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How to Relic Your Guitar

How To: Relic Your Telecaster

Because of the expense of buying a beat up vintage Tele, guitar manufacturers decided in the ’90’s to "recreate" the look and feel of 40 years of use on brand new guitars. Relics as Fender branded them were an instant success–and an instant controversy. For many they are completely wonderful, for others they are complete heresy."Why beat up a brand new guitar and then charge more for it?" Seems to be the main sentiment, but for many others it just makes perfect sense.

Naturally, if the factory can do it then the DIY market can do it better. But how? Here is some information gleaned from two different sources — it’s incomplete because most folks don’t want the "real" secrets of how this is done to get out.

Please take note: if you read this and ruin your guitar that’s your problem. Please remember that only you are responsible for the results should you endevor to try my methods and madness! Any time you use ANY substance you don’t normally breath or touch, USE RUBBER GLOVES and a Chemical fume rated respirator and lots of ventilation!

Part One

First Hand Report from the Dallas Guitar Show 2006

At the 2006 Dallas Guitar show an employee of the Fender Custom Shop put on a Relicing demonstration. Here is a recounting of what was seen:

The guitar was for the most part stripped of the metal parts which they had done before they came to Texas, but stated that they just let those parts sit in a special solution (for several hours depending on the type of relic job that was to be done).

He started by taking the neck off, and rubbing Naphtha on the headstock to take some of the factory nitro finish off of it with something very close to a brillo pad, which was not quite as abrasive as some types of brillo pads. After that, he took a micro planner (used to shred cheese normally) and simply tapped about 3 different areas on the edges.

He then took a squeeze bottle of special dye that he had mixed before the show — which had stain, and rubbing alcohol –and rubbed it over the entire headstock. This gave the now exposed nicks that darker color, and some color to the finish.

He also rubbed the Naphtha all over the rest of the neck, to take down the finish on the back. He used some of his dye on the neck also.

This was the point where the guitar builders beliefs come into play because he did not nick the rest of the neck. He stated several times that he felt the neck should not be messed with at all past the Naphtha and dye. He felt it was the players job to wear the neck out.

After that he put the neck on the guitar, and started to rub the Naphtha all over the body, which had no pickguard on it. He rubbed with a very light brillo pad and the Naphtha, just to scratch the nitro up, so that none of it would look new. He did the front, back and sides. At this point he put the pickguard on, and now started to rub even more Naphtha on the guitar including the pickguard, and also started to use his dye again. He used the dye on the white pickguard which gave it a great color. The one area he did not get was where the strings are over pickguard.

The neck was a rosewood slab, so he really didn’t have to do that much to the neck in terms of coloring on the fretboard. He did use some Naphtha on the neck, and then his dye also which gave the white dots some great color.

He then strung the guitar, just to have the area where the strings are (being in tune doesn’t matter) to be able to lightly dye the area on the pickguard.

This is the point where it got very interesting as he rubbed the body with Naphtha one more time now only using a cotton rag. He then took his mirco planner again and started to nick the guitar in about four different spots on the edges. Some spots were larger then others, but he did it in a way which showed he had done it before and knew the way to tap the planner so that it would look correct.

He then asked for a set of keys. We all scrambled to pull out our keys but one guy was the first to pull them out. Fitting since it was his guitar this was all being done to. He took the keys and held them so that he was only holding the ring, and had all the keys teeth faced out. He then took the keys and started hitting them all over the guitar’s body, front and back. This gave a great texture to the finish, and gave it the believability that is missed so many times by other people. At the same time he showed that by taking a screwdriver (a phillips end) and putting the tip in a screw on the bridge, and then taking the other hand and pushing it in a forceful way it would rub the screw, and hit the body so that it would put an indention in the finish. He did that to about 2 different spots, then looked over the guitar body for any spots that were missed by the keys and would give those spots a tap with the phillips end of the screwdriver. He rubbed the body down with Naphtha again using the cotton rag, and used the dye again to change the color of the wood that was now exposed by the planner and the keys.

He made sure the guitar was dry by wiping it down, and started the checking process. He pulled out a can of compressed air from Office Depot and shook it for about 30 seconds. Then he held the guitar so that it was standing on it’s end, held the can upside down and about one foot away from the guitar and sprayed the guitar from top to bottom and covered it in the frost that came out, and then set the guitar down.

The second he laid it flat, you could hear the nitro cracking. He let it sit for about one minute, then went to work rubbing the whole thing with the dye. This will fill in the cracks and give the wood under the cracks a little different color tone.

He flipped the guitar over, and did the same to the back with the compressed air, followed by the dye.

At this point he was finished for this showing. He stated that depending on how heavy a job you wanted would be how heavy he would make the nicks with the planner, the keys, and the cracking. Because this was a guitar that was to be a “heavy” relic, then at this point he said he would go back and do some more nicking and cracking so that it gives the guitar markings and cracks several different dimensions.

The most important part is that the wear patterns and dings need to be accurate. He said that sometimes at the Fender shop he would use a heat gun to “cook” the area wear the arm hits the guitar on the top after rubbing it down a little extra with the brillo pad, and giving it a little extra with the planner.

