Guitar Workshop: Tools of the Trade
Don’t know your cross-head from your multi-core? Scan your beadies over these pages for a comprehensive outline of the basic tools required to work on electric guitars and basses
You don’t need a workshop bulging with gear to repair electric guitars – all it takes to get started is a handful of tools costing as little as about £35, and a clear table top (plus, of course, access to a mains socket to power a small desk light and a soldering iron). Fortunately, most of the tools used to repair electric guitars are the same as those you would use for regular domestic electrical work, and are readily available from DIY stores at reasonable prices. Here’s a typical list of tools required for electro-surgery…
Medium-size Philips cross-head – for scratchplate and cavity plate screws, switch screws and pickup screws, and so on.
Medium-size flat-blade – for most control knob fixing screws, plus Gibson humbucker-type height adjuster screws.
Small to medium sized wire cutters (also called electrician’s cutters).
A small kitchen knife with a three-inch blade – the size you might choose to cut small vegetables – is my favourite. The blade isn’t as sharp as a scalpel, but this reduces the chances of cutting both the insulation and the multi-core wire when you strip the end of a wire in preparation for tinning. This can be tricky on both screened and unscreened wire.
Small Table-Mounted Vice
A 3″ to 4″ bench-mount type is best. Maplin and B&Q have many suitable small vices on offer; some are fixed to the table by a single screw clamp, while some are held by a devilishly cunning sucker mechanism. A great first-time vice is available from Maplin; they call it a Hobby Vice (fnar, fnar), and it costs around £15. The vice is designed to be vacuum-mounted, and is man enough for most jobs. Their Table Vice, however, is a much better bet, and it costs about the same. This vice mechanism is well-made with a very cunning ‘fit any situation’ table-mounting system – great for guitar techs.
Any domestic Anglepoise-type light will do.
You will need a set of three double-ended box spanners which have different-sized spanners at each end: 12 and 13mm, 10 and 11mm, and a 2 and 4BA.
Box spanners are a really useful tools as they allow you to slacken and tighten nuts on a guitar without endangering the finish or the scratchplate. The three sizes quoted cover the volume and tone control nuts, the larger output socket, and the mighty fiddly miniature toggle-switch fixing nut.
The output socket nut on guitars that use a recessed output socket, such as a Strat or Telecaster, can only be tightened successfully with a box spanner, so this size is a must. As tools go they are very cheap, so treat yourself to a set.
You will need two soldering irons, a 15W to 25W pencil-type, and a whopping great 100W soldering gun. The pencil iron is used mostly for soldering the wires that carry the signal of the pickups; these connections are quite small and so relatively easy to solder quickly and successfully. My favourite iron is an Antex 15W pencil type which is light, heats up rapidly and doesn’t eat its bit or tip too quickly. It’ll cost around £20 from Maplin.
The solder gun is used to unsolder earth connections to the metal casing of volume and tone controls. These are much harder to work on than signal connections because the metal casings are substantial enough to draw the heat away from a small iron and so prevent the solder from melting.
This ‘earth the casing’ technique is important because it provides both a reliable and an effective method of distributing the earth return within the guitar and also valuable EMR hum and buzz screening. Unfortunately, the connections to the casing are impossible to unsolder with a low-wattage soldering iron; this is a job best left to a solder gun which heats up rapidly when you pull and hold the trigger.
Do that and it’s ready to pour serious wattage into the solder connection – then the gun happily turns itself off and the tip cools down when the trigger is released. My own gun is produced by Weller, it has proven itself to be a reliable and effective bit of kit and comes highly recommended. Most regular DIY stores will sell this gun or one very like it from around £30.
For the one-stop shopper some online outfits offer complete soldering kits, which can come complete with a 100W gun, a 30W pencil iron, a miniature workpiece holder and a bundle of spare bits and some solder, all in a durable plastic case. At the moment you can buy the Draper kit on eBay from £27.
Medium weight ‘multi-core’ solder is suitable for both signal and earth connections. Buy small amounts to begin with, and rolls when you’ve got the hang of it. Down the centre of this solder run four or more lines of flux which travel the length of the solder, in Brighton rock lettering style.
The flux is a nasty concoction of chemicals which eat into the surface of the metals to be soldered – an important brew, as it cleans the metal surfaces and aids the transfer of heat from the gun, but it stinks when it melts so remember not to have your head over the iron looking down onto the work when the little puff of smoke comes up! This position guarantees a lung full of unpleasantness which is probably very unhealthy, so keep your nose to one side and away from the whiff.
Soldering: The Rules
Electrical soldering is an easy skill to master if you follow the right procedures. It’s all about preparation, an organised worksurface, and good technique. In fact, if you need the four golden rules of soldering, here they are…
1) All contacts to be soldered together must be clean of tarnish and oxidation, made tidy and correctly ‘tinned’.
2) Contacts to be soldered together must be placed together and heated up by the iron sufficiently to melt the solder tinning before any further solder is applied to them.
3) The new joint must remain completely still whilst the solder cools.
4) Only use multi-core solder.
The first three rules require a little practice to perfect.
Cleaning the contacts before soldering is important because it ensures that the solder takes quickly to the new joint. Speed is of the essence here as it saves the rest of the component from excessive heat stress, an important consideration on small components such as capacitors, switch contacts and the insulation on most of the signal carrying wires.
Once clean, the contacts are tinned with the iron, which leaves a thin layer of solder on the end of the wire or on the surface of a contact or solder tag. This prepares them to be soldered back into the circuit.
Tinning a Wire
You’ll encounter three sorts of wire in electric guitars: single-core, multi-strand and screened. Tinning a single-core wire is the easiest: first, strip off a short length of insulation to expose the wire inside, and scrape it with the knife. Next, apply the tip of the hot iron to the wire and wait a second or two for it to warm up. Now push one end of the solder onto the wire and watch as it melts instantly on contact. Pull the solder away from the wire and then remove the iron. The wire is properly tinned when the entire surface of the exposed end is plated with a thin coating of solder.
The most common wire you will encounter is multi-strand, which contains not just one core of wire as in the previous example, but many. These strands must be twisted together tidily before the wire is tinned; the twist and the solder tinning ties the strands together so that they will not unravel when finally joined into the circuit. Apply the iron and then the solder as before.
Although tinning is the simplest part of soldering many people decide not to bother with it, hoping that sheer force and willpower will make it happen correctly. Don’t be tempted – a few moments cleaning and tinning can save hours of work and a bunch of deep-fried components.
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