Clearly I did just that, but does it play well? And how’s it sound? Read on while I take you through all the details of how I 3D printed this colorful and very ’80s looking plastic Strat that — spoiler alert — plays and sounds just like a Strat!
Why Print a Guitar?
A lot of people buy 3D printers and end up printing nothing but useless trinkets only to discover that 3D printing is not quite the Star Trek replicator solution that they thought it was. While I’ve certainly printed some useless stuff, I had bigger things in mind.
Then SARS-CoV-2 happened.
A Quick Aside
I decided early on that the guitar would be an existing design because while I love technology, I’m not a 3D architect by any stretch, and the software I know how to use is limited to Cura (the slicer) and TinkerCad, a simple free online Computer Aided Design (CAD) tool.
I decided that if I wanted the guitar to be useful, then a Fender-type design was best because if there’s one thing Leo Fender did well, it was make killer guitars that could be bolted together from parts. Along those lines I also decided that I would be using a wooden neck and not 3D-printing that part of the guitar. The neck is the kind of the soul of the guitar, and buying one off the shelf just seemed like the way to go.
Anything metal would be purchased or used from my spare parts bin. Anything plastic, I would print. My goal was to keep this inexpensive, which is honestly something I’m not very good at, an observation that I once again confirmed by the end of the project.
No, this is not your run of the mill home printer, but the only thing this printer is really giving me for this project is build volume which translates to the ability to printer larger parts. I didn’t even end up using the dual extrusion capability for this project, though I use it all the time for others.
I’m not going to bore you with my reasons for not using Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), but I did use something called Tough PLA.
If I were to do this again I would entertain other polymers such at PETG but MatterHackers didn’t have it in yellow when I was looking. Honestly, though, after completing the project I am pretty happy with the results in regular old PLA.
The Guitar Model
The Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster are both guitars designed by Leo Fender to be easy to manufacture and repair, and although they couldn’t have dreamt of 3D printing back in the ’50s, the concepts put into place by Leo have stood the test of time. Not only that, but the body shapes are in the public domain these days, much to the consternation of Fender. Since Telecasters and I don’t get along, I decided that the Stratocaster (Strat) shape would be my choice.
Using a Strat body makes the entire process much simpler than if I had chosen, say, a Les Paul because with the Strat Design, very little is actually screwed into the body. The vast majority of parts are attached to the pick guard on a Strat, and the pick guard is then attached to the body. Additionally, my 3D printed guitar could use an actual wooden neck which similarly bolts to the body of the guitar. A Strat was designed to be many pieces screwed together, and by limiting the parts that I needed to 3D print, I could make a guitar that might actually play and sound like a Strat. Plus, I have a lot of guitar parts laying around and as a result I would likely not need to buy any parts. I was wrong about that as you’ll see, but the idea seemed solid at the start of the project.
I’ve posted my final model files on Thingiverse so you can print your own. Remember, the parts are sized for an Ultimaker S5, so check to see if they’ll fit on your printer.
Phase I – The Test Prints
In order to see how this would all play out, I printed all the split parts at 50% on every axis. This made for some tiny non-functional guitars that were a lot of fun to play around with, but they taught me some things that would be handy later on. It was actually during this step when I first learned that the pick guard didn’t line up properly since the scaled pickup covers would not fit into the scaled holes. I printed two small guitars, and the colorful one was where I first came up with the idea of having the knobs and pickup covers match the colors on the body. Those models were sourced from TinkerCAD.
- The pick guard screw holes were way too wide, and not deep enough. Also, maybe three of them were in the right spots.
- The neck screws holes didn’t go all the way through so I had to extend them.
- The bottom of the body under the neck pocket was beveled so much that the neck plate stuck out about 2-3mm on all sides.
- There were no screw holes for the tremolo claw
- There were no screw holes for the strap pegs
- The control cavity didn’t fit the controls
The majority of the changes I made to the model were in the control cavity, so having smaller pieces meant burning less filament every time I printed a new test of the bottom horn piece. That bottom horn piece proved to be a huge pain in my ass.
In the end almost everything worked great except for the bridge screws and the pick guard screw holes. The bridge itself worked OK, but the screws seemed to be cheap pot-metal crap, which I guess I should have expected when paying $20 for a Ping Strat bridge, but one of the screws broke on me and many of the rest stripped, so I pulled them all and ordered hardened Callaham screws from Specialty Guitars, all of which worked great. You’ll see how that broken screw affected me later on.
