Faking it. 50 years of use and abuse, in a single day.

I’ve done some ageing and relicing with some of the framing jobs I’ve done over the years. Quite often – the look of a newly gilded piece of wood is just too shiny, new and “brassy”. It’s fairly obvious when a piece of moulding is new. The edges and carving show as still being sharp and crisp. Overall – there’s a certain extra detail that the “age of years” brings to any particular object. The experts call it “patina”. Unfortunately – you can’t buy it in a bottle.

Instead – framers, woodworkers, furniture restorers I’ve met over the years – all tell of their own, often individually developed, procedures for bringing artificial “age” to their work. Often the secrets are guarded, and are only reluctantly revealed – and pretty much everyone has their own special tool or technique. Now I don’t have any particular experience relicing guitars as yet. Other than observations from owning and gigging a couple of 1990’s basses and a Tele over the years – I’ve only really got photos of a copy of the original Strummer guitar to go on. I’ll have to rely on a bit of a generic approach, gleaned from relicing furniture – and try to adapt it with some additional “treatment” based on what I know can happen with older guitars.

I usually consider ageing as having three general levels. The most severe is straightforward “damage” – knocks, bangs, chips etc. This directly affects the material of the item. Then, there’s what I’d call “wear” – rubbing and erosion of the finish of the item in question. Then, there’s dirt. General discolouration down to crud, oxidisation and environmental conditions. Perhaps the most important guide, when ageing an object – is to consider the particular types of ageing that might usually be expected over the life of the object in question, and to apply an appropriate level of “treatment” to the right places. So, if you’re going to get close to reproducing an exact replica of an object, it is important to do your research. But it is also possible that you can take things too far, and get way too forensic. I have to realise, from an early stage, that I’m unlikely to be able to achieve an exact replica with the tools and experience I have to hand. In the case of the Strummer Telecaster, I’m particularly aware, that it’s partly the theatre and mythos of the object which comes into play here. There’s an expectation of a certain level of patina. Everyone knows Joes guitar is thoroughly messed up – so getting anywhere near close, will be close enough. In fact – there may even be a case for exaggerating certain aspects. To top it all – I also want the guitar to be playable.

So, there’s a lot to consider. In researching how to age the finish of the guitar, I have a whole load of photographs of the original guitar in various situations. I also have some photos of other replicas. There are, fortunately, still a few videos which show the original guitar being played – so I can look at areas where the guitar might be worn out due to Joe’s particular playing style. Then, there’s a little personal experience of where guitars tend to develop dings and wear over the years. What we know about Strummer, is that he played hard – so there are marks due to repetitive, vigorous pick movements. There is also therefore, a lot of rubbing and wear to the finish from his forearm over the main bout of the body. Equally, his unique “electric leg” action has eroded a bare patch of wood on the rear of the body. This has taken standard “buckle rash” to a whole new level. It’s also a matter of record that he threw the guitar around – on many occasions – so there is going to be heavy wear and damage in some areas. Particularly evident on the edges.

I need to find a way to reproduce these aspects of ageing and wear. Details which will build on the partial paint finish I’ve already added – and which will add up, to resemble the overall look of the original. Patina is partially an accretive process, and partially an erosive process. That basically just means the finish builds up, and then gets knocked off, a little bit at a time – event on event. In some places, having added to the existing finish, I need to find different ways to wear the paint job out again. To go through it in places – yet leave other areas intact.

Also, I fully intend the guitar to be playable – so I don’t want to do anything that will interfere with the practicalities of the build – to compromise the actual workings of the guitar, in any way. My first thought is to attach a piece of fake neck, and a fake scratchguard – so that whatever I do will be slightly moderated. I figure a neck might help protect some of the upper bout from damage, and that the pickguard might focus playing wear, in the areas immediately around it. I attach a painting stick to the neck pocket, and make a thick card scratchguard, which I attach in place with spare, used screws.

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So. One last look at our, largely undistressed, victim – with it’s patchy but pristine paint job. My plan is to address each of the general levels of damage I have outlined – damage, wear and dirt – and then find a way, or combination of ways, to accurately replicate the wear on Joe’s original Tele.

Firstly – damage. If Joe threw his guitar around – I can’t think of a better way to approximate that kind of abuse, than to try and do the same. Stage environments tend to be wooden – sometimes even primitively carpeted. Knocks will be severe – wood on wood – but will be softened with the passage of time and by subsequent wear. It makes sense to address the big stuff first. I need a large area of wooden flooring, with a few vertical, wooden surfaces. Fortunately, I have a large area of very worn, very old decking in the garden. I’ve also got a few piles of old lumber and building offcuts to aim at. I’m also not overlooked by any of the neighbours. I suppose they might wonder what’s going on. “What’s he building in there?”

After a couple of decent hefts – I realise that the fake neck is pointless. In fact, it might actually do more damage to the neck pocket. I remove the painting stick before it does any serious damage, and rely on throwing the body in a more precise manner – to try and contrive damage in the areas I particularly want it to be. After a good few minutes chucking the body around – checking it every now and again to make sure I’m hitting the right spots – I decide to call it a day on the damage front. I don’t want to go all Paul Simenon on it and completely destroy it. There are a couple of really nice dings – on the edges especially.

