Guitar Workshop: Swamp Monster Part 3
In the final stage of his project to equip a Strat with an authentic ’50s style body, Huw Price tackles fading, denting, lacquer cracks and sourcing the best parts
Over the last three months our journey has taken us deep into Fender history to discover the exact specs of the earliest Stratocasters that emerged from Fullerton, California. In this final instalment, it’s all about aging the body to match the neck – and knowing when to finally say that enough is enough…
1: Fake Tan and Topcoats
Have you ever looked beneath the scratchplate of a guitar with an old nitro finish? If so, you may have noticed that the finish under the scratchplate tends to be lighter in shade. Some well-known relic finish specialists are reputed to use sunbeds to simulate the effect that UV light has on nitro. Rather than risk the embarrassment of booking our Strat in for a session at the local tanning salon, I decided to fake it.
After obtaining a cheap scratchplate and ascertaining that it was the correct size, I removed the spacer nails, used masking tape to cover the scratchplate and then positioned it over the body using little loops of masking tape. I had some of Manchester Guitar Tech’s light tint clear left over from another project, so I used it to darken the top. This stage needs a delicate shade of colour and that’s not an easy thing to do, but spraying a bit of clear gloss first then following up with the light tint while the clear is still slightly wet makes it easier to achieve even coverage.
Some space was left between the scratchplate and body to prevent sharp lines appearing in the finish. After three coats I removed the scratchplate to check progress. The ‘shadow’ effect was subtle, but it was noticeable. Better still, the light tint really improved the look, knocking back the yellowness and mellowing the overall effect. So the spacer nails were tapped back into the body and the back was treated to a few coats of light tint too.
All our preparation work had resulted in a very flat surface. The finish on many early Strats was so thin that it sank into the grain; although Steve Robinson had supplied two tins of clear gloss for the topcoats, we only used one. Had we been attempting to replicate a ’60s finish, we probably would have used both of them.
2: Finishing the Finish
Often, one of the hardest things about spraying a finish is having the strength of mind to leave the finish to cure properly. As luck would have it, this time completing the spraying coincided with a busy period at work, so for once I was forced to leave the finish to cure over a period of four weeks.
Having been told that Fender didn’t cut and polish the earliest Strat finishes I decided to try something different with this guitar – to avoid using any polishing compounds. As usual I block-sanded the flat surfaces with 1200 grit wet and dry paper, taking great care to avoid the sharp edges of the tummy-tuck and the neck heel area. Some grain filler was allowed to remain in all the screw holes to prevent water getting into the wood while wet sanding.
Once I had removed all the shiny spots I followed up with two finer grades of micromesh cloth used wet. Rather than moving along the grain, I tried to work in random ‘figure of eight’ patterns. With the surface a smooth as I could make it, I buffed it up with a dry cotton cloth then rubbed hard with the palm of my hand. I believe this is a technique used by some French polishers, and as the friction-induced heat increased, the finish took on a deep lustre without becoming too glossy. The last stage was the application of a bit of brown wax furniture polish to finish it off.
3: Relic Time
With the finish done I couldn’t resist putting the guitar together to have a look – but the joy of having achieved a passable finish quickly wore off as it became apparent that the body looked quite wrong next to the relic’d neck and parts. After a few days I could hardly stand looking at it.
Before beginning relicing, I loaded up a picture of the guitar I was trying to emulate and placed it close to my work area. As a newcomer to all this, I feel it’s important to have visual references to work with. It’s easy to go too far with relicing and, more often than not, heavy relics tend to look less convincing than light relics. The point where you feel you need to do just that little bit more is probably the best point to stop.
4: Dents, Scratches and Rub-Throughs
The first stage in our relicing process is denting. I removed the loaded pickguard and replaced it with our junk one, leaving the spring plate, jack plate and bridge in position. The first task was to introduce some dents and scratches. If you use the same implement to do all the dents, then all the dents will end up looking the same: this isn’t good. ‘Random’ and ‘varied’ seem to be apposite terms, so I grabbed several bunches of keys, held them 15cm or so above the body and let them fall on the guitar. It’s quite simple, really – if you want deeper dents, drop the keys from a greater height… and vice versa if you’d prefer them to be shallower.
Remember that collection of ’50s Strat pictures we assembled? Once again it proved invaluable for demonstrating typical wear patterns. The concrete back step outside my house was co-opted to induce scratches on ‘strategic’ edges, and with the body suspended from a strap I engaged in some energetic bumping and grinding to induce ‘buckle rash’. The handle of a large, heavy screwdriver was used to tap the body here and there to make wider dents and various other tools were used to make differently-shaped dents. I even used a needle file to alter the texture of the finish in some areas. All this is fun, and admittedly a bit daft, but it’s important not to get carried away: you can always do a bit more damage later. If you go too far, you may end up having to start over from scratch.
I also decided to add a couple of ‘wear marks’ under the lower horn and in the neck area. On mass-produced relics these wear marks generally look and feel like they were applied with a sander… precisely because they are. Personally I tend to play guitar without sandpaper gaffer-taped to various parts of my body, so a more subtle approach was required to achieve a smoother and more feathered out look.
I went back to the micromesh and rubbed through the finish, changing to finer grades as the process neared completion. It took some elbow grease, but I was pleased with the results. When working in the neck pocket area, I flipped the neck plate upside down, held it in place with the screws and covered the plate with masking tape – the idea is to wear the lacquer, not the metalwork.
5: Cracking Up
Getting lacquer to check is something that plenty of would-be relicers find tricky. In the real world, lacquer checking occurs when a guitar is subjected to rapid and extreme changes in temperature – like carrying it from a freezing Transit van into a hot club, or the other way around.
