Introduction: Barncaster Electric Guitar

About: I'm a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I do a lot of hobbies, including amateur astronomy, woodworking, and Lego modeling among many others.

There is a popular industry of making electric guitars that are finished to look like they are distressed and aged (worn paint and varnish jobs; rusted and discolored metallic parts). Most of these guitars are custom built, and feature finishes and design elements that suit the buyer's tastes.

One particular class of these custom guitars are called "barncasters" -- they are typically made from reclaimed wood, which means they are often made from non-traditional woods for a solid-body electric guitar: rough pine, knotty pine, and damaged wood are all common and make beautiful barncasters.

Another trend with barncasters is unique pickguards, often cut from old LP vinyl records, other pieces of reclaimed wood, old tin signs, and license plates.

I've been very keen on having my own barncaster, and have been wanting to try building a guitar for some time. In addition, I play lefty. You can buy lefty guitars, but the selection is far less than the selection of right handed guitars, so learning to build my own guitar(s) seems like an ideal way to get into the space of being able to have any finish and any design I want! :-)

Step 1: Parts & Wood

This is my first guitar project, so I decided I was only going to do the main body of the guitar and the pick guard myself. For the rest of it (the electronics and the neck), I acquired the parts online.

  • Reclaimed wood for surface
  • Wood for the back of the body
  • License Plate for pickguard

I'm a big fan of thetelecaster design and sound, so I acquired parts suitable for that guitar, that included:

  • MDF templates for routing the body
  • Neck (I wasn't going to try to make a neck my first time out!)
  • Fender classic pickups
  • Control Plate (knobs and switch)
  • Jack insert (plugs into amplifier)
  • Neckplate
  • Strap Buttons
  • Strings
  • Copper foil tape

Learning vocabulary by osmosis is sometimes difficult (at least for me), so I've included here in this step a labeled diagram for all the parts we'll be talking about in this Instructable.

Step 2: Wood Choice

There is a growing industry around reclaimed wood, aimed at gathering wood that people might otherwise discard (old fences, dilapidated buildings, etc), recovering it, and reselling it to woodworkers who use it for everything from furniture, to art, to home accessories, to guitars. A quick search on Instructables for "reclaimed wood" will turn up many interesting and beautiful projects made from reclaimed wood.

I'm fortunate that I live near a company that deals in recalimed wood -- "All American Reclaim." They have a vast warehouse that is easy to lose yourself in for hours, mooning over all the excellent wood. For the front face of my guitar, I found an old piece of siding that I liked -- grey and weathered, with a lot of surface texture. I didn't know what it was when I picked it, but it turned out to be red oak underneath the weathered face.

The reclaimed wood piece was not thick enough to be the full body of the guitar, so I had to find other wood to fill out the back of the body. For this I used wood from my scrap bin -- I had a piece of alder and a bigger piece of hickory that I decided would do the trick.

Step 3: Wood Body Preparation: Face

No single piece of wood I had was wide enough to make a telecaster body, so I had to end glue panels together. I started with a cardboard template of the body shape, and used it to select the pieces of the wood I was most interested in.

For the front of the guitar body, I was most interested in having cool texture that really put the weathered look of the wood on display. For the board I purchased, there was a distinct and interesting whorl on one end of the board that I liked -- it is the inclusion from where a branch had emerged from the original tree. For this feature to show up on the guitar:

  • it had to be on the wide part of the body (away from the neck) to avoid being under the pickguard
  • it had to be on the outer edge (to avoid being under the bridge that anchors the strings)

This defined how I had to cut a piece around the whorl, and how big the piece needed to be, which I determined by holding my cardboard template up to the piece.

The whorl was on the outside edge, so the opposing edge was the one that would need glued. If the grain of the wood had been angled in some way I would have paid careful attention to the matching so there was a pleasing pattern at the glue joint (this is similar to "book-matching", where a symmetric pattern is created across a glue joint). The grain was relatively straight, so I found another piece of the board that also had straight grain and would match on easily with little or no indication of a joint.

