A few experiments in Alchemy. I have discovered rust!

The hardware for the Telecaster appears to be made from various different metals. The grommet plugs for the through-stringing are pre-aged, and appear to be distressed nickel. The main control plate, neck plate, control knobs and jack plate all appear to be chrome electroplate over, perhaps a nickel or brass base. The bridge plate is an original Fender part I took off my 1990’s Nashville Telecaster. (Never did like the six-saddle bridges myself). It appears to be steel – shows a few signs of age – but despite the years, it is still quite shiny. The tuner bushings appear to be nickel with some kind of shiny electroplate. The screw set is some kind of steel, with a shiny finish.

It’s the plan to make all of this look, at least, contemporary with the fake aged body, neck and scratchplate. The original guitar shows serious signs of rust – so much so, that it’s probably now unplayable. I don’t want to go that far, but I want the metal to look old and to show a patina consistent with years of road wear. With different metals – I may have to work out different approaches, to get a consistent effect.

I had a work contact years ago, who used to make a decent living providing distressed metals to the interior design business. Those verdigris streaked copper fronted bar fronts that were all the rage may well, indeed, have started life in his workshop… or yard to be more precise. The thing is – ageing metal requires some interesting chemical and mechanical interventions – and different methods can, as my friend took great pleasure in letting everyone know, provide very different effects. That trendy bar front may well, in fact, have been doused in horse urine, and then left under straw, in the corner of the yard for a few weeks! I understand experiments were carried out using human urine – and why not? However, I intend to stick to more basic procedures. After a bit of research, I think a combination of acetic acid fumes, salt and water may do the job.

Since the screw set has a main purpose to hold the guitar together – I don’t want to distress the screws too much, for fear of damaging the threads, or making the metal somehow weaker. I’ll deal with the screws separately, later.

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The basic procedure, for the rest, is to put all the pieces of metalwork into a plastic tray. This tray then sits within a larger, plastic box with a tight-fitting lid. The smaller tray acts as a little island, so that the acetic acid poured around it at the bottom of the larger box can give off fumes. The fumes are then trapped in the larger box, and kept around the metal pieces, where it can do it’s corrosive work. The acetic acid can, in theory, be straightforward vinegar – but I have some more concentrated acid from part of a paint removing poultice kit. Sensible precautions, of course – you don’t want to breathe any fumes, nor do you want acid down your front, or on your hands. Gloves, apron, mask and good ventilation.

I end up using an old Flora tub for the larger, containing box. I was going to use an “old” sandwich box – but Mrs.C was none too pleased. Remember – don’t forget to ask a grown up! Just in case the Flora box proved too flimsy for the acid, I ended up sitting the whole thing in a metal tray. I didn’t fancy returning to find a messy, noxious puddle. I figure a warm place will help any corrosive vapour develop – so I put the whole thing in a warm cupboard for a day, to see what might happen.

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24 hours later – It’s mixed results. Basically, the chrome plate has resisted all efforts to tarnish it. It’s as shiny as it was when it went in. The steel bridge shows a bit of darkening – but it all wipes off pretty easily. Only the nickel bits show any real effect. The grommets, (already aged a bit), look darker and a bit pitted. The bushings have shed some of their shiny coating to reveal darkened nickel below, with some nice free bits of verdigris thrown in.

So the grommets and bushings are done. I gently wash the parts off in water, and then dry thoroughly. At this time of year, they can sit on a radiator for a while, to make sure they’re completely dry. I then fix as much of the patina as I can with some Renaissance wax. It dries pretty much straight away. It should protect the metal from now on – but should also help fix the finish and help stop it from wearing off.

For the chrome parts – it’s back to the drawing board. Nothing for it – I’ll have to distress the chrome some other way. The easiest approach seems to be by using fine wire wool to abrade the surface. This certainly removes the shine, and may well open up the metal below to another dose of the acetic acid vapour. I rub over the chrome parts, (and the small, shiny, triangle at the top of the bridge plate with 000 wire wool – using a gentle, circular motion so as to try and leave less obvious and visible sanding marks. This generally dulls the chrome to give a nickel kind of finish – although the chrome on the control plate is so easily removed that it’s easy to wear down to bare brass. With the shiny parts now “roughed up” to a more satin finish – it’s back to the acid box for another day.

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This time – the results appear to be a little more noticeable – but it’s still slow progress. The patina on the control plate is especially marked on the original, so for my control plate, I decide to return it for another dose of treatment – but this time with a few shakes of salt, together with a few splashes of acetic acid, direct to the metal. With the control plate balanced on top of the tray, all the components go back into the box for another day.

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That appears to do the trick. The parts appear somewhat etched – the neck plate has developed a kind of rust stain around the “F” and the, previously shiny, chrome parts now look much more in keeping with the look of the build. When cleaning and waxing the parts, however, the bridge plate returns to it’s original, generally shiny, state – and some of the discolouration on the neck plate rubs away. It’s not a problem on the neck plate – it still looks well worn – but the bridge plate is going to have to be revisited.

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The control plate has really shown some difference though! Rust, verdigris and quite a bit of fairly deep pitting. When the finish is fixed with wax, it looks much like the kind of thing I envisaged. If anything, it clearly shows that the bridge plate needs more work – once you see the two together, in context.

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So I return to the Internet to research rusting steel. Seems there’s no better way than good old fashioned water, air, and time – (with perhaps a spot of salt)? I’ve since put a bit of wax onto the plate, (from when I discovered that the patina needed fixing in place). I need to get rid of that first, and clean the plate off. After cleaning, I submerge the plate in the acetic acid solution, throw a bit of salt on, and then leave it for a couple of hours in the corner of the workshop.

From there, the plate is rinsed with water, and then sealed inside a zip-loc plastic bag. The bag with the plate inside, is left on a warm radiator for about four days – during which time the bag fills with steam. I add a little more water from time to time, turn the bag over, and after a couple of days throw a few grains of rock salt into the mix. The bag gradually begins to develop a kind of rusty sludge. I hope it’s affecting the metal!

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This time, the rust stays in place after cleaning and waxing. I rub on a little black wax to tone the fresh oxidisation down a little, (some of the steel is still quite shiny too). The plate is now much closer in character to the control plate.

The remaining screw set, with it’s shiny new screw heads is an easy fix to complete the ageing of the metal work. The head of each screw is held, in turn, in a solution of Ferric Chloride, for about 30 seconds. Ferric Chloride, (also known as PCB Etch), is a compound widely used to etch and clean metal components for soldering and electrical assembly. By dipping the head of each screw only – it’s possible to keep the important threads unaffected, whilst etching and dulling the shiny metal on the screw heads. Once again – gloves, apron and mask. Wash each screw off in water after it’s dunking, and then dry properly. The photo below shows the neck screws in progress. The screw on the right is still shiny and new. The three on the left have been etched for 30 seconds each, then cleaned and dried. It’s a subtle effect – but works well with the other components. A light rub with black wax brings out some of the detail, and gets rid of that “newly-etched” look.

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