22 Sep

How to Install Your Own “Clay Dots”

Hi guys, Will Kelly here again. One of the features, and mysteries of vintage Fender guitars, swirls around the iconic “clay dots” that marked rosewood fingerboards on Fender electric guitars from early 1959 through 1965. These off-white, slightly grainy looking inlays have been the stuff of legend, mainly because no one definitely knows what they’re made from. The stories range from Leo using some leftover asbestos floor tiles, to actually being a plasticized wood filler simply packed into the routed hole on the fingerboard. I am more inclined to believe the leftover floor tile story, simply because Leo was such a frugal man who let nothing go to waste. If there were several boxes of tiles sitting around, surely he’d have figured out they made great board dots!

Drilling Out the Dots
I love the look of the slightly off-white dots on a dark rosewood board. Pearl’s nice, but too fancy for the industrial design look of the Stratocaster in my opinion. So, when I’m creating a neck for an old Stratocaster build I love taking the stock pearl dots out and replacing them with my own version of those fabled “clay dots”!

1) Using a 1/8 inch bit, drill a small hole through the center of each pearl fingerboard dot. Be careful to drill only through the pearl inlay, and not into the neck itself. You can ‘feel’ the bit tug a little as it exits the bottom of the pearl dot. I prefer to use a drill press to do this because I can preset the stop limiter for the exact depth I need to hit every time without slowing down.

Drill Bit Lever
2) Remove the drill bit and, using the smooth end, insert the bit into each hole then wiggle it around slightly until you hear and feel the glue crack and release the pearl dot. Simply take the dot out and repeat this procedure with the rest of the pearl dot inlays. Take care to work slowly and deliberately so that you don’t pull up any splinters of wood from the hole edges. If you see a piece of wood lifting, stop immediately and take a small razor knife to cut the edge of the dot away from the splinter. Use a small amount of wood glue to reseat the splinter on the fingerboard. This usually doesn’t happen if you work slowly and carefully, though.

Drill Plugs
3) I use aged Les Paul cream pickguards for my “clay dots” material. I have a ¼ inch plug cutter that makes perfect dot-sized inlay plugs for the newly drilled out holes. The trick is to cut slowly so as to not let the bit build up much heat while cutting through the plastic. The plastic will deform and shred when cut with a hot bit as opposed to a clean, smooth cut with a cool bit. A good tip here is to use electrical contact cleaner as a coolant. It’s highly evaporative qualities mean that it will cool a surface to the touch when applied. Squirt several applications of contact cleaner on the bit for the duration of the cut.

Gluing Dots
4) You’ll have to sand the plugs to match the depth of the holes on the fingerboard. You want the new inlays to be as close to the top of the fingerboard as possible, but not below that level. After sanding and scraping to fit, place a small drop of wood glue in the bottom of the hole to secure the inlay in place. Afterwards, tap a few times with a flat ended punch. The glue will work itself out from around the inlay after tapping, so be sure to wipe off the excess quickly.

Sand Scrape Dots
5) Using a razor knife, scrape each dot inlay flush with the surface of the rosewood fingerboard. Take care not to cut or damage the wood surface. You’ll become adept at scraping and striking only the plastic dot after a few tries. Work slowly and carefully here. Once you’ve scraped them flush, use 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper and some fingerboard oil to smooth out the scraping marks and then do the final fit of the inlays so they are completely flush with the fingerboard.

Close Clay Dots
6) Work your way up the neck, fitting each plug inlay individually. You’ll find the job gets easier as you do more and more of them. You’ll get the knack of sizing up the inlay thickness to the hole it’s going in pretty quickly. Once all the new inlays are in let them dry over night.

This is a great way to authentically relic the neck inlays on a vintage style Fender guitar with a rosewood fingerboard. The dots are durable, and actually obtain a great patina with age and playing. You just don’t see many Fender guitars these days with anything but pearl or abalone dots on the fingerboards. This is a subtle, yet fantastic way to set your axe apart from the rest of the crowd!

60 thoughts on “How to Install Your Own “Clay Dots”

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