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Gibson Gold Top


"Well, I walked into a honky-tonk down in New Orleans. Up above the bar hung a guitar like none I'd ever seen.

The neck was set with diamonds and the strings they were rusty and old but like kings of sound they wound around six keys of solid gold...."

spacing.......spacingspacing........spacingFrom Bill Anderson's "The Gold Guitar"

For pure rock and roll brashness, nothing says "Stand Back and Listen" like the flash of a Gibson Gold Top Les Paul guitar. In 1952 Gibson introduced the first Les Paul with an all gold option. Oddly, the "Les Paul" logo wasn't added until 1953. In that year Gibson realized they could accomplish the same flash (and at considerably less expense) with a naturally colored mahogany neck, back and sides with only the top in gold. The finish appears rich gold when viewed straight on but in the arch areas or when viewed from an angle the gold flashes slightly green in color. The formula for this finish continued through the fifties but appears to have changed sometime in the late sixties to a more homogeneous gold color without the iridescent flashes. The newer gold tops I believe have reverted back to the older formula. I have also been told by Gibson that the gold top reissues use a real gold powder (probably gold flashed mica) to achieve the iridescent quality. Nice, but the gold mica will not oxidize when exposed to the air in deep scratches or areas of wear. This is probably a plus to the warranty department but perhaps not to those who are looking for the "real deal" of a fifties gold top.

After considerable research I discovered the supplier of the original bronze powder used by Gibson for the fifties style gold top look. (I even discovered the original part number used by Gibson to order the bronze powder but was asked by the supplier not to use the Gibson number and was given the manufacturers factory order number to use).

To prove the finish a customer allowed me to test the powder on his beloved 1968 Gold Top. I compared the finished instrument with an original '52 and original '57. The only difference my eye could see is that the fifties versions had picked up slightly more greening from the aging of the nitrocellulose lacquer. The customers guitar was clear coated with nitrocellulose and should also age in the same manner as the originals. Below is the application process I have found best for applying the Gold top finish.

The guitar was first stripped and sanded smooth starting with #180 with the final sanding level at #320 grade dry paper. Before starting on the top the neck and back and sides of the body were filled and prepared for the clear coat that would eventually be applied over the entire instrument.

The mahogany was first sprayed with two coats of clear lacquer. It was then left to dry overnight. With the lacquer sealer coats dry and the grain revealed an oil based  mahogany grain filler was wiped onto the mahogany. After dying for about twenty minutes the excess was wiped off with mineral spirits. One more application of filler was applied and again the excess removed. The reasoning behind the filling process is the clear lacquer will act as a barrier to prevent the dye in the grain filler from staining the wood but still allow the grain to be both filled and enhanced by the colored filler. Allowing the sealer coats to dry overnight gives the lacquer enough time to dry into the grain and leave the grain open enough to take the filler. Removing the excess with mineral spirits (which will not reduce with lacquer) leaves the barrier coats intact. After again drying overnight remove any filler in the field of the wood you may have missed (mineral spirits once again) let dry an hour or so and shoot two coats of clear to seal the filler in.

On maple I do not usually fill the grain but on Gold Tops because of the extreme tendency of the finish to reveal flaws I fill the maple top with a natural color oil based filler. After filling the grain paint on ( a high solid content nitrocellulose grain filler such as Parks Sand and Sealer. will help to fill any dings or scratches too deep to sand out. Brush on two coats (the Sand and Sealer is too thick to spray) let dry (about an hour in dry weather). Sand the sealer flat (no shiny spots. Shiny spots are pits in the filler) with #180 followed by #220 dry sand paper. Paint on two more coats for a total of four and let dry over night. Sand flat again with #220. Be sure that the joints of the three piece body do not show as low spots in the filled finish.

A GoldTop finish can be achieved without the following step but more powder may be required. To hide any grain that may possibly show through the top spray two coats of a white sealer such as B.I.N.s white pigmented varnish. Kilnz sealer is also acceptable and both are available in aerosol cans at most hardware and home supply stores. When dry lightly sand the white coat flat with #320 dry sand paper.

To make the clean up of the bindings easier after the gold has been applied, I have found it is advisable to first tape the bindings with 1/8th inch fine line tape and after applying the white pigment, remove the tape and clean any stray  pigment off the bindings.  Use lacquer thinner on a fine cotton rag (T-shirt cotton works great). Wrap the rag around your index finger and clean the bindings using the tip of your fingernail. Retape the bindings before continuing. Also using paper tape mask, with the exception of the top, the remaining areas of the body and neck. Protecting these areas now  from the gold powder will make clean up a lot easier.

A GoldTop Using GoldTop Powder....

[ This section was written before the GoldTop aerosol sprays were developed. I now use The Guitar ReRanch GoldTop in Aerosol cans exclusively. The aerosol nozzles spray a finer mist in a higher volume than any of the nozzles I have tried with my spray guns (HVLP guns included). Also, the gold powder is very difficult to clean from spray gun cavities. The aerosols eliminate the clean up problem. With that said, I will leave the following section in the instructions for those among you who want to try to spray the powder with your own equipment. ]

The bronze powder was then mixed into the normal clear coat solution of nitrocellulose lacquer and reducer in a 1:1 ratio. If your gun will not "mist" a 1:1 solution a weaker lacquer blend will work just as well. In fact I tried straight reducer and powder and the bronze powder applied nicely but without some lacquer the powder was not "glued down" and had a tendency to flow with clear coat applications. The powder goes a long way. 1/2 teaspoon in 1/2 cup of lacquer/reducer solution should be enough to do a top.

A word about the powders quirks should be mentioned. If the powder is applied too wet  (wet enough to cause runs) it may not only run but "puddle" with edges of the run or puddle appearing slightly different in reflectivity and, likewise, color. Also, if the spray is applied at an acutely different angle from the surrounding areas light will reflect differently from that area when compared to the reflection from the surrounding areas. I'm not sure but my guess is that the small bronze flacks are standing in a slightly different orientation than its neighbors and are reflecting at a different angle. For the same reason, perhaps, scratches will be amplified as the flakes follow the slightly different contour of the scratch. The plus in all of this is that the bronze powder will opaque in one or two passes and fill in three or four. In short if you see an area that is reflecting differently, simply spray over it.

Also, the powder does not dissolve into the lacquer solution but is suspended in it. Therefore, it is important to shake the solution well before and during the spraying process.

After experimenting I found that the best way to spray the powder is as follows. Lay the guitar flat at a comfortable work height. Hold the gun further away from the work than you normally would for spraying dye or paint. For me about 2 to 2.5 feet seemed best. The idea is rather than forcing the solution onto the surface, allow the solution to fall on to the surface. Mist it onto the surface. In a sense you are making over spray work for you.

After spraying four or five gold color coats (three would have probably been enough) the guitar was left to dry overnight. The only precaution for clear coating is to not let the first couple of coats go on wet enough to flow the powder coats and caused discoloration. (If you do flow the color simply spray another coat). Once the first coats were dry the clear coating continued with additional coats of McFadden nitrocellulose lacquer and final finished as described in ReRanch 101

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