Trade Secrets!

Making a custom fire stripe pickguard to fit a baby guitar!


Issue 88 May 28, 2009



Making a custom “fire stripe” pickguard

Check out this “scale model” of my J-45 for my granddaughter, Kate. It needed a pickguard, and I wanted the tortoiseshell to be scaled-down too! Here’s how you can make a custom pickguard in any colors you like.

Dan Erlewine, May 28, 2009

Dan Erlewine
I’ve been making a tiny guitar to give my granddaughter Kate:
A half-sized copy of my 1939 Gibson J-35. My goal has been to make it as nice as I can without spending too much time on it. (I have no delusions of becoming the next great guitar builder on the planet!)

I’m doing better than I’d have guessed — at least when I make mistakes, I’ve been able to cover my tracks! And I’ve stumbled onto a Mylar pickguard technique that’s new to me:






Clear Pickguard Materials






Behlen Behkol Solvent



I needed a piece of Gibson-style “fire stripe” pickguard material from the 1930s. Where you gonna get that? Then I remembered John Arnold, a renowned guitar maker and repairman from Newport Tennessee, once telling me that he made fire stripe pickguards by coloring clear acetate with alcohol stains. (John once built a replica of the Weymann Jimmie Rodgers guitar for Doc Watson). I’m game! Let’s do this!

Use the computer to resize the pickguard
I traced my J-35’s pickguard on a yellow legal pad and scanned it into my Macintosh. I then reduced it to half-size (not the first time I’ve used Photoshop as a lutherie tool). You could accomplish the same thing with the scaling button on a photocopier, too.

Prepare the Mylar and stains
Next I cut a piece of clear Mylar pickguard material larger than the final pickguard and wiped a coat of fresh-mixed shellac on the top (non-sticky) side. I figured the shellac would give me a base to work on and perhaps keep my alcohol stains from pooling. I mixed Behkol (denatured alcohol) with ColorTone stain: vintage amber, cherry red and tobacco brown, each in their own plastic mixing cup.

Start the “fire”
With a Q-tip, I swiped the mixes in stripes across the Mylar, working quickly since the Behkol dries fast. I roughly alternated the colors, but kept them random enough that it didn’t seem like a pattern.

ColorTone Concentrated Liquid Stain

When the colors did run together into a puddle, I brushed them to create a natural streaked effect.

Weld-On Cement




Double-stick Tape

What I got was a pretty darn good piece of what I was after! Since the Mylar has a self-adhesive back, I applied my colors to the top surface. I’ll seal that with several coats of clear lacquer to keep those baby fingernails from scratching off my fire stripes.

A pickguard fashioned from non-adhesive Mylar could be glued down with Weld-On Cement, or with our double-stick tape.
Tortoloid materialTortoloid pickguard
Beautiful Imitation Tortoiseshell

Tortoloid is a new pickguard material made exclusively for us by luthier Mario Proulx. Like natural shell, no two Tortoloid pickguards are exactly the same.

Now I’m ready to cut it to shape

I removed the white paper covering the adhesive, and replaced it with plastic wrap from the kitchen — so I can see the transparent effect of my fire stripes on the wood top.

I further enhanced the color by spraying over my fire-striping with aerosol lacquer in vintage amber and cherry red. This added a nice orange tinge. Finally I sealed the colors with three coats of clear gloss lacquer, waiting 30 minutes between coats so that my fire stripes wouldn’t blur from too much wet lacquer.

ColorTone Tinted Aerosol Guitar Lacquer

When the finish had dried all day, I traced the pickguard shape onto the Mylar and cut it out with scissors.

ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer

There it is: a tiny version of my J-45’s fire stripe pickguard. I’ll stick it in place before I put the finish on the guitar, spray right over it like Gibson used to do. The extra coats of lacquer will also add that much more protection to my stained surface.

And I just had an idea...
Next time I try this, I'll remove the Mylar’s adhesive with naphtha and put my fire stripes on the underside, using glue or double-stick tape to fasten the guard. Then the color would never scratch off the face. Of course, Baby Kate will probably destroy this little guitar long before she wears away my fire-striping, anyhow!

Dan Erlewine signature

Problem-solving products for this kind of work:
Photo: Clear Pickguard Materials Photo: ColorTone Concentrated Liquid Stain Photo: Behlen Behkol Solvent
Clear Pickguard Materials
Self-adhesive Mylar plastic sheets for making steel-string guitar pickguards and classical guitar tap plates.
ColorTone Concentrated Liquid Stain
The simplest and most flexible of all of our staining products. They can be added to virtually anything.
Behlen Behkol Solvent
Solvent for shellac and alcohol based stains.
Buy Now
Buy Now
Buy Now
Photo: Mixing Cups Photo: Stewart-MacDonald Super Glues Photo: ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer
Mixing Cups
1-ounce plastic mixing cups, graduated for precisely measuring and mixing stains.
ColorTone Tinted Aerosol Guitar Lacquer
The only instant glues formulated specifically for instrument repair! You'll need them for jig-making, nut slot rebuilding, inlaying and more...
ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer
The easiest way to spray a professional finish!
Buy Now
Buy Now
Buy Now

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