DIY Workshop: ’59 Fender Bassman

Like a fine wine, tweed amps often improve, aesthetically at least, with age. Huw Price takes a ’59 Fender Bassman housed in a reproduction cabinet and finds out if he can give it some much-needed vintage vibe…

Despite the now long-standing popularity of artificially aged guitars, the subject of making amps look old is comparatively unexplored. It’s perhaps understandable because a beaten-up vintage Vox or Marshall just looks sort of… beaten up. Yet much like a well-loved pair of jeans, tweed amps can reach their aesthetic peak just before they finally fall apart.
Old tweed amps can develop a wonderful patina as the tweed darkens and takes on various amber and tan shades. Some amp manufacturers and cabinet manufacturers get pretty close to those vintage shades using shellac, tinted varnishes and other bespoke concoctions, and the results can be very attractive. However, the amps generally look too orange, shiny and new.

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Although the tweed had some sort of coating, compared to the real thing it looked pale and creamy

A client of mine recently bought a 1959 Fender Bassman at a surprisingly affordable price. The only snag was that the mostly original chassis, transformers and components were housed in a reproduction cabinet covered in pale yellow tweed. That’s why this highly desirable classic cost only about as much as a modern boutique amp. Unfortunately, it was a case of ‘right sound, wrong look’, so he asked me if I would try to distress the cabinet.

Figuring it out

Unlike recreating a classic Fender or Gibson guitar finish, you can’t simply order up a few aerosols labeled ‘knackered tweed’. So, the first task was to decide on the best methods for replicating the colour, texture and look of the real thing. I scrounged some tweed offcuts, cut them up into small squares and experimented.

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Bassman

I tried Colron wood stain, various Stewart-MacDonald stains, clear shellac, French polish, tinted lacquer and polyurethane varnish. Once the samples had dried off, I compared them with an original 5E3 that my friend Simon Howells had kindly let me borrow. The trouble is that the 5E3’s tweed is several different shades – varying from a deep orangey amber to wheat yellow – so I would have to be able to vary the colour accordingly. The plan was also to scuff up the tweed for a roadhouse look.

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Six colour swatches made with various lacquer and dyes sitting on a ’59 5E3 cabinet. Make sure you label the offcuts on the rear side so you don’t lose track of which is which

I became concerned that this wouldn’t be possible if the tweed was stained, because the stain might penetrate too far into the fabric. If you examine original tweed amps, the scuffs and scrapes often look relatively pale because they reveal the tweed’s original colour. Experiments with files and sandpaper on the colour swatches confirmed my suspicions.
Through distressing more than a few guitars, I have learned that the best results are generally achieved by following the original factory procedures. I figured I should find out how Fender did things back in the day. On one of the forums I investigated, a contributor had provided the necessary information based on a conversation he had with Sam Hutton, who apparently ran Fender’s cabinet shop during the 1950s.

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Tweed varies a lot. The Bassman is behind a ’51 Deluxe with original low-contrast tweed and a ’59 Deluxe. The goal was to make the Bassman look more like the ’59 Deluxe

Fender began by treating the raw tweed with shellac, that penetrated the fibres and set hard. The tweed could then be sanded smooth without fraying and wiped with denatured alcohol to remove any loose particles. After a few coats of shellac, Fender then sprayed the cabinets with nitrocellulose lacquer and they were basically finished.

Close examination of the 5E3 supports this story. Unlike the raw tweed used on the Bassman cabinet and the colour swatch offcuts, 50s tweed feels very smooth, and it has a soft sheen. The colour is by no means uniform, and on Simon’s amp it’s possible to discern a faint ‘burst’ effect on the top and side panels.

Bassman

The bottom of this 5E3 is much darker than the sides. Also note that the centre of the side panel is darker than the edges

Having sprayed so many guitar bodies, I have learned the hard way that you ignore the edges and corners at your peril. These days, I start every coat by spraying the rollovers around the edges, then I spray the sides and, finally, I spray the front and back. The shaded ‘burst’ effect on original tweeds suggests that Fender’s cabinet shop took a similar approach. Spraying the edges and corners first, then spaying the flat panels ensures the edges and corners get a double dose of lacquer. This discrepancy in the quantity of lacquer possibly explains the gradation in shade over time.

