Friday, June 18, 2010

Why and How to Relic a Guitar

The Beginning of the Story

As you can see on earlier entries on this blog, I bought a Kenny Wayne Shepherd Strat, that I was wanting for months.  I sold other guitars and stuff around the house to afford my purchase.  When I got the guitar, no doubt, it was awesome.  The best parts about it were the neck and the pickups.  The worst: the saddles were american sized and the base of the neck is Mexican sized.  This means that the edges of the “e” strings were too close to the edge of the fretboard.  According to Fender support, this is part of the design.  According to two guitar techs, this was a flaw and a poor design.  If they had used mexican spaced saddles the problem would be fixed. 

So I took it back.  For the exchange though, I exchanged for a Fender Standard Mexican Sunburst Strat and a Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen Watt amp.  (I’ll review the G-Dec later after I have some serious time messing around with it.)

Based on my experience with Fenders, and my new confidence in upgrading and fixing a Fender, I decided that I could choose a Standard Strat and Turn it into the EXACT guitar that I want.  Because I was so heart broken to not keep the Kenny Wayne Strat, I have vowed to make this guitar better than the Kenny. 

The only compromise is that I can not have the same heft in the neck as the Kenny has.  This does make me sad, because I do want a bigger neck with Jumbo frets.

So I touched and played every Fender Standard in the store and I chose the one with the best feeling neck.  It was a sunburst strat with Medium-Jumbo frets.  Here’s the picture:


I like a sunburst strat and the newer Mexican strats are super high quality with a larger trem block for more sustain and better hardware than the 90’s or early 2000’s strats.  The pickups are also great sounding.

In order to make it MINE, I am going to relic it and put on bridge Saddles with more sustain, change the pickguard and the pickups.



Four Reasons:  Style, Comfort, Playability, and Tone.

Style – I buy worn jeans, not starched dark blue ones.  I want a broken-in feel in my clothes.  I also prefer that feel in my guitar.  Blindfold me and put me in front of a shelf of guitars that are properly set-up and I will always like the feel of the used ones.

Similarly, I like the artistic look of a properly relic’d guitar.  I like the wear to look natural even though I am not trying to fool anyone.  I like the uniqueness of a properly relic’d guitar.  It doesn’t look like another one in the store, it looks interesting and unique.  It is now MY guitar, unlike anyone elses.

FYI- When I relic a guitar, I am not trying to fool anyone into thinking that I have played it so much that the paint is worn down.  I am not trying to convince someone that it is an actual 1960’s strat used by Clapton or something like that. 

Comfort- Go to a music store and slide your hand across a Mexi strat and the neck of the strat.  Press hard and move fast.  You will find that because of the Poly finish your hand will be slowed down.  Now do the same to a guitar that has a satin, flat finish.  Your hand will glide normally.  Now do the same with a wet finger.  Wet or sweaty fingers and hands get slowed down even more than dry ones do.  The truth is that the inside of my right forearm gets sweaty and sticks to the body of the guitar, the sweat doesn’t lubricate it, the sweat actually adheres it.  The same thing can be true on my left hand. 

Playability- If you want a playable instrument, your hands and arm need to feel comfortable and you need to be able to rest properly on the instrument to give you leverage.  Pulling the poly finish off of the guitar will make your guitar smoother and more comfortable and much more playable.

Tone- Here is a big reason that no one talks about.  When your guitar is covered in a poly finish, it is much like putting a rubber mute on the bridge of a stringed instrument.  Have you heard what a violin sounds like with a mute on it?  The sustain and tone are both taken away.  The same is true with a brass instrument. 

The Alder that Strats are made of is a resonant wood with a lot of tone, when you cover it with a thick gloss like Poly, you mute the tone and vibration of the wood.  Taking off of the poly will give you more options with the sound of your guitar.  You can install some high output pickups and have a screaming tone with sustain, or you can install lower output pickups and get the type of tone that John Mayer gets from his strat.  I personally play with the tone at 10 on my guitar 95% of the time, and when you give your guitar more tone, you can dial it down and have more choices. 



