My cataract problem means I can’t really deal with much detail work – but I can’t just sit here. If I stick to well-tested technique, and work close up with good lighting, I should be able to push on without sweating on the detail too much. I might have to feel my way, as much as anything. The nitro on the neck has hardened with a flat, but highly polished finish. One which I need to take back a bit. I want the back of the neck to have a satin finish, which will feel slick to the hand. I also want the face of the headstock to look flatter and less shiny than it currently does.
All it takes is a good rub down with some Scotchbrite pads. First, using a coarser, red pad, and then a pass with a finer, grey pad. Where I need to dull a flat surface – such as on the flat face of the headstock – I wrap the pad around a cork block to try and keep the pressure even. The Scotchbrite pads aren’t too agressive, but I need to take care – especially on the exposed edges of the headstock. If I rub too much anywhere, I risk rubbing through the tinted coat, all the way down to bare maple again. It’s important to always work mindfully, and consistently. On the back of the neck, I rub along the length with the Scotchbrite in my left hand – almost in a playing position. This concentrates the “wear” in areas where it might, naturally, be expected. However – I need to take extra care at the edges of the neck, where my thumb and fingers wrap around. It’s easy to add extra pressure there, and wear away the lacquer coat, unevenly.
With the neck rubbed down to the desired finish, it’s now time to fit the tuners. I’m using a set of Fender, Vintage style tuners, (Fender part number 099-2074-000) These are similar to the ubiquitous, and slightly cheaper Grover tuners – but they do have “Fender” stamped on the back, for those who are brand loyal. Apart from that detail – I can’t detect much difference between the Grover and Fender offerings.
Although I’ve protected the pegholes whilst spraying the headstock face – the bushings are still very, very tight, and I don’t want to risk cracking the finish or, worse, splitting the actual maple at the top edge of the headstock. I need, therefore, to ream out the insides of the pegholes a little until the bushings, almost-but-don’t-quite push into place. It’s ideal if they just sit in the openings. I can then use a bushing tool on my drill press to press each one firmly into place. Once in place, these aren’t intended to be removed again. Doing so would, almost inevitably, ruin the nitro finish surrounding each peghole.
With the bushings properly in place, I can flip the neck over, and fit the tuners on the back of the headstock. Once again – it’s a breeze, using the supplied template. The tuners are held in place whilst the tuning posts are pushed through the bushings. A bit of double-sided tape keeps the tuners in line, and the screw holes can be marked through, at the required positions, with a bradawl. The tuners and template are then removed, and the screw holes properly drilled out – with the confidence that they’re in-line, and in the right place to hold the tuners straight.
Each tuner can now be fitted in turn. Each screw is tightened, (there are two per tuner), until tight – but still just loose enough to allow for final adjustment and alignment. The housings of the tuners tend to bite into the finish, in order to provide a good mechanical contact – so before final tightening, it’s important to check the tuners all align properly. It’s easiest to run a steel rule along the edges, and then tighten each screw down gradually, until the tuners are sit tight, and are properly seated.
The neck can now be attached to the body. I’m using stainless steel bolts, but need to drill out the corresponding holes on the heel of the neck first, so that the screws can tap in properly. With the tuners fitted, I lay the neck in position on the body, and then check for proper neck alignment, by fitting a couple of spare strings in each of the “E” positions. (I need a nut fitted to secure the string positions there, so quickly file a fresh, bone nut to fit the slot. The nut blank is pre-slotted for the strings, but I’ll check all the slot depths, and assess the nut again, once I get to set the guitar up properly).
I’m pleased to see that the neck fits snugly into the body cutout – so well, in fact, that I can actually bring each of the strings up to slight tension with the neck remaining flat and in place – even without the securing bolts having been fitted. It’s a good, tight fit, and there’s actually very little play between the neck and the neck socket. In fact – very little scope for adjustment altogether. It’s good therefore, to see that the strings look to be evenly placed, at each side of the neck. I can now screw a neck bolt through each of the holes in the body – letting the points mark the required location for each screw hole, on the heel of the neck. After removing the neck once again, I drill each screw hole to the required depth using a sharp, 3mm wood drill bit. Before drilling, I check everything is straight and level, and make sure the neck is held firmly in a heavy bench drill vice. I always mark the required drill depth off with some paper tape on the bit. I really don’t want to drill too deep, and end up drilling through the fingerboard!
Having rubbed the threads of each screw with wax, I can then join the neck to the body by tightening each bolt in turn. The threads of each stainless steel bolt tap the drilled holes as they go. They can be quite stiff at first, but the wax helps lubricate the first cut, and helps to screw and unscrew each bolt, later on.
I’m using an old neck plate with a stamped serial number 33023. This is obviously a made up plate, but it gives me the chance to identify this particular build, with an authentic looking number from the correct-ish period. The Fender 33XXX series dates from around about the 1958/1959 transition period – which is supposed to be the date of manufacture of Jimmy Page’s original Dragon Telecaster neck.
I always tend to tighten the neck screws by working diagonally across the plate, so as to spread the pressure gradually and to try and avoid the plate digging-in, at any one of the corners. All plates tend to warp a little bit, so it’s good to make sure the plate is nice and thick to begin with, (a lot of cheaper generic plates tend to be thinner steel). Once each screw is just about there, the plate can be centralised properly, and the screws tightened, (but not over-tightened).
Now that the neck and body are properly joined, I can finally check on the scratchplate fitting. My last scratchplate attempt was pretty close to the mark, but I now need to check that the neck pocket fit is good, whilst maintaining proper alignments at the bridge, around the lower horn, at the neck pickup, and at the main control plate rout. The latest plate will work – but if I’m super critical, then I can probably improve slightly on the neck pocket profile – where there’s a slight flaring of the gap just above the neck join. I could also probably give the neck pickup a little bit more room, and add a milllimetre or so to the plate, just under the neck heel. When I think about it – I’m sure I could improve on those countersinks too.
To be honest – each percieved fault is barely noticeable, but getting it right is important to me – so, since I do have some spare polycarbonate and refractive mylar left over, I may as well have another go, and see if I can get it absolutely right before drilling the scratchplate screw holes into the body. It’ll all probably have to wait until I get my eyes sorted though – so the unfinished guitar will be heading into storage for a couple of months. It’s good to see it finally coming together though. The guitar takes over one of my restored G&G cases, and is matched up with a white Souldier strap I’ve set aside for this build. Whilst pictures of Jimmy Page, playing his original Dragon Telecaster, usually show him with a plain white strap – the “stained glass” pattern seems to be often associated with one of his famous Les Pauls.
Last job before storage, is to drill out and fit the strap buttons. The positions are measured out and marked. The nitro clear coat is quite thick in places, and will be brittle and prone to flaking – so I find it’s important to key each hole by drilling backwards, at first, with a sharp HSS bit. I use an electric drill type driver, set on high speed, and use a drill bit which is a couple of sizes too big. The idea is to wear away enough clear coat, just through to the wood, and then to drill the actual required screw hole within that clear opening. This intends to ensure that the screw thread can’t accidentally lift, and crack or flake, any of the clear coat finish on its’ way in. It’s always a nervy process drilling through nitro, but this seems to be the best way to avoid unwanted cracks and flakes. They still happen now and again, but seemingly less often if you take the time to prepare each opening first. Both strap button holes drill perfectly this time, and I can fit each button in turn, using a felt washer to protect the finish. I hope the eventual drilling of the scratchplate screwholes goes as well.