TomTop LP style guitar project

This page is meant to document the process of building and finishing a Tomtop $77 LP style guitar kit.Here's the listing.   No, I don't know why they picture a neck plate with a set neck kit.

This is what came in the box.  No instructions, which I don't think are necesssary, anyway.  Not much in the way of padding or protection for the parts, which fortunately all seem fine.
this is a picture
I expect to replace all of this stuff, so I didn't even look in the bag, yet.
xv xz
I expected there to be a thin flame maple veneer and I was correct.  The relatively useless Q&A on the site,  clearly answered by someone with a limited command of English, suggests it is all mahogany, which is not correct.
close up detail of body as shipped
Single ply plastic binding sticking up a bit by neck pocket.  The first thing I did to the kit after receiving it was shave this down with a pocket knife.
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Rear of body.  Clearly more than one piece, but I plan to finish the back and sides in a solid color.
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Note the thickness of the veneer as evidenced by the mahogany of the body extending nearly to the surface. This is not a maple cap, but it wasn't advertised as such, so I did not expect it. My immediate thought was that I may have to compensate for the sonic difference of having a guitar made almost entirely of mahogany when choosing pickups.
The neck seems basically solid. The fretwork is not grossly out of whack, but I will likely level, crown and polish before assembly, anyway.  I like the interesting color variation on the fretboard.  I have not decided what to do with the headstock just yet.  I'm not trying toclone a LP, so I'm not dead set on the open book design. I inherited a scroll saw myMom used to use when she built dollhouses, soI may Photoshop some design experiments.
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Nut Slot.  I haven't test fit the supplied nut and may decide to upgrade if things are going well.
Neck back.  Interesting shape on the body end. What's the notch for?
On the Tomtop site there is some Q&A debate about whether the neck has a truss rod because none is shown in the picture.  ('s inside the neck and you wouldn't see it,  regardless...), but here to allay those fears is a picture of the end of a truss rod where it usually resides.  I have not tested it yet.
A test fit of the neck to the body suggests the joint is pretty well done. A very tiny gap here or there and no appreciable slop.  I did have to shave down the binding bit that stuck up next to the neck pocket to get the neck to set down flush, but nothing appears to be required for woodwork.  I still may sand down any little rough patches and make sure there is as much physical mating of surfaces as possible for joint integrity.
It's possible there are plenty of things about this kit that my eye does not catch and which do not offend my sensibilities, but are apparent or matter to others.  It only cost $77, so I don't expect top grade quality. Neither will I agonize over flawless perfection in my finished product.  I care a lot more about how a guitar feels and sounds than how it looks. I'm in this for the cheap fun and experience of the kit and will end up with one of my favorite things in the world when I'm done:  a guitar.  I have lots of them.  If this comes out nice, I'll make more.  If it comes out like crap, I'll make more and use what I've learned along the way.

The Thinking Begins

I have a plan in mind, but it's likely to change. Here's what's in my imagination, sorta.
I want purple flame over black and a 'mono"chrome"' hardware look. I used this really neat free SC Guitar Editor to create this rendering.

Since I have to drill the holes for the bridge and tailpiece and they need to be straight, that gave me an excuse to get one of these little drill presses from Harbor Freight.  It was $67+tax.

 I'm mindful that the parts in the kit are pretty low quality and might be odd dimensions. I'd rather start right out with proper spec holes after deciding on the upgrade parts, instead of drilling for the cheap stuff in the kit and then wanting to upgrade later. I am toying with the idea of a Hipshot Baby Grand bridge, which would mean no tailpiece holes. I'm not sure about disturbing the visual balance, though.

Some history of kit guitars and me.

I have some previous experience with guitar kits, but only of the bolt-on variety. A Strat style kit from Saga was put together in less than an hour many years ago and made playable, though no finishing was undertaken.  Here's the result:
this is a picture
The one I made cost half as much and came with a pre-cut headstock. Years later, I took it apart again and upgraded with a bunch of genuine Fender parts taken off a special edition "Gold Sister" Strat, like this one. 
I tried my hand at producing a finish.
I chose school bus yellow and did a terrible job of it.
But at least the guitar sounds, looks and plays better than it used to, mainly by virtue of acquired skill in setting up guitars than anything else.  As I acquire more experience in finishing, I may try to salvage the yellow finish I applied.  I've gathered much in the way of fret and nut work along the way in the last year, as well. This guitar will probably never be 'done.'

