How Fender's Golden-Era Hardware Was Made | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. It follows previous interviews with others involved in the pre-CBS golden age of Fender production and in the post-CBS revival years:

I interviewed Karl Olmsted in the early ’90s for The Fender Book, my first book about Fender and its instruments. Karl ran the Race & Olmsted Tool and Die Shop in Fullerton and worked for Fender—and subsequently CBS—from the late ’40s through to the ’80s.

Tool-and-die shops make specialist tools and dies to produce metal and plastic parts. Karl had a unique view of the working methods and people at Fender, and when I visited him in 1992 at his house in Fullerton, we enjoyed a fascinating chat about the firm’s early days and later growth. Karl sold Race & Olmsted in 1983, and he died in 2011 at the age of 91.

Karl, how did you meet Leo Fender?

I had met Leo on a couple of occasions when he had his music store in Fullerton, so I knew who he was even before I worked with him. I got out of the Army, and my partner Lymon Race and I started our company, Race & Olmsted, in 1947. We decided to open up our small tool-and-die shop here in Fullerton, locally, because there wasn’t one at that time. Leo was a potential customer in the area at that time, so we went to him, and he was gradually starting to need production on parts.

Tell me about Leo’s music store.

It sold radios, music, turntables, things like that, and in the back he did repair work. He was always interested in music—or sound, I should say. He did play piano a little, I don’t know if you knew that, but he never learned to play guitar, as everybody knows. He was just getting started and needing parts more when we began to work with him.

1940s K&F Lap Steel/Amp

He was originally in with a guy named Doc Kauffman, it was called K&F, but by the time we started with him in ’47, he and Doc had dissolved their partnership. Doc liked to spend time with his family, he didn’t like staying down there till 10 or 11 at night, seven days a week. And that was true of Leo. Anyone that worked with him had a hard time not over-working, hour-wise, because he expected you to be on call all the time.

Was the store separate from where they were making instruments?

The radio shop was, yes. Then he started making instruments in a tin shed. The radio store was right past the corner of Commonwealth and Spadra [later renamed Harbor Boulevard], the main intersection of the city of Fullerton. The store was right on front, but there was a tin shed out behind—like a double garage made out of sheet metal—and he started making the steel guitars back there.

Right after we started working for him, in the late ’40s, he built a little bigger place down on the corner of Pomona and Santa Fe—bigger than he had, but [laughs] small compared to what he went on to have. Then he moved out on Valencia, I would say in ’53, and then close to 1960, I guess, he moved to the big plant right behind there. He kept expanding, had little buildings here and there, and finally he had that big plant, a whole stream of buildings he just added and added till he filled up the whole lot.

We were doing so much work for him by the time he moved out there we outgrew our little building—we were down farther on South Spadra—so we bought a lot and built our shop right behind him. I know that it was before ’54 out there to Valencia, before the Stratocaster, because that’s when Forrest White came on board, the last of ’53 or the early first of ’54—he was there when the Stratocaster finally came out. George Fullerton had been there since, oh, forever.

Who were the most important people at Fender, other than Leo?

It all depends on how you look at it. I’ll give you my thinking. George Fullerton was probably the most underrated guy of the whole organization, the workhorse, the faithful George. He stuck with Leo, thick and thin. I would give George the most credit.

Forrest White did an excellent job for the years he was working there running the factory, a great job. Dale Hyatt can’t be counted out, either, he was a great salesman. He got paid well for it, but he did a wonderful job. He got out there in that Midwest and made it go. Then you’ve got to give Don Randall a lot of credit, he did a fantastic job with the Fender Sales outfit that he and Leo owned together.

I would say those are the main guys. And I would like to give myself and Lymon Race a little credit. We helped Leo a lot. We got paid, but we stayed with it, worked our nights and weekends with him. But I’d put George, then probably Forrest, Don Randall, then Dale, those four guys. Couldn’t have made it without any one of them. If one of those hadn’t filled their job, then it wouldn’t have made it.

