Since I’ll be swapping out a few of the components for new replacements, or for direct upgrades – there are bound to be issues with brand new parts potentially looking out of place on an older instrument. The tuners have been swapped out for improved units. I can deal with those. The old tuners never looked that distressed, as it is. The same is true of the new bridge. Yes, parts of it are shiny and new now – but the shine will soon fade. There’s no need to artificially age it – just to get it to fit in visually.
The scratchplate, however, sticks out a mile. Partly because it’s quite a light tone against the ambers and browns of the aged body and neck. Partly because it’s brand, spanking new, and super shiny. I’ve chosen an “Aged White”, rather than “White” plate, to begin to try to match the plate better to the body – but despite a very slight amber/brown tint to the plate, the new plate still looks as sharp as a white bow tie on a black tuxedo. I’ve previously paid to have custom plates aged by others. Having looked into how it’s actually done – I think I’ll save the money, and deal with this one myself.
Whenever you’re artificially ageing components – it’s always important to consider their context, and how they sit on the instrument. The scratchplate takes a lot of physical abuse over time – that’s it’s job. However the colouration, scratches and marks it gradually takes on, will be governed by a few factors.
Firstly – the plastic itself, will tend to colour naturally over time, as it reacts to things like ultra-violet light frequencies, and other chemical changes. Vintage, white acrylic plates tend to go mint green with age, and can also become quite brittle. Then there’s the gradual toning due to ingrained dirt, as the surface slowly becomes rougher. Of course – certain areas will be more exposed, and therefore more prone to different ways of acquiring a true “patina”. As with all artificial ageing of guitar components – it’s vital to consider how the player interacts, and how the playing style might contribute to certain types of “wear and tear”.
So with my new, “Aged White” plate – the fresh white colour has already been toned slightly with a, sort of, nicotine stain / amber hue. It’s a very, very slight tint – however it’s “in” the plate, and the effect is quite general and homogenous. Despite the fact that it’s a pearloid plate, and will therefore display different tones within the pattern, the overall “Aged” colouration is also quite dependant on lighting and context. If you look at it in isolation, it becomes impossible to say if it’s “Aged White” or “Bright White”. In artificially ageing the plate, I’ll be looking mainly to darken the plate slightly, and also to modulate and vary the surface colouration and texture, in order to approximate the effect of normal handling.
The effect will look much more natural, if areas which are naturally more “shielded”, are given less of the artificial ageing treatment. For that reason – it’s useful to look at the plate in-situ, and to consider how the strings might help protect some of the original shine – away from most of the wearing effects of the plectrum. After stripping off any protective film on the front face of the plate, and with the outer strings still in place – it’s possible to line up some fairly “convincing” masked areas, with the usual blue tape.
Once the plate has been masked off sufficiently, it’s removed from the body, and gently rubbed over with 000 grade wire wool. This wire wool is normally used for polishing – so the effect is quite subtle. The shine is considerably knocked back, but the marks left behind are, mostly, extremely small. However, the effect can appear to be noticeably directional, if the plate is held into the light. It’s important, therefore, to try and adopt a somewhat, “random” motion, when rubbing over with the wire wool. I find I tend to add a sort of random “wobble” to an otherwise circular motion. That gives a sort of general, overall dullness to the surface. With the shine knocked off, the ageing begins to look more convincing if you then overlay with some slightly more directional, localised marks. Focus on areas which might, under normal playing conditions, suffer specific directional wear from plectrum use. Look at the way you play the guitar, and where the plectrum tends to hit the plate when playing. Try to reproduce that motion, with the wire wool. The masking tape will act in the same way as strings, and will protect the plate in that area.
It’s important to bear in mind, that the ageing treatment is something that is built up gradually – layer on layer. So, it’s best to go slowly. You can add to the general “distress” – but you can’t easily take it away again. Although the effect of the fine wire wool is actually quite subtle – it would be quite easy, to quickly rub all the way to “heavy relic”. I’d recommend a gentle roughening of the surface before applying the first stain. You can always create more wear, if that’s the look you’re after.
In researching how to tone my own plates – I came across a recommendation for Minwax Oil Based stains. This being lockdown – rather than try and find an online source – I searched the workshop for something similar. Since it’s a spirit based stain – this old can of Colron dye should do the job. With wood stains – they tend to have a slightly different base hue, depending on the wood they’re to be used on. Some stains can often be noticeably green or pink, in order to complement predominant orange or greenish tones in the natural wood. Of all the stains I have to choose from, and in searching for a natural amber or orange/brown tone for use on the scratchplate – this “Medium Oak” stain should work best. If it ends up looking too “brown” – I’ll have to see if I can find something a little more amber.
