Back to the “Dragoncaster”. Making a template for a scratchplate.

I need to get the scratchplate for the Jimmy Page Telecaster custom made. I may end up going to Jack’s Instrument Services. I’m down in Canterbury, and they’re up in Cheetham Hill, Manchester – but that’s close to where I originally come from, and I don’t know anyone down here who offers the service. Since it’ll be a custom job – their website offers some handy tips, on how to make a template to send them.

The scratchplate will have to be made out of clear acrylic. I have some experience of working with clear polystyrene, acrylic and plexiglass from my framing work – enough knowledge to know that it can be a real pain to work with! So I’m happy to get the plate made by someone else. In fact – I may end up getting two plates made. I’m still not entirely sure how I’m going to deal with the holographic foil backing for the plate. I’ve done some research, and found a few suppliers of holographic foil – even scientific diffraction gratings made out of mylar. To be honest – I’m not sure I’ll be able to find a finish I like at first time of asking, so I need to come up with a plan B.

I’ve done a bit of gilding in my time, and wonder if some kind of metal leaf applied to the back of the plate might give me an attractive take on the “worn in” version of the original plate – as seen on so many of the reference images. No matter what Page originally used – it looks to have aged badly – yet I think I may actually prefer that sort of look over the pristine, holographic shine of the recent Fender reproductions. I think I’ll end up doing two versions of the plate. One holographic, and the other back-leafed – verre eglomise.

Getting a proper fit for the plate(s) is key. In reality – the “Dragoncaster” plate pretty much follows the shape of a standard, Telecaster scratch plate. It differs only in the small extensions either side of the bridge. On the control plate side- the plate extends along the top of the control plate to a point just below the bridge attachment screws. On the top side, the plate extends only a couple of centimetres more than the standard – but just enough to alter the top curve line of the plate. I want to try and make sure that the plate follows the line of the design nicely – so building a template is not only useful to the plate maker, but also to me – so I can finalise the painted design before clearcoating.

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I have a spare Nashville Telecaster plate hanging round the workshop. It fits the new body quite well, and it will provide a good basis for the critical front parts of the template. The neck pocket cut out, lower horn and pickup cutout, especially. The first job is to trace these elements onto a sheet of card. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to accurately trace the plate off, from the body direct, in one process – since the template needs to fit closely around the neck, bridge and control plate. I’ll have to build up the template in stages to the point where I can cut it out, and test fit properly.

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In tracing from the actual plate, I mark some key points which will  help act as reference points. So long as I cross reference, and position tracings I make from the guitar, using these reference points – then everything should align properly. It’ll also be necessary to position the bridge and control plate when marking out – to make sure the template aligns properly with them. The control plate has to fit into the long cut-out on the body – yet the control plate only has a very small tolerance for movement, once the control pots and switch are in place. Before any measurements or tracings can be accurately made, the pots will have to be fitted to the control plate. Since the body won’t be properly drilled for the bridge before the clearcoat is applied, I also have to accurately position the bridge and keep it in firmly place. I achieve this by fitting a few wooden pins through some of the string guide holes. Now the bridge is temporarily fixed in position, and the control plate can move, within it’s tolerances, to the point where, hopefully, everything aligns properly.

With the common aspects of the geometry traced onto the template card, and with the bridge held in position, I can then trace off the top extension onto a piece of tracing paper laid over the area. I have a neck block I use for painting – that helps position and hold the existing scratchplate properly in place at the neck pocket, with the tracing paper held in place below. To be sure it doesn’t slip, I pin it with a couple of the temporary wooden bridge pins. With the reference marks lined up and marked through onto the tracing paper, I can now mark the extent of the extension onto the tracing paper also. It really helps to see through – so I can avoid extending too far and end up covering the little “arrow” detail in the design.

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I can now transfer this information back to the template card, by putting graphite on the back of the line, aligning all the reference points up, and then marking through from the front with a little pressure. The template lines I’ve already traced from the original plate can then be extended to include the line of the extension. It looks, from archive pictures, like the corner hole stays in the exact same position – so I mark that, where it is. The lines around the bridge run square, and can be checked and drawn onto the template with an angle square. The critical thing to get right here, is the top curve line of the plate. Extending the top changes the line, and the template needs to have a proper, gradual curve along it’s full length. I have a box of railway curves from my days as an architectural draughtsman. They haven’t been out for years. Not since architects started using Computer Aided Design anyway. But everything finds a use in time – I’m so glad I hung onto them. The 200mm radius curve is the best fit to unify the line of the top curve.

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It’s a similar process then for the bottom extension. Crucially, this needs to extend parallel with the edge of the bridge plate, and also needs to butt up to the control plate along the whole of it’s length – including around the semi-circular cut out. It becomes obvious that any twisting of the plate at the front end causes possible mis-alignment at this point. I’m also aware that there are two, slightly different widths of control plate on the market. I’ll need to make sure that the custom plates fit the particular control plate I’m using, and that the placement of the opening allows the pots and switches to fit into the control rout. It occurs to me that it might be easier to fit-out the guitar before sending the actual, finished article up to Cheetham Hill for a proper, accurate fit-out. I’ll have a word with their plate cutter and see if that’s the best option – but making the template myself will, at least, allow me to demonstrate exactly what I’m after. I position everything, as before, with the reference points, control plate and bridge in place – trace the information I require onto trace, and then transfer the necessary information back to the template. The plate on Jimmy Page’s original doesn’t have a screw hole positioned at the far left extremity of the lower extension, (although it does, somewhat confusingly, seem to have one bizarrely placed in the very centre of the plate). I don’t see the point of one in the middle of the plate – even for authenticity’s sake. There might, however, be a need to keep the plate secure with an additional hole to the far left. I may change my mind – but I mark the potential position, in case I need it.

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From there – I can cut out the template with a sharp knife, a straight-edge, and a steady hand. You can see where there’s a bit of uncertainty about the area to the top of the control plate – so I err on the side of caution, and trim enough to allow for a proper test fit, before finally scribing and trimming to fit, as exact as I can. The end result is just about there, and fits the body and plates almost perfectly. There’s a tiny gap at the top of the neck pocket, which might be me, not quite trimming square, or it may be that the original plate wasn’t exactly square at some point. Either way – it might be a sign that something’s slightly out somewhere, and I’d hope the eventual plates would be able to fit precisely. In fact – when the cutout for the neck pickup is actually cut – any discrepancy could, potentially, lead to the pickup not sitting correctly within the front rout.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it? Perhaps there’s enough information to convey what I want, and if I send up the control plate and existing plate with the template – perhaps there’s enough there to allow the plate cutter to do his job? I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask. I admit – I may, eventually, have to consider sending up the finished, fitted out guitar body for a proper, tailored job once the clearcoating is done and cured. Maybe I’ll need the neck installed too – maybe I can get by without? In the meanwhile – at least I have a pretty good idea of what I’m dealing with. With the template laid over the painted body, I can accurately check how the design works with the shape of the new plate. There are a couple of the “dragon spines” which sit a little lower than the others. I know it’s picky – but now’s the time to correct the painted design. Once that is done, and the paint job properly dried, I can look towards getting the nitro clearcoat done. Warmer weather is coming. Perfect for spraying lacquer!

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