v1 (The Build - 1997):

I refurbed a guitar in 1996 - it was my 1984 Fender Squier (Japanese-made Stratocaster) with a tobacco sunburst finish that my parents bought me for $150 around 1993. I made a brass pickguard, replaced the single coils with humbuckers, swapped out the hardware with brass and gold, rattle-canned it gloss black, and called it The Brass Bitch. I did my first (and only) guitar build in 1997. I was working in an assembly machines shop (not-so-coincidentally called Assembly Machines Inc, or AMI) in Erie while attending Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for my fine art degree.

The original build was before the internet was useful for much more than chat rooms, Napster, and online gaming of Starcraft. Resources for this stuff was non-existent back then - there were no YouTube videos. I had to order parts over the phone out of paper catalogs and figure out things entirely on my own. Most of the supplies were sourced through catalogs from Carvin Guitars and StewMac.

In order to figure out the dimension of the guitar body and positioning of the parts, I ended up cutting a tiny photo of the guitar out of a Musician’s Friend catalog and scaling everything up. Metric ruler, calculator, squinting, and patience were used to make a full-sized cardstock pattern.

There was a wood craft supply store somewhere in town where I was able to locate a beautiful 1.75” thick chunk of mahogany for the body of the guitar. I also bought some maple to enlarge the headstock. I used a 2-part epoxy from StewMac (this is not a "common" type of epoxy) to marry the mahogany to either side of a Carvin 14” radius ebony-over-maple neck for what I thought at the time to be the ultimate solid body guitar: a neck-thru Washburn Dime 333 ...but with a Tune-O-Matic bridge instead of a Floyd Rose tremolo (the fixed bridge would be referred to as a Dime 332). The Dime is their version of Dean's ML, designed for Dimebag Darrell of Pantera with an asymetrical headstock. The guitar pattern was slightly bigger than the mahogany, so I glued a chunk I had cut from one area onto the leg with the pickup switch. This small chunk was cut in such a way that the flat side fit so well, I didn’t bother to match the grain since it was going to be painted opaque. Over the years, I would occasionally wish I had made an Explorer or a Flying V (I didn't realize back then that the ML was the combination of the two), but I never grew tired of my Dime’s crossing-over-the-border-to-gawdy uniqueness. Today, my only real regret is not mounting the output jack on the backside for a sleeker look. This is almost exactly the size of the picture I used to make my full scale pattern and the result hanging on the wall behind me (circa 1998; those earrings, haha):

Unfortunately, despite my father having a decent collection of woodworking tools, I did not use his bandsaw ...I think 1.75” was too thick for that saw? So I had to cut the silhouette with a jigsaw. This resulted in me repairing one side of the guitar where the blade curved inward at the backside - I didn’t realize the issue until I had made the first long cut on one of the legs. I used the epoxy to reset the hacked-off chunk and some light-colored wood filler to clean up the gouges. Aside from the extra work, this didn’t bother me much since I had planned to paint the guitar black, effectively hiding the imperfections. There were several additional areas that didn’t cut perfectly which were corrected and smoothed with wood filler.

I finished shaping the body and then traced-out the areas to be routed from my pattern. One night, I snuck into AMI where only the handful of night-shifters were milling parts for the following day. These guys never seemed friendly at shift change, so I used a mill that was off in a corner on the other side of the plant to utilize my minimal milling experience. Eventually, one of them noticed me and came over to see what was going on. I guess they were somewhat impressed at the endeavor, so invited me over to the main area and showed me a few tricks to getting everything routed out. The next day, I used a jeweler's saw to cut the recessed control covers out of a sheet of gloss black pickguard material that was just over two millimeters thick.

I was driving a 1991 Honda CRX back then. Utilizing the hatchback and no back seat, I built a suspension frame to hold the massive guitar during transport after painting. Once the body was prepped for paint, I went back to AMI to use the paint booth. It quite possibly was the worst paint job I have ever done. Maybe the distance I was holding the can of special/expensive StewMac nitrocellulose lacquer from the guitar was too far that it didn’t bond well and lay down properly? I had refurbed that Squier a few years prior and successfully rattle-canned a very durable, glossy black finish with paint from the hardware store (likely a polyurethane) that still looked great decades later. I think I was worried I'd “kill the tone” with paint that was too thick.* My Dime’s finish resembled the satin Gibson Goth line of guitars that started coming out in the early 2000’s. So yeah, I did it first ...by unfortunate accident. That would've been cool if it had been the least bit durable - occasionally the paint would stick to the guitar stand or flake off a corner after a bump. The Goths notoriously lack “durability” to a much lesser degree - I owned a Goth Les Paul for a while and had to be careful not to accidentally buff it glossy. Ultimately, I blame myself for the results and not the product.

* Back then, I was young and naive: I thought tone and sustain were some sort of delicate phenomena that had to be babied and required special supplies and magical techniques to obtain and maintain. That Squier I painted with a thick, durable coat of Krylon (or whatever) sounded better to me than my hefty Dime at times because of my preference for the Squier's bridge pickup. Great solid body guitar tone and sustain is primarily achieved through body design/mass, wood choice, quality hardware, and craftsmanship - the finish is a smaller factor in the equation. The best options for tone are finishes that are not absorbed into the wood and are not extremely thick. For example, a non-drying option like linseed oil will easily seep deep into the grain and kind of deaden the wood - this is especially important for acoustic guitars that relay more heavily on vibrations for their sound. Sometimes options are limited to the builder's ability, patience, or tools - so there may be sacrifices. In any case, I'd wager that one solid body guitar with no finish and then that same guitar covered in a light coat of spray-on truck bedliner would probably sound indistinguishable to 98% of us.

