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JimR56

Decomposing pickguards

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I've been mentioning this around here for years, and because there are still a lot of folks who seem to be unaware of how serious it can get, I like to keep bringing it up occasionally. I just came across this 1939 ES-150 on ebay, and the listing includes several photos showing the damage done by its decomposing pickguard. Look at the upper frets, the pickup, the pickup adjustment screws, the bridge adjustment wheels, the tailpiece, the finish, and even the case lid...

 

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-1939-Gibson-ES-150-Charlie-Christian-Guitar-Electric-Guitar-/161173377557

 

If you ever see a tortoise guard on an old guitar begin to crack and crystalize, remove it asap!

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That is good advice and evidence, Jim. Much of that damage could have been avoided by the early removal. The off-gassing of those plastics is very caustic stuff. Repro pickguards can be made for a reasonable cost.....cheap insurance [thumbup]

Rod

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Yep. I pulled the original pickguard off my 1947 L-7, as it was starting to damage the finish next to the area where it was starting to decompose. Put it in a plastic bag separate from all my other spares. It will go to the next owner (along with the removed original tuners) so that guitar's history stays intact, but it should never go back on the guitar.

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I've been mentioning this around here for years, and because there are still a lot of folks who seem to be unaware of how serious it can get, I like to keep bringing it up occasionally. I just came across this 1939 ES-150 on ebay, and the listing includes several photos showing the damage done by its decomposing pickguard. Look at the upper frets, the pickup, the pickup adjustment screws, the bridge adjustment wheels, the tailpiece, the finish, and even the case lid...

 

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-1939-Gibson-ES-150-Charlie-Christian-Guitar-Electric-Guitar-/161173377557

 

If you ever see a tortoise guard on an old guitar begin to crack and crystalize, remove it asap!

 

What would cause said decomposition?

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What would cause said decomposition?

Basically, it's the chemicals in the plastic breaking down over time (many years). Some old plastics are like a ticking "time bomb" in that sense. Time is the key factor. I've read descriptions that provide more scholarly details about the chemistry of it, but I never memorized them. At any rate, I've owned two guitars where this occurred, so I've seen it first-hand.

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The real trick is to not leave it shut up in the case or a plastic bag. this just makes things worse. those fumes can't go anywhere and eat everything. let it air out.

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The real trick is to not leave it shut up in the case or a plastic bag. this just makes things worse. those fumes can't go anywhere and eat everything. let it air out.

I'm not sure I understand your comment (the case should be aired out, yes.) Once the cracking and off-gassing begins, the pickguard needs to be removed from the guitar. It should never go back into the case, in a plastic bag or not. Once it's removed, the case should be vacuumed and aired out as much as possible (any remaining gas or material could continue to damage the case lining).

 

After that, I think the question of what to do with it is somewhat subjective. To me, the only thing that may be worth saving is the binding, if someone wants to re-use that on a newly built guard. Some bindings are more attractive and special than others, so it's a consideration. The rest of the guard (the portion that's decomposing) is basically just decomposing hazardous waste. I don't see the point of saving it for "history". It's going to continue to degrade, continue to emit gas, and I don't know why any future owner would want or need to keep that part. If you do wish to save it for some reason (a science experiment? [wink] ), it should probably be stored somewhere other than inside your house or apartment. I guess a plastic bag makes sense, but long term, I don't know if it should be sealed or not. There have been people who have claimed that these pickguards can spontaneously combust, by the way. Don't know if that's truth or myth.

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Was that real or was it a joke? I mean, did the pickguard burst into flame spontaneously?

 

Yeah, for sure! If it's on the Internet its true!

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I'm not sure I understand your comment (the case should be aired out, yes.) Once the cracking and off-gassing begins, the pickguard needs to be removed from the guitar. It should never go back into the case, in a plastic bag or not. Once it's removed, the case should be vacuumed and aired out as much as possible (any remaining gas or material could continue to damage the case lining).

 

 

 

 

 

What I meant was that keeping them shut up actually makes them degrade faster. Once they start to gas off, the gas itself actually speeds up the process. It's sort of ironic that keeping a guitar in a good case for protection, can actually make it hurt itself. Many of these guitars that never had cases or are left on stands their entire lives still have the original guards intact. (I own one myself). The ones that shrink tend to be the ones that were kept in the case where the gasses stayed trapped and they ate themselves. just ironic.

 

That being said, if your guard is in bad shape, then take it off the guitar, and don't keep it in the case. it will make things worse. if you must keep the guard, then be warned that shutting it up in a ziplock bag will make things worse.

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Thanks modoc, that's something that I hadn't thought about in a long time. The last time I had a guard decompose, I discovered it after the guitar had been in its case for a longer-than-usual period. I can't remember how long I had gone without playing it, but it did make me think about the possibility that it was a bad idea not to have opened the case for so long. I currently own two guitars with tortoise style guards, so I'm going to try to make sure I don't repeat the same mistake with those.

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Yes. Super important to get rid of those old decomposing pickguards.

i have an 80s era es-355 unplayed in the case for sometime and the pickguard completely corroded a number of the metal components including, pickup cover, toggle switch, a number of the lower frets...... all the metal in close proximity. i am in the process of restoring the guitar.

however, if i had it to do over i would replace the pickguard immediately before any damage could occur.......

FYI my experience is that once the corrosion starts it will continue even with the guitar out of the case.

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Was that real or was it a joke? I mean, did the pickguard burst into flame spontaneously?

Not completely spontaneously, but an invisible spark from discharging an everyday static charge may do.

 

These older pickguards are made from celluloid which is a nitrocellulose-camphor compound. There always have to be stabilizers preventing flammability, but they will evaporate over the years. Moreover the nitrocellulose, correctly cellulose nitrate, made from around 1880 to the mid 1950 years has less defined nitrate substitution grades than that made in the younger past. Higher substitution grades tend to combust, hence the names flash paper, flash cotton, guncotton, or flash string.

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I guess a plastic bag makes sense, but long term, I don't know if it should be sealed or not. There have been people who have claimed that these pickguards can spontaneously combust, by the way. Don't know if that's truth or myth.

 

 

Try putting a propane torch to one of these, and see what happens. The base chemical component for those guards is nitrocellulose(as it is for the lacquer) mixed with pasticizers. It is highly flammable.

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I am doing a top-crack repair on a '73 J55. It is an odd Norlin duck. Square- shouldered, arched-back, natural-top, with the celluloid-tortoise binding (front and back)(single-ply) that is in advancing stages of decomposition. Sad state of affairs, and will need to be addressed 'sooner than later'.....Nice guitar, otherwise!

Rod

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Try putting a propane torch to one of these, and see what happens. The base chemical component for those guards is nitrocellulose(as it is for the lacquer) mixed with pasticizers. It is highly flammable.

I know. My "truth or myth" comment referred to spontaneous combustion.

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