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When you take a cabinet to pieces, it’s wise to bag and label all the parts

I decided I would apply clear shellac over the entire cabinet, follow that with light-tint lacquer to get the base colour tone, then shade the edges with tinted clear. After verifying the method on some offcuts, I felt pretty confident that the cabinet would end up looking the part.

Getting the Bassman ready

I removed the back panels, took off the handle and removed the chassis. The speakers were lifted off the baffle, then I removed the nameplate by pulling out the four corner pins. This exposed the hidden baffle bolt, so I could remove the speaker baffle to leave the empty cabinet. Lastly, I removed the staples holding the small patches of grille cloth to the lower back panel and bagged and labeled all the parts.

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Some tinted clear has been sprayed onto one of the back panels, and you can already see the contrast between the panel and the unsprayed cabinet

The exposed wood inside the repro cabinet was bare pine, but Fender stained the sides a reddish brown colour. Strangely, the bottom panels don’t appear to have been stained. The late-50s speaker baffles were painted matt black, and although this one was painted, it looked like a thinly sprayed coating and the colour was more grey than black. I’d need to address the inside of the cabinet later, so before applying the shellac and lacquer, I carefully masked off all the exposed wood.

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After two coats of ‘transparent’ shellac polish, the cabinet looks slightly mellower. Here it is drying off in the sunshine

First coats

It is always recommended to dilute tinted shellac 50/50 with denatured alcohol to achieve an even result and avoid excessive colour build-up along seams and exposed edges. However, I was using ‘transparent’ shellac polish, which has only a relatively slight tint, so I brushed it on neat. So long as you take care to brush out any runs or drips, the clear shellac goes on quickly and evenly, and the idea is to build up the depth of the sealer coats quickly.

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After several coats of tinted clear and light tint clear, the colour of the Bassman’s cabinet looked very much like the 5E3’s

After just one coat, the cabinet was already looking nicer, with less yellowness and a slightly darker hue. With the second coat added, the base tone of the tweed started to look a bit more like the 5E3’s . Once the shellac had dried hard, I scuff sanded it with some quite coarse 120-grit paper and carefully removed any dust with a vigorous brushing and a vacuum cleaner.Donning a safety mask, I began spraying the light tint clear coats.

Bassman

I tried to replicate the faint ‘burst’ effect on the top and side panels by spraying the tinted coats more heavily around the edges

My method for achieving even coverage is to spray in straight lines going lengthways, followed by straight lines sideways. I follow this with straight lines on the diagonal and, once complete, I would call that one coat. After about three coats, the cabinet had darkened and mellowed, but it was some way off the deep amber of the 5E3.

In the shade

Swapping over to the tinted clear lacquer, I worked my way around all the edges and corners. The cabinet began to darken rapidly, so I allowed each coat to dry thoroughly and checked the results in various lights to gauge the progress. In a sense, I was using the tinted clear to ‘shade’ the cabinet, and by being careful with my spraying technique I managed to achieve the subtle ‘burst’ effect on the top and sides. It helps to position the aerosol in the centre and spray the tinted coats, aiming towards the outside edges.

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Here’s the same panel after a going over with sandpaper and Scotch pad. It has already developed some pale scuff marks

The base panel of Simon’s amp was significantly darker than the top and sides, so I sprayed the bottom of the Bassman cabinet with amber lacquer to try to match the more orange hue. I was fortunate to have a tin left over from a previous project, but you could probably achieve a similar result with several coats of the tinted lacquer.

With the spraying complete, the cabinet was looking the part and I was really pleased with the colour. Frankly, I could have stopped at this point, because it looked not unlike a collector-grade ’59 Bassman, but the owner had sent various pictures of Bassmans he likes the look of, so I needed to think about how to achieve similar results.

Scuffing and scrubbing

Compared to distressing a guitar body, ageing a tweed cabinet is a walk in the park. It’s actually a quick, easy and enjoyable process. Having sanded the shellac coats, the tweed felt a lot smoother, but the 5E3 was super-smooth to the touch. The surface also had a soft sheen rather than a glossy and reflective finish. So, I began by sanding the entire cabinet with 220-grit paper, followed by a rub down with a Scotch pad.

