If I end up getting the plate custom made, I’ll probably have to send the whole finished guitar away – so that the fabricator can accurately build his own template. I’ll almost certainly have to wait until the neck is installed, and I haven’t even bought that yet – let alone begun to finish it. I’ve already made a rough template for the scratchplate, and the result seems fairly accurate – but the fit at the neck pocket is a tiny little bit out. Whilst I might be able to send this off to be copied – there’s no way I’d be able to accurately communicate the discrepancy by email – even with photographs. At the end of the day – any plate I have made, or make myself, will only be as good as the template it’s based on.
And then there’s the expense to consider. I originally thought I wanted a couple of plates, at least, so I can experiment on finish options. Take into account insured courier shipping for one guitar – plus case – on top of the cost of custom made plates. It’s starting to look like an expensive problem. If I’m happy taking on some of the responsibilities of constructing the guitar myself – what’s stopping me cutting my own scratchplates too?
So, I’m going to have to get to grips with learning how. I’ve watched a few videos on YouTube showing how existing plates can be copied to make MDF templates – by using a router. I also know that the final finishing and bevelling of the scratchplates can be done using a table router.
My first problem is that the router I have doesn’t have a trigger lock – so I can’t use it as a table router. If I mount it upside-down on a router table – there’s no way I can keep the power on. However – I do have a small router table for my Dremel. Once I have a template to follow, perhaps I’ll be able to do the final finishing of 2mm or 3mm acrylic with that? But it’s the cutting of the intial template, that’s going to be the first challenge.
With a table router – a “following” bit usually allows a profile to be traced from a master template. A small bead or bearing is positioned to follow the edge of the master, while the cutter exactly matches the edge of this following bead. Normally, the template is temporarily stuck, or clamped, to the wood which is being shaped. On a table router – the following bead is normally on the very end of the router bit – so this allows you to view and manipulate the template on top, whilst cutting away at the wood below.
But I’m going to have to find a way of using the tools I have at my disposal. I need to be able to use my standard router the correct way up, so I can control the power with the trigger. I’m still going to need to keep my eye directly on the template – so I need the following bead above the cutting blade, rather than on the end of the bit. The answer is a “top-following” router bit. (pictured above). I have managed to get hold of a set of top-followers, one of which has a 20mm straight cutting blade with a 12mm radius. This should match the inner corners of the bridge cutout. The 20mm length means I can use a sturdy piece of 18mm MDF to cut a long-lasting and accurate template. I just so happen to have a few suitable off-cuts laying around the workshop.
The first thing I do, is trace the first card template I made, directly onto the piece of MDF. My card template is reasonably accurate, but it’s not thick enough to use as an actual master, direct with my cutting router. A spare Telecaster scratchplate might work for most of the task, but I’ll need to improvise and adapt suitable following edges for any deviations to the regular pattern, as I go along. The bead for the following bit is quite deep, and so I eventually settle on a couple of old Telecaster pickguards, which I sandwich together to make a thick enough master. I use double sided tape to stick the two scratchplates to each other. I insert some short lengths of thin dowel through the screw holes, which make sure the plates are perfectly in line, as they are brought together. The double-sided tape I’m using, is sticky stuff. With the plates aligned – they are stuck down, in place, onto the MDF – so that they exactly align with the traced outline. I now have a good, thick physical edge to follow – and the modifications I need to make are clearly drawn out.
The work is then clamped onto a low work horse – with the particular area I need to work on first, left hanging just over the edge. Any clamps need to be well out of the way of the router. To make the cut accurate, the plate of the router will have to find enough level scratchplate to ride on, while the following bit follows the edge. I’ve set the depth of the cutting bit so it cuts through the entire thickness of the MDF in one action. This leaves the following bead able to engage with the fine edges of both scratchplates. Since they’re bevelled, and very thin in places, this “doubling-up” effectively increases the thickness of the following edge to 3 or 4 mm.
I’m going to work on the lower edge of the plate first – around the control plate edge, and up to the tip of the lower horn. Because this cut would, ideally, be made in one smooth, flowing line – I replicate the new, extended edge of the plate using a thick set square – shimmed to the right height and clamped to the MDF work piece. The 90 degree angle, set against the original plates, ensures that the extension is square – and I feel around with my fingertips to make sure the positioning of the set square provides a smooth transition between the two pieces of plastic.
With everything in place and held secure – it’s time to make the first cut. I need to move the router from right to left – so that the cutting edge works against the MDF in the correct direction. My planned cut therefore strats on the straight edge at right, and moves along and round to exit the work at top left.
The cut goes well, so the work is repositioned, reclamped, and I can then cut along the neck portion of the plate – following the neck pocket cut-out to a point on the upper bout curve. Here, the modified, traced design begins to follow a slightly different curve from the usual Telecaster shape. I won’t be able to cut this curve freehand – (I’ll probably have to use a rotary sanding drum on my pillar drill to get a smooth, perpendicular, result here). My next cut with the router, therefore, will be to come into the work somewhere close to the new, (extended), edge of the plate – just above the bridge plate cutout. I should then be able to follow around the bridge cutout, and then work back along the other side of the extension, adjacent to the control panel. This means I’ll need to reposition and clamp the set square again – so I can accurately follow the line.
And, of course, something had to go wrong at some point. As the work gets smaller, and clamping options become harder to find – it gets harder and harder to ensure that the set square’s improvised edge is securely anchored. In this case, something has lifted slightly – resulting in the following bead riding up over the edge of the scratchplates, and the cutting blades cutting into both the plastic of the plates and the MDF. Both are write-offs. Good job neither of the cheap plates was an original 1950’s example.
