Plastic rot on vintage instruments

Nitro Nightmare

One of the first thermoplastics, Celluloid – a material produced by combining nitrocellulose with camphor and added plasticisers – was widely used by Gibson and many other manufacturers for bindings, pickguards and other plastic parts. Unfortunately for collectors of vintage instruments, the material tends to deteriorate with age. 

Are all vintage instruments equally affected by plastic rot?

NoEast Coast guitar makers such as Gretsch, D’Angelico and Guild appear to have been disproportionately affected – probably as a consequence of purchasing binding and other plastic material from the same supplier. In addition, the plastic parts found on some pre-war guitars remain unaffected, while relatively new instruments exhibit signs of decay. “We see Gibsons with tortoiseshell grain binding and pickguards from the 1970s and even more recently that are outgassing and really giving problems,” says vintage guitar authority George Gruhn.

Can celluloid rot be avoided?

Probably not. The issue originates with the celluloid material itself, which emits a corrosive outgas as it breaks down. This can damage the guitar’s finish, metal parts and the glue that holds the instrument together. Unfortunately, it’s not known exactly what causes celluloid to self-destruct. The elevated tortoiseshell plastic pickguards found on Gibson archtops are particularly prone to decomposition while the binding and pickguards on Martin flattops appear – on the whole – to be immune to plastic rot.

Will storing the guitar inside a case make the problem worse?

Leaving a guitar in its case for an extended period may allow deterioration to go unchecked but there is no hard evidence to suggest that an instrument stored in its case is more likely to succumb to plastic rot than one that is regularly played. Having said that, leaving your instrument in the case once signs of celluloid rot have appeared is likely to result in tarnished metal parts and damage to the lacquer finish.

Attempts to repair or ‘stabilise’ the crumbling plastic are doomed to failure and unfortunately the only effective solution is to remove and replace the decaying parts.

Image courtesy of chicagofretworks.com

To nitro or not?

The binding on your 1950s D’Angelico New Yorker needs to be replaced and you have found a luthier who has successfully worked on similar vintage instruments before. The next decision that you have to make is whether to replace the original binding with celluloid or substitute a different type of plastic. While it’s true that the celluloid manufactured today is likely to be more consistent than that used in the past, there is no guarantee that it won’t suffer a similar fate at some point in the future.

Final thoughts

Fitting a replacement pickguard to an archtop guitar is a relatively simple – and affordable – task but replacing the rotting binding on a valuable vintage instrument is a procedure best left to a skilled and experienced luthier.

Removing degraded celluloid binding without disturbing – or worse still, damaging – the surrounding timber and finish is fiddly and time-consuming. All of the old plastic must be removed before the new binding is installed and finally the replacement binding needs to be tinted to successfully match the rest of the instrument. As you can imagine, this sort of work isn’t going to be cheap!

Re-binding a pre-war L-5PN, a Super 400, or a vintage D’Angelico is a no brainer but what about a mid 1960s Gretsch Anniversary? Sadly, unless the guitar has great personal significance, the value of the restored instrument is unlikely to justify the monetary investment involved.

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