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Difficulty: Experienced

Router Basics: Humbucker Pickup Routing (with Pickup Ring)

This Router Basics tutorial covers the creation of a custom template system for routing standard or modified cavities for humbuckers or similarly-shaped pickups fitted into a pickup ring. We explain how to make "standard" humbucker templates, and explain how to modify the idea to apply to any sizes such as 7/8-strings and the truly weird such as the Lundgren M8 triple coil....

Commercially-made routing templates for humbuckers are easy to find from virtually all good luthiery supply outlets these days. They're a fantastic turnkey solution for carrying out this common task. Beyond the "standard" sizes, templates for larger pickups are thin on the ground meaning that we end up making them ourselves.

Standard or not, the process of making a template for any humbucker-style pickup is the same and it's not a huge leap to tweak the dimension to fit a variety of pickup sizes such as mini humbuckers, etc.

Pickups fitted into pickguards or under a pickup ring don't need tailored routs; we don't see them on the finished instrument. This isn't to say that we can butcher them in, just that we only need to concentrate on their functionality and fitness for purpose over their cosmetic value. A more complex tutorial for pickup routs tailor-made to the exact dimensions and corner radii for a "showy" exposed rout and direct mounting will come later in this series. That is not to say these routs can't be executed with precision and beauty of course, but that's up to you!

 

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Overview and Objectives

This tutorial will take you through the creation of an easy but effective pickup routing template. Although the underlying method of constructing the template has been in use for decades, I expanded on it for use with a variety of modern pickup sizes and to incorporate the recessing to make it a single job rather than two.

The system described is universal in that it will create routs to accept any "body with legs" style pickup with simple corner radiusing and provision for recesses for the legs/screws. Since the outline of the rout will be hidden under the pickup ring, it just needs to be functional and do the job its intended for. First we'll look at how to make the template using a standard humbucker, and finally look at how to take measurements from any pickup/pickup ring and translate them through to your own custom template system.

To keep the work simple and straightforward, we'll only be using a standard 1/2" diameter bearing-guided template cutter (12mm if you're Metric!). The template uses basic materials and techniques. The ideas and approaches discussed are designed to help you take onboard transferable skills that assist you in creating custom templates for anything, even beyond pickups. Definitely a good exercise towards becoming a next level template-making ninja!

IMG_8228.JPG
A cavity straight off the router with light sanding to remove the fuzzies - perfect

 

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What We Need

  • Pencil
  • Ruler/Calipers
  • Wood glue
  • A router and a bearing-guided template cutter (1/2" diameter, 1/2"-3/4" length or shorter)
  • Sheet stock suitable for templating (plywood, MDF, etc) cut into strips
  • Double-sided tape
  • Drill bits (optional)
  • Wooden dowels (optional)

Nothing that shouldn't already be on hand in your workshop!

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How The Template Works

The template consists of two identical halves which can either be glued together to make a permanent single-size template or pinned together to create a variety of different widths. Each half is designed to rout both the main cavity and with the inclusion of a specifically-sized insert, the deeper leg recesses also.

template1.JPG
Mockup showing the main template assembled

template2.JPG
The template exploded, showing both halves and the dowel locating system

template3.JPG
Template with auxiliary insert for leg recessing

 

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A Quick Look At Humbucker Routs

There's no real secret or magic going on behind the pickup ring. Enough wood needs to be missing in the middle that the pickup drops right in and either side so that the pickup height adjustment screws fit. Wood needs to be left at each corner for the pickup ring mounting screws. We could simply rout the entire thing to one depth, however that's just crude and we hold ourselves to a higher standard, right? We shouldn't need to remove more wood than we have to, and this template system makes it simple so there's no reason to go medieval.

humbucker.jpg
The pickup cavity (dark red) is hidden by the pickup ring, but leaves plenty of wood to fix the ring to the body

 

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Template Construction

The template system we'll be making is for a standard humbucker, made using simple stacked strips of wood or sheet stock. The only tool/skill we need is to be able to rip stock into strips of specific widths and cut the ends a neat 90° (another use for a fret slotting mitre box!). How you choose to make the strips of material is up to yourself; many options are available from cutting them on a table saw to sizing them using a thickness planer/sander or even using a router thicknessing jig! The only requirement is that the cut edges are clean and glue-able, and that you can manage making them to a reasonable level of precision.

The template in this tutorial was made from 15mm thick Birch plywood, ripped into long 40mm, 20mm and 10mm strips on a table saw. These were them cut down to specific smaller lengths using a fret slotting mitre box. We'll discuss how those widths were arrived at later, and it'll be more meaningful if we look at the process first....

The stock we need is:

  • 40mm (1,58")
    • 2x 200mm or longer (7,87")
  • 20mm (0,79")
    • 2x 56,5mm (2,22")
    • 1x 64,5mm (2,54")
  • 10mm (0,39")
    • 4x 64,0mm (2,52")
    • 2x 72,0mm (2,84")

In actuality, the only parts which need to be of a very very specific lengths are the three components for the auxiliary recessing template (10 x 64,5mm and 20 x 72mm) since the outline of the template isn't that important; only the internal components and edges where the router bearing will be running.

template dimensions.JPG
Template stock cutdowns

 

The strips were cut into the various calculated lengths and cleaned up. Laying them out over a printed paper template helps check for fit and alignment, plus we know we have everything and where it is!

