Jimmy Page “Dragoncaster”. Upgrading to a Fender neck.

The CITES regulations are in force to help promote and protect the sustainable use of the planet’s resources – so naturally, they were bound to have an effect on the availability of some of the rarer, more exotic hardwoods. There are however some timbers, loosely categorised under the heading, “Rosewood”, which also found themselves included under protective import / export and trading restrictions. One of these – Indian Rosewood – is heavily used in instrument manufacture and, although not under any threat of extinction, nor even the root cause, itself, of much destructive timber management – has recently found itself under restriction. Some Rosewood sub-species do, indeed, need the protection some sort of sustainability plan offers – but a blanket ban on the trade and movement of all Rosewood species meant severe problems for the manufacturers and builders of musical instruments.

Indian Rosewood has been a favourite of guitar builders – probably since the instruments’ form first evolved. Yet by the end of 2019 – manufacturers such as Fender had been forced into using alternatives, such as Pau Ferro, on most of their models. Where Rosewood alternatives were allowed – they relied on restrictive documentation and license. This was bad news for someone trying to build a reasonable replica instrument – like my Jimmy Page, Dragoncaster. Most of the used, rosewood boards I might have considered using were in the USA. The continuing restrictions meant that they were staying there.

My workaround – back in 2019, was to buy up and finish one of the last remaining rosewood-boarded, vintage-type specification necks, left available in the UK. Made by HOSCO in Japan, and presumably exported under an established CITES license agreement – the neck looked like a Telecaster neck, and once finished up with some vintage amber nitro it looked similar to the real thing. The construction wasn’t too bad either, and I managed to finish and set it up so that it reasonably complemented the painted body I’d worked on for so long. But it wasn’t a Fender neck. The more I played the guitar – the more I realised it just didn’t have quite the right feel about it, and I also began to notice that the finish just didn’t seem to quite match with the body. Something about the tinted nitro finish looked unconvincing. Too dark a tone. Too even a finish.

Then, early in 2020 – the CITES regulations were amended to allow the free trade of Rosewood instrument parts. Importantly – this allowed components like fingerboards to be traded again, and the legislation also covered the trade of vintage and antique rosewood instruments and their components. It’s literally a re-set for the industry. Prior to the change – Rosewood had found itself in much the same position as Ivory or Amber. Suddenly – opportunities to source and acquire rosewood guitar necks became a viable option again.

For me – it means I can upgrade the Dragoncaster. And I don’t even have to use up any new supplies of rosewood. All I want, is to be able to legally source a viable, used neck.

Fender, vintage style neck. Made in Mexico 2016

I eventually manage to secure a deal on a 2016, vintage-style, Fender Telecaster neck. Made in Mexico – it’s quite similar to the neck on my Nashville Deluxe Tele, except that it has a vintage correct, heel-access truss rod. Compared to the HOSCO neck, previously installed on the Dragoncaster – the rosewood is much darker, and less streaked. The amber finish looks lighter, a bit more natural – showing some signs of mellowing and a little wood grain below the finish. There’s also an early 60’s style Fender decal on the headstock. Whilst Page’s original Tele had lost it’s decal by the time the guitar took on it’s Dragon paint job – this does at least match Fender’s Artist series reproductions of the guitar. It’s a Fender neck – it might as well carry the badge.

HOSCO neck (top) vs Fender replacement

Construction-wise – the Fender neck appears to be about 1/32″ longer from nut to heel. This might affect the current intonation setup when I install it. I also can’t quite believe I didn’t notice just how differently the headstocks had been shaped. It’s amazing just how that slight change to the lower curve makes the Fender neck look more delicate and refined. The HOSCO neck looks lumpen in comparison. The back of the neck on the Fender is also much more delicate. I think it matches what they call a “C” profile. It’s quite thin in depth and is really comfortable to hold. Again – it’s very similiar to my Nashville Deluxe neck.

Most importantly – the Fender neck appears to have a period correct, slab construction rosewood fingerboard and thin, vintage style frets. As an analogue of Page’s 50’s/60’s transition neck – it’s probably about as close as I can get, without heading down the custom build route. Although the neck was sold as “used” – there’s very little sign of wear, and the neck is straight as a die. I purchased it with some Grover-looking, vintage tuners already fitted. All-in-all – it’s a significant upgrade to the original, and I hope it’ll refinish the Dragoncaster – this time with authentic Fender credentials.

