Cheap Strat Copy Makeover

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Kabrijj, Sep 26, 2016.

  1. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    A while back, I picked up this little guitar for cheap.
    IMG_20151207_195050212.jpg

    It played fairly well, but the thing that tugged on my heart/guitar strings was the flame on the neck. For a cheap (read: "crappy") Chinese guitar marketed for the Costcos and Walmarts of the world, I was relatively impressed.

    IMG_20151207_195110022.jpg

    However, the headstock shape is far less inspiring:
    IMG_20151207_195056823.jpg

    Nevermind the logo, that damn shape has got to go!

    Eventually I got to visit my old man's workshop and use some power tools to begin this task of "making over" this guitar. The structure is there... but it could use a bit more aesthetic appeal.

    I not-at-all carefully-or-scientifically measured where I wanted to chop it...
    IMG_20160730_080539019.jpg

    And boom! One swipe of the saw blade and there's no going back.
     
  2. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    Regrettably, I didn't take any pics of the headstock halved.

    Nor did I take any of the big, dopey piece of maple I glued on (yeah, this thread isn't looking too promising in terms of pictures, I know).

    But after shaping the new additional "wing" we're looking much better already!
    IMG_20160731_173739530.jpg

    Decided to go with a "big headstock" Strat design on this one. Mostly because... well, "why not?"

    Figured I may as well make a drastic change. Besides, I actually kinda like the big head Strat's shape.

    Here we have another picture of this guitar, next to a Les Paul undergoing a similar makeover (that thread will soon make an appearance, dear reader, "fret not" -- **spoiler altert: pun totally intended**)
    IMG_20160731_174728203.jpg

    My next step was to sand the headstock totally flat with a sanding block. Or at least, totally flat over the glue line: the ramped area towards the nut clearly remained curved.
    IMG_20160810_093345913.jpg

    I also filled the string tree holes. Figured it would make gluing the next phase a bit easier, and I'd need all the help I could get.

    (another view, this time from the back, of the headstock at this stage)
    IMG_20160810_093401158.jpg

    You'll notice I also plugged the tuner holes, as I plan to put nicer Fender tuners on here.
     

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  3. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    I also plan to use some flame maple veneer I've had laying about for YEARS, just waiting to see some action.
    IMG_20160810_103651762.jpg

    Never having really used veneer before, I ran into a potential issue: how do I firmly and evenly apply clamp pressure to that "ramp" area where the headstock runs up to meet the nut?
    IMG_20160813_075704064_HDR.jpg

    My first instinct was to make a "caul" of sorts. My thinking was, if I could somehow make a "reverse" mold of the headstock, it would mirror the curve and allow me to clamp the hole endeavor easily and cleanly.

    Well... a good idea, maybe... but poor execution.
    IMG_20160812_212743723_HDR.jpg

    Here we have my first (and, incidentally, only) attempt: Bondo. I made a mess, the Bondo got all over the place (but not on the headstock itself... I at least had the foresight to lay down some wax paper).

    At any rate, I decided to glue the backside first, as it was totally flat. IMG_20160813_221108340.jpg

    Using a few blocks to help even out the pressure, and as many clamps as I could fit, I glued it up and let it dry overnight.

    It turned out pretty well! At least, until I tried to trim the overlapping edges of the veneer. It chipped, it broke, and ended up looking pretty bad. I neglected to take pictures of this...

    So, back to the front. I tried steam to bend the veneer... I tried water... I tried a few things, and broke 4 pieces of veneer in the process. Luckily I had a six pack, and luckily again I had a six pack of veneer to work with ;-)

    I think ultimately I used some light steam to bend, but also found the glue itself helped to bend the veneer into the shape I wanted.

    And, I kinda said "f**k it" and just clamped the hell out of it.
    IMG_20160814_152002932_HDR.jpg

    I think it turned out fairly well, overall.
    IMG_20160815_192511405_HDR.jpg

    This is the "rough shaped" veneer in place. I did learn my lesson from before: this time I used an exacto blade to cut off the excess veneer, instead of using a file to sand it off. Much better results.

    Side note: before gluing it up, I shoved some tissue paper into the truss rod cavity. My next challenge will be to unbury it, and hope I didn't get too much glue on the truss rod nut...
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2016
  4. JohnnyGoo

    JohnnyGoo Well-Known Member

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    Nice work !!!
     