Download Printable Paper Template here!
standard humbucker template layout.pdf

IMG_8235.JPG
Laying out using a printed drawing


The auxiliary template for the pickup tab recesses is the part that the rest of the template should be physically built around, so assemble and glue this up first. The paper printout helps check that everything is sized and aligned, however double-checking the ends for squareness with scrap or a ruler ensures we're not building in any inaccuracies.

IMG_8237.JPG

 

Apply glue to the inner part's mating surfaces and adjust/assemble everything to that by hand. Put the assembly onto a flat surface, and push everything into correct alignment and let it sit for a minute or two so the glue starts to set up. Next, apply light clamping pressure whilst it dries. The small amount of setting up time helps stop parts shifting around under clamping pressure. You did check for alignment, right? ;)

Once this is dry, clean up the part from any squeezeout. A few tiny beads as pictured is about perfect for this work.

IMG_8234.jpg

 

Next, snug up the main parts of the template around the auxiliary template. Repeat the same process of gluing up all four parts of each template half, using the auxiliary template for reference to avoid any gaps or misalignments. Glueup can be done one part at a time or all at once. Masking tape applied to the top/bottom helps keep the parts from sliding around! Again, check check and check again at every stage.

IMG_8238.JPG
Looking good!

 

Once we have the two outer halves assembled and cleaned up, we can either glue them both together to form a permanent one-size template or we can add a method of fitting the halves together temporarily. The simplest method is using simple wooden dowels which have enough retention strength to hold the template together, but can easily be released to alter the jig's size by placing them in holes corresponding to different set sizes.

Clamping the workpiece down and drilling a hole through from one to another gives us an exact method of setting the jig up. One clamp holds the first half down, whilst the second holds both halves together.

IMG_8241.JPG
Drilling for the 8mm locating dowel - yes, I only have three fingers because I'm a Parktown Prawn....

 

After the first hole is drilled, a dowel is tapped in to secure both halves. The assembly is then flipped with the dowel in place, and a second hole/dowel added to the other side. Note that I added two alignment arrows indicating the size this "setting" is designed for. This was purely to counter my own future stupidity. Your own mileage may vary. :thumb:

IMG_8242.JPG
Tapping in the locating dowel

 

The finished adjustable template system should look something like this when complete. The dowels are removable for when different size settings need adding in.

IMG_8243.JPG

 

All that's left is to test fit a humbucker and pickup ring!

IMG_8244 -1.jpg
The pickup has a little room to move in the cavity, allowing for angled pickup rings, finish, etc.

IMG_8245 -1.jpg
The pickup ring completely covers the gap and the mounting screwholes have plenty of wood under them

 

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The Template System In Use

The main template can either be mounted using double-stick tape (about an inch square in each corner) or clamped either side. Positioning holes drilled through from the rear help position the template on the centre and cross lines. If the template is adjustable, each position will need its own specific centreline positioning hole....remember to mark them up meaningfully!

The first step is to rout the leg/tab recesses to depth either side by fitting the auxiliary template. It should be snug in the centre; if not, use a piece of double-stick tape underneath or a piece of masking tape over the top to secure it.

IMG_8246.JPG
Bridge position humbucker rout on my Lancaster superstrat design

 

The cutter used has a length of 15mm (around 5/8") which is perfect for this size template. Anything longer than the template is thick, and you soon find that the initial cut is going to be tough and unpredictable. You don't want the cutter trying to jump around before the bearing is even in the template, as that results in a dead template.....

A 1/2" length 1/2" long cutter is perfect for this work. Mine is 12mm diameter, however that only means that the corner radii will be slightly tighter. Absolutely no problem since this is a hidden rout.

After the initial cut, the radiused corners left by the cutter become apparent.

IMG_8247.JPG

 

After the recess has been taken to the full depth, the auxiliary template can be removed and flipped to do the other side.

IMG_8248.JPG

 

Perfect. That was about a minute's worth of work! We can now remove the auxiliary template and start work on routing the main cavity.

IMG_8249.JPG

 

Two passes and the target depth was achieved. Time to remove the template....

IMG_8250.JPG

 

Aside from a little scorching and minor fuzzies, the rout is more or less good to go with no more work other than the cable drilling. A test fit is a good idea.

IMG_8253.JPG

 

Perfect. The actual pickup ring will be taller than this one so we have more than enough breathing room with the depths selected.

IMG_8251.JPG

 

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Calculating Your Own Dimensions

Taking the basic idea of how this system works, we can extend it out to any width humbucker or even pickups of completely different sizes.