The board near the whorl was split badly, so I squared it off with my table saw, and also squared the end off. Additionally, I sawed down the edges that would be glued, to make a nice interface for the glue to bind on. I put a thick bead of wood glue and clamped the panel together overnight. When clamping, I was careful to watch for any glue squeezing out of the seam onto the front face of the wood, and immediately cleared any that appeared; if it had dried, I would have damaged the weathered face of the wood in an attempt to get it off.

Step 4: Wood Body Preparation: Back

Despite the fact that you don't often see the back of the guitar, I still wanted it to look cool. The piece of alder I had was darker (and shorter) than the hickory, so I made a triple panel with the alder in the middle on hickory on the outside edges.

For me, "cool looking" is unusual patterns in the wood grain. Since I was working with short pieces, I had limited choices, but I turned and flipped the pieces to get as much character (grain, swirls, knots) as I could to show on the backside.

These scraps came from dimensional lumber, so the factory edges were smooth enough to glue. A thick bead of wood glue and overnight clamping made my panel.

Step 5: Router Planing Sled

I don't own a planer, but working with weathered wood means working with warped and uneven wood! For this project I built a sled that let me use my router as a rough and tumble planer -- it's not perfect, but it was plenty suitable for this job, and worked well enough that it will get much use on other projects in the future.

It is simple enough -- a sled bed with rails that holds the piece I am working on, and a sliding rail that holds the router at a fixed height and allows it to be moved back and forth across the piece.

I built it from my scrap bin. For the router rail, the wood scraps I used were:

  • (2) Rails: 1x4, 1/2" birch plywood, 1.75" x 4.25"
  • (1) Router Bridge: 1/2" birch plywood, 18" x 4.25"

For the router bridge, I drilled two 1" diameter holes, centered on the bridge, near each end of the piece. Then I cut out between them to make a 1" wide channel. This is the channel that the router bit protrudes through, with the surface of the bridge supporting the router body. I screwed the retaining rails into the end of the bridge; this keeps the whole piece on the sled while working on a piece.

The sled bed holds the piece while I'm running the router over it. The wood scraps I used for this were:

  • (2) Rails: 1x4, ripped to 2" width, 25" long each
  • (1) Bed: 1/2" birch plywood, 25" x 15"

The rails are screwed onto the long side of the sled bed, on the outside edge. The router bridge sits on top of these rails, and can slide back and forth along the piece you are working on.

Step 6: Planing the Wood

I needed to do two things to the wood panels I had made. First, I had to flatten the interface of the barnwood out -- it was old, weathered wood, and had considerable camber across the piece. I didn't mind if the front of the barncaster had a bit of shape to it -- that's part of the charm of barncasters! However I had to glue the face and body pieces together, so they had to have a flat uniform interface.

Additionally, the overall thickness of the guitar body needed to be reduced. The barnwood face and backbody wood together were 1-7/8" thick, about 1/4" thicker than the standard telecaster thickness.

I planed a bit off both pieces using my router sled. Planing like this was not a perfect process, leaving small running ridges between passes. The pattern left behind was easy to sand out with my palm sander. Final thickness of the two pieces together was 1-5/8".

This part of the project was not without mishap. On the face panel, I moved the clamp during the planing process, and hadn't fully appreciated the warp in the wood until I'd made a full pass across the board. As you can see in the image, it created a single, deeper channel in the panel than the rest of the planed surface. I wasn't too worried about it because it would get sandwiched in the center of the guitar, and not be visible, so I filled it with red-oak wood putty, and sanded it flat after I had finished planing the panel.

Step 7: Gluing the Body

The barnwood face and the body panel are glued together to make a single monolithic body blank that the guitar will be cut out of.

For this, I needed plenty of glue so I just took the cap off and went wild! I spread it evenly around with a drywall spreader, and then clamped the entire piece overnight.

Step 8: Body Outline Shaping

To shape the body, I used an MDF template that I ordered online. The template has the body shape, the location and shape of all the body cavities, and the locations of screw holes needed to put the guitar together. Since I'm lefty, I used the template upside down from the way it was created, and I had to transfer some reference marks (the centerline of the template, especially) on the side I would see.

