New Project. Fender “Classic ’50’s” Stratocaster (2003 MIM).

It doesn’t always go according to any particular plan. Sometimes, a new project just presents itself. With my recent gold leafed Strat throwing up as many questions as it has answers, I recently bought a second hand Stratocaster body, with the intention of using it as an, ultimately disposable, low-risk candidate for some further experiments in gilding. But perhaps it’s just too good for that…

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I’ve been reasonably pleased with the gold leaf job on my Eric Clapton tribute Stratocaster, and had pushed it along just about as far as I could. But the longer it lays there, and the more I get to take it all in – there’s something about the finish which just doesn’t seem quite right. It’s nothing to do with how the guitar plays – it’s not that advanced just yet. It’s more about my perception of the actual finish. The gold leaf job itself turned out well. I think it’s the nature of the protective coat which I don’t quite get on with. While the universal lacquer is optically clear, and doesn’t take away too much of the “fire” or detail – the final coat dries to a satin kind of finish – and that just seems to homogenise the overall sheen. Ultimately – it’s a tactile thing. The acrylic coat is thin and hard – but it doesn’t have the feel of a thin nitro coat. It doesn’t seem to have the bullet-proof, yet liquid feel of a heavy polyester coat either. I’m left wondering:- “Are there other options? – or is that just the problem with gold?” “Perhaps that’s why you don’t see many 24ct gold guitars around?”

Being the sort of bloke who will sit and mull these ideas around – I’m bound to want to try out other options and approaches. Up until now, I had intended to get hold of another couple of alder bodies from guitarbuild, and to then prep them up and have a go at other techniques. I have a quite a few sheets of fake gold leaf I need to find a use for, and I could certainly do with trying out a shellac protective finish. Even, maybe, a gloss, nitro clearcoat.

The fake gold leaf is madly inexpensive, however the process of buying in two new bodies and then prepping them up will soon see costs rise. Since I keep playing with the idea of potentially selling on some of my “experiments”, and considering their ultimate value as, “non-Fender items” in the partscaster market – I eventually faced a simple question of economics:- “Wouldn’t it be cheaper in the long run to get hold of an old, Fender body and then upcycle it?”

The thing is – genuine Fender MIM, (Made in Mexico), Strat bodies are usually available on the secondhand market at pretty reasonable cost. Since I plan to refinish and apply  gold leaf the body, any small marks and dints are inconsequential, just so long as they’re fillable. What’s more – a pre-finished gloss coat would save literally weeks of preparation. Imagine if I could find a red example with minimum damage? – it would be virtually the ideal starting point for some more gilding experiments.

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One afternoon – a prospective candiate popped up. A loaded Stratocaster body, (basically everything but the neck). 2003(ish?) Pretty good looking condition. No real issues, and a seller who was upfront about what he had, (I think he’d bought the Strat and nabbed the neck for his own project, leaving the body and hardware looking for a home). He was straightforward and pretty detailed about the few flaws on the body, and provided plenty of details and images about the (few) defects. Nothing too daunting, and certainly a lot less cosmetic wear and tear than you might expect from a near 20 year old guitar. I’ve repaired much worse before.

The price seemed right too. Maybe I paid top dollar for it? – but by the time I added up a new body, the cost of hours of my own time prepping it, and adding in the extra bits of hardware I might be able to save on – I’d already spent more. Plus – this was a nice, rich red. No need to fuss about building up a base coat for gilding. And if it’s a real Fender body, I should be able to build on it with some confidence. I’d hope that my gilding job might be good enough to provide a really unique, customised Fender body. Who knows? – I might do a good enough job to actually add to the value.

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Deal done, and the guitar arrived two days later. Well packed – which is always nice to see. The seller had said he thought the body came from a 50’s style Stratocaster – but he hadn’t looked into it too much, other than he thought it was a Mexican made, 2003 / 2004 model. 2004 would mean production during Fender’s 50th Anniversary year. That might be interesting. That red too – it isn’t the usual “fire engine” type red I’d normally think of on a Stratocaster. It’s a bit like candy apple red – but then again…

Looks like I’ll have to do a bit of extra detective work.

So. Let’s strip the thing down, and see what we’ve got.

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The first thing I notice is the neck stamp. A six figure number – 054166, That’s not a date stamp – so probably a production or colour code. If it’s a Fender production code, it should be a bit like a telephone number. Three digits, Four digits, three digits. Then again – if it’s a Mexico production number – pretty much anything could happen.

Looking over the body in general – it’s in really good condition. The finish is excellent. It’s almost a wine like red, and it’s coated with a diamond hard, polyester or urethane coat. There are very few, if any, scratches in the coat, and absolutely no buckle rash on the back. The rear spring cover is single ply white acrylic, and although it’s lost it’s protective wrap, (as you’d expect), it’s still virtually immaculate. The same goes for the scratchplate. There are a few, light playing marks – but again, the single-ply, 8-hole acrylic guard, together with the aged white pickup covers and knobs on it, all appear virtually brand new. One thing is certain, however. With the single ply pickguard and the vintage stagger on those pickups. I definately think “50’s style Stratocaster” is what we’re looking at. And that red… it’s almost lipstick like… and that just sits fine on a 50’s Strat.

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With the rear cover off – there’s nothing really unexpected. Nor is there much to help in identification. There is a small, blue sticker with a letter “G(?)” on it, but that’s probably a maker’s mark, or a quality control sticker. Nice to see that heavy looking tremolo block in there though…

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In fact, the whole bridge assembly looks in quite good nick. The authentic “Fender stamped” saddles are a bit worn, perhaps, and I could always replace them with stock parts. The top plate has a few polishing marks, but it should clean up nicely. Looks like a vintage style, six screw Fender bridge, for sure. I just need to check the outside screw spacing. It measures out at 2 7/32 inches. Just what you’d expect on a US model – (and not necessarily on a MIM model, some of which are slightly narrower).

