Building a One-Piece Stratocaster Neck (Part 8)

I got the neck finished up this weekend, and have been enjoying playing it for the last couple of hours. In the last installment of this project, I will cover the finishing basics.

For the neck’s finish, I use a nitrocellulose lacquer. There are quite a few different formulas, and having tried most of them, I like Behlen’s Qualalacq the best. It flows out nicely, dries really hard, and will amber and check over time just like the lacquers used in the 50s and 60s. Behlen’s also makes a stringed instrument lacquer, but this has a lot of plasticizer in it, so it never truly hardens like the Qualalacq does. On maple necks, I skip using sand and sealer (I use two coats on bodies), and go straight to lacquer. I put on two coats of clear, then one coat of amber/brown shaded lacquer. To make the lacquer shader, I use the “vintage amber” and “medium brown.” “Vintage Amber” alone makes the neck too amber for the fender look (although I like the look on its own aesthetic merit). For one 8-ounce cup of lacquer, I add 8 drops of amber, and 4 drops of brown. Here is a shot on the neck with clear lacquer:


Here is a shot after the amber coat:

Once the amber coat goes on, I do 6 more coats of lacquer to get some build. I wait 1 1/2hrs between coats. It is worth noting that all the coats until this point have been thinned 1-1 with Behlen’s lacquer thinner. After the build coats, I let the neck dry overnight. The next day, I wipe sand the neck with 400-grit sandpaper. Although it feels like I have put on a bunch of lacquer at this point, it is important to remember that the lacquer shrinks a lot when it dries. In reality, the lacquer is still very thin, and sanding through is a real danger. At this point, I am not trying to level the finish, but just smooth it out a bit.

While I have been finishing the neck, I have also been adding the final clear coats to the guitar’s body. Here is a quick shot of it:

After the 400-grit level sanding, I do 5 more coats of 1-1 lacquer-thinner. At this point, I also start to prep the logo decals. These too will get some lacquer before they go onto the guitar. One coat will be ambered to replicate the natural aging that decals undergo.

I do want to take a moment to address the issue of copyright and trademark infringement involved with using fender decals when clearly, this is not a “fender” neck. I typically use my own decals for my own work (why put someone else’s name on my work). Technically, the headstock is also a trademarked design of Fender guitars. My aim with this project was to create a replica (although not beaten to heck) of Clapton’s famous black stratocaster. In the spirit of this project, I wanted to use the correct decal for the guitar. I have no intention of, nor ever would sell a neck with a trademarked design or copyrighted logo (by the way, I do not sell any guitars or guitar parts; this is just my hobby, but thanks to those readers who asked, I take it as the highest compliment). This guitar is for my own personal enjoyment. 

That aside, I then cut out the logos (I always do two, since invariably, I will find a way to tear one. I did in this case, so the precaution was warranted.) I used my custom shop strat as a guide for the shape.

Before I put the decal on, I do the final sanding of the neck. I start with 800-grit “P-scale” paper, and go all the way up to 2000-grit. I use a pink eraser as a sanding block to keep level, even pressure, and prevent sand throughs. Even at this point, the lacquer is still very thin, so be vigilant for sanding through. I keep the sandpaper lubricated with water and a drop of dish soap. Be careful with the water around the frets and any holes (the tuner holes mostly, but the neck screw holes too if you do those before this point). The water can get into the wood and cause it to expand, in turn, causing the finish to crack.

The frets are a pain, but I just go slowly by hand:

Once the whole neck has been sanded to 2000-grit, I add the decal. About an hour before I apply the decal, I shoot it with some lacquer retarder. This softens it up a little, and prevents it from cracking when the backing paper comes off. I dip the decal into warm water for 30 seconds, then apply it to the headstock.

I let everything get aquatinted overnight, then the next day I shoot a flash coat of lacquer. This lacquer is thinned 4-1 thinner to lacquer. All it is doing is melting any sanding scratches, and putting a nice sheen on everything.

After 10 days, I buff the finish starting with a medium compound, followed by fine compound, swirl remover, then guitar polish. On the neck, I do all the buffing by hand.

After the neck has been buffed out, I start with the tuners. Stewmac sells a nifty tuner bushing reamer that makes the bushing installation easier. These are great if you get the right size for your bushing, but I have found that bushing size can be inconsistent between different brands of kluson-style 11/32″ tuners.

A quick and dirty way to line up the tuners for screw drilling is just to use a straightedge, then drill.

After I get the tuners on, I turn to the frets. I don’t plan on going into detail on the fret dressing, that is an entire series in itself. One helpful trick is to use a black sharpie to mark the tops of the frets. This lets you see where you have exposed fresh flat during the leveling process. If the board was leveled well before the frets were installed, and the frets were properly seated, there shouldn’t be too much leveling needed, then it’s on to the nut.

As you can see, the neck has been attached to the body at this point.

I mark the nut slots, and rough them out. I then use the strings and a feeler gauge to get the nut height and slot depth to my liking.

The last step is to install the string tee for the B and E strings. I like the circular tees.

All that is left to do now is finish assembling and wiring the guitar, and enjoy playing it. I am going to make a few changes to the guitar to get it a little closer to “Blackie” (unreliced) (for starters I am going to make a new pickguard. This was a headache I had hoped to avoid, but the white one I bought pre-made is blindingly white! I’ve got some nicer off white plastic that I made some esquire pickguards out of (see the shot of the esquire I made earlier this month below)). Once I get all that done, I will take a few more shots and post them on the blog, perhaps with some soundclips. This guitar sounds really nice, and I am very happy with it.

Thanks to everyone who has followed this project. I plan on doing some more in December. At the moment, I am considering tackling another Les Paul. Stay tuned.

The final specs on this guitar are as follows.

21 fret curly maple neck

1 piece Korina body

Callaham bridge and trem assembly

Don Mare “Super Sport” pickups w/ Callaham bridge plate

5-way pickup selector switch, 1-vol, 1-tone, 1-blender pot.

One a side note, I have started using these Sprague capacitors in all my guitars. At $1 a piece, they are really cheap (in comparison to Hovlands, etc), and to my ears have a much nicer sound. They are really throaty sounding, and give usable tones even with the tone control on “0.”


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