What was your impression of Leo?

I always liked Leo, he was always friendly. I admired the man’s ability, but his work ethics were too tough for me, too. He wore me out. He wore everybody out! But after you knew him for a while you just accepted that this was Leo. This was a man who was dedicated to making these instruments as perfect as he could. And he had an uncanny ability to do it. Whether you agreed with him all the time or not, he usually wound up right [laughs], you had to give it to him for that. So after a period of time you get to the point where you don’t argue with him too much, because he’d proven himself right so many times that you just went along with it. He was just a down-to-earth fella.

The stories about Leo have been around for years and will be around for years. People would walk into the factory and they thought he was somebody who worked there. They never dreamed that he was the owner—and this was after it was big, I mean a multi-million-dollar corporation, and people still didn’t know that this guy’s the owner [laughs].

Always with the pens and screwdrivers in his shirt pocket?

Yes, and the tool case hanging on his belt. He never changed till the day he died. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the belt on and the pencils in the pocket the day he died. Leo was one of these men that either you liked him a lot and learned to love the guy, or you just didn’t like him. And it didn’t make that much difference to Leo which way you went. That was just too bad, and he would go on and do what his mission in life was. It seemed to be a mission to me, that was it with Leo. He was one of a kind. I’ve never met anyone else quite like him.

So, after World War II, you set up your tool-and-die company with Lymon Race. What happened when you offered to work for Leo?

We had our new company and were looking for work, and he’d reached the point where he was needing dies made for production work. They had been making things by hand, cutting out the metal parts any way they could. Now he was getting to the point where they wanted to make several of each thing as they were running through, and they were needing what we call “cheap dies,” as cheap a tooling as you could get, because you didn’t plan on making a lot.

As it progressed, we progressed to more complicated, sophisticated, high-production tooling. The more we worked for him, the more our company and his company seemed to get along. So we got more involved in the instruments, the amplifiers, and later on the Fender–Rhodes pianos.

Which parts did you supply to Fender for the guitars?

When Leo owned the company up until when he sold the company [to CBS in 1965], we did almost all the metal parts on the guitars. On the amplifiers, too: the chassis dies, all the corners, the handles, the glides. Leo was our best customer, but of course we had lots of other jobs besides.

Just before Leo sold out, we had started making the machine heads. We made this machine head [Karl points to an F-stamped tuner with plastic button on his Fender Newporter acoustic] and then we made it for the higher models, except we chrome-plated it and put a metal knob on, but it was the same. We developed that for Fender, made the dies, had the gear machines, did the whole thing.

Did Leo do that to get tuners more cheaply than he could from, say, Kluson?

Not particularly cheaper. It was because he could not depend on Kluson. When old Tony Kluson owned it there wasn’t much of a problem, but after Tony went they became unreliable in quality and delivery—and it was as much delivery as it was price. When production really got up, Fender would get necks ready for everything and Kluson wouldn’t be shipping the keys, so they just sat there.

Leo finally got fed up with it and asked us to develop a key that we could make competitively, cost-wise. He was always worried about cost, but the main thing was that he could control it. He could have us right there in his backyard, controlling the supply.

I see you have an old Strat there, Karl. What can you tell me about it?

We made the first three, as I recall it, this one and two others. To the best of my recollection I’m sure Alvino Rey had one, but what happened to the other one of the original three I don’t know. The serial number on mine, as you can see, is 0463, and the date on the end of the neck I’ve seen is February 7. [I learned a while after the interview that this Strat was neck-marked "T-G-7-54," which indicates that Tadeo Gomez shaped the neck and signed and dated it July 1954.]

We’d start making parts for this new model and putting them on the bodies of two or three instruments—prototypes—and then when it was as Leo wanted it, we’d make the actual tooling. Then as soon as we got the part off of the actual tooling, which is what the parts on this guitar are, they would be what the production was going to be. Because when it was prototype parts, you really couldn’t call it an instrument, as they were hand-made. So this instrument went back and forth, we’d take it over to Leo, bring it back and do the next part, and so on.

