Growing up, my family promoted a certain DIY aesthetic, particularly as a workaround in situations where the alternative was simply not having a desired thing (clever parenting, no?). Halloween costumes, for instance, were often whatever I could throw together out of paper sacks and tinfoil. My high school bandmates and their families still recall with fondness my first microphone stand (what teenager has the discipline to save $25?): a small birch log glued to a plywood base, hole drilled in the log, broomstick lodged in the hole, piece of pipe duct-taped to the broomstick, mic-clip fitted onto the pipe: voila.
I forget which bandmate showed me my first Stewart-MacDonald catalog, but that was the moment I began to fixate on building my own guitar. Hell, they even sold kits—how hard could it be? I let the idea stew (pun intended) for a while and read a few books on the subject until an opportunity I couldn’t refuse presented itself: my graduating class was going to be the district’s first required to complete a Senior Project, entailing a minimum 50 hours of work. Several students chose ‘make a web page’ (it was the ’90s… that took longer, apparently). I got to work constructing an electric guitar.
Thanks to my infatuation with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers I’d gotten into the cult(ure) of the Fender Telecaster, so I settled on that as a design—crafting a facsimile of a common model would also make it easier to find parts that fit. The requirements specified that I needed a ‘mentor,’ and the obvious choice was my guitar teacher, Tom Armstrong, who had himself built several lovely, one-off instruments and had many of the woodworking tools I would need. I placed my first order from Stew-Mac and booked some time with Tom.
I decided I would buy a pre-fab neck but build the body from scratch. I’d learned that most Teles were ash, alder, or poplar. Ash was porous wood and working with that scared me; poplar could be heavy; the lumber yard—that noted storehouse of choice tonewoods—had alder. Alder it was. Turns out alder can be pretty heavy, too. To make the pattern for the body, I pursued a highly-scientific process that involved visiting the local guitar store, taking a Tele off the wall, plopping it onto the counter under a piece of butcher paper I’d conveniently brought along, and tracing the outline with a pencil. This was one of the more successful executions of craft I would complete.
Under Tom’s patient and nurturing watch things began to come together. The routing was jagged, the drilling sloppy, the angles imprecise, the sanding endless, and the first try never the one that stuck—but it also started to look like pieces of a guitar.
I’d had a dream about a shiny, blue Stratocaster (the Tele’s more popular kid brother) and decided that was the color for what we had dubbed the ‘Weddellecaster.’ I built a tarp-spraybooth in the garage, bought a quart of house paint, and loaded up the sprayer Dad had won in a guess-the-pig’s-weight contest at the local grange (first prize was the pig, but Pops must’ve been close enough to be in-the-money). The first coat went on heavy and ran, so I had to strip it and start over. Out of impatience, I used a brush to even things out on the next pass (many strokes were visible). I also applied about ten fewer coats of cheap spray-can lacquer than advised. By now, though, time was getting short (and I was well over my 50 hours).
When I first bolted the neck on I was beside myself with joy, which quickly turned to panic when I tried to string it up and realized my neck-rout was not nearly deep enough. A half-hour later after chiseling away (not recommended) using the storage freezer as a workbench, I was back in business—except now there was no hint of sound nor signal. Hardly a gifted (nor experienced) solderer, I’d ham-handedly wired the electronics together following the schematic included with my Stew-Mac ‘Tele Wiring Kit,’ mistakenly assuming that all the individual components had arrived in working order. That diagnosis and fix took a trip to the guitar-ER three towns away, where I watched a true pro replace the busted pots and discretely clean up my wire-spaghetti around the pickup selector switch.
The final touch was the decal, designed with my considerable Microsoft Paint skills to resemble Fender script; a sign-making shop agreed to cut it for me, but there were limits to how small it could be.
For my presentation—“Boards,” the school called them—I simply sat down and strummed. One teacher-adjudicator inquired at length about my paper on the history of the electric guitar; the other said he had just two questions: How much did it cost?; and (with a validating smile) How much did I want for it? I answered the first ($400-500 in materials, if I recall correctly), and announced it wasn’t for sale. I’d pulled it off, and I was thrilled!
Actually, I doubt it’d appraise for much due to the poor-quality work and ratty cosmetics, but Teles have a reputation for being guitars built for work, not looks, and it turns out I assembled a decent-sounding, durable instrument. As such, the Weddellecaster is very much still in action, heavy-as-ever, benefitting tremendously from a neck-reset and other work done by Mike Lull (Mike actually knows how to work on guitars!). You can hear it all over my recordings, and as an integral part of the sound of Bushwick house band Read & Destroy.
The finish, however, continues to wear rapidly.
Fun sidenote: long before I built the Weddellecaster my folks painted the kitchen a slate, matte blue. When I was in college they decided to touch it up and were pleased to find some leftover blue paint in the garage. They matched the color, bought a gallon, and went to town, marveling at how much it must have faded over years. Turns out they matched the remaining paint from my guitar, which was considerably bolder in hue—as remains said kitchen.