Guitar DIY Workshop: Swamp Monster
Fancy assembling a partscaster with a body made of ash, the legendary Fender tonewood? In the first of a DIY two-parter, Huw Price begins the project
Although a few prototypes were made from pine and mahogany, swamp ash is reputed to be the wood that Fender used for the bodies of most early Strats. There are differences of opinion over the exact meaning of the term ‘swamp ash’. For purists (and maybe fantasists) it’s ash that has grown in swampy marshlands down where the ‘gators go. To others it’s merely a generic marketing term that covers any lightweight ash from the southern US states that has been cut from the base of the tree.
Various factors have been blamed for the drop in quality of Fender guitars during the 1970s. Besides the alterations to the pickups and hardware, and the switch to poly finishes, Fenders put on weight. Legend has it that the CBS bean counters demanded a switch to cheaper ‘green’ ash from the north. Gibsons gained weight during the ’70s too, but both companies managed to fob everybody off for a while by claiming that weight improved sustain.
Depending on the cut, ash grain can be straight or create swirling patterns that look fantastic under a sunburst or translucent blonde finish. So why did Fender more or less phase out ash in favour of alder around 1956? Alder is a closed-pore wood that requires fewer production processes to achieve a high quality finish.
In contrast ash grain is open and requires extensive preparation before any finish can be applied.
Alder didn’t make Fenders sound worse, but guitars of the late 1950s and early 1960s sound different to those of the early to mid-1950s. Matters are complicated by the introduction of rosewood board necks and warmer-sounding pickups. Nevertheless we at G&B have come to appreciate the characteristics of lightweight ash bodies and figured it was about time we had a swamp ash Strat.
One of our office dust-gatherers is an alder-bodied Strat that was once subjected to some of our early attempts at relicing. Although no looker, it’s a fine-sounding guitar with a nice V-profile maple neck… an ideal candidate for an ash body transplant. We’d have to have to figure out how to spray a two-tone 1950s sunburst, lacquer would need to be sourced, experts consulted and much elbow work would be required. Here’s how we did it…
1: Consult An Expert
We phoned the man many consider the finest guitar restorer in the world, Yorkshire’s own Clive Brown. Asked about ’50s sunbursts it turned out that we had to distinguish between early ’50s and late ’50s, because Fender went from two-colours ’bursts to three around 1958.
We fancied a two-tone, so the next decision was pre- or post-1955, because the dark shading around the edge gradually became wider. Then we had to decide between ’54 or ’55; for the earlier sunbursts Fender dyed the bodies yellow prior to spraying, while in 1955 they began spraying the bodies with yellow-tinted lacquer. It quickly became apparent that things were more complicated than we had first imagined.
Further research suggested that the very first 1954 Strats really were two-tone; the centre part of the body was left natural and the edges were done with 20 per cent black mixed with clear, with no yellow/amber section. The edges were stained Jacobean dark oak then the black mixture was sprayed over the edges to give the shading effect. Afterwards, the yellow was sprayed on top, a bit like 1940s Gibson acoustic sunbursts.
After the very first ones Fender figured out how to do sunbursts, and once the ash had been sealed with thin coats of shellac they used oil-based grain filler. A very bright yellow aniline dye was then sprayed onto the front and back, leaving out the area below the pickups under the pickguard.
A stain called Salem Maple – red and black mixed with clear – was used to shade the rounded over parts of the body, then Fender used Dark Salem Maple stain, which is a more concentrated and slightly blacker version, to spray round the edges. This was sealed with clear nitrocellulose.
After sufficient clear coats had been applied, the earliest ones were sanded flat with 220 grit paper, then three more very thin gloss top coats were applied to gloss the finish back up. Around 1956 the ones that didn’t end up with such a good finish were rubbed down and buffed up with some sort of polishing compound.
Later in the 1950s a large brush was used to brush off the brown overspray before moving on to the next spraying stages – red and clear coats. This process was used from 1958 onwards, giving a red band in the sunburst. Lastly, ’50s edges are definitely brown but from ’61 they seem blacker – although under strong light it’s apparent that they were still not completely black.
At this point we should stress that we had no intention of making a 100 per cent accurate vintage replica. We were more interested in creating something in the spirit of the originals using easily obtainable materials. So we decided to use the post-1954 style amber lacquer rather than yellow wood dye to give ourselves a bit more margin for error. Clive Brown had also stressed that the edges of two-tone sunbursts were dark brown rather than black so we contacted Steve Robinson (www.manchesterguitartech.co.uk) to ask if he had anything suitable. Steve supplied four aerosol tins of lacquer – one dark tobacco brown, one amber, and two of clear gloss.
3: Sourcing The Body
Finding a replacement swamp ash body for a Stratocaster proved easy. There are various suppliers all over the world, but we decided to try a body from a new UK-based company called Guitar Build (www.guitarbuild.co.uk). They sell a wide variety of unfinished and pre-finished guitar bodies. You can choose between one, two or three-piece construction and specify the weight. Lightweight one-piece bodies like the one we chose tend to command higher prices.
We were impressed when the new body arrived. It weighed just 1.8kg or 4lbs – exactly as described – and the grain looked even nicer in real life. The body had been very carefully packaged for posting, and it was apparent that relatively little sanding would be required in preparation for spraying.