Tell me more about how you worked with Fender for the new Stratocaster, launched in 1954.

Leo would have the idea and he would say OK, we want to make a new guitar, and this is what we want the wood to look like.

Bill Carson in a 1950s Fender ad.

George and the other fellas who worked on it would say this is what we think we need. So we would make, at first, what we call the metal templates, the routing templates, for cutting the body as well as the neck. They’d take the rectangular blocks of wood and these routers would go around, and the others would come up in here [Karl points at the pickup area], and then they’d go to the sanders and polishers. We made the saws, too, that did the fretting.

Once they got the neck and body the way they wanted, they’d say well, what sort of shape are we going to make this [he points at the bridge]. Are we going to make it a tremolo or just the solid string plate? He’d make a drawing and say this is what I think we need, and we would hand-make a prototype part.

We’d take it over to him and he’d say, "No, that’s not what I like," or he’d say, "Well, let me try that." Put strings on, and maybe no, it’s not doing what he wants.

So, you’d make something else. Finally you’d get something that made him happy, and then we’d make a die to produce it.

This vibrato bridge, here on your Strat, was that a problem?

Oh yes, we made several of them. This little thing [he points at a saddle] I remember was a problem, we had a heck of a time getting something developed that was practical to make, to mass-produce, that worked the way he wanted it to. As you can see, it has little adjustment screws in there to get the height that you need, and this adjustment screw here to adjust the distance from nut to saddle.

Leo wanted to get that exact. According to him, if you couldn’t get that exactly so many thousandths, it was not the right sound. So something that looks that simple wound up being quite a development, to get something that would make him happy, that could do the required adjustment, and was something that you could stamp out and mass-produce. Because at that time they were selling a lot of these guitars.

Did you suggest ideas to Leo?

Oh yes, he would come up and say that he’d like a certain part, and we’d take it back to the shop, and then go back and say, "Leo, we’d have to hand-make every one of those, there’s no way you can mass-produce it, it’s going to be slow and expensive." He’d say, "Well, what can you come up with that’s cheap and that’ll make me happy?"

Almost every job was that way—those saddles are a good example of that. We had to change them so that they could be something that was a stamping. There was no way to make the original ones they came up with cheaply, they would have had to machine them out. Screw machine parts are fine—something that’s round—but when you have rectangles and shapes and cavities, that becomes a different thing.

This thing [Karl points to the jack plate on his Strat] was quite a project, getting something to make Leo happy. Something that just would stick in the side? He didn’t want that. He wanted something developed that would be a shape that would let the plug come out at the angle he wanted [laughs]. And then something that could practically be drawn out without breaking.

Inside the Fender Shop, circa 1949
Outside the Fender Shop, circa 1949

And this thing [he points now to the vibrato bridge’s baseplate], he was always wanting bends and holes so close to an edge that weren’t practical. You’d have to keep making a trade-off with him. He’d say he wanted such-and-such, and you’d say, "Well, Leo, we can’t do this." You can’t have it bend that close to a hole, say, and not have the plate distort. Things like that.

This [the bridge cover] took a lot of work to get something that made him happy, too. He had all kinds of covers, and the sad thing was that all the trouble we went to develop that and make him happy, then 90 percent of the guitar players took it off and threw it in the trash [laughs].

Well, I was surprised to see that one still there on your guitar [laughs].

That’s because this one was never played [laughs].

How about the Strat’s vibrato arm, did that pose any problems?

Yes, it took more development than you’d think to get something right. There weren’t many of these tremolo things around before this one. They were usually stationary handles, but he wanted one that would do the job, the guy could be up here and get to his controls, but put it out the way if he wanted to. It did take a lot of bending and so on.