The next guitar kit was more like pushing over the first domino than anything else.  It wasa Tele style, the vendor of which I do not recall.  The 'dominos' started with the fact that it came with a paddle headstock and the neck pocket was cut wrong.  I am historically terrible at woodwork.  I have neither the tools nor the patience, nor the skill or experience, though I am gradually acquiring all of these as I go.  It's part of the fun.  In this case, I decided to grab a used Fender neck with a maple fretboard off Ebay, so I could avoid butchering the headstock. That still left me with a body with a bum neck pocket, so of course,  I decided to buy a Fender body from Ebay.

 At this point I had replaced the body and neck of a kit guitar where I already expected to replace the hardware and electronics.  Hmm. Ebay provided the complete electronics/bridge from a Fender Nashville Tele, I searched out a white Nashville Tele pickguard (which Fender never offered) and ended up with the guitar shown here. Apart from the pickguard, it is a 100% Fender Nashville Tele in a my favorite color combo, one Fender never made.

Once this was completed, I promptly bought a real Fender Nashville Power Tele and never played the Partscaster. This guitar is sinfully ugly, IMO.

I eventually traded the White Nashville Partscaster for a nice Fender Duo-Sonic reissue and I don't play that either.

I traded the 'real' Nashville Tele for a White Schecter Tempest Custom,

which I subsequently traded for a Gibson SG Special faded, which I also never play.

Finally, to fill the Tele slot, I got a brand new Fender American Std Tele in Blizzard Pearl, and hopped it up with Rio Gande Pickups, a MOTS pickguard and Mojotone electronics.

I still have a complete, unbuilt Tele kit from which I think I've only used the strap buttons and a bunch of other random Tele parts gathered up along the way, including this snazzy GFS body.

Gathering stuff

If I set out to research the 'best' way to go about this, it would never get done. I belong to a lot of groups on Facebook which contain info about kit guitars, guitar building and luthierie, guitar finishing, etc.  If I've learned anything from perusing all this info, it's that there are nearly as many ways to do things as there are people doing them. Nearly all of them produce some really good looking result I'd be happy with.  I had to just pick something and go with it.

I decided to go with dye for the guitar top because of the flame figuring on the veneer. The word 'Keda' stuck in my head, so I decied to order this package. It was less than $20 and makes enough dye to do lots of guitars.  I found some youtube vids of a guy using Keda dye who produced something very much like the purple I am hoping to end up with.

I don't personally object to satin or faded finish guitars, I think I can feel or hear the wood better without a thick finish, but for the top of this guitar, I decided I wanted a little bit of shine. More because I'd heard of it previously and because the application sounds a bit zen, I have decided to use Tru-Oil after the dye. I have no idea if this is enough to do the guitar top or if i am going to want to do more than the top.I am currently thinking I will do the sides and back and the neck in dyed black without grain filling the mahogany and perhaps a coat or two of this stuff will seal and protect the otherwise untreated wood.

I had a Gibson Melody Maker P90 (top)  finished in black with very open mahogany grain and though I never connected with the guitar and ultimately traded it for a Vox SSC-33 (bottom) that I immediately bonded with, I always liked the look and feel of the MM body and (although way too fat for my taste) neck and the immediate sense of the vibration in the wood. I hope to capture a little of that in this LP shaped kit guitar by keeping the grain open and lightly finished on the back, sides and neck.

Because I have zero experience with any of these materials and processes, and because I am going to shoot for a pretty purple and black flame top that requires a little bit of technique to acheive, I thought it best to experiment a little.   To this end, I bought a bunch of flamey maple veneer 'shorts' on Ebay.  

I am generally a fan of matching headstocks, so I am toying with the idea of gluing one of these veneers to the front of the headstock.  It's very flat mahogany so I probably can't screw it up too bad.  


I finally (mostly) decided what to do and started doing it.  I started out by confirming that the included hardware is not up to the standards I'd prefer.   Here's what was in the bag when I opened it.

I noticed there are only two knobs.   I don't care because I wasn't going to use the included knobs anyway, but someone looking for a complete kit might be disappointed.  The plastics look basically OK, but not the color I want.  I may paint the rear cavity covers and use them. The electronics are nicely pre-wired, but pots are tiny.  The tuning heads are small and sloppy. The bridge and tailpiece look ok, but the tolerances on the bridge are loose. The plastic nut fits firmly into the slot, but looks to be cut, actually  'molded',  a bit too high. No idea if the two-wire humbucking pickups are any good, but I'd replace them regardless. I wil probably replace the truss rod cover with something custom and engraved, too.  Maybe not.
To start, I levelled and crowned the frets.  I didn't take a picture during the process, but the color variation on the neck looked nice after I oiled the dry-looking fretboard with Fret Doctor, so I took a picture of that.

