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Birds-eye Maple Tele with stainless steel bridge

I had purchased a Mexican made Telecaster to see if I liked playing a Tele. I found it much to my liking, but began to wish for something a little lighter in weight after gigging with it a few times. Three hours of hanging a standard Tele around my neck proved hard on these old and weary bones!
When I spotted an appropriate piece of birds-eye maple in the local woodworking store I knew a heavenly match had been made. Few construction details are outlined here, as this was a very simple one-off project. Any competent Luthier should be able to duplicate my results easily. I finished off the project with extensive shielding, a new stainless steel bridge assembly, and recessed Dunlop strap-locs.
I also disliked the Tele's jack location so it seemed quite logical to re-locate the jack to the control plate location. Much better now.

Click on any image for a larger view.

Bent sides in form

The wood as purchased was 7/8" thick and about 8" wide, so I split two 24" lengths in half to create two sets of bookmatched pieces about 3/8" thick which would become the front and back of the instrument. These were reduced to 1/4" in thickness after planing. Now the fun could begin...
Sides were bent from 1& 3/4" wide strips of birds-eye reduced to.065" in thickness and solid center section glued in place. The bottom of the form was removed next and sections of maple 5/8" wide were added to the entire perimeter. The side profile was used to trace the profile directly on the pieces as they were cut and glued in position. The various sections can be seen in the following photos.
Angled wings were cut and glued in to strengthen the body and eliminate the possibility of body resonance. At this point, the surface where the top would join the body was carefully safety-planed level.

Routing for black/white/black corner detail

Creative routing..this was done to route a 3/8" channel on each side of the neck extension for a decorative black/white/black corner. A decorative 5 piece wedge of ebony and maple was also inset at the body's bottom edge. These details were done before top or back plates could be added.

Top plate glued on, preparing for back plate

First, the prepared top was glued in place and the previously cut control cavity was glued to the underside of the top. Filler pieces were added where the body would be drilled for wires to pass between the bridge pickup recess and the control cavity.
The body was completely rigid after the top was glued in place.
The rear surface was safety-planed to to end up with a 1-3/4" body depth with the addition of the back plate. After the rear plate was glued, the top recesses for pickups and controls were opened up.

I just needed one more clamp...

Time to check the clamp inventory...There are lots of ways to clamp the plates to the sides, you just have to be creative with what you have to work with.

Sanding the top/back overhang flush with the sides

Top and bottom overhangs were removed using a 2" sanding drum in the drill press. A guide below the drum prevented the sanding drum from touching the sides. The bottom 3/8" of the guide finger was removed to eliminate interferance with the edge overhang before the opposite side was sanded.

Neck pocket layout

The location of the neck pocket was traced onto the top after the neck was carefully placed in the correct position..

Neck pocket

The finished neck pocket route. The neck was test-fit into the neck pocket and fit perfectly. While in position, the exact location of the bridge mounting screws were marked. The position of the bridge could have been adjusted slightly up or down if the neck center line wasn't lined up with the body center line, but this wasn't necessary as everything lined up perfectly. The bridge mounting holes were then drilled with a drill press and the bridge fastened in position. Next the through holes for the strings were drilled partially through the body using a drill bit slightly smaller than the holes in the bridge plate held in a drill press. Remove the bridge and finish drilling the holes through the body, using a piece of scrap under the body to reduce the risk of tear-out when the drill tip exits the body. Flip the body over and counter-drill the string holes with a 3/8" brad point drill bit to the correct depth to accomodate the flush mount string ferrules. Drill 1/16" deeper than the length of the ferrules. When everything is assembled, this results in a perfect path for the string to pass through, with no edges for the string tip to catch on when being pushed through the body.

Neck pickup cover recess routing

The location of the neck pickup cavity was marked and excess wood removed with a Forstner bit. Edges were cleaned up with the router riding against an edge guide for all the straight sections.