The template is to guide your router in making the outline of the guitar. I didn't want my router to have to do a ton of work, so I began by tracing the template onto my body blank, then jigsawing off as much of the waste wood as I could beforehand, getting as close to the router line as I was comfortable. This was a great moment, because I could finally see what the texture on the front of the guitar was going to look like -- sure enough, as planned, that beautiful whorl of wood was going to show prominently!

I secured the template to the body blank on the barnwood side. I didn't want any extraneous holes, so I put brads through the location of several screw holes, and used a piece of scrap wood as a clamp, screwed down in the location where the body cavities would be. I had this center clamp because the face of the barnwood was not flush everywhere against the template, and I didn't want it to wander.

To router out the shape, I used two flush trim bits. The first has the bearing high on the shank (near the collet of the router). The bearing butts up against the MDF template, and the router bit chews away at the wood, making a match to the template. You can see in the photos the bit was not the full depth of the body, and there was a "shelf" left below the end of the bit.

At this stage, I flip the piece over, and use a flush trim bit that has the bearing on the bottom of the bit. Now I run the router around the body again, and the bearing follows the already trimmed piece of wood. The result is a body piece that matches the template through its full thickness.

Step 9: Routing Body Cavities and Pockets

The body cavities are hollows in the guitar where all the electronics sit. They are placed and shaped to hold the standard electronics, and are hidden beneath various pieces of the guitar (like the bridge and the pickguard).

To get them the right shape, I again use the flush trim bits, this time for interior routs using the template, which I did not remove after the body shaping. I again did not wan the router to do all the work, so I cleared all the centers of the cavities first with a Forstner bit to the needed depths, leaving scalloped edges that the router could clean up.

At this stage there are also three holes drilled through the interior of the guitar connecting the various body cavities so wires can pass between them. I used a long (12") 1/4" drill bit to do this (sorry -- I neglected to get any pictures of that!).

Step 10: License Plate Pickguard

I grew up in Oregon, so I got an old Oregon license plate for the pickguard. There are many different positions and directions that people put license plate pickguards on. The only necessity for me was that it cover the cavity for the neck-pickup. I like a diagonal swath that sits where a normal pickguard sits, but leaves a lot of the face of the guitar visible.

I played around with the license plate until I had an orientation I liked, then traced the contours onto a posterboard template. I then laid the template under the MDF template, and transferred the shape of the opening for the neck pickup.

I could have used a pair of tin snips and a Dremel to cut the license plate out, but I have a new xCarve I'm learning to use, so I decided to let it cut the pickguard out. I scanned my template into the computer, and converted the outline to an SVG file that defined the cuts the xCarve had to make.

The cut left small tabs at various locations, which I used my Dremel to cut through, giving my final pickguard. Around the edge, I drilled small holes for the screws that secure the pickguard to the guitar body.

Step 11: Edge Shaping

I wanted to round the square edges of the body left by the router shaping. On the backside this gives the guitar a nice feel when you hold the body, but on the frontside I felt it was necessary to protect the decayed edges of the barnwood from getting caught on things and being damaged.

I took a 1/2" round-over bit and walked it around the body, front and back, using my router.

Once that was done, I drilled a hole in the lower edge of the body through to the control cavity; this is where the wire runs that lets you plug the guitar into your amplifier. The jig I concocted to hold the guitar wasn't quite centered, so the hole is bit closer to the back of the guitar, but it ends up not being troublesome.

Step 12: Finish & Varnish

I was enormously fond of the light grey look the wood had when I bought it, but because it was weathered and aged, I knew it was going to have to be stabilized to survive. Whatever I did was going to make the guitar look darker, but I'd still get to have the nice ridged look of an aged piece.

I first treated the front of the guitar with Minwax Wood Hardener, which darkened it considerably.

To apply varnish to the guitar, I hung it in my shop on a coat hanger threaded through one of the holes drilled for the neck. I used spray-on Helmsman spar urethane in many thin coats. The barnwood face was already darkened, this just provided protection. Since the wood was already rough and tumble on the face, I did not sand it between coats.

