Now we come to the end of my travel Tele odyssey. In Part 2, I provided an overview of the the mods I envisioned for this guitar, including crucial changes to the electronics, bridge, and general look of the instrument. The electronics and hardware were fairly simple changes, given my past experience working on guitars. However, the cosmetic changes — including a vintage-tinted neck and body finish “relicing” — were new territory for me as an amateur luthier.
As I noted in the previous post, the stock neck on the Squier was quite pale, with basically no tint to the wood or finish. I was aiming for a vintage vibe with this guitar, so something had to be done to darken the neck. Aiming for simplicity and affordability, I initially attempted the “Kiwi shoe polish” method. I’d read quite a bit about this approach on the Telecaster forum. Basically, the idea is to rub a coating of Kiwi-brand brown shoe polish into the existing neck finish, providing a passable vintage tint. It’s not ideal, and certainly shouldn’t be the first choice for a nice guitar project — but for a lower end beater instrument like this one, it might do the trick.
While many on the forum will attest to the results, there are also a smaller number whose guitars won’t take the finish for whatever reason. Unfortunately, mine was one of those instruments. I applied several coats of polish, following the suggested procedure — apply a thin coat, let sit for 15-20 minutes, and then buff vigorously with a soft cloth. The procedure did darken the neck slightly, but not to the extent I had hoped. It also darkened the neck unevenly, suggesting inconsistency in the application of the original poly finish. I even tried gently sanding down a little bit of the finish before applying, but it didn’t make an appreciable difference.
It was clear that I would need to use a more conventional finishing method. A rattle-can nitrocellulose finish was unfortunately out of the question; I’m an urban apartment dweller with no space to set up a proper spray booth. However, I had read many good things about Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil, a linseed oil gunstock finish that can be rubbed on by hand. I ordered a small bottle from Amazon. To achieve the amber tint I was desiring, I also ordered a small bottle of ColorTone vintage amber dye from the fine folks at Stewart MacDonald.
Applying the Tru-Oil proved to be much easier than I expected. First, I sanded down the original Squier finish to bare wood. I then used #0000 steel wool to smooth out any minor imperfections in preparation for the finish. After wiping down the neck one last time with a soft cloth (to remove dust and steel wool particles), I applied a thin layer of Tru-Oil, rubbing it on with a soft cloth over about 5-6 inches of neck surface at a time. A few drops of the finish go a long way — there’s no need to buy the large bottles sold online, especially given the short shelf life. I allowed the first couple coats to dry for about 8 hours to provide a solid base. Subsequent coats were applied every two hours, for a total of 12. After every three to four coats, I went over the finish (gently) with the steel wool to minimize imperfections.
In terms of finish quality, I’m quite happy with the results. The Tru-Oil creates a relatively durable finish that easily competes with polyurethane or nitrocellulose. The only major problem I encountered was in using the StewMac amber tint. I mixed in a relatively small amount (as suggested) with about three ounces of Tru-Oil in a separate container. I progressively added additional drops to the solution with each coat, to make sure I didn’t overdo the amber and end up with an unnaturally yellow neck. However, despite adding what seemed like a significant amount of dye, I never quite achieved the amber coloration hoped for. The final product was by no means bad and it is not far off from some vintage instruments I’ve seen. That said, if I were to go back and try again, I might try tinting the wood directly before applying the Tru-Oil, which seems to be a more popular method. Another minor problem I ran into was in trying to remove all traces of the Squier decal, which came off (unintentionally) in the finish prep process — the decal had protected the wood underneath from UV exposure, leaving a faint outline I’m hoping will fade out over time.
“Relicing” the body — to achieve a worn, broken-in look — was a fun process, especially since it didn’t require too much precision. Again, I looked to the Tele forum for inspiration, as well as photography of 1950s Telecasters from The Blackguard by Nacho Banos. Most advice I read suggested the key to a natural looking relic is not to go too far overboard — if you take a belt sander to a guitar, it’s going to look like you took a belt sander to the guitar, rather than the more gradual wear and tear that vintage guitars accumulate over decades of use.
After removing the neck and hardware, the first step in the process was to remove the showroom gloss shine from the body finish. Fortunately, the Affinity Tele has a pretty thin poly finish that can be taken down with minimal effort. I used 220-320 grit sandpaper to remove the shine and further expose the alder body’s attractive grain pattern. In certain areas — particularly the edges of the body — I sanded through the finish entirely (visible in the picture below) to simulate the more intense wear you often see in these areas from constant rubbing by the forearm, or propping up the instrument against hard surfaces. I mentioned in Part 2 that the instrument came with some significant dings already (one is visible on the edge of the upper horn); these were further sanded down as needed to prevent further chipping and impart a more natural look.
I added some additional dings and imperfections along the edges by firmly knocking a set of house keys against the finish — supposedly a technique used by builders at the Fender Custom Shop. Again, I dinged conservatively. The only part in the relicing process where I went overboard was in simulating finger wear between the bridge and the control plate — I’m still trying to think of a creative way to make the wear pattern look a little less artificial.
The neck finish took about a week to cure before it felt solid enough for reassembly and play. In the end, everything came together nicely and I’m reasonably happy with the guitar, especially given this was my first attempt at many of the mods. Moreover, this Tele is probably going to become a platform for further experimentation in various areas including electronics, finish, and eventually fretwork. With only about $200 sunk into the project, I feel comfortable taking chances with the guitar that I wouldn’t with others in my collection — including letting it fly in the baggage hold of an airplane, allowing me to maintain my practice routine while on the road for work or vacation.