I like the look of the vintage worn 50's Surf Green Fender Stratocasters. What I don't like is the $3K and higher price tag that Fender Custom Shop has on the road worn remakes of this color. Fender does offer a couple very nice Surf Green vintage remakes in the $2K range but these models are not exactly to my specs, and once again, the price is not within my budget. Strat features I was looking for:
Worn/aged 50's maple fretboard
50's style tuners and headstock logo
Aged white pickguard
Aged knobs and pickups
Tex Mex high-output pickups
Luckily, these features are available on the 50's Fender Stratocaster Road Worn series but this model is only available in 2 colors: tobacco sunburst and black. I decided I was going to make my own "budget" Road Worn 50's Surf Green Strat. As my base model I purchased a new, black 50'sFender Strat Road Worn series. I would need to repaint the body and duplicate the road worn look; Worn again - Surf Green style.
Step 1: Disassembly
After playing the new Strat for a few hours and noticing it needed a setup, I was happy to take it apart to start the project. A Strat is one of the easiest guitars the take apart since most of the electronics are attached to the pickguard. Additionally, I masked off the serial numbers and production stickers found in the neck pocket and body. I put a small piece of paper over the stickers, then put masking tape over the area, so the tape wouldn't lift off the stickers upon removal.
Step 2: Stripping
I used a can of Klean Strip from Home Hardware. It required a few applications - as many as I could get out of the can. The laquer was tough to penetrate. I scraped the body slowly & carefully until most of the tough goo was gone. Next I steel wool dipped in laquer thinner to get the body down to nearly bare wood. This process is very messy but neccessary.
Step 3: Sanding Sealer/Primer
I consulted with a PPG paint store and was advised to use their product that is both a sanding sealer and primer on the bare wood. The PPG product was compatible with my finish coat which will be nitrocellulose laquer - same finish that came on the Road Worn series guitar and the original 50's Strats. The PPG product fills in the wood grain and also acts as a primer coat. This stuff dries very fast and it also goes on thick with little forgiveness with a brush when you try to go over areas again when wet.
Don't try what I did - using an electric sander. It ate through the 1st coat easily. I had to do that section over. After 4 coats - with wet sanding with 220 grit between coats, I finally finished it off with 320 grit. The sanding is time consuming but worth the effort. You'll notice brush marks that I eventually got sanded out with more coats and sanding. Let the sandpaper do the work and don't dig into it. Also I didn't spend much attention to detail in the areas where the pickguard will cover. In fact, after the 1st coat, I masked off this area so it didn't build up with sealer/primer drips.
When finished I had no wood grain, very little evidence of prior road worn damage, and it was smooth.
Step 4: Surf Green Applied
I purchased a spray can of Nitrocellulose laquer Surf Green from Guitar Reranch. They make the exact replica colors found on the old Fender's. I've done my fair share of spray painting in my time, from model cars to autobody touch up. Knowing that spray paint can drift and cover other things with color and dust, I empited half my garage and covered up the rest of the items I didn't want dusted. This paint was a sand storm in a can. The dust was so heavy, it falls to the ground. LOTS of dust. I've never seen so much paint dust from a spray can. This coats were also dusty which worried me. I could get a gloss on the body to save my life.
It dried fast, so after a few hours of the first coat, I started to wet color sand the body with 600 grit. This showed promise as it knocked off most of the dusting and I was left with an orange peel look at worst. A 2nd coat filled in these inmperfections with more dust. Color wet sand again.. A 3rd coat, color wet sand with 800 this time. Now it looks nearly factory before a clear coat. Not perfect but heck, it's gonna be a road worn guitar, so I'm not being too anal.
Just to get an idea of how cool this is gonna look, I test fitted the pickguard and neck after sanding the 2nd coat. Looks like the intro guitar, huh? It's almost gonna be a shame to apply the wearing to my hard work.
Step 5: Clear Coat
This is where I took a leap of faith. Rather than purchase cans of laquer clear, and go through the dust bowl again, I had 3 different cans of Acrylic clear coat laying around. Since it's a road worn project, what the heck. Rather than dive in, I made a test piece of wood with the sealer/primer and Surf Green, then coated 3 strips with each clear product (L-R):
Design Master, Triple Thick clear gloss
Krylon Super gloss
Krylon clear coat
The results were as expected. The triple thick had the most gloss and none of these acrylic products caused any harm to the paint. I decided to start with the least gloss and work my way up if need be. The original guitar didn't have a thick layer of gloss. When done I have to rough it up anyways to give it the swirled aged look of gloss that has seen it's years.
I started with 2 coats of the Krylon Clear and then wet sanding with 800 grit. It looked close to the original Road Worn gloss finish but applied a top coat of the Krylon super gloss to build it up for some good sanding and steel wool swirlies. I decided not to use any of the triple thick product. This is where I started to get creative. I wanted to add a little aging or slight yellowing to the clear swirled finished. I added some acrylic yellow ochre to my wet sanding water. It had no effect. No harm, no foul. After the wet sanding with 800 grit, I swirled the body with steel wool. This made it look dull and used - just like the guitar finish before I started.
Step 6: Worn Again
I went to a guitar relic site that had instructions on how to relic a guitar. The rule to remember: don't over-do it.
Using my original pics as a guide and penciled around the approximate areas. I rubbed laquer thinner on areas to be worn using a rag and sometime paper towels. This rubbing required more effort and precision than I had expected. My primer coat was so thick it added to the work to break through to the wood. Also since the thinner begins to soften any finish it touches, I had to be careful to not wipe too wide. I was getting disappointed with my results because it was starting to show too much primer showing and not enough wood. To get more precise, I used an old flat head screw driver to lightly remove soft paint rather than the rag and rub method. I also cut the tip off an old small modelers paintbrush to apply thinner in small doses to edges, then back to using the screwdriver scratch away method. When I was satisfied with a worn area, I then used my 320 grit paper to smooth, followed by 600 grit. The final touch was steelwool, which added an additional coloring benefit. The steel wool on the bare wood areas would lift the wood dust and embed it into the white primer areas, giving it a more aged look. Cool.
For the nicks, dings, belt and rivet markings, and accidental drops, I used the same screwdriver and my driveway for a couple whoops moments. These were time worked with only the steelwool method and coloration from the bare wood areas.
After some convincing wearing with steel wool all over I was pleased and fitted the hardware again for dress rehearsal pics. My work is done. I will let the body dry good for at least a week in the garage heat, then I'll take it to my guitar guy for assembly and setup. I think the project was a success and I came in easily under $1000, which is far less than any Surf Green 50's Fender Strat I could buy today.
In hindsight, there are easier alternatives that are inexpensive too. You can purchase Surf Green bodies on eBay all day long for under $150. This would drastically cut down in time but you'd never get the experience of learning how to refin. I now feel confident I can tackle most solid color refin jobs on my own if given the time and materials.
Added note: To add some shine back to the dulled finish, I applied some rubbing compound today. It added the perfect touch of shine and gloss back to the body while keeping the thin swirled, used look. Now I'm completely satisfied with the look of the body. Nice thing about the rubbing compound is that I can continue applying it after the guitar is reassembled and it will only add to the beauty of the finish.