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Next off is the scratch plate, and I can get a closer look at those pickups. Black plastic bobbin plates, with square openings between the poles – stamped with the number 016730. Again, Fender parts for sure – most likely standard fare – but with the vintage stagger on the poles, and going with the overall , emerging 50’s styling – I think they’re stock Fender Vintage type, single coils. Nothing too exciting, but then again – nothing too shabby either. The wiring on the middle pickup doesn’t appear to be reverse wound like some of the more modern, “vintage type” setups. This looks suitably old school – except, of course, for that plastic shielded wiring.

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Looking over the controls, and reading between the solder – it looks like 250k CTS pots all the way, and what looks like the usual 5-way, (Oak Grigsby?), switch. The code sticker: 51993 0336 confirms it’s all stock Fender. This body really hasn’t been messed around with in its’ 18 years. Apart from the neck and tuners, I seem to have the entire, original build.

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And then on the back of the scratchplate: it’s birthday – stamped, up by the neck pocket cutout. It’s hard to read, but unmistakeable: OCT 29 2003. Now I really have somethiong to go on.

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An old online copy of the Fender 2004 catalogue finally gives me a reference code, and a name for the production model, and for that particular red. 013-1002, Classic Series, ’50’s Stratocaster, in Dakota red. A little more resaearch gives me a rough resale value of anywhere between £400 to £700. That can be important when assessing how much to spend on a rebuild – but the more I get to appreciate the stylings of this particular guitar, the more I’m beginning to think that, “maybe it’s too good to scrap, and to use for gilding practice”. I know I can get a Classic 50’s replacement neck for around the £200 mark. Hmmm…

Specs

The model number from the catalogue is really useful too. Fender have posted spec sheets for some of their most popular models online, and “’50’s Classic Stratocaster 013-1002”, is literally top of the list. Looking down the manifest, I can finally decode that stamped number in the neck. 005-4166-554) is part of the body part number. The 00 is omitted, and the 554 refers to the particular finish colour:- Dakota Red. The manifest also gives me part numbers for the rest of the build. Just in case I do consider restoring it.

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The last bit of the strip-down reveals another, green id sticker and a barcode number sticker which is sealed in, under the lacquer finish, and in the main control rout. The number doesn’t match anything on the manifest however, and I reckon it’s a prduction monitoring barcode. By 2003, the Mexico factory hadapparently begun monitoring manufacture using barcode scanners. The sticker will mean something to someone at the factory perhaps – but it seems it isn’t anything to do with the instrument, once it has left the factory.

With all the hardware finally removed, I can clean and polish up the body to see exactly what the areas of damage reveal. There are a couple more – very fine, scratches apparent, but they’re hard to pick up unless the guitar is closely examined under a string light. Otherwise – there are four, small areas which need to be dealt with.

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The first, (and probably the worst), is a depressed crease on the upper side of the lower bout. The polyester has split, and is pushed in slightly, and there’s a seemingly associated white fleck close by. Where the polyester coat appears to have fractured, the deep red colouration appears lighter – so I think the paint colour is some kind of gel coat, where the finish is gradually built up, rather than a fixed colour which has been clearcoated over. That might make colour matching a bit of a problem.

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The second defect is a small point impact on the top side of the upper horn. Here too, the crack has split, and lightened the polyester coat. I’ll be able to easily drop-fill and stabilise the hole, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to wick any colour in there. It’s possible I’ll have to look at making bigger holes to remove all of the damage, and then build up from there. That might mean going all the way back to the wood in places.

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The third, and possibly most noticeable dint is just under the lack plate, on the bottom of the lower bout. Looks like a careless drop, and there’s another light scratch mark in the coat nearby – which seems to be associated. Where the polyester coat is damaged, it has shattered, although everything seems to have remained in place. This will definately have to be cut out, filled and then drop filled. It’s probably the most prominent area of damage, and so colour matching will be key here.

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The other area of slight, cosmetic concern is on the tip of the lower horn – but it’s virtually unnoticeable in normal light. here, it’s almost like a slight abrasion – but whatever it is, the colour has seemingly lightened. I can’t see any physical damage, or cracking of the lacquer. If the only way to fix these slight colour defects is to hack out the old coat and then rebuild – maybe this is one to leave.

The only other area which shows any sign of damage, is the usual crack in the finish at the neck pocket. I think just about every MIM Fender I’ve ever seen has a crack here. If there’s a danger that the lacquer will flake off – then I’ll have to look at stabilising the crack with super glue. Otherwise – I’ll probably leave it as another, honest, wear mark. (No guitar is ever perfect, and if they ever are – they don’t ever seem to stay that way for long!)

The front and rear faces of the body are, however, in amazing condition and they’ll polish and shine up beautifully. The only problem areas are on the sides or edges, where they will remain more difficult to see anyway. They may even get lost in the mirror-like shine the body still shows. A plan emerges. I’ll try my best to fix the three main areas of damage, and to colour match them the best I can – drop-filling with cyanoacrylate, (super glue) and then polishing up from there. If I can make them pretty much disappear – then I’ll look to restore the rest of the guitar to its’ original state. (Maybe even upgrade the pickups?). If the fixes remain too obvious, I’ll colour match them the best I can, and then gild over the stabilised and polished coat. I’ll be able to fill the holes in any event – so the starting point for gilding will be a fully sealed and well-prepped body.

So the next step is to see if I can work out the best way to fix those little areas of damage. This is going to mean a fair bit of experimentation. I have to face it – things may well go wrong. But it certainly helps to remove any pressure – knowing that I have a plan “B”.

Just in case.

 

 

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