Vintage acoustic pick guards applied with solvent

Vintage acoustics such as Martin and Gibson used Acetone to apply their celluloid pick guards to bare wood and then finished over them. Over time, the celluloid shrinks and it is not uncommon for the shrinking pick guard to cause top cracks adjacent to the pick guards edges. The therapy is to remove the pick guard, do the repairs to the top and then re-install the the existing or a new pick guard.

I have done several of these and they typically are removed fairly easily using thin palette knives or the like. Some have just peeled right off, others have taken some careful prodding but I have never had too much trouble with this. I just did a late 50's Gibson B-25-12 pick guard removal and it was really stuck down. I am careful to pay attention to grain run out direction and run my palette knifes against and not into end grain. This particular top had no discernible change in reflection or chatoyance to determine grain direction. It turned out to be mostly parallel to the tops surface with areas where the grain followed an "S" or up and down, undulating direction. In other words, I had run out going both ways. I had a very difficult time with this one and pulled up an unhappy amount of wood. I have always done removal these cold and don't see any benefit to using heat. I was tempted to wick Acetone under the pick guard to dissolve it off but chickened out. It is a celluloid faux Tortoise which has become very difficult to find anything close these days, I really did not want to trash it.

Anyone have any methods to get stubborn pick guards like this off cleanly?

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Trying to use acetone is a Bad Idea. In a situation where the top grain undulates all you can do is work carefully from every angle. Some wood is going to come up; I have never found a trick to get these off cleanly. To avoid the situation, sometimes I leave the center of the guard attached, loosen the outer edges, and reglue after allowing the guard to "relax" for a day or so.

I agree - that's the deal - celluloid can be unpredictable stuff, and any addition of acetone, cellosolve or other celluloid solvent is certain to increase it's decomposition with time, not to mention the danger of creating a serious immediate mess.

Careful working underneath is what we count on, and sometimes big-ish flakes of spruce get pulled up, and obviously need to be glued back in place.   

Thanks for the comments.

I pretty much knew that there is no Silver bullet solution, as is true with most things dealing with instrument repair. I also talked myself out of doing anything rash (Acetone), which is a conversation I have with myself anytime I hit a frustration wall and am tempted to walk the line of processes that are risky. I was hoping though that there may be a subtle refinement or a cleverly shaped tool or any number of things which may not have occurred to me.

One lesson I can take away from this particular job, is the realization that careful observation of the grain character can at least be an indicator of how well pick guard removal may go for you on a particular instrument. This instrument, in addition to the undulating nature of the run-out, also had wide soft grain. I think this may be a worst case scenario for clean pick guard removal. A top with tight grain that will reflect light well to reveal grain direction and a consistent run out, will likely be the best scenario for clean removal. That doesn't help me get clean removal on the bad ones but would at least be a clue for what you may be getting you're self into.

I do have one trick to offer. The pick guards applied with Acetone are finished after they are applied. Gibson's especially, can have thick finish around the edges of the pick guard and that needs to be cut before the pick guard can be removed. A sharp X-Acto blade can still chip out old lacquer. The linked hot knife from Micro Mark does a great job with this part of the project. At least one thing went well.

Thankfully, an old pickguard will usually come off clean without much fuss, but sometimes they're stubborn.

When replacing an old pickguard that had been finished over, you're left with a pit that the new oversized pickguard needs to sit on top of, which in practice can look pretty bad. IME the best solution is to use a high solids sanding sealer to build up the surface to the level of the surrounding finish. My preference is Pratt & Lambert Alkyd sanding sealer. Builds fast and sands easily and quickly, and also prevents future damage that could result from adhering the pickguard directly to bare wood.

I coat the raw wood with a thick cut of shellac to build to the surrounding area.

The finish ridge left from pick guard removal will be leveled down some what. I'll mask around the pick guard foot print leaving a small margin of original finish exposed with the some what leveled finish ridge. I'll be spraying lacquer for the infill and will come back with an airbrush to spray Butyl Cellosolve around the edges where the old finish and new meet. This will melt the new lacquer into the old finish. I have to do a nice job with the finish edges, the pick guard will be slightly smaller now that it is removed. They will get leveled and buffed before applying the salvaged pick guard with double stick film.

Paul, a hair dryer on high makes the guard nice and flexy. I've never had any serious spruce loss on the old guards I've pulled from Martins and Gibsons.  ..I'll consider myself lucky.  Tom

Great discussion!  I'm in the middle of a restoration on a 50's Gibson 160 E and am contemplating doing this very thing.  There's a thread on that repair on Mandolin Cafe at this link if anyone is interested:

This guitar was horribly bellied behind the bridge and with the pick guard warped in a deep concave depression.  I have gently heated and clamped the pickguard and removed about 1/2 the warpage, but really need to take it off to flatten this section out properly.  My plan was to gently apply heat with a hair dryer before pulling it off.  The very outer edges are loose, but most of the pick guard is still strongly attached.  Assuming I can get it off, it sounds from an earlier post as if the pick guard may relax and go back to flat on it's own.  If not, could I gently apply heat and clamp it?  

One other oddity I noticed.  One of the top braces (ladder braced, 5 across the top) came completely loose and appears to have a radiuses bottom.  The bottom of the brace is quite curved, while the top of the brace remains flat.  This suggests to me that the top might have been radiuses on purpose.  Can anyone shed any light on this?  Thanks!


Based on previous posts, I went ahead and gently heated the pick guard and was able loosen and remove it with no damage by sliding a painter's pallet knife underneath the pick guard and slowly working it off.  I then lightly dampened the wood both inside and out and gently clamped the area flat overnight.  What a tremendous difference!  I also gently hated 2 boards and the pick guard itself and blamed them together with the pick guard between.  This morning both the pickguard and the guitar top were almost completely flat.  

Stu mac suggested the double adhesive stick sheets for re-application.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?  Of course, I'll seal the wood with shellac and I assume that I need to remove the old glue etc from the underside of the pick guard.

>> I also gently hated 2 boards and the pick guard itself and blamed them ...

I fear for this poor guitar.   :-)

Fear not... I wish it no harm!  My lap top battery was about to die and I didn't proof read y post.  I really don't hate it (though there have been a few moments where I thought about it!)  


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