My Les Paul "Non-Standard" Studio

NOTE! This is by no means a "how-to" article - I am a complete rookie to refinishing...
I only post the story here in hopes that others may learn from my mistakes! For the REAL DEAL, I whole-heartedly recommend the Reranch website for the good info and right products.

Here’s my spring break ’06 project. I was cruising eBay, looking for a good project to make into a home for a pair of Gibson mini-humbuckers when I came across this “carcass.”

Apparently some amateur had stripped the finish off of what had been a white Gibson Les Paul Studio model – I say amateur, because they sanded off the serial number, rubbed off part of the “Les Paul” headstock logo, and STILL didn’t get all the white off the external surfaces (having attempted to strip a Gibson finish before with the Lennon’s Casino deal, I can understand why they gave up on the project).


I ASSUMED their attempt at refinishing this poor ol’ axe was prompted by some headstock issue, but after removing all the finish, I could find no evidence of a break or repair, other than some scarring and mucho weatherchecking on the face of the headstock. So, I have no clue what horrible things happened to the axe before it came to me, but it seems a solid piece now. I shall not attempt to administer to the face of the headstock, it has too much character. But as for the rest of the axe...


WEEK ONE: Rattle-can refinish, here we go! I completed the removal of all the old white finish off of the external surfaces – I’d never be able to clean out the control cavities and pup routes anyway, so I just decided to ignore them for now. I test-fitted all the spare parts I had, and only the TonePros bridge seemed to need a little coaxing, but a minute or two with a needle-nosed file and that was taken care of. This thing should go together like the model kits of my youth - I hope!

I always wanted a sunburst Les Paul Standard – it’s one of the few axes on my list that I have never owned – so I thought I’d take a shot at doing a sunburst on this guy. If it came out terrible, I could always just shoot this thing a solid color – like, flip-flop blue-green, which would be my second choice of finish for this project.

I had some cherry stain in the paint locker, and decided to start with that. It worked great on the mahogany, but was way-weak on the maple, which just wouldn't take the stain. So much for that idea...

After a few days of staining and sanding, I decided to hit up the Reranch website for some tinted lacquer. I wasn’t sure which way to go, so I got their "vintage amber" tint as well as their “burst amber" tint, and a can of clear. After trying both of the tints on a scrap piece of maple, I decided that the “vintage amber" was the better choice of the two for my desired finish.

Just for fun, before I shot the tinted coat, I took a tip from the Reranch website and sanded the stain off of the edge of the maple cap, giving it the "impression" of a bound top. It's a pretty thin cap left on this axe - as little as an eighth of an inch showing at the edge in places - I ASSUME due to being sanded to near-death by the previous owner, trying to get all the Gibson finish off. Still, I like the look of having a little "body-circling trim ring," if not actual binding. I masked off the mahogany and started shooting the tinted lacquer on the maple face.

After many coats, it became clear that I wasn’t really gonna get much of a sunburst/shaded effect out of this technique (dark staining the edge before spraying the light-tinted center), but thought what I WAS getting looked good enough enough to settle for - it's a sort of ice-tea/fireglow(?) look, only slightly shaded.

The lesson here is that I should have STOPPED using the tinted lacquer after one or two coats, once I got the right "yellow" on the unstained maple. Once I shot another couple of coats, it quickly went from "sun" to "orange"... dang! The mahogany on the neck and back just loved the cherry stain I had, so they will just be stained and clear-coated.

Once I thought I had enough coats of tinted lacquer on the top, I thought I'd check it out before I started clear-coating. There was a big run on the cutaway, and as I attempted to sand it out, I got the dreaded sand-through. RATS! So far, it seems to be an impossible chore to get the stain and tint to darken up enough to match the surrounding area, so this is a BIG screw-up.

If I am unable to address it, I have managed to convinced myself that it is in a spot where an enthusiastic strummer may have gone through the finish - this will be my condolance, my internal rationalization... But, as I will now be doing a lot of sanding and fiddling with it anyway, I have decided to attempt to sand some of the tinted coats off of the top, and see if I can't find some yellow under all that orange. Always looking for that silver lining, aren't I? So it goes...


