Building My Nickel Free Guitar: The Entire Story

custom_telecaster_red

This particular blog post was penned by my boyfriend, Matt. He put a great deal of effort into the complicated task of building me a guitar I could play in spite of my skin allergies. He's amazing <3 Here's his story:

When Jen and I first started dating, I told her I could show her how to play guitar. It's a great line and I suggest, if you have the means, to use it. She was eager to learn so I showed her a bunch of chords and she started practicing. We didn't know about any of the allergies at that point so we didn't have a clue that the nickel frets and strings were causing tiny bumps on her fingers. Once we found out she did indeed have allergies to nickel I instantly knew the guitar playing had to go.

A little background... I have been playing guitar since age 11, produce guitar driven songs for local musicians and have worked in end high end guitar stores for the past decade.

So, I knew that most frets (the thin metal strips that separate the notes on the fretboard) are MADE of nickel and the average guitar string also has a high nickel content. The bridge, (which is the point of contact for the strings on the body of the guitar) of most Acoustic Guitars are made of wood so that wouldn't pose a problem but for an electric guitar, the bridge could be made of any alloy, then either chrome, nickel or gold plated… big problems. I'm not skilled enough to make an Acoustic Guitar so I went with the electric, knowing I would be sending out lots of emails and testing lots of metal pieces to get this right.

Getting started…

I already had the piece of wood we wanted to use for the body. It is made from 1 piece of Figured Cedar:

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We decided to have it shaped like a Telecaster but with some extra contours to make it comfortable:

guitar body cedar

I had Jennifer sit down with one of the guitars I had recently completed to determine whether the oil based finish I used would be a problem. Very scientifically, she sat with the guitar across her legs for 20 minutes and no redness showed up that night or the morning after so we knew were had a safe finish! The stuff we used is called Tru-Oil. It is a gunstock oil that goes on with a satin sheen at first. However, once you get 15 coats on it, a nice shine shows up which gives it a wet look and some more depth.

After a couple searches with some unique search terms, I came to a forum that lead me to a great company called Jescar. These guys make a fantastic fret wire called 'EVO' that is made from Copper which gives them a great look:

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I ordered a batch and when they arrived, very scientific test #2 took place. I put them in Jen's hand and made her hold them for 20 minutes. No redness! So one of the main issues was solved… though, did I mention that every single metal piece on the guitar would be an issue? No? Ok, then you may wanna get a snack…

Next, I started researching the bridge.

bridge

The bridge is the metal piece on the body of the guitar that keeps the strings in place. The bridge is crucial to have a great playing and sounding instrument. After some digging into what goes into certain alloys and emailing companies, getting told they didn't know what their alloy's consisted of, I stumbled upon Armadillo Guitar Parts. I did this by searching 'Brass Guitar Bridge'. I mention this because my 'hypo allergenic' searches were turning up nothing so I had to think in different terms. I thought, what metal isn't she allergic to and what would be the most musical? Brass has been used for instruments so I started there. Well, Armadillo had so many cool options, it took me a good week to decide which bridge to go with. I ended up going with the smallest Brass Bridge that they had:

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Once the bridge showed up, ultra scientific test #3 commenced. 20 minutes in the hand with no redness! So I wrote the owner of Armadillo and thanked him, explaining out story and letting him know his bridge saved the whole project. He quickly replied saying his wife has similar issues and that if we need any parts made of out any metal just to let him know! At this point I knew nothing would stop the project.

Jen and I had tracked down a massive piece of West African Ebony:

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(from www.gilmerwood.com) that we used for the fretboard. It was so big that when the neck was done, we had enough wood to make another. So, I looked into getting wooden knobs made for the controls on the guitar and for the knobs on the tuning pegs all from this one piece of wood. It would have been cool but this project was getting expensive quickly so I had to go a slightly cheaper route. Back to Armadillo Guitars! They make incredibly cool knobs:

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...out of the same brass that their bridges are made out of. So after Jen and I settled on the look, we ordered them up. Scientific test #4 yielded more great result, though we kinda figured anything we sourced from Armadillowould work out fine. At this time we also ordered Brass String Ferrules:

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and a Brass Neck Plate:

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Armadillo for the win!!!

Then came the Pickups.

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The pickups won't be touched often but if and when you do, you will most likely touch a metal part unless, of course it has a plastic cover on it. The pickups determined how the guitar will sound when it's plugged in. I have never been one to skimp on pickups for my other projects but I kept reading about the Dream 180 from guitarfetish.com being a nice alternative to some really expensive versions of what amounted to the same pickup. So we tried em… got them both for $70 total. It's normal to spend more than twice that on one pickup so I figured it was worth a shot. When they arrived I noticed they had a black metal casing, sort of holding the corners of the pickup but that the middle was made of plastic with metal bobbins sticking up. I ordered the Black version because the black paint used can typically cover the metal up enough to make it a non-issue.

pickups

We ordered a couple Nickel Testing Kits in advance so I tested out the metal corners and bobbins, all of them coming back negative for nickel.

On to the strings!

This was the thing that could have been an endless pitfall of purchases but I did a lot of research. Stainless steel was the first thing I checked into but we knew that most stainless is not pure and could very well contain a problem. I have always loved D'Addario Products so I gave them a shot first. I found that their "Chromes" strings are made with a true, stainless steel ribbon that I have used in the past and loved. They are smooth and very warm sounding, so I ordered some of those and some of their Half Flats, as well. Then I looked into GHS strings. They make this Progressive String, made from a Filament used for automotive headlights, so I ordered some. Then I went to Ernie Ball and I tried out their Stainless Steel Strings. I brought all four sets home and we tested each one of them. My research really paid off because they all tested negative for nickel! We ended up going with the Chromes because, frankly they feel like a million bucks for a beginner. They are smooth like a violin string, not rough like most guitar strings so they don't hurt your fingers as much.

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The tuning pegs...

The solution here was easy. I got some Black Schaller Tunings pegs:

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... and then got replacement tuning keys made of polished Ebony:

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So even if there was a problem with the metal, the part of the peg she will touch is safe! I ordered these from Stewmac.com

Design and a road bump...

I did a couple other things from a design stand point to keep as much metal off the guitar as possible. It has no plastic pick guard on it like most guitars this shape. Those slabs of celluloid have to be screwed down to the guitar and I didn't want 11 screw heads to get in the way. There is also no Control Plate (the strip of metal the knobs are usually sticking out of on the front) for obvious reasons. We used a plastic jack plate for the input jack:

… ah, the input jack. Really, it was the only problem that came up that I couldn't find an alternative for. This little plug is what the cable goes into and they just don't make them out of many materials. My solution here was once the guitar was built and the input jack was assembled, we would paint the jack with clear nail polish along with the screw heads. No, we would never be able to take it apart but it could easily be replaced for a few bucks. Recently, someone mentioned Neutrik, a company that makes many types of plastic jacks and I am looking in to a proper replacement.

input_jack_plate

Overall, this was easily my most satisfying build simply because of how challenging it was. When I build for myself, I don't have to consider any of these details to this extent. It was like a puzzle and that's  my thing so I really enjoyed the research and the successes along the way. I can't recommend Armadillo enough. With out them I don't think I could have gotten this thing built. The EVO Frets from Jescar were also a project saver. I may have been able to find a pure stainless steel option but those are very difficult to work with. The guitar plays and sounds great. You'd think with having to get so many unusual parts that it would impact the playability and tone but on the contrary, it's one of the finer instrument in the house:

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custom_telecaster_red

To see all the steps as it was built, click below!

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V