The best part of the big picture is attending to the details that make it up. I want a guitar that works on many levels, so apart from having a great theme that is cohesive and focused I want the details to stand up too.
To make a truss rod cover, I fly cut some ebony to .040″ and laminate it to a sheet of ivoroid cellulose. The next step is to trace my shape with a pencil and rough cut the blank with an inlay saw and the dremel. After I get close enough, it’s just a matter of hand sanding with small blocks to achieve the final shape. Lastly, I drill the mounting holes.
Although I liked the finished shape, I wanted to integrate the look with the rest of the guitar. Sakura’s headstock is ebony over cherry red, so I used the same cherry lacquer to pinstripe the ivoroid.
The next detail was to slot the string nut. There are many ways to choose the string spacing on a guitar. None are best, but they all feel slightly different. I like to keep the spaces between the strings uniform as opposed to the center to center dimension. I recently wrote about this in my monthly Premier Guitar column
I generally use genuine ivory for string nuts—I love the color and texture. However, the Sakura is a Japanese theme so I chose oxen bone. The final touch is to sand the bone down to 1500 grit and then polish with a small buff and compound. The bone polishes up nicely and looks good against the lower gloss lacquer. Now it’s just a matter of oiling the board and stting up the guitar.
It doesn’t matter what day it is—sometimes I just like to be in the Workshop. The Sakura was starting to shape up, so I elected to continue working. I’m the boss anyway. Over the previous two days I’d been focusing on the detail work, like rebuilding and aging the Kluson tuners.
Using a combination of heat, solvent and dyes, the appearance of the buttons was now exactly what I wanted. All of the mold marks on the plastic and metal have been removed by sanding. This gives the tuners a friendly feel with a look that invites you to touch them. The color is beautiful and warm.
Up next was the elecrical wiring. I installed the polished CTS pots from my stash of NOS parts. The switch is a refurbished 1950s CRL 3-way which I rescued from an old switchboard panel. You can identify its age by the brown phenolic wafer and the two patent numbers stamped on the frame. I also utilized the original ’50s straight-slot screws to mount it. From my supply of vintage Western Electric cloth-covered wire, I chose a length of yellow wire with a nice patina on it. The tone cap is a Jensen-made, oil filled from Steve at Angela. For the ground wire to the output I chose a small length of Western Electric multi-color—also cloth insulated.
I like to use the Switchcraft stereo jack. The extra prong holds the plug in better and provides a more secure ground. I also use a dab of red Loctite threadlock on the threads to reduce the chance of the jack coming adrift from vibation. The hot lead is a black, cloth covered wire with a bit of shrink wrap to eliminate the possibility of a short from wear or vibration over the life of the instrument.
After all the wiring is complete and the engraved front plate is secured, I attached the bridge to get a look at the guitar. Then it was time to attach the back plate.
Here, I’m fastening down the rear plate using stainless steel screws. After waiting almost nine months for the engraving to be finished, this was an exciting moment for me. I had to conciously tell myself to breathe as I worked.
As long as the weekend was on a roll, I decided to do the cleanup cut on the perimiter of Hell’s Half Acre. Using a hand-cut birch plywood template, the overarm router is used to cut the final shape after roughing out with a .750” bit. I use a .500″ carbide downspiral bit to make the final pass to eliminate any cutter marks. The pickup routs and switch access are done at the same time. The neck joint is undersize and won’t be finalized until moments before the neck is fitted. This eliminates any problems with wood movement and ensures a perfect fit.
Not bad for a cloudy weekend. But now it’s a sunny and bright Monday. Maybe I’ll go for a walk in the woods with the dog.
With the Sakura finish having cured for fourteen days, it’s time to pull the fingerboard mask and do the detail work. I begin by making an incision across the bottom of the string nut with an Exacto knife. Then, using 600 grit sandpaper on a rubber block, I sand the edge of the board—cutting through the lacquer to the wood and frets. This allows me to gently remove the masking tape without shattering the lacquer on the sides of the neck. The next step is to go over every milimeter of the fingerboard edge with the knife. This cleans the edge and bevels it for a smooth feel.
I decided to put some of the masking into the Sakura’s journal—I like the way it looks. It’s an interesting artifact of the build and is a perfect companion to the previous page with the color tests. The label is included as wel—the number is a reference to the finished weight of the guitar without hardware.
There are a lot of little details that need attending to before Sakura can be assembled. One thing I like to do is to polish the potentiometer casings. It doesn’t make the guitar sound any different, but it makes me happy to think that if someone ever opens up the guitar, they’ll enjoy what they see.
Using techniques that I’ve learned from years of art training, I age the plastic with heat and dyes. This brings out the swirl of the plastic in the button and gives it a warmth that beckons you to touch it.
The next step is to pre-wire the electronics and mount everything on the engraved front plate for fitting on the guitar. It won’t be long now.
The Sakura’s engraved steel plates interact with the magnetic field of the pickups. This made it essential to do on-guitar ear testing with mockup parts prior to picking the final configuration. I’ve chosen the set from about ten different possibiliteis based upon my taste, but knowing full well that this guitar is going to sound unique because of its construction parameters. The most satisfying sound came from a set that Seymour wound for me in his pickup man-cave in Santa Barbara. Shimmering highs, with a strong midrange wallop—these gave the guitar a huge presence for big Stonsey chords.
With that part of the build process completed, it was time to assemble the finished engraved pickup set.
The first step was to remove the mockup covers. and then replace them with the final brushed nickel and engraved versions. I’m always careful not to distress the parts while handling, but I also like to leave some evidence that an actual human built the guitar.
No guitar that I make is ever perfect, and that’s what makes them perfect.
With that job done, I turned to the process of shielding the control cavity. I previously used a shield paint made in Belgium that did an excellent job, but electronis genius John Grail turned me on to an American-made nickel-based paint that is used by military electronics makers to isolate computer and communication rooms. I procured a small amount and thinned it enough to go through my touch up gun.
This stuff goes on like rice pudding but dries to a nice silver layer and the conductivity is off the scale. I’m thinking of painting my house with it to avoid Z-Ray exposure and unwanted cell-phone calls. Enjoy your weekend!
It’s now time to apply the final lacquer coat to the Sakura, which means a final fit test is in order. This procedure allows me to check all the clearances and alignments of the hardware without the danger of damaging the final finish. I also don’t want to compromise the engraved pieces. These parts took nine months to be engraved by hand, and I absolutely want everything to fit.
Everything seems to fit fine with just the right amount of clearance for the last thin coat. I’ve decided to go with a lower gloss vintage style nitro to alow the brilliance of the metalwork to come forward visually. This will be achieved by adding a flattening additive to the nitrocellulose lacquer before spraying.
Every time I unwrap the engraved parts they bowl me over with their fabulous detail. I only wish that these photos could reveal the depth of the work that is visible in person.
The cherry blossom petals are adorned with real rose gold and the leaves are green gold. At the very top of the picture a 24k yellow gold sun rises through the clouds. The entire plate background is finished in brushed nickel.
Now it’s time to get into the paint room and get on with the program.