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Vintage Guitar Finishes

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Vintage Fender guitar paint and finish procedures.

The following excerpts of information is from website

When Fender switched to Alder (from Ash) as it's primary body wood in mid 1956, many books and authorities state Femder started using a product called "Fullerplast" This is a very misunderstood product. For example, there is a picture in Tom Wheeler's American Guitars, page 54 (upper left corner), of a man with long rubber gloves dipping bodies into a tank at Fender in the late 1950's. The description incorrectly denotes the man is applying "Fullerplast" to the bodies. Most likely, this man is staining the Alder bodies yellow, a process used on Alder from 1956 and later before spraying the sunburst finish.
Fullerplast is a clear, sprayed chemically curing sealer, unaffected by solvents after it dries. It is made by Fuller O'Brien , hence the name "Fullerplast" (and all this time you though it was named after the city of Fullerton, the home of Fender). Fullerplast soaks into the wood and creates a seal that prevents following coats from soaking into the wood like a sponge. This means spraying the color coats is easier and the coats can be applied thinner (saving material, money and dry time). Even though alder is a "closed pore" wood, the first few coats of lacquer will soak in like a sponge without some type of sealer coat. Fullerplast dries in 15 minutes, and is paintable in one hour. It is also applied very thin.

Most experts agree the actual product "Fullerplast" (as made by Fuller O'Brien) actually started to be used around 1963 at Fender. Prior to that, Fender used other products as their sealer coat, but they did the same thing. The sealer allowed any color coat (be it sunburst or a custom color) to not soak into the wood. Since the sealer is essentially a clear inexpensive primer, less color would be needed (and color costs a lot more money than a cheap sealer).

Another misconception about Fullerplast is it's color. The sealers Fender used including Fullerplast was clear, not yellow. The yellow seen in the unpainted portions of a 1956 and later Alder body is actually a stain or dye applied under the sealer coat. This was used to simplify the sunbursting process. The Alder bodies are dipped in a vat of yellow stain/dye. Next the Alder body is sealed with a very thin coat of clear sealer (i.e. "Fullerplast"). After drying, the sunburst procedure is continued by spraying the translucent red (starting in 1958) and dark blackish-brown on the edges of the body, which completes the sunburst look. Finally a clear coat is sprayed over the entire body to seal the colors. By dipping the alder bodies in a yellow stain first, instead of spraying yellow lacquer, there is one less step of lacquer to mix, spray, and dry. *

By fall 1964, Fender changed the yellow making it more whitish and opaque to better hide flaws in the wood. This allowed Fender to use cheaper Alder with more cosmetic flaws. The more whitish yellow was then sprayed over the sealer coat, as were the red and brown of the Sunburst. That is why the red and yellow now looks much different on late 1964 and later Fenders. This new whitish-yellow bleeds through the translucent red making it more orangish. Note that even though Fender was now spraying the yellow after the Fullerplast, they still continued to stain or dye the bodies yellow before the sealer coat.

Early (1954 to mid-1956) Ash bodies in Sunburst were done differently. In this case, the yellow is not stained, but is sprayed like a Gibson-type Sunburst finish. That's why 1954 to mid-1956 Fender Ash body Strat sunburst's yellow looks "brighter" than later Alder yellow stained Sunburst finishes. This process created a lot more production work. Not only was the yellow sprayed, but the Ash body also had to be "pore filled" (sealed) before spraying the Sunburst. Since Ash is an "open-pore" wood (unlike Alder), not using a pore-filler sealer leaves a final finish with considerable "sink". This occurs when the finish dries and sinks into the open pores of the wood, leaving a finish with many dimples. To stop this, a pore filler consisting of fine sand mixed in a thick solution is brushed (or sprayed) on the bare wood. After some dry time, the excess pore filler can be scraped or wiped off leaving material in the pores of the wood, thus filling them. After some more dry time, the body can be sealed with lacquer and the color finish can be applied. This process was always used by Fender on Ash bodies from 1950 to the present.

Note there is an exception to the sprayed yellow sunburst rule in 1954. The first two months of Strat production (March-April 1954), there was NO yellow in the sunburst! The two-tone sunburst's center area was actually just a natural Ash wood color, making a "one-color" sunburst. The amber brown of the sunburst was sprayed around the edge of the body, leaving the natural Ash center as the "yellow" part of the two-tone sunburst. This changed by May 1954 to having the yellow center of the sunburst sprayed, giving a more vibrant sunburst finish.

