New project. “Eric Clapton Tribute”, 24ct Gold Leafed Stratocaster

I was pleased with the “Black Strat” build earlier this year, and I’ve been looking for a new project in a similar vein. Since I studied gilding a few years back – this gold leafed Stratocaster presented itself as an obvious challenge. Along with the “Black Strat” the original, Eric Clapton comissioned, Gold Stratocaster realised one of the top 10 prices for guitars at auction. There’s a theme developing…

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I’ve been wondering for a while how suitable a guitar body might be for a gilding project. Personally, I don’t crave the extreme bling of a 24ct gold guitar, but then it seems Eric Clapton has form as far as that goes. I used to work with Graham Hine, the hugely talented, Delta Blues guitarist from Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts. He has an interesting tale concerning his original, gold-plated National, which Eric took a particular shine to…for a while, at least.

Back in 1996, when Fender were celebrating their 50th Anniversary, Clapton comissioned a custom-built, gold Stratocaster which he intended for display in a museum. The guitar later sold for $455,550 – becoming, at the time, one of the top 10 most valuable guitars in the world. Perhaps, after all, the 50th Anniversary of Fender is the real point of the exercise, as opposed to any Midas-like craze for precious metal on EC’s behalf. Either way – the gold plated Stratocaster is usually referred to as the “Eric Clapton Signature” model. Perhaps that;’s down to the Fender Custom Shop edition released in 2004 – a limited run of which were finished in 23ct gold leaf. Current asking price if you want to buy a model on the second hand market, for your collection? – Somewhere in the region of £10,000, and rising.

My own reason for wanting to gild a guitar body comes from a course I undertook a few years back, when I left full time work, and stopped “working for the man”, so to speak. At the time – gilding was a skill which complemented my picture framing projects, and wood finishing work, and it’s the sort of specialist skill which demainds a very particular kind of organisation and relaxation, in parallel with a precise adherance to a particular, step-by-step step-by-step process. If you think nitro finishing is complicated – then gilding will blow your mind. And the technique of manipulating, micron-thick foils of gold leaf with a brush made out of squirrel hair, is a zen-like, mystical achievement which can go horribly wrong in so many different ways. When it goes right – it’s so rewarding.

There are two main techniques involved with gilding. Two main ways to get the fine, gold leaf to stick to the substrate. The first is to use an oil-based glue or “size”. The size – similar to an oil-based varnish, like a sticky linseed oil, dries tacky, and you can stick the gold leaf onto the surface of the item being gilded once the glue has reached the perfect state of tackiness. A good deal of skill relies on being able to recognise the perfect moment, and in getting that assessment right all over the piece you are gilding, so that the result is consistent. This method is sometimes called, “Mordant gilding”, and is the method most commonly used on most of the examples of gilding you might see in architectural, ecclesiastical and general, outdoor useuse. Westminster in London is dripping with the stuff, as is the City of London. With oil gilding, the finish is pretty durable, and even waterproof, to some extent. The size can take ages to dry properly, however, and the end finish isn’t quite as fine as can be achieved when using water gilding. Because the gold isn’t usually applied in complete “sheets”, but rather, by overlapping bits of random shape – and because the end result isn’t usually burnished to make the edges of each piece invisible – the end result usually looks a little patchy. That said – the surface does look a bit more “interesting” and, perhaps, less “fake”. (One characteristic of well gilded pieces, is often just how un-like greal gold they look. Most people, when asked, “which looks like real gold, which like fake leaf?”, will often pick the fake leaf, stating that the real gold, “just looks so fake!”).

Water gilding uses a different method. Wheras oil size can be applied to pretty much any substrate, water gilding uses a finely prepared gesso base to provide a perfect base for the leaf to sit on. The gesso is water soluble, and can also be gently reshaped using fine grit paper and the gentle heat produced by friction. The subsrtate can therefore be extremely finely finished – the gesso being so fine that there is no visible grain to the texture. Gold leaf applied direct to super smooth gesso can be subsequently burnished and polished to a shine which looks liquid, and which glints with the full reflection and “fire” of solid gold. The impression of fully burnished gold leaf is that of a solid gold bar, and whilst water gilding too, like oil-gilding, risks looking “too fake”, the impression of solid gold given by a water-gilded surface is superior.

With water gilding, the leaf is eventually applied to the prepared gesso substrate over a final coat of fine clay, mixed with rabbit-skin glue, (a “bole”). This bole makes the surface super-smooth, and is also coloured to give the gold a complementary, “undercoat”, which further boosts the reflective “colour” and “fire” of the gold. The gold is stuck to the super-fine clay surface with a size made from little more than pure water, a tiny amount of rabbit-skin glue, and a little gelatine. (My “secret” recipe also includes a couple of drops of good old English gin – but only to break the water’s surface tension, you understand). The size dries quickly and bonds with the bole and gesso beneath – both of which are made with water soluble, rabbit-skin glue. The whole system is built up layer by painstaking layer, so that each subsequent layer bonds fully with the previous. In this way, the approach is very similar to the build-up of a nitro cellulose paint, coat upon coat. Furthermore, the glue that is used is particularly crystalline, and dries very hard – almost glass-like. I’ve long had the thought that it’d be perfect to use with tonewoods, and on guitars in particular.

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The Fender Custom Shop examples look to me to be oil-gilded. Probably over a gold paint coloured coat, or gold varnish. The finsh is a little “patchy” – consistent with oil-gilding, as opposed to the super smooth, burnished look of water gilding, which has a characteristic more akin to Tutankhamun’s mask than the matter, flatter, slightly patchy result of oil-gilding. I’m minded to try and do the best oil-gilded job I can, but may well try and research more suitable sizes – either oil based, or a more modern, acrylic based alternative.

The rest of the Fender Custom Shop example is reasonably straightforward, and it should be possible to put together a reasonably priced, all-fender specification which closely reproduces the main features of the Clapton signature series. Most of the hardware appears to be still in production in some form or another, although Fender do not produce bare wood bodies any more. Since I don’t really want to strip and then refinish an original Fender body – I may as well try and find the best two-piece alder body I can. Guitarbuild.co.uk should be able to produce a perfect copy of a the necessary 1950’s spec body. I’ll gild the body either using oil or water – depending on how I can best prepare the wood, and then finish it with all-Fender components, (in gold), and aim to get the best bang for my buck, whilst incorporating as many authentic Fender components as I can. As I say – I’m not really a lover of  ostentatious bling – especially on guitars. so there’s every possibility that this project will be sold-on afterwards. I therefore want to keep the quality as high as possible, without breaking the bank. (I might eventually be more interested in a white gold version for myself – so perhaps there’s a variant already presenting itself for consideration as a later project.)

The Fender Custom Shop examples also incorporate active Lace Sensor pickups with a special, mid-boosting circuit built into the back of the guitar. The EC original spec calls for a “blocked”, vintage style, bridge like I originally installed on my own “Ash Strat” project. If I’m right – the circuit can fit into the vacant spring cavity – without any further need to rout a new cavity for the circuit board and battery. It’ll be an interesting addition to my knowledge to get to grips with an active pickup circuit.

So for now – it’s the usual process drawing up a shopping list, and tracking down the components piece by piece – but first on the list will be the body and neck. I’ll need to make sure they mate together well, before I take the body and begin the long, step-by-step process of preparation and gilding.

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