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Home : Trade Secrets Archive : Issue 102, Relic finish: faking age cracks on a 1956 Strat
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Photo: 1956 Fender peghead
Photo: 1956 Fender peghead Relic finishing
Faking finish cracks
This 1956 Strat neck needed a new finish
on the fretboard, and it had to match this great old crazed peghead finish.
Dan Erlewine, December 10, 2009
Photo: Dan Erlewine
Photo: 1956 Fender peghead Photo: 1956 Fender peghead
Refretting this ’56 Stratocaster gave me an unhappy surprise: someone had altered the fretboard so it was no longer radiused — it had a broad flat area all down the center. Before fretting it needed to be re-radiused. I did this with a radius sanding beam, a scraper and a leveling file.
Photo: comparing necksThis meant the beautiful old finish was removed from the fretboard, revealing new wood. What a mismatch! Look at the difference in color between the 1956 neck and a new unfinished one.
Refinishing the fretboard involves a lot of steps, but it’s not as hard as you might think. The toughest part is coloring the newly-sanded maple to match the rest of the old neck. And getting the color right is only half the story: the old finish has a lot of checking — a crackled-up spiderweb of hairlines that show its age. Matching that takes extra steps, but it's fun.
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Photo: airbrushing Here’s how I do a “relic” job on a new finish. It doesn’t require a lot of experience, and you’ll get great results with very simple tools.
After installing the frets, I shaped the fret ends as usual and leveled the tops — but I left the final shaping and polishing until after the finish work is completed. I taped off the peghead so its original finish would be unaffected. Here I’m using an airbrush, spraying shellac thinned with Behkol solvent and lightly shaded with ColorTone stains.
Airbrush Outfit

ColorTone Concentrated Liquid Stain
First, add some age-appropriate color
Photo: mixing colored shellac Photo: colored shellacI used Vintage Amber, adding a bit of Tobacco Brown and Orange. I only mixed a tiny bit of color into the shellac: brown and orange needed just a drop on the end of a toothpick! Maybe ten toothpick-drops of the amber. A scrap of acrylic makes a good palette: I put a drop of each color on it, then picked up the tiny amounts I need with the tips of my toothpicks.
Drop-fill Toothpicks
Photo: CO2 cylinder No air compressor needed
I power my airbrush with a refillable CO2 cylinder from a welding supply shop. It provides clean filtered “air,” takes up hardly any room, and it’s completely silent. I bought the pressure regulator on top, and the cylinders are swapped out for full ones when they’re empty.
Free Hand HolderFree Hand Holder
The new Freehand Holder for better, easier spray finishing! Here’s the best way ever to hold an instrument while spraying. Get a uniform, pro-quality coat on all surfaces!

Photo: spraying with Preval After spraying the color, I “locked it in” with two very light sealer coats of Behlen lacquer.
I thinned the lacquer with Behkol solvent: 1 part lacquer to 2 parts Behkol. I sprayed two coats, using a Preval spray unit (it holds more finish than an airbrush).
Behlens Nitrocellulose Stringed Instrument Lacquer
Photo: ColorTone aerosol After three hours of drying, I was ready to spray the topcoats. I used a can of ColorTone clear gloss, which builds a finish faster than the thinned lacquer I sprayed with the Preval.
I left the neck to dry overnight.
ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer
Photo: buffing The next day I level-sanded the finish with 320-grit Fre-Cut sandpaper, and I sprayed two final coats of thinned lacquer.
I left the neck to dry for two days, then buffed it out.
3M Gold Fre-Cut Sandpaper
Now for the fun part: faking vintage!
Photo: checked finish It took years of summer/winter humidity changes to create the finish checking on this neck. After studying the shapes of the cracks through my OptiVISOR, I’m ready to create fake cracks of my own. It’s pretty easy: I’ll use a knife point to put tiny scratches in the new finish.
OptiVISOR Headband Magnifier
Photo: scratching the finish Photo: scratching the finishA utility knife blade works well for cutting the checks into the lacquer: it’s sharp, and strong enough that it won’t bend under pressure. Be patient. Put on a CD or a TV show, and relax — pretty soon you’ll start getting speedy! Be careful not to repeat shapes too often: keep referring to the genuine checking for inspiration.
Your checkmarks will be hard to see
Photo: adding colorPhoto: stearate from sealer They need color rubbed into them to make them show up. Thin some lacquer-base ColorTone Pigment with naphtha and wipe it onto your checking. Don’t let it dry on the surface; you just want it in the cracks. Wipe it off right away using rags wetted with naphtha. After the color’s been in the cracks for ten minutes or so, buff the surface to remove any sharpness in the checked lines — so they don’t feel new.
De-gloss it to make it look old
The last step is to de-gloss the shiny new lacquer. I do this by sucking up some of the milky stearate that settles to the bottom of an unshaken can of vinyl sealer. Stearate is the powdery substance that adds sandability and a milky cast to lacquer sanding sealers. Using a turkey baster, I mixed a little of this stearate into an airbrush jar full of lacquer thinner.
Two or three light passes on low air pressure (15-20 psi) leaves the surface dull — just like the original finish.
ColorTone Liquid Pigment for Lacquer




Behlen Nitrocelluose Vinyl Sealer
Photo: after (new and old finishes) Photo: Dan with finished guitar
Can you tell the old finish from the new?
This relic finish was fast and fun. It took me less than two hours to create the checking with the knife blade, and over the next few days I only spent another couple of hours mixing and spraying. The result looks good. If the owner doesn’t tell his friends, nobody’s likely to know it’s ever been to my shop!
Image: Dan Erlewine's signature
Problem-solving products for this kind of work:
ColorTone Shellac Flakes
Not only a fantastic finish, shellac also is a great wood conditioner under nitrocellulose lacquers.
ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer
Give your instrument a beautiful traditional nitrocellulose lacquer finish, without elaborate spray equipment
Airbrush Outfit
Complete set for spraying spot lacquer finish retouches and custom graphics.
More More More
Preval Spray Unit
Handy alternative when professional spraying equipment is unavailable.
3M Gold Fre-Cut Sandpaper
These sandpapers won't clog like traditional sandpapers, and they last twice as long!
Guitar Buffing Arbor
NEW! Our exclusive professional buffing outfit, for gorgeous "factory" finishes in your own shop.
More More More

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