BB MADE

Guitar Repair, Restoration and Guitar making - A Guitar Player Resource

A website dedicated to helping guitar players of every level learn more about their guitar, caring for their guitar, what to do when their guitar needs repair work and a shed light on what a professional luthier does when the guitar hits the workbench.  While some situations are easily remedied by simple adjustments a professional luthier knows best how to optimize your favorite guitar.

Relic Your Guitar?

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.

A MIM Fender Stratocaster that had the finish sanded with an orbital sander and attempts to chip the edges to make a natural relic look.  Not horrible but nowhere near authentic looking.

A MIM Fender Stratocaster that had the finish sanded with an orbital sander and attempts to chip the edges to make a natural relic look.  Not horrible but nowhere near authentic looking.

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...

This is a screen capture of an Les Paul recently for sale on Reverb.com.  I don't know for sure if this wear was intentionally done but it does not (at all) look like natural wear on a guitar made in 2014.

This is a screen capture of an Les Paul recently for sale on Reverb.com.  I don't know for sure if this wear was intentionally done but it does not (at all) look like natural wear on a guitar made in 2014.

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...

A closer look at the MIM Strat shows some decent looking wear on an instrument that isn't considered high value.

A closer look at the MIM Strat shows some decent looking wear on an instrument that isn't considered high value.

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?

Here I've buffed the finish to get it back to a gloss.  Once it as shiny again you could see the orbital sander marks  which indented small circles into the finish.  To get rid of those the entire finish would need to abraded followed by another buffing process.

Here I've buffed the finish to get it back to a gloss.  Once it as shiny again you could see the orbital sander marks  which indented small circles into the finish.  To get rid of those the entire finish would need to abraded followed by another buffing process.

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.

DIY Guitar Repair

In the day and age of the internet it's easy to find advice on how to do just about anything including endless articles and videos on DIY (do it yourself) guitar repair.  These sorts of things can be a source of concern for the professionals who are tasked with fixing any conceivable problem with a guitar, bass, mandolin or other fretted instrument.  Those of us who have been repairing guitars professionally have seen many, many instruments with damage that easily could have been avoided.  This blog post is simply food for thought and hopefully some of you will find the information useful.

One reason vintage guitars have grown in value is because they become more rare every time one is lost to time, acts of nature, negligence or ignorance.  Some modifications and alterations have actually been done by professionals as methods of repair have evolved and, what is considered acceptable thirty years ago is no longer acceptable today.

So here are some points I feel should be made:

  1. Do you understand what is required to do the work?
  2. Do you have the tools to do the work?
  3. Are you willing to risk the value and functionality of the guitar, not to mention the aesthetic?
  4. Do you care if the project goes horribly wrong?
  5. Do you have the money for someone to repair your work (usually at twice the normal cost)?
  6. Do you really believe watching a few videos or reading an article gives you the skill to do the job right?

Believe me when I say "I get it", working on your guitar sounds like fun, it sounds appealing and perhaps it even sounds easy.  I remember my junior high shop teacher stopping in his tracks to ask me; "Do your parents know you're doing that?" as I enlarged the cutaway on an electric guitar.  I assured him they did but.....no, they had no idea.

Next let's consider the majority of vintage guitars today began as a product of industry and few people could have predicted the growth of vintage guitars even thirty years ago.  It can be argued, we do not know which instruments being produced today might become valuable collector instruments in the future.  It is difficult for me to imagine mass produced beginner level instruments today being valuable in the future but then again, who would have guessed some Harmony guitars in a Sears catalog fifty or sixty years ago might fetch four figures today?  One significant difference (now versus then), is the output of modern manufacturing.  Millions of guitars are produced every year which was not the case up until somewhat recently.

The instruments we know and love will last 200 to 300 years if taken care of properly so I usually have a conservation mindset around this topic.  Rather than believe we "own" these guitars, consider they will probably be around long after we are gone. So...

Do we really own these instruments or do we pay to possess them for a period of time?

Figure 1 - 1958 Fender Precision bass with the finish stripped off by the owner.  Once he realized how hard the job was he quit, leaving the wood exposed to the elements and also ruined the value.