The truss rod works and is dual action.  That's fortunate, because the neck had a back bowwhen I went to flatten it out for the fret level.  It was hard to get the included allen wrench way down the tunnel and into the nut.  It got easier when I did it a few times.

At this point I went out and grabbed some more finishing supplies.  I had previously grabbed some oil-based Minwax Wood Finish penetrating stain in Ebony for the back, sides and neck, so I decided after much reading to go with oil-based wipe-on Poly for those areas.  I'm sticking with the Tru-Oil on top of dye for the top because I really want to see how that works.

I brought the body and neck to my extra house/guitar shop to start the process. I sanded the whole guitar with 220 grit sandpaper and taped off the sides.

I started by wiping some of the black Keda dye onto one of the little veneers. I decided I had not put enough dye powder into it and made it darker. Here is the veneer after the first, over-diluted application. I fixed the mixture, waited for the dye to disolve and then went for it on the body.

This process uncovered several places where the factory allowed glue or something to seep into the top during the binding or joining the veneers. There's a big one near the cutaway. I may end up airbrushing black paint around the edges to cover that up.
I have an airbrush and a compressor, but haven't used those skills in so long it's fair to say I haven't done it. I was interested to see the symmetrical  figuring that runs lengthwise, seemingly on top of the flame.

Overall, it's just gratifying to do this after watching 1000 other people do it on Youtube. I ran out of time and left this to dry at this point.  I'll be back today to sand back the grain.

Getting Colorful

Over the course of a couple days, I sanded down the black to reveal the grain. It took a couple days because I'm paranoid about sanding through the super-thin veneer, so I initially didn't sand it enough. This is halfway through the first day.

This is after I finished and then quickly wiped the top with water to get a better idea of what I had. I let it be and decided to check again the next day, since it looked to me as though the grain wasn't really showing through so much as the flame was taking on different shades of bluish grey. I don't find that particularly unappealing, but I want to stick with the whole purple idea and I was concerned that there wasn't going to be any unstained wood that would ultimately end up a lighter purple.

When I went back the next day, I loaded up a little hand sander with some 180 grit
and really took to it.  I didn't sand through anywhere and I think this is the desired effect. I dusted it off real good and mixed up some purple.  I went pretty much 1/8 tsp of blue,1/4 tsp of red and a very light sprinkle of brown into 8 oz of really hot water.

I just went ahead and splotched it on there.  You can see just above and to the left of
the holes where i plopped the sopping dye-rag onto the top. It soaked up a lot of dye real fast. Next time I do this on a another guitar  I am going to wet the top and be more patient about applying the color.

I took the guitar out in the sun just after applying the dye, with the intention of getting a well-lit picture of the color.  The dye was drying very quickly as I took this picture.  You can see around the pickup selector hole to the upper left where it's dark and wet, surrounded by drying color.  The drying evened out the color a lot.  I left it alone at this point and came back the next day to see what I had.

I was slightly underwhelmed by what I found, though many online sources had warned that  it doesn't look like the final product when it's in process, especially before a clear topcoat. Prior to this photo, I had lightly sanded with  220, 320 and then 400.  I didn't know what elese I could do to make the flame more prominent, so I just decided to go ahead and start with the Tru-Oil.

This is after the first application of Tru-Oil, which promptly disappeared into the wood as though I had never applied it.  I expected this, since I had not used any sort of sealer.

At this point I am going to have to say that I am pretty pleased with this! Many more coats of Tru-Oil will be applied, plus the back, sides and neck need color.  I settled in for many days of applying coats of Tru-Oil and decied to start gathering up some of the hardware for the guitar.

Hardware selection begins

I went with the Hipshot Baby Grand, pictured earlier.  These have always intrigued me, though I have never seen one in person.  This guitar is as good a reason as any!
I went with open-back
Hipshot locking tuners, which was never in question.  I like Hipshot hardware and have the tuners on a couple other guitars.  I could not resist dropping them in for a test fit.  My model car building days must be coming back to me.

One of the most important parts of the guitar is obviously the pickups.   I decided to try something new which also enhances the monoChrome look and got a pair of Lace Nitro-Hemi humbuckers with closed chrome covers.

