Gold leafed hardtail Stratocaster. Fitting the scratchplate – Straight.

The first test-fit of the scratchplate is straightforward enough. I’ve decided to go with a reliced, mint green scratchplate – custom made for me by Elina at Guitar Garage. I had this plate made for another project, which has become a bit bogged down, but I think it will be ideal for this build. The plate is a genuine Fender, 3-ply, 11 hole plate, (Fender parts number 099-2144-000), which has been sympathetically “aged”. Parts of the plate appear to have been rubbed-back and “distressed” with wire wool, and the edges have been toned with what looks like a subtle yellow/amber tint. I was originally planning to use a single ply, white plate on this build – but I really like the look of the mint green against the fake gold. Also, the way the amber toning picks up with the general gold colouration, and the amber of the neck. There’s also something about the look of an “aged” plate against a highly reflective and polished body.

Test-fitting the scratchplate

The plate comes supplied with a set of suitably matching accessories – volume and tone knobs, pickup covers and backplate – but I think I’ll save those for another job. I have a set of Fender Vintage Noiseless Pickups which I want to squeeze into this build, and they come with their own, cream cloured, covers. It would be good to get the hardware to match with them. Besides – the distressed knobs look, perhaps, a little too rough and authentic.

But for a test fit – I can temporarily fit the distressed covers, and then lay the plate in place to see how it looks. Immediately – it’s pretty clear that the bridge is slightly out of line. I hadn’t noticed before, but things like this really become noticeable when viewed in-relation to other elements or components. I don’t think the bridge pilot holes were originally badly drilled or wrongly positioned. Nor do I think I’ve drilled them out of line. The problem is likely to be down to that three screw attachment. It’s just so easy to get one of the outer screws to “pull” slightly more in one direction. As the plate rotates around the central screw, then the screw on the other side is pulled out of line also. Ultimately, even the slight deflection caused as the screws push into their countersinks can be enough to mis-align the plate. Looking at it closely – it looks like the top bridge screw is pulling the bridge backwards as the screw has tapped and bedded down. It’s probably no more than a millimeter or two out, but it’s enough to pull the whole bridge out of line.

In severe cases – where holes are badly drilled out, or are badly positioned in the first place – the best thing to do is to fill and re-drill. However, if a new hole is to be drilled very close to the course of an old one – there’s a very real possibility that, unless the filler is solid, and of a similar density to the original wood – the drill will be pulled off course along the route of the old screw hole. This hole is probably pulling the screw a millimetre or so out of line. Re-drilling is therefore probably going to be difficult. In cases like this – I find the best thing to do is to repack the hole slightly, and let the screws do the work.

For re-packing – I use a wood which is harder than the body wood. (If I was going to re-drill completely – I might tend to use a softer wood, or a wood filler, to plug the hole first). To re-pack, I usually use those bamboo skewers you get for barbecues. The ends are already pointed, and you can easily whittle them down to the required thickness along the grain. The sharp end goes into the screwhole with a dab of wood glue, and the excess is neatly trimmed off. The screw can then be driven in again, using the bamboo packing to push the screw slightly to one side of the original hole. The bamboo seems to be harder than the alder, and so the screw tends to recut it’s path on the unpacked side. Because the packing is inserted straight down the original hole – the screw tends to re-tap itself straight and true.

I end up re-packing the top screw hole with a thin sliver, (about 1.5mm – roughly three-quarters of a skewer’s diameter), of bamboo. I relocate the bridge, and screw down the central screw until it’s down in it’s countersink – but not quite biting. This leaves just enough room for the plate to rotate. Then, the two outer screws are tightened down a little at a time, until the screw heads slot into the countersinks, and the plate is pulled into place. This time, the top screw doesn’t pull the bridge off-line, and the fit appears to be square-on when the scratchplate is test-fitted again. Finally, all three screws are fully tightened down – I can get back on track.

Fender Vintage Noiseless Pickups

The Fender Vintage Noiseless pickup set I’m using, comes with all I need to wire up a Stratocaster, (bar the actual circuit wire). Fender’s Noiseless pickups, once the pickups of choice for Eric Clapton, are a strange beast. Whilst they look like Single coils, and may look like original Vintage pickups – they are, in fact, a sort of humbucker. Instead of single coils of copper wire, wrapped around magnetic poles – there are actually two stacked coils with the effects opposed. This cancels out the usual background, circuit “hum”. The pickups are supposedly voiced to reproduce the chimey tones of vintage single-coils, wheras their humbucker build might tend to provide more meat in the mid-range.

Two, stacked copper coils. These Noiseless pickups come as sealed units.

Stacking two coils, one on tiop of the other, has two critical effects. Firstly, the pickups are more powerful, (more copper turns), and will require a slightly different arrangement of pots and capacitors to keep the tone in character. Secondly, and more crucially for me right now – the pickups appear to be deeper in dimension than your average, run of the mill, single-coil. I need to check they’ll actually fit into the body routs.

Pickups fitted. Note colour coding to identify neck, middle, bridge.

The pickups are fitted to the scratchplate using the screws and rubbers provided. Received wisdom seems to suggest that Noiseless pickups perform best when they’re sat low in their mounts, and so I only tighten the screws just enough to raise the tops of the covers above the level of the plate. I tidy the connecting wires with some lengths of (unshrunk) shrink-tubing, and then poke the tail ends out through one of the pot holes. I can now test-fit the plate with the pickups in place.

