Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chocobass Pt. 2: Prepping the Parts (and drinking your pudding)

Choosing the right parts for the correct bass build is one thing; prepping and getting them to fit together should be easy, but is usually just the opposite. I suppose if I bought only Fender or Fender-authorized parts, then they would all fit perfectly, but even that is not true. Fender's specs for the same bass made in the US, Mexico, Japan or elsewhere in Asia can vary wildly, and after-market parts manufacturers can copy specs from any of these, or make up new ones, without even knowing the difference.

Something as simple as the correct bridge for this bass required parts from three different sources. The original 1951 P Bass bridge had Bakelite saddles, an early type of plastic very common in 1920s-1950s manufacturing. This material affects the sound of the bass, as well as the sustain, and was regularly replaced with metal saddle pieces as they aged, cracked or worn out (even Fender switched the bridge design within a few years to all-metal).
An original 51 P Bass bridge with old, worn-out Bakelite saddles. 

But I have enough bright P Basses with long sustain and perfect intonation... The whole purpose of building this bass was to get something with a different visual and aural character, including an authentic vintage sound. I started with an Asian-made bridge, a correct 2-saddle model, but with metal saddles. I then ordered off of eBay plastic saddles (not sure if they are actually Bakelite) hand-made to match the originals. After stamping the bridge with similar (if not perfect) markings based on vintage photos (FUNSTER instead of FENDER, and for the date 2015) I aged the metal along with the rest of the metal parts in muriatic acid fumes. 

After a day, the finish surface of the parts is eaten away; cleaning them up with a brush and steel wool gets the gunk and rust off. New repro parts now look 60 years old, but still function as new, ready to install.
Of course, it's never that easy. The new saddles required different and larger adjustment screws and fatter springs, which I found amongst my spare parts. The final bridge looks quite old, but with new plastic saddles. Even though I also aged the correct bridge and pickup covers and may never see the bridge, the Art is in the details.  

The Moses neck I am using was originally made to my specs for a different bass (my Swiss Army Knife Jaguar bass), which, on a whim, I ordered with a 51 P Bass headstock profile. It looked fine on the Jag, but it's perfect for this bass (and the Jazz Bass neck profile will be much more comfortable for me to play). But the shallower, more modern radius (the curve on the face of the neck) and the rounded butt-end of the neck (where it fits into the body) would create more problems with the fit, assembly and voicing of this bass.

Three attempts at replacing the gold Funster sticker with white ones ended in disaster, so I went back to my last gold one, still not perfect, but since I can no longer get a hold of the guy who printed them for me, it will do have to do. 

Then the relic' vintage style Grover tuners needed to be installed in the neck head. These things are huge, and I would have never used them if the body wasn't so heavy. They were also a very tight fit in the back of the headstock, requiring some elongating of the holes and some aluminum tape inside the front ferrules for a tighter fit.

These graphite necks are also very difficult to screw into. It proved almost impossible to get any of them flush into the back of the tuners without snapping off the screw heads. Eventually, I figured out the proper length to cut them in order to hold the tuners with a flush fit. With wood, this is SO much easier...

The Body

The only part of this bass that has to be built from scratch is the body. The whole point of this build was Walnut, and after receiving the one-piece Walnut Jaguar body mentioned in Pt. 1, my mind was made up. My first shot at this was purchasing an already-cut Walnut body from eBay. Unfortunately, they planed it a bit too thin, and tried using a router to contour the front and back, but used too large of a bit, and the edges were way too deeply rounded.

I returned it, and instead ordered the new, one-piece Walnut blank from the same tonewood who sold me the Jag bass body. This time I needed the uncut rectangular piece In order to get it CnC'd. I have all the tools to cut and route it myself, but I didn't have all the correct templates. I also wanted perfect placement of the neck pocket, pickup and bridge that only a computer could provide. Unfortunately, there were still more variables that I had not considered. 