My choice for hardware was to murder everything out (except for one zebra pickup) with black Carvin tuners, black Gotoh Tune-O-Matic bridge with tail, black Dunlop StrapLoks, and three Mouser 500k potentiometers with black speed knobs. In the neck, I wired a Seymour Duncan SH-1n (aka ‘59) that has the sweetest and warmest clean tone I could ever want. It has been said that Darrell later preferred an SH-1b in the neck position when he started using the Dimebucker due to the need to match that pickup's higher output. The Dean From Hell was equipped with a Lawrence L500 in the bridge, so that’s what I put in it (a “Bill Lawrence USA”-stamped L500-B, to be exact). Darrell would eventually use the hotter L500XL and then his Seymour Duncan signature SH-13 (aka Dimebucker; released in 2000). He would change and test Duncan pickups constantly (from one show to the other), but predominantly relied on the L500 throughout most of his career. For me, that L500 sounded shrill and thin.* While writing this, I learned that Darrell would use an L500 designed for the neck (L500-L, with “L” standing for Lead) and flipped it 180 degrees to get a “thicker, chunkier” sound out of it, then he ran it through a Furman PQ-3 equalizer. Most of the time when I wanted to play with distortion, I would switch to my modified Squier with a Seymour SH-6b (aka Duncan Distortion) with a 250k pot because that is what the Squier originally had. But if I was playing clean, the only thing I ever wanted to use was that heavenly Alnico ‘59.

As a side, the current (2018) run of Darrell's signature USA Dean ML guitars come with two options: 1) a DiMarzio Super Distortion at the neck and a Seymour Duncan SH-6n at the bridge position; 2) a USA DMT DimeTime at the neck and a Seymour Duncan SH-13 at the bridge position.

* From my understanding today, the L500, L500XL, and the Dimebucker are pickups of exceptional tonal clarity. This can allow a great guitarist to showcase every subtle nuance of their playing, while potentially magnifying the shortcomings of a lesser player. Due to the pickup's output, a noise gate is recommended in higher gain applications so you can max the volume and utilize the real magic of the pickup. It is also highly advisable to incorporate an equalizer to tame the icepick-like treble of the pickup's screaming ferocity. The first thirty seconds of this video is a perfect example of Darrell's ability to make the L500 sing, using only a 1-watt micro amp.

Differences in L500 suffixes: L500C is intended for Clean outputs; L500R is intended for Rhythm outputs; L500L is intended for Lead outputs; L500XL is intended to "melt your face," as one forum contributor put it.

Comparing my first two guitars, the Japanese Strat’s all-maple neck was far more comfortable and easier to play with that vintage-style 7.25" radius. Also, the Dime is not a guitar that lays across your lap comfortably. However, I did enjoy the guitar I built - it was fun simply because it was so ridiculous in size, weight, and shape. It wouldn’t stay in tune as well as my Squier would and I always blamed the tuners since I had upgraded my Squier to Sperzel Trim-Loks. I eventually figured out that the culprit was the way the strings came off the nut at hard angles to the tuners - the Washburn Dime 333 comes with a Floyd Rose nut that helps maintain the tune.

I almost sold the Dime to my friend Chad Penn (aka Toggaf Oged; our lead guitarist) in 2000 for an amount that I can't recall. I do know my mom offered (borderline demanded) to buy it for about half of what Chad was going to pay - she didn’t want me to let go of it without coming out and saying it. I remember getting somewhat angry and decided to just keep it. Twenty years later, I am glad she “convinced” me to hold onto it.

v2 (The Rebuild - 2018):
For two decades, I put off painting it correctly with a more durable, gloss black finish like my Squier. It would sit for years at a time until I would buy another amp, play a few months, and then sell the amp. Due to my inability to play with any real skill, guitars have always been more of a cool collectable to me - to admire rather than actually play. I always joked that I could build them better than I could play them. By 2010 or so, the potentiometers had corroded and it wouldn’t output sound. Halfway into 2016, I started to get the itch to finally refinish it. I even bought a little Fender Vibro Champ XD tube amp off of Craigslist in preperation. I pulled the D’Addario EXL110 strings*, gutted it, wrote down a few notes on how I was going to redo it ...and then it sat again.

* I originally used Dean Markley Blue Steel Lights (9-42 set) on my Squier during the first year or so. I preferred their sound, but disliked that they tarnished so quickly by comparison. I was very into Metallica then, so switched to a 10-46 set (preferred by Darrell, as well) and used the green .88 Tortex pick (also used by Darrell). I bought a bass in 2018, so those heavier 10s don't even phase me like they used to.

By September 2018, I was getting sick of my Dime being a shell with it’s parts thrown in a few small boxes. I thought, “this would be way easier to pointlessly move around the room if it was in one piece.” I started using a paint scraper with help from a heat gun to very easily get the nitrocellulose lacquer up (see below for possible follies of using heat on a neck-thru) and finally realized in my older years how beautiful the wood was beneath. After some thought, despite not being able to remedy some of the shortcomings that were hidden by the opaque paint, I decided to give it a natural finish by sealing it with Tru-Oil. Coincidently, I had just bought a Washburn T24 Taurus bass with a natural mahogany finish, so matching them seemed like the thing to do. Unfortunately, evidence of the awful jigsaw catastrophe will always be visible. A very small part of me doesn’t mind since I can’t expect absolute perfection nowadays, so how could I have expected it at half my age? Maybe one day I will route this area off and glue in a new plank to make it less noticeable.*

* During the rebuild, I laughed thinking it might have been quicker to start over from scratch than fix the blemishes. That is when I decided I would never fix the jigsaw snafu - to me, my guitar is perfect in this condition: a reminder of how my craftsmanship has improved over two decades. I did the best I could then with what I had.

I didn’t think to chronicle this endeavor because I had planned to give another go at black, so I stripped it before taking pictures. Crap. I went through my box of old photos trying to find a pic of it in its old form. I found one from 1998 of Adam Suroviec (aka Sadam; our dummer) and I in my parents’ garage attic with some of our band equipment. My Dime is sitting there, perfectly obscured behind me ...so I had nothing. Crap again. There's my beastly Ampeg VH-140C that I wish I still had (it looks so small there, but it was heavy as hell) - that, I did sell to Chad. Then I remembered it was used in a photoshoot around 2008. It took me awhile, but I eventually tracked the pics down. My nickname back in school was Mort and that was what I painted on the headstock. I eventually ran across a hilarious photo (hilarious, yet awesome) on my hard drive that was taken around 2007 - my Squier (aka The Brass Bitch) can also be seen in that photo.

