The other day I was replacing a pickup in my “Zombie-Caster” and noticed that several of the pickguard screws were spinning in their holes. Like many players, I change out pickups and pots from time to time. While this has many sonic benefits, it causes wear and tear on the guitar body. If screws are frequently removed and re-inserted, their threads can bore out the wood, enlarging the screw holes. Eventually the screws can become so loose they no longer secure the pickguard to the body.
Fortunately it’s easy to repair stripped screw holes. Although I’ll use a Strat and its top-mounted pickguard to illustrate the process, the essential technique works with any solidbody guitar. And with a little creativity, you can also adapt this doweling method to other types of screw-mounted hardware, such as pickup mounting rings, strap buttons, and truss rod covers.
Let’s take a look.
Note: This repair is intended for a “player” instrument—not a collectable, vintage guitar. The latter must be kept in original condition to maintain its value. Always consult a qualified luthier if you have a vintage axe that requires work.
Getting started. To fix stripped screw holes, you’ll need an electric drill with 3/16" and 5/64" bits, a medium tip Phillips head screwdriver, a flush cut saw, a small hammer, wood glue, and a 3/16" dowel rod made of poplar, basswood, or maple (Photo 1).
Once you’ve gathered your tools and materials, take the strings off your guitar and remove all the pickguard screws. On a Strat- or Tele-style guitar, you don’t need to unsolder anything—just gently turn the pickguard upside down and lay it on the body with the wires connected.
As you remove the screws, make note of which holes are stripped. If a pickguard screw feels snug as you turn it, then leave that hole alone.
The doweling concept. I often see a patched screw hole with a toothpick and some glue shoved into it. This temporary fix may get you through a few gigs, but it usually wears out quickly. The best way to permanently repair a stripped hole is to re-drill it and then fill it with a glued-in wooden dowel.
To ensure the repair will last, the key is to use a dowel that’s a bit larger than the original hole. It’s a simple, two-step operation: First drill the screw hole to a larger diameter, and then plug it with a solid piece of wood. Using a 3/16" wooden dowel creates a solid “sleeve” for the screw to thread into, and this will last just as long as the original body wood.
Drill, baby, drill. The next step is to drill out each stripped hole using a 3/16" drill bit. Measure the pickguard screw, and then make a mark on your bit that’s about 1/32" deeper than the length of the screw. I use a red Sharpie to indicate this depth (Photo 2), but alternatively you can use a slender strip of masking tape or a grease pencil. The idea here is to avoid drilling too deep a hole.
Tip: To drill a straight hole, watch your drill bit—it should stay perpendicular to the body.
Plugging the hole. Now it’s time to prep the dowel. From your dowel stock, carefully cut off a piece that will protrude about 1/4" from the hole you just drilled. You can measure the depth using a guitar string or skinny drill bit and then transfer that length to the dowel stock.
Before you insert the new dowel piece, fill the hole with wood glue. Keep a damp paper towel nearby to wipe up any drips or overflow. For this job, I like to use Titebond II because you can mix it 50/50 with water and it will still create a very strong bond. Here’s the advantage of diluting Titebond II: The thinner solution makes it easier to saturate the hole and dowel, and it absorbs deeper into the wood than if you were to use the thick formula straight from the bottle.
Tip: I mix a small bottle of Titebond II and water to keep around the shop for this type of project.
With a small hammer (preferably one with a nylon tip, like those used to install frets) lightly tap the dowel into the hole (Photo 3). Go easy—you don’t want to splinter the dowel or have the hammer slip off and ding your guitar.