WEEK TWO: OK, sanding, staining, sanding, staining and sanding. I finally decided that I wasn't really making progress trying to cover the sand-though, so it was time for more radical thinking. I decided to try to use the cherry stain as an opaque solid color, rather than a tinted traslucent coat - just paint over it. The cherry stain, laid on thick OVER the tint, just looked kind of a pukey brown. Hmmm... well, I'll be spraying more tint over it, anyway. It'll be fine.

I was able to sand the orange out of the middle of the 'burst, and as I reshot the "vintage amber" tint over the whole top, I realized that it was NOT the vintage amber that went orange on me - it was when I shot some of the "burst amber" OVER the vintage tint that the color went red. Hey! So, I decided to try the burst amber for a little extra color, just over the shaded edges. It warmed up the pukey brown of the opaque stain to a slightly redder shade. Hey, this is starting to look pretty good! In fact, I think it's just about as good as I can get it. Time for many clear-coats...

All this time, I've been working on the face with the axe just lying on its back, as per Reranch instructions - that made sense to me. Now that I'm done with the face, I masked off the headstock, hung the axe up on the back porch, and started clear-coating the back and neck - and hitting the face, too, for good measure. Overspray from the sides can create a lot of "marbles" on the face, so I might as well be getting some extra layers of paint on the face to help minimize that.


WEEK THREE: After a good start on it Saturday afternoon, lots more Sunday, and few coats each day after work, I've shot out the first can of clear to the bitter end.

Sunday morning, I shot a coat while it was a bit too cold out (working on the back porch), and got some nasty hazing. Luckily, this went away with the next coat, shot on after we had warmed up a bit. Whew!

Unlike what many people consider the correct way to so this, I typically do NOT sand between coats. Hey, it's lacquer - it's just gonna soften up with the next coat, anyway... But, I DO sand between CANS. So, after the first can is gone, basically I sand it just as you would with the first step of rubbing it out, wet sanding using 400 wet and dry sandpaper. I work it over until any unfilled grain shows as tiny dimples in the otherwise flat surface and/or I get a sand-through, or until I get a nice, smooth, flat finish.

It's looking pretty dang good to me now - I was able to sand the face all the way out to a flat finish with no problems, I bet I could just polish it up from here and call it quits. But the back still needs a few coats to fill in the grain, and I did get a couple of small sand-throughs on the neck, along the edges of the fingerboard. So, I'll be ordering another can of clear - I probably should have ordered two cans of clear to begin with, but I was experimenting. It'll take a week (idle time!) for that second can to get here, and then I'll go back to shooting a couple of coats a day after work for another week. Typically, I'll shoot almost that whole second can, just because I have the paint, but saving just enough (I hope!) to cover any sand-throughs I get when I rub it out for the final finish.

Here's a shot that shows my "pretend binding," which is actually just the side (and a small line around the edge of the top) of the maple cap, sans stain and tint.

In spite of the surface being solid enough to touch - and sand! - lacquer takes a long time to dry. So, in the mean time, I've left it hanging out on the back porch for, let's call it, "curing." I think it's safer to have it hanging than sitting on something that could leave an impression in the new finish.


WEEK FOUR: Shhhhh! Now, listen closely... Can you hear the paint drying? OK, so, not much activity this week.

I'll add this thought here, because there's not much going on for this week - I think of finishing as being done in three steps: surface prep, applying the paint, and rubbing it out. Of the three, rubbing it out is by far the most important step in achieving a nice finish, followed closely by surface prep. The actual "painting" step is just slapping the finish on... YMMV!

I also realized that I made a mistake that I hope will have only small consequences - I didn't mask over the threaded bushings for the bridge and tailpiece before I started shooting lacquer. I hope this won't create problems during final assembly.


WEEK FIVE: Mo' paint's here, so I've masked off the neck and headstock again and I'm spraying more clear coats. I had an epiphany - I've decided to "paint" the control cavity and pickup routs with conductive/shielding paint, like you might do to a Strat or Tele. I think that will finally cover up all the nasty old white finish that was not removed, and may actually have some small benefit.