Lots of sanding to massage out most of my awful jigsaw blems, so the guitar lost some weight here. I replaced any standard light-colored wood filler I didn’t sand out with Elmer’s E864 Mahogany filler because filler doesn’t take stain (it doesn’t matter what the label tells you, it’s a kind of plastic and you can’t stain plastic). Filler loosens up with a heat gun and can be lifted out with a sharp tool - just be weary of any glued joints. Trying to help the color match a little, I mixed in mahogany sawdust and used a syringe to add water for whatever consistency I needed. Deciding that I did not want to fill the grain, I carefully taped-off the wood around the fill areas to ensure the most natural finish as possible before applying the filler. I was using 220grit for most of the rebuild with the occasional 120grit in the worse areas. Once the surfaces and corners were where I wanted them (or as close as possible without ruining the shape), I went over it thoroughly with 320git then finished with a quick 400grit before moving to the Tru-Oil. Others prefer to sand to at least 600-1200grit prior to applying a finish. Some finish manufacturers recommend that you do not sand raw wood finer than 220grit as this can close and seal the grain, preventing proper absorption and adhesion. The “resurfacing” took four weeks, averaging a couple hours a day on my days off. This is the first picture I took of the rebuild:

I tore apart that Squier I had refurbed in the mid-90s (the pots in it had also gone bad a few years ago). I scavenged the SH-6 to replace the L500, thus matching the current run of USA Dean Darrell ML guitars. I decided to ditch the pickup bezels entirely and order a new bridge. I replaced the 1997 Carvin-supplied Gotoh bridge with a 2018 Carvin because the original had skinny, sloppy Nashville posts that threaded into the wood - the latest one has tighter-tolerance posts with studs to press into the body like the tailpiece. The Gotoh had a 12” radius (despite Carvin predominantly making necks with a 14” radius) - the new Carvin “Tune-O-Matics” appear to have a 14” radius, but I’m not completely sure about that as the difference is very subtle. I routed out the area where the bridge sits about a sixteenth of an inch to ensure there was room for deeper string height adjustments (luckily this was just enough to get the action down to where I wanted it, so I should've went a little deeper).

The rest of the hardware included a String Butler V3 to remedy the tuning issue, a pair of recessed StrapLoks, and new Seymour Duncan 500k potentiometers. The lower strap button on these guitars is normally on the inner surface of the control-side's leg. I was never keen on this for two reasons: it would wear out the finish as the strap wrapped the corner; it would cause the body to tilt further away from me. For the updated StrapLoks, I moved the one’s location to the backside of the leg.

In 1997, I didn’t know much of anything about bridge positioning. I knew the Carvin neck was built to a 25” scale, but I didn’t know of any “rules” for angling the bridge and simply eyeballed it - luckily, it’s not rocket science and the guitar intonated just fine. For the new bridge, I measured with a long aluminum ruler placed against each side of the neck: marking the body on either side 25” from the bottom of the nut and drew a line through these two points. On the high E side (skinniest string), I measured an additional two millimeters from the line and marked it. On the low E side, I measured an additional four millimeters from the 25” line, marked it, and drew a second line between these two new marks. That’s how I found the angle for the new bridge, which is just one of many simple methods. The old layout wasn’t as steep, so I drilled out one of the Nashville-style holes and pressed in a length of wooden dowel so I could re-drill the new hole without the drillbit wandering/slipping into the old one. The other hole was very close to the correct place, so I just used it as a pilot. I gradually stepped up with the drill bits until I got to 27/64”. I would advise strictly using a drill press for all holes you put in a guitar to ensure they are as true as possible.

During the original build, I only “broke” the edges of the body slightly because I liked how much bigger it made the guitar look - like a slab of concrete. But this type of hard edge is very susceptible to damage and isn’t comfortable to play. So I reluctantly rounded the back edge to a quarter inch and the front edge to an eighth. I ended up liking this combination very much - the guitar doesn’t appear quite as massive, but it does look much more refined.

I chose Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil Stock Finish due to it's popularity on guitar forums and it's ease of application since I did not want to spray the entire guitiar.* Be aware that no amount of wiping on Tru-Oil will fill larger grains like mahogany, but you will only need to use an easy wet sanding technique found in Tru-Oil's guide. Are there superior finishes in regards to tone and/or protection? The answer is yes, but you can do far worse. I cut two pieces of three-eighths dowel that were eight inches long and rounded off one end of each. I built a support by drilling two three-eighths inch holes in a 2x4, spaced the same distance as the bridge inserts (about 82mm), then used a mallet to drive a dowel into each one (rounded side sticking up). Then I placed two 4x4s to support the top of the neck. This allowed me to rest the guitar on its back on a towel to apply the finish to the front, flip it over onto the stands, apply it to the sides, and then the back. I would leave it there until dried (no longer smelled of solvent) so I could again lay it on its back without sticking to the towel it rested on.

* If I ever build another, I might try something in the realm of Minwax Wipe On Poly, which is also oil based. Here is a decent video showing how easy it is to apply the Minwax Poly, a technique for filling the grain, buffing it to satin, or then polishing it to gloss without any special tools. One complaint about poly that I've seen is that it can yellow. I've also read that some builders using poly still prefer to do their necks in Tru-Oil. Later on, I found a very informative thread about these and other finishes that can be applied by hand. I have also run across recommendations for Emmet's Good Stuff that I know is used by Fender and Jackson (though I could not find the manufacturer's directions anywhere on the internet, which is frustrating) and General Finishes High Performance Poly Topcoat.

I used compressed air to get sawdust out of the nooks and then used a tack cloth to get up most of the remaining dust. More fine dust will probably wipe up during the first coat of Tru-Oil. Finer sawdust will also fill in the grain a little as you work in the first coat of Tru-Oil, so some users leave it there. I personally didn’t want to build up too much of an edge onto the corners of the ebony fretboard or risk runs onto the fretboard, so I taped off the ebony sides a hair shy of the maple border. Once I neared the end of the coat schedule, I pulled that tape and then taped off the top of the fingerboard face only, allowing the ebony fretboard sides to take some of the Tru-Oil. To apply the Tru-Oil, I took an old, clean, soft t-shirt and cut the back and front out of it. I then cut these into about four inch squares and folded them twice to apply the Tru-Oil. Apply the Tru-Oil thinly - the thinner it is applied during each coat, the smoother the finish will be when it is done. Some people add naptha or mineral spirits (recommended by Tru-Oil) to thin it further. I probably could have put my coats down thinner, but I was not going for a high-gloss, polished finish.