Figure 1 - 1958 Fender Precision bass with the finish stripped off by the owner.  Once he realized how hard the job was he quit, leaving the wood exposed to the elements and also ruined the value.

There are few things which destroy an instruments value faster than stripping the finish even if a person knows precisely what they're doing.  In actuality, those people would probably never strip the finish.  In Figure 1 you see a vintage 1958 Fender Precision bass that suffered this very fate.  According to the Vintage Guitar Price Guide 2015 the value of this bass prior to the owner stripping the finish would have been $12,000-$15,000.00.  When the owner told me "If I had just changed the pickguard I would have been fine with the original sunburst".   It wasn't clear if I should laugh or cry but either way he destroyed the value of this classic bass.

Figure 2 - Here the original lacquer finish appears in all its glory.  People are paying good money to have a brand new guitar look like this. 

Figure 2 - Here the original lacquer finish appears in all its glory.  People are paying good money to have a brand new guitar look like this. 

Whenever I've been asked to refinish a perfectly good guitar I simply pass on the work unless someone has already ruined it as was the case with this P-bass.  My mindset is much more about preservation and restoration and the original finish is just as much a part of the guitar as any other component.  When it comes to a vintage instrument the finish should be left alone in nearly all instances.

Here I have refinished the P-bass ONLY because the owner had stripped the original finish.  The circle you see in the picture is the bench light reflecting off the nitrocellulose gloss lacquer.  After a few more parts were put back in place, this bass was ready to face another sixty years.

Here I have refinished the P-bass ONLY because the owner had stripped the original finish.  The circle you see in the picture is the bench light reflecting off the nitrocellulose gloss lacquer.  After a few more parts were put back in place, this bass was ready to face another sixty years.

I stumbled upon a 1953 Gibson Les Paul on Reverb and the person selling it was kind enough to send me the original pictures he took of the guitar as an estate find.  He was clear that the butcher job was not done by him.  If this Les Paul had been left alone by the person who was in possession of it (at the time of the crime) it would be worth $19,000-$24,0000.00 today.  Looking at these pictures try to imagine how this "project" may have started, what the person was trying to achieve and what must have been going through their mind as the gave up on the project.  This guitar is quite simply a tragedy.

The Les Paul shown above might seen like a rare example of DIY guitar repair gone wrong but it isn't.  For those of us that work on guitars it isn't always this bad or a guitar that could have been so valuable but DIY gone wrong is a regular occurrence. 

As a teenager I was compelled to leave my mark on a few guitars myself.  One particular guitar involved an orbital sander some dollar bills and spray adhesive.  So if a person is compelled to work on their own guitar there's nothing we can do to stop them.  I completely understand this reality and just about anyone who has gone on to work in a guitar shop or has their own guitar repair business, usually got their start tinkering on whatever was in front of them.  America is a nation of DIY thinkers and it's part of what has made this country a success.

At a recent vintage guitar show in Nashville I came across this beauty.  It's just my opinion but at the moment Bill decided to leave his mark Bill was being an idiot.  

At a recent vintage guitar show in Nashville I came across this beauty.  It's just my opinion but at the moment Bill decided to leave his mark Bill was being an idiot.

 

Currently the guitar market is being saturated with massive amounts of instruments to a point where people are rightly concerned about the future of the guitar market.  There have never been more inexpensive, readily available guitars which is great for a player and perhaps my concerns are overblown, but if you are interested in working on guitars here are a few final thoughts for your consideration.

  • Start out small with minor adjustments like string action.
  • Do little things that are not permanent modifications.
  • Save original parts "just in case".
  • Do your research, invest your time into the project ahead of time.
  • If the bug has bitten you hard get some formal training.  There are lots and lots of resources at your disposal, try your best to see through the hype and marketing shenanigans. 
  • If it is something you want to pursue as a career get the best possible education your time and money can justify.
  • Never hesitate to contact me if any of this has struck a chord with you.