Whilst it’s curtains for the scratchplates – the MDF template should, at least, be saveable. It’s pretty clear where too much material has been removed, and I should be able to replace that, and then recut. Providing I can find a decent edge to follow. To replace the lost material – I use a two-part resin type filler, which mixes up quickly and hardens just as rapidly. I pack the inner corner of the bridge angle with enough filler to replace the lost MDF, It doesn’t have to look pretty.
The filler only takes a few minutes to harden, and will take a little while longer to cure enough, so that it can be machined again. In the meanwhile – it’s a good opportunity to rout out the neck pickup opening. The cutter blade has a 12mm diameter, so a 13mm spade–end drill bit creates enough of an opening to get started.
I drill two holes, using the spade-end bit, in a drill press. Then, clamping the work securely in place again, I can easily pass the cutting bit down into position for the start of the routing cut. The edge is easy to follow, and the router makes short work of the rest of the MDF in the opening. Crucially – the neck cutout and pickup opening are precisely positioned in relation to each other.
Now, whilst the two-part filler gets a few more minutes to cure – I run around the piece with a suitable drill bit in the pillar drill, and drill through all the screw hole positions to mark them permanently on the MDF template. The two holes either side of the pickup are also drilled – (although the neck pickup will be attached direct to the body). Only one hole is left unmarked – and that’s the one just above the bridge cut-out, where the curve extends slightly more onto the body. I’ll drill that, in a suitable location, once the template has been fully shaped.
The “slip” with the router has cut through both of the stacked scratchplates. There’s nothing left for the following bead to follow. Fortunately however, the plates have already done their job for most of the rest of the MDF template. I can separate the two scratchplates, and then reverse one plate, so that one remaining, intact, internal angle can be followed to reshape the repair. I flip the top scratchplate over and reposition it, so that the opposite corner of the bridge cutout is brought into position to match the original curve. I can then secure everything and have another go at cutting and shaping this corner.
This time – the cut goes perfectly. With the long, control plate extension now cut parallel and perpendicular, I can position the set square edge at the marked end of the extension, and trim it off square. I also position an edge to mark the end of the other extension in a similar manner, just above the bridge cut-out. Then, trim the MDF square there, also. The only side which now requires work is the slightly reshaped curve on the top of the plate. It looks as if Page may have slightly reshaped his scratchplate to extend the top leg a little further over the bridge plate. With that – the curve has lengthened somewhat. When I was making my original, card, template – I also changed the curve slightly, to work better with my rendering of the painted design. I drew this revised curve using some train curves in my old draughting kit. There’s no way I could cut such a complex curve completely freehand. The best way to do it, is to set up a sanding drum on my pillar drill. I can then use the sanding edge, in a series of continuous passes, to gradually reduce the MDF to the exact curve required.
It’s a bit rough and ready – but my improvised drum sander does a good job at knocking back the MDF – leaving a smooth curve – exactly following the traced outline. Crucially, the edge is perpendicular to the faces of the template – like the rest of the routed outline. At the new corner of the top extension, I round the edge to follow the traced curve. With the rotary sanding complete – I switch the drum out for a drill bit – and drill out the remaining hole in that new corner, so that my modified, MDF copy of the original plate(s) is now complete.
I go over the MDF copy carefully – checking that all the edges are smooth, and that the curves are continuous. I find a couple of areas where the cutting blade, or perhaps the sanding drum have, presumably, paused – just long enough to leave a bit of an extra “bite” on the long curves. Even slight faults in the outline will transmit to the final acrylic “copy” of this master template – so getting the edge smooth and perfect is essential. There are only a couple of problem areas like this – and they are quickly filled with two-part resin and left to dry. Sanding by hand with a perpendicular flat block, quickly brings the edges smooth.
I know I should be able to trust the neck pocket and pickup opening dimensions, positions and relative alignments on the new template – since they’re a straightforward trace from original Fender plates. I know, however, that there’s a difference in width on some of the various chrome control plates that are used on different Fender models. I think some of the models use a slightly wider control plate, and I need to make sure the cutout has the right radius. I know my original card template, and the original scratchplates, worked with the control plate I’m using, (32mm wide). I just need to verify that the semi-circular cut-out in the template, and the angle of the extension works with my control plate. Setting them up on the workbench – I’m pleased to see that my control plate fits the template like a glove. I hope that bodes well for the eventual fit onto the guitar body.
Whilst the drum sander was set up – I decided to round the lower corner of the short, upper extension on the template. I know the original is a 90 degree vertex – but I just thought a rounder profile looked more in keeping with the plate as a whole. Now I’m not so sure. I’ll maybe have to reconsider. I can always reshape the template again, and fill the curve back to square before cutting any plates from it. In fact – now I’ve been through the process – I think I’ll make at least one more duplicate copy of this template, in MDF – just in case. It will be a straightforward enough process – using one 18mm MDF template to cut another. It’ll probably prove useful to cut templates for Stratocaster pickguards – or any other shapes for that matter – which I may, eventually, consider fabricating myself. Following a shape in it’s entirity should be much easier than trying to improvise modifications on the fly.
With these templates, I should be able to rout out my own scratchplates, in acrylic or polycarbonate sheet, and finish them exactly how I like. However, I’m going to have to work out how to finish the edges of the plates first. Hopefully – my Dremel router table will be up to the job of bevelling and shaping the acrylic. Only one way to find out.