I shot the second can of clear over the weekend, and now I think I'll just let it hang here until next weekend. I broke my own rule, in that, because I wanted to try the Stewart-MacDonald conductive/shielding paint, I bought the clear lacquer from them, too. Oh no, mixing brands of paint! We'll see if trying to save a few bucks comes back and bites me...


WEEK SIX: After just letting it all hang out for a week, I painted all the control cavities and pup routs with the StewMac conductive/shielding paint, and those areas look much better now. I'll let this stuff set up for a bit, and I guess I'll start rubbing the finish out tomorrow. My luck is holding, there doesn't seem to be any reaction to mixing the brands of lacquer at this time. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy...! Rounding third and heading for home!

Monday night, time for the big rub-out. Now, remember, this ain't a "how-to" article, it's just a "how I done it" report... I used one sheet of 400 wet-and-dry sandpaper, a quarter sheet of 800 and a quarter sheet of 2000. The 400 was cut into four pieces, and I have a cereal bowl half-full of water next to me. I get comfy on the couch, and turn on the ball game...

Thinking of the axe as if it had four sides - face, back, edges and neck - I start wet-sanding, one "side" at a time, for about five to ten minutes each. I continually dip the sandpaper in the water, making sure that I'm never dry sanding. First time around, I just want to knock down any runs I have, and take off the "marbles" that spray-painting leaves on the surface. I keep eyeballing the finish, and checking my progress. When I move to the next "side", I get a new piece of the 400. Once I have done all four sides, flattening the big chunks (relatively speaking!), I start over again, this time with the used 400 pieces. I repeat this process until the finish over entire axe has a completely smooth surface, with no runs, drips, or grain-dimples. If you get a major sand-through at this point, it's time for another can of paint...

Finally happy with the smooth, flat look I have achieved, I switched to the square of 800 sandpaper. Same as with the 400, I continually dip the sandpaper in the water bowl. I'll just use the one square for the whole axe in this step, I'm not really sanding anymore so much as polishing. Hit all four sides, inspect, hit 'em again, inspect, and on to the next's starting to really shine now, especially when it's wet.

Now I sand/polish it with the square of 2000 - again, ALWAYS keeping it wet - until I get a nice, shiny look to the finish, even when it's dry.

The last steps are the buffing stage: I buff the entire axe with some Turtlewax (red) Rubbing Compound, wipe clean with a dry cloth. I use a regular face cloth folded two or three times as the applicator and buffer, again, keeping it WET. I usually dip the cloth in the water, then the compound, then rub the axe, repeat...Once I think this coarser compound has done its job, I'll wipe it clean and start buffing it all over again with Turtlewax (white) Polishing Compound. When wiping it clean reveals a deep, mirror-like shine, I'm done. Total time, roughly two hours.

On final inspection, I did wind up with a couple of very small sand-throughs on the back, right on the edge between the back and side - this is where they most commonly occur for me. To treat these tiny flaws, I shoot a little of the paint into its cap, and then use a very small brush to apply just enough paint to seal the finish back up in these small areas. I don't usually rub these patches out, because they are sooooooo small - if they're so big you feel the need to rub them out, then you need to apply more paint before you get to the polishing compounds! I can now see that I should probably have used a sanding block on the back, as I have a little "ring" around the toggle switch cavity that I will have to touch up as well. Remember, I AM an amateur...


The final assembly: For electronics, this model would have come stock with the same setup as my ES-333, whose entire package was pulled for Seymour Duncan pups and four push/pulls – so, I was all set with pickups and pots. You may have read on the ES-333's page that I had added my own coil-shunt leads to the Gibson 490R and 498T pups, and so, I installed a single push/pull pot in the bridge tone position to coil-shunt both pups here. Instead of the stock-style two volume/two tone layout, I went with the (master) mid-cut mod (in the neck tone spot), and then wired the bridge tone as a master tone. The pickup volumes are in their normal spots. I used the amber knobs off of the ES-333, too.

I considered reversing the magnet in the neck pup so that they would play out of phase - the "Peter Green" mod. I know from past experience that UNLIKE Strats and Teles with their single master volume, you can get the back some of the stock "in phase" warmth on Gibson-style setups by rolling back ONE or the other pup's volumes, so... But, I decided, not yet.