Back to the yellow stain in 1956 and later. Since it was used for Alder Sunburst bodies, sometimes you don't see it on custom color finishes. But again, most times you do. Fender was a production shop that produced mostly Alder Sunburst finished bodies. Hence they just stained all Alder bodies with the yellow, allowing them greater production flexibility. Therefore most custom color bodies have a yellow stained body too. After all, you're not gonna see the yellow on a custom color body, so what's the difference? Fender just stained all Alder bodies yellow and figured out later which ones would be custom colors. Again, in most cases Fender also still used a sealer ("Fullerplast") in custom color finishes too. The custom color spraying process wasn't different from sunbursting till after the sealer step. This simplified the production process, and made Fender quick to react to market demands for Sunburst or custom colored bodies.

During 1963 and 1964, when guitar production was really high, bodies destine to be a custom color often didn't get the yellow stain, Fullerplast, primer, and clear coat procedure. After all, if the shop was really in a hurry it can just spray the color coat right over the Alder without any preparation paint (if need be). All they did was spray more color coats (especially if a clear coat wasn't used). This would cost more in materials (custom color paint was the most expensive paint Fender used), but it sure was quick. And often, they didn't even clear coat the color. This was truly a "rush" paint job.

Some colors were really prone to "short cutting" by the Fender factory. For example, Sonic Blue (and to a lesser extent, Olympic White) often do not have the yellow stain. In the case of Sonic Blue, this might have happened because the yellow stain was bleeding through to the blue. Other pastel colors were also shorted cutted, having no yellow stain, no Fullerplast, and/or no clear coat.

Metallic finishes didn't come out well using this "short cut" technique. Without a clear coat, metallic colors can oxidize due to the metal particles in the finish. And it's difficult to apply metallic coats very heavily. Hence most metallic finished bodies went through the whole production process, and got the yellow stain, Fullerblast, undercoated, and a clear coat.
    Fender was inconsistent in using undercoats on their custom color finishes. During the 1960's, if there is an undercoat it is usually a white primer undercoat. And most often you see this white primer undercoat on metallic finishes such as Lake Placid Blue or Burgundy Mist. The pastel colors like Dakota Red, Daphne Blue, Foam Green and the like don't often use an undercoat coat either. But then again, sometimes they do. In the Fender production shop, it all depends on where the custom color order fell in the production schedule. If Fender had the time to use undercoat, they did. If they didn't have the time or were backordered, they didn't bother with an undercoat (depending on the color).

    Undercoats were used on guitars for different reason than on automobiles. On cars, a primer undercoat is used to increase the adhesion of the color coat to the metal. It is also used to fill imperfections in the metal. And finally, special primer undercoats are used on metal for rust prevention. But on wood, none of the above undercoat properties are needed. Imperfections can easily be sanded out with sandpaper. Lacquer already adheres well to wood. And there is certainly no problem with rust.

    So why bother with an undercoat on guitars? The reason is purely financial. In today's prices, white nitrocellulose primer undercoat costs about $15 per gallon. Any of the Fender custom colors cost about $15 per pint, with reds costing $20 per pint. So if you use the white primer to cover the wood and make the body a consistent white color, you can use about half as much color paint for a uniform top color. This could save a considerable amount of money when painting thousands of guitars. Of course the financial disadvantage to using an undercoat is it takes more time. You have another step where you have to let the body dry. So when the production schedule allowed, Fender used an undercoat. When things were rushed, Fender didn't.

    Fender also used Sunburst (or other colors) as an undercoat to custom colors. Fender probably had an ample supply of reject Sunburst (and custom color) finished bodies that had some flaw (remember, all these guitars were painted by humans, not machines). It can be assumed that the majority of custom color finishes over other finishes are probably rejected bodies. Stripping an existing bad finish to apply another is just too much work. So shooting a new custom color over a bad finish would be killing two birds with one stone. You use up those bad Sunburst bodies without stripping, and charge 5% more for the new custom color to cover the cost of painting the same body twice (or more).

Undercoats in the 1950's were even more inconsistent. Again, sometimes they used them and sometimes they didn't. And the color of undercoat was inconsistent too. It ranged from off-white to Desert Sand (the DuoSonic/MusicMaster color) to even silver. Again, usually the pastel colors like Dakota Red and Black often didn't use any undercoat. And Sunburst is also seen under some 1950's custom colors. Probably just an easy way to use up those bad Sunburst bodies without stripping them.

