Luthier Shop: Milling a Pickup Cavity Freehand

If you’re looking to upgrade your pickup or install one into a new base, it’s important to mill the pickup cavity correctly. Doing this incorrectly can prevent the pickup from fitting properly and therefore causing uneven magnetic pull from the pickup. Let’s go through how to mill a pickup completely freehand to get that exact fit you’re looking for.

Tools needed

  1. Tape
  2. Electric drill
  3. Screwdriver 
  4. X-acto blade
  5. Dry erase marker
  6. Toothpicks
  7. Ruler
  8. Plunge Router
  9. Calipers
  10. Awl

Get the measurements

  1. Find the center line by measuring the outside edges of the neck heel. Remember to take notes of the measurements as you go along.
  2. With the plastic film still on the pickup, measure the width of the plate.
  3. After you get your measurements, move the strings away from the work path. 
  4. Match the film line and the center of the heel, move the plate as close to the neck as possible, then use tape to hold it in place.
  5. Mark your pre-drill holes with the bit size of the hanging nail to use as a reference guide for future cuts.
  6. Once everything is lined up, score the perimeter of the plate to leave a reference line on the film of the guard. 
  7. After you’ve made a reference line, remove the guard, and make sure to keep a spot for all your screws and parts.
  8. To get the dimensions of the cavity route, measure the pickup that will lay underneath the plate with 0.01” of tolerance in your specs. 

Preparing the body

  1. With the guard out of the way and pilot holes visible, we’ll turn our attention to the bottom of the pickup plate. Notice that the pickup takes up most of the space under the plate and the screws have a countersink that measures out to .445”. So to get the width of the pickup, measure the width of the Plate, subtract .445” from each side and line that up with the centerline.
  2. Now for the length, as long as it is under the plate and won’t be seen, you can mark the line as close as you feel comfortable to the edge. In my example, I’m 0.05” to the top and bottom edges away from the plate. 
  3. To get these measurements onto the body without needing to score the body for the plate (not shown in the video), put down some painters tape and draw the outside shape of the plate with a fine pencil. This should be a good visual reference for now where you’re going. 
  4. Taking your new measurements, and mark with an awl the points you're going to cut within
  5. Using an x-acto blade, follow the points made with the awl and scratch across the body against a shop ruler, and make a groove cut in the shape of the cavity.
  6. Run across the lines with a dry erase marker to keep a solid reference line while you make your cuts.
  7. After you make your cuts, remove the neck to prepare for the next step.

Carving the pickup cavity

  1. Once the neck is off, tape around the neck pocket so the base of the routers don’t destroy the body’s finish.
  2. To get started, make the first rough cut of about an 8th of an inch. Clean up any uneven lines before moving forward to save time later.
  3. Now that the hole is deep enough for the bearing of the router, use your edges as a guide to keep digging deeper. The final pickup depth should be 1.75”, depending on the thickness of your guitar body. This variance varies slightly by the type of Mudbucker. 
  4. To get the tighter corners, use a smaller router bit, and follow the same process as before. Make sure to check your work by inserting the pickup and seeing if it’s laying evenly.
  5. After you’re sure that the pickup fits, carve out a channel for the wire to get through. The channel doesn’t have to be as deep as the pickup cavities, so try to dig out only the space needed to get the wire through.
  6. Once everything fits comfortably and clean, wipe down your guitar body and workstation to get rid of any sawdust. 

Once you’re done cleaning, take a break! You want to make sure you’re refreshed and ready to go before you work on the pickguard and control harness. Stay tuned for our final blog to complete the bass.

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