Replacing binding on a vintage Gretsch

This week I embarked upon a job of replacing binding on a vintage Gretsch.

A lot of what we know about what works in guitar making we’ve learned from what hasn’t worked out over time. Plastic is one of those things we’ve learned a lot about over the years – now that we use it to make nearly everything we have (society’s uses and misuses of plastics could be another conversation all together).

Back in the 1950s Leo Fender made early use of Bakelite for Tele pick guards, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for white Strat pick guards and polystyrene for his plastic knobs and switch tips, which were all fairly new plastics on the market at the time and were certainly in keeping with his forward-thinking proclivities. But aside from those examples almost everything else was being made from celluloid. You know, the same stuff that antique fountain pens, film stock (prior to cellulose acetate) and ping pong balls are made from. It’s highly flammable but it’s easily molded and shaped, and makes for a great looking cheap replacement for ivory and tortoise shell.

Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) is basically nitrocellulose cured with camphor and it’s most inherent flaw is in how it ages: not well. Due to the unsustainable pressure used in it’s production the nitrocellulose molecules eventually crystallize and squeeze the camphor molecules out of the mass and into the air as they undergo sublimation into gas, leaving behind the brittle nitrocellulose.

That’s exactly what happened to the binding on this vintage Gretsch. It’s crumbling apart, and although our client doesn’t mind the look of the deterioration around the body, the missing pieces on the neck (and some missing inlays) have rendered this thing unplayable. I replaced this stuff with some ABS plastic binding and pearl inlays that will stand the test of time. Here’s a series of photos showing each step I took to replace the binding and inlays:

Looking good! The new plastic binding will out-live the guitar’s owner… and the human race…

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