Introduction: Make a Kit Guitar AMAZING!

About: Hi, my name is Judi and I've lived in Texas since 2015, when we finally left California and all the high taxes! By day, I'm a Sales VP for my industrial printing company, Identigraphix. By weekend and occasion…

Have you ever walked into a guitar store and been amazed by all the beautiful guitars. I know I have, but unfortunately, those beauties come with hefty price tags. So, I decided to take a basic Telecaster guitar kit, add some custom features, and make it AMAZING!

I did it, and you can too. I'll show you how.


Since you're working with a kit guitar, you don't need any special tools for making the actual guitar itself. You will need a few basics, like

  • Assorted Screwdrivers
  • CA Glue
  • Veneer Glue
  • X-Acto blade
  • Scribe
  • Handheld Router
  • Drill
  • Impact Driver

As we go through the steps of the transformation, there are additional items that I chose to use. I'll list them in each section, with links if you're interested in any of them.

Step 1: Step 1: Buy the Guitar Kit

I read a lot of reviews and I discovered, The Fretwire. They have consistently good quality kits, so I decided to buy a Telecaster and see for myself. Since this Instructable is primarily about looks, I didn't purchase any upgrades (I'll probably do that next time, stay tuned).

The kit came with everything I needed, pickups, tuners, strings, screws, pick guard, etc. Of course, it also came with an Ash body and a Maple neck and fretboard. I could have built it right out of the box, where's the fun in that? Let's have some fun and get started.

One thing I forgot to mention, the neck comes with a paddle headstock that you can cut to any shape you want. I chose one of Fender's Telecaster headstocks, made a template and cut it on the bandsaw.

Step 2: Step 2: Getting the Body Ready for a New Top

I almost bought a kit with a Burl wood top but I realized that the veneer was really thin and the chances of me sanding right through it later in the process was practically a given. Instead, I decided to put a new, thicker top on the guitar. New problem the body is too tall; I need to take about ⅛" of the top.

I looked around the internet and found a pretty simple router planing jig that I made in about an hour. This jig let me ride over the top of the guitar with my router and take off exactly the perfect amount. Problem solved!

Step 3: Step 3: Adding a ¼" Veneer Top

North Ridge Hardwoods, is a Luthier Tonewood supplier. They have an amazing assortmemt of beautiful veneers to choose from. I want this guitar to be stunning, so I chose a ¼"thick, Flamed Maple book-matched set of veneers. A little pricey at $70, but compared to those fancy guitars, a deal for sure.

The wood arrived perfectly flat so I didn't have to do anything but glue it to the body. I think it's important to say here that you MUST have a TON of clamps to make sure the woods are perfectly flat when they're dried. People who do veneering a lot use a vacuum press that sucks the air out of a bag and binds the two surfaces perfectly. Since I don't have one of those, I went with almost every small clamp I owned. Make sure you put a lot of glue on the original body so you get a great bond. After I finished the glue-up, I left it in the clamps overnight.

Good news in the morning, the clamps worked like a charm. Now, we have a new top but, it looks bad around the edges, but this is already a massive upgrade, I can't wait to see it trimmed to size! Time for our next step.

Step 4: Step 4: Flush Trimming the New Body

This step was terrifying (think I lost sleep over it). But, it actually turned out to be quite easy and came out without a problem. I used a flush cutting bit in my router table and let the bearing follow the shape of the original body. TIP: Make at least a couple passes on the router table and go slow so you don't get any chip out!

Step 5: Step 5: Let's Dress Up the Top With a Binding

What's a binding? It's a small strip of wood, plastic, celluloid or other material that fits it a channel around the very top of the guitar body. I chose white celluIoid to match the pick guard.

I really wanted to do this because it hides the fact that two pieces of wood are glued together. For some reason I was terrified. What if my hand didn't stay still with the handheld router and I gouged the body. What if I get tear out? Just to be safe, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos to learn the technique and then bought a binding router bit to make the channel.

First, I took a piece of scrap wood and made a few test cuts to get my height and depth correct. It took about three tries, but after I got it dialed in, it was smooth sailing. When you do this with a handheld router, make absolutely sure that you keep the router level or you'll gouge your wood and possibly ruin your project. Use a router bit with a ball bearing guide, just go slow and steady and it will come out great. After I finished the cut, I sanded the channel with 800 grit sandpaper to make it smooth for the binding. Now, It's time to install it.

Step 6: Step 6: Installing and Scraping the Binding

After a lot of research, I decided to use a couple products from Stew Mac, a tape holder with three different sizes of binding tape and "Bind All" a great glue for doing this kind of project.