The first coat (shown above) immediately brought the wood to life - and I thought it looked good after the paint stripping! My technique was to apply the Tru-Oil with a circular motion, then immediately go over it again (without adding more Tru-Oil to the rag) with the direction of the grain. Some advise to maintian the circular pattern so the grain fills better with Tru-Oil for a smoother finish. For the headstock, I didn’t bother to tape it off but was careful not to go too far onto it as I had other plans for it. After an hour, I applied a second coat. To get into the tight spots like the pickup corners and seal the strap recesses with the first few coats, I used cotton swabs (be mindful of them leaving lint behind). These early coats get absorbed by the wood, so they dry much faster than subsequent coats. I waited two hours between the third and fourth coat, then three hours before applying the fifth and sixth coats. Starting first thing in the morning, I was able to apply six coats in one day. Wait times are affected by temperature and humidity - I didn’t run a fan so as to not kick up lint or dust. Some users advise to do no more than three coats spaced out over a day and Tru-Oil recommends twenty-four hours between coats.

The next morning, I pulled the tape from the ebony fretboard. Predictably, this left a little “ridge” where the tape and the Tru-Oil met. Going over it with more Tru-Oil is not going to smooth it out and I didn’t want to add sandpaper dust to the mix. So what I do in situations like this, is use one of my old jeweler tools: a burnisher. It’s curvature allowed me to apply pressure to the ridge to flatten it and rub the excess down onto the non-sealed area of the fretboard (towards the actual fingerboard). Going over this excess with a clean paper towel brought it up off the ebony and I was left with an almost non-existent ridge that will become very subtle with my remaining coats of Tru-Oil. I then retaped the neck, only masking off the facing surface - I meticulously taped over each fret with my fingernail and aligned the edge of the tape with the outer edge of the fingerboard. I then applied my last two coats, one in the morning and one in the evening.

After my final coat had dried overnight enough in the garage that it wouldn’t stink up the house so much, I moved the guitar inside (lower humidity) and allowed it to cure on the dowel stands. Some people prefer more coats for a deeper gloss and will sometimes sand between every few coats with very fine paper to get that smooth, glassy sheen. If sanding (use 800grit or finer), you must be very careful not to cut through the earliest layer of Tru-Oil as this can cause "witness lines" that stick out compared to the rest of the guitar. The only fix for the witness linse is to sand the entire surface back off to bare wood below the absorption point and start again. Per Birchwood Casey's guide, I allowed the finish to cure for only seven days,* then went over the guitar with 0000 steel wool only. Do not use steel wool with water-based finishes as it can get trapped and rust. If you want the gloss to return, you can steel wool it right after your penultimate coat has dried for twenty-four hours, then give it one more very thin coat before allowing it to cure until you buff it. The steel wool gave it a satin finish that I tend to prefer nowadays with everything I own, so I did not do a gloss coat ....plus, it matches my satin mahogany bass.

* I have since read that experienced users advise at least two weeks before trying to sand or buff the final coat, as it is too soft at one week. Tru-Oil may seem hard enough after a couple days, but I was able to dent the finish with my fingernail easily. At that time, the headstock had had a couple weeks and was definitely harder as I could not dent it in the same fashion. It may take at least a month to become fully hardened, with users stating that it is tougher than lacquer once it reaches full cure. In the subsequent repair below, I opted to extend the curing period before buffing it to satin due to this realization I let it cure for four weeks and didn't find it any harder.

Storage of Tru-Oil: poke a small hole in the silver seal of the bottle and store it upside down to prevent the Tru-Oil from skinning over and extend the shelf life. Some have reported that older open bottles can thicken up. If this occurs, just replace the bottle and know that the small three ounce bottle is enough to do the biggest guitar shapes. Coats from fresher bottles will also dry much faster.

The Catalyst Method: I ran across this the day after I applied the last coat. If you Google “Tru-Oil ArmorAll,” you’ll find articles and videos on how to cure a coat in a few minutes. This will allow you to add coats quickly without waiting hours between coats. I am not sure if this method reduces the cure time before you can begin buffing, but using your fingernail to test the hardness should be a good indicator.

Because the Carvin headstock wasn’t big enough for the Dime’s shape, I opted to paint this part of the guitar opaque again to hide the maple additions. I prepped the area again with 400grit and taped it off where I wanted to leave the cured Tru-Oil finish, placed it on a stand, and covered the guitar and stand with a large garbage bag to prevent overspray. The tape I used to mask with was 3M’s ScotchBlue for delicate surfaces - it has the orange label and I use it for most of my projects. After my lesson twenty years ago, I did not bother with any special guitar paint and used Rustoleum's Satin Black (#7777). I waited until each coat evaporated enough that I couldn't see the orange peel before applying the next. I never allowed more than thirty minutes between coats and did a total of five medium coats. After the last coat, I placed the guitar in my garage to off-gas and immediately pulled the tape.

Despite it being satin, it looked a bit too glossy for what I was going for. Also, it wasn’t a perfectly smooth surface (as I partially expected). So I used the 0000 steel wool on this as well to dull it a bit and smooth out the imperfections. To make the dullness as even as possible and the scratching more subtle, I spritzed the paint surface with soapy water before rubbing it with the steel wool. It came out looking as I wanted, but I unfortunately wore the paint off of one of the edges getting a little too agressive with some surface imperfections. I had opted to wool-buff the paint in one direction and this caused too much wear on the edge (plus, one week was not enough time to cure to full hardness). Choosing not to apply a clear coat certainly didn't help here either. So, back to 400grit, masking, and paint. The second time around, I had given it at least three weeks to cure and I increased the amount of soap in the solution slightly. I very lightly buffed with the steel wool in a circular motion while avoiding the edges, being mindful to reapply solution so it did not dry up and cause streaking.

