Making Your Own Instrument Cables

Overview

This project is a continuation of the Homemade Pedal Board project. Once a pedal board is constructed you need good quality patch cables to hook all of your pedals together with. You can buy these pre-made, but finding good quality cables can be tricky. To avoid this I decided to make my own with components I knew were of good quality. The details of this project can be applied to making patch cables or full size instrument cables.

Selecting the Components

The Cable:

I chose a Japanese instrument cable called Canare GS-6. This is a very widely used quality cable that comes at a very reasonable price. As an alternate, Mogami cable of similar construction is also considered a very high quality cable.
http://store.haveinc.com/p-49639-canare-gs6-instrument-cable-coax-18awg-oxygen-free-cut.aspx

The Tips:

I chose to go with Switchcraft, a quality US manufacturer for the tips. These tips are widely used in quality cables. The straight tips are pretty well priced, but the 90 degree tips are about twice the price. They are still worth it to me.
http://www.guitarcenter.com/Switchcraft-226-Right-Angled-1-4–Phone-Jack-335001-i1128968.gc
http://www.guitarcenter.com/Switchcraft-280-1-4–Straight-Phone-Plug-101272409-i1128973.gc

Heatshrink Tubing:

I chose a 3:1 heatshrink tubing to seal my connections after assembly. 3:1 gives you plenty of room to slip it into place and still shrinks up nice and tight.
http://store.haveinc.com/p-55326-techflex-31-heatshrink-3-8in-bla-25ft.aspx

Other Materials:

  1. Cable Strippers: for stripping multiple layers of the cable
  2. Soldering Iron and supplies: for soldering your cable to the tips
  3. Needle Nosed Pliers: for crimping your ground connection from the plug to the cable
  4. Hot Glue Gun: for potting the electrical connection after soldering
  5. Knives, scissors, rulers: for measuring and cutting your materials
  6. Heat gun, or lighter: something to shrink the tubing

Assembling the Cable:

Measuring Your Cable:

The first thing you want to do is determine how long your cable needs to be. In this example I’m going to be making a 12″ patch cable with one straight tip and one angled tip. To start, I’ll use my 4 foot straightedge to measure off 14″ of cable.

Measuring
Measuring

We are measuring 2″ longer than we need to account for the cable that will be housed inside of the tip casing.

You can go ahead and cut your heatshrink tubing as well. You’ll need 1-1/2″ sections for the angled connectors and 2″ sections for the straight connections.

Stripping the Cable:

You want to use the appropriate cable strippers to strip three different sections off of the end of the cable. The first one should strip all layers away down to the core wire. This is your “hot” wire which carries the actual signal. You’ll want to leave about 1/4″ of wire exposed. The next one should strip away everything except the core wire and the clear plastic insulation that encases the core wire. Again, you’ll want about 1/4″ exposed in addition to the original bare core wire. The last one should strip away only the outer layer of insulating plastic, exposing the braided copper shield wire. You’ll want to leave about 1/2″ of this exposed in addition to the previous two layers. See the photo below for reference.

Update 01/06/2012:
I should note that the way I’ve stripped the cable and crimped the connector in this guide is not the standard way of doing it. I was experimenting with the hot glue and heat shrink in this one.  Basically, instead of stripping the cable this far you would only strip the outer layer back about 3/4″ and unravel the grounding braid. Twist it together to make a ground wire and fold it back over the external casing. Then you can strip the rest of the core to how it appears in the photo, i.e. the bare core with the clear layer around it. The tip still solders the same, but the ground lug crimps around the black casing of the cable with the braided ground folded back between the casing and the ground lug. You can solder this as well for a better connection. This should make the strongest joint possible. Here is a link to the mini tutorial on how to do this the traditional way. Click here for the traditional way.

Stripped
Stripped

Making the Connection

Now we’ll attach the cable to the tip. Below is a standard straight Switchcraft tip.

A Tip
A Tip

Notice that there is a short lug in the center. This is the “hot” lug. You’ll attach the core wire from the cable to this lug, which will send the signal to the tip of the plug. The long metal piece with two wings is the ground lug. This will crimp around the braided copper shielding of the cable. (note: see update in Stripping the Cable section for alternate and technically correct way of crimping the wings of the ground lug.)

Making the Connection
Making the Connection

I’ve slightly bent the center lug inward here to keep the core wire pointing where I want it. You can insert the core wire through the lug from the outside. The angled plugs are a little different. The center lug is made differently so you don’t have to bend anything, but it works best to insert the core wire from the inside on the angled plugs. Either way, hold this connection in place with one hand and use a pair of needle nosed pliers to bend the wings of the ground lug into place, effectively clamping the cable into the tip. this will keep the “hot” wire from coming out of the other lug as well.

Soldering the Connection

Now that the ground connection is secure and the “hot” connection is in place, we need to secure the core wire to the lug by soldering it. I’m using a butane iron because the cords on electric ones irritate me, but use whichever iron you have on hand so long as it is powerful enough to melt the solder. I’d aim for about a 45 watt electric. I’m using standard thin gauge 60/40 rosin core solder.

Securing the Connection
Securing the Connection

The connection is now secure.

Potting the Connection

The next step is an extra precaution I take. We are going to use a hot glue gun to fill the void between the tip lugs with hot glue. This serves two purposes. First, it isolates the ground and hot lugs so they should never had a chance of making contact with each other. Second, it keeps the wires from flexing more than necessary. The less movement you have in the wire, the longer it takes to wear out. You can significantly extend the life of your cables by doing this.

This photo shows what the connection looks like once it’s filled with glue. The photo doesn’t pick it up the best since the glue hardens clear.

Potting the Connection
Potting the Connection

Heatshrinking the Connection

Next you’ll need to slide a piece of heatshrink tubing into place. Use a 2″ piece since this is a straight plug. Butt it up to the threads but not over them.

Placing the Heatshrink
Placing the Heatshrink

Now you’ll need a strong heat source such as a heat gun or open flame to shrink the tubing tight around the connection.

After Shrinking
After Shrinking

This protects the connection, stiffens it even more against unnecessary movement, and makes the assembly look much more professional.

Closing the Casing

Now you need to finish closing up the tip assembly. First, slide the clear plastic tube into place. This is one more layer of rigid protection.

Positioning the Plastic Insert
Positioning the Plastic Insert

Then screw the metal casing back into place.

Completed Assembly
Completed Assembly

Now you have a nicely secured connection. To finish the cable up you’ll need to repeat this procedure with the second tip. Make absolutely sure you slide the casing, clear tube, and heatshrink onto the cable before installing the second tip, since there is no way to do it afterwards.

Prepping for the Second Tip
Prepping for the Second Tip

Completed Project

So here are a few photos of the what the final product looks like.

Completed Cables
Completed Cables
Completed Closeup
Completed Closeup

That’s how you make your own high quality, custom sized cables.

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Making Your Own Instrument Cables – Part 2

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Relining a Guitar Case

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