Vintage Acoustic Guitar Pickguard Replacement

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Vintage Acoustic Guitar Pickguard Replacement

Celluloid Pickguards

Many acoustic guitars manufactured from the late 60’s through the mid 80’s utilize celluloid plastic pick guards glued directly on top of bare wood. An unfortunate concern with this technique is that, with age, the pick guards have begun to shrink and degrade.  This is similar to another common affliction of vintage instruments: The breakdown of plastic tuner buttons. As many of these instruments have attained a degree of collectability far above the manufacturers wildest expectations, expert repair is often warranted to save these fine instruments.

Curling Pickguard Edges

A Martin Guitar With A Curling Pickguard

On the instrument pictured, the pickguard has curled to the point that a large section of it has simply broken off. Interestingly, the stress relief provided by this missing piece of pickguard likely saved the top itself from further damage.

Warped Tops

If the guard does not release and curl, the top will begin to warp under the strain.  In our experience, this presentation seems to be especially prevalent on Guild Guitars from a certain era..  

Looking at the photo you can see a big dip below the center of the straight edge.  As degradation progresses, the guard will either release and curl like in the photo above, or the wood will buckle under the pressure producing a crack.

A Guild guitar with a shrinking guard that is causing a warped top

The "Martin" Pickguard Crack

A common stress crack on the edges of the pickguard footprint

Martin guitars are among the most desired and collectible acoustic guitars on the planet. While they are generally great sounding and reliable instruments, they and other notable brands such as Gibson and Guild often suffer from the same predictable flaw. 

From about 1967-1985, Martin guitars commonly featured a black acetate pickguard. At the factory, these pickguards were brushed with a solvent to melt the plastic and then bonded to the top prior to application of the instruments lacquer finish. This production method is responsible for the infamous “Martin pickguard crack“.

While this issue is certainly not limited to Martin branded instruments alone, the “martin crack” appears as a result of the pickguard material shrinking and pulling the spruce top it is glued to along with it.

In a worst case scenario, the pickguard can distort the guitar top, causing a dip, or even pull part of the top off of the internal X brace.

A Gibson J50 with a body length crack due to a shrinking pickguard that had not released.

Replacing A Martin Guitar Pickguard

The following is a walk through of the repair process for the removal and replacement of a Martin pickguard.  The process would be similar for Gibson and Guild guitars suffering from a similar issue.

Removing A Damaged Pickguard

Pickguard removal on these old guitars is a delicate process. It is best done by a professional to minimize the potential of further damaging the instrument.

A bit of heat is helpful to soften things up before working the guard off. This will minimize the potential for tearing out the underlying wood fibers during removal. 

It is also important to pay attention to the wood grain direction to avoid gouging the top.

Tracing The Footprint For A Custom Fit

The original guards on vintage instruments were typically handmade.  As such there is often variation in dimensions, even between guitars of the same model.

As a result prefabricated pickguards are rarely an acceptable fit for these instruments. For a good fit, one must becustom made to properly match the original footprint.

A piece of tracing paper is useful for penciling the outline. Once complete, the profile is transferred to a blank piece of pickguard material of appropriate thickness.

Cutting and Shaping A New Pickguard

In our shop, we prefer to replace these guards with one made from modern plastic to ensure the longevity of the repair.

Once The Shape has been roughed in, files, scrapers, and sandpaper are helpful in final profiling the pickguard.

Once the fit is finalized, we put a slight bevel on the edges of the guard to soften the line and help blend the guard into the top. 

After an adhesive backing is applied,  it will be ready to install.

Applying Protective Finish to The Footprint

Before installing the new guard, we must first seal the unfinished portion of the top underneath its footprint to protect it from damage in the future.

In our shop, the preferred tool for this particular job is CA glue because it is fast an effective. The area will not be visible once the guard is installed, so durability and speed are the primary concerns.   

We carefully mask off the surrounding area to avoid getting finish anywhere but under the pickguards footprint.

Mounting The New Custom Pickguard

With the new guard shaped and fitted, and a protective finish applied underneath,  it is ready to be mounted to the top. If a shiny new guard is not aesthetically fitting for a roadwork vintage instrument, relicing may be required prior to installation.

After a good setup, this nearly 50 year old guitar is now looking and sounding good as ever. If all goes well, she will still be making music for another 50 plus.

About Guitar Repair Long Island

Guitar Repair Long Island is the area’s premier destination for fretted musical instrument care and maintenance. Led by owner/head technician Erik Salomon, the shop is dedicated to providing quick, honest, and reliable service. Our vast experience in all aspects of instrument repair ensures that we can help with whatever your needs are. Contact us with any questions or book your appointment today.

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