Making new tuners look vintage

Issue 17 February 15, 2007

How to add 50 years in 30 minutes

Aged vintage tuners

This ’57 Les Paul Jr. needed new tuners, but I didn't want to take away from the guitar’s vintage looks. Here’s how I made that new hardware look old, fast.

Plan A was new knobs. This is Plan B: new tuners.

This guitar’s tuner knobs were rotting right off the posts. Dan Erlewine and I looked it over, and saw two options: replace the plastic tuner knobs, or install a new set of tuners. The knobs-only approach is the truest to vintage, but such old tuners often aren’t working well anyway. That’s when a new set is needed.

1957 Les Paul Junior

We decided to do both options to show Trade Secrets readers.

Dan’s knob replacement story ran a few weeks ago. Here’s Plan B: installing a new set without losing the vintage looks.

I started with a set of vintage-style tuners with the same shape and embossing as the originals.

They’d fit right in on a cleaner guitar, but I wanted these to look old and nasty! The trick is something I saw online recently at the Les Paul Forum, and it’s available at Radio Shack: etchant solution for printed circuit boards. This fluid contains ferric chloride, which eats into metal surfaces.


Before using the etchant, I scuff-sanded the tuners with an 1800-grit Micro Mesh finishing pad to distress the plating a bit. I didn't go crazy with it, just enough to knock off a little shine and give the solution something to bite into. Then I was ready for the etchant.

Scuff-sanding the tuners


The etchant is corrosive, so don’t mess around: wear gloves and eye protection, and work in a well-ventilated place. It also works fast, so it’s a good idea to test this on some scrap hardware first. You can control its working time by diluting it with water. I used 3 parts etchant to 1 part water. This did a nice job of dulling the tuner plating. A stronger mix will give a stronger effect. I gave it a light touch — I wanted it to look like something from the 1950s, not from the Lord of the Rings.

I applied the etchant with a Q-tip, and the process happened quickly — be ready to move fast. Once you get the look you want, give the tuners a good rinsing in water to stop the etching. Most modern vintage-style tuners are packed with lubrication which will protect the gears. I simply dried these with a paper towel, then used a can of compressed air to blow out any water.

Etching the tuners


The knobs still needed to be aged. I tried stains, tea, and coffee to yellow them, but wasn’t happy with the results until I tried good ol’ brown Kiwi shoe polish. I rubbed it into the knobs with a soft cloth, and let dry for 20 minutes. Then I took off the excess polish with a clean paper towel, and they looked great!

Staining the tuners

The final touch: age spots!

Dan came up with a great suggestion for adding some more age: taping off the tuner knobs and spatter-painting the exposed metal with shellac mixed with a little ColorTone vintage amber stain.

Spatter-painting the tuners

This shellac-speckling was the icing on the cake; it gives ’em the genuine honkytonk look, don’t you think?

Before-after comparison

To thoroughly clean up this vintage Junior, we removed all the hardware, even the grommets around the tuners. (Be careful if you try that — it’s really easy to chip the finish!) With Q-tips and elbow grease, all the dirt came off, and we used no-silicone polish to get it looking like 1957 again!

Fast! Shipping

Orders received by 4pm EST (M-F) ship the same day.

In by 4, out by 5

Thanks to the best warehouse team in the industry!

Related items