The solution that will age the hardware is really just hydrochloric acid or muratic acid (same thing). Put a cup filled with HCL in a plastic tupperware tub or some container that you can close. Put your parts in the tub and wait. The fumes from the acid will eat at the finish and give it the look you want. if you want to go all out put the metal parts directly in the acid and take them out when they stop bubbling and all the chrome will be off. Do not put the tuners in the acid directly you will ruin them. Avoid steel wool or anything that will leave scratches in the hardware and looks fake.

I think that if you honestly study an old guitar or a new one that has a great relic job then it will help guide you in what spots to nick and scratch correctly.

Part Two

A custom guitar refinisher wrote this description of how to make the tinted die for applying to the body in the relicing process:

Tinted Die:

So get yourself 1 bottle of this vintage amber, 2oz.

2 bottles of leather dye reducer.

You’ll also need:

  1. A simple construction marking pencil.
  2. A clean metal lid, like the one on a house paint can.
  3. A spray can of clear nitro lacquer.
  4. Heavy duty rubber gloves.
  5. Green scrubby pads.
  6. Fine steel wool.

Before you begin you might want to drop the body in the gravel to get some random dings and such to add a realistic aged look. Not too hard though!

NOTE: It’s best to do this when it’s cool and make sure you have a respirator and/or lot’s of ventilation.

  1. Spray a decent amount of the clear lacquer on the can lid, make a puddle.
  2. Add 1 or 2 drops of the amber dye.
  3. Use a razor to scrape led from the pencil into the mixture then mix it all well.
  4. Add leather reducer to thin it if it’s too thick or too red from the dye.
  5. Using a damp rag, wipe the mixture into the grain of the wood, move fast, it dries quickly.
  6. Don’t worry about it looking perfect, just get it all into the grain.
  7. Once it’s dry, wet a clean rag with the leather reducer to wipe away the excess and begin the strategic wear areas.
  8. After you’ve removed as much of the goop as you like and you’ve achieved the color and contrast desired, continue the finish work with the green scrubby dipped in the dye reducer and then follow up with the steel wool.
  9. After it’s all done, I like to coat it with a thin layer of tinted nitro, which I then buff with my Dewalt buffer/sander to a mirror hard finish.
  10. It will then be shiny so I take the steel wool and reduce the shine.

So that’s the nut and bolts of what I use to get the good body aging, the rest is application and artistry!

Lacquer Checking

With most any nitro finish,you still have to wait until it is fully cured to get the weather checking effect. With a spray can you should apply as thin as possible, both the topcoat and clear coat.
Leave it in the sun to cure as long as you can stand not playing it, or string it up, play it and then put it out in the sun whenever possible.

Another method to accelerate the process is to take it to a tanning salon and put in the booth with the pickguard ON for 15-20 minute intervals.
After each session, remove the pg to see the aging process. The body will darken while the paint under the PG won’t.

I give my guitars 8 to 12 months for weather checking. You can use ” Freeze it ” or a similar circuit freeze to get checking as well, but only after the paint has cured or it will not work.

Hardware Aging

Here’s a great way to do the hardware:

  1. Get a thick plastic container, at least 12" x 12" inches square with a flat plastic lid.
  2. Drill small holes in the lid, spaced a couple inches apart.
  3. Get a bottle of Muratic acid. This is sold at all home depot/home base, supply type stores.
  4. Get a nice respirator with good vapor filters and a place with lot’s of ventilation cos’ it stinks!
  5. Pour 1 or 2 inches of muratic acid in the bottom of the container and cover with the lid.
  6. Arrange the hardware on top of the lid, without any parts touching, screws touching are OK.
  7. Cover entire bucket tightly with black plastic trash bag.
  8. Leave overnight for aging and check in the morning to see how things are progressing.

You can pull a part out and wipe off to see how the aging is going. Make sure you use nice rubber gloves. Leave in longer if more aging is desired.

When the parts are done, pull them out and rinse off with soapy water. Make sure you oil any moving parts, like the bridge pieces,screws and tuners otherwise they might freeze up.

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30 Responses to “How to Relic Your Guitar”
  1. ReSo-tone says:

    This article is very helpful…..would like to know exactly what the Naphtha is that was used in this process. I am in Australia and would like to find an equivalent product……thanks….love this site and forum

  2. hiro says:

    Thanks for throwing this up, I kind of had an idea, but thats solidifies the how to.

    I’ll bet the “real secret” guys n gals can relic a guitar so good, it can be sold as ‘true’ commanding the vintage prices . . .

    Love the comment of playing it to vintage it . . . I agree on that 100% on making vintage by playing.

  3. samdrub says:

    Paint on Samdrub’s patented Emperors New Snake Oil (yours today for a mere arm and a leg) and Presto a fake old/new guitar to pose with like a ponce or you could con some clown with too much cash out of enough money to buy three perfectly good new guitars.

    “There’s one born every minute?” Nah, i think that’s a gross underestimation.

    As a quality furniture maker and restorer, i’ve had people request “Aging” and “Antiquing” nearly everytime by a con artist looking to rip someone off at a saleroom. Makes me sick, i mean Antiques are a con racket to start with, why anyone would be prepared to support a racket like these beggars belief.