Some general rules can be said about undercoats used with custom colors during the 1950s. During 1954 and some of 1955, Fender used a silver metallic undercoat beneath their custom colors. Then during 1955, that undercoat changed to a white (seemingly the same finish used on native blond Telecasters). Also Desert Sand was also sometimes used as an undercoat. It doesn't take much to imagine why Fender used white and Desert Sand for undercoat colors - heck the spray gun was already loaded with those colors (for Telecasters and Musicmasters/Duosonics), so just use those colors as the undercoat. Less production time in changing gun colors, less cost in stocking a unique primer.

The Nail Holes and the Paint Stick.

To the end of 1962, Fender would spray the front of a guitar body first as it laid on top of a turntable. The turntable was a "lazy susan" that allowed the body to be rotated without touching it. After spraying the front, they would flip the body over onto these nail legs, and spray the back and sides. When done, the body was moved to a drying area and left on its nail legs to dry. When the finish was dry, the nails were removed and the body was rubbed out and polished.
Starting at the end of 1962, Fender changed how they held the body when spraying it. Now they used a "stick" that was screwed in the neck pocket in the two bass-side neck pocket screw holes. The stick was a jig that suspended the body and allowed it to be rotated in the spray booth for easy spraying. Because the stick was now used, the area under the stick in the neck pocket does not have any paint. Hence you only see the yellow stain used for the first step in the Sunbursting process under the stick. But note, the nails were still used even after the stick. Now the nails' sole purpose was to suspend the body while drying. Note prior to the "stick", Fender neck pockets on Sunburst and custom colored bodies are entirely painted.

The "stick" in reality was not really a stick at all. Fender actually used inexpensive electrical pipe conduit as the "stick". One end of the pipe was beaten flat with a hammer, and attached to the body. The other end of the conduit was slide onto a small metal rack (also made of conduit) sitting on a table in the paint booth. This way the body could be painted "hands free", and rotated on the metal holding rod, or the whole rack could be turned, allowing easy painting of the face, back, and body sides. A picture of this can be seen in Tom Wheeler's American Guitars, page 54 (lower left corner), or in Tom Wheeler's 2004 book, Stratocaster Chronicles.

    Because the "lazy susan" paint method was used till the end of 1962, the neck pocket should be fully painted (because the nail legs where utilized during painting). Starting at the end of 1962, the neck pocket should have an area on the bass side void of any paint (but still stained yellow before painting) where the "stick" was attached during painting.

    It is very important to note that the nails were still used on Fender bodies, even after the implementation of the "stick". But the nail's sole job now was to provide a way to set the body down to dry, without anything touching the paint. Fender maintained this technique of using the nails until the end of 1964. At this point Fender implemented a "drying tree" to hold bodies as they dried. This approximately six foot high device could hold about 40 bodies while they dried, while using very little physical space. With the implementation of the drying tree, there was no longer a need for nails. There is a picture of the drying tree in A.R. Duchossoir's The Fender Telecaster, page 57 (upper right corner) and in Tom Wheeler's Stratocaster Chronicles book.

Another Fender misconception is the "big number stamp" seen on many custom color instruments. These large, 1/2" letters/numbers are under the pickguard (on a body), and also usually on the heel of a neck (between the 4 bolt holes), stamped deeply in the wood. I've seen this on instruments as early as 1959, and as late as 1966. These large, stamped numbers sometimes denote a guitar as having some factory repair work, usually refinishing. The reason Fender used this stamp was very simple. Due to the large number of bodies and necks being painted at any one time, they had no way of keeping track of a particular guitar unless they marked it. If it was back for a refinish (a service Fender offered till the late 1960's), they would serialize the body and/or neck with this large, deep stamp. This allowed the guitar to be stripped and sanded without losing it's ownership. Then it could be put into the paint production system to be painted as if it was a new guitar. After the paint process was done, the large deeply stamped numbers would allow Fender to "find" the refinished parts and re-assemble them, and ultimately return them to their owners.

