Guitar kits became recently very popular when cheap kits from China became available. Sine then, I have built several kits with quite good results. I only have experience with two kit suppliers, SAGA and ML-Factory. Saga claims kits are made in US. ML-factory gets their kits from China. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Recently I found a brochure of a wholesale company in China (Sunsmile) with the exact pictures that ML-factory uses. The Sunsmile company has some impressive footage on their factory. But it is possible that this company again uses different smaller suppliers so it’s very hard to say if you will receive a kit from that factory.
Anyway, despite popular believe, these kits are not meant for beginners although every supplier claims this. It is typically for the guitarist that wants to built a guitar without needing too complex tools. The quality of the kits is according to my experience low: – Tuner holes not in line – Very low fretboard radius which makes the guitar unplayable – neck-headstock transition uneven – very bad drilling of holes (lots of pieces of wood missing) – hardware of bad quality (especially the nut is a laugh) – lots of glue spilled on the body (something you find out when your are dying the body and the dye doesn’t catch) – bad binding application on the neck and body etc. etc.
But: of the kits I’ve seen the wood quality is decent. The wood is cheap but it’s not plywood. Fretboard wood is OK although in general very light of color. I had a Les Paul with a real flame maple top of which the top was so thin (so hardly any sonic influences, if the top has any sonic influence at all but that’s another discussion) the body wood was visible at the edges. Fret location is good thanks to automation although frets need dressing. Even with binded necks.
But best is, you can completely go crazy on the design. So with a few tricks, you can make something decent out of a $100 kit.
The best guitar I currently have is my EVH-kit. Although, I think it was a kit one since I got the assembled guitar from Ebay. I replaced the pick-ups but tuners and licensed cheap Floyd-Rose were the original. This guitar rocks, not bad for a $100 kit.
Step one: Check your kit on arrival
First of all check if everything fits, also with the new hardware you are going to install. Not always standard measures are used (also valid for almost all Chinese made guitars such as my Richwood ‘Les Paul’) so please check first if your expensive Schaller bridge fits the guitar. Best is to assemble the whole guitar to see if everything fits (step two-and-a-half).
Another tip, check the truss rod. Just give it a few (small) turns to see if it works. If it doesn’t turn or there is no resistance you can send the kit back because of a broken truss rod.
Step two: preparation and adjustments
Sand the neck and body to get rid off any glue stains. Use a sanding block and sandpaper of about 600 grid. Check with cleaning spirit to see if there is any remaining glue. Especially important when you want to stain the body (dye doesn’t catch on glue).
Most head stocks are paddles, you must shape them yourself. For a symmetric headstock such as on a Gibson Les Paul, make a template of half the headstock and mirror the template. Use a jigsaw to roughly cut the shape. Then use a sanding roll fitted into a drill stand to make the curves.
To give your headstock the professional looks, make sure that there are no sharp edges. Round off the edges of the headstock with 600 grid sanding paper. You can do this carefully with your finger. Be also aware that it’s hard to paint real sharp edges, so rounding the edges off makes painting easier.
Check all shapes of the kit. I once had to reshape a complete neck-headstock (this was a ML-Factory kit) and it’s a pity if you find out when the guitar is painted.
Very important to check, the neck – body angle. If this is incorrect y’re stuck.
This is only mandatory when you are building a guitar with a high bridge, or to be more precise when the strings are more than 1 cm from the body. Gibson models and all hollow body guitars should have a neck that is inserted into the body under an angle. Typically the guitars that use a tunomatic bridge. Fenders (telecasters and stratocasters) and almost all guitars with a (floating) tremolo can have a straight neck insert.
To explain the necessity of an angled neck, a picture helps a lot.
The math is as follows:
When you have calculated the rate of decline in your neck,
With a file you can remove the wood until all unwanted wood is removed.
Sometimes even guitars with a Floyd are required a tilted neck, just to improve playability. When the neck just needs a little adjustment, you can make use of a ‘shim’ (a small thins piece of metal or cardboard such as a business card). Put the shim in the neck pocket and screw the neck on the body.