I'm keeping with the monoChrome look for hardware as much as possible.  The bridge, tuners and strap buttons are chrome, which is not unusual.  I've gone the extra step to replace some things that are usually colored plastic with chrome metal or plastic.   I scored nice WD Music plated metal humbucker mounting rings  This is key to the monoChrome look, IMO.

I found a plated truss rod cover.  I am contemplating having it engraved with something. 
Schaller supplied a chrome jackplate and swich tip.  So far I have not found satisfactory chrome knobs.  In the meantime, I have clear top hat knobs from Allparts to let the top color shine through.    Along with this stuff, I sprang for a black TUSQ XL nut from Graphtech.  The  Art of Tone electronics are also pictured,525K/5%CTS Pots/Switchcraft toggle and jack/Russian Military surplus PIO caps, blah blah blah.

I tracked down a plated toggle switch washer.  That was harder than I expected.  And it's taking the slow boat from China.  Literally.  I think it's the last bit of hardware I'm waiting on.  No hurry, since I still have much to do before adding hardware. 

For a week or more I have been daily applying thin coats of TruOil to the top.  It was starting to take on a little gloss, which made the grain on the top really apparent.  I'd read that one should sand with high grit after every few coats of TruOil and decided to give that a shot.  I'd also read about wet sanding and creating a sort of slurry to fill the grain a little, so I took some waterproof 400 grit paper to the top.  I didn't take any pictures of that, but it created a dull, hazy film over the pretty top after I wiped it off.  It also dyed my hands pink, as it obviously pulled some of the finish off through the TruOil.  Or maybe the finish had seeped into the TruOil, I dunno.  I hope it looks good again when I get around to slopping more TruOil on the top.  But in the meantime, I covered the entire top with blue tape and decided to start the process of staining the back black.  I sanded with 180, then 220, as the Minwax can recommended.

This is following the first application, letting it dry and then wiping off what little excess there was.  I almost like the mahogany grain showing through the Ebony stain, but not enough to leave it that way.  I did, however, leave the body alone at this point and returned the next day to apply another coat of black. 
After the second coat of black and letting it dry, the next day my curiousity got the better of me.  I wondered if my wet sanding experiment had ruined the top.  I wondered if my masking job worked and the black stayed off the top. I wondered how the nice top would look with the black sides.  The top looked awful when I removed the masking tape.  Hazy, faded and dingy.  The masking tape had allowed a little bit of black to creep onto the top on the edges here and there, but I used some 400 grit sandpaper and carefully got it off.  I anxiously put another coat of TruOil down and the color popped back up through the haze.   Whew!  The color looks great against the black!  It should look nicer when I finally scrape the white binding to create the sharp contrast line.
I'd not had the neck, hardware and body in the same place since I applied the color, so I brought the neck and hardware to the shop to do a sneak preview.  Now I'm getting impatient.  I look at this and it makes me want to grab it and play!  I need to nail down a headstock design and do the woodwork so I can start with the black on the neck.  I also need to figure out how best to do the veneer.  Hmm.

The next day, I applied another coat of TruOil, the second one after the wet sanding experiment. It appears that process smoothed out the top.  With only this second coat (probably about the 8th or 9th overall), it is decidedly taking on a shine.  I took a pic inside and decided to take it out in the sun for a sort of shine and color view.
I'd been toying with thinking about echoing the curve of the hipshot bridge in the headstock design.   After these shots, I grabbed a pencil and the bridge and traced out my idea.It was only after looking at this line that I realized it is a bit like half of a Gibson open book headstock shape!  I didn't have time to attack it with the scroll saw, I just took a picture to take home and contemplate before committing to it.  I cranked up Photoshop and overlaid a picture of my headstock veneer and a picture of the truss rod cover to see how it might look.  Here's the result.Here's the result in real ife.  The next day, during my stop at the shop to apply more TruOil, I decided to just switch on the scroll saw and go for it.  Knowing me, I have to avoid overthinking and just 'do it' or it don't get done.I placed the Hipshot Baby Grand bridge next to the post-cut headstock for this pic to show where my design thinking came from.  These shapes will hopefully visually echo one another along the length of the strings when it's all put together.  I think the next step is going to be applying some color to the neck.  We'll see!I correctly predicted my own actions.  Not hard.  Here's the neck after the first coat of Minwax ebony stain.  I ended up applying two coats on two consecutive days.
The next step, taken a day later - and after consulting the nice people on Facebook's Amateur Luthier group, was to sandwich the headstock and veneer between two pieces of flat "wood" and wax paper.I guess I will find out how that works when I take off the clamps tomorrow.  The next step after that will be to trim the veneer around the headstock shape.  I have some suggestions about how to deal with the edges, but I'll need to see how it looks, first.  Here's how I left it.Things are moving along.  I will likely put on more TruOil on the top, but it's workable as it stands.  I'm up to three coats of Minwax wipe-on Poly on the back and sides.  I sanded with a 320 sanding sponge after the first coat dried for a day amd sanded with 400 grit sandpaper after the second coat had dried.  Here's the result so far.I was not going to leave this much grain showing through the back and sides and had not planned on this worn sort of look, but the more I worked on it, the more I began to like it.  The edges of the top have ended up looking kind of worn, so it all fits together.