Working on the principle that the most realistic results are achieved through realistic methods, I decided it was time to chill out. Fortunately my kindly neighbour always has room in her freezer for one more body, and when the guitar re-emerged the following morning I blasted it with a hair drier. One day I may actually get this to work, but as usual it proved futile.
I resorted to using a paint stripping heat gun and a can of compressed air. Be careful with the heat gun – after all, it’s designed to strip paint. Keep it moving constantly and don’t allow the heat to build up for too long in one area. Once the surface of the guitar feels hot to the touch, hold the compressed air can upside down and spray. Ice will form all over the surface, and the lacquer should crack. If not, hit the lacquer with the heat gun once again for a triple whammy.
It certainly worked for me, but there are a couple of tricks to be aware of. Don’t spray the compressed air with the can too close to the body – 20cm or more away from the body should be adequate. If you spray too close then the lacquer tends to get a ‘shattered’ look rather than forming long cracks that follow the grain lines. I moved the can up and down rather than side to side, because I wanted the cracks to form along the body rather than across it.
After this process the body had a greasy, smudgy appearance that suggested years of neglect. You may decide to leave it like this, but it will polish back up if you prefer. It’s important to note that the dents were applied prior to the checking because the cracks tend to form around the dents, which creates a more authentic look. This also gives you the opportunity to carefully flake off some lacquer chips around the dents.
6: Fantastic Plastic
We already had some nice white relic plastic parts but we wanted to go the whole hog with this project. The earliest Strats had a particular type of knobs called ‘tallboys’ or ‘mini-skirts’ and they can be recognised by their straighter sides, wider top and narrower skirt. If you look underneath, there are no ‘spokes’. The switch tip had a different shape too – called a ‘football’ – and the spring cover plate had small round holes.
Not only were early parts distinctive, but the type of plastic used was also different. Contrary to popular belief Fender used polystyrene rather than Bakelite, and it has an oddly translucent look. We found a set of period-correct repro plastic parts at WD Music (www.wdmusic.co.uk). The knobs from the ‘Time Machine’ collection and the ‘Retrovibe’ backplate all looked absolutely outstanding and moved the look of our relic project into a different league.
WD Guitars supplied these Time Machine Collection ‘tallboy’ knobs from Montreux Guitars in Japan. We think the authentic blue-white hue looks amazing, and they really raised the look of this guitar to a higher level
One word of warning, however – Fender changed the shape of their backplate string holes for a good reason.: unless the block is in exactly the right position, the strings won’t line up with the plate holes. If you plan on buying a spring cover like this one, make sure your tremolo is set up just the way you like it and then carefully position the cover with the holes over the ball ends of the strings before drilling your screw holes. If you don’t, you’ll need to remove the cover every time you change strings.
the cost of high quality relic parts can mount up, but we think Kevin Hurley’s tremolo block is second to none… and a genuine bargain. It’s also available in non-relic’d form
7: Blocking Tactics
It’s widely known that pre-CBS Fenders had cold-rolled steel tremolo blocks held to the bridge plate by three screws. We reviewed a Callaham block many moons ago, and the improvement in frequency response, clarity ad sustain over the aluminium block was comparable with a serious pickup upgrade.
We wanted something similar for this guitar. UK-based manufacturer Kevin Hurley (email@example.com) sells pre-CBS style blocks on eBay with the same specs for a shade under £24 rather than a shade under £60. The grade of steel and production method are identical, and at 10oz it weighs exactly the same. We went for his relic’d version; it smelled as old as it looked. The string holes are machined properly, so the ball sits just inside the block rather than deep inside. If you’re based in the UK and you’re in the market for a vintage correct tremolo block, we are unaware of a better – or cheaper – option.
From its arrival in 1954 until 1956, Stratocaster pickups were cooked up from a different recipe. The slugs were made from Alnico III magnets with a different stagger and the coils were wound with heavy Formvar wire. Typically the DC readings will be lower, so the output levels couldn’t be described as ‘hot’.
Although we weren’t shooting for 100 per cent accuracy, a set of proper spec pickups was definitely on our shopping list. This type of pickup is a specialist item so you’ll need a boutique manufacturer to guarantee the correct result. In the UK you could check out the Fatboy Vintage Soul 54 or the Bare Knuckles Apache, but we were thrilled when Shed Pickups (www.shedpickups.com) offered up a relic’d set of Vintage 54s.
Apparently not all Alnico III is the same so getting the authentic formulation is crucial. Rather than using the regular 42-gauge wire, Shed used some very old double build Formvar usually kept for private reserve pickups. Vintage 54 sets also come with relic’d ‘bakelite’ covers with period-correct rounded edges that Spence makes himself.
The Shed Vintage 54s turned out to be a remarkable set of pickups with extremely complex harmonics and five very distinct tones. The treble was noticeably sweeter and less glassy than the ’60s spec pickups we had installed to test the guitar, and they proved an ideal match for the naturally bright swamp ash/maple combination. With their woody sophistication, clarity and tonal range, they couldn’t be faulted. Maybe it’s the weaker magnets, but we also felt the guitar sustained better and sounded more in tune in the higher registers.
This project evolved from a finish and re-body into creating a ‘dream’ 1950s Strat. We even altered the wiring to our preferred ‘master volume and tone’ arrangement with the second tone control designated a series/parallel fader for the bridge and neck positions. It sounds and feels wildly different to late ’50s/early ’60s spec Strats – more Jimmy Vaughan than Stevie Ray, more Eric Johnson than Eric Clapton. It can be brighter, edgier and twangier, but the treble has a softer and more rounded quality. With a bit of treble rolled off it can compete with ’60 spec Strats for mellowness but it’s streets ahead on hi-fi clarity. This guitar’s days as a dust-gatherer are well and truly over.
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