Boy, he was a nut on things like this angle had to be just right. He’d say, "That just don’t feel right." And I’d be thinking, Who’s gonna know the difference? You know [laughs]? This [tremolo block with long holes through for the strings], that’s a piece of metal, and it’s a long way through there using small drills. It was a costly deal to do, so we did have some cast, but they didn’t work out, so we went back to the drilling.

Casting was more difficult, generally, then?

In those days, yes. Later on, like now, they cast parts that we couldn’t even conceive that they’d be able to cast. They’ve improved metals, they’re able to get the strength in metals that work easier and stand up better. But in those days, you couldn’t get anybody to cast anything out of solid enough metal with those long holes through there.

The die-cast dies were always giving them trouble with those core pins hanging up and breaking. You’d get a bunch of parts and one core pin’d break off, and you had to re-drill the hole anyway. They just weren’t practical. But later, I’m sure casting of that stuff went on.


Shop Vintage Fender

Did you make any of the other metal parts on the guitars?

Well, not on this guitar [his ’54 Strat], but on later guitars we made all the tuners. A lot of them had different shaped backplates, we made all those neckplates, and we made any number of metal plates for the amplifiers.

You didn’t make screws—presumably Fender would just buy those in?

Oh no, they just bought those. He always used a standard screw. Screw machine shops made these little parts, like this [the early round string retainer on his Strat], but later on Leo went to mostly these [he shows me a double string-tree], which we made. We developed the die for those. The screw machine part was very expensive, but ours was a very cheap part. We’d bang out thousands of them for practically nothing. We’d run the die on automatic and just chunk ‘em out. Very cheap.

Can you remember when it became apparent to you that Fender was getting big, that it was becoming successful? Was that gradual or quick?

It was gradual until the Stratocaster had been out a while, probably about ’56, ’57, ’58 or so, I think that was when this guitar craze kind of took off. It just broke loose. Not to take anything away from Leo, he did a wonderful job, but he did it just right, you know? And he came so close to going broke shortly before he got successful that it wasn’t even funny.

If this guitar craze hadn’t taken off and made this thing what it was, he wouldn’t have made it. So, genius has to have some luck [laughs]. And he had both. The right product at the right time. None of the guitar companies back then could make guitars fast enough.

Inside the Fender Factory, 1950s

How did you know Fender was close to going broke?

By the amount of money Leo owed me [laughs] that I couldn’t collect! Actually, he tried to buy us with stock to get out of paying our bills, and like idiots [laughs] we didn’t take the bait. I’m like Doc Kauffman, you know? I’m not sorry that I didn’t, because I’m not sure that I could have actually worked for Leo day in, day out, on his pay. At least we had the advantage of being able to say occasionally, "Leo, this is all I can take," and step back.

As good as the relationship was, once in a while you had to do that—and I couldn’t have done so if they’d taken us over. I’ve never been sorry. But he owed us a lot of money, a lot of money. And if he’d have gone, we probably would have gone. He’d gone into us so deep, because we believed in him so much. We just gave him credit and credit and credit, practically to the point where we couldn’t make our own payroll and bills and everything else.

Did you make the metal pickguards that Fender used on some guitars? I believe they were anodized.

They were anodized aluminum, yes. We’d make a die and stamp it out, and usually you’d have to countersink it. Some of the stuff we machine countersunk, in other words we countersunk it when we stamped it out, and then trimmed around it, punched holes in it. But if not, you’d stamp it out, and then countersink it.

Then you’d send it out to the plater, an aluminum anodizing company. They’d buff the edges, polish it, and then anodize it whatever color you wanted it, plain or satin or yellow or the different colors of anodizing. It also gives it a hard skin—the anodizing is a little harder skin than regular aluminum, which scratches so easily.

So even if you were going to leave it a plain aluminum color, you’d have it anodized. Wouldn’t look any different, but it’d have a little hard skin on it so it wouldn’t scratch, and it wouldn’t deteriorate by corroding quite as fast. Anodizing stopped the corrosion process for a long time.

A few Fenders had gold-plated metalwork. That would be done separately, presumably?

