This really is my favorite build to date. I was originally commissioned to find and purchase a solid used Reissue/VOS Les Paul Standard for Brian. Inventory in his neighborhood is low and pricing is down right ridiculous. So I had added an item to my daily Craigslist crawl. A couple weeks go by and Brian asks, “Could we build a great Les Paul form a readily available model and get the same tone and character as the VOS?” Now you’re talking. Of course we pour over the specs of vintage versus modern Les Pauls and make a checklist of “must have” features:
Aged nickel hardware
Non Wire ABR-1 Bridge
Bareknuckles are a must (Riff Raff and Mule)
Coil Splitting (master splitter via push pull)
Phase mod (Polarity reverse switching, via push pull)
50’s Tone circuit and wire harness (Shielded cloth wire
Solid body (no weight relief or chambering)
Creme body binding
Reflector top hats with pointers
Real Goldtop Finish
Oh I can be done. So Brian pulls the trigger on very good deal on a 91′ Studio. Cherry red, gold hardware, solid, non chambered body, ebony fretboard. The guitar was originally a Miller genuine draft promo guitar. Given away in some smelly bar raffle. I’m sure, as fate usually dictates; won by someone who had never touched a guitar. The early 90’s studios are great sounding and playing Les Pauls. (See also Ryan Canestro’s 91 studio workhorse) Brian got to FedEx post haste and the cherry beast arrived at my door 3 days later.
Before tear down a thorough inspection finds some things good and some not so good. It was a contest guitar and had zero signs of playing wear. Not a mark on the top of the guitar. The pickguard, albeit embossed with a gold foil MGD logo has nare a scratch. The neck is a bit chunkier than my 83′ shred Paul and just a wee slimmer than a real 1960. Very nice in my hands. Flip over to the back and a very fine hairline smile can be seen in telltale spot. I wondered why it had .008’s on it. Oh well. It’s not really your Les Paul until you break the headstock! Looks like it’s holding. A quick scrape down and we’ll shoot some cherry lacquer during the paint job and Bob’s yer uncle! (Yeah right. you know there’s a story) More on that later.
With the hardware removed it was time to remove the paint. I use cabinet scrapers here. No heat guns on the Paul’s. One, lacquer doesn’t come off as clean with heat as poly. Two, there is a risk of heating up glue that holds on the top. In the case of a bound Les Paul binding will burst into flames. A scraper when used properly is the best way to get paint off fast without a fire. Why not strip with sand paper or chemical stripper? Sanding is much too easy to ruin the lines of the body. Chemical strippers penetrate into the wood. I don’t use them because I have heard the difference between dry old wood and wet green wood. Why would anyone intentionally introduce oils and moisture to aging wood?
After stripping the top, I set out to bind a guitar with the neck mounted and paint already on the sides! Yeah, that is tedious. I used StewMac’s precision Dremel base to go around 90% of the top. I then went to a set of mini chisels to come up to the neck joint. It was especially fun at the treble side in the cutout. It was like installing a scaled down deadbolt in a doll house. Still, I managed to have almost no tear out (use a fresh bit and sharp chisels!) The finish on the sides was barely disturbed. (Binding done right fits pretty darn tight.) There wasn’t a gap to fill. The huge challenge in a painted binding install was keeping that batsh*t crazy binding glue off of everything. On an unfinished body you just have a rag soaked in acetone handy. With paint in the picture you have to move neatly and quickly without solvents. No problem, I can defuse a bomb while frosting a cake! Scraped it down flush on the top and sides. I used razor blades and painters tape. First I taped off all but the portion of the blade I needed to scrape with. Then, I taped just shy of the binding border on the sides. I scraped until the binding was 99.99% flush with the painted sides. I shot cherry tinted nitro overlapping the seam. The idea was to build up a significant number of coats and then scrape/sand flush. It took some time but it happened. The cake was frosted and no one died! Ready to prep the top.
Before prepping the top I installed the ABR1. Beginning with a couple of lovingly crafted top grain maple dowels (cut by Brian himself and shipped in with the guitar BTW) Glued in with Titebond 1. I aligned the bridge with the double E trick and drilled with a 3/32″ bit to depth. I then finish by drilling about half an inch with a 1/8″ bit. The posts will make the threads on their own. The last 1/2 or so inch drilled undersized makes the posts Godzilla tight. With the posts drilled I drop filled the low spots around the dowels with StewMac 2 super glue. I then used several different size and shape sanding blocks wrapped in high density foam to facilitate strip sanding around the belly of the top. I only use the top quality 3M Fre-cut sandpaper StewMac sells. This open coat is highly superior to any commercially available Home Improvement store crap. It cuts fast and uniform without loading up or the gouging caused by inconsistent grain particles. There were a few spots where 150 was necessary most were 320 worthy. I had to work my way up to 400. Then the sealer began. 400 grit down to 600 grit. White primer 400 to 600 grit again. Then expose the binding with a taped razor blade. Overshot with gold and back cut the binding again. Clear coats. You’ll see in the pics how factory natural the binding looks. The result of blindingly fastidious attention to detail…and PATIENCE! A little curing. a little polishing, a little microscopic touch up here or there and the assembly begins.
Do you remember that quick cosmetic job I had mentioned? The one to hide the headstock repair? 2 times including adding dowels to the break the second time and the crack reappears still. Much less noticeable than before and in no danger of failing we learn to embrace the smile! This is why it is of the utmost importance to consult a pro when a headstock breaks! I’m 99.9% sure they used a water proof glue. Gorilla, Titebond 2, anything with polymers will flex under load and cause the joint to endlessly shift. It is still possible to affect a permanent fix in this case that would yield a more perfect visual result. We could do a scarf joint and a new peghead. (Costly!) I’d rather do that as a last resort. I’m here if it fails. Brain and I can cross that bridge if we come to it!
So the wiring was a kick. All vintage vibe fantasy with modern tricks up the wazoo! Mule and Riff Raff get warr’d up 50’s tone circuits .022/400 orange drops (5%) all Bourns 500k’s 2 of which push/pull. One to affect master coil split. The second to knock the neck out of phase in middle position for Peter Green howl. The end result is a goldtop I had a real hard time putting into it’s flight case and shipping to Virginia. Here’s a link to the Foundry Facebook where I posted a cell phone video. Even on my android this is a guitar you’re dying to play!