The urethane gave the back of the guitar a gorgeous rich color, really highlighting the triple panel layout I had made. I think I'm going to have to make another guitar with that on the front! :-)

Step 13: Neck Attachment

Telecaster electric guitars have bolt-on necks. There is a pocket routed in the body of the guitar. Four wood screws go through a metal plate from the back of the guitar and into the neck, securing it in place. The metal plate provides a strong point for the screws to bear on without pulling through the wood of the body.

I'm a big Woody Guthrie fan. For my metal neckplate I ordered an engraved plate from Decoboom that has the famous quote Woody had emblazoned on the front of his guitar.

To bolt the neck on, I clamped the neck in the neck pocket, then drilled from the body side into the neck, using the holes in the body as a guide.

Step 14: Headstock Decal

I wanted to have my own custom decal on the headstock of the guitar.

There are custom decal services, but I found out that you can get waterslide decal paper for your laser printer or inkjet. I ordered the laser printer version from Amazon. If you do this, be aware that there are both clear waterslide decal paper, and white-backed waterslide decal paper. For this, I wanted clear.

I created a decal design using a drawing program on my computer, laser printed it onto the decal paper, and transferred it to the headstock. I let it dry for two days, then applied 4 light coats of spray on urethane to protect it.

Step 15: Tuning Pegs

I got tuning pegs for a lefty style guitar; the difference between them and off-the-shelf right handed tuning pegs is how they look on the back of the headstock -- they have a definite orientation when they are all lined up.

The tuning peg has three pieces -- the main tuning machine, a washer, and a threaded hollow bolt that secures the tuning peg to the headstock. On the back of the headstock, a small screw in each one keeps its orientation fixed.

Step 16: Foil Shielding in Body Cavities

Electric guitars can have a lot of interference and have a constant hum or buzz to them when they are plugged in. Telecasters are notorious for this because of the way the classic pickups are designed.

One way to reduce the noise is to line all the cavities with conducting copper foil (for those of you who remember your physics class, this is like making a "Faraday cage").

The copper foil I got has an adhesive back, so I cut it into workable lengths and shapes, and laid it in every body cavity, overlapping pieces to not leave any areas exposed.

Step 17: Electronics

Going into the project, this was the scariest bit to me, but it ended up being okay. There is a bit of soldering, but it is just a few connection points, and went very well.

There are three basic pieces to the electronics:

  • Pickup near the neck
  • Pickup under the bridge
  • Control plate, which has a volume knob, a tone knob, a switch, and the jack lead for the amplifier

Each of the three pieces came with leader wires that needed to be threaded through the guitar and soldered onto the control plate.

Since I foil lined the cavities (not all guitars do), there are a couple of additional connections to be made on the foil so it can do its shielding job. Between each of the cavities I ran a short length of wire (the red wires in the photos) that I soldered to the copper foil in each location. This makes the entire copper shielding a single electrical entity, which I can then ground to reduce electronic noise.

There is an additional red wire soldered into the bridge cavity copper lining; it has a free end that comes up above the cavity and touches the bridge, to provide grounding of the strings and bridge.

Step 18: Last Body Parts

There were a last few things to do as the project was nearing its end. These included:

  • Attaching the external jack plate to the lead from the control plate; this is where the guitar gets plugged in!
  • Strap buttons to attach a strap! I drilled pilot holes first, and screwed them in
  • Attach the guitar bridge, covering the bridge cavity and securing the bridge pickup
  • The strings on most telecasters pass through the body of the guitar. On the backside there are metal ferules that hold the ends of the string in place
  • Secure the license plate, covering the remaining body cavities and leaving the neck pickup exposed.

At this stage it almost looks like a real guitar! There are no strings yet, but you can definitely see the end of the project in sight!

Step 19: Bridge Springs

I had one issue with my bridge. On the bridge there are "saddles" that that set the height and spacing of the strings and insure they return to where they belong when you are playing, even if you are pulling and bending the strings a lot.

The saddles are loaded with springs to keep them in place and under tension. My saddle came with three large springs and three short springs, and the short springs were definitely not doing their job!

So I took apart a couple of ball point pens and stole the springs from their clicker mechanism. Cutting these springs in half gave me perfect length springs to use on my saddles.

