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Electrochemisty for Musicians

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Remember in high school when you were not paying attention in chemistry class because you were going to be a rock star not a scientist. Turns out that shit can be useful for rock stars, too. Here’s how to replace your guitar’s nameplate with something more metal using the power of SCIENCE.

1: Remove nameplatea

I won’t tell you how to get your old nameplate off. Every guitar is different. You will probably just nee a Phillips screwdriver, maybe an Allen key. Don’t lose the screws or strip the holes.

Rickenbacker original nameplate

2: Buy some metal

I decided to go with 304 Stainless bar. It’s very shiny and won’t rust without some considerable effort. Also, it’s soft enough that normal metalworking tools will cut it without issue. Any kind of steel should work, though. For my project, 2″x 1/8″ rectangular bar was the closest size to my end product without going under.

3: (Re)Create your stencil

I have the benefit of access to a Silhouette cutting machine, so I mocked up my logo in CAD and got the machine to cut it out of sticky-backed vinyl for me. I could have also done it by hand if I had more time and patience.

Rickenbacker logo CAD
Vinyl stencil

 

 

4: Apply stencil

Before you apply the stencil to your hunk of metal, clean it really well. Sand off the surface and get it really smooth and even.  When you apply the stencil, make sure it’s really well stuck on there and there are no leaks. You usually want to do this before you cut the metal to size because some part of the metal needs to stick out of the electrolyte bath and that’s easier if it’s over-sized. Cover all of the metal that you don’t want eaten away in vinyl or electrical tape . The more waterproof, the better.

5: Etch

Now for the chemistry part. You will need the following:

  • A bucket
  • Rock salt
  • A steel rod
  • A power supply (Ideally a variable power supply ~20V, ~3A)
  • wire rated for 3A or higher

Fill the bucket with water and a hefty dose of salt. Too much salt isn’t a problem. Submerge your stencil covered portion of your metal into the bucket. Submerge the other steel rod into the bucket. Make sure the two do not touch and aren’t too close to each other and that both have an end sticking out of the water.

Connect the positive terminal of your power supply to the part of your metal that is not submerged. Connect the negative terminal to the exposed end of your steel rod.

Turn on your power supply.

What you should see is that the steel rod starts bubbling rapidly and some ugly rust starts flowing away from the metal exposed by the stencil. If it’s the other way around, flip your terminals. If you smell smoke, see sparks, or anything gets really hot, turn if off. You probably have a short or your power supply isn’t appropriate.

Etching Bath

Depending on the size of the pattern, the power being supplied, and the salt concentration, you may need to etch anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. I checked progress every three minutes. That also gave me an opportunity to rinse away any buildup of debris and ensure an even etch. Another thing that helps get an even etch is to face the surface being etched downward so the debris naturally falls away.

6: Dispose of your waste

This process will yield a lovely container of sludge It’s mostly salt water and iron oxide, which are totally safe, and some amount of other side-reactions, which are not. Check your local ordinances for how to dispose of chemical waste.

7: Remove the stencil

Peeling off the stencil is very satisfying. Don’t rush it. Savor that moment of anticipation and relief as your pattern emerges against the clean metal background.

Fresh out of the etching bath
Rinsed and peeled

8: Punch your holes

Line up your original over the newly etched metal, clamp it in place, and use a center-punch to locate your holes. This is also a good time to scribe the outline of the piece so you can cut it out later. Doing it all at the same time ensures good alignment and makes it more likely that your new piece will fit on your guitar.

Pop your holes through cleanly, ideally on a drill-press. Counter-sink if you need to. My project didn’t need counter-sinking. Thank you Rickenbacker for only needing through-holes with a standard sized bit.

Holes punched

9: Preliminary polish

Sand your surface close to what you hope your final finish will be before cutting. Having the extra material to hold onto will make it easier to get an even finish.

10: Cut

Cut your piece to size. Remember always cut your piece larger than it needs to be. You will lose material grinding out saw marks and polishing. You can always remove more if you need to. It’s real hard to add more after the fact.

I ground and polished my first cut before making the second cut because the extra metal made it easier to hold onto, and it did not heat up as much.

First Cut

11: Final polish

Apply that final polish. Leave it with a wire-brushed look like mine, or buff it out to a mirror finish. When sanding or polishing, use a hard sanding block. A soft one can dip into the etched region and soften the corners or erase some of the work you did.

12: Celebrate

Look! you made a thing! Now stick it to your guitar and rock out, or whatever it is you do. I’m not here to dictate how you use your instrument. In my case, I put it in a sturdy envelope and shipped it across the continent. I don’t own a guitar.

Finished stainless Rickenbacker nameplate
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