Too tight a fit

Immediately – I can feel that something isn’t quite right. The plate fits – but it takes a bit of wriggling and flexing the plate to get it into position. Whilst the neck and middle pickups seem to bed right down normally – the back of the plate seems a little reluctant to sit down. It’ll go – but it needs a little encouragement – and even then, the line of the plate tends to push downwards, slightly towards the jack plate. I take the plate off again, and I can immediately see what’s happening.

The upper rubber on the bridge pickup is deformed enough to stick out slightly, and rub against the side of the cut-out. This is pushing the plate round slightly. Additionally – the bobbin of the bridge pickup itself, is slightly binding against the back of the rout. It’s actually pulled off a little of the copper foil lining, as it’s been pushed down. Not good. Nothing for it – it’s Dremel time.

Slightly re-shaping the bridge pickup rout

I decide that it’s safer to take the bridge off again first – so that’s a bit of extra faff – but it doesn’t take too long to work away a couple of millimeters of meat from the back of the bridge rout. I use a small cylindrical burr, and just pare away a little at a time. The pickup will slot into place – so all I need to do, is create just enough clearance. I think I manage to get it all reasonably square and straight – but it won’t hurt much if there’s a little bit extra taken off, right down at the bottom of the rout. At least the burr leaves the sides of the modification nice and smooth. There’s no need to sand anything down. All the edges and surfaces are smooth.

You’d never know…

After checking the fit of the plate again – I can see, and feel, that I’ve removed enough. Once I’ve cleaned out all the debris, cleaned and re-polished the body, I re-line the bridge pickup rout with copper foil to restore the grounding and shielding continuity. Again – everything is well burnished down. Now that the scratchplate position is confirmed – I can drill and tap the attachment screws, and fit the plate properly for the first time.

Fitting the scratchplate centrally, around the bridge

The plate sits where it wants to. I just need to check the fit around the neck, and down at the bridge. Around the neck – there’s just enough play to avoid the plate binding, or scratching the neck as it’s fitted, or taken off. Around the bridge – I need to ensure that the plate sits centrally, with an even spacing at both sides. Then, with the bridge held firmly in position – I can mark off the centres of the two critical screws, on either side of the bridge plate.

Marking the screw centres

Drilling through new nitro finishes used to fill me with dread. Perhaps I used to spray much thicker coats, and I’ve become more adept at getting the finishes thinner – but I always dreaded chipping or flaking the pristine, polished finish, as I drilled through it. The secret – I discovered – was to mark and countersink the hole position first, by running a drill counter-clockwise to cut and burr away a slightly oversized countersink through the finish. As long as the bit is sharp, (and I use a sharp HSS bit for the purpose) – turning it counter-clockwise seems to stop the bit from lifting the finish as it wears it’s way through. When I’m fitting scratchplates – I use a “countersink” bit, (which is just a normal drill bit), but one that is the same size as the actual pre-drilled screwhole in the plate. This helps physically centre the bit within the hole, marks the centre, and simutaneously scratches out a slight countersink.

I only have to erode a slight indentation through the actual finish – just down through the thin finish, to the wood body. Since the countersink is slightly oversized – enough to take the finish away from the edges of the screw threads – once I screw the plate down, the screws shouldn’t bite into the nitro, and therefore shouldn’t lift it. That’s the theory anyway. It seems to work for me and, as I say, it’s helped me get much more confident about the whole rigmarole of drilling through nitro.

Countersunk hole after drilling

Once the screw positions are marked, I drill them out to the correct depth. The point of the countersink drill helps to set the drill off in exactly the right place – all I have to do is keep the drill vertical. Once the holes to either side of the bridge are sunk, it helps to fix the plate down using those two screws, and then to work around the plate – knowing that the plate is firmly held, and in the correct position. With each additional screw marked, tapped and sunk – the plate is gradually fixed down flat. Since the screw centres are accurately marked by the “countersink” bit – there’s less of a tendency for screws to go in off-line. The screws drive down straight, and engage the countersinks in the scratchplate much better. It’s a minor detail – but a plate always looks way better, if all of the screws sit straight and true within their countersinks.

Once all of the holes are drilled – I like to take the plate off once more, and double check each of the “countersinks” through the finish. Sometimes they can do with a little tidying up, and a larger, sharp, HSS bit can be used to freshen up the edges, and ensure that the screw threads are running well away from the thin finish.

Copper “lugs” to complete the shielding

The Fender scratchplate comes with a partial, thin, aluminium foil backing. This is intended to act as an electromagnetic shield and, ideally, should be in contact with my own copper foil shielding measures. Once I wire up the scratchplate, I’ll be using a thicker aluminium shield over the controls – but this too, will need to be in close physical contact with some of my grounding copper foil. To create a good connection, I run a few additional tabs of copper foil up and over the edges of the control rout, so that the aluminium shield will come into contact there – all firmly held down in position by a couple of the scratchplate screws. That will create a complete “Faraday cage” effect around the pickups, wiring and controls. With the Noiseless pickups already taking care of much of the usual background hum – the aditional shielding will, hopefully, make this an extremely quiet Stratocaster. Now, I need to take a look at the wiring – and what I want this guitar to actually sound like.

Gold hardtail Stratocaster. Fitted neck, hardware, scratchplate and Noiseless pickups

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