My goal at the beginning was to use whatever leftover parts I had, but the simple truth is that I’m not really a Strat guy so I don’t have many Strat parts laying around. Somehow I did have pick guard screws, a neck plate, and an output jack plate, likely a result of me gutting the only Stat I’ve ever owned, a 2008 American Deluxe that came with some absolutely awful Samarium Cobalt Noiseless pickups and the S1 switching system along with an ugly green/white pick guard that I just hated.
Phase II – The Final Prints
Some of the pick guard screw holes still don’t line up, so I just gave up and drilled them where they belonged because that actually does work provided the screw isn’t supporting any real weight or stress.
The problem with drilling into PLA is that after a certain speed the friction of the drill bit in the plastic just causes the plastic to melt and not behave the way wood or even metal would because the melted plastic isn’t ejected from the channels in the bit properly. It works if you take it slow and you may need to manually pull plastic bits out of the hole. The right solution is to fix the hole positions, but that was an exercise in frustration due to my limited skills as a 3D designer.
Gluing the Parts
The glue I used was regular old Krazy Glue that I got from the hardware store, and I can tell you that I used two full tubes of it for the guitar body. Additionally, gluing the black part to the yellow/red assembly was a tricky operation because the glue makes the parts slippery at first and it’s very easy to let the glue set with them misaligned. If I were to do this again I would alter the individual pieces so that they interlocked somehow. I have some ideas on that if there’s a next time.
Using simple finger strength worked for me, but then I have pretty long fingers and years of guitar playing has given me a strong grip in my left hand, so it it worked out fine. Your mileage may vary.
Total time stressing over and planning for the glue steps? About a day. Total time spent gluing? About 15 minutes. Measure 20 times; cut once, and all that. And yes, I had super glue all over my fingers when I was done but managed not to glue myself together and I didn’t imprint my fingerprints anywhere on the guitar.
Cost of the Project
Cost of Filament
Ignoring the cost of the printer (which was significant according to my wife), the cost of the filament is calculated to the penny by Cura, the slicing software I used to send the 3D models to the printer. Here’s how that worked out:
- MatterHackers Pro PLA 1kg roll (MatterHackers): $42.00
- Ultimaker Tough PLA .75kg roll (MatterHackers): $49.95
Note that these prices do not included the two failed parts due to a power failure and a tangled spool of filament, nor do they include the three purple parts I printed when trying to figure out why the loaded pick guard wouldn’t fit on the body. In other words, this price reflects a working model with no mistakes having ever been made. You know, just like my marriage.
Cost of Hardware
The total cost for the hardware that I used is shown here:
- MIM Pau Ferro Strat Neck with Tuners (Stratosphere)
- Tonerider TRS3 Classic Blues Strat Pickups (Amazon)
- Ping Tremolo Bridge, Springs and Arm (Stratosphere)
- Fender 11-hole Pick Guard (Guitar Center)
- The Art of Tone Electronics kit (Amazon)
- Fender Road Worn Strap Buttons (Amazon)
- Callaham Hardened Bridge Screws (Specialty Guitars)
- Callaham stainless Neck Screws (Specialty Guitars)
Total Cost for the Guitar
Let’s recap and get a grand total:
- Total cost of hardware: $419.34
- Total cost of filament: $73.61
Total cost for the guitar: $492.95
Sweet Cats! I could have bought a nice used Japanese or Mexican Strat for that price!
Remember, though, that over ¾ of the hardware cost is contained in just the neck and pickups, and both could have been much cheaper had I gone with 100% generic or low-cost solutions. There are plenty of $100 generic or even Fender Squire necks on Reverb and I could have easily sourced a set of no-name import pickups for $20. Hell, I could have made the guitar a single or even dual humbucker setup and done the electronics for essentially nothing since I have so many of those laying around. Had I been able to build this entirely with leftover parts, I could have called it “free” except for the $88.76 filament cost.
Things I learned While Printing
Nozzle Size Matters
If you’re printing big things like this and you’re OK loosing a bit of detail, get yourself an 0.8mm nozzle. Holy crap did that save a lot of time! For example, the lower purple horn takes 11h 25m to print with a 0.4mm nozzle and 5h 33m to print with an 0.8mm nozzle. When printing five huge parts that take 11+ hours to print, the total print time difference is measured in days.