I have decided that I like to hand-relic a strat rather than use power tools.

Here are the supplies that you will need:

Tools:  Philips and Flathead screw drivers, wrench and pliers, soldering iron, solder, sanding block (the kind where you can put different grains of sandpaper on), clorox cleaning wipes, paper towels, q-tips, etchant (this is for the steel parts of your guitar, you’ll find it at Radio Shack), different grains of sandpaper I like 60, 100, 150 and 200, steel wool at 0000 grain, and linseed oil.  The total cost of these supplies is about $30.

Disassemble your Gutiar.

Don’t be scared, there is nothing that you can do that can’t be undone. 

1. Detach the neck with the 4 screws.

2. take off all tuning pegs. you’ll need to use a pliers or wrench to loosen the nut that holds them together.

3. unscrew the pickguard and the input jack

4.  you’ll need to unsolder the ground wire from the metal that holds the trem springs, and unsolder the wires from the input jack.  To unsolder, take your soldering iron and heat the solder that holds the wire on, when you liquefy that solder, the wire will slide loose. 

5.  unscrew the bridge screws and remove the bridge

6. unscrew the saddles

7.  remove the screws that hold the trem block to the bridge plate

I leave the screws that hold the metal that the trem springs attach to alone, but that is all that I leave on.

Relic-ing the metal

1.  Take any metal that you are going to relic and put it in a tupperware container or small box.  I do not relic screws. I don’t relic springs either.  I will relic the tuning pegs, the input jack guard (not the jack), the bridge plate, the saddles, the neck plate,

2. Shake them for quite a while.  You’ll dink them and some of the cheap chrome will flake off.  You might want to rough them up with some of the steel wool as well.

3.  Lay the pieces out on a paper towel.  Smear etchant on any part that you wish to relic.  I don’t put the etchant on the part of the tuning peg that the strings touch, but it probably doesn’t matter.  The etchant is an acid, so don’t get it on your fingers and don’t breath it. 

4.  Keep your eyes on these parts.  Some pieces will look cool after 5-10 minutes, and some may take much longer.

5.  When a piece is finished, wash it off with water thoroughly. 


Relicing the Body

Know this.  You can literally trash the body and it will still work and play well.  Don’t get discouraged half way through and quit, follow through and finish it right.  It takes a lot of sanding by hand.  A lot.  It will look horrible when you start putting scratches in the Poly, but remember, you are just scratching the Poly when you are sanding until you break through and get to the paint.

Also know.  The poly is thicker and more resilient than most people believe.  This is especially true on the flat areas on the guitar.  The edges have a lot less poly and you will break through to the paint earlier on those areas. 

You will want to do the sanding in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors.

I start with the back, but start doing the rest of the body whenever you want.  The sides are difficult and you’ll have to just hand sand it.  In the following instructions, I start with the back, but go to the front whenever you feel like you know what you are doing.

1.  Take some 60 grit paper and put it on the sanding block.  Start on the back of the guitar and thoroughly sand the back of the guitar until the entire back is powdery. 

Know.  if you keep sanding the body with the poly powder on top of it, you actually heat the powder and it sticks back on.  You’ll be sanding the same layer over and over.

2.  When the back is powdery, take a clorox wipe and wipe the powder off as much as you can.  Use a paper towel to dry it again.  What you are doing it removing the poly dust so that you can go back over it again.

3.  On my most recent guitar, I repeated the first two steps 3 times on the flat surfaces with the 60 grit.

4.  If you can see that you are exposing the wood at all and cutting through the paint, you should back off and get back to that area with a higher grit count paper so that you can make it look the way you want to.

5.  Once you have used the 60 grit a few times, move to the next higher grit and do the same.

6.  The higher grit counts will smooth the deep gouges that the 60 grit has made and make it look smoother.

7.  Because the Poly has bonded with the paint, there will not be a point where there is no poly and only paint.  But you can get it very very thin.