This glue is great because it's quick drying, but it gives you a little time to make an adjustment if necessary. Just start at one end of the guitar and do small sections at a time. Spread some glue, lay in the binding, then stick a piece of the tape on the top and pull down tightly over the binding and adhere it to the side of the guitar. Slowly go around the body taping about every ¼", it acts like a bunch of mini-clamps and holds the binding exactly where you want it. I didn't have any movement at all.

Make sure you wipe off the excess glue and let the body set up overnight. (Also, make sure you clean up your hands or you'll be wearing the glue for days.) The next morning, I removed all the tape and was excited to find that my binding job was a success. Unfortunately, I had a lot of glue that had seeped out during the night which meant some significant cleanup on the body. The best way to fix this is to run a hardwood block all around the glue areas to smooth them out. Then use a a very sharp card scraper to remove the excess glue. Using the wood block first, helps keep the scraper from catching on the wood.

Step 7: Step 7: Check Out the Installed Binding

This isn't really an instructional step, but I think it's nice to just step back and take a look and what you just created. This looks really hard and yes, it is usually a job for a skilled Luthier. However, if you practice and take your time, you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Ok, enough of that, let's get back to the fun.

Step 8: Step 8: Moving on to the Neck: Leveling, Crowning and Polishing the Frets

This is what separates the "great" guitars from the "inexpensive" guitars. With an expensive guitar, great care has been given to the neck. A great neck is perfectly straight, with perfectly leveled, crowned and polished frets. While inexpensive guitars and kits have had some work done on the neck, most of them need quite a bit of work to make them really playable and comfortable in your hands. Let's take this basic neck and turn it into something far much better than it is right now.

  1. First thing to do is use a notched straight edge to check if the neck is straight. Since it's a kit, most likely it's not twisted, but it might be bowed up or down. If it is, adjust the truss rod in the neck until it's level.
  2. Use blue painter's tape or Stew Mac tape and cover all of your frets for protection.
  3. Use a fret rocker to check for level across all of the frets. Do this by laying the rocker across at least three spots on the frets. If the tool doesn't rock, it's level there. If it does, take a Sharpie and make a line where it's high. Do this across the entire neck turning the rocker to make it fit even the smallest frets.
  4. Once you've marked all the frets, take a perfectly flat, leveling beam and gently slide it along the areas where there are high spots until all the Sharpie marks are gone. You guessed it, take the Sharpie and repeat the process until the frets are completely flat. (I made my own beam out of a piece of hard Maple that I planed flat and attached sandpaper to).
  5. Now the neck is perfectly flat, but we've flattened the crown on the frets so we need to re-crown them. I used a fret crowning file and it saved a ton of time. It's rounded over on the inside so when you run it across your frets, it creates a nice round shape. Be gentle here and sand with the radius of the fretboard or you'll take off too much material and you'll have to re-level again.
  6. Now the frets are re-crowned but there are a lot of grooves in them that have to go. To do this I used 600, 1000 and 1500 grit wet/dry sandpaper. This step can get rather tedious but it's really important, so don't rush through it. After I finished sanding, I added one more thing to make the frets exceptional, I used Prine Fret polishing compound with my Dremel rotary tool and and brought them up to a full sheen.

Step 9: Step 9: How About a Belly Carve

Typically, Telecasters don't have a belly curve. However, that's changing and becoming more popular. In fact, more and more of them are coming from the Factory with the curve in the body. The point of the curve is to allow the guitar to fit more comfortably against your body. Personally, I prefer that feel so I'm going to add one.

A lot of people do this curve by hand, but my weapon of choice is the Kutzall Shaping Disc with fine grit. First thing to do is mark out where you want your curve to be. I used a pencil and put marks in the area to be cut away. I attached the disc to my grinder and it cut through the Ash like butter. The curve was done in less than 5 minutes. There were a lot of chatter marks from the disc, but it only took a few minutes with a random orbital sander and 100, 120, 220 and 320 sandpaper to get it smooth again. A definite time saver!

Step 10: Step 10: Let's Fancy Up the Headstock

I started looking at the body and realized the guitar needs balance, it needs a matching headstock to go with the new top. I went to and found great piece of AAA Flamed Curly Maple, 6" x 84" for $12.55! What a deal, plus I can make a bunch of these down the line.

This piece of veneer is very different than the set I used for the body. It's very thin (.03) and brittle so in order to veneer fit the concave curve in the Telecaster headstock, I bought some veneer softener to make the wood more pliable. I sprayed both sides of the wood with softener until it was dripping off. Then I put them between two pieces of paper towels, inside two pieces of wood. This makes a clamp for the veneer and also allows the softener to evenly penetrate the wood.

I left it in the clamps over night and by morning, it was soft enough to attach to the headstock without breaking. I couldn't use regular wood glue here, I had to buy some veneer glue so I wouldn't have any issues. Apply a thin layer of glue to the back of the veneer and face of the headstock, and then put as many clamps on it as possible. To clamp successfully on the curve, I used a foam sanding block in the clamp to force the veneer against the headstock. Again, I left it to cure overnight.