The downside to printing with the 0.8mm nozzle at 0.4mm (you generally only print at a layer height 1/2 the size of the nozzle) is that trying to print small round holes such as those for the pick guard is difficult at best. Another problem with the larger layer height is that it’s harder to glue the pieces together because they tend to slide into each other’s grooves and since the grooves are larger, there’s more sanding that needs to be done. The biggest issue, though, is that the parts just don’t look as good. That’s why the red, blue, and yellow parts were all printed with a 0.2mm layer height while the black and purple (which are mostly behind the pick guard) were printed at 0.4mm.
When I went to print first the full-sized piece (a 19 hour affair, remember) we had a power failure seven hours in which led to the first of two failed pieces, which you can see here in this pic. The cool thing about failed pieces is that they’re good for showing people the infill patterns that comprise the areas would be solid if created with subtractive manufacturing such as cutting, sanding, or CNC milling wood.
Drilling into PLA Doesn’t work Well
After trying in vain to get all of the pick guard holes to line up with my model, I finally gave up on about five of them and decided to just drill them out. This has two problems: first, if you don’t design a hole in the right place you may well drill into empty air due to the “solid” parts of the model actually being an infill pattern, and second, a spinning drill bit actually melts PLA plastic instead of drilling into it due to the relatively low melting point of PLA. Drilling slowly helps, and thankfully the holes I drilled were for the pick guard so they don’t really need to support any stress.
Source Material Matters
Tangled Spools Suck
pain lesson to be learned.
Keyed Parts Would be Better
Just gluing the parts together leaves a lot of room for error in the final stage, so if I ever print another I’ll be altering the parts so that they interlock in some fashion. I didn’t do this at first due to a lack of experience both in design and assembly of large 3D printed projects.
Be Careful Sanding the Parts
On the second guitar I built, I over-sanded one of the pieces so it doesn’t fit together quite right, the result of which can be seen in this picture of that second guitar where the blue and red parts don’t quite connect. That sucks because that blue part took 19 hours to print and I almost ruined it in a matter of minutes. If this had been a job for a client the entire thing would have been ruined because I didn’t notice the problem until gluing the third piece.
Sometimes Cheap is OK
The difference in price alone between those two part sub sets is $157.87 (Pickups: $99.99, Electronics: $27.89, Guard: $29.99) vs $39.99 (link) which comes out to $117.88 less, not to mention the time saved not having to wire up the guard. Not only that, but the smaller import pots fit into one of the old test pieces that didn’t work in the first guitar, so if I’d used a cheap import solution I could have saved days of design and reprinting.
The first picture is of the Fender guard with the $100 Tonerider pickups and TAOT electronics all hand-soldered by me.
I did have an issue when I printed all of the pickup covers. I discovered that on the import pre-wired guard that the bridge pickup had 52mm pole-piece spacing while the neck and middle were both 50mm, so I had to re-print those (the ToneRiders in my hand-wired setup were all 52mm).
The one place where I would not skimp is the neck, though I’d have to imagine that a nice Warmoth neck would do the job just fine.
But is it Useful as a Guitar?
The final guitar is well balanced, plays pretty much like a Strat, has a surprising amount of sustain, and actually sounds pretty great! It even suffers from Stratitis due to the vintage-spec pole piece heights on the pickups I used and when I listen to recordings I think the pickups need to be lowered, but I’m honestly kind of blown away by how well it works, which is honestly probably more to do with the genius of Leo Fender than anything I did.
The pictured sunburst guitar (technically Sienna Burst) is my 2008 Fender American Deluxe Ash Strat. I’ve modified the electronics and plastic which make the guitar a fabulous instrument and remains the only Strat that I’ve ever purchased. It sounds, looks, and plays amazingly well, so I used this guitar as the basis for comparison against the 3D-printed guitars.
You may notice that in my pics the tremolo arm is not attached, and that’s even true on my Fender Strat. Why? Because I’m a child of the ’80s when the Floyd Rose ruled the earth and I can’t stand the trem on a Strat. As a result, I tend to either deck the trem or just not use the bar.
I can tell you that the tremolo absolutely does work on the 3D printed guitar, but after testing it I immediately took the bar off and bolted the trem flat to the top. This is partly due to my dislike for the regular Strat trem and partly due to me thinking that six screws threaded into plastic probably don’t need the additional stress of me banging on the whammy bar.
No matter how impressive the material, I don’t think any plastic will compare with a nice piece of swamp ash, so my expectations were pretty low when I started playing the plastic guitar for the first time.
