The Embarrassing True Story of my Carvin Kit Bass

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Bassist4Eris, Nov 11, 2013.

  1. Bassist4Eris

    Bassist4Eris Frat-Pack Sympathizer

    Aug 11, 2012
    Upstate NY, USA
    The following essay was written by me in 2011, following the completion of my Carvin kit bass. It has been edited from its original version for internet-friendly brevity, even if it still seems longish. I was not aware of TB back when I wrote it, did not post it anywhere, and had since lost track of the file. My ex-roomate just found it on his old computer and forwarded it to me. So, submitted for your entertainment, is this true tale of an idiot and a dream.

    Selecting the kit.

    My main bass is a Carvin LB76W, a 6-string bass from Carvin’s Claro Walnut Series. I ordered that bass in late 2010. It has such a killer slap tone that I got back into this technique after about a decade of neglecting it. But it’s difficult to slap on a 6-string, and Carvins are supposedly especially hard, since they have a tighter string spacing than some. I’ve gotten to where I can slap it fairly well, but it still seemed that if I was going to get back into slapping, I should get a 4-string that was good for it and practice on that (obvious GAS justification here). Because of the fact that it was my Walnut Series bass that inspired this, it seemed that another walnut bass was in order. And because I was fabulously ignorant of my own shortcomings, I thought I could save money and have a fun project by doing a Carvin kit. (It's worth noting here that I have never, ever been "handy" with tools and such. But this seemed like a chance to learn. And how hard could it be? Well, I was about to find out.)

    I stuck with the standard maple neck and ebony fingerboard, but I did choose the following upgrades: active electronics, gold plated hardware, and stacked humbucking pickups. Additionally, I had them put an “Icon-style” headstock on it. The Icon is one of Carvin’s other models, and I believe it’s the only 4-string they offer with a 2+2 tuning machine configuration (all of their other models have all four tuning machines on one side). I felt that the 2+2 configuration would be cool because it would match my 6-strings (3+3) and also my Rickenbacker. Once I paid for all of these upgrades, and also bought a case and paid for shipping, my total invoice came to about $710. Had I ordered an identical bass completely assembled from Carvin, delivered price would have been about $895, so at that point I had saved about 21%. Not bad, although bear in mind I had no 5-year warranty and my resale value was more or less nil. And as you shall see, I wasn’t nearly done spending money.

    Receiving the kit.

    I received the kit right on time, and with all the correct options. The piece of wood they used to create the body was positively beautiful; it was clear that they did not send me an inferior piece of wood just because I had ordered a kit and not a bass. Everything fit perfectly, and arrived in impeccable condition. The main instructions, which were for a passive bass, were clearly written and easy to understand. The additional instructions, for the active elements, were less so, but I was still able to wrap my head around them. After reading the instructions, I made a shopping list and headed to the hardware store, where I spent about $70. Some of this was for expendables, such as tung oil, sandpaper, and steel wool, and some for tools that I might be able to use again, such as screwdrivers and a soldering iron. Considering what a misadventure I was about to embark upon, however, it seems likely that the only tools I will ever be using again are the screwdrivers, which came to about $8. So figure $62 spent at the hardware store, plus the cost of the kit, and we’re at around $772. Now my savings (vs. a fully assembled bass) was only around 14%.

    Beginning the project.

    I started by carefully sanding the body, the back of the neck and the headstock until all were silky smooth. I’d caress the wood like a lover, gently running my hands over it until I found the slightest roughness, and rub gently with extra fine grade sandpaper. It may be the only step of the project I did correctly.

    Once I was satisfied with the sanding, I applied the first of what was supposed to be four coats of tung oil. I used a 1” paintbrush, and wiped off the excess with a non-linting dust cloth. The instructions said to wipe of the excess “within 10 minutes”. I probably wiped it off after 5, maybe less. It also said to wipe any tung oil off of the fretboard within 5 minutes, which I’m pretty sure I did. However, I didn’t do a very good job of it, and there were shiny lines near my frets that looked like sloppy glue, but were actually sloppy tung oil. I let the first coat dry the recommended 6 hours. The instructions then said I should sand out any imperfections. The finish did not feel especially smooth to me, so I sanded the whole thing, and I’m pretty sure I sanded the tung oil right off completely. For some reason, I thought this was okay, that the first coat was only supposed to soak into the wood, and additional coats would remain on top even with sanding. After 2 more coats in similar fashion, I came to realize that this was probably not the case, and so I resolved to do 3 more coats, allowing each to set the full 10 minutes before wiping, and with no sanding between at all. After the fifth coat, for some painfully stupid reason I decided to try wiping with an old t-shirt rather than the dust cloth I had been using. Uh-oh, major lint problems! I spent maybe a half an hour picking lint out of my finish after that. After the sixth coat, I noticed some spots where the tung oil had not been wiped properly, and there were some thick blotches. I attempted to clean these up with steel wool, but ended up resorting to sandpaper, and was soon back to bare wood in several spots. I covered these up with one more coat of tung oil, and then I was done. It wasn’t perfect, but I was completely sick and tired of the tung oil process (not to mention the smell!) and I figured it was good enough. As it turned out, I figured wrong, but we’ll get to that. One thing I noticed was that somewhere along the way, I had gotten some dull scratching in the ebony fingerboard. I must have done it with either the steel wool or the sandpaper when trying to fix up the tung oil issues I was having there. The instructions said that you should wind up the finishing process with lemon oil, so I tried to clean up the fretboard with lemon oil, but to no avail.