The next morning, I had a beautiful new veneered headstock that I can now stain to match the guitar body. Just use your handheld router and a flush cutting bit to trim it to size.

Step 11: Step 11: Changing the Fret Markers (and a Little Disaster...)

Our project wouldn't be complete if we didn't upgrade our fret markers to beautiful Abalone fret dots. I ordered the ¼" dots from Stew Mac.

Next, I set up a ¼" Forstner bit in my drill press and used a tape flag as a stop guide. These bits are great because they have a point on the end and won't move around when you drill into the wood. I set the the depth I wanted, lined everything up, but something happened on the very first one, I moved the neck and drilled the marker off center. Disaster! I still haven't figured out how that happened but we'll get to that in the next section. For now, back to this step.

Obviously, I was much more careful as I moved down the neck drilling into the fretboard. No more issues, all the cutouts were in the proper location. I used a drop of medium CA glue in the cutout and then carefully inserted the new Abalone fret markers and gently pressed them down. If you get any of them that are a little proud, very carefully use a blade to scrape them to the proper height.

Step 12: Step 12: Dealing With My Disaster: Crown Inlay

For my "disaster" inlay, I decided to use a logo similar to the one I use for my workshop. I had no idea how to cut it out of shell, so I did the next best thing, I ordered laser cut brass inlays from Cut, Send, Cut. I just sent them my vector artwork and they had the inlays back to me in about 3 days.

Now, how am I going to get them into the neck? Guess I'm learning to do inlays. I bought StewMac's Precision Router Base for my Dremel tool and started practicing.

I found it best to take multiple passes to get to my desired depth. It was pretty challenging but I managed to do a decent job on my first ever inlay. NOTE TO SELF AND TO YOU: Don't try an intricate pattern like I did for your first or even second inlay project.

Overall, I'm pleased with it because it's different and I tried something completely out of my comfort zone.

Step 13: Step 13: Preparing the Body for Dye & Laying Down the Black Layer

In order to dye the wood, you have to sand it to 320 grit (if you go a lot higher, the stain might not penetrate well). Once you've done this, spray the grain with water to raise the grain and let it dry. Sand again to 320 and repeat two more times.

Since I want to do a Blue Jade burst, I need to highlight the grain in the flamed Maple. To do this, I applied two coats of Angeles Leather Dye in Jet Black. I let it dry for a few hours and then almost completely sanded it back. The areas in the flamed Maple that are softer will absorb more of the dye and this will become that highlights we're looking for.

Now, the moment we've been waiting for, dying the body. Let's get to it.

Step 14: Step 14: Dying the Body: Creating the "Burst"

Before working with the dyes, make sure you wear gloves and have a lot of paper towels and small jars for your test samples. For this project I used Angeles Leather Dyes. The colors are brilliant right out of the bottle and you don't have to make a formula with Acetone or Lacquer Thinner; they're ready to go.

To apply the dye, fold up a bunch of paper towels into flat little squares that you can easily reach. Don't wad up the towels or the dye will be streaky in spots. I knew what color scheme I wanted, but I also wanted half strength versions of the dyes so I could overlay them in areas to get just the right effect. I mixed up some 50/50 combinations (Acetone/Dye) and put them in small Mason jars to have available if I needed them

I started by putting some turquoise down all over the face of the guitar. Next, I dabbed Navy Blue all around the edges to create the burst effect. I found the best way to soften the line between the two colors was to come back with some Turquoise in the areas I had just dabbed with the Navy. I did end up using my 50/50's in a few spots and they worked out really well. So glad I had them ready to go.

If the stain is too dark in an area, use some 0000 Steel Wool and gently rub until you're happy with the result. This was actually easier than I had expected, although I did have to use some Acetone in spots to help smooth out the dye where is was a little streaky (yes, I used a wadded up towel and got streaks). Overall, I love the color; it makes me want to swim in the Mediterranean Ocean.

Step 15: Step 15: Scraping After Applying the Dye

Even though I masked off the body, some dye managed to get onto the side binding and stain it. There's nothing you can do about the top of the binding, it's going to get stained. The way to fix this is to scrape it with a utility knife blade or a special binding scraper. Keep the blade level and use your finger as a guide to very carefully scrape the stain off the top and sides of the binding. Be careful not to knick the top of the guitar but if you do, you can use a Q-tip with a little stain and touch up the area.

Step 16: Step 16: Quick Painting Stand

I needed a way to hold the guitar body while I sprayed the clear coat, so I put together a quick stand. I got the idea from Brad Angove on YouTube. I wanted it to be tall and stand on it's own, so I used 2" PVC with a wide connector glued to the wood at the bottom. For the hanger itself, I used a 2" wood dowel that slips through the 2" PVC. I attached a piece of hard Maple to the dowel and chamfered the edges so I could screw it to the existing holes in my guitar neck area.