 

....For A 7-String Pickup

For an adjustable style template, we don't even need to make a new auxiliary insert for wider pickups such as a 7-string. We simply make an appropriately-sized shim to open out the template a bit more. Typically 7-string rings tend to be 10mm wider than their 6-string equivalents - give or take 0,5mm - which means we only need to make a 10mm wide shim.

IMG_8254.JPG
Cutting a shim from a stick of 10mm template stock in a fret slotting mitre box....

 

IMG_8257.JPG

 

It's worth checking your pickup ring for its total width; this setup with a 10mm shim would expand the internal pickup cavity from 72mm to 82mm and the recesses from 87mm to 97mm. The 7-string pickup ring I have on hand is 99mm wide, so it would work with that one but you should confirm from your own measurements before committing to the wood!

 

....For The Entire Template

Fundamentally, the sizes of the routs and your template should be designed from the pickup ring backwards. This is the only part that physically mounts to the body and covers the rout itself, so as long as the ring can be mounted, hides the rout and the pickup fits then it does the job. In theory the rout could be as large as you want it to be but ideally we should work the maximum sizes down to something more suited to the pickup itself. Removing only as much wood as is needed instead of as much as we can. We'd prefer to keep as much wood as possible, right?

So let's look at a typical pickup ring and we'll see how I arrived at the dimensions of the basic template:

pickup rings.JPG
Yep. Typical humbucker ring dimensions.

 

Working backwards from this, we have about this much area that we can rout before we run into issues with the pickup mounting ring screws:

maximum.JPG
Absolute maximum cavity area

 

It's a pretty big chunk of wood to be dialling out of your guitar, especially when you compare it to a typical pickup:

maxhum.JPG
More than enough room to swing a humbucker

 

If you want to alter your own template sizes to make a cavity that big, that's fine, overkill or not. The recesses either side should be narrow enough that the wood where the pickup ring mounting screws sit have enough strength left. The pickup ring measures 36,8mm/1,45" screw to screw. Bringing in the recesses at least 5mm from the centre of each screw location point is what I'd call a good minimum. This would make the recesses 26,8mm wide. For simplicity's sake, you'd round that down to 1" or 25mm. Simpler sizes makes cutting stock easier to manage. The same applies to the screws either side; their spacing is 81mm/3,19" giving us a reasonable maximum of 71mm/2,8"....calling that 70mm or 2-3/4" makes sense. The width of the pickup ring at 44,5mm rounds down nicely to 40mm or 1-5/8". Humbuckers are usually anything from 36-38mm in width.

Unless you're working with a pickup with HUGE tabs (I've see some), the side recesses really don't have to be an inch wide. I mean, you could still stick with this value if you want, but most tabs are half inch at the most. 20mm allows for the corner radius of the cutter and means that the outer parts can be 10mm wide. Very very nice easy numbers! A recess width of 15mm centred on the main cavity's sides satisfies my internal need for symmetry, and brings the total width of the cavity up to 72 + 7,5 + 7,5 = 87mm. Fine for an 88,7mm wide ring.

Drawing this out - a 72mm x 40mm central cavity and two 20mm x 15mm recesses (with 1/4" radii from the cutter) works out neatly.

humbucker2.jpg
A wider/longer main body rout allows pickups with sharper corners to fit

 

There's no substitute for taking a ruler and a pair of calipers to your pickup ring and pickup, then drawing it out after calculating your values in the same way.

 

....And Applying Them

Let's use this to develop a template for a hypothetical mini humbucker:

mini humbucker.jpg

 

Now this should be relatively straightforward, however the radius of our cutters might mean the recesses have to be a little wider to allow for the tab corners. Let's have a look at the ring....

mini humbucker ring.JPG

 

The pickup ring mounting screw locations are spaced 85mm x 25mm, so we can safely make the recesses 15mm wide to allow 5mm either side of the screws. Similarly, the maximum width of the main cavity can be 75mm. We'll be generous with the pickup cavity width, and let's call that a round 30mm. We'll call the tab recesses 15mm x 15mm. Let's see how those figures stacks up.

mini humbucker cavity.JPG

 

Okay, that would definitely work as-is. Like the example with the humbucker, it might be able to be made smaller. Let's add in the cutter radius and see what happens....

mini humbucker cavity radiused.JPG

 

Okay. The smaller size of this mini humbucker means that we need to cut a bit oversize because of the cutter's radius, otherwise things like the pickup corners and the tabs would clash with the rout. You could even make the case that the tab recesses could be drilled with a Forstner bit instead of being routed....!

So this is how we could plan this out as a template set; pretty simple once you think it through!

mini humbucker cavity template.JPG

 

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Conclusion

Making templates is about working ideas and methods into your personal trick bag. An extensible template that can be used in more than one situation is a powerful and productive thing to invent, otherwise we'd be making a new template for every last thing every single time. Routs that end up being hidden give us a bit more flexibility to bend dimensions in our favour to make the template simpler, or to streamline the rout itself. A system like this turns a humbucker rout into a three-minute job, sweat-free, making it worth its weight in gold to the busy luthier.

 

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Router Basics: Humbucker Pickup Routing (with Pickup Ring) by Carl Maltby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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