Build your own '56 Strat
Tuesday 17th of February 2009 04:59:38 PM
By: Jake Farey
See how to create your own strat mixing and matching old and new guitar parts. Use our in-depth guide and little care to fix your pedals without resorting to expert attention
When we made our Rory Gallagher replica, we started the project with a donor guitar. We could have done the same again, but this time I decided on a different strategy: to take the pick-and-mix approach of Mr Clapton himself.
The story of Blackie goes back to 1970. Kicking his heels in Nashville on a stopover on the 1970 Derek & The Dominos tour, Eric chanced upon the legendary Sho-Bud pedal steel store. At the back, sitting forlornly on a rack, was a whole row of Strats and Teles, priced at just a few hundred dollars apiece. Clapton grabbed half a dozen, threw them in the back of the car, and brought them back to England. Three went as gifts to mates: Harrison, Townshend and Winwood. Clapton kept the remaining three, and by taking a body from one, a neck from another and by mixing and matching pickups and assorted components, he assembled the guitar that would become his companion and trademark for the next 15 years.
†Information on Blackie is thin. We know the alder body is a ’56, the all-maple neck a ’57 with the V profile typical of that particular year. But alas, detailed pictures are hard to come by – though there’s a good one in G&B issue 17 no. 11, some others on the web at http://doodlesite.com/crowdie/ec/blackie.htm, and some excellent info on the Fender video on the making of the official Blackie Tribute Series replica in 2006.
Body & Neck
First, we found an Allparts neck with a ’50s-style soft ‘V’ profile and a nitro finish. Apparently Blackie’s neck had a slim hard ‘V’, but since ours already had a fairly decent finish we decided not to get into re-profiling and refinishing.
If you look closely at the back of the neck in Fender’s video it shows hardly any wear at all, so it’s entirely possible that the back of Blackie’s neck had received a blow-over at some point. Then again, looking at the earliest photos of Clapton with Blackie, it’s obvious that much of the wear on the fingerboard was already there when he started playing it, and it didn’t deteriorate much in the following years. Little things like the spotless control knobs and pickup covers plus the overall cleanliness suggest that Blackie was always cherished and well cared for.
When our neck arrived it just looked and felt too glossy, so the first job was to knock that back with some ultra-fine steel wool. It doesn’t take much effort, so work carefully to avoid overdoing it – and keep your movements random, because you don’t want obvious scratches that all go in the same direction.
Wear patterns develop on a maple fingerboard between the strings rather than beneath them. I attached the neck to the body, strung it up and set to work with a felt polishing wheel on a Dremel. Anything more abrasive would simply eat into the wood and make a mess of the frets, so the idea is to rub through the finish. You’ll be amazed how quickly a felt pad can rub through nitro, but take care not to set the speed to high or the finish will melt into goo, or even burn.
The felt pad left some high edges, but I smoothed those down with the back of my thumbnail. Regular wood stains didn’t have much impact on the fingerboard, so I used some black artist oil paint with a little burnt umber mixed in.† I simply wiped it on with a paper towel, rubbed it in then buffed it off.
After examining a close-up picture of the guitar I started work on the front of the headstock, again using the Dremel plus oil paint to recreate the original wear patterns. There are quite a few knocks and scratches but the multiple cigarette burns are Blackie’s most distinctive feature – I don’t smoke, so it was off to the newsagent’s for a packet of 10! For truly authentic results you should use Rothmans… but I was on a budget.
Tuners & Bridge
It seems that Eric, or his tech Lee Dickson, replaced tuners as and when they needed to. At some point the high E had an F-branded 1970s tuner, but by the time Blackie was sold it had a mixed set of Klusons with later-style double lines on the low E and A, and four early-style single lines for the other strings.
Bassart Guitars were able to supply nicely relic’d versions of both types, but I needed to add a bit of extra grime. I dipped a stiff bristled paintbrush into some shellac/button polish and flicked the brush to deposit droplets of shellac onto the gearbox. You could even use knotting solution, because it’s actually the same stuff.
The base of the tuners often pressed into the lacquer, leaving their outline. Dirt always seems to collect there, so I wiped the area over with some naphtha-based grain filler to mimic the effect. Blackie’s ferrules were also much darker and more corroded than the string posts, so I aged them electronically and applied the same treatment to the Allparts bridge and steel trem block, plus various screws. See our Rory aged Strat feature for more details on this technique.
By 1956 Fender bodies were changing over from ash to alder, so Blackie was one of the first alder Stratocasters. Allparts UK supplied a very nice two-piece replacement body, but the contours weren’t quite right for a real 1950s look: the earlier bodies always had a longer and noticeably deeper tummy tuck.
To solve this I clamped my 1962 body and the Allparts body together, took measurements, then drew the proper contour line. Using a mini plane I carefully whittled way the excess wood and smoothed it over with a delta sander.