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The tool kit for this project is pretty basic. I completed the whole thing with a rasp, file, sandpaper and a Scotch pad. The rasp will need a wire brushing to clean the gunk off its teeth

Once the dust had been removed, the cabinet’s surface felt smooth to the touch and some high spots had rubbed through to reveal the pale raw tweed beneath. If you want a pristine look, you could fill in the rub-through areas with extra coats of light-tint lacquer, followed by a gentle rub with a Scotch pad, but if you’re shooting for an aged look, the pale patches really look the part.

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Since the finish sits on the surface, it’s easy to scuff through to the paler tweed beneath. The exposed areas looked a bit too pale at this point, so I darkened them with ash and charcoal dust

As with distressing guitar finishes, it always helps to have pictures of the real thing for reference so that you can target your efforts in the correct areas. Tweed amps tend to show wear along exposed edges of the tweed and the corners and edges of the cabinet. Worn spots also tend to fray and there will be dirty and stained patches.

After trying sandpaper and a file, I discovered the best tool for scuffing up tweed is a good old-fashioned wood rasp. I originally bought mine for neck-shaping purposes, but it scuffs off the lacquer to reveal raw tweed – or even bare wood – in a matter of seconds. Referring to the pictures, I worked my way around the cabinet trying hard not to get too carried away. I really liked the contrast between the raw tweed and the tinted lacquer, and you can see how the colour sits on the tweed’s surface rather than penetrating the fabric.

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Brushing the baffle with some matt black oil paint created a more authentic look

However, the tweed looked a bit bright, so I toned it down by rubbing ash from my barbecue and charcoal dust into the exposed areas. I also rubbed the charcoal dust all over the cabinet and it created dark patches in certain areas. All in all, I probably spent no more than a couple of hours artificially ageing the tweed, and I was delighted with the outcome.

Inside job

There seemed to be no point in leaving the inside of the cabinet pristine when the outside looked 60 years old. The speaker baffle was easy – I just brushed it with some matt black oil-based paint and it looked a lot better . I took a photo of the inside panel of the 5E3 on my phone, carried it to my local hardware store and bought the stain that looked like the best match – Blackfriars Chestnut.

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The side panels were stained and the bottom panel was oxidised with potassium permanganate before both got the ash and charcoal treatment. The repro label came from a seller on eBay

After removing all the masking, I painted the stain onto the side panels. I took care not to stain the tweed, but I wasn’t too bothered with pristine edges because Fender wasn’t either. Once the stain had dried, I turned my attention to the base panel, which needed to look a lot greyer, darker and dirtier.

For starters, the wood needed to oxidise, so rather than use the vinegar, wire wool and tea method, I dissolved some potassium permanganate crystals in a jar of water and brushed the solution onto the bare pine. If you want a surefire method of oxidising wood, this is it. You can buy packets of potassium permanganate crystals online very cheaply and you really don’t need very much. I used a level teaspoon for this.

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The pine darkened as the oxidisation agent dried off, but I wanted a dusty and dirty look. Again, I used ash and charcoal dust, employing a stiff bristled brush to work it into the grain. Having already applied a tube chart label to the side panel, I treated the side panels to the same mixture and brushed away the excess.

Back in the box

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Having bagged up everything carefully, reassembly was easy. I started by reinstalling the baffle and mounting the speakers. The amp chassis went in next and the back panels were reattached. The amp had arrived with its original handle, but the owner decided to retire it because it’s in a delicate state and he plans to gig the amp. Although I couldn’t swear on it, I believe the panel and handle screws were genuinely old.

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I deliberately held off refitting the nameplate until last, because it’s the best bit. When it arrived, the cabinet was wearing a repro nameplate, but the original was included in the sale, along with all four original pins. The old nameplate’s condition provided a clue about the fate of the original cabinet.

Bassman

The finished amp in all its frayed glory. We’re really happy with the results

Somebody had painted black paint over the brown, so it’s most likely that the original cabinet had been painted black in an attempt to update the looks – as was common during the blackface era. After discussions with the owner, it was decided to use the original nameplate. We decided it was part of the amp’s history, and it looked way cooler, too. In fact, we think the whole amp looks a lot better.Hopefully, you feel the same.

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