is because the intonation is not correct. This is why the string saddles, where they pass over the bridge, are adjustable forward and backwards.
First tune the strings perfectly with the guitar lying flat on the bench, the neck not supported. Pluck an open string and note on the tuner if it is perfect, if not adjust it until it is. Now fret that string at the 12th fret and luck it again. The tuner should read perfect for that note again. If it shows that the string is sharp when fretted at the 12th we have to lengthen that contact point or move the seat farther from the nut. If the note shows flat move the seat a bit closer to the nut. Re-tune that string and try it again. You might have to repeat the process a few times to get each string dialed in.
Go through all of the strings repeating the same process. When done with all of the strings go back and check the tune on each of them. There is no good reason for intonation to change after it is set so unless you change necks or do something drastic to the guitar you can start playing!
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