Spraying nitro-cellulose isn’t too difficult, and Manchester Guitar Tech provided all the necessary materials. I’ve never used pro spray guns but I’ve finished several guitars with aerosols, and Manchester Guitar Tech aerosols dispense evenly from the can… and the lacquer doesn’t run. First I hammered three nails into the front of the body, just like Fender used to, but
I didn’t bolt a paint stick onto the neck pocket because the factory only started doing that in late 1962. The Blackie pictures don’t show any primer, so I built up some base coats using some clear satin then sprayed two cans of black over the top. Steve suggested that after flatting back I should over-spray with several coats of tinted clear gloss to ‘green the black up a bit’.
Spraying the front of the body then placing it downwards, elevated on the nails, is actually easier than hanging the body up. It really allows you to get the lacquer onto the edges, and it minimises the chances of runs.
Aging The Body
Ideally you should leave the finish to settle and shrink for a couple of months before cutting back and polishing, but for once time constraints worked to our advantage. Polishing early allowed the glossed up finish to sink into the grain, just as it had on Blackie.
All the quality guitar aging folks will tell you that you should start with a factory standard finish and work back from there – so the first job was knocking back the too-new gloss with some 0000-grade wire wool. Try not to apply much pressure, and keep the direction of your movements as random as possible to avoid obvious scratches. Once I had a soft sheen all over the guitar, I used some wax car polish to† achieve a softer gloss that looked deeper and older than the bare paint.
Don’t let anybody tell you that creating a convincing aged finish is easy. Granted, you can attack it with a belt sander and you’ll be done in a few minutes, so long as you don’t mind having a guitar that’s wrecked rather than aged. However, carefully replicating the wear patterns of another guitar without damaging the wood underneath requires considerable care and patience. Scraping the finish off with a Stanley knife blade is quite easy on the edges, but the flat surfaces are trickier.
For this project I had to remove about a third of the finish from the back of the body. I placed masking tape where I wanted my edge to be, then removed the paint up close to the edge using a delta sander, and finally finished off using a sharp blade. It takes a fair amount of care to avoid gouging the wood. I referred constantly to photos as well as the Fender video when removing the lacquer, and added dents and blemishes with a variety of hard objects. Just use your imagination – but also use taste and a good dollop of restraint. Next, I raised the grain of the wood at the back by brushing it with water. Once dry I wiped the exposed wood with Colron antique pine stain and rubbed in some soot where it seemed appropriate.
With everything looking good, I called my neighbour to ask if she minded me putting a body in her deep freeze overnight. Lacquer cracks when it experiences rapid and extreme temperature changes, such as when being carried from the back of a van on a freezing night into a hot venue. Hence the deep freeze –although some people use aerosols of compressed air. Just hold them upside down and then spray onto the guitar, and a film of ice should develop on the surface. So long as the lacquer you’ve used isn’t too full of plasticisers, it should crack fairly quickly.
Forget pre-CBS vintage mojo: Blackie had a set of staggered grey-bottom Fender pickups with dark number stamps. In all likelihood, these were made some time between the late 1960s and 1974. If in original condition, they would have been machine-wound with plain enamel wire and lacquer-dipped rather than wax-potted.
Fortunately Shed Pickups rose to the challenge and made a set just like Eric’s, complete with lightly corroded polepieces, aged base plates and plastic-covered hook up wire. What’s more, they sounded just as good as they looked. If there’s anyone out there making aged pickups that look and sound more convincing than Shed’s, I have yet to find them.
Plastics & Electrics
I don’t know how closely Fatboy Guitars looked at the pictures of Blackie I sent them, but the plastics and electronics set they provided were stunning. They noticed that Blackie’s switch tip was slightly off white, and the pickup covers looked fairly fresh and shiny.
The scratchplate came with a 1950s-style metal shielding plate under the three CTS pots, and the five-way switch was a genuine CRL. Fatboy even corroded the shaft without damaging the switch itself – a very classy touch. The crowning glory, however, was the Luxe relic ‘phonebook’ capacitor. The quality of the workmanship was so high that it broke my heart to strip out much of that lovely cloth-covered wire and reconfigure it to Blackie specs, complete with grey shielded output cable.
It looked far worse afterwards, but after all, I was trying to make the most accurate replica I could. So I had to install copper shielding too, and this came from Allparts UK. Blackie probably had a copper sheet, but the Allparts shielding is like copper foil with adhesive on one side. I cut it to shape with a scissors stuck it to the scratchplate, sprinkled it with salt and left it outside in the rain overnight to oxidise. Lastly I painted the pickup and control cavities with conductive paint.
I’m thrilled with the way this one has turned out. I’d estimate that
the cost was somewhere between £400 and £500, although you could do it
cheaper with a donor guitar and non-aged parts. Then again, I think
this one is in a different league to our Rory replica, thanks to some
quality parts and the expert help and guidance of Steve Robinson,
Spencer Mumford and guitar restorer and builder Dave Dearnaley. If you
lack the readies for a real ’56 Strat – and who doesn’t – then try
creating your own. It’s a huge amount of fun.
1. Build your own '56 Strat
2. Build your own '56 Strat