To relic or not to relic....that is the question. Well, it really depends on who you ask and just how adventurous you feel about making your guitar look decades old. This post is an outgrowth of an earlier blog post on DIY guitar repair.
It has become more and more fashionable to have a newer guitar look old. The roots of this phenomenon could have ties to the dramatic increase in actual instrument values. If you are a working or touring musician who owns a vintage 60's Fender Stratocaster, do you really want to take it on the road and risk it being stolen or damaged? Probably not, however you might really like the feel of a well worn guitar and if that inspires your playing then a guitar made to look old might be the answer. The guitar market has observed this trend and has began to offer new instruments that look old but lack the 1950's price tag.
So, if you are reading this and want to relic your guitar I want to offer you some insights from an experienced guitar builder and finishing specialist...
- If you have never done any type of wood finishing you might want to avoid trying this yourself.
- If you have a valuable guitar, anything you do to the finish will negatively affect its value.
- It is NOT as simple as grabbing some steel wool and scrubbing the surface.
What should you consider if you are determined to do this yourself?
- Do your homework.
- Try some techniques you learn about on something INEXPENSIVE. It doesn't even need to be a guitar.
- The type of finish on the guitar makes a big difference in how the process goes.
Thoughts on Guitar Finishes...
Vintage guitars in the 1950's and 1960's were usually finished with nitrocellulose or acrylic lacquer which are both non-conversion finishes, also referred to as thermoplastic. These types of finishes are reversible via heat and active solvents. Nitrocellulose lacquer is more brittle than acrylic lacquer which also makes it susceptible to cracking with rapid changes in temperature or wood movement over many years as it absorbs moisture (humidity) and releases it. While acrylic lacquer is more durable than nitrocellulose, neither one are as tough as modern catalyzed finishes.
In the 1970's catalyzed finishes gained popularity for a variety of reasons and they undergo a chemical reaction to cure in addition to normal solvent evaporation. These types of finish are now widely used at all price points in the guitar industry. Two-component urethane and polyester are thermo setting finishes and once cured they cannot (easily) be un-done. In the case of chemical cure (three part polyester) it is nearly impossible to fix problems with the finish.
Another major difference between vintage lacquer finish and modern catalyzed finishes are how thick they can be built on the surface of the wood. The thickness of the coating is referred to as dry mil thickness. Thermo plastic finishes have physical limits to dry film thickness where modern poly finishes don't. Most of the modern, inexpensive to mid-priced instruments today are some type of catalyzed finish and are quite thick.
How thick is thick?
Guitars and mandolins built in the early 2oth century had spirit varnish finishes and in the early to mid-30's, nitrocellulose lacquer was gaining wide spread use in all areas of wood finishing.
- Vintage Martin, Gibson, Fender instruments have a dry film thickness around 2 to 4 mils (.002" - .004") on average.
- Modern lacquer finishes are more likely to be 5 to 7 dry mils (.005" - .007") thick.
- Catalyzed finishes can range from 7 dry mils up to 60 dry mils. (.007" - .060")
- Yes.....060" thick is possible and not as rare as one might think.
How durable and how thick...
The cured film characteristics will play a big role in how well or how poorly a relic job goes and how authentic it might look when you're done. Nitrocellulose lacquer for example can't be applied over 7 dry mils without a very real likelihood it cracks prematurely. Since nitro is not very durable it can be scratched, dented and chipped easier. Those are good characteristics if you're hoping to make a new finish look old.
Catalyzed finishes on the other hand often have no limit to how thick they can be applied. This is a good characteristic for mass production but come time to relic it, the process is daunting. If the finish is more durable that means it's far more difficult to scratch, dent and chip which is what a relic job ultimately involves. The transition from bare wood to the finish won't look the same as a vintage guitar because of how thick the modern finish is.
So what's my point?
I have seen many instruments where someone wants to make it look old then grabbed steel wool or Scotch Brite only to realize it's too much work. The only thing they accomplish in the process is making the guitar look terrible and negatively affected the value. Remember, any time you do anything to the original finish you will lower value of the guitar.
If you read the blog post on DIY Guitar Repair you'll see that I understand why people want to do these things and of course there's nothing in my writing or opinions that will stop people from doing what they'd like to do. It would just be nice if people stopped grabbing an abrasive they don't understand to scrub a finish that they don't understand, especially when it's a $2000.00 Gibson Les Paul.
At the very least, consider what type of finish is on the guitar you want to relic and spend some time reading any info you can find and watching any video available. If possible also consider the instrument value and the reality that these guitars will likely be around long after we are gone.
One final point...this is a trend and like many trends the whole thing could fall out of fashion.