Since I wouldn't be using a pick guard, it was necessary to make a pickup cover plate which would blend in with the existing top and hardware, but be as unobtrusive as possible. I chose to make one from black plastic and recess it so it would be flush with the top plate.

This could be hard to explain, but bear with me a minute...

The recess for the neck pickup cover was routed with the pattern template shown here. This technique can be used effectively in many situations. Draw the outline of the pickup cover on a 1/2" piece of plywood. My cover was drawn 1/4" wider than the pickup cavity, and 1" longer to allow for mounting screws at the ends.
On my router, the base is 2 & 3/4" beyond the cutting face of a 1/4" bit so I drew a line 2 and 3/4" outside the previously drawn pattern. Cut this outside pattern out and carefully sand the inside edge which the router base will bear against. Clamp this guide on top of a 1/4" piece of plywood and route out the shape produced by the larger router guide pattern. WAIT! DO NOT UNCLAMP YET! Trace the outer guide on the 1/4" piece, remove it and carefully cut out and sand until it drops into the router guide. Now you can easily place the finished two-piece guide in the correct location, remove the inner section, and route out a perfectly located pickup cover recess.

Completed pickup cover recess

The inner form is now used trace a perfect matching pattern of the pickup cover on an appropriate cover material. I used a piece of black plastic about 1/16" thick trimmed from a piece of scrap purchased from the local plastics supply house.

Completed body after finishing and installation of shielding

All mounting holes were drilled for all hardware before the finish was applied, including the 5/8" Dunlop strap-loc recesses drilled with a Forstner bit. The body was sanded to 220, then the first 5 coats of Tru-oil were applied. The surface was lightly sanded between each coat. Five more coats were applied with a light 0000 steel wool buffing between coats. The finish was then de-glossed by sanding lightly with 400 grit lubricated with mineral oil. The flat finish tends to subdue the bird'seye figure slightly, but I really like the feel.
The shielding was done next, prior to instrument reassembly.

Shielding and grounding

I went a little nuts here, but it vastly reduced the hum created from noise-producing devices. Body cavities were lined with self-adhesive foil purchased in a 12" by 12" sheet from a stained glass supply house. The resulting copper foil edges were soldered together within the cavities.
I removed the outer covering and inner conductor from short sections of spare coaxial cable and soldered the ends of the braided shield. The pickup leads were passed through the shield and the resulting shielded assembly pulled through the holes drilled between body cavities. The ends of the shield were then soldered to the foil, forming a continuous unbroken shield for the wiring.
I can now sit in front of the monitor with no noticeable ac hum present at normal volume. That's a big improvement. It should transfer over to a much quieter instrument when I'm under neon beer signs in the clubs, too!

Making a stainless steel bridge

A new stainless steel bridge was made which incorporates thru-body or top loading string mounting and a simple one piece adjustable bridge. The bridge can also be fitted with the popular three piece brass saddle set if desired. It's also rust and corrosion proof and polishes easily to a beautiful mirror-like finish.
The new bridge assembly started life as a 12" by 12" by .090" type 304 stainless steel sheet purchased from McMaster-Carr. This should serve as a lifetime supply of bridge blank material for the average person. I also purchased 12" by 1/4" square oversized stainless steel keystock to form the one piece adjustable bridge. These two items came to around twenty dollars plus the charge for shipping. All other hardware was purchased from the local hardware store at a cost of approximately two dollars. Other hardware included two #6 x 32 x 1-1/2" stainless streel machine screws for intonation adjustment, two 1" long springs stretched out a bit to fit over these screws, and two #8 x 32 x 5/16" stainless allen head set screws for bridge height adjustment. Total time spent was somewhere in the neighborhood of six hours.

What you need to know about machining 304 stainless steel...