Yes, strictly a plating process. All the plating was farmed out. I didn’t do that, because we only did a limited amount of plating. My plating company only did copper or nickel plating, and hardly any copper. But the gold plating, and the chrome, too, was farmed out to other people.

He used several different companies. Platers were notoriously poor deliverers. In fact, that was the only reason I bought that plating company I had—I was having so much trouble getting delivery that we bought a little plating company of our own so we would have first crack at it.

Fender didn’t do much gold plating, it really was quite limited. Later they went through that black phase, when everything was black plated, remember? Anodized black [laughs], even the amp corners, funniest-looking things. But that’s what they wanted.

George Fullerton and Leo Fender.

Most Fender neckplates had serial numbers on them. Did you stamp the numbers?

Some of them we stamped, some of them they stamped. We didn’t stamp them as we blanked them out, as a rule—they were stamped separately. We’d blank them out and then feed them into a die that did automatic numbering as it went. We made several different styles of neckplates, and they’d tell us what numbers they wanted, let’s say numbers 25,000 through 26,000 of this style, that kind of deal.

It was kind of a funny relationship for a big company. Up until the time CBS got it, we had a key to the plant, and we’d go in at the weekends and do work there when nobody else was around. A unique relationship. We worked very close together through a lot of those years, and then, as the production got higher, Leo went into making a lot of the parts themselves, later on, stamping and all that kind of stuff.

So were you doing less work for them by then?

No, no, we were doing more, because they had gone from making, oh, 50 instruments to 10,000 instruments. I don’t know the exact figures. It was so fast that, well, we couldn’t keep up with it. So rather than farm it out to somebody else, we said Leo, you ought to do your own, you’ve got enough business now that you can keep a shop of your own, and then you’ll have complete control over your production.

Which I imagine would appeal to Leo.

Yes [laughs]. Because even though we were very trusted vendors, he didn’t trust us that much [laughs]. I mean, we could die, we could sell out, who knows? He was smart enough as a businessman that he wasn’t about to be hung out depending completely on anything, anyone, no matter how much we had worked together and how loyal we had been to him and he to us. There’s always these things that can happen.

Who made the plastic parts on the guitars?

Leo bought them from different plastic companies, he used several of them. He bought the plastic, but we made the dies to blank out the plastic. He used a lot of laminated plastic, several different colours, and then we’d blank it out. And we made a template that they’d put on and rout it at the angle to show the different colours all the way around the edge.

Did you make the Strat’s plastic pickup covers, for example?

No. I think these [he points to his Strat pickups] were made by Accent Plastic, and later, from the ‘60s into the ‘80s, I think, they were made by a company called Adbro, run by Jack Adams, at first right across the street from us and Fender, and then in La Habra [a little to the north of Fullerton].

Early Models at the Fender Guitar Factory museum.

Tell me about the work you did for Fender’s amplifiers.

The guitar business was always Leo’s love, but he did a fantastic job on the amplifiers. Everyone always said, "Why do you build an amplifier like that?" And Leo said well, these country-western cowboys, they put it in the back of the pickup and it bounces out onto the country road. So you’ve got to have it so that you can pick it up, plug it back in, and it’ll still work some. That’s the way he built them.

That chassis strap, when he first went to the expense of putting that on, people would say, "What are you putting that on for?" And that was why he did it. They’d drop them, and the top would be hanging on four screws—the heads would pop the way they used to make them, just with a washer, and pull out the wood. So Leo came up with the idea of what they called these metal chassis straps, which stopped that. He was the first one to put those metal corners on, too, so that it wouldn’t get all beat up.

With the corners and the chassis strap and so on, that was our own product for a while, but CBS fast put a stop to that. We were selling them to other people, too, and they didn’t like that. So they put the pressure on us, they said we can’t stop you selling them to other people, but if you do sell them to others, we won’t buy them! So [laughs] I did get them to buy the tooling from me, but they forced me to sell it to them, which always stuck in my craw a little bit. But business is business.