Quick Aside #2
Sure, I could have just put the guitar next to an amp that everyone recognized or took a picture of me holding it but all my amps are in storage except for my Axe-FX, and thanks to the salons all being closed due to the state-wide lockdowns I’m no longer pretty enough to be photographed.
This guitar does not have a refined feel like a nice wooden Strat, though it doesn’t have the candy-coated shell feeling of thick poly like the Fender does, either. And it certainly doesn’t have the luxurious feel of a lacquer-coated vintage instrument. My main gripe is probably the missing forearm bevel, but aside from that I feel like I’m playing a damn Strat.
The finished guitar weighs in at 6 lbs 10 oz (3.0 kilos) so it’s pretty lightweight for a Strat, at least when compared to the ash models that I prefer. Hell, my Judah EVH Frankenstrat weighs 8lbs 5oz (3.77 kilos) so it’s almost 25% lighter than that. The guitar is also surprisingly well balanced while sitting and standing, and I gotta say that surprised me, too.
The guitar is fairly resonant, but certainly doesn’t ring out like my ash Strat does, and the g-string seems a bit dead which I at first attributed to the high vintage pole pieces, but that didn’t seem to go away when I lowered the pickups down to the guard.
The guitar intonates well and the notes mostly play clear with the exception of some slight buzzing on the low frets which I attribute to neck relief. Honestly I haven’t really fine-tuned the setup because the guitar plays pretty well out of the box. I imagine it could probably be tightened up a bit here and there, but in reality this guitar will probably hang on the wall until someone asks to see or play it, so I’m not overly concerned about the details.
As a final note, it seems that every day I pick it up I need to tune it, but it doesn’t go out of tune while I’m playing it so that doesn’t seem like a major issue to me unless it’s a sign of the guitar slowly warping under the stress of the strings. Time will tell.
But How’s it Sound?
Even unplugged the guitar sounds like a Strat. Hell, even when I was walking around with nothing but the little black center piece bolted to the neck it sounded like a Strat! I honestly expected the finished guitar to sound like cheap plinky garbage but it does not. Plugged in it sounds like a Strat.
Now, I’m perfectly willing to blame my claim on a lack of a critical ear when it comes to Strats, being a humbucker guy at heart, but I generally pick up my Strat when I’m playing Dire Straits or even John Mayer, and to me this guitar does the job pretty damn well. Surprisingly well, in fact. Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself.
For most of the recordings I play my usual test chords through all five of the pickup settings in the following order:
- Neck (position 5)
- Neck & Middle (position 4)
- Middle (position 3)
- Middle & Bridge (position 2)
- Bridge (position 1)
Why did I do them in reverse order of the numbered positions? Because I always record my guitars in the same order: neck to bridge.
For the last recording, I murdered Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Mary had a Little Lamb and put my own terrible spin on it in order to show off the fact that aside from building the guitar(s) in this article, I haven’t picked up a guitar in months. In fact, listening to those awful recordings I only hear a terrible guitar player and not a plastic home-made guitar. That’s gotta count for something, right?
I 3D printed a guitar! And it works! How cool is that?
Purists may argue that since I didn’t print the neck that I didn’t print the entire guitar, and to them I would say that a purely 3D printed guitar would probably look and sound like crap and I just couldn’t see the point of spending all this time and energy on something I wouldn’t actually play. Clearly I couldn’t see the point of practicing during the Coronavirus lockdown time, either, if the previous recordings are any indication.
Would I recommend a project of this size to the average person who’s new to 3D printing? Maybe not, but if you’ve had your printer for a while and you’re prepared for failed prints and other mishaps, then have at it! Especially if you already have most or all of the hardware you need to make it happen.
Would I gig with this guitar? Maybe for a song to show it off, but I’d have to do a lot of testing before I trusted it for an entire gig and I have my doubts that it would stand up to as much abuse and a wooden guitar.
Would I do it again? Hell, I already have! I printed a second almost identical guitar for my daughter because I had basically 3/4 of one already done due to test prints and such. That one even has locking tuners and doesn’t have Krazy Glue marks all over the back, even if I did over-sand one of the pieces.
My only concern is that PLA is known to warp under prolonged stress, so I’m not sure how long the bodies will last but so far it’s been a month with no discernible issues. If there are any failures in the future I’ll be sure to update this article. Of course the best part is that if it fails I can just print a new one!