Sia's Vintage Guitars
Wabi-Sabi Series: The xCaster Proto
The idea of someone like me (with zero woodworking experience) being able to turn planks of wood into an actual functioning guitar seemed absurd. Then I came across this fantastic tutorial (link), which made me think it might be possible. I had to give it a shot! The build started off with clear direction. I wanted to make a plain old vintage-spec Surf Blue Esquire. But, I was thrown off course during the 18 month build journey thanks to overambitious design plans coupled with very limited knowledge, skills, raw materials, and tooling...
The build was almost 100% hand tools. I took 2 days just to carve out the body with a saw, chisel and rather terrible file. The neck truss rod channel took 5 hours of chisel work, and the maple fretboard radius work took as much time. The hardest part was making the neck pocket with just a drill machine and then chisel. I am too embarrassed to reveal precisely how many total hours I invested on this first iteration!
The project was completed within 3 months, just as the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down came to an end here in Mumbai, India. I was rather shocked by and quite pleased with the end result...
But my pride was short lived! I could see mistakes everywhere. The intonation was way off, the neck was not straight, the fret slots were not evenly spaced or straight, the body contouring was not appropriate, the wood stain was too pale, etc. I decided to give up. I put the guitar aside, but this failure was eating away my peace of mind. After a break of 4-5 months, I decided to make things right. I would need to adapt my original design plans if I wished to resolve all the issues. I would need to adjust the bridge position dramatically, re-do the neck pocket, and make a new neck, among other smaller corrections. This time around, I invested in tooling like a palm router, hand jig saw, shinto rasp, fret saw, neck template, etc. But, most importantly, I purchased properly dried and levelled wood for the neck and fretboard from Europe. I was all set to complete the job but I was derailed repeatedly by over ambitious plans. Instead of just making a simple but precisely crafted neck, I tried more complex designs. I tried doing a bound neck. Flop! Then I tried a compound radius with extensive mother-of-pearl inlay design. Flop! I had now wasted all the material I had for two necks. I gave up. Then, 6 months later, I decided to rework one of the necks. This time, I kept it simple. Success!
This poor guitar went through more cycles of iteration than any musical instrument should endure! I decided to celebrate the scars it had collected through the process, rather than hiding them apologetically. This idea fit well with my original theme of Wabi-Sabi (侘寂), which I interpret as being a celebration of the reality that nothing is perfect and nothing lasts forever. This guitar has picked up dings, gouges, scratches, and markings from drilling/filling/re-drilling holes and removing/adding wood for patch up work. These scars paint a picture of my journey from knowing nothing about woodworking to eventually building a guitar that I am proud of. Also, I have intentionally stripped some of the paint work and protective coating off the screws, body, etc. to give the natural ageing process a head start. I have added some copper elements to the guitar because of their patina-prone properties, to make further visible the effects of time on the guitar. The idea was to make a guitar that seems to live and breathe, organically changing over time as it grows older.
Well, it's a Strat but also a Tele, depending on which angle you look at it from. I love the slabiness of the Tele body, its minimal two-pickup system, and its character-filled bridge pick up. But, at the same time, I like some of the contours of the Strat, and I prefer its headstock design. So, I mixed all these elements up! I also added some unique features of my own. Let's get into the details...
The Telecaster revolutionised solid body electric guitar design in the early 1950s. The body was essentially a rather modest slab of wood; minimalist; beautiful. Soon after it, came the Stratocaster with its modern, aggressive double cutout, and additional curves around the profile of the body. It was advertised as having a more “contoured” shape fitting the players body snugly. I kept the my favourite elements of both these classic designs - the single cutout of the Tele, but some of the Strat's curves for added comfort.
There is something about the simplicity of set up, and robustness of a hard tail bridge that really appeals to me. So, I designed the xCaster to have a string-through-body bridge. I opted for all-black hardware, and even painted the screws and springs black to make sure they blend in with the control plate and pick up covers. My aim was to let the pickguard and wood figuring keep all the spotlight.
The Ash was quite light in colour originally. I wanted a deeper tone. So, I stripped the surf blue paint off, mixed black stain into the wood filler and re-applied it. I was hoping that after sanding the filler would stay in and highlight the wood grain. This worked to some extend. But, the figuring really popped after I applied two coats of nitro-poly matte black spray (can) paint and then sanded it down for a relic look. I have applied light coats of the paint, as you can see. I want the wood to look like it can breathe. Finally, I sealed the body with a matte clear top coat spray. Why did I switch from surf blue to matte black? Because while making the neck I thought of the idea of inlaying it with extensive mother of pearl cutouts of "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" (link). This inlay was going to be the centre-piece of the guitar and so a matte black finish would just dull the body into the background. I failed with the neck though, and was left with a black guitar. So, I decided to just go with it! One of my many happy mistakes on this build.
The pickguard went through four iterations. Single ply black, triple ply mint green and black, aluminium, and finally 99% copper. The last attempt really really pulled the black body and brown neck together. But more importantly, it was a meaningful material given the theme of Wabi-Sabi. Copper starts to develop patina very quickly in my home because of the salty sea breeze in the city. This patina presents complex metallic tones and prismatic colours as it reflects light, changing ever so slightly on a day-to-day basis. It makes the guitar feel almost like it is alive! I must be honest though, copper was not in the plan. I originally thought that since I could not find a matte black pickguard anywhere (to match the body's matte look) why not spray over a copper guard and address pick up shielding too. But, on seeing the raw copper, I decided to use it as is. Because my guitar body was hand-tool made, without any templates, none of the pickguard templates / drawings or readymade samples would fit. So, I had to make one from scratch.
