(Versión en español aquí)
Recently I was given the task of building a guitar for Todo Música Latinoamérica, an online retailer who sells guitar parts and luthiery tools.
The idea was to assemble a guitar to showcase some of the best parts available in their catalog. True to his vintage tastes, Pedro Salas, CEO of Todo Música chose a Telecaster-like one. He chose the following parts from his “stash”:
Swamp Ash body
One-piece maple neck with Jumbo frets and clear lacquer finish.
Gotoh SD91-06M-MG Vintage Locking tuners.
Wilkinson WT3 bridge with three adjustable saddles.
All-Fender electronics with 3-position switch.
Electrosocket jack plate.
Fender vintage pickups.
White bone nut.
The Wilkinson bridge deserves a special mention. Hardcore Telecaster fans swear by the original three-saddle bridge, but that design makes good intonation almost impossible since every saddle has to serve two strings. The best option is to to have every string resting on its own saddle to be compensated correctly. This Wilkinson bridge offers a smart option: each saddle has a central pivot that can be locked in the correct position to ensure a better adjustment. While it certainly isn’t as easy to use as a six-saddle bridge, I was able to get a correct intonation with it, something that can’t be said about the vintage three-saddle design.
The Gotoh tuners are locking ones but they share the same shape and dimensions as the vintage Fenders, so there’s not a visual difference between these and the ones they replace. A really good design!
I chose to apply a tung oil finish to let the beauty of the wood speak for itself. I think most builders use thick polyurethane finishes to hide imperfections, but the swamp ash of this body was so good I wanted players to feel its texture.
I also wanted to try a “greener” method to paint the wood. Instead of using common wood tints, I applied vegetable tints right over the body. Once I had it painted I applied several coats of tung oil and a final one of beeswax. This body is not only protected against mold and bacteria, but VOC-free and also allergens-free as well!
To showcase the possibilities of these tints, I decided to paint the front in yellow and give the sides and back a reddish hue. I did the yellow tone with Turmeric powder, and it gave such a bold shade with the first coat that I just had to apply it once!
I painted over the yellow part with a mix of tea with a little vinegar, applied with steel wool. This somewhat unorthodox method is used to create and “aged” finish, which gave the front a more subdued, elegant charm. (The turmeric yellow was too intense!)
I did the reddish sides and back with a mix of Hibiscus, Cocoa, and Coffee. The reason I did this mix was to get away from the bright red of the Hibiscus, since I wanted a more subtle effect. I managed to get a Mahogany-like hue, and diluted it to have a better control over the final result: I could get a more intense color by applying several coats, but if the tint was too strong there wouldn’t be an easy way to tame it down!
I did the transition from red to yellow right over the rounded part, to get away from the typical “burst” finish over the front, and was very proud of the subtle transition from one tone to the other: it goes unnoticed unless you get really close to it.
After the coloring procedures I applied a few coats of tung oil over several weeks (it’s best to leave each coat to polimerize for a fews days each) and finished it all with hand-rubbed beeswax to repel water. The results were excellent: a very smooth texture with a soft natural shine. The front color looks similar to vintage amber and the sides and back look like mahogany or moka coffee depending of the lighting.
Once the finish process was completed, I did a full shielding job that included the pickup cavities and the back of the pickguard. These vintage-like pickups sound sweet, but they can be noisy! A good shielding from electromagnetic hum is a must on any contemporary guitar.
Once the electronics were installed, I did the setup the way I prefer: with the lowest possible action. It’s easy to raise the action from its minimum, but the opposite is not. The last part of the process was to file and polish the nut to a mirror-like shine with my trusty Dremel tool.
The use of vegetable-based tints comes from ancient traditions, long forgotten since the advent of cheaper synthetic dyes in the 19th century. But now we are facing a future full of new health and enviromental issues. Being able to do a guitar finish with non-polluting, allergen-free products is another step in the right direction; or at least to an era where the best practices might as well be the same ones employed by our pre-industrial ancestors.
I’d like to thank Pedro Salas from Todo Música Latinoamérica for his patience and total trust in my abilities, Kris De Decker for his inspiration to search for ancient alternatives to modern technology, and Anthony Murkar, Steve Ramsey, and the Colorful Canary blog for sharing their knowledge with the world.
I have to say I have no affiliations with the trademarks mentioned in this article. Their names have been used here only for informative purposes.