I wrestled with whether or not to glue the tall pieces together because I was concerned it might tip over. I want be able to easily store it in my workshop, I decided against gluing it and I didn't have any tipping problems. The dowel through the PVC let me easily turn the body while I was spraying it. Quick and inexpensive solution to a potential painting problem.

Step 17: Step 17: Applying Wood Filler and the Clear Coat

Since Ash or "Swamp Ash" has wide pores, I decided to use a water-based, wipe on wood filler product from Crystalac. It fills open grains and pores leaving an absolutely clear, smooth surface. This product is so easy to use, you just wipe it on the body where you want to fill the grain and let it dry overnight. In the morning, it just needed a light sanding to make the back and sides glass-like.

I used another Crystalac product to spray the clear coat, Brite Tone Instrument Finish/High Solids Polyurethane. I read a lot of reviews on the clear coat and it gets rave reviews. It's super hard, self-leveling, scratch resistant, with water-clear clarity. It builds up quickly because of it's high solids content which makes it easy to get a perfect, thick clear coat like a factory finish. Best of all, I was able to clean up with just soap and water.

I only have a small 6 gallon compressor and I was worried about it being strong enough to spray the clear. I did some research and discovered a new type of spray gun, it's called HTE compliant or LVLP (low volume, low pressure). These guns are a great upgrade from the original HVLP guns that lose about half the product via overspray. These new guns get as much as 85% of the product on your project. I wanted to buy the new Harbor Freight Black Widow, but it's so popular with the automotive paint guys that you can't find one in stock. I found this one on Amazon and it worked great. The Brite Tone sprayed evenly with very little overspray.

The rule of thumb for this product is for every coat you spray, it has to cure for a day. So, 6 coats means 6 days to cure. No problem, but you do have to plan for it.

Step 18: Step 18: Level Sanding, Polishing and Buffing

Wet sand Brite Tone after the appropriate cure time. To level sand the body, I used professional grade, waterproof, silicon carbide sandpaper wrapped around a rubber sanding block. To set up, I filled a container with bottled water and a drop of liquid dish soap and soaked the sandpaper in the water. I started level sanding using 800 grit sandpaper. IMPORTANT, make sure you wet sand small areas. Don't try to wet sand the entire surface all at one. Be very careful near the edges so you don't sand through the clear coat.

The goal is for the surface to develop a matte sheen. I stopped to check my progress using a clean, lint-free cloth to dry the body and look for areas I missed. If there were any shiny spots at all, I kept wet sanding until the surface had a uniform matte sheen. Once the entire surface was the same, I wiped the body down with a clean, damp cloth and moved on to polishing.

For polish sanding, I started at 1000 grit. Just like before, I did small areas, and dried off areas to check my progress. The areas that have been sanded with 1000 grit will be slightly more reflective than the 800 grit. Repeat polish sanding steps with 1200 grit, 1500 grit and 2000 grit sandpaper. After finishing with the polish sanding, I hand buffed the surface with Mequire's Ultimate Compound followed by seven coats of Turtle Wax Carnuba Polish. I have to say, the end result is fabulous.

Step 19: Step 19: Oiling the Maple Fretboard

There are a lot of different ways to finish a fretboard. Since Maple is a light colored wood and doesn't take stain well, I decided to use Tung Oil to get a deeper, amber finish; it will also keep the Maple moisturized. Because it's oil and it gets everywhere, I taped off the bottom of the neck and used a clean, lint-free cloth and applied a generous amount of the Tung Oil to the fretboard. The directions on the can say to rub with the grain, but since I'm applying it to a fretboard with wires, that was very difficult to do. For any areas that stayed dry, I re-coated them again until they stayed "wet". Once that happened, I left the oil on the fretboard for 15 minutes so it could fully soak into the wood. When that was finished, I buffed the fretboard with a clean cloth.

Wait 24 hours before applying a second coat of Tung Oil, when you do apply the second coat, let it penetrate the surface for 5 - 10 minutes before buffing. Wait a full 24 hours before playing the guitar. NOTE: The gloss level will increase with each subsequent coat.

Step 20: Step 20: We're Done!

At this point, I soldered the electronics, installed the tuners, attached the pickguard, put on the strings, screwed in everything and decided to replace the plastic nut with a Fender bone nut. The bone nut gives the guitar a much improved, brighter tone versus the plastic nut which tends to be very tingy. There's just one more final mod I added and that's a Custom Limited Edition neck plate. I think it's just the feather in the cap of this very special guitar.

Thanks so much for going on this adventure with me. I really enjoyed putting this together and learned a lot, plus I now have one amazing looking guitar. I hope you enjoyed the ride; I know I sure did.

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