    Neck pocket issues.

    Assembly went pretty smoothly after that point, until it came time to connect the neck. Although the neck fit perfectly when delivered, I had some tung oil buildup on the inside of the neck pocket, and could not get the neck in place. The instructions said this might happen, and that you should wrap some sandpaper around the end of a small piece of wood, and sand out the neck pocket a little at a time, making sure not to remove too much material. I could not find a suitable piece of wood, so I simply wrapped the sandpaper around my finger and began sanding (some readers, I’m sure, are already groaning). I sanded and sanded to no avail, until I finally realized that I was removing more material from the center of the wall of the pocket than I was from the edges. In other words, once I got the neck to fit, the bass-side of the pocket had been rounded out a little, and while either end made good contact with the neck, the middle of the seam had a gap wide enough to insert the corner of a playing card into. Not very deeply, but still. Damn.

    Who told me I could solder?

    The rest of the hardware went on without issues, except that the instructions were unclear as to how to install the string ferrules in the holes on the back of the body. I ended up putting a rag over them and pounding them in with a hammer. They got slightly dented in the process, and I put one small hammer mark in the body near one of them. Later it occurred to me that I should have put a piece of scrap wood between them and the hammer. Again, damn. But the real trouble began when I attempted to solder the electronics. I simply could not get the solder to “stick” to the pots. I had the damnedest time. But then I smelled something burning, and to my horror I noticed that I had put the side of the soldering iron against one of the wires leading to the battery compartments, and burned the insulation right off the side of the wire. I literally almost began crying at this point. Instead, I contacted my drummer, a professional carpenter, custom speaker cabinet builder, and all around master-of-all-trades, and hired him to finish the kit for me.

    My drummer comes to the rescue.

    My drummer picked up the bass from me, and I told him I’d like him to do the soldering. We also talked about possibly putting wood filler in the neck pocket, but he did not feel it necessary, nor did our guitarist, another master-of-all-trades kind of guy with experience assembling guitars. I told my drummer to charge the fair price, not the “friend” price, as he has been known to do. I not only felt he deserved the money, but I also felt I deserved the “punishment” for my stupidity. It’s worth mentioning at this point that there were a couple of other goals here in building this kit besides merely getting a new Carvin on the cheap. This was supposed to be a “learning experience” and a “personal growth project”. What I learned is that next time I need to leave this stuff to the pros. And the personal growth I experienced was the realization that I’m not as smart as I like to think I am. Being prone to a little bit of arrogance, this may have been the most valuable lesson I could have gotten out of the project. But going into this, my biggest fear was failure, and that I would have to hire someone to bail me out. Having to face that moment was a bit humiliating to say the least, but some friends assured me that at least I had come as far as I did. After all, I had a completely assembled bass; I just needed help with the soldering. OK, so maybe I did have some bragging rights. But then my drummer called.

    “Dude, I ended up re-doing the finish. There were a lot of runs and a lot of thin spots, and I just couldn’t leave it like that. So I took it completely apart and sanded and refinished it, and reassembled it.”

    So now I can’t even take credit for that. He ended up charging me $100, which was probably not nearly enough for the amount of work he put in. Still, I was now up to $872. My savings now came to about $23, or 2.5% vs. a fully assembled Carvin, which would have come with a 5-year warranty and had some kind of resale value.

    On the plus side, I did finally end up with a pretty good bass. He was even able to make the fingerboard look nice again (by tung oiling the heck out of it – he used a pretty glossy tung oil, and the whole bass, including the fingerboard, has this cool shine to it). However, entirely due to my own shortcomings and not my drummer's, it’s still not nearly as perfect as what Carvin would have shipped for just $23 more.

