I've been playing guitar since I was 13 years old, and have always had a deep admiration for luthiers and guitar builders. I always was - and to a degree still am - a Les Paul kind of guy. The stratocasters I had were always replaceable, lower-end, no-name models that I would use for occasional recording or jamming. I took a brief hiatus from playing guitar when during college, and in 2020 made it my goal to start learning more theory, and to start playing regularly again.
Choosing a Guitar
When it came to choosing a guitar, I immediately consulted the second-hand market. Why? The EU has a great second-hand gear market, and I wouldn't have to stress too much about importing duties (a problem I faced living outside of the EU). Moreover, I wanted a guitar that I could modify. Owing to my lack of experience, I decided to search for a stratocaster. "If the neck is wack, I can put in a new one, let's keep this modular for the sake of error management," I told myself.
I also ruled out Squier (I wanted something more unique) and all budget imports (Jay Turser, Encore, SX, etc). I also wanted to keep my search budget-friendly. While I can't recall any specific models that I looked for, I was very interested in Ibanez lawsuit copies, having played several before when they were selling significantly below today's prices.
You would be surprised how many vintage-era lawsuit copies are floating around Europe. I am sure there are more than 20 brands that all shipped to Europe out of Japan in the 70s to 80s, and those were solid guitars!
I ended up purchasing a vintage Salvarez strat. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the original photos I took of the guitar. The photo on the right is taken a few weeks after my purchase.
My Fernandes strat, in black.
The specifications at the time of purchase were as follows:
- Two-piece maple neck and fretboard.
- Most likely an Alder body (we will come back to this).
- Big 70s Fender-style headstock.
- Hardtail (!!!) bridge with ashtray cover.
- No-name original pickups.
- 50s style 3-way wiring.
- Broken plastic nut.
- Old no-name machine-heads.
It's a hooptie guitar that needed a lot of work, but still not as much as I imagined. The guitar had also been poorly repainted. It was originally white, and still had the serial number on the back.
The History of My Guitar
The guitar came into the possession of the person that I bought it from around 4 years ago. They bought it from an eBay auction consisting of two guitars; this one, and a sunburst strat of the same brand.
I don't have any images of the original listing but was able to find a similar guitar for sale online.
I actually tried to buy the second guitar later from the same seller, but it was already sold. In retrospect, I am thankful that I didn't.
Salvarez guitars were made in Japan during the 70s, along with a boatload of other reproductions. You can read about the history of lawsuit guitars in this blog post. This particular guitar was manufactured in Nagano in a factory that eventually would become part of the Fujigen brand. Based on crossreferencing the serial number against other known and dated copies, my guitar was manufactured in 1978.
Fixing the Nut
The first thing I needed to address was the nut. The top of the nut at the 6th string was chipped away, and although it was still playable, occasionally the string would slide off. Assuming that I was working with a standard stratocaster neck, I put in an order for a Graphtech nut.
I borrowed this image from an online classified ad because you can see exactly how tall the nut really is.
Problem 1: The guitar neck wasn't standard.
The distance between the top of the fretboard, and the headstock was larger than usual, and no standard electric guitar nut would fit. Strangely enough, a plastic acoustic guitar nut was able to fit perfectly.
The acoustic guitar nut didn't affect the playability too much, in fact, I believe that the original nut on this guitar was also made for acoustic guitars. Perhaps this was a cost-saving tactic employed by the factory. Either way, I didn't have any problems with it.
Don't worry, eventually, I installed a proper nut, but not before some experimenting.
Replacing the Wiring
The wiring had to go. The switch was barely hanging on, and the 3-way wiring just wasn't cutting it for me. I also wanted to try my hand at soldering for the first time. I bought a Musically 5-way stratocaster kit off Amazon, and went to work on replacing the wiring.
I assure you that I have since become a lot better at soldering.
Problem 2: I have absolutely no idea what I am doing.
But that's OK! This is how you learn. I had to re-wire the pickups three times.
- My solder joints kept failing.
- I forgot to ground the pickups.
- I overheated 9 capacitors, which resulted in nothing working even when the wiring was done correctly.
- I neglected to assume that there are different wiring color standards across the world.
I was going off YouTube videos that dealt with Fender guitars, made in North America and not in Japan during the 70s.
