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New Pickguard for a Vintage Gibson Archtop

1/7/2014

This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of “American Lutherie”, the trade journal published by the Guild of American Luthiers.

vintage gibson archtop celluloid pickguard replacement roten celluloid 2_gibson_es_150_new_tortoise_celluloid_pickguard
1. The Ubiquitous Tortoise Pickguard.  This one is from a 1947 Gibson ES-150 archtop. 2. Bracket Fail.  The glue joint between the pickguard and the celluloid “nut” that’s attached to the bracket has failed. The celluloid is deteriorated at this old glue joint as well as the point of contact with the pickup.  I suppose I could repair the pickguard but it’s going to be quicker and more stable to make a new one from some fresh celluloid.
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3. Pickguard Tracing.  I scribe the outline of the old pickguard onto the sheet with a utility knife.  I also trace the guard with a fine-tipped marker.  Some masking tape attached to the sheet makes it easier to see the layout lines. 4. Drilling the Corners of the pickup notch on the drill press.
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5. Bandsawing the celluloid as close to the line as possible. 6. The Disc Sander smooths the convex edges of the guard to the scribed line.
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7. The Oscillating Spindle Sander shapes the concave edges of the guard.  Celluloid easily catches on fire from the friction caused by the sanding machines.  It’s important to use fresh abrasives and make a series of light passes.  Do not use a vacuum cleaner or dust collector when machine-sanding celluloid. 8. A Sharp Chisel cleans up the edges of the pickguard notch.   An angled cut at the top of the “mortise” ensures a clean cut right to the scribed line.  Next, I pare downward with the chisel making a series of thin cuts until I’ve worked my way back to the scribed line.
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9. Evening Out the High Spots on the edge of the guard left by the spindle sander.  Some 80 grit PSA sandpaper attached to the side of a coffee can is a good tool for this.  Next, I lightly hand-sand the perimeter of the pickguard with some 180 grit sandpaper wrapped around a small cork-lined sanding block. 10. Laminating the Back Strip.  I don’t have access to celluloid in the same thicknesses as those used by Gibson back in the 40’s and 50‘s so I have to laminate some strips of the thinner celluloid.  I’ll use the laminated pieces for the back brace, fretboard extension mounting block and the mounting bracket’s nut.  Next, I will glue and clamp the brace to the back of the pickguard, then hand-plane the edge of the brace flush with the edge of the guard.
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11. The Mounting Block.  I saw the mounting block for the fretboard extension to rough length and height with a Japanese pull saw and a miter box.  I use the disc sander to get the mounting block to its final dimensions. 12. The Back of the Pickguard.  I glue the mounting block to the back of the pickguard then drill out and counter-sink the mounting block for the screw that attaches the guard to the edge of the fretboard tongue.
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13. The Celluloid Nut.  I break up the deteriorated celluloid nut that’s frozen to the metal mounting bracket with some flush-ground end nippers.  I soak the hardware in a mixture of naptha and sewing machine oil then clean the bracket’s threads with a wire brush. 14. Threading the Nut.  I tap the celluloid nut to accept the metal mounting bracket.
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15. Assembling the Nut and Bracket.  I glue the bracket into the nut with duco-cement and thread the bracket in place. 16.  Rounding the Edge of the pickguard.  I use a 1/4 round router bit as a scraper to give the edge a consistent radius.  I do not use a router, I simply pull the router bit by hand around the perimeter of the pickguard, leaving the edge of the guard that will be facing the strings untouched by the router bit “scraper”.
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17. Sand and Buff.  I sand the pickguard in steps starting at 600 grit and work my way up to 6,000 grit to get rid of any surface scratches or imperfections in the celluloid. 18. Polished Edges.  I buff with menzerna red then white compound on the buffing wheels.
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19. Almost Done. 20. Mounting the Bracket nut to the back of the pickguard with duco cement.  A metal shield protects the finish from any glue squeeze out.  With the guard screwed to the edge of the fretboard I use some quarter-sized magnets to clamp the guard to the bracket.
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21. A New Celluloid Pickguard