Staining the plate is achieved by simply rubbing a little dye into the surface, with a paper towel. You don’t need much. The natural inclination of the plastic plate is to shrug the liquid dye off. However – where the plate has been roughened slightly – the dye is more persistent. With just a single application – it’s easy to see the difference. It’s important to get a feel for the level of staining which can be achieved with a single application. However – it’s also good to know that the dye has a solvent, and can easily be removed again, if so required.
The plate is stained with a single, consistent application. The bevelled edges are given an extra application to darken them enough to simulate a few years of gathering grime. The dye dries almost instantly, although I usually give it a few minutes.
The dye takes to the surface quite subtly – but it’s reasonably permanent and should, itself, mark and wear over time with further, physical wear and tear. That’s perfect – since it should become gradually less “obvious” and “artificial”. But I can approximate some more of that gradual wear myself – in exactly the same way I originally took the “newness” off the plate, in the first place. The dye is also removeable, to a good extent, with lighter fluid, (naptha or rubbing alcohol). By concentrating on areas which will naturally recieve more physical contact from playing hands, or a plectrum – light applications of naptha with a paper towel can lighten the plate to simulate areas of wear. Further abrasion with 000 grade wire wool can then soften the subtle variations in tone, to the desired effect.
In my own case – more heavily worn, and therefore lighter, areas on the “aged” plate will correspond to plectrum contact directly above and below the strings. These marks may also display a directional path across the body which will correspond to my strumming style. I’m also aware of how my hand tends to cup the bridge plate when I mute strings, and how I often place an “anchor” finger, in the area just below and forward of the bridge plate. To make these specific marks look as natural and uncontrived as I can, I wet the tips of my fingers with lighter fluid, and try and approximate the contact points which are due to my exact playing position. This provides visible, slightly lighter target areas which can then be further lightened, shaped and “feathered-in” with wire wool. The best thing about the stain, is that it’s almost totally reversible, and so you can’t really make mistakes. In fact – the more you put stain on, and then take it off again – the more natural the general build up tends to look. more layers and stages to the process, seems to provide more “depth” to the finished result.
Eventually – the centrally masked areas can be exposed again, by removing the protective tape. At first – the transitions from dyed to undyed plate are obviously far too severe. The best thing to do, seems to be to apply another thin, overall, layer of stain over the entire plate – and then to work back – re-establishing the lighter, faded patches, graduating the transitions, and slowly “bringing the whole plate together” again. The masked area in the centre is still very shiny and pristine, so I find it needs a very gentle pass with the wire wool – just to knock off some of the “newness”. It’s also enough to begin to soften the effect of the new stain there. In the areas above and below the strings – the effect can be subtly modulated, so that the transition from “untouched” to “worn” plate is noticeable, but natural looking. Once again, naptha can be used to remove the stain from “over-worn” areas, and the abrasive effect of the wire wool should mostly be in keeping with the expected general direction of wear.
Once the desired effect has been obtained – the stain is naturally, quite persistent, and it won’t just rub off with your fingers. Some additional, directional scratches can be added, if required, to bring the general condition of the plate in keeping with the required level of “age”. Heavily reliced plates may even require deep gouges – even small, deformed or even “melted” areas. Here, however – I just want to tone the plate a little, and add a few marks to give it a little more character. The condition of the guitar body and neck is a good indicator of how far to go. Since their condition is still good – I really just want to take the “newness” off the plate, and have it look like it might have been in place for a few years. Even now – I still wonder if some of the toning is a little bit too dark – but I know I can always adjust it with some more naptha and another rub over, with wire wool.
As I say – the stain is persistent, and it won’t rub off easily. Even so – I like to protect the finish with some Renaissance Wax. A light application of wax dries quickly, and can be buffed up with a soft cloth. It’s shiny again – but not in the way that a new plate is shiny. This approximates the look of a plate which has been polished by occasional cleaning, but also one which has mellowed a little, with oils from the hands, over time. Of course, it also acts to protect the stain on the plate, and has the advantage of mopping up some of the fine dust from the wire wool. This can be troublesome if you ever let it get anywhere near your pickup poles – so it’s best to give the finished plate a realy good clean off first.
The final job is to re-attach the plate, and this gives the ideal opportunity to add a slight bevel to the inside curve of the control plate cutout. A blade angled at roughly 45 degrees, run around the inside of the semi-circular curve, creates a bevel just down to the middle of the central, black ply. The newly shaped edge is then, itself, tinted with the dye again to remove any obvious “newness”. The plate is then screwed into position again. The result of this, slight softening of the plate edge at the control plate/ scratchplate junction, is a fine, black-lined “shadowgap” which hides any slight inconsistencies in the shaping. In my opinion, this works with the shimmed control plate and has a more considered look, than the usual straight butt-joint.