The Big Day

The stars aligned and I had a good block of time to dedicate to the project today.  I had skipped a day, so I was anxious to find out how gluing the veneerto the headstock went. It seemed good, so I trimmed around the edges with an X-acto knife.  I didn't screw up too badly.  I sanded teh edges down flush with a sanding sponge and 120 grit, followed by a 320 sponge.   It took a lot of the finish off the sides of teh headstock, so I am going to end up touching that up before I start applying any clear.I used the X-acto and cut out the holes for the tuners.  I filed them smooth with a pencil wrapped in sandpaper.  I couldn't resist seeing how the nice, chrome tuners looked in the headstockMy, what nice, polished frets you have!  :)  Of course I could not resist slapping this assembly onto the body for a further sneak preview.I think I'm really stalling because I'm apprehensive about drilling the bridge holes.  I sat down and started wondering what I should do next. I decided to scrape the binding.  That took a couple hours.  Once that was done, I just decided to glue the neck and body together since there wasn't a whole lot of reason not to and I had promised myself I would do it by the end of the weekend.Compared to recent weeks, progress on the guitar has slowed to a crawl after attaching the neck.  Partly due to other things using up the time, but also because the next step is drilling the holes for the bridge/tailpiece and I need to get the correct drill bit to make that happen correctly.  7/16" pointy tip is what's required.In the meantime, I assembled my new, cheapo drill press.  
Here's what the neck joint looks like, prior to more sanding and staining, etc.  Seems pretty solid.   My affection for the worn look on the back and sides grows more every time I look at it, but test fitting the mirror cavity covers I got points out the incongruous look.  The chrome stuff looks great on the top and I thought the mirror would carry the theme, but it just looks bizarre back there.  I may go with plain black instead.  I was  surprised to find the covers fit in the holes without modification.The worn appearance with a slight gloss on the back is very apparent in this image.  I have to say I really like this!  I like a connected, organic feel to the neck and body of a guitar, rather than all glossy and finished.  This does it visually, at least. One thing I was concerned about was the neck angle.  Using an ad hoc straight edge that doubles as the thing used to change the angle of mini-blinds (because that's all I could find on short notice), I quickly scoped out  the angle.  It looks just right.  That's one speedbump of dread passed over.  Whew!I also did a quick measurement off the scale of the guitar to see where the final bridge placement will likely end up.  Looks pretty good to me!  I'm going to do some measurements of the nut width and string spacing and other esoterica to make sure my combo of mega-cheap Chinese kit and high quality US spec replacement parts will work together.  I already know I have to enlarge the holes for the pots and switch.After a few weeks of inactivity, due to my SO falling off a horse and getting a collapsed lung a few fractured ribs,  I finally did the measurements, used my new transfer punch set, brad point drill bits and cheapo drill press and made the holes for the bridge.  Then I hammered the anchor things into the holes.A test fit of the bridge revealed that I at least gotten the spacing correct on the bridge stud anchors.  I moved the saddles all the way forward and then positioned the bridge slightly ahead of the scale length because the hipshot features a couple Allen screws which allow gross rearward adjustment of the bridge.  
Once this test fit was done, I could not resist.  I quickly popped the tuners into the headstock, set the Tusq XL nut in place and used the dreadful string that came with the kit to string it up.It is evident that I should have  positioned the bridge about a millimeter more towards the treble side, since the strings are not perfectly even up the neck.  Not bad enough to be a real problem, but less than perfect.  Without any sort of setup beyond a real quick intonation and raising the bridge just enough to get the strings off the neck, I was able to play a few notes.  To my mind, installing the bridge was the major step that switches the build from finish to assembly.