    All Shapes All Sizes All Duds and No Prizes, Everyone a Fluffy One, Roll Up Roll Up Roll Up

  4. daveIT says:

    I bought a MIM Tele from a local Anchorage musician. It had been dropped so he sanded it down and repainted it. It wasn’t that great of a paint job so it’s starting to rub off. It’s got some other scratches and stuff, so I guess I’m on the way to ‘antiquing’ my Tele. My father-in-law makes repro early period furniture (Shaker/Amish/etc). Fun to watch him hit a super-old rare piece of wood he’s taken weeks crafting into a chest with a can of nails!

  5. If you Relic a guitar to make it look like years of aging, what happens to it when you actually do play it for years? Does it just disintegrate? I think they look cool and all, but just can’t lock in to buying one. I would relic the right squier, and change out the headstock logo, but to pay 3000+ dollars for one… way.

  6. dhuber dhuber says:

    I have not yet grasped the idea or relicing (is that a word) a musical instrument. I watched I guy on YouTube beautifully completely restore and refinish a Peavey Tele. Just to then beat it with a hammer, hit it with a belt sander, and apply muriatic acid to the hardware. I also see guitar manufactures doing the same thing. What amazes me is people pay for this. I understand that hard wood resonates better as it ages. What I don’t understand is how hitting a guitar with a hammer, belt sander, and muriatic acid will make it sound better. I guess I view it as buying a brand new 2010 Z-28 Chevy Camaro and then dumping acid over the car, hitting it with a belt sander, and then hitting it with a sledge hammer and then expecting to sell it for $40,000. Most of my instruments are in pretty nice shape. Some of my instruments have dents from being dropped and wear from playing. I definitely would not take a sander or hammer to any of my instruments to speed up the aging process.

    • TDPRI TDPRI says:

      There are two types of people in the world — those that instantly “get” relics and those that will never get relics. You need to stop trying so hard to justify it. A silver sparkle paint job doesn’t make the guitar sound better, it makes the owner feel better. And, that’s what relics do. Oh, and the I wouldn’t relic my car argument is about as overused as can be.
      Relicing a guitar is a FINISH CHOICE — like sunburst, antiqua or sparkle. So, don’t try to make it something it’s not.

      • Poppa54 says:

        actually if you go to a street rod event you will find more than a few cars with the same process. they are called rat rods and under all the accelerated rust, you will find immaculate power trains that are probably more expensive than some of the shiny cars. its what’s under the body that counts to these guys, and its whats under the pick gaurd that matters to a relic guitar lover.

  7. Duncas Duncas says:

    its an opinion process, if you like it to stay new keep it new, if you like the old antique look as long as you dont ‘fraud’ sell it on as an antique thats fine too its a matter of opinion. i personally agree with people on the terms of personnal relicing through age, there, every crack, ding, and mark has a story to tell :)

  8. notmorphy notmorphy says:

    I have a 60th ann. Sunburst Standard that I bought last year I’d like to “age”, or at least make it look like it’s been dragged around the bar circuit for around 10 years. What would you recommend is the best way to quickly age a sunburst finish?

  9. Purists will disagree with me, but there’s a thin line between being a purist and an elitist. What to do? I say don’t judge what you don’t understand. Relicing is a finish choice, nothing more. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. If you do like it, then do it or have a competent professional do it for you. As another commenter already stated, it’s not about the sound; it’s about the player’s comfort, although stripping down to the bare wood is one way to enhance your tone IMO. Bottom line, it’s a matter of taste: You may like vanilla ice cream. I happen to like butter pecan. I’m not a fan of vanilla. But I don’t think you’re inferior or somehow deficient because you happen to like a different flavor than I do.

  10. Blixter says:

    I had a MIM Tele that I started to relic. Some areas were coming out OK, some not so much. I also have an old Ampeg Rocket II that’s really beat up. I got hold of some Ampeg style vinyl and some replacement knobs for it. Then I realized – I was trying to make my new guitar look old and my old amp look new.

    True story.

  11. Thatbrownguy says:

    How do I thin out a poly finish ? I have a new classic vibe tele ( vintage blonde) and I want it to cream as the years pass, but with the poly finish that could take a nuke to accomplish

  12. FrankWild says:

    Insanity. Then again, I don’t buy jeans with holes in them either.
    So, a new guitar is worth more if it looks beat up, an old guitar is worth more if it doesn’t. Makes perfect sense.
    (If you spell it “relicked,” it looks like you licked it twice. If you spell it “reliced,” it would rhyme with “sliced”.)

  13. 52Tcaster says:

    Have a “few” Teles.
    Couple very nice – a few dings. A couple like new – not a scratch, and a Baja
    I got off eBay for $400 – the guy wanted $500 but said his kids had dropped
    it a few times and it had a few hairline cracks In the finish?? And a couple chunks out
    The wood. I offered $400 and when I got it the first thing I did was belt sand
    The arm rest area and 400-600 wet dry to the back of the neck.
    …it plays great, and like a car with a dent I don’t worry about nicks and scratches.

    Let that which was noise within us – become music

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