Intro: Build a Retro Guitar in 12 Easy Steps!
I've always thought those old toy guitars from the 50's, brands like Airline, Supro, and Silvertone, were just about the coolest instruments ever. Jack White famously made these types of guitars popular again in the early 2000's with the red jackson-style Airline guitar he played in the White Stripes. These types of guitars use a fiberglass body instead of traditional solid wood. They were cheap to produce and have a plastic feel to them, hence often being sold in toy catalogs. But I love the styling and no frills attitude of these instruments.
Today, a company called Guitar Kits USA is selling fiberglass guitar bodies is several different styles and colors. The bodies come as two halves, a top and a bottom. Guitar Kits USA ships some hardware you'll need to assemble the body as well. They include wood blocks for support, neck attachment hardware, and plastic edge binding. You'll need to supply your own neck, pickups, bridge, tailpiece, and electronics.
I picked up a white Belmont-style body for this build. I wanted some retro looking pickups too, and found the perfect set from GuitarFetish.com, a pair of handmade Rickenbacker-style surface mount single coils that require no routing. I also picked up a Bigsby vibrato, a Schaller roller bridge, two 250K-ohm potentiometers, a three-way selector switch, and a 1/4" audio jack. I pulled the neck off of my very first electric guitar, an old Squier that had been collecting dust.
Step 1: Layout
Designing the layout is a crucial first step, and I spent a long time measuring and calculating before I ever picked up a tool. I decided to make a detailed CAD model in Fusion360 for the guitar because that's my idea of fun, but you could just as easily do it all by hand without using the computer as a design aid. However it certainly helped me avoid error, align all the holes I would need to drill, and preview how the components would look in their chosen locations. I tried moving the knobs, switches, and jack around to many different places before decided on the inline Telecaster-style layout you see here. I printed out the technical drawing making sure it printed at a 1:1 scale. I made sure the centerline of the drawing matched the centerline of the guitar, aligned the frets, and taped the paper in place. I now had the exact locations indicated for my drill holes.
Step 2: Glue the Internal Block
The fiberglass body pieces come with a block of solid maple shaped to fit inside the top piece and provide support. I needed to sand it just a little to allow it to fit snuggle against the neck pocket. I used an ample amount of epoxy to glue the block to the top body, and let it cure for 24 hours. Remember to wear gloves and use adequate ventilation. My clamping process pictured here worked well, but if I did it again I would find a large flat heavy object to lay across the top to ensure complete flatness as the glue dries.
Step 3: Align and Drill the Neck Holes
I spent a lot of time worrying about neck alignment. I tried many approaches, including more CAD and stringing up the neck and using the strings to align it. Ultimately though, the careful but simple approach prevailed.
First step here is to use the neck backplate as a guide, and drill four holes through the back of the internal maple block. Next, I used two long straight edges to align the neck on the body. I slid the neck as far back in the neck pocket as it would sit, aligned it left-right, and clamped it firmly. I marked the neck through the holes in the internal block, made a little jig to allow the neck to sit level on the drill press table, and drilled holes for the neck screws in my neck. I used the drill press because I was worried about alignment and wanted all my holes to be exactly vertical, but looking back a hand drill would have been just fine. I was careful not to drill any deeper than the depth of the neck screws, so as not to drill through the neck into the fingerboard.
Step 4: Drill the Hardware Holes
With the holes for the neck screws drilled, it was now time to drill the rest of the holes I would need in the top of the body. I followed the template of my CAD drawing, and drilled holes for the pickups, bridge, Bigsby, knobs, switch, and jack. I learned to use brad point drill bits where possible, as they are less likely to crack and chip the gelcoat covering the fiberglass.
Step 5: Glue the Support Blocks
Five support wood blocks are provided with the body to allow the two halves of the body to screw together. After ensuring that block A was in a position where a strap button could be screwed into it and checking that the blocks wouldn't interfere with the placement of the electronics, I epoxied the blocks in place.
Step 6: Shield the Body
Electrical interference can be a big headache when playing amplified electric guitar. Single coil pickups are particularly susceptible to this noise. Conductive shielding is necessary to isolate a guitar's electronics from interference. For small body cavities on most electric guitars, builders often just line the cavity with conductive copper tape. With such a large area to fill on this guitar though, tape along wouldn't work. I found some electrically conductive paint and gave the insides of the top and bottom bodies three coats each.
Step 7: Install the Top Block and Foam
The next step was to install the thin maple block that came with the body and to add foam padding to the small blocks. The long thin block gives the bottom body piece something to rest against. It just screws into the larger wood block.
You can also see in the photo that I did in fact use a bit of copper tape where the electronics will go. I needed to mask the holes while painting which left small areas unshielded, so I've covered those areas with conductive copper tape.
The body shipped with a strip of 1/4" black foam which I cut up and stuck in layers on top of the small blocks. This again gives the back of the body something to rest against when the two body pieces are screwed together. Although not pictured here, I aligned the two body pieces and drilled holes through the bottom body for the mounting screws. To finish this step, I drilled through the foam and into the small blocks to make pilot holes for those screws. I was worried that the foam would catch on the drill bit and I'd have to find another way to make the holes, but using a large enough drill bit worked just fine.
Step 8: Strap Buttons
My next task was to install the strap buttons. These two pieces of hardware mount on opposite edges of the top body piece to allow one to wear a strap while playing the guitar. Only one button installation is pictured here, but the process is the same for both: Mark a spot where the screw will have good contact inside a wood block, drill the pilot hole, and install the button with a screwdriver.
Step 9: Install Neck
At this point in the build, things were starting to come together. It was time to put the neck on, tear the blue tape off, and begin installing the rest of the components. Even with nothing on the body, with the neck attached it actually looks like a guitar now!
Step 10: Additional Hardware
I designed and 3D printed some additional hardware that I needed. Although not strictly necessary, I wanted some thin pickup rings to sit between the pickups and the body. This way I can adjust the height of the pickups by printing rings with different heights.
What was necessary though was something to raise the height of the bridge. Because the strings sit so high above the surface of the body on these guitars, a standard bridge is far too low. Most builds I've seen use a piece of rosewood meant for an archtop guitar to raise the bridge. I took the opportunity to design something a little more complicated instead.
The black bridge riser bar in the image above is a piece I designed using a combination of Maya, Fusion 360, and Meshmixer. It has printed internal threads to allow the bridge posts to be raised and lowered. I printed it in the acrylic-like Vero photoresin material on an Objet Connex 500 printer. Although it doesn't quite fit with the vintage look of the guitar, it was a fun piece to design that serves it purpose of raising the bridge while looking very unique.
Step 11: Wiring and Soldering
I installed the four electronic components: two potentiometers, one switch, and one jack. I followed a standard Telecaster wiring diagram, since I had already chosen Telecaster-like controls. I wired the components together, including adding a 0.047uf capacitor for the tone control, and soldered them in place.
I should have tested the wiring before I closed up the body, but in fact I tore through the next step and sealed up the body without checking my wiring first. Luckily, I made the correct connections and didn't have to open it back up.
Step 12: Binding and Trim
This is one of the more meticulous steps. The two clamshell halves of the body come with a piece of plastic binding to create a clean seam. However, you have to cut the binding allow it to follow the contour of the guitar without kinking. I used an x-acto blade to cut plastic away and a heat gun to help the plastic mold to the shape of the guitar. With a lot of effort, I eventually got the binding to sit flat and the two halves to slot together. The last step is screwing the back to the front.
Step 13: Finished!
Ready to shred!