Tightening up a rattling tuner bushing

Although the neck is in excellent condition, with only a few, minor bumps to show – I’m always happier when I’ve stripped used components down, cleaned, and checked them over properly. The nut is a bit damaged – but I’ll be replacing that as a matter of course. The neck checks out as straight, and there’s very little apparent variation in fret height. It looks like someone might possibly have levelled the frets at some time – but if they have, it’s not a bad job. The first fret shows a height of 0.039″. (Most of the new Fender necks I’ve checked seem to have first fret heights closer to 0.05″). But there’s plenty of life left, and no need to level the frets myself.

The only thing that concerns me is an apparent rattle when I’m handling the neck. I’ve always had a similar rattle on my Nashville Telecaster, and there, I think I’ve traced it to a loose tuner. Here though – it seems a bit more general. Maybe it’s something typical with these Mexican necks? At first – I’m concerned it might be something wrong with the truss rod, but then as I dis-assemble the tuners for cleaning – I find it’s all down to a few loose tuner bushings. In fact they’re so loose – I can actually push all of them out with a pencil. Three are especially loose – and it would appear that these three are the main cause of the neck rattle.

After cleaning the neck, I check the headstock over and notice a scratch on the face where it appears someone has slipped with a nut file. I have a few sticks of coloured wax in the workshop, for touching up furniture. The scratch is filled with a light amber, and allowed to dry a little. Then the excess wax is scraped off with a spatula, and the headstock is buffed up. Scratch gone. Time to re-install the bushings.

I measure the depth of the bushings, and cut a strip of adhesive copper foil, (the same sort used to shield guitar bodies). It takes just a single thickness of foil around each of the tighter bushings, and a double thickness for the three, looser bushings. They’re then re-fitted into the the tuner holes – this time much more securely. Tight enough not to rattle again. The copper foil stretches and conforms to the millings on each bushing as they’re pushed into place. Although they’re tighter, they’re still not so tight as to risk splitting the surrounding wood.

Cleaning and conditioning the fingerboard

Whilst the neck is dis-assembled, I clean the maple portions over with some Fender guitar cleaner – then re-polish with a small dab of Fender guitar polish. The rosewood fingerboard is cleaned with some Crimson Guitar restorative, before a couple of liberal applications of Crimson conditioning oil. Once it’s soaked in, and any excess oil has been cleaned off with a paper towel – the fingerboard is buffed up with a soft cloth.

New headstock (after re-stringing)

The tuners are re-installed after a gentle clean over with a light, metal polishing oil. It’s more of a reconditioning than a clean. A couple of the attachment screws are a little loose, so I plug each screw hole with the shaped end of a matchstick – glued in place with a drop of wood glue. The tuners are re-fitted with extra grip for the securing screws. Finally, the 50’s style string tree from my original build replaces the one which came with the neck.

Neck test fit

The neck is already drilled for four neck bolts, in the usual Fender configuration – so it’s a straight swap for the HOSCO neck. I detune the strings, but keep them attached at the bridge. (No sense wasting a set when I still need to assess the neck relief and nut condition). The joint at the neck is a little loose, but the stainless steel bolts tighten well, and with the two outer strings back in position – I can see that the neck sits straight and true. I reinstall all of the strings, and retune. With the string tension set, I capo the first fret and, with the low “E” string fretted at the top fret, I measure the distance between the bottom of the “E” string and the top of the 8th fret with a feeler gauge.

Looks like just over 0.012″, (which is close to Fender standard), but I’m looking for a super-low action, and something as close to 0.005″ as I can get. After detuning the strings, and temporarily removing the neck again, (keeping the capo on helps stop the strings going everywhere), I add a bit of back bow by turning the heel nut half a turn clockwise. I have to repeat the process a couple of times to gradually dial in my desired neck relief – but eventually, I manage to get it down to just over my target 0.005″.

The neck is reinstalled, and the strings retuned. Then, just to bed the neck in properly – I back each neck bolt off about 1/4 to 1/2 a turn. The tension of the strings pulls the heel of the neck firmly into the neck pocket. You can often hear a clunk as the neck drops into place. Now, once I’ve tightened up the neck bolts again – the neck is usually in optimal contact with the body. (I may consider shimming the sides of the pocket slightly at a later date. The fit at the neck pocket isn’t really any worse than the majority of Tele’s out there – but I’m pretty sure I can craft some fine slivers of maple veneer to make a really professional job out of it).