After getting the bass body cut and routed, I realize that all of these basses were originally matched with a square-end neck. Even though I brought the Moses neck with me to confirm the neck pocket shape, there was still an unsightly gap between the bottom corners of the neckand the body. It was tight and usable, but it was not the perfect neck pocket fit I had hoped for, and dashed any chances I had of eliminating the need for a pickguard (which would now be needed to hide the gaps).

I expected the Squire pickguard I had to need some modification, but bad end route also meant I'd have to cut a custom pickguard for a cleaner fit. At least I can get glossy black pickguard material to match the original - for some reason the Fender Japanese reissues and Squires come with a black matte pickguard.

The other detail I was not asked about before routing and drilling was the rear body string ferrels. All of these basses originally had the string-through the body type bridges, which could also effect the tone and resonance.
The back of an original 51 P Bass body. 

The original Fender string ferrules were large 1/2" diameter cups, but all of the later reissues of this bass used smaller 3/8" ferrules. Of course, I was not asked which I was using, and when I got the body home I found they cut and drilled for the smaller ferrules, even though I wanted the larger ones (on further thought, perhaps the neck pocket also matches the reissues, but still not correct for my neck). I hesitated re-drilling them for a couple of weeks, afraid I would ruin it somehow, then finally mustered up the courage, fired up my drill press, and the results were fine.

I wanted to contour the body myself, to make it a bit rounder and organic than the 2nd generation P Basses (Fender only started offering a contoured body around 1953 after complaints from players). I figured that eliminating more wood than normal for this model would still not significantly affect the density and weight, since Walnut is already heavier and denser than either Ash or Alder, the original P Bass body woods. After confirming the neck fit, I used some files to create a slot for the truss rod adjustment hex wrench. Then the rough filing, power sanding and hand sanding commenced.

A standard late 50s-style P Bass body served as a guide for the contouring. 

The shaping process is more like sculpting, and brings back all of those sense memories of the flavor of Walnut dust in the nose and mouth. 

For the finish, I wanted a beautiful dark chocolate brown. After reading about and watching many YouTube videos dealing with different Walnut finishing techniques, came upon a group of postings from rifle owners and refinishers about Walnut rifle butt refinishing. Thanks to American's well documented love affair with firearms, there are enough rifle rebuilding enthusiasts to warrant a pre-packaged kit for just staining and sealing Walnut.

This Birchwood-Casey Tru-Oil kit is all about using natural oils instead of either laquer or poly finishes, and I have heard a lot about how oil finishes allow more of the natural wood resonance of musical instruments. All of my basses have paint finishes, so this would be the first bass I have purchased or built with only stain and oil to seal the body (and the neck, being made of graphite composites, also has no clear top coat finish as well). It took quite a few coats of stain and oil, then fine and wet sanding, and finally three steps of buffing to get a finish that, although not flawless, was glossy with a gorgeous rich from brown color tone, with more than enough grain showing through.

Next up in Pt. 3: assembly. 

Drink your Pudding!

In my 2013 trip to Europe, I searched for drinking chocolates in various cities in Italy and France, as well as in Barcelona. Drinking chocolate, although usually warm to hot, is NOT the same thing hot chocolate as Americans know it. In Italy it can be like a thick pure chocolate shot; the motherland for this is the Cafe Rivorie in Florence, directly across from the museum that houses Michelangelo's David (I managed three mornings in a row there). In France, there is much more (too much?) milk in their drinking chocolate, but in Barcelona it's so thick that you can leave your churro upright in it without it falling (I had one in Venice and in London very similar). In a quick trip to NYC taken while still shaping Chocobass's body, I got in a couple more European-style drinking chocolates. The first, from the Jaques Torres Cholcolates in Rockefeller Center, was not too thick and very nice, but costs $9 (tried it once, that's enough thank you)! 

The other I tried (on the same day no less) was at Eataly in the Flatiron district. The dark chocolatta from Cafe Lavazza was as thick as the ones I had in Barcelona. 

It needed to be eaten with a spoon. I ordered the large, but a little goes a long way, and my stomach regretted the decision a few hours later. Hopefully, when Eataly opens their Los Angeles location in 2016, Cafe Lavazza will be there as well. 

And so will I. But I'll just order the regular.