I went ahead and pressed in the bridge bushings the day after painting the headstock the first time. I started by adding a little bit of Chapstick (wax substitute) to the outer part of the bushings to help facilitate the process - I used Chapstick when installing new screws as well. I do not have a proper press to fit the guitar and tried to do what I did in the original build by using a large c-clamp. This wasn’t keeping them as straight as I had hoped, so I ended up driving them in with a large wooden dowel and hammer. Once I got near flush, I switched to a washer and finished tapping them in - the washer kept the lug from going beyond flush with the guitar top.

The bridge needs to be grounded. In the original build, I drilled a hole from the control cavity to the nearest bushing hole of the saddle portion of the bridge. I soldered a wire to this screw and turned it into this hole until it made contact with the bushing. I utilized this same strategy during the rebuild, cleaning the screw and using a new wire. You can check that the screw is making contact with the bridge via a multi-meter to ensure there is continuity. This practice grounds the strings to prevent excess buzzing and electrical shocks when touching other equipment.

A tip regarding bridge placement: doesn't really apply to this rebuild, but for future reference, string both E strings (or some regular string) between the nut and the saddles to help center the bridge relative to the neck.

While preparing to repaint the headstock, an issue that had perplexed me for a long time worsened and I finally had the guts to figure it out by spreading the guitar legs away from each other. At the bottom of the neck-thru on the control side, I had always thought the maple and mahogany were expanding at different rates. This had never made sense to me in years past as the rest of the guitar didn't have this issue. During the rebuild, I mistakenly thought it had become a non-issue. It wasn't until over a week after I had sealed with Tru-Oil that I noticed the mahogany "wing" on that side was actually separating from the maple. The problem appears to have stemmed from when I glued the sections together in 1997.* The bond was never strong and now the guitar leg was obviously bending away from neck-thru. This is not something I was willing to live with cosmetically or risk worsening further, plus it is heavily detrimental to tone and sustain ...it's not a solid body guitar if it's coming apart.

* My gut tells me the issue was a combination of: 1) gluing the two mahogany parts simultaneously with no prior experience, which had me pushing the working time of the epoxy; 2) worsening the existing problem with the heat gun concentrated on that seam to remove the old filler from the blemished edge. So the main lesson learned here was to do one side of a neck-thru at a time if alignment is crucial, as spending too much time getting both sides accurate at once could compromise the bond.

I found that the separation actually extended at least a third up the body of the guitar, near the tailpiece. During the original build, there was a blem on the truest edge of the mahogany. It best suited the fitment to place this blemished edge against the maple of the neck, leaving somewhat of a three inch long by eighth inch wide by quater inch deep gash on the front of the guitar - again, this did not matter in 1997 because I hid it with filler and opaque paint. So I used an x-acto knife to pry and scrape out the mahogany-colored filler I had placed only a few weeks ago. Once I got most out, the heat gun helped again to soften it and more delicately scrape the rest off the wood.* I planned to separate the guitar legs with a reversible clamp, opening the gap to remove remnants of filler and old epoxy and do my best to promote adhesion by running some coarse grit sand paper within the gap. This did not go as planned...

* Here's the big problem with using a heat gun on a gutiar that is epoxied like a neck-thru or set-neck: the epoxy used to marry wood together (at least the StewMac stuff) softens with heat. So when I was using the heat gun to strip old paint and the old filler from the large gouge, I was making matters worse by further loosening the joint between the maple and the mahagony on that problematic side. I didn't realize this until I was unable to sand the old epoxy off the "halves" - I heated it up and it finally allowed scraped off. On the plus side, I learned that if there's ever a need to do a major repair in a project like this, a heat gun will allow for an easy separation.

In order to slightly separate and then remarry the gap on the odd shape, I had to build a jig/frame so I could place bar clamps transversely across the body. Since guitars are all different shapes, I have added a bunch of pics to tell the story. I left play in the frame (the pic with the ruler below) by drilling oversized holes to allow some movement as the clamps tighten. To protect the guitar, I padded the contact areas with 6mm foam sheet (brand name: Darice).

In my attempt to band-aid the issue, the reversed clamp completely separated the problem side from the neck. Whoops!

I really should've saw that coming. Luckily, my jig (aka "The Iron Maiden") was nearly done and it wasn't long before I was glueing it back together, which was the correct way to go from the start ...I only wish I had figured this out before I applied the Tru-Oil. I did a bunch of dry runs in The Iron Maiden, testing different clamp positions until I had a routine down that worked consistently. For prep, I scraped off the old epoxy (facilitated with heat) and roughed it with 120 grit. I ran painter's tape perfectly along the edges of the parts and used StewMac's Clear Slow-Setting 2-part Epoxy applied to both edges. I had a soft rubber mallet on standby to bump the parts around and a stack of paper towels ready to clean up the excess squeezed from the seam and within the pickup recesses. Watching the clock, I made sure this time to get to a tight clamp pressure within twenty minutes of mixing the resins. Just before the epoxy started to kick (congeal), I wiped up the seepage and then removed the tape from the front side. The tape on the back was not really accessible but I was able to flip it and wipe off some of the excess. It needs about eight hours to cure (cooler temps slow epoxy down and can even be detrimental to cure if cold), so I left it overnight in The Iron Maiden.

Out of the jig, the tape on the back pulled up surprisingly easy. So the front would have been just fine and I would not have had to worry so much about stray epoxy seeping or stringing out anywhere. The joint appears incredibly solid and I would wager it is stronger than it ever was. There was a hair-wide rasied ridge at the seam where the two halves meet because of the tape. I took a fresh razor blade and carefully shaved the ridge down in different directions a little at a time, being careful not to scratch or gouge the Tru-Oil too deep. Once the ridge was down about level, I used 800grit under a 3M foam pad to further smooth out the adjeacent surfaces. I scored and applied filler to the large gash (this was half-filled with epoxy, which would likely look terrible if I tried to dull it to satin) and then used the same method with the razor and sand paper once dried to bring it about level.

