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What materials?

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Hi all,

I'm going to start a first time build and I'm finding it hard to decide on materials, from body wood to fret wire! I'm thinking of building a strat-style guitar. I'm stuck between swamp ash, american alder, idigbo or flamed sycamore for the body. For the neck I was going to make a five piece neck by cutting a 10mm (25/64") section from the middle of some flamed maple turning it upside down, and glue the lot back together with dyed veneer between each layer, and using the same veneer as an inlay. I'm not sure if this would be an inspired or an idiotic move, especially concerning the neck.

Does the type of fretwire used effect the sound much? If so what metal/alloy fretwire should I use? I was also thinking of making a custom pickguard using 3mm perspex that I have lying around rather than pickguard material. The perspex is a lot more brittle than pickguard material, so if I use perspex will it ruin the tone of the guitar, or will it make no difference?

I understand that a lot of what I'm asking (especially about what bodywood to use) is mainly opinion, but this is all a learning experience, and if anyone has any opinions or are able to explain the pros/cons of the different type of materials it would be a huge help. Thanks in advance.

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Are you painting the body, and if so what is your experience with painting wood? That will affect the logical choice of body wood if you want to make this a simpler job. Sycamore will be heavier than Alder, and being flamed it will be more difficult to get flat compared to wood whose grain isn't in and out of the wood all over. Same applies for the neck. For the first time build Alder is easy to work, cheap and simple to paint.

Strat necks don't need that much material removing if you're going Fender style. Just the face of the headstock. The rest of the neck is pretty much a slab with contours. As for laminating it, what skills have you got preparing wood for jointing? Every single piece needs to be as near air-tight flat to the next as you can make it. It might be worth making a neck from simple unfigured wood first of all and perhaps making a second laminated up. You can always swap necks in/out.

The pickguard material makes no difference to the tone at all.

For fretwire, stick with "standard" nickel-silver alloy unless you are familiar with working the harder materials and have tools that can handle it. Again, this is experience-dependent. If you've refretted guitars before, all the better.

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The body woods you mentioned all have very different properties for both working and in use.

Sycamore is difficult to judge as it depends on whether it is a European Sycamore. If so, it is in the same family as Maple (Acer Planatus). Otherwise - as in the case of American Sycamores - it is a different family (Planatus x) and is significantly different. Either way, they are harder working woods in both cases.

Alder is a common body wood, fairly soft, easy to work and pretty easy to prep for paint. It's also pretty cheap so no big loss if you screw it up. Alder is pretty bland to look at, so is commonly painted solid or translucent rather than natural. It's also a prime candidate for being sponsored by Bondo or other two-part auto polyester filler! It's so popular as a beginner's building wood that all dings, cracks, chunks and errors end up filled with auto body filler and painted over. ;-)

Swamp Ash is a fantastic wood and I am on the hunt for a couple of blanks for some Fender-style basses myself. The downside is that it is harder to work and needs those monster pores filling if you want a glossy paint job. It's a good choice for an excellent-sounding instrument if you can manage the caveats that come with Ash.

Not personally familiar with Idigbo. I know of a few people that have built from it, but nobody really seems to specifically sing its praises. If it is cheap to you, it might well serve as a good wood to practice on.

Overall I would lean towards Alder or Ash as a body recommendation. The former is a gut instinct for a first build, but if you are prepared for the associated additional work, Ash is a fine wood.

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I was thinking of using a wood stain instead of paint for colour, I'd like something to highlight the natural pattern of the wood rather than to just paint over it, and I've seen people getting fantastic results from the wood stains. I have no spraying facilities available (neither can I afford them) and don't really fancy messing around with spray cans. My dad is a technology teacher here in Ireland which is a type of woodwork/electronical hybrid subject, so I basically have a full woodwork room available at weekends. I wouldn't mind putting the extra work into the swamp ash provided that it still would be possible to get a decent result from using a wood stain? I can get swamp ash for the same price as alder so cost isn't an issue.

I had been planning on cutting a section out of the neck wood so that I'd have straight sides to glue to the veneer, and then just clamping it at one inch intervals leaving it for a few weeks to cure before starting to shape the neck and head stock. Would that be a good or disastrous idea? I might do as you say and make a one piece neck before I start experimenting.

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