The Black Strat. First practical steps, and a little ground work.

Of course, I’d have preferred a nitro finish for the guitar body. When it comes down to it, I’d also rather it was black nitro over an original sunburst finish. And while you’re at it, I’d much rather the body was an original 1969 USA Fender body, (with a little authentic relicing to boot).

But then my bank manager would probably rather I kept a lid on things, and got real. After plenty of searching as to what was out there – the best option boiled down to be a Fender Vintage 60’s alder body, (Fender part # 099-8003-706). The body is made in Ensenada, Mexico and is finished in high-gloss, black, polyester. Most importantly – it’s a 60’s vintage shape, and will work with a lot of the vintage specification additions – but specifically the specific bridge I plan to use. OK – the body is finished with a polyester clear coat, but it’s certainly shiny, and the neck I have planned to purchase has a nitro finish – so my left hand, at least, will be feeling the benefits of that.


Of course – the body had to be imported. There’s precious little in the way of genuine Fender options when it comes to certain guitar parts. Especially, it seems, here in the UK. The eBay market always has some options, but it can be a bit hit-and-miss at the best of times. In the end, the cheapest option was to find a good deal in the USA, and get it shipped – paying the necessary customs and import taxes up front. The taxes add an unwelcome, extra burden – but there’s no (legal) way round it. Better to pay it yourself, than pay someone else to do it and charge you extra for the pleasure. Doing it myself, I probably managed to save about £50.00 overall. The shipping took a couple of weeks – but eventually, a familiar branded, double-boxed, brand new guitar body turns up in the workshop.


And that’s what I’m paying for. A well-finished, quality looking piece of alder – with the Fender brand clearly on display. (I’ll be covering that over with the neck plate later on). OK – the routs have left a little bit of frass here and there, on some of the inside, hidden edges – but I can always cut the worst of that away with a scalpel, if I can be bothered. It’s only cosmetic anyway. The business end of things is nicely reassuring. The body looks perfect, and the drilled holes, (apart from the strap button holes, for some reason), are counter sunk already. Having built a few partscasters from scratch before, it almost feels like cheating that so much of the finishing and shaping of the guitar body has already been completed. At least I’ll have the nervy task of drilling the scratchplate holes myself, later on.


The first task I can get on with, is the application of copper foil to the interior body cavities – as part of the electromagnetic shielding of the wiring, and the start of the process of building and linking the ground side of the pickup circuit. The body serial number sticker is only partly stuck down in the middle pickup cavity – so I remove it carefully, and stow it away for later. Then, it’s a matter of cutting strips of copper foil to line the insides of the routed cut-outs. I use a thick grade of copper foil, and one with a good, conductive adhesive. Providing the strips overlap each other sufficiently, and are well pressed down – the electrical conductivity is extended across all of the  internal surfaces of the cut-outs. It’s important to extend the coverage up and over onto the front of the body – just enough to allow a point of contact to the foil which will cover the back of the scratchplate. The intention, as always, is to provide a metal box – a “Farraday cage”, through which the electrical wiring will run, and in which the electric pickups will sit. The cage will shield everything inside it from any unwanted electrical interference caused by external power sources, lighting circuits, speaker magnets etc., and will ultimately be linked back to the ground side of the pickup wiring circuit.


The copper foil comes in A4 sized sheets, and is cut down to size, as necessary. Since the foil is quite thick, you don’t normally have to lay down more than one thickness over the cavities, although there’s always a certain amount of overlapping as part of ensuring there’s enough piece-to-piece contact. When I first did this job, I used to use way too much foil. It probably takes about 1 and a 1/2 sheets to fully line a Stratocaster. More if you have humbucker routs, but the important thing is not to skimp. The other important thing is to ensure that the foil is well pressed down and that the adhesive is fully in contact with whatever it is, it is sticking to. To help get the best contact, I use some agate burnishing tools. These are from my gilding toolkit – but are ideal for the job. The traditional “dog’s tooth” shaped burnisher is great for getting into tight corners, and is especially useful on the jack cavity of a Stratocaster. It takes a while, but eventually all of the routed cut outs are lined with copper.