I taped off the fingerboard face and headstock before cleaning all surfaces with a clean rag, then compressed air, and a final wipe with a tack cloth. To protect the insert threads from getting gunked with Tru-Oil, I used a few metric bolts that I pulled before flipping it onto the stand to finish the sides and back. I then tossed these bolts into a bath of isopropyl alchohol so they were clean for the next coat. I had to alter the stand so I did not have to remove the bridge inserts again. I did three coats (bringing the overall total to eleven) to ensure the sanded areas blended fully, allowing two hours between them. The next day, I pulled the tape from the frets. A few days after, I used my fingernail to scrape off any Tru-Oil that had seeped under the tape and onto the fretboard. I gave the resurfacing four weeks on the stand in an attempt to cure to full hardness, by checking if I could dent/scratch it with my fingernail ...it was still not as hard as I expected, but I was tired of waiting. By then, the headstock had seven weeks cure (at least the spray paint was cured fully-hard) and I lightly buffed the entire guitar back to the satin finish with 0000 steel wool and soapy water and dried it with a flannel rag. I buffed each section of the Tru-Oil finish in a circular motion, going clockwise and counter clockwise, at least twice each way. I chose soap and water over oil since I didn't want the oil to be absorbed permanently into the wood body at any of the screw holes. The buffing gave the neck an especailly smooth and fast feel. I also buffed the fretboard with the soapy steel wool to remove any remants of Tru-Oil I didn't scrape off earlier, then conditioned it a few times with F-ONE Oil in preparation for restringing.

Since I ditched the pickup bezels, I had to come up with an alternative mounting system. The threaded portion of the pickups had to be drilled out for wood screws. The most appropriate screws I had in a guitar hardware kit were a bit long, so I added some tubing to take up the slack, which actually looks pretty cool when installed in the guitar since they are more visible this way. For tension against the pickup recess, I cut some foam and made room for the various screw heads and shafts so the foam could flatten evenly.

Something I did not notice until I had strung the guitar up is that the bridge pickup was offset - it was shifted very slightly towards the Low E string. This resulted in the higher strings being more obviously offset* from their bridge pickup's pole pieces. This can cause subtle volume loss during bends, but more importantly, my OCD would not tolerate this. Eyeing the pickup, I determined that both mounting tabs seemed to be bent slightly one way to allow the shift (maybe 1mm). I had a ground issue I had to resolve (below), so took that opportunity to pull the pickup out of the cavity enough to bend the tabs so it shifted to center. The next pic shows the offset before the tab adjustment.

* There may be slight offsets even when everything is centered, depending on the saddle spacing of the bridge. Standard Seymour Duncan and DiMazrio humbuckers are spaced at 1 15/16" (1.94" or 49.21mm), which is the traditional Gibson string spacing. However, my bridge is spaced at exactly 2" (50.8mm) - even though it is mounted at a slight angle, the saddles sit a little wider than the pole pieces. This is slightly apparent at the bridge pickup, but not at all at the neck pickup since the strings converge slightly approaching the nut that is spaced at 1 7/16" (1.44" or 36.51mm) on my guitar. The difference at the bridge pickup is negligible and will not have any effect on the output. There are other pickup spacings, including F-spacing or Trembucker (tremolo+humbucker) spacing. The "F" refers to Fender-spacing and Floyd Rose tremolo-spacing (2.1" or 52-53mm) as these saddles are further from each other. F-spacing is very common in Telecasters, as I mistakenly learned in my Japanese Stratocaster when I used a bridge intended for a Tele: using a "standard-spaced" bridge humbucker with a Telecaster bridge will produce an obvious offset that is visually unappealing and may, though subtle, be sonically detrimental.

During the original build, I did not bother with copper shielding and do not recall a lot of interference. I decided to go ahead and apply it during the rebuild to eliminate regret ...plus I was planning on a very high-gain amp. I opted to only shield within the main control cavity. The other benefit of shielding is that it provides a common ground for the potentiometers. The rest of the guitar just doesn’t lend itself to discreet shielding since there are no pickup bezels. The switch cavity is too tight to do a tidy install, so I left that unshielded as well. Before I started, I made sure the potentiometer holes were still drilled big enough after the Tru-Oil applications.

Shielding takes a little finesse and a lot of patience. Don't expect to cut out a perfect shape and stick it in the cavity just so. Do it in sections and cut them larger to allow overlap and to trim off excess at the cavity cover. Don't worry about it bunching a little because it is totally unavoidable. I started with the most complex area, which was the center of the cavity with lots of corners. Get the copper about where it needs to be, then use a q-tip to gently press into the corners - you may need to cut slits at edges so it can lay over corner edges better, then apply small pieces to fill any tiny voids. It is recommended that all sections be soldered to each other at any overlaps to ensure a complete field - a small tab of solder is all that is needed to ground one piece to another. Once it's done, you can test it with a continuity meter to see if more solder points are necessary before installing the pots. Some shielding is designed to not need soldering (conductive glue), so I gave that a go: I found the trick to it was to press the layers together very firmly to get the top layer to conduct to the one below it.

I have seen a Dean ML Custom schematic with one volume and two tone pontentiometers, but I know Darrell's signature models come with a "typical" neck volume, bridge volume, then combined tone configuration. This is the layout I originally wired ...and ultimately stuck with. For the rebuild, I intended to swap the location of the bridge and neck volume potentiometers. Considering practicality, the neck pickup is the one that I fiddle with the least, so I wanted the bridge pickup's volume closest to the tailpiece for easier roll-offs of the higher gain sounds. That would have left the neck volume at the middle location and the tone pot placed closest to the output jack. Yes, unconventional and a bit confusing for anyone not familiar with the guitar. However, the wire on my SH-1n was only long enough to reach the first pot, so I just kept it wired as it was (NVol, BVol, Tone) instead of lengthening the pickup's lead.

