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DIY Relic’ing: Let’s Crack Some Lacquer

DIY Relic’ing: Let’s Crack Some Lacquer

Photo 1 (left) and Photo 2 (right)

Several hours
Heat gun, cooling spray, paper towels, gloves, goggles, black tea/coffee
$50 (the price of a heat gun, if you don’t have one)

A lot of you have been waiting for this penultimate step of our guitar aging project, so let’s do some damage!

Welcome back to Mod Garage. Today we’ll continue to work on our aging project, and some of you might be wondering why there was such a long break. The reason is simple: suboptimal timing from my side. The last part of this column was in the middle of autumn, and I wanted you to do the following steps outside (if possible) and not on the kitchen table. Wintertime is not the best time for such a challenge but now is a good starting point, so let’s go!

We’re almost done with our project, can you believe it? In this installment, we’ll take care of the color, talk about fading, and we’ll crack the lacquer—something a lot of you have been waiting for—before we add some dings and dongs in the last part of this series, which is the final touch before we put it all together again.a

We also have an advice column on aging from my friend and colleague Matthias “Matti” Meyer, from the German-based Bassart Guitars. Matti is one of the best pro agers I know. Please follow his advice and recipe for aging wood at the end of this column—we will need these tools in the next and final part of this project.

Aging the Color

Over time, the colors on guitar bodies start to fade, and depending on the type of color and the paint-job method itself, discolorations can show up. The two main factors are if the guitar was exposed to ultraviolet light and if the paint job is all intact. A famous example is the Gibson Les Paul goldtop guitars with the golden color turning greenish, or the Gibson sunburst Les Pauls losing the red color of the sunburst spray job over time. But Fender guitars also suffer similar problems.

What we want to mimic is an old nitro lacquer, but with our Harley Benton guitar we have two problems:

  1. The mustard color is not a real TV yellow, as discussed before. TV yellow is much lighter, so even when we find a way to fade the color, it won’t look like a faded TV yellow, but a faded mustard yellow. We can’t change this easily, so we must work with what we have and love it for what it is rather than hating it for what it’s not.
  2. It’s not nitro lacquer on our Harley Benton but a modern, not-so-thin, ultra-durable poly lacquer. In a technical way, this modern lacquer does a much better job than any vintage nitro stuff regarding protection of the guitar. The downside is that we can’t make poly look like nitro when aging; it will only be an approximation. But again, it is what it is, and we’ll make the best out of it.

If you have the time, exposing the guitar to direct sunlight for some weeks or months will cause a fading of the color to a certain degree. Over the years, I’ve seen the oddest attempts to do such things, including regularly placing the guitar inside a home solarium. Using artificial UV light is also an option but building a well-working construction for such a big object, like a set-neck guitar, is not easy and you’d need a lot of UV lamps for that. Such devices are often used to make yellowed plastic materials look shiny white again. An overspray with the correct color is also an option. but a lighter color on a darker one is always difficult to do—especially with a semi-transparent color like TV yellow. And I doubt it’s worth the time and money. Not everything is doable and this falls into that category. But we’ll do other things to make it look old and cool, so leave the color as it is.

Let’s begin. As usual, grab your steel wool and abrasive cloth to break the shine of the high-gloss lacquer, and don’t forget the backside of the neck. The difference can be seen in Photo 1 (before) and Photo 2 (after).

Aging the Lacquer

This is what a lot of you have been waiting for and today we’ll finally do it: cracking the lacquer!We all know the look of cracked lacquer on vintage guitars, which is part of their special appearance and charm. On vintage guitars this happens over time, the softener disappears, and the paint starts to crack. Here again, facing that our Harley Benton is poly and not nitro-painted, we must follow a different route to get a good result.

Generally, there are two basic methods to do this:

  1. Mimicking the cracks by using a razor blade to cut the cracks into the paint.
  2. Using a combination of heat and cold to crack the lacquer.

In both cases this is only the first step. Next, we’ll have to make the cracks more visible, but first things first.

I decided to use the second method: using heat and cold to crack the lacquer. Please note, this will take some time and patience to do it right: It won’t be done in 15 minutes. You don’t need much for this, just a heat gun and several bottles of cooling spray. The process is easy but safety first: Only do this outside, wear gloves and goggles, and place a bucket with cold water or an extinguisher near you … a heat gun gets very hot!