    1966 and the "ES" Stamp.
    In 1966, Fender used the "ES" code a lot on their custom color instruments. At least for 1966, the ES code was used as some sort of default for custom colored instruments (be it Teles, or Strats or Jazz Basses). This two letters ("ES" for "Enter Special") seems to denote a special order, at least for 1966. Again this is has been seen lots of times on 1966 documented original custom color instruments. I have also seen the "ES" stamp on some 1966 sunburst instruments! (Perhaps these guitars were special show models, so extra care was taken in their finish.) The 1/2" tall 2-letter code were a factory color code, and are completely different than the 1/2" tall three-digit codes. The two-letter code appears to be CBS/Fender's way of specifying bodies to be painted a custom color for a special order once the body was in the spray booth. If a guitar has a two letter code on the body *only* (and not the neck), again this confirms the 2-letter code was an original factory color code (and does not indicate a factory refinish order). But then there is this question: why do only some 1965-1968 custom color Fenders have this two letter code and others do not? It may have to do with how many custom colored guitars were being painted at any point in time, and the 2-letter code was applied to avoid confusion. Or it was applied just for particular special orders (like a Fender NAMM show guitar or a special dealer/artist order).

According to interviews with George Fullerton, the idea of standardizing custom colors came about in 1958 (even though the first color chart wasn't available till 1960). Because of this, 1958 and 1959 colored Fenders are sometimes found in recognizable colors (such as Fiesta Red). But since nothing was "standard" till 1960, you really can only guess as to what color your 1950's custom color Fender really is. And if it's a 1957 or earlier Fender, there's really no telling what color your guitar really is.

Also note that Fender did not always use Dupont paints for their guitars! The did always use Dupont's color codes and paint chips, but the paint itself came from a variety of sources, and was not always the Dupont brand. This could be another reason why the same color can look different on two different Fender guitars.

What Did Fender Use after Lacquer in 1968?

Bob Gowan ran the Fender finish shop for Leo Fender and for CBS until he got sick of CBS and quit in the early 1970s. It was the decision of Bob and another gentlemen at Fender in 1968 to change to Aliphatic Urethane Coatings (aka "Poly") on the guitars. Fender immediately went from numerous coat application of clearcoat lacquer to *two* coats of Aliphatic Urethane. The decision was strictly a labor thing, but in the process, the decision essentially ruined Fender instruments!

Also it should be noted that 1968 and later Fenders are not entirely AUC (Aliphatic Urethane Coating). What Fender did was seal the body (as always), and then spray the sunburst colors with lacquer. Now instead of using lacquer as the clear coat over the sunburst, they just sprayed two coats of AUC. Also the face of the peghead stayed entirely lacquer, even though the rest of the neck was spray with AUC. This happened because the peghead "Fender" decal reacted with AUC. The problem occured because in 1968 Fender now clearcoated *over* the peghead decal for the first time.

In Conclusion...

If you are trying to determine if a pre-CBS Fender custom color guitar is original, you should keep the following points in mind. But be aware; all pre-CBS Fenders were made by humans, not machines. Therefore some guitars will still be original, even if they don't pass all the following specs. But if you're paying top dollar for a non-conformant example, I would think twice (especially if you are ever going to sell it again):

  • Check the nail holes. Are they visible and free of paint? Are there at least three nail holes? Be aware these nails were inserted by humans with a hammer. So the location of these holes can vary. And remember, 99.999% of all pre-CBS Fender solidbody guitars originally had nail holes! So if the nail holes can't be found, immediately suspect the originality of that instrument!
  • Check the neck pocket. If before 1963, it should be fully painted. If late 1962 or later, look for the "paint stick" shadow.
  • Check the solder joints. Are they original looking and not re-soldered? There is no other single thing that is more important than this! Only Jazzmasters and Jaguars can be taken apart without unsoldering them. Teles and Strat must be unsoldered to be re-painted. So if the solder joints are original on a Strat or Tele, its finish is probably original too!
  • Are there large 1/2" tall numbers stamped into the body and/or neck? If so, the guitar is a factory refinish, or had some other kind of factory work done.
  • Check for undercoats (primer and/or yellow stain). They may or may not be there, but they should be of the types previously mentioned for the era in question.
  • Don't be scared of a custom color over sunburst, or a custom color over another custom color, or both. It happened a lot!
  • Check the body wood. Unless the guitar is blond, or made in early 1956 or before, the body wood should be Alder.
  • Try and identify the original color. Does the color make sense for the period? For example, Shell pink would be very unlikely (but not impossible) on a 1965 Fender.
  • Check for a clear coat over the color. How has it effected the original color? Generally speaking, the more yellowed the clear coat, the less desirable the guitar. This is because most people want the original color, and not some greened-out version.
  • What is the film thickness of the finish? Fender used as little paint as possible, and hence as few coats as possible. Also with time nitrocellulose paint shrinks. This will give an extremely thin film thickness. If the paint is thick, then the finish is not original (even on original Fenders with multiple finishes, the film thickness is still very thin).

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