Blues Junior Comparison

The blog has been dormant as fall gave way to winter but plenty has been has been happening behind the scenes.  A few weeks ago a little time was set aside to try out a Zoom H6 recorder.  A simple recording set up enveloped one of my workbenches involving both Fender Blues Junior amps.  I used two Shure SM57 microphones and a Morley A/B/Y switch to quickly compare both amps.  The SM57's were set about 1" away from each grill slightly off-center to the speaker and angled slightly towards the cone.  The amplifier volumes hovered around 95 decibels monitored with the Decibel 10th app for iPhone.

Decibel 10th is a simple app for iPhone which helped get a sense for how loud the amplifiers were.

Decibel 10th is a simple app for iPhone which helped get a sense for how loud the amplifiers were.

Both of Blues Junior amps are early "green board" versions and were first set to match each other with flat tone controls (all set at 6 out of 12 on the dials) with volume and master controls set to "5" and the reverb also at "6".  The tweed Blues Junior is one with the BillM mods so the presence and sparkle controls were first set half way on the control or equivalent of about "6" of 12.

The guitar used was a Fender Stratocaster made in Mexico with stock pickups.  This particular guitar is generally near the workbench and I didn't want to use something with high end or custom pickups.  When listening to the following samples it might be worthwhile grabbing some headphones instead of standard computer or laptop speakers.  Headphones would certainly be better than listening with just a cell phone speaker for the mobile visitors.

Here are the controls of both amplifiers on the first set of samples:

Setting #1 - Stock Fender Blues Junior with green circuit board.

Setting #1 - Stock Fender Blues Junior with green circuit board.

Setting #1 - Modified Fender Blues Junior with green circuit board.  The two additional knobs are the sparkle control and presence control.

There are four parts to this audio clip with a short pause between each part.

1. Stock amp - bridge and middle pickups
2. Modified amp - bridge and middle pickups
3. Stock amp - neck and middle pickups
4. Modified amp - neck and middle pickups

After playing a little while bouncing between the two amplifiers I decided to contour both amps until I liked the sound.  I was no longer worried about both amps being dialed in the same but rather, I wanted to get them each sounding "good" to me and then compare them to each other.

Here are the controls of both amplifiers contoured to taste:

Setting #2 - Without changing the volume, master or reverb the tone stack was adjusted until the amp sounded more appealing.

Setting #2 - The presence and sparkle control were turned up to about three quarters of their maximum value and the tone stack had each control turned up slightly.

There are four parts to this audio clip with a short pause between each part.

1. Stock amp - bridge and middle pickups
2. Modified amp - bridge and middle pickups
3. Stock amp - neck and middle pickups
4. Modified amp - neck and middle pickups

After noodling on the guitar with both amps contoured a little bit the final tweaks were done to try and emphasize preamp distortion without adding volume so the volumes were turned to "10" and the master down to "2".

Here are the settings for the final round of comparisons:

Setting #3 - Stock Fender Blues Junior

Setting #3 - Modified Fender Blues Junior

There are five parts to this audio clip with a short pause between each part.

  1. Stock amp - bridge and middle pickups
  2. Modified amp - bridge and middle pickups
  3. Stock amp - bridge and middle pickups
  4. Modified amp - bridge and middle pickups
  5. Modified amp - neck and middle pickups

It's probably worth mentioning when I set up to record there was never a thought of sharing it in any form.  Once it was recorded on the Zoom H6 it was loaded into Garage Band and edited down making notes of the different clips.  There has been no additional processing of the sounds with compression, equalization, limiters or volume changes.  While over the years I've done a fair amount of studio recording someone else was at the wheel getting the tones to tape or digital formats.  There really is no performance involved with these clips instead it's just me noodling around on the guitar one evening...essentially making noise.

Let me wrap things up with a couple of my own impressions.

  • These audio clips do seem to convey the differences in sound quality of these two amplifiers. 
  • Another thing you may have noticed is the difference in reverb even though they were both set to "6".  Within the different BillM mods for the Blues Junior he includes a modification to the reverb circuit.  Both amplifiers used in this comparison had their stock reverb tanks and the difference is all about the modifications designed and sold by BillM Audio. 

If you haven't had a chance, check out my earlier blog post (HERE) detailing which modifications I made to the tweed Blues Junior.

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