I purchased 22awg cloth-covered, 7-strand, pre-tinned pushback wire for connecting the electronics. Pushback wire doesn’t need to be stripped since you can slide the cloth back a bit (it will fray easily if you try to strip it). You may need to grip the wire with pliers to slide the cloth even further away from the solder point, then slide the sleeve back to the new joint. I decided to use four colors: yellow, white, black, and I colored some white with a grey Sharpie for the fourth. For the bare ground wires, I just removed the cloth sheath. I used the Seymour Duncan website’s dropdown wiring menu as a guide. The file here is an older version with single-conductor information (for my SH-1n) and I identified the colors I implemented.

To get the correct height of the pots for mounting, I placed the included star washer over the shaft followed by a copper crush washer (from an automotive kit I had). Once passed through the body, I added the washer and tightened the nut. There is no requirement to ground the pots to each other since the cavity is shielded, making a common ground. Some would still insist on the redundancy because grounding like this can be "unstable" - after a while, you may start to hear your signal intermittenly cut out. They will go so far as to solder a wire between a pot and onto the shielding, as well. Use a multimeter set to the continuity test and probe between all the parts* - if everything tones out on the meter, then all is well. While soldering, I was heat-shielding areas around the solder joint with aluminum foil to reduce the radiant heat coming off of my butane soldering iron (a UT-100SiK set at 2.5).

* The meter will produce a tone when the probes are touched together. It should also produce a tone when you place one probe on a pot and the second probe on the other pots, the sleeve of the output jack, the shielding, and the bridge. If the meter does not tone, there is resistance between the two points and a better ground connection is required. Resistance produces noise.

Be sure to test the bridge ground connection completely. My tailpiece insert tested good and so did the tailpiece post. However, once I strung the guitar up and plugged in, I had excessive noise. With the mulimeter, I discovered that I had a little resistance between the strings and the rest of the electronics. I then tested the tailpiece itself and found the same bad reading. Although the post was grounded, the combined black powder coating between it and the tailpiece was thick enough to prevent a good circuit to the strings. The solution was to loosen all the strings so I could unscrew the tailpiece posts and lift it all off. Then I removed the coating on both parts where they made contact - a file on the post and a dremel stone at the back of the tailpiece notch. I also verified that there was no inhibitive coating where the strings fed through the tailpiece.

I had an issue that popped up a few days after completion where the neck pickup was cutting out completely. I messed with the toggle switch and found that if I had it in the middle, I could re-engage the neck pickup if I separated the bridge contacts of the switch. I then realized what must have been happening was the braided shielding on the outside of the SH-1n signal wire was making contact with the bridge pickup (it routes beneath it to the control cavity). I had to loosen the strings and pull the bridge again to access the pickup cavity and place a section of a drinking straw (sliced length-wise) around the neck's braided singal wire to prevent it from grounding to the bridge pickup's mounting tab. Problem solved. Prior to soldering, adding a span of un-cut straw over this wire would've been ideal.

To fix the twenty-one year problem of the guitar not staying in tune for more than a few hours, I bought the String Butler V3 made by Dietrich Parts. A simple, yet ingenious, concept that does exactly what it is intended to do: correct odd string angles coming off the nut, so strings can stretch/move freely. It even has rollers on the posts that move up and down for perfect alignment with the tuners. As a bonus, it looks really cool - this was an excellent addition.

I (re)started this project the first week of September 2018 and finished it December 15, 2018. Six weeks of that was waiting on the paint and Tru-Oil to cure. So that equates to about two months of actual work, putting several hours into it three to four days a week. That doesn't include the obscene amount of research I did to get it right and write this lengthy walk-through. It was a lot of work, but the guitar looks, sounds, and plays great - I am absolutely ecstatic with the results. Preparing for the completion, I had already scored a gain-monster 1992 Peavey Ultra 120 all-tube head with Carvin 412 cabinet loaded with Ipswich-born Celestion G12S-50 speakers for only $300: with just an MXR M108S equalizer in the Ultra's loop, I get a rich, thick tone with tight, brutal palm mutes. Pure heaven. Or maybe Hell ...you know, in that "I sold my soul for rock and roll" way.

Construction: Maple Neck Through Mahogany Body; Tru-Oil Satin Finish
Fretboard: Carvin 14" Radius Ebony with 24 Medium-Jumbo Frets (25" scale)
1.69" wide at Graphite Nut; 2.22" wide at 24th Fret
Pickups: Seymour Duncan SH-1n; Seymour Duncan SH-6b
Electronics: Duncan 500k Volume/Volume/Tone; 3-way Switch
Hardware: (Black Chrome) Gotoh Tailpiece; Kiesel Bridge; Carvin Tuners (15:1 ratio); dp String Butler V3

If it's at all possible during the earliest part of the build, figure out the wire routing and drill the neck and body pieces prior to glueing. This would have let me drill a big enough hole between the bridge pickup and control cavity without having to fill an eye sore of an insertion point near the lower fret. I took advantage of the body separation by doing just that.

I initially made the mistake of adding shrink tubing near the three-way switch to reduce stress at the individual solder joints. But this made it difficult to get the switch into the tight recess while simultaneously sliding the wire into the body. Plus, this would make it impossible to separate/replace individual wires without removing all of the switch wires if that is ever a necessity. So I rewired it without the shrink tubing. I did the same with the output jack.

When installing the control knobs, make sure to have the correct number of splines: there are 16 and 24 splines, as well as smooth shafts. My Seymour Duncan pots have 16 splines on them, but are a little more robust than my old Mouser pots (also 16 splines). I had to add a little silicon spray onto the splines of the knobs and wiped away the excess before pressing them on. Otherwise, I may have damaged the pots or the guitar (the thinner wood of the cavity), plus they might never come off. If I have trouble removing them (they are snug!), warming them with a hair dryer or low-setting of a heat gun might help to jiggle them loose.