Fixing Pickup Allignment
I was still experiencing issues with my wiring, but decided to move on to the next challenge, which was fixing my pickup allignment. If you look closely at the image of my guitar's pickups, you'll see that the 1st string sits two poles on the neck and middle pickups. I was convinced that this was the reason I wasn't getting as much treble output, and decided to tackle this problem next.
I spent a while troubleshooting, and came to the conclusion that it was not because of my nut or bridge. My original hypothesis was that I could resolve this problem with a new pickguard. I also ordered a new Fender hardtail bridge that I planned to install later.
Problem 3: This guitar uses a non-standard pickguard.
No worries, it's a strat, it should work out fine. It didn't.
Problem 4: The stock pickups are wider than standard strat pickups.
The pickups wouldn't fit into the new pickguard that I ordered, so I had to file away the edges of the pickguard in order to make them fit.
At this point I had come to the conclusion that there would be a lot of work ahead. I need to route a deeper control switch cavity to make my Switchcraft 5-way pickup selector fit. I also needed to replace the wiring again, and install my new handwound LEOSOUNDS "Red House" pickups. Finally, I was going to upgrade the hardware, and maybe tend to the nut.
The First Rebuild
"I am going to get this right the first time, because I am tired of spending money on this guitar", I told myself. In reality, I was doing things far from the right way.
At this point there was so much work that needed to be done that I thought it would be necessary to refinish the guitar. I watched videos of experts comparing Nitro and Poly finishes, but it wasn't something I cared too much about. I cared most about making sure that the paint agreed with the wood, querying phrases such as "Refinish a guitar with XYZ" in Google. I also wanted my start to be purple, perhaps inspired by Peter Honore and his purple tele.
Let me be clear that I now have a great understanding of the importance of primer, filler, and patience! I began sanding the guitar body down to the grain, past the the primer.
Do not do what I did.
Working out of my rented apartment shower (to contain the dust), I worked tirelessly with a sanding drill attachment.
In this image you can also see the original pickups mounted on a standard stratocaster pickguard. I had to enlarge the openings.
It took roughly 5 hours of sanding, and resulted in a lot of imperfections. When I look back at my guitar-building journey, this mistake was irreversable.
During this process I also learned what wood my guitar was made out of, and it wasn't ash. The guitar is made out of plywood with a plain maple top and back. In the image you can also see that I used some wood filler on the existing pickguard and bridge holes.
How NOT to Refinish a Guitar
It was time to paint. I elected to use DupliColor Acrylic paint because it was available at the local hardware store. I also bought clear lacquer and had a couple of cans of black paint that I had bought before deciding to go with purple.
Armed with a plastic bag full of spray cans, a coat hanger, a couple of FFP2 masks, and my unfinished guitar body, I walked around my neighborhood in search of a place where I could spray in peace.
NOTE: WHENEVER WORKING WITH HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS AND ODOURS - WEAR A RESPIRATOR.
I set up shop by an industrial cargo storage lot, between some bushes, hanging the guitar from some sort of metal barrier by a metal coat hanger. I started spraying the black paint first, just to see what it would do. Naturally, it turned the guitar black, but the wood kept absorbing the paint.
Problem: I didn't use any grain filler or primer.
The top and back of the guitar were easy enough to cover, but the plywood sides devoured spray cans like there's no tomorrow.
Problem: This was October. It was cold and windy.
Forget applying an even coat, I was freezing. Zipped up in a dark jacket with the hood on, wearing a facemask and scarf, and rattling away with my cans - I started attracting unwanted attention. In fact, the police drove by multiple times, stopping to see what I was doing. I wasn't harming anyone, I was just trying to work on my guitar in peace.
I walked to and from my apartment several times, taking the guitar with me and letting it dry in my room before venturing out again. The next day a truck was parked in the same place I was working the day prior. I decided to relocate to a grassy area of the courtyard of my apartment complex.
It was very hard to apply an even coat. I no longer had anything that I could use to hang the body from, and resorted to painting flat. This caused the paint to pool up in certain areas, and I was still struggling with the plywood sides.
Fortunately, I seemed to be making progress, as I could make more frequent trips and allow the paint to dry a bit between coats. I had no idea that you should wait significantly longer between coats, but I was frustrated and way past the point of caring about best practices.
The image above shows my guitar hanging from a wardrobe by a broomstick and wire coat hanger. Notice the giant drip of paint on the side and some exposed plywood. By the time it came down to applying the clearcoat, I was holding the guitar out of my window and applying a new coat every hour.