Now it’s time to look at wear and tear. I need to rub the finish back, but also add a few, smaller knocks, scrapes and dings. Chucking the body around has added some smaller areas of detail, but it’ll take a lot longer to build enough of these up, and it’s hard to focus the effect. Sanding and rubbing seems to be the most obvious means of wearing the finish out. Wherever the finish is pushed in slightly, any sanding will skim over – revealing the layers, and feathering-in each transition from finish to finish. Going back to my woodworking colleagues and their particular methods – I’m reminded of a guy who combined, “a good kicking around the garden”, together with a beating from a customised tool made largely out of chain. His “special” chain had various interesting bits and pieces threaded through some of the links. The idea being that the marks created are random, and different each time. I have a good length of brass chain in the workshop – so I knot it up a bit, and then spend a while setting the guitar body up on the decking, and throwing the chain at it, like a flailing ball.

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This creates a lot of smaller dints and dings. Maybe there’s a little too much? – I don’t know – but there’s no going back now. By the time the chain has been thrown for another few minutes, and the body has skittered across the decking and been retrieved a few dozen times – the guitar has definitely lost any sense of shine and newness. It’s starting to look well and truly Strummered. On track, I’d say.

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To continue the wearing process, I take my drill-mounted flap wheel, and remove some of the paint still adhering to the edges. I also use a heavy grit paper to remove all of the finish where areas have worn through to the wood. It’s a balance of being time effective in wearing through the finish, balanced against knowing I have to work up through the grits so I don’t actually leave any signs of sanding. I generally try to use heavy grit only where the finish is right down to the wood, and then use finer and finer grits to polish out those same areas. At the same time, feathering the worn areas into the paint finish. I want to create areas where the black paint is softly eroded, revealing the grey primer beneath. In some places, I want to go deeper and reveal the original sunburst finish, with the black edges of that original finish, feathering back to bare wood.

So there’s an awful lot of rubbing back, by hand. Gradually, I work with finer and finer grits. Occasionally, I work up through to about 600 grit, using some naptha as lubricant. This almost polishes out the finish, and imparts a dull shine, and swirl marks, to some of the black paintwork. It also allows me to use some of the black goo that is rubbed off as a means to darken, and dirty-up, some of the newly exposed wood. It’s a bit of a balancing act. It’s easy to rub right through the paint, and – it looks like I’ve probably overdone it on the top front bout, just above the pickguard. I could always spray this area again and have another go – but, for the time being, I think it still looks in character. I want to try and make the whole thing look cohesive. I don’t want some parts looking newer than others. There are also a few areas where there are still obvious grit sanding marks – mainly on the edges. Here, I could go through the grits and polish it down a bit more – but I don’t want to remove too much of the black paint and primer. I call a halt for now – and will review the body later. It often helps to put jobs away for a few days to look at them fresh anyway.

The next stage of the ageing process is to add some dirt and some of the finer detail. Some of the wood looks so new, where I’ve gone through to the body. Using some of the wet sanding goo has helped – but in some areas I need to rub on a little spirit based dye to darken the wood slightly. I could use some old motor oil – but I’m still not sure if I’m yet going to have to apply any more layers of finish or sealer. I find the best colour to match old, exposed alder is a mid oak type stain – rubbed in with a cloth, and then rubbed back with a fine scothbrite pad.

The last stage of distressing the finish, is achieved with an assortment of general hand tools – screwdrivers, awls etc. All to add a few, well placed, fresh scratches to the finish. It’s fun to be able to actually rip into a finish, after having had to be so precious with other projects – especially the polish on the white Jaguar. When I think of how pissed off I was when I, ever-so-slightly, dinted the Jaguar paint job – and then compare that with the feeling of running a screwdriver down the back of this job. It’s strangely satisfying and liberating…

There’s a secret ingredient which I use in gilding, which is really useful to help add visible age to an item. For that reason, I always keep a jar of Rottenstone handy, to knock the “newness” off any piece of woodwork. Rottenstone is a really a fine, pumice type dust. It actually makes quite a good fine polishing compound. if you use it with oil or naptha. It’s a dark grey in colour, and tends to dull the overall finish. It’s also so fine, that it works it’s way into all of the tiny cracks and crevices. A good dust over with Rottenstone, followed by a good buff and polish with a cloth, leaves dust in all the places where you’d expect dust and crud would accumulate over the years.

Then it’s time to pull out the main components – scratchplate, bridge, stickers – fit them in place temporarily, and have a look at how the finish is coming along.

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It’s not an exact replica – but I think I’m somewhere near the ball park. There’s a little fine tuning to do – a white area on the reverse to add, some ageing work on the pickguard, the neck of course, some rusting and ageing of the metal components – all to add to the general, overall patina. The stickers still have to be added and aged. All in all, for a first attempt at it – I’m pretty happy with the results. And it’s all been strangely satisfying.

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