Although stainless steel as used here is more difficult to machine than mild steel, it can be done if the right techniques are used. Make cuts using a jig saw with a high quality fine tooth blade using planty of oil as a lubricant / coolant. All holes require the use of a drill press to exert the extra pressure necessary for efficient cutting action. Use new high quality bits with oil as lubricant / coolant. Bits will probably be too worn to use after drilling the holes in one bridge. It's the price of working with stainless. In general, use slower speeds than you would normally use for mild steel. Keep taps lubricated with oil and drill the holes slightly larger than the recommended size for tapping to reduce the amount of force exerted on the tap while cutting the threads. The threads will still be plenty strong for the job they are required to do. All edges are smoothed by the use of a small stationary belt sander equipped with a medium grit belt. A bucket of water needs to be kept close by to cool the stainless as it is sanded. It gets very warm in a very short time.
The rust/corrosion resistance and ability to easily polish the bridge to a mirror-like finish is worth the effort.

Layout of the bridge blank

Start by checking your actual bridge dimensions and adjust dimensions listed here accordingly.
Cut a 3-1/8" by 5-1/2" long blank from the .090" type 304 stainless steel sheet stock. Leave the protective plastic film in place until all cutting and drilling operations are completed. Smooth the rough edges on a stationary belt sander. Draw a line 3-7/8" back from the rear edge and bend the shorter end up at a 90 degree angle with a small sheet metal brake. A local sheet metal / machine shop will probably do this for a few bucks if you don't have access to a brake. Remove the original bridge and trace the bridge plate outline, bridge mounting screw holes, pickup cutout, and mounting screw locations onto a piece of paper. DO NOT mark the locations for the string thru-body holes yet.
Cut the pattern's pickup opening out using an exacto hobby knife and tape the pattern onto the rear of the blank using care to make certain it is oriented correctly. Transfer the pickup opening location to the blank using a sharp scriber or something similar. Center punch all hole locations and remove the paper pattern. Go over the pickup opening scribed marking with a fine tipped permanant marker. Drill the 5/32" pickup mounting screw holes and the 3/16" mounting screw holes at their centerpunched locations. The next operation will be cutting out the pickup opening.

Cutting out the pickup opening

Mount the bridge blank to a 3/4" plywood backer board to immobilize it while cutting out the pickup opening. Drill two 3/16" closely spaced holes along each length of the pickup opening, taking care to stay inside the marked lines.
Connect the two holes by SLOWLY angling the drill side to side until the two holes become a slot.
Cut the opening as close as possible with a jig saw. The end semicircular areas are best cut out by making several closely spaced cuts at right angles directly up to the line. The pickup opening can be easily smoothed with a 1/2" diameter coarse sanding drum held in a rotary hobby tool once the waste area is removed.
Deburr all holes and edges and temporarily fasten the bridge to the top of the guitar. Insert a drill-mounted 3/32" drill bit through the string ferrules and mark their locations. Now is a good time to mark the bridge flange end at it's finished 7/16" height.
Remove the bridge, reattach it to the temporary backing board, centerpunch the thru-body 3/32" rear string ferrule hole locations and drill them out.
Flip the bridge over and countersink the bridge mounting screw holes with a 82 degree standard countersink.

Trimming excess height

Mount the bridge blank vertically on a board with a slot cut in it as shown. The slot serves as clearance area for the jig saw blade allowing the excess material to be trimmed from the bridge tail. Trim the tail to it's final 7/16" overall height, leaving a little to make certain all blade marks can be removed by belt sanding. Extend the location of the string-thru body holes to the bridge tail and centerpunch for drilling. Drill the 3/32" string holes for top loader option.
Lay out the three intonation screw locations between string pairs and drill these three 5/32" holes. Only two of the three holes are used here, but three are provided to use the popular three piece brass angled saddles if it is desired to do so.
Remove the protective plastic, sand all rough edges, round corners, and mount the finished base to the board again. Polish the base to a high shine using jeweler's rouge on a 6" polishing pad mounted in the drill press. Use a fairly high speed and excersize caution not to let the wheel catch on any of the edges.