What did you think of CBS and their takeover of Fender in 1965?

Well, to not knock CBS too much, the quality never went down as much as some people say. I never felt that it did, anyway. It did deteriorate a little bit, but in my opinion that was not because CBS bought Fender, it was just because their production was going up so fast. It’s like any other business in the world: you cannot increase production that much without sacrificing quality.

It was CBS’s fault to the extent that they demanded from Forrest White, who was running the Fender factory at that time, that he produce so many guitars a month, and there was no way you could keep track of that much stuff coming in and going out. You couldn’t keep the quality control that was needed. It wasn’t too long, I didn’t think, before the production was down again and the quality was back up.

But it’s like anything else, people say, "Ah, if it’s not an old Fender it’s no good." Well, in my opinion that wasn’t true. There was a short period of time that some bad stuff got through—and even my company was at fault. We were just getting started on some tuner gears, and we let some bad gears go through, I know that. We hadn’t made gears before.

And a funny insight: we were not gear makers, but for three years or so, I guess we made as many gears as anybody in the United States. So there’s no question about some bad gears getting through. We had to learn the hard way. But overall, I think that CBS did a reasonably good job for a big corporation.

A 1959 8mm film of the Fender factory, shot by Forrest White.

Did you get a sense of how many guitars Fender was making then?

I know that right after CBS took over, Forrest White’s production schedule was about 10,000 a month, and that’s when I was telling you about quality sagging a little bit. But Forrest was put under the gun. Whether he was let go or quit I don’t just remember, but it just couldn’t be done the way they wanted it done and keep quality up.

Was that the high point for production numbers while you worked with Leo or CBS?

To my memory, yes. I think our company had a major success at Fender, but we came after those guys—and I have a high opinion of my company. We were necessary to the success of Fender. Leo would have found somebody, but we happened to be the ones that were there. It was mutually advantageous in the long run.

Did CBS change anything else, other than pushing up production?

Yes, and almost all bad, in my opinion. They became harder to deal with. They became completely cost-conscious, to the extent that, in my opinion, and not just for my own sake, they bypassed faithful vendors where you knew the quality, you knew the reliability. They looked at cost, primarily at cost.

Can you think of any examples?

The bass tuner. My company developed it, designed it, made it, manufactured it for him, got them plated, got them welded, the head was silver-soldered in—we did the whole thing for Leo. He paid for the tooling and all that. They were an expensive part with that gear and the knob and everything, a couple of bucks apiece, manufactured cost.

I’d been making them for years, developed the thing. And CBS took that job away from me for less than a nickel apiece, gave it to a German outfit [Schaller]. A two-dollar item, and it was less than a nickel less than mine. This was in the ‘80s, probably ’80, ’81, and I’d developed it in about ’65. But by then I was tired of them trying to beat me down all the time.

Fender Factory, 1950s.

After CBS took over, they just became a different company—they didn’t know us, and they wanted competitive bids on everything. My partner, Lymon, died in 1972, and I had got tired of running the business on my own. I was thinking of selling anyway, and there was a recession here in the States in ’82. CBS was down-scaling and all kinds of stuff, and I didn’t want to fight it any more. I sold my company in ’83, I guess, and CBS busted up Fender right after that. I felt real bad because I didn’t know they were breaking it up. I sold the company, and then they lost one of their biggest customers in a very short time.

There’s one thing that stuck in my craw for a long time. Every year, CBS gave out a Select Vendor Award, and I never got it until just before I sold out [laughs]. See? [Karl proudly shows me his framed award, dated 1982.] All those years from ’65 on, and they would never give me that. I thought I was one of the most faithful and best vendors they had. I don’t know, but I think finally it got back to one of the big shots that I was upset. And by 1982, I really wasn’t a good vendor any more [laughs]. But I think it’s like a lot of these things. You get the award after the fact, you know?


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book (happy 30th birthday UGB!), The Stratocaster Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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