On a Stratocaster, most of the routs are physically linked together, but where they are not – good conductivity ensures the continuity of the ground. The jack socket sits in a completely separate compartment, and so a means needs to be found to conduct the ground between the two chambers. If the body was to be covered by a plate, then a wire, or piece of copper foil, could be simply run across and between the two chambers – hidden under the plate. Since the Stratocaster jack plate is isolated on the body, then a means has to be found to link the chambers internally. I normally keep any short lengths of wire – bits which I trim from the legs of orange drop capacitors, spare bits of cloth covered wire etc., for whenever I’m doing circuit soldering. These short lengths of wire are sometimes ideal for the purpose of linking these chambers via the small holes already drilled in the body to route the circuit wires. I bend a small angle on one end of a short piece of tinned, copper wire, and then poke it through. Once the wire has been similarly bent onto the surface of the copper at the other end, a small application of solder at each contact point, is enough to secure the wire in place and ensure connectivity. I then tape a little strip of copper foil across each solder join. Just in case anything ever comes adrift. (You really don’t want loose wires rattling around inside an electric guitar). Connectivity is then checked with a multimeter, in the usual way.


I already have sourced and purchased a genuine Fender output jack plate, (Fender part # 099-1940-100), and a Switchcraft jack plug assembly to fit into it. The body isn’t pre-drilled for either the jack plate or the scratchplate – so the holes need to be marked, sunk and countersunk before the plate can be attached to the body. I always find drilling through a finish, to be a nervy affair. However – drilling through polyester is always a little less fraught than drilling through nitro. It helps to clearly mark the hole location with an awl first, and then to break through the finish surface before drilling any screw hole to the required depth.

Once the locations have been marked, I use a hand drill to carefully control the speed and pressure of the drill bit I’m using. I then drill the hole the wrong way ie. counter-clockwise, at first, with a sharp HSS drill bit. Just until the tip of the bit has broken through the finish. (You can easily tell with a black body when you’re down through the paint). I try to make this first hole one drill size bigger than the hole I’ll eventually need. I do this to ensure the next, smaller drill bit, won’t snag on the edges of the finish when I begin to drill the actual screw hole. It seems to be the action of the drill bit that actually snags and breaks off little bits of the brittle lacquer – but making sure the surface is stepped back a little, seems to help stop the screw from eventually catching on the edges. Then – using the correct drill size for the screws I’ll be using to attach the plate, I mark off the required depth on the drill bit with a bit of tape, and sink two screw holes for the jack plate.

If the first screw holes still look a little bit too close to the screw threads, (and they do in this case), I countersink the holes a little bit more. With polyester finishes, I’ve found one solution is to use one of the little spear-shaped burrs that come diamond coated, and are used for drilling holes into glass. With one of those, it’s possible to twist and enlarge the countersink to the point where it’s impossible for the screw threads to ever, accidentally, snag and lift the delicate finish.


Before the socket is fitted, it’s the ideal time to complete the wiring to the jack socket. The two wires can then be routed into the main control cavity for later on, where they will eventually be joined to the wiring circuit. First, the socket assembly is securely attached to the plate using the nut and washer supplied. Then, sufficient lengths of white and black, cloth covered wire are soldered to the correct lugs on the plug. (Black to the centre, or “ground” terminal – White to the outer, or “hot” terminal). I’ve found it always pays to put a little shrink tubing over my solder joints – especially at the jack plug. The cutouts are normally quite tight and repeated use can cause movement over time. Sufficient movement, of course, may eventually cause short-circuits where the soldered lugs are twisted into contact with the copper-lined sides of the jack cavity. A little shrink-tubing applied at this point can avoid a whole lot of embarrasing shortcomings to your wiring job.

I’ve got hold of a Callaham, stainless steel screw set from Charles Guitars. I swap out the two screws Fender provided for their stainless replacements. It’s a good time also to ensure that the copper foil at the jack plate extends over the surface well enough to provide a continuous ground contact. The plate itself, and the screws which hold it, (and ultimately, even the player who touches these as a natural consequence of playing the guitar), will all then be grounded. Where the black and white wires are threaded through, I like to twist the two together. That way, it looks like I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that twisting them futher reduces circuit noise. I don’t know – but it looks professional.

I make sure there’s enough wire left coiled in the main control cavity to connect the socket to the rest of the circuit, and then screw down the jack plate. The wires need to be bent around a bit where they are soldered onto the jack plate. There really isn’t much room in there – but once the wires are routed and the plate screwed down – there really shouldn’t be any need to open up the jack cavity again. There’s enough wire left to connect the black, ground wire to the eventual, central grounding point – and enough white wire to easily reach the pots on the pickguard.


All that’s left is to check connectivity throughout with a multimeter. It’s also a good idea to check there isn’t any connectivity between the hot and ground wires. That would indicate an early short circuit. No such problem here. A clean over and a quick polish with a soft cloth, and the body goes back into it’s box where it can await the next part of the process.


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