Completed bridge showing arched saddle made from 1/4" stainless keystock

A hardwood block was cut to a profile matching the fingerboard radius and a few hammer blows quickly shaped the 1/4" stainless keystock to a curvature matching the fretboard radius. The keystock was cut 2-15/16" long, the ends drilled slightly oversize and tapped for the #8 x 32 x 5/16" stainless steel allen head adjustment screws. The ends can now be rounded slightly past the adjustment screw locations.
The location of the intonation screws was marked on the side of the saddle and the screw locations were centerpunched. The holes were drilled while the saddle was held firmly in a drill press vise. Note that these holes are angled slightly to allow the screws to be parallel to the strings. The holes are drilled slightly oversize then counter-bored on the side facing the bridge with a 5/32" bit to a depth of 1/8". This is done so only 1/8" is actually tapped for the #6 x 32 x 1-1/2" stainless intonation screws. This allows the angle to be changed slightly and reduces the chance of breaking a tap.
Draw a line down the center of the top and angle the sides down with a file to leave only a 1/16" area of the top unfiled. This will ensure that the proper arch to match the fingerboard radius is maintained. Sand all file marks out by using progressively finer grades of sandpaper starting at 100 and working down to 220. Carefully round the top using the same technique. Sand the bottom outside edges down to allow the bridge to adjust to a minimum height. Use the polishing wheel as a last step.
Assemble and enjoy.
Once you have the bridge project under your belt you may just want to replace that control plate, too!

Top view

I reserved the original pick guard if scratching becomes a problem, but this wood is just too beautiful to cover up.

Rear view

The black/white/black center seam is visable in this photo.

End view

This view shows the bottom 5 piece ebony and maple wedge. This method of building the body produces a 1/4" visable edge which makes the body appear to be bound.

Neck heel

The black/white/black neck pocket corner treatment is shown here. Also visable are the recessed Dunlop strap-locs.

An alternate approach to body construction...

Here is a unrelated photo of a second Tele style body I constructed of extra-beautiful flame maple. This view shows an alternate method of construction using a full width kerfed maple lining strip. The construction sequence was as follows:
1. Heat bend 1-3/4" by .090" sides to conform to body profile and clamp in position. Reduce the thickness of the first few inches of the top strip where the small radius is to facilitate bending the tight curve in this area. Glue in tailblock.
2. Kerf 1-3/4" by 3/8" maple strips at 1/4" intervals and form to the side laminations using bending iron as necessary. Glue them in place.
3. The center section was added using a 3-3/4" by 12" maple block.
4. Add filler pieces at upper body curves as necessary.
5. Plane the top surface enough to level it. Flip over and plane the rear surface until a satisfactory surface is exposed for gluing the back on. Remove body from form and add bottom wedge. Corner details at top of neck pocket were not added to this body. The edges where the outer laminations intersected met in a very tight joint and did not require additional finish trim.
6. Remove the body from the mold to join to the back plate. If it does not retain it's shape, leave it in the form until glued to the back plate.
7. Lay the prepared back plate in position on a padded surface. I use a double layer of old bath towel. Mark inner and outer profile of body on back plate to serve as a guide and apply glue to both mating surfaces. Place the body on the top plate, add a layer of padding, place a flat board over the body to distribute clamping force, and glue the sides to the back plate using weights to provide the clamping pressure.
8. Add additional wood for control cavity and wiring passage areas.
9. Plane the top down till the total thickness will be 1-3/4" when the top is glued in place.
10. Route pickup areas and drill wire access tunnels now.
11. Glue on the top plate in the same manner used to glue the body to the back plate. Open pickup and control cavities with a router, trim top and back edges, and sand flush with sides. Add neck pocket, drill holes for straplock buttons, fit all hardware, disassemble and apply finish.
This guitar was finished with a top-loading stainless bridge, Texas Special pickups, and 4 way pickup selecter switch.

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