Usual 7.25″ nut, actual profile, and replacement bone blank

Now the old strings have done their job, I finally detune them and cut them off. I knock the old nut out, and measure up the nut slot with a profile gauge. I’m looking to replace the old nut with a new bone nut. I have a few spare blanks, with both curved and flat bottom profiles.

This nut slot is actually somewhere between the two. It’s not flat – but what radius there is, is much larger than the usual 7.25″, (or even 9.5″). Nothing for it – I have to reshape the bottom of the nut, while I also need to reduce the overall thickness a little. It takes a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing to get close – all the time checking progress against the profile gauge. Once the nut is shaped to fit the nut slot properly, I have to remove a small amount from each end, and then reshape the end curves. Eventually – the nut sits, and fits, perfectly. I dab a single, tiny spot of wood glue onto the bottom of the cleaned nut slot, and push the nut into position.

As I’ve put my first few builds together – I haven’t spent much time shaping and polishing nuts to perfection – but I’ve begun to wonder if that might actually be the cause of some of the niggly fret buzzes that I have occasionally encountered, with some of my early setups. Of course – if you file a nut slot too deep, you always get a buzz with an open string. (A buzz higher up the neck suggests that the bridge might be too low, or that the frets might be uneven). I’ve sometimes noticed that even though the nut slot height appears to be ideal – there’s still, occasionally, a little bit of harshness to the occasional open note. A harshness which disappears with a fretted note. I’ve learned that often, a little polishing of the nut slot helps recify the situation – but I’ve also noticed that these fixes are sometimes only temporary. I’ve looked at a few articles on the subject, and looked at some of Dan Erlewine’s excellent YouTube videos – and I think I might need to look at properly shaping and polishing my nuts, for a change.

Bone nut – shaped and polished (after slotting)

Ideally – the string should sit in the nut slot with a small, stable contact point at the fingerboard side of the nut. The meat of the nut should then gradually slope away towards the headstock. The string slots need to be straight, and just wide enough to hold each string. They should slope gradually away from the contact point – with the slot openings slightly flaring towards the headstock end. The thicker, wound strings need to sit securely in their slots – but only really down to a depth equivalent to about half a string’s diameter. The finer wire strings need to sit down about a whole string diameter. It all appears to be about cutting down the nut to string contact to an absolute minimum – cutting down any possibility of unwanted string buzz.

All of this suggests the ideal form of the nut, and the slots. The only way to achieve this ideal form is to shape the nut gradually with files and grit paper, and then to polish the end result up with ultra-fine grit. I read an article somewhere which said, “…there’s nothing sexier than the sight of a polished bone nut on an oiled, rosewood fingerboard…” I think that’s probably going it a bit. It’ll be enough for me if it looks good and performs properly.

Some of the nut shaping can be achieved before the nut is glued in, but I also find that by fitting the nut, and then taping the surrounding wood off with a thick masking tape – the nut is held in the ideal position to help shape the top curve and the fallaway towards the headstock. Some of those emery boards, (the ones used for doing fingernails), are useful to reduce some of the bulk of the unwanted profile. Fine wet and dry papers can be used to shine and polish everything up. I must admit – when it’s done properly, a shaped nut does look an awful lot better than an unshaped, angular blank.

Nut slotting

Once the nut is the right shape, the nut slots need cutting in with properly-sized files. I use a StewMac “SafeSlot” clamp now, as a matter of course. Having measured the height of the first fret, it’s easy to calculate the ideal depth of each nut slot in turn – allowing for string gauge and desired clearance at the first fret. Once the slots have been cut, the curve and slope of the top of the nut can be finalised. (If the shape has to be changed – the profile may need to be slightly re-shaped, and the nut polished again). As part of the final pass – each of the nut slots is checked over and carefully cleaned with fine grit paper. The contact point needs to be stable and smooth. It’s better to gently polish it, than risk using anything too abrasive, (and which might cut deeper than required). A final drop of silicone nut lubricant doesn’t go amis either. Once the nut is finished and checked – a new set of strings can be installed, stretched out and brought to tune.

Newly installed neck – ready for setup

There’s no doubt about it. This Fender neck completes the Dragoncaster in a way which the HOSCO neck just couldn’t match. In some ways that’s down to the finish which I applied on the original. It just probably wasn’t really up to scratch – but it’s also partly down to the dark tone of that Fender rosewood. Now I just need to dial in the perfect action – which will hopefully bring the guitar to life.

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