This was - by far - the most arduous part of the build, and the most damaging. My room smelled like paint for weeks, and I was blowing purple out of my nose for days.
While Watching Paint Dry
I knew I should let the paint cure for some time, and turned my attention towards hardware and electronics (again).
I tried making a custom bone nut, using the original broken plastic nut as a reference. To cut the nut I used files bought off eBay, which I quickly discovered sucked. Toolage was becoming a problem, I was losing time and making errors because I wasn't using the right tools. Filing a blank nut using $4 files doesn't make for a fun activity. I was able to speed up the process by inserting the round files into my drill, but it still wasn't doing the job. I ended up going back to my acoustic guitar nut after trying 4 or 5 of my makeshift DIY nuts.
It was time to wire up those Leosound pickups. I picked up a new wiring kit, some new solder wire, and went at it.
For once, it seemed like things were finally coming together. Mind you, yes, I installed the pickups backward the first time, I did eventually get it right.
Problem: The pickups were too fat for the pickup cavity.
Compare the backs of the original pickups to the new pickups; the originals are rectangular, and the new ones were shaped like a trapezoid - like most standard stratocaster pickups.
This meant that I needed to cut away some wood to make space for them. I ordered the cheapest wood-carving drill bits I could find on Amazon, and they barely did the trick (see what I mean about having the right tools?). In the end, I used the bone saw from my Leatherman.
I was growing impatient and started attaching the bridge and the pickguard to the body, which at this point had dried for about a week. I also installed ferrules on the back of the body for the strings to pass through.
Problem: The potentiometer cavity is larger than on a standard stratocaster body. While the pickguard was able to cover the entire cavity, it meant that I couldn't use every hole on the pickguard to hold it in place.
At this point, I wasn't concerned. I didn't care anymore. I wanted to be done, and I decided that I was.
A Short-Lived Victory
It was November, and I was moving to a new place. I couldn't afford to lose any parts in the move and decided to assemble the guitar, despite the fact that it was not finished curing. It did not pass the fingernail test, the paint was still soft.
Despite the fact that I had cut a lot of corners, the guitar was really coming together nicely. Some parts looked great, the finish even sparkled - even though I was still getting paint marks on my jeans.
From far away, under the right low-light conditions, the guitar looked fantastic. In all honesty, the wiring still didn't really work. A solder joint failed and when I burned the potentiometers during resoldering.
I decided that this was a valuable experience, and for a while I focused on just playing the guitar. I told myself that I was done, happy, and would maybe consider revisiting the project at a later time.
I never discussed how I polished my paint job. Somewhere around December I decided to "correct" the finish, like I've seen in YouTube videos. The paint still wasn't dry because I essentially applied all the layers in the span of 48 hours in October. The polishing made the finish dull, exposed more imperfections, and basically ruined my day.
I got an evil idea.
I had ruined my guitar's already terrible finish. Relicing was my last hope.
This part of the build was so bad that I am happy that I don't have any pictures. Cutting into the finish exposed soft layers of acrylic paint that were still wet and wouldn't chip and would only dent. When I told my friends that I was going to remove the paint and start again they almost threw me an intervention. Still, I couldn't stand the state that my guitar was in.
The problems that I aimed to solve were still there; the wiring didn't work, the paint had drips, the relic job was just shameful.
I came to the conclusion that I couldn't stomach a full rebuild. Not yet, at least, but something needed to change. I knew that if I was planning on ever rebuilding this guitar, that I would need to strip the paint. So I did.
Yes, the headstock says "Ivan's Partocaster". While I've skipped over it, this was actually my first mod. I applied a waterslide decal that I ordered from Rothko and Frost.
In the dead of winter, I tried to sand the paint off the guitar, which didn't work. So instead I bought a chemical paint stripper and poured it over the body. The paint bubbled off and I scraped it off using a palette knife. As part of the rebuild, I also stained the entire body, mounted a black pickguard, new knobs (that went to 11!), and kept the wiring the same (half broken).
I told myself that this would be how it ends. The guitar would live out the rest of its life in its naked form, as a reminder of the struggles that I had gone through.
Another Nut Experiment
At some point I decided to address the nut situation, for the third time. This time I purchased a variable brass nut, after seeing them advertised on eBay.
