Vintage Acoustic Guitar Pickguard Replacement

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Vintage Acoustic Guitar Pickguard Replacement

Celluloid and Acetate Pickguards

Many acoustic guitars manufactured between the late 60’s and the mid 80’s feature Celluloid or Acetate plastic pickguards that were glued directly on top of bare wood. This creates a more permanent bond than the modern practice of attaching a pickguard with double sided tape on top of the instrument’s finish. An unfortunate concern with the former technique is that, with age, the plastic has begun to shrink and degrade. This is similar to another common affliction of vintage instruments: the breakdown of plastic tuner buttons. Name brand instruments from this era have attained a high degree of collectability and are well worth the effort to repair.

Curling Pickguard Edges

A Martin Guitar With A Curling Pickguard

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

The wood visible underneath the missing portion is whiter in color vs. the yellowed top surrounding it. This is because it is bare wood (spruce) while the rest of the instrument has been sprayed with lacquer. 

Warped Tops

If the guard does not release and curl, the top will begin to warp under the strain of the shrinking guard. Owing too their large dimensions, this presentation seems to be especially prevalent on Guild Guitars from the era.

In the photo, a straight edge has been placed on top of the pickguard, revealing a dip in the center. As degradation progresses, something must eventually give way. If the guard doesn’t release from the top, the wood will eventually buckle and crack under the pressure.

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 great sounding and reliable instruments, they, and other notable brands including 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, it is a very common sight on Martin instruments from this period. The so called “martin crack” appears as a result of the pickguard material shrinking and pulling the spruce top to which it is attached along with it.

In a worst case scenario, the pickguard can distort the guitar top, causing a dip, or damage the internal bracing.

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

Vintage Martin Guitar Pickguard Replacement: Step by Step

The following is a walk-through of the repair process involved in the removal and making of a handmade replacement for a vintage Martin pickguard. The steps involved are quite similar for Gibson and Guild guitars suffering from a similar issue.

pickguard collage

Removing A Damaged Pickguard

Using a heat lamp to soften a pickguard for removal

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. When ready, a spatula is used, working with the wood grain, to pull off the old guard. This reduces the potential for tearing out the underlying wood fibers during removal. 

Tracing The Footprint For A Custom Fit

The original pickguard 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 be custom 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.

Tracing the pickguard outline

Cutting and Shaping A New Pickguard

Shaping The Pickguard

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

Once the shape has been roughed in, files, scrapers, and sandpaper are helpful in the final profiling of the pickguard. After the fit is finalized, we put a slight bevel on the edges to soften the line and help blend the guard into the top. After an adhesive backing is applied, it is 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 to protect it from damage.

In our shop, the preferred tool for this particular job is CA glue. We like it because it is fast and effective. The area will not be visible once the pickguard 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 pickguard’s footprint, before wiping on 1 or 2 thin coats.

Masking Off To Protect The Top

Mounting The New Custom Pickguard

With the new pickguard 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 in keeping with an otherwise road-worn, vintage, instrument, relicing may be done prior to installation.

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

pickguard installed
The Completed Job
Picture of Erik Salomon - Calico Guitarworks Owner / Head Technician
Erik Salomon - Calico Guitarworks Owner / Head Technician

Tech Talk articles are part of an ongoing effort to provide clear and detailed answers to common questions about guitar maintenance, modifications, and repairs.
While not intended as a step-by-step guide to servicing your own instrument, we hope that you will find value in the information provided.

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About Calico Guitarworks

Calico Guitarworks is the area’s premier destination for fretted musical instrument care and maintenance. Owned and managed by Erik Salomon, the shop is dedicated to providing quick, honest and reliable service. The staff at Calico Guitarworks has a combined 25+ years of professional guitar repair experience. Sharing the knowledge that we accumulate in this focused pursuit is at the core of what we do. Learn more About Calico Guitarworks, explore our Frequently Asked Questions, or Contact us with a specific request.

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