    Again: damn.


  2. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    Nice looking bass! You are just being too hard on yourself. You somehow forgot that the purpose of the project was to educate yourself. So to expect your first bass to be perfect is obviously expecting too much! There is a reason that nice custom basses cost so much: Because the builders have already made LOTS of half-baked basses that didn't come out so perfect, but pointed the way toward HOW to do things right!

    Yes, wouldn't it be wonderful if your very first bass kit came out absolutely perfect? Well people in hell want ice water too.

    Point is you obviously DID learn a lot things NOT to do so the kit DID earn it's keep so to speak. As for soldering, giving up obviously isn't the way to go. How does that help you change a bad pot on one of your good basses? Hey, trying to solder to the pot (I presume you mean the BACK of the pot) is always a hassle. They are often steel and solder really doesn't want to stick there. Personally I don't think it's a good practice anyway. If the cavity is shielded right, the pot cases don't need to be grounded and doing so (even though everybody does that) just puts a lot of unneeded heat into them. As for soldering the pot tabs, is an other issue. If you have trouble with that then some old parts and practice (duh) is the answer.

    And of course you freaked when you melted the battery connector wire. Well hey it's INITIATION! You are now an official member of the bass geek builder's club. You think THAT was a disaster? Hey you have NO idea of the valuable things that can get melted by absent-mindely waving a soldering iron around. Been there. Done that. Mere WIRE insulation? Pffft! What do you think gaffer tape is for? Hey it's INSIDE the bass so who is gonna see it? That's why I wire my basses with teflon coated wire so it's impossible to melt it!

    But where you really screwed up was paying your drumber friend to finish the bass. To make that money COUNT, you were supposed to pay him to finish the bass for you WHILE YOU WATCHED HIM DO IT and he explained it all to you! Got it? That's education.

    Still all things considered it turned out to be a pretty sharp looking bass!

    You have no idea how bad things can get. Imagine watching your Ken Smith slide off the table onto a concrete floor or you are hammering in tight bushings for tuning machines and the headstock splits in two. Rule: No matter how bad things get they can ALWAYS get worse. But the joy also comes when you end up with a beautiful bass that is EXACTLY what you want and you didn't have to mortage the house to get it.
  3. Wademeister63


    Aug 30, 2004
    Denton Tx
    Sure, maybe you missed out on whatever the other $23 would have got you but you put your soul into this one and you just can't buy that. Besides, I'm sure it's far more common for guys to realize how much work it is to finish a kit after they get it, and it ends up never getting done. Regardless of whether you had help or not, you got yours finished, it looks nice, and you can actually play it. You should be proud of that! Good job!
  4. godofthunder59

    godofthunder59 God of Thunder and Rock and Roll Supporting Member

    Feb 19, 2006
    Rochester NY USA
    Endorsing Cataldo Basses, Whirlwind products, Thunderbucker pickups
    $23.00 bucks and this story=priceless. Plus you got a nice bass out of the deal.
  5. Thanks for sharing. I have thought of building my own as well and possess a similar skill set as you. I too think I'll leave it to the pros.
  6. rocmonster


    Oct 31, 2011
    Thanks for sharing your story, even if you didn't feel you came out on top, the experience was worth it. I think knowing when to cry 'uncle' in a project is a very important consideration in your story.

    I found the hardest part of my first build was to be patient, pre-fit, sand in small increments.... did I say be patient?

    Great job!
  7. Bassist4Eris

    Bassist4Eris Frat-Pack Sympathizer

    Aug 11, 2012
    Upstate NY, USA
    Yeah, I regret not watching him do it. Or having him teach me. But you're right: I ought to get back on that horse. What you say about practicing soldering makes sense. I've always wanted to build an Atari Punk Console (google it: they're cool), but was scared off by my soldering experience. But an APC is about $20 worth of parts and a couple of simple solders. I really ought to try it.

    Yeah, this one's definitely special to me. :)

    Indeed. :)

    Carvin will sell you a kit, at a markup, that already has a completed finish. IIRC, options are limited (at least on the website) to black or white, and tung-oil on the back of the neck.

    They also sell a guitar kit with a prewired pickguard, which means no soldering.