  5. WavMixer

    WavMixer Well-Known Member

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    How creative!
     
  6. eS.G.

    eS.G. Well-Known Member

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    WOW awesome work!!! Those Star Casters can be AWESOME little gems!
     
  7. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    All right, continuing on...

    Using a sharp pokey piece of metal (in this case, the non-business end of a round file), I was able to more or less accurately guess where the truss rod hole was. Then with the file, I enlarged the hole until I could pick out the wad of tissue paper. Success! It came out rather cleanly, which means I didn't get glue on it OR the truss rod nut. With a sigh of relief, I continued shaping the truss rod access hole.
    IMG_20160817_073712227.jpg

    I should add that during this process, I ordered a waterslide decal. Not knowing exactly what pickups I was going to put guitar, I eventually settled on calling this guit "Bad Ass Stratocaster" because, well... regardless of pickup choice, I am gonna make it badass!
    IMG_20160819_194820286.jpg

    Now the fun part begins: sanding.

    I actually usually enjoy sanding. It's often a calming experience, and with the aid of some good music can go fairly quickly.

    After a few hours worth of sanding (over a few days), here's what we're working with:
    IMG_20160822_205627392.jpg

    There were two tricky parts in sanding this guy. The first, as you can see above, was how to (more or less) creatively blend in the veneer to the rosewood fretboard above the nut. I taped off the rosewood on top during sanding to avoid removing any wood there, and sort of blended in the corners to the round shape you see here. Not at all the "real" way Fender would do it (which is partially why I'm rather fond of it :naughty:), but I think it turned out pretty nicely.

    The second tricky part (which I again regret to inform you I neglected to photograph) was in blending the veneer into the neck on the backside. The shape itself was relatively easy enough, but in sanding it into shape I took off a fair bit of the factory color/tint on the neck.

    (I guess that's not the tricky part; getting the right stain to match will be!)

    So, after a quick trip to Lowe's, I returned home with a can of Minwax "Pecan Gold" wood stain, some Minxwax Pre-Stain, and did some experimenting.

    As luck would have it, my many failures in bending veneer proved useful, as I now had PLENTY of scrap pieces to test stain on!

    And sure enough, the Pecan Gold worked really well as far as matching the factory tint.

    Here's a shot of the headstock after the Pre-Stain (which I'd never used before in any wood staining... I like it a lot! Helps to make the grain "pop," helps in getting the right color, and "pre-stain" can easily entertain a dirty mind for a few minutes)
    IMG_20160822_210400745.jpg

    And after applying the stain:
    IMG_20160822_211210982.jpg

    It's honestly a bit subtle in the pictures, but the color went from "almost there" to "right on" between the pre-stain and stain.

    (Again, here I regret not taking pictures of the backside)

    I then stuffed more tissue into the truss cavity, layed down a few coats of Deft semi-gloss lacquer, and things are starting to look really good!

    So good, I felt confident enough to cut out and apply my logo.
    IMG_20160828_080423823.jpg
     
  8. eS.G.

    eS.G. Well-Known Member

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    WELL FRIGGIN DONE!
     
  9. Bettyboo

    Bettyboo Well-Known Member

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    Nice work, looks very cool.
     
  10. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    If you've never used a waterslide decal before, I would recommend it. It's a fun, simple way to really personalize your guitar.

    It's also incredibly time consuming, and a true test of a guitarist's patience (which, as you probably know, we guitar players aren't much for patience).

    I won't go into too much detail on the process, as there are much better tutorials available on various forums. That being said, if anyone has any questions I'll be more than happy to answer what I can.

    At some point in the process, the pickguard I ordered for this guitar arrived...
    IMG_20160829_201814224_HDR.jpg

    WARPED!! Damn you, USPS!!

    It wasn't too wavy, however. I pressed it under a whole ton of books for about a week, which helped, but only slightly.

    Fortunately for me, it was curved towards the guitar, so hopefully simply by screwing it in place it would flatten out and look all right.
    IMG_20160904_104344342_HDR.jpg

    Test fitting it proved this to be true.

    But test fitting is a good thing, because since this is NOT a Fender, there are some minor alignment issues.

    The first is at the neck pocket. I'd need to remove some material to make room for the neck to fit onto the body.