The body was made with three pieces of European Ash that I sourced locally. It was not light. So, I decided to get rid of some material by doing "smuggler" routing (link) under the pickguard. Even this was not enough. So, I took on a more drastic measure. I routed through the entire non-cutout (left) side at the top of the body! It helped with the weight but also added a very unique design element to the guitar. I am quite happy with the aesthetics of it. The guitar is now a manageable 4.5kg or 10lbs in total. A little heavier than the average Strat or Tele, but at the lighter end of the typical Les Paul. The added heft supports sustain, right ;) In any case, the guitar does not have straps because I sit and play at home, and so the weight is inconsequential to me.
Neck and Fretboard
The xCaster matches traditional Fender specs with a 25.5“ scale length. The neck is maple with an ebony fretboard. I stained the maple dark brown and then finished it with boiled linseed oil. I chose this particular oil finish to keep with the theme of being organic. The fact that the neck needs annual maintenance (oiling) makes it a more interactive build to me. As far as the neck profile is concerned, I was aiming to replicate the 1957 Fender dimensions. The xCaster measures about 0.98 inches at the first fret and 0.85 inches at the twelfth fret, with a soft V shape. I created a profile template with MDF to keep checking my work as I proceeded. The neck is probably the best part of the guitar, in my opinion. It attaches to the body with the help of a copper neck plate that I hand cut and shaped. I chose copper to aesthetically tie the back of the guitar with the front (copper pickguard and copper headstock name plate).
The fretboard radius is 9.5. All the vintage Fender designs in my collection are 7.25 radius and so I really wanted to explore a 9.5 radius. This is definitely a more comfortable radius for playing lead, in my opinion. I used vintage style small Fender frets that were pre-cut and radiused. I know they aren't as comfortable as the modern jumbo-style tall and broad frets but these look too ugly to me! I hammered the frets in, but also used a fret press to get that perfect fit. I made the press by fashioning a caul out of wood with a slot in which I glued a brass 9.5 insert. I placed the neck on a neck rest, and then using a screw F clamp I tightened the brass insert into the fret and applied super glue to both ends of the fret. Once dried, I went back and added ebony dust to the sides of the frets and glued and sanded them for a flush fit with the rest of the fretboard.
For the dot inlays, I sourced some clay dots because the tone best complemented the colour scheme of my guitar. I also liked the fact that the dots were actually made of clay - it felt like a more organic material to use keeping with the theme of Wabi-Sabi.
The truss rod on the xCaster is the Allen key type and is adjusted from the bottom of the fretboard. I made a slot in the body and pickguard, along with a custom length Allen key to be able to adjust it without removing the neck or pickguard. This enhances functionality for me tremendously because I find myself having to adjust the truss rod 2-3 times a year given the intense summers, humid monsoons, and dry winters in my city. I am always worried about stripping the holes in the neck. But, no more!
The xCaster headstock is based on a 60s Strat template. I prefer the idea of two string trees to guarantee an appropriate break angle. Unlike some builders, I do not find them ugly at all. The trees are made of TUSQ material so that I don't need to worry about corrosion, lubrication, and strings snagging and going out of tune. The nut is TUSQ too, for added durability and to support tuning. The tuners are Gotoh SG 381 model. They have a 1:16 gear ratio, with some pretty impressive technology to ensure smooth movement and strong locking.
There are two rather unique design elements on the headstock. First, I inlaid a strip of 2mm rosewood and stained it to be darker and match the fretboard. This move was in fact a cover up! I had messed up inlaying my logo into the maple fretboard and had given up on this neck because of it. Then it occurred to me that I could just route out the mistake and inlay a piece of rosewood as a design element that tied the fretboard to the headstock. I was quite happy with the result, especially after I successfully inlaid my logo in gold mother of pearl! The second unique design element is the copper plate with the name of the series. I did not want to put a boring waterslide decal. So, I decided to connect the body (via copper pickguard) to the head stock by using copper again. I had the series name laser etched on it and helped the inscription pop with some of Laskin's engraving filler. I made countersunk holes to house small brass screws, and hand cut the copper name plate and filed it to fit the curves on the headstock. I think the plate v/s decal or inlay adds some depth and dimension to the headstock.
I chose a Tele/Esquire bridge because I love the clean twang and aggressive distortion they can produce. This pickup is inspired by David Gilmour's 1955 Esquire. It is wound with period correct Heavy Enamel AWG42 wire, wrapped with 8 strand white cotton string, and has been wax potted. The pick up has a copper plated steel baseplate, raised D and G magnets, and North up polarity just like the '50s original. It presents around 6.9k Ohms resistance. For the neck, I had a '50s style P90 made precisely to pair with the bridge pickup. It presents about 6.7k Ohms resistance. The pickup has a nickel silver baseplate, rough cast A4 magnets, and single shielded push back wire. Why a P90 in the neck? Because none of the guitars in my collection have one and I was curious. The pickups are supported by two 250k Fender pots with a treble bleed network that I made. The control plate has a three way switch and one tone and one volume knob.
Hunter, D. (2020), Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster: The Story of the World's Most Iconic Guitars (link)