8.  When you cut through the paint and poly and expose wood, with the lighter grains, you can decide how much wood you want to expose and what you want the pattern to look like.  Remember to go slow and don’t over do it.  Make it look good and then back off.

9.  When you have gone through the higher grain count papers and have cleaned off the wood, and you have the right amount of wood exposed you’ll move to the next steps.  btw. it won’t look clean yet, don’t worry if there is still a powdery dirty look to it. 

10.  Feel free to do any damage to the body that you want.  Dink it up with a screw driver, drop it, gouge it, whatever.  Personally, I don’t want it too gouged or dinged, I just want to expose some wood, but do whatever.

11.  At this point, I take some linseed oil and smear it all over the body.  The oil is going to be absorbed by the remaining poly.  Let it sit for 15 minutes or so.

12.  After leaving it to soak in the oil for a bit, take a dry paper towel and towel off any remaining oil. 

13.  Take your steel wool and go over the entire body thoroughly.  Now, you’ll finally start seeing what it is going to look like. 

14.  If you still see lots of deep gouges from the heavier grit sand papers, you might want to use the finer grit papers to smooth those out.  When you do this, you’ll have to reapply some oil and then go over it again with the steel wool.

15.  On my last guitar, I repeated the oiling and steel-wool steps a few times to get rid of the deeper gouges and get it nice and smooth and flat. 

16.  Do this until you like the look and achieve the finish that you want.  You can even go back to the heavier grains to expose some more wood whenever you want to.

NOTE- You might notice that some of the exposed wood looks very light colored and new.  This does not look too worn, if you want to darken it up, you can get some dark oil, some magic marker, or even dirt to darken it.  Do this during the oiling process.


Relic-in the Neck

On the neck, I don’t let anything touch the frets.  If you have a maple neck, you can sand or dremel the wood between the frets to make the fret board look worn.  This is nothing but cosmetic.  I only have done rosewood necks in the past and I don’t mess with the frets or the fret board.

1.  Take the neck and sand the back with 100 grain sand paper.  There is far less poly on the neck than the body.  If you have a tinted neck, you can break through the tint and know that you are into the wood of the neck pretty quickly.

2.  You’ll want to use some orbital strokes with the paper, but mostly sand length-wise.

3.  After breaking through the poly, clean it off with the clorox wipe and move to the finer grains.

4.  The neck is more about feel than looks, so make sure that you don’t leave grooves or sand a spot, use long strokes and make it feel right.

5.  If you want to do anything to the headstock to make it match the amount of relic on the body, feel free.

6.  Apply linseed oil to any part of the neck that has been sanded.

7.  Let it sit for 15 minutes or so.

8.  use the 0000 grain steel wool over the whole back of the neck and headstock. This will give you a very satin-like feel. 


Relic-ing the pickguard

I changed the pickguard on my last project which makes relic-ing the guard much easier.  If you don’t replace the pickguard, you can either uninstall the pickups and pots, or you can work around them.

1. If you leave the pickups and pots installed.  Completely cover the pickups with masking tape.  This will keep the little bits of steel wool from sticking to the pickup magnets.  If you don’t cover them, you will be cleaning the wool off of them forever.

2.  I use steel wool to rough up the entire pickguard.  This will take off the gloss and give it a matte type finish. 

3.  I then use some sand paper to make it look worn where a pick might rub against it.

4.  If the guard is white you’ll want to use something to make it look a little dirtier.  Personally I like the darker guard look better.


Reassemble the guitar.

Your guitar should go right back together.  Use a little solder to get your input jack back on and your ground wire back on the spring holder. 

You might want to get it professionally set up, but there are a lot of instructions to teach you how to set up a guitar yourself.  You’ve gone this far, you might as well learn how to set it up too.



Here is the finished product.












Have FUN!