You can’t do this in one step, and you’ll need to work in smaller areas, one by one. Heat up the first area with the heat gun and be careful—you only want to heat up the lacquer and not melt or burn it. If you want to intentionally add some burned spots, a heat gun is the way to go, too. Depending on the type and thickness of the lacquer as well as the power of your heat gun, it can take some time until the lacquer is ready to crack. Start to heat it up from a distance and not with the heat gun directly on the guitar, checking the temperature of the lacquer from time to time with one of your hands. Never put your hand directly under the heat gun! Take the guitar body and your hands away from the gun when you check the temperature. If you feel that it’s not hot enough, keep heating it up until it’s good to go.

Photo 3

Photo 4

There are no rules set in stone because it depends on the things mentioned above. So, you have to try and see what works on your guitar. If you think the lacquer is hot enough, take away the heat gun and immediately spray the heated area with the cooling spray to create a sudden temperature gradient. You’ll likely have to repeat the process several times until the lacquer starts to crack, and usually you can hear when it cracks, which is a good sign. Work your way all over the guitar and crack it area by area. I needed approximately 90 minutes and four bottles of cooling spray until I was finished (Photo 3).

Does it look the same as cracked nitro lacquer? No, it’s not the same cracking pattern because of two reasons. On a nitro-lacquered guitar, the cracking happens because the softener disappears over time, which is a completely different thing. Poly is hard as glass and will never lose its softener. So, the vintage guitars of the future, let’s say in 100 years from now, will look much different compared to today—no more cracks. The second reason is that only in the middle of the spray is the lowest possible temperature not on the edge of the spray. But it’s the same ballpark, so don’t worry.

After you’re done with the entire guitar, let it cool down for some time before we start to make the cracks more visible. Again, there are different ways to do this. I prefer to use a strong black tea or coffee. Warm up the guitar slightly and dip some paper towels into the black tea or coffee before covering the guitar with them. Let them sit there for some hours before you remove them. The moisture will creep into the cracks, coloring them slightly, so they are more visible. This is a permanent process: The cracks will not lose their color again over time. On poly-lacquered guitars, I’ve also seen and tried alternative methods like using Coca-Cola, potassium permanganate, coffee grounds, stains, and more. The tea/coffee method works great and with good results and is, of course, harmless. But feel free to try other methods if you want to experiment, there’s no law against it.

After removing the paper towels, let it dry for some time before removing any residues from the lacquer using a dampish paper towel. Then, heat up the guitar slightly and let it cool down again. And voila, done! You can see the cracks are now brighter in Photo 4.

Congratulations, we are only one step away from finishing our aging project! Next, we’ll add some dings, dongs, and scratches, which is a lot of fun and a great way to individualize your guitar.

That’s it for now. Next month we’ll do another cool guitar mod, so stay tuned. Until then ... keep on modding!

Teatime: How to Age Wood at Home

Matthias Meyer of Bassart Guitars

Hi PG readers,

Did you ever wonder how it’s possible to add a special gray and dark color to the exposed wood on aged guitars? Here is my recommendation for how to do this with some simple household stuff you already have.

You will need: vinegar essence, water, black tea, steel wool, paper coffee filters, and some jars.

First, twitch a good handful of steel wool and put it in a jar. Next, fill up the jar with vinegar essence, close the jar, and let it sit for one or two days. The reaction of the steel wool and the vinegar will result in iron(II) acetate, which you can use as a dye. Use a cone-shaped paper coffee filter to percolate the liquid into a new jar and you hold the panacea in your hands. By adding some water, you can mitigate the dying effect and it’s easy to make some different aging dyes this way, from very dark to light gray.

Now it’s teatime. Make a strong black tea by using 6 to 8 tea bags in a pot, let it cool down, remove the tea bags, and pour the tea in a new jar.

One way of aging the exposed wood is to use the tea first, immediately followed by the iron(II) acetate (wet on wet technique). For a different effect and color, use the tea first and let it dry before applying the iron(II) acetate. Or use both liquids individually without the other one. It all depends on your personal taste and, of course, the wood itself. Before applying these liquids directly to your precious instruments, you should try to practice the process on some wood scraps you have lying around. Different woods react in very different ways and often the aging process needs one or two days before it becomes visible.

I hope you enjoy experimenting with this process. Cheers!

—Matthias “Matti” Meyer