    If they come out with a kit version of their new P-bass, and it has a prewired pickguard, and one were to order it with a finish, it would be a very easy project that even I would be able to handle in a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

    I could use some lessons in patience for sure. You know, between this post and bassbenj's, plus some GAS for a Carvin 5er, I've got to wonder if maybe I'm destined to get back in this ring eventually. It seems there were some lessons I could have taken with me, and did not. Plus I love Luthier's Corner, and always envy those guys their skills. Something to think about....
  8. lossfizzle


    Jul 8, 2013
    Agreed! Never built an APC but I've looked at the circuit. It's a fairly perfect first electronics project... that or something like a Ruby single-chip practice amp.

    Soldering takes a fair amount of time to learn to do right; I've been doing it only as needed for almost 20 years and I frankly still don't like doing it / end up with questionable results when I'm out of practice. I will say that having a nice iron and good quality solder (along with possibly a set of "helping hands") help a heck of a lot, so if your drummer friend has a Weller or Hakko station or something, see if you can borrow it for a couple days.

    My only build so far has been a pine Tele (guitar) built from the cheapest possible parts I could find, save the pickups. Total cost of everything would have been around $200 if I hadn't opted for custom handwounds, and you can find cheesy unfinished bass / guitar kits much cheaper than that without much trouble. I "screwed things up" at least as much as you did here, particularly in the finishing department... but the learning experience was priceless and I've been playing the heck out of that Tele since I finished the build.

    I say, after you build your APC, go after one of those $100ish bass-in-a-box kits and give it another go sometime. :)
  9. kcole4001


    Oct 7, 2009
    Nova Scotia
    It looks quite nice, and hopefully you gained some valuable experience.
    Nothing is quite as easy as it looks.
  10. vicvarado


    May 10, 2008
    Sabinal, Texas
    I remember the trouble I had soldering the grounds directly to the pots in my bass. Burnt one right up, then I found out that it's best to rough up the pot before soldering on it. I scratch them with coarse sand paper or a screwdriver.
  11. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Awesome story. I've been thinking of getting one of those kits sometime... you haven't totally scared me off, but it's good to hear of some of the pitfalls.
  12. spufman


    Feb 7, 2005
    Central CT
    Thanks for the well-written laugh! With an outlook like yours, no reason to feel any shame. You rock.
  13. AlexanderB


    Feb 25, 2007
    That is a sentence one can not say truthfully very often. ;)
    Funny story and a beautiful instrument.
  14. nagarjuna


    Dec 10, 2006
    The Gunks, NY
    Very well put! :cool:
  15. Staccato

    Staccato Low End Advocate

    Aug 14, 2009
    Great description, and experience!

    A. Manufacturers love DIY kit buyers.
    B. Not having the previous experience, and already owning most of the materials & tools is not economical to the cost of the project. If you included the price of any tools in your calculation, you've ignored their residual value, or value for future projects as an already paid for tool.
  16. tangentmusic

    tangentmusic A figment of our exaggeration

    Aug 17, 2007
    If you had just said "look at the bass I made from a kit" and showed the pics, no one would have known all that went into it.
    Knowing the full story makes your bass even more awesome!
    Great learning experience. Entertaining read too...
  17. seang15


    Aug 28, 2008
    Cary NC
    Get a $50 pawn shop bass. Completely disassemble, UN solder etc. Extra credit: sand off the finish.

    Now, rebuild it! And re-paint if you opted for extra credit.

    Fifty bucks and priceless experience.
  18. Bassist4Eris

    Bassist4Eris Frat-Pack Sympathizer

    Aug 11, 2012
    Upstate NY, USA
    Wow, this thread lives! I thought it had run its course. So, thanks to all for the latest crop of kind words.

    I included the cost of the soldering iron when I wrote the essay because I didn't think I'd ever solder again. But I'll probably give it another go. I didn't include the cost of the screwdrivers for the very reason you've stated. :)

    Actually, the original impetus of the project was an old Aria Pro II that I had in the closet that needed a new bridge, new pups, new finish, and a new neck. I got all psyched to do the project, and had a spreadsheet with about $400 worth of stuff I was going to need to buy. Upon closer inspection, I realized the bass in question was made of plywood and had a square neck pocket. A Mighty-Mite neck would fit, but with two holes where the rounded neck didn't meet the square corners of the pocket. I didn't think it was worth spending $400 rehabbing a plywood bass, only to end up with such an aesthetic flaw. But the appetite was whetted, and so I decided to try the Carvin kit.

    Your idea is a good one, but I think I'm going to try the APC, and then maybe one of the $100 kits recommended by lossfizzle. Depending on how that goes, I may even try another Carvin. I still have GAS for a 5er.
  19. BassBuzzRS


    Oct 18, 2005
    That is a great read OP, thanks :)
  20. I don't read many long posts, but this one was a great story - thanks, and your bass looks very nice.