4: Trial Assembly
We realised it would be better to find out if all our parts would fit before spraying the body, so a dry run was required. Our old Strat was stripped down and the neck was offered up to the new body. The end of the neck was about 0.5mm too wide for the neck pocket, so we carefully sanded the lower edge of the socket until we could push the neck into position.
The neck screw holes were already partly drilled, so we clamped the body to a scrap piece of plywood to prevent chip out and drilled them all the way through. To our relief the new holes lined up perfectly with holes that were already in the neck, so we didn’t have to plug them and re-drill. Within a few minutes the neck was attached to the new body and we turned our attention to the bridge.
Again the screw holes were clearly marked, so we drilled them to the required depth then drilled two holes for the vibrato spring claw. With the bridge in position we figured we’d fit the loaded pickguard while we were at it and hooked up the output jack too. After stringing up and a quick spring tension adjustment we had a playable guitar and the whole process had taken less than two hours.
After all this initial excitement it was time to disassemble the guitar and begin the preparation process. We used 240 grit paper on a sanding block for the flat surfaces and sanded with the grain of the wood rather than across the grain. The edges were done by hand without the sanding block. The part that needed most attention was the tummy tuck at the back; we used a detail sander for that bit. We also rounded off the edges of the jack plate hole so the plate would sit flat on the body. Fender did this too back in the day.
Preparation is a long process, so it’s best to just work until you feel fed up, stop and do something else, then come back to it. When you’re getting to the point where you think you must be finished, you’re probably about halfway there! Sanding can be boring, but if you don’t do a thorough job of it you will never achieve a professional-looking finish.
6: Sealing and Filling
Eventually we finished sanding and dusted off the body with a brush and some tack cloth to remove all the loose material. Make sure you get the dust out from all the routs and holes. To seal the body you may choose to use shellac-based sanding sealer, or spray a couple of coats of clear lacquer over the whole body. Apparently Fender used a shellac sealer in the early days, and it can be applied using a brush or a clean cloth; either way, beware of runs. Brushes may shed hairs or leave marks so we applied some shellac using a cut off from an old T-shirt. The ash soaked it straight up like a sponge.
After leaving the sealer coat to dry off overnight, we applied our grain filler. Steve Robinson had also supplied a tin of Rustins Natural grain filler. As instructed, we diluted the paste with white spirits until it had the consistency of double cream, then wiped the filler onto the body working across the grain.
When the filler began to set, we wiped off the excess and left the body to dry for 24 hours. We repeated the filling process, then carefully sanded the surface with 320 grit paper to remove any excess. The filler needs to be thoroughly dry before you start sanding otherwise it will just clog up the paper.
Grain-filling is essential and unavoidable when you’re finishing an ash body. The structure of lightweight ash has been likened to the inside of a Malteser because there’s a lot of air between the fibres; that’s why it’s so light. Obviously lacquer can’t stick to fresh air, so grain filler bridges the gaps between the fibres. Without it, you’d have no hope of achieving a flat surface.
7: Build Coat
Fiddes High Build base coat has played an indispensable part in all of our recent finishing projects. This cellulose-based product can be brushed onto the body and it sets very fast. We recommend brushing three or four coats onto the guitar to build up the layers as quickly and cheaply as possible. Try to get the base coat on thickly because it self-levels quite well and you’ll get fewer brush marks. However, take care to avoid runs.
Since we were planning to use a brush, we first sealed the body by spraying a few coats of clear lacquer over the grain filler as we didn’t want to risk the bristles lifting the grain filler off the wood. Allowed to dry overnight, the Fiddes base coat sands easily with 320 grit paper and you’ll be able to lose any remaining brush marks. Use a sanding block for the flat surfaces and carefully hand-sand the edges.
You should aim for a uniformly matt surface once the build coats have been sanded. Examine the body carefully for any areas that still appear glossy because those will actually be slightly indented, and they’ll show up as bumps after the finish has been polished.
Keep applying the base coat and sanding until all the glossy areas disappear. It will probably look much the same as it did before you started, but the body should feel as smooth as a ‘baby’s proverbial’ – and that’s actually the point of the whole procedure. Fortunately the fun part is next, because the body will be ready for bursting to begin.
For an alternative to the Fiddes base coat you could check out Manchester Guitar Tech’s high-build base coat aerosols.
So why were we so keen to have a swamp ash Strat? After all, some argue that pickups have more influence on the tone of an electric guitar than the type of wood that’s used for the body. On balance that’s probably fair enough, but some go further, stating that the timber has no significant effect on tone. If you’re playing through a high-gain amp with a powerful equalisation section, that’s probably true as well. But if you prefer to play with clean, semi-dirty or vintage style overdrive, it’s our contention that the timber has an obvious and significant effect.
In our experience, Strats with light ash bodies tend to have a more wiry, stinging and spanky tone. There should be deep lows and ultra-clear highs, but the midrange isn’t as thick and harmonically loaded as you might expect from an alder body. In our pre-finish dry run, our guitar seemed to sustain longer with its ash body than with the alder, and the dynamic response has a natural compression at the front end followed by a gentle swell. The distinctions between pickup settings seem more pronounced and the phasiness of the inbetween tones is emphasised. We wouldn’t claim that ash ‘sounds better’ than alder, but if you love
Strats, swamp ash combined with a one-piece maple neck is a glorious thing. So with our preparation finished, in the next part we’ll be showing you how to spray your ash body with a vintage-style two-tone sunburst. We’ll also be engaging in some light relicing – so check back soon to see how this project turns out…
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