  1. Sorry it looks faked

  2. No suprise that "sorry it looks faked" is Ananymous!......what a dick!

    I think it looks great!....and its more about the feel and playability of the guitar then the "look"....which you explained quite well.

    thank you for the time to put this up, very helpful.


    1. I think it also looks amazing I've followed every step that was posted and I now have a beautiful Gibson, I really hate people like that who say anonymous, nathan

  3. Yeah, I have to agree. This looks unnatural and faked...not even close.

  4. pretty good way to do it, and it came out well considering its a poly strat. Congrats. now the way i did it was to take a heat gun to the poly coating and use a paint scraper to peel the poly away. Hand sand, re-apply a color yourself with some spray laquer colors from stew mac and peel it up just like you said. Makes the guitar sound purrrrrty

  5. I'm not sure I buy your argument, but—on the surface—you make a good case for relicing. Here's a question: how do you feel about pre-reliced instruments like the Fender Roadworn series?

  6. Horrible. It looks contrived. The white plastic parts stick out like a sore thumb. A little coffee and nicotine stain? Over all it looks stupid.

  7. Hi..I think you did a great job..the finished photos look really cool.I would leave it as is..just playing it and time will age the plastic etc. Good Job Thanks DH

  8. "Horrible. It looks contrived. The white plastic parts stick out like a sore thumb. A little coffee and nicotine stain? Over all it looks stupid."

    Dude, not everyone's a coffee swiller or a pack-a-day smoker. Hell, I don't even let people smoke around my guitars. Also, check out the SRV strats...WHITE KNOBS on black guard.

    I think this looks VERY nice. :D Maybe a little overboard on the tummy cut, but the front looks bang on for how a guitar would relic being gigged.

  9. Hm, I think my Squier Jazzmaster (~300€/400$) is about to get a similar treat.
    Thanks for the instructions.


  11. What the heck is a "poly strat."

  12. LOOKS BETTER THAN AN SRV FOR 2 GRAND!?! Dude are you on crack? I'm sorry, but the quality of an SRV will just not be there. Sometimes you just get what you pay for, man.

    P.S. I think this guy did a pretty good job.

  13. hah i wont use anonymous it does look fake..Ive been relicing guitars for a few years..And to be honest the Secret is alot of elbow grease with very fine grit sandpaper like 400-600 to dull and eventually take off some of the paint or stain little bits at a time..Take a screwdriver and a hammer and chizzle around the guitar give the screwdriver a good whack here and there..Especially down by the input jack...And my secret ingredient is BROWN SHOE POLISH...I know it sounds weird..But after you sand down the body/neck/pickguard take a paper towel and Cover the WHOLE guitar in brown shoepolish..Let it sit for about 5-10 minutes then take some fine steel wool and lightly sand some of it off..I wish i could post my 2 fenders ive done you could see em ; ) try that though it works..Also if you really want the warn warn look on the back of the neck...Get some Distilled White Vinegar an empty plastic coffee container and some .0000 steel wool..Pour like a cup of vinegar into the jar and pull apart a little bit of the steelwool and let it soak in the jar for about a day or 2 once its disolved take a hobby brush and coat the back of the neck and it will turn a dark greyish color then once its dried Coat the back of the neck in the brown shoe polish enough times until you reach the desired tint ; ) ...The neck will only change color if the Laquer is totally gone..HAVE FUN

  14. Looking at this 6 years after the original post! You did a great job! Love the finished product. I agree with you 100% that its not even all about the look. You can feel that difference of a neck that is worn. Whether it be natural or faux. The neck is faster playing. Great stuff!

  15. Relic guitar? looks kind of fake

  16. Mike thats for such a helpful tutorial....u still around? After all the sanding..what is the linseed oil application for? Does it need to be done? Answer if you can. Thanks

  17. Awesome article!! I followed all your steps and I managed to achieve an epic road worn look telecaster which has now become my favorite guitar. Picture to come soon!

    Thanks so much!

    Justin :)