For fretboard radius measures, get yourself a measuring kit. If you have to reshape the neck (because the radius is far over 20″), you need to remove all the frets etc.
Step two-and-a-half : assemble the guitar
This step is not mandatory but it’s recommended. When you are an experienced luthier and you use for everything the same template, your guitar parts probably will fit without any problem. But with a guitar kit, you never know how all parts were made and if they would fit. Therefore it’s recommended to assemble your guitar, install all hardware (including a nut), solder the electronics, string it up and play it. Does everything fit? Are all holes drilled? Is the guitar neck under a good angle etc. The guitar just should play well and if that’s not the case, repair it.
Step three: painting
For painting the kit, please check my finishing guide.
To make the fretboard darker you can use black leather paint. It’s nasty stuff so wear gloves an mask the fretboard inlays with tape. Also try to avoid spilling the paint on the binding because it won’t get away.
Step four: construction
When the painting is done, all the parts can be put together.
First put the neck in the neck pocket. Chance is it won’t fit since by spraying the neck and body, these parts became slightly thicker and thus won’t fit anymore. Important, don’t force anything, you will damage the paint on the neck.
Best is to get a wood file and make the neck pocket slightly larger till the neck fits. Always put the neck in in a vertical way, also remove in a vertical way. Since the neck and neck pocket are conical, it will only fit if they are put in in a vertical way
There is always a big risk in chipping the paint around the neck pocket so be extremely careful and don’t force anything.
- Screw the neck to the body.
- Install the tuners on the headstock
- Install the bridge on the body
- Soldering can be found here.
Step five: Adjustments
On guitar kits I always do fret leveling. You can find a description on how to do this here. With a little bit of effort I always have perfect flat and rounded frets and also the curvature of the neck is perfect. Somehow starting off with a perfect straight neck and then putting strings on gives me in 9 out of 10 times a perfect neck. But I must say, I like a low action. If the action is not correct check step 7.
Depth of nut slots: I dedicated a page on how to make a nut which you can find here. After assembling your guitar you can always make some final adjustments by making slots a little bit deeper. When too deep, you can fix it with some superglue mixed with a little bit of nut (bone) dust. Or use just plain superglue when the adjustment is very small. Anyway try to avoid this. It also helps to put some graphite in the nut, just use an ordinary pencil for this.
Step six: Install electronics
Step seven: String it up, pick up heights and neck curvature
Pick up heights: Too high and the pick-ups ‘pull-down’ the strings, too low and the pick-ups don’t pick up enough string vibration. And the output between the pick-ups must be in balance. Best is to start with the factory settings from Gibson (humbucker) and Fender (single coils – Fender only gives generic settings for all pick-ups).
Gibson neck pick-up height: 2.4 mm
Gibson bridge pick-up height: 1.6 mm
Fender pick-up height: 2 mm (treble side) – 1.6 mm (bass side)
From here you can make adjustments that suit your playing. More info can be found here.
Neck curvature: neck curvature is important for the playability of the guitar. When strings are rattling, the neck might be too straight. When the neck is too curvy, the action is too high and the playing is ‘spongy’. Change the neck curvature by adjusting the truss-rod. On most guitars the truss-rod ‘entrance’ can be found on the headstock but sometimes (older Fenders with bolt-on necks) it is found at the bottom of the guitar neck (which can only be accessed when you take off the neck). For adjustments you need allen-screws or a flat-head screw driver.
The idea is simple, the truss rod makes the neck stiffer, so more tension on the truss-rod gives a lower action when the strings are on. When the truss-rod would be completely ‘loose’ it wouldn’t give any extra strength to the neck so the neck would an extreme curve. Take it easy, just little adjustments step by step. I would recommend with a maximum of half (180 degrees) turns. The neck has to adjust over time so it might take a couple of days until you found the perfect curvature.
Stop when turning takes too much effort, you can easily ruin the neck. When in doubt, go to a professional.
Step eight: Tuning and Intonation