Some time ago, back in the immediately post-highschool days of L.I.E. ,playing shows, living with our folks, and working jobs only slightly more dead end than our current ones, Tim and I decided to work over his first guitar, a Kramer Stratocaster. The year was 2004, and what follows is a story of ambition, carelessness, and eventual victory.
What had started as Sam’s Club Top-Of-The-Line player’s pack with amplifier included for $200, was to get a makeover and a tuneup. The truss rod had broken, the pickguard was pretty wore out and the pickups were long gone. The original sunburst finish on the body had been covered with duct tape, we were going to bring it up to playable level again with some style to boot. A new neck was ordered from RondoMusic.com for a very low price, and a new pickguard was fabricated in my basement out of a piece of aluminum skid plate. Tim had a humbucking pickup from another guitar that had been replaced by a Seymour Duncan, and we decided that it would be a weekend’s work to sand this puppy down and slap some gunmetal gray paint on there.
With our intentions good, our skills adequate, and our attention to detail…wrapped up in a LOT of things, we first cut the new pickguard out of a 12″ x 12″ piece of diamond plate we found at the hardware store. After going after the aluminum on the bandsaw in my folks’ basement (this was, and still is, a terrible idea, though it did eventually get through the thing and neither of us got hurt) we filed and sanded the finer details and drilled some holes to screw it to the body.
Speaking of the body, this was the largest part of the task. A lot of the details of this whole job are a little fuzzy to me, it’s been a long time and I feel like we went through it pretty quickly. I do know that we had a heck of a time sanding the original enamel off of the body and on the more curvy areas like the horns, we attacked fiercely with whatever implement we could get in there (a variety of drill-based sanding attachments, dremel accessories, etc.) And once we got enought of the original finish off, we said fuck it, and sprayed the bitch down. After stenciling on the name of our then-upcoming CD, we completed the finish with some brush on lacquer and bolted it all back together.
Things started going a little sideways at this point. The bushings for the tuning pegs didn’t fit in the new neck; they were too small. The pickup wasn’t aligned quite perfectly, and our decision to run the pickup STRAIGHT to the jack resulted in a ridiculously noisy signal.
We pulled the strings and pickup off and went on to other things. Tim told me to go ahead and hold onto it until we got it fixed.
Seven Years Later
So this unplayable shell of a guitar sat in storage. 5 different houses, 4 different cities, 3 different counties, and 200 miles of overall distance between points. Mostly hanging out, completely forgotten, in corners and closets of wherever I (and eventually my wife) ended up living.
Until not long ago. During a podcast the topic was brought up where I had mentioned this beast of a guitar, and then, like now, I was pretty keen on its shortcomings. We lamented upon it’s awful state and I assured Tim that we’d make it well once again. Not too long after this I decided to pull it out of one of the spare rooms and give it a closer eye to assess what was needed.
The ‘lacquer’ we had used yellowed almost instantly, causing the pretty cool bluish gray to turn into a very off-putting sickly greenish tone. The bridge and tremolo setup were, for some reason still unknown to Tim and I, left on during the entire refinishing process. While they were free of paint, they certainly got their share of orange lacquer-ey shit smeared across all the fiddly bits. The gouges about the horns screamed like tortured souls in Dante’s Xanga, and the sanding was so rough and uneven that open grained pores were everywhere.
That night, in early April of this year, I took a screwdriver and pulled the whole goddamned thing apart.
For the musicians amongst our viewership that are the type to keep their instrument as pristine as possible, only pulling it out of its humidity controlled case to give it a polishing, only having strings changed by a respected luthier, and who have never broken a string, cable, saddle, speaker, or strap, you really shouldn’t view the next couple dozen pictures. You’ll hate us and probably have a heart attack and die. And to be perfectly honest, the thought of someone hating me immediately before their death creeps me out something fierce. To the rest of us regular musicians who like to care for and still use the heck out of our instruments, well, I’m warning you too. This shit is bananas.
Once everything was apart and had gone through triage, the painstaking process of revitalizing began with the first and more difficult step; undoing the evils.
The Lacquer started peeling after I made a template cut (seen upper right) for a route I’d planned to set a pick holder in. The yellow plasticky shit started peeling off in sheets and I had 95% of it off in about 15 minutes worth of work using my hands and fingers.