    The second is some of the screw holes don't line up as nice as I'd like them to. So I patched 'em up with toothpicks and glue, then filed them flat. Drilling new pilot holes for the screws will ensure a tight fit (which is good, cuz I'll need that pressure to keep the guard flat.

    I also routed out a swimming pool on the body. I used a dremel in the past for similar wood removal, which is not the preferred tool for the job... but I had the foresight again to utilize my dad's woodshop (a drill press and a forstner bit are amazing things... especially if you're accustomed to a dremel, ha!)
    IMG_20160904_111120494_HDR.jpg

    And after I-lost-count-how-many coats of lacquer and some light sanding, the logo is pretty well blended in:
    IMG_20160907_073321191.jpg

    Now all that's left is some minor assembly, some fretboard conditioner, some light fret end beveling, and...

    ...wiring.

    Remember how this is gonna be a bad ass Strat? Well, it's gotta have some badass wiring to go along with it, right?

    I'm a humbucker guy. A Strat was my first instrument, but after getting my first SG, I just prefer the sound of humbuckers to single coils.

    So, let's see here... I've got a set of Duncan Pearly Gates... some push/pull pots... a 4-way Tele switch...

    I eventually settled on the following: a volume control for each pickup, plus a master tone control. Then the 4-way switch for what's called the Tele Mod: positions 2-4 function like normal, but the first puts both pickups in series. So you've got position 1: both pickups in series; 2: neck pickup; 3: both pickups in parallel; 4: bridge pickup. And since we're making it overly complicated, let's add push/pulls for coil splitting for each pickup, AND another push/pull for in-phase/out-of-phase. Why not, right?

    Well, lemme tell you why not: first, finding a wiring diagram for such an absurd endeavor proved impossible. I eventually had to make my own by combining two other diagrams (which were elusive in their own right). Second... talk about time consuming! I bet it took me a good 70+ minutes to wire up this thing.

    And here's the kicker:
    IMG_20160921_145611182.jpg

    After wiring it all up and going to install it, the damn bridge pickup doesn't fit in the pickguard!

    At this point, I'm no stranger to filing away at pickguards... so slowly, carefully, I removed some material to the point the dumb pickup fits in the hole (AND I had to enlarge the pickup selector slot for the 4-way switch too, but I had anticipated that one and did it BEFORE the wiring).

    After all that, I had absolutely no desire to do any fretwork, fretboard oiling, drilling pilot holes, or assembly (let alone a setup), so I said "that's enough for tonight."
     
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  11. DrBGood

    DrBGood Well-Known Member

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    Wow, nice project coming along pretty well.
     
  12. Chubbles

    Chubbles Well-Known Member

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    Very impressive effort!!!!
     
  13. WavMixer

    WavMixer Well-Known Member

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    Well Kabrijj, some of us here really enjoy reading about projects like this! Some of us here actually take on projects like this. Some of us here post our projects with pictures and details. You have provided us with excellent reading material, excellent instructions on how you did these mods and provided inspiration to those who may wish to tackle a big mod like this! Kudos to you for taking on this project and sharing it with us!! I've been known to do a mod or two myself and up until recently had not planned on taking on any projects other than a custom guitar that I'm having built for me. However I just recently acquired a new project (or two) guitar and have been a bit apprehensive as two whether I wanted to play it as is, or rip it all apart and have at it. After reading this you have gotten me motivated to do what I really want to do... Thank you for the motivation!
     
  14. JohnnyGoo

    JohnnyGoo Well-Known Member

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    Great Work !!!
     
  15. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    Wav, I have seen some of your posts as well... that's kinda the bottom line, right? Being inspired by others? Yours have done the same to me, my friend. I look forward to seeing what you do next!

    Ultimately, it's all about having fun with guitars. Whether it's playing them, modding them, or even just looking at them... I tell myself if I buy cheap guitars, where I've invested more time than money, that'll keep me from buying "real" guitars (FYI -- it doesn't work, ha!).

    Wait til you see the Epi project I've got in the works. There's still most of the finish work to do, so I'm holding off on posting anything here for a while: from what I've read, you gotta do some SERIOUS waiting for the lacquer to dry... and who wants to wait 45 days or more for updates? :D
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2016
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  16. Kabrijj

    Kabrijj Well-Known Member

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    All right, the moment of truth.

