The Ash Stratocaster. Part One.

So here’s the body fresh from guitarandbassbuild.co.uk. It’s a two piece, Swamp Ash body, with the join running pretty central. Not exactly book-matched, but pretty even figuring. The blank weighs in at 1.74kg – so this is a reasonably lightweight piece of swamp ash. It’s apparently routed to a “vintage reissue” sort of pattern – so I’ll have to bear that in mind, when sourcing the right components – especially the tremolo.

Swamp ash is widely well regarded as a tonewood for stratocasters.  It’s slightly lighter than normal Ash, and slightly easier to work with. I think the original choice by Leo Fender was for Ash, wheras later models came in Alder. Alder is widely regarded as a good base for paint and stain finishes – the thing is, Ash looks a whole lot better just as it comes. Oiling or waxing allows the grain to show through – the trick is to get the right finish, so that the wood doesn’t discolour too much.

There’s also the endless discussion about how the wood should resonate in a guitar. Any kind of finish changes the essential, I don’t know, woodiness, of the wood. Ash really needs sealing to take any finish properly – especially paint, yet there’s supposed to be a benefit in keeping those pores open. The normal route would be to use something like sanding sealer, but I took great inspiration from Ben Crowe at Crimson Guitars who did a great job in pointing out the virtues of his Crimson Guitar Finishing Oil, and in rubbing the oil into the wood using progressively finer grades of wet and dry paper.

The idea is that as the oil soaks into the wood and begins to harden, it is mixed with the tiny bits of wood which are sanded off the body, and all this mixed up goop of oil and wood paste gets pushed into the pores of the wood by the manual sanding process – essentially sealing and oiling simultaneously.

So – one bottle of Crimson Finishing Oil arrives promptly in the post, and we begin. First pass is at 400 grit, following Ben’s advice to get plenty of oil in there, but to keep the grit moving over the body, evenly working the oil in. And a little goes a long way. For the flat faces, it’s essential to use a block behind the paper. 400 grit has enough tooth to leave ruts and divots, which will only show through more once the wood starts to shine. Once the piece is covered, let the oil soak in and dry for a few minutes and then start to rub all the excess off with clean, paper kitchen towels.

Keep rubbing the excess oil off. For the rest of the morning – for the rest of the day, if necessary.

Seriously – make sure all the excess comes off. Any pools or shiny areas will just telegraph differently than areas which have been well rubbed back, and the next coats won’t take quite the same. Once you’re convinced that nothing can run or drip any more, (check all pre-drilled holes – they act like little reservoirs,) and that you have rubbed literally all the excess off – Let the body dry off. Hang it up, if that’s the easiest. I chose to deal with each side of the body separately. If you do this – make sure you stop any drips or they will only accentuate themselves on subsequent coats.

**IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTICE** :- If you’re using any kind of drying oil – make sure you let the rags, paper towels etc. dry out somewhere safe. Don’t just chuck them in a corner and leave them unattended. The thing is – the oil heats up as it drys. If the rags are scrunched up, then the whole thing heats up a little more, and you know paper is a great insulator don’t you? Eventually the heated oil can literally burst into flame. Spontaneous combustion. I kid you not. I have done this – although it was at art school, many years ago, and there may also have been a carelessly discarded cigarette involved. But lesson learned. Now, I just chuck my used cloths in an old flowerpot in the garden, and leave it somewhere safe, away from the house, sheds, fences, motorcycles etc., etc. A few days drying, the odd rain shower later – then, and only then, I empty them into to the bin for disposal.

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Here’s the results after one pass. It says there should be enough in the bottle for a few coats, and I’m particularly impressed at how little the oil has coloured the ash. There are a few bits which are bit more matt than the rest of the body, but subsequent coats will fill the pores here, and gradually harden to form a pore-deep, protective layer. The second coat followed, using 600 grit. Again, making sure all the oil and wood dust gets ground into the surface to fill up those pores. Another wait while it all dries, and I’d better start looking at sourcing a neck.

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