I paid roughly 25€, including shipping, and can honestly say that it was the most useless part that I had bought over the course of the year working on this guitar.
It didn't seem like real brass, and the grooves made for the strings would strip far too easily. Moreover, it was again too short. I went back to the acoustic guitar nut, once again.
Endgame: The Restoration
It was now May, and around 5 months had passed since I stripped the skin off Barney the stratocaster. The entire time I had grown closer and closer to the guitar. I recognized my mistakes and was ready to do something crazy.
I wanted to fix the guitar once and for all. This time, I was going to do things right.
Wiring for the Nth Time
I bought a new soldering iron, solder, respirator, a mat to work on, helping hands, the whole shebang. Not only that, but I bought a new wiring kit, and a pre-wired custom wiring harness from Swag City (eBay Store). I studied the harness, replicated the wiring, tested it - and it worked. I still don't know what I was doing wrong before, but I had finally gotten it to work.
Nevertheless, I ended up using the wiring harness itself, because it had superior components and was significantly cleaner.
I also purchased a new white pickguard, one that fit my pickups.
This time I was going to get the nut right. I was too embarrassed at this point to go to a luthier and ask them to make me a custom nut, so I decided that I would master the art myself.
I bought a Dremel, and thin blade attachments, and a pack of 30 blank bone nuts. At this point I had also logged about 8 hours of nut filing tutorials, so I felt pretty confident.
I went as far as 3D printing a vice specifically to hold the blanks in place while I worked on them. In the end, it took around 15 attempts before I was happy with the result, and installed it.
Sure, professional nut filing tools would have made my job easier, but I wasn't going to spend $300 on diamond files. Using a Dremel with a small circular saw will do the trick - I promise!
It took approximately two months for my paint to arrive from Spain. I ordered period-correct nitrocellulose lacquer, the same that would have been used in the 70s on my guitar. Color: Olympic White, the same color that my guitar would have shipped as in 1978.
While waiting for the paint to arrive I spent some time on the bodywork. I used a routing bit to increase the depth of the control cavity by about 3mm. Used a sander to correct smooth-over some edges, and installed wooden dowels for the pickguard in two places. I also upgraded the string ferrules to a wider set that was more fitting.
Another big part of the preparation for painting was applying grain filler. I used it everywhere possible to ensure that the sides wouldn't absorb the paint as they did before.
I knew that I was going to be painting outside on a balcony, and needed to think of a solution for combatting wind. I was also prepared that the painting process was going to take at least 3 weeks.
In the photo above you can see the full extent of the routing that I had to do. You can also see that the guitar body is positioned on a dolly inside of a make-shift paint booth. I 3D-printed joints for PVC pipes that held up the guitar while allowing me to rotate it. This way I was able to access all sides of the body, and ensure that it would dry in a safe environment.
I used Nitorlack's finishing kit, complete with primer, color, and gloss. I even printed out a set of instructions that I kept in the booth.
During the night, I let the body dry inside in a safe place. I was worried it would fall over due to the wind and disassembled the painting booth every night. I would allow 48 hours between coats, and wet sand in between to get rid of imperfections.
The finish was not perfect, but it couldn't be. The body was chipped and sanded too many times at this point. I was happy to even get it to some degree of gloss. The photo above is taken somewhere between coats 4 and 6.
Some things stayed the same, like my use of Colgate and Bosch. I polished the guitar body around 8 weeks after starting the refinishing process. It was finally coming together, and needed one last finishing touch.
For the clear coat I decided to use Nitorlack's relic finish clear coat, which is more prone to cracking. I am very happy with the result. I think that given the fact that the guitar is already more than a little banged up, it draws away from the imperfections.
It's a Wrap
On July 9th, 2021, I completed my Salvarez Partscaster build. Working on this guitar taught me a lot about myself as a builder, an engineer, and a guitarist. I have learned to appreciate the craftsmanship behind stratocasters, and in the process came to love the guitar that I have built. There were moments where I was close to giving up on the project, but I am glad I persevered.
While I own a lot of guitars that are more expensive than the €170 that I paid for it originally (I refuse to tally all of my costs to date) this is my go-to guitar for all occasions. I know every square inch of it, know exactly what to expect from it, and am definitely never going sell it - not that anybody would buy it.
FAQ: What's next? I think an acoustic. Or maybe 5.