    Measured and drilled some holes in the headstock for the "new" Fender tuners (new for this guitar; I have a box of parts laying about... many of which I used here to help keep the monetary investment relatively low. I didn't get a close up of the bridge -- who wants to see that? -- but the bridge is from a MIM Strat I long ago upgraded to gold. I'm not sure there's any difference between the actual Fender bridge and the cheapie that came on this guit... but it's got "Fender" stamped on the saddles, so maybe that lends it some gravitas?)

    Attached the tuners, bolted on the neck, strung it up... measured where I wanted the string trees, drill some pilot holes and installed those... did a quick setup (adjust the string height, truss rod, pickup height, etc)... and here's what we've got.

    Completed project (sort of):
    IMG_20160925_123907045.jpg

    Overall I'm pretty stoked on how this one turned out.

    It looks cool, sounds awesome, and plays pretty well (the neck on this guy is super comfy!).

    The neck does have a little bit of a curve in it on the bass side... it's not detrimental to the playabilty, although I do have a little more relief on the treble side than I might prefer if I wanted "super shreddy" low action.

    And then I plugged it in. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the beach...

    The tone control straight up doesn't work. I figure either I bumped the cap loose while installing it, or maybe it's pressed up against the side of the cavity and shorting out. That should be a relatively easy fix.

    But here's an interesting quirk: the bridge volume control (the middle knob) works just like I thought it would. The neck volume control, however, acts as a master volume control. Without opening the whole thing up, I'm guessing it's just a limitation of the wiring scheme. Maybe, for whatever reason, because of the 4-way switch and series/parallel option? I'm pretty savvy when it comes to wiring, but this one kinda has me stumped. I'm confident I wired it right, but ultimately? I'm not sure it bothers me too much. I kinda am used to a master volume when playing a Strat. Easy to do those pinky rolls, ya know?

    I am happy to report the in-phase/out-of-phase push/pull works like a charm (and that was the part I was least confident about). Out of phase is a super low output, very quacky tone... good for funk, I guess (not being a funk player myself). But out-of-phase/in series sounds way cool! Definitely a tonal choice I'm not familiar with, and I can't wait to try it out with some heavy gain. :dude:

    The tone knob fix will wait til this weekend. The neck hump I may eventually tackle a fretboard level and re-fret on (cuz hey, what better to practice DIY lutherie skills that a cheap guitar?), but I'm in no rush to take that on just yet :D.

    Here's a few more close-ups of the headstock.
    IMG_20160925_131043735.jpg

    Really stoked on how that logo turned out. I may also (eventually) use some buffing/polishing compound... but again, I'm impatient and wanted to play this darn thing! Plus, it looks pretty good as it is.

    IMG_20160925_131118325.jpg

    The back turned out nice, too. There is a very faint line in the lacquer where I taped off the neck to avoid re-finishing the hole neck... but you can't really see or feel it while playing. Only if you really look for it.

    IMG_20160926_071120155.jpg

    One of two places you can see the glue join.

    29720280600_b06cb7d530_z.jpg

    The other glue join, along with my faithful shop "helper." (SIDE NOTE: I'm pretty sure I did manage to get at least one cat hair in the lacquer at some point... it's super subtle -- again, probably one of those incredibly minor details only the "builder" would notice -- but her signature is in the guitar as well :smile:)
     
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  17. JohnnyGoo

    JohnnyGoo Well-Known Member

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    great work. looks really nice
     
  18. WavMixer

    WavMixer Well-Known Member

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    The head stock turned out really, really, really nice! If I had not read this thread, I would have never guessed that it was a veneer on each side. Kudos to you for an excellet job. :thumb::thumb: Two thumbs up!
     
  19. eS.G.

    eS.G. Well-Known Member

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    Very well done!!!

    Congrats......

    amazing the fun we can have with "CHEAP" copy guitars. ;)
     
  20. pedecamp

    pedecamp Active Member

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    Wow fantastic job! I'm working on a similar project actually more involved than yours but I clearly haven't put in the TLC that you have. I have a 70's Univox Strat that got butchered along the way in its life and I'm trying to give it new life so my kids can use it. Some day when I get it done I'll post it here. Enjoy that bad ass guitar!
     
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