For the rest of the hardware, I had previously purchased the TonePros locking tailpiece and bridge set for the ES-333. The tailpiece was great, but I got the wrong bridge - a Tune-O-Matic instead of an ABR-1 - so it didn't fit the posts correctly. It worked, but the tiny bit of slop from the different-sized posts bugged me... So, the ES gets its ABR-1 back and the TonePros locking Tune-O-Matic bridge will go here; the ES keeps the TonePros locking tailpiece and donates the stock stop-tailpiece to the LP. Everybody should be happy!

The bridge studs screwed in with a little coaxing (remember, I forgot to mask the bushings, d'oh!), but I had to run a toothpick along the threads of the stop tailpiece's bushings to clean them out. Five minutes later, and everything works fine.

Of course, Deaf-Eddie standard-issue Grover Rotomatics were used – I just happen to have an extra set in the parts bin. I did actually have to buy the cream-colored plastic trim parts (from Allparts), but just about everything else was already in hand.

So, adding in the Allparts bill and the paint bill to the eBay deal, I wound up under $500 out of pocket for this project - plus (of course) all the stuff I already had in the parts bin. What a fun project, and it made a very nice guitar!

Oct 2006: It finally got its "trial by fire" testing during our annual reunion jam (click HERE for PJ '06 pictures), and it passed with flying colors! Nice axe. It has since become my regular "rehearsal" axe, as it's easier to bag-and-drag than the ES-333, while having a very similar tonal palette (for the most part).


Dec 2007: One of my long-time friends is working with the guys at N-Tune, and sent me a couple of sample/demo models to test. I loaded one in this guy, and I must say, it's a neat idea and works pretty good.


March 2009: got the new "Artist" series N-Tune, where the ring goes under the pup selector toggle, but the p/p setup stays the same. It's easier to see up close (with my eyesight fading as I'm aging!), but I'm not sure if I like the fact that it's so much thicker than the original "Rhythm/Treble" tone ring at the toggle. I'll play with it up there for a while and see if I get used to it - it's just a visual thang, not an actual intrusion.

Since I had to pull the neck pup to feed the ribbon cable from the ring at the toggle down to the control cavity, I finally DID do the Peter Green magnet flip. I'm not completely thrilled with it so far, but perhaps it will grow on me. The key to getting THE Peter Green tone is NOT just the fact that the pups are out of phase, but that you can really tweak the tone, thin-to-warm, with careful manipulation of the two volumes. I KNOW there's a sweet spot in there somewhere - I must just keep dancing around it, so far... Perhaps it will reveal itself when the guitar is played at some "stage" volume, rather than just music room noodling.

April 2010: I just didn't bond with the Peter Green mod, so I flipped the neck pup's magnet back to play in phase with the bridge pup. Ahhhhhh... Now, there's the tone I like...

Oh, what about a home for the mini-humbuckers? Well, I also bought a cheapy LP clone, one of the Rondo Music “SX” Goldtop (set-neck) copies - the SX GG1 CLA - loaded with P90-style pups. It was a fairly easy swap loading up the minis in that axe – and no goofin’ wid da cosmetics, which was a BIG plus. That re-pupped axe has already been “stage tested,” and so far has a big, beaming, thumbs-up from Mychael. To me, the neck feels just like the big profile of the BB King Lucille that has become his axe-of-choice, so it's an easy and comfortable "second" axe for him to switch to.

Before I did the mini-for-P90 pup swap, I did try out the axe with the stock pups loaded. Impressive! The neck P90, in particular, really grabbed me with its BIG SRV Strat-type tone. I may have to come up with another home for these pups, which I thought would just be throw-aways…

Summer 2008: Well, the Gibson Mini Humbuckers have proven to be too microphonic for Mychael to use on stage (again, same as they were in the Epi Firebird), and so I swapped the stock "P90" pups back into the SX. Luckily, Mychael's still smilin', 'cuz they DO sound sweet...

It never ends!

Gibson Les Paul Studio at Musician's Friend

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