Step 20: Neck Shim

Since I'm working with a guitar body that is not uniform across its face, I was expecting to have some difficulties getting everything adjusted when I put the strings on.

Sure enough, the height of the bridge and the neck were slightly mismatched. Even with the bridge saddles raised as high as they could go, the strings were still laying flat on the frets.

To cure this, I put a neck shim in. This is a small wedge shaped piece of wood I made from a piece of thin plywood, sanded down to be thin on one end and thick on the other. It is thick toward the neck side of the guitar, and thin on the body side of the guitar. This has the effect of tipping the headstock up higher relative to the body of the guitar, and raising the strings off of the frets.

Step 21: Little Mistakes & Tribulations

With every project, there are always mistakes, blemishes, and narrowly averted disasters that leave things in the finished product that you as the builder are painfully aware of, but often escape the notice of anyone else taking a look at your handiwork. This was the first guitar I've ever built, so there are a whole host of these small things.

I'm a big fan of noting these tribulations, because it reminds me not to do them again! If I put them here in the Instructable, maybe it will help you be aware of things that can happen.

Recovering from these sorts of foibles is a creative process and necessary skill. In the end, each little oddity is part of the whole host of things that make this guitar uniquely mine. :-)

Here are a few of the things that happened:

(A) I've gotten very used to using my router table to do edge work, which gives me a lot of control over the piece as I'm shaping edges. For the guitar I had decided I couldn't always get the body where I needed it to be as I walked around the template, so I used my hand-held router. At one point as I was lifting the router away from the edge of the guitar body and template, it caught the edge and dug a deep gouge into both the template and the front edge of the guitar. The template is ruined, and there was a nice divot on the bottom of the body. I filled it with red oak wood putty and then shaped it over. I don't think it is too noticeable, but I see it there. :-P

(B) The classic telecaster shape is pretty boxy on the edges, but I wanted to have smoother contours around the body, to highlight both the aged wood as well as the preserved original wood underneath, so I took a 1/2" roundover bit on my router and walked it around the front and the back of the guitar. I think it looks AWESOME, but there was an unintended consequence. The neck on a telecaster sits in a pocket in the body and is secured with screws that come from the back of the body and into the neck. The attachment screws bear down on a steel plate to give the connection plenty of strength. With such a strong roundover, the edges of the neck plate are hanging out slightly in open space, rather than sitting firmly on the wood of the body. It doesn't affect the guitar's performance at all, but you can see the little hangover if you look closely. The solution is to use a smaller roundover, at least in this area of the guitar.

(C) As noted above, I carved my pickgaurd out of a license plate using my xCarve. This was one of my earliest experiences with the xCarve, so I'm still on a learning curve. In this case, I had not appreciated that I could set the router to carve so that it carved on the center of my template line, or on the inside or outside. I templated the exact shape and location for the neck pickup, that sticks up through the pickguard, but I carved with the router bit on the centerline, which means the pickup hole is a bit wider than expected. In principle this doesn't matter, but if you look closely you can see down into the guts of the guitar. I didn't have an extra license plate, so instead of making a new pickguard I cut a small insert out of a piece of black foam that hugs the pickup, but sits under the pickguard so it looks black in the gap.

(D) Lastly, I made a mistake I really shouldn't have made. I drilled pilot holes for all the screws in the guitar, but for the pilot holes on the bridge the first set I drilled was undersized, and I twisted a screwhead off as I was putting it in! Arghhh! The screw diameters are small enough I don't see how I can use a screw extractor to get the screw out without damaging the guitar, so I opted to leave it broken off. There isn't an option of putting another screw in because the bridge is hard steel. There are 4 screws across the bridge, and if I had broken off one in the middle it would have been hidden under the strings. This one is on the outside edge, so if you look you'll see it looks like my guitar is missing a screw!

Step 22: Final Thoughts

This was a great project to work on, and the final guitar plays great. It accomplished exactly what I wanted -- it is a one of a kind barncaster with a unique and weathered wood face. I expect to get many years of enjoyment out of playing this guitar!

I hope you found this useful -- it was a challenging but fun project, and encourage you to try one on your own too!

Epilog Challenge 9

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