First things first, I went at the body with the power sander and 150 grit paper, which is pretty high for removal work however I wanted to make sure this was done as gently as possible as we learned our mistakes from using the 60 grit drums on a dremel.
The higher grit stuff took a little bit longer but it wasn’t but a short couple of hours before I had the body naked again.
In the above picture you will notice that there is a distinct color difference in areas- the body was sealed with a pretty thick coat of sanding sealer that come to find out we never quite got rid of. This was still to be removed as it was pretty uneven at this point. Also in the lower horn you’ll see the start of another little modification I wanted to try on this project, a contour for better upper fret access. It was also at this stage that I paid specific attention to many of the marks, dings, gouges, and other crevices all about the body and sanded them down as much as possible. I was relieved to see the vast majority of them disappear after some time and elbow grease, although some of the ones towards the edges caused me to have to fudge the roundovers a little bit.
The replacement neck from Rondomusic (an SX Brand neck that is maple/rosewood) came to us years ago coated very thickly with the cheap “vintage” amber clearcoat. This is usually done to give the finish the appearance of being a lot older than it is, which is idiotic to me because it’s the least favorable aspect of an older finish and meanwhile you’re getting NONE of the benefits that come with age. Therefore, it too will be sanded down, the face of the headstock painted to match the body, and the rest of the wood finished with Boiled Linseed Oil.
While outside in the midst of furious sanding and getting burnt to a crisp in the sun, I decided to go ahead and make the route for a pick holder. Tim and I are huge fans of these (he got me started on them, and we both wear one on every instrument) and it occurred to me when I got ahold of a router, that A) I could route anything I wanted, and B) A flush pick holder falls under “anything I wanted.” After making some light practice routes (you can see on my plywood levelling piece in the lower left) I went at it with a straight cut bit in my dad’s old router. Going slowly and being especially mindful of the edges of my outline, I took about 1/16th of an inch of depth with each pass, until the pick holder was flush.
Turns out my little 1/8″ bit wasn’t quite deep enough once we were just about to desired depth, most specifically around the edges, so those were cleaned up with some chisels.
That was “Day 1” of the outside work. Day 2 got more productive.
Starting with the body more or less naked and the neck well underway, I decided to wipe off the hardware and get it ready to be refinished. The original hardware is your standard chrome plated stuff that is far and wide the majority of what’s used on guitars and basses today, especially the cheap ones. I’m not sure how many people agree with me, but I really find it tacky most of the time. Also, since a lot of it had seen some abuse, there was no bringing the ‘chrome’ back to its original luster. Above you’ll see the setup I used for cleaning the pegheads. Chuck them into a hand drill, hit them with sandpaper and then a scotch brite pad until the gunk and original finish was off.
The chrome was a real bitch to get through on most of the larger pieces, especially the bridge and jackplates. After a Dremel, a wire wheel on a bench grinder, and finally a pneumatic buffer, we got the bridge plate down to this.
Eventually all the parts got cleaned and most of them got the original chrome removed if not at least scored enough for paint to stick. Turns out part of the tuners are plastic with some sort of chrome finish, so it took about 3 seconds on a wire wheel to decide not to go much further than that, and other bits were just a pain in the ass to get to sit still for chrome removal.
As you can probably guess, I decided to go with black for the hardware. The metal bits got the first spraying of this whole project and came out nicely. They got two coats of satin black followed by satin clear
With the hardware tended to and curing, focus shifted back to the body and neck. I’d managed to get the face of the headstock sanded down smooth, enough to tape off the neck and apply a coat of Primer as well as the very first coat of principle color
Of course I was greeted with only a mild heart attack when the red color I chose came out much brighter than desired.
Remember that sanding sealer I mentioned about 30 paragraphs up? This is how we finally got through it. Slowly, and carefully…
With the body done, ready for primer!
Oh cool, I DID get a picture of the headstock still with primer on it!
After the paint dried for a couple of hours I brought the pieces inside.
Anyhow, With the first coats of paint now reaching the guitar, it’s safe to say that the un-fucking process is fairly well seen through. In the next update, we’ll see the stratocaster out of the dark times and reassembled to live once again and undoubtedly better as before. So be sure to stay tuned, there’s much more amateur and heavy-handed “lutherie” that can’t be missed!