The story of Dime, Dean, and Washburn:
Darrell Abbott (aka Diamond Darrell and then Dimebag Darrell of Pantera) became obsessed with Dean Guitars in his early teens. For one of the numerous guitar contests that he would win in Texas, the prize was a 1981 burgundy Dean ML. That week (some stories say that very day), he had also received an ML in cherry sunburst from his father as a surprise. Darrell sold the burgundy ML to a local musician for $600 so he could buy a Pontiac Firebird (circa 1983), despite his friend Buddy Blaze previously refusing to buy it becuase he thought that Darrell should never sell a trophy. Even though he thought it sounded better than his cherry sunburst, Darrell said he sold the contest ML since it was ugly and because the sunburst was a gift. Buddy was in the band of the new owner of that “ugly” ML. Knowing it had been Darrell’s, he traded his then-favorite guitar for the ML and modified it with a Floyd Rose, moved the DiMarzio to the neck, wired a Duncan in the bridge, enhanced the V-shape of the neck, filed the nut down to the frets, then had it repainted blue with lightning bolts (inspired by a photo in National Geographic). Darrell would eventually play this guitar at Buddy’s house, not knowing it was his old ML. Buddy moved out of state to work for Kramer Guitars in 1987 and Darrell asked Buddy to customize an ML for him to the same specs. Very shortly after, Darrell received a FedEx delivery of the guitar he requested, but he couldn’t believe there had been enough time for Buddy to build a new one. That’s when Buddy told Darrell that this was once his burgundy ML. This is the guitar that Darrell would refer to as the “Dean From Hell” and became his favorite guitar of all-time. This legendary guitar is featured on the cover of Pantera's 1990 album, Cowboys From Hell. However, I found an amateur video (featuring "Proud to be Loud") on YouTube recorded July 1988 of Darrell playing the Dean From Hell at a live set in Texas. The guitar currently resides at Darrell's estate.

As for Dean Guitars, Dean Zelinsky sold his Chicago-based company in 1986 after ten years of production and the new ownership began to focus on Latin bands, selling instruments predominantly outside the US market. MLs became scarce and Darrell would hit pawn shops to add to his collection and ensure he had spares for touring. In 1993, Darrell apparently became the sole endorser for Dean Guitars as they were gearing-up to release his signature model (which was actually being manufactured by ESP), but that was short-lived. Around 1994, Darrell started endorsing Washburn's (coincidently, also headquartered in Chicago) version of the ML loaded with an L500XL direct from the factory after being courted by a few manufacturers. This signature model was overseen by renowned luthier Grover Jackson who worked at the Washburn USA Custom Shop from 1993 to 1996. The Washburn Dime had been made possible due to Dean selling the rights of the designs to various companies. With the resurging popularity of these Dean copies, the Dean trademark was bought in 1997 by a Tampa company (Armadillo Enterprises) to resume production of the original guitar designs. Just weeks before his death in December 2004, with his Washburn contract expired and his friend Zelinsky back with the Dean company, Darrell finally began endorsing the Dean name that he had loved so much. Darrell stated he chose not to renew his Washburn contract because he believed Dean could build him a better guitar: his old friend Buddy Blaze, now working at Dean, was tasked with building the prototype for Darrell’s new guitar. Darrell lived just long enough to play and approve his signature Dean ML, which was released in 2005.

These photos are of Darrell during the earlier glam years of Pantera with the ML his father gave him, pics of the "ugly" ML being customized by Buddy, and the resulting Dean From Hell:


The difference between Bill Lawrence USA, Wilde Bill, and Dimebuckers
There is a lot of confusion surrounding “authentic” L500 and L500XL pickups, so I did some investigating. A German pickup designer named Willi Lorenz Stich (who went by Bill Lawrence) started the Bill Lawrence Pickup Company (aka Lawrence Electrosound; aka Lawrence Sound Research) with partner Jzchak Wajcman in 1965. In the late 1970s, Stich designed the L500. By 1982, Wajcman had become an equal partner in the business, sharing Stich’s trade name. Stich filed a patent for the L500 at the end of that year. In 1984, Stich defaulted on a massive loan and encouraged Wajcman to negotiate a deal with the bank in his place. Stich returned to Germany, leaving the entire business (and trade name) in Wajcman’s possession. In Germany, Stich would start a new company called OBL (Original Bill Lawrence). He attempted to undercut Wajcman by selling the same pickups to one of Wajcman's clients, but that backfired and the business failed. Stich attempted to build yet another business called Wilde, which also failed. With no loan or partner options left, Stich maintained his Bill Lawrence pseudonym and began selling his pickup designs directly via the Wilde Pickups website with help from his wife, Becky. These pickups are referred to as "Bill & Becky" era models. Stich passed away in 2013, but his extended line of pickups continued to be made at their home in California.

The consensus around the internet is that the current Bill Lawrence USA L500 pickups (BLUSA; owned by Wajcman) are pretty much the same as they were at the 1984 split. Some insist the BLUSA quality is not up to par with Wilde (the Wilde version has slightly thicker blades, even though the BLUSA blades seem to be the same as they ever were), while others claim they can hardly tell the difference tonally between a BLUSA L500XL and a Wilde L500XL ...or even a Dimebucker, for that matter. There is one thing that I know for certain: Darrell used post-1984 Wajcman-produced pickups. I ran across a video interview where Darrell stated that he bought his L500 pickups from StewMac - StewMac was a BLUSA distributor and this is where I bought mine in 1997. For some reason, the BLUSA pickups are sometimes regarded as “fakes” since Bill Lawrence is not Wajcman’s name and Wajcman did not design the pickups. However, Bill Lawrence is not Bill Lawrence’s real name either and the pickups that Wajcman sells are made in the same manner as the Dean From Hell's L500. Since they have essentially remained the same, new BLUSA pickups are indeed "authentic" stock. Stich fanboys will continue to argue against this logic, despite them pretty much sounding similar no matter who builds them. Finally, Nuno Bettencourt's signature Washburn guitars are still spec'd with a "Lawrence L500" at the bridge - there is no mention of OBL, Wilde, or Becky.

Stich was an undeniable pickup guru, but an awful businessman; Wajcman was the more savvy entrepreneur, but his website appears to be stuck in 2001 and further confuses things; the Dimebucker is alleged to be somewhat of a higher output "knockoff" (reverse engineered) of the L500XL. Bottom line is that I imagine you could be happy with any one of the three ...if you have the virtuosity to tame one and make it sing.

CrankyGypsy (established 2001)