How We Do Fabric Top Guitars
One of the most popular, and misunderstood things we do here at Texas Toast is the fabric covered guitar. Now, I am not, nor have I ever, claimed to be the first guy who did this. Lots of independent shops and even big companies have used fabric to cover electric guitars. I have always loved the paisley Telecasters that Fender made and always wanted to make something similar. It is my understanding that they used shelf paper on the originals and I’m sure you can track down the original stuff, pay an exorbitant fee and build a clone. It always seemed to me that using a more readily available material would be easier and since I don’t care about making a counterfeit or reproduction I could take advantage of all the neat stuff you can find at the fabric store. I have done quite a few and if you do a search for fabric guitars (at least in 2018) I’m pretty sure one of my videos will be near the top. People often send me pictures of their fabric top guitars and it does my heart proud to know that a bunch of dusty guitar builders are prowling aisles at JoAnn Fabric looking for something cool to glue to a new project. I’m not going to say that the methods I will describe and the products I use are what you must use. I will tell you that they have worked for us and I know they will work for you. If you want to try something else… well, why are you reading this? Let’s jump right in, hopefully I’ll answer all your questions along the way and you can build it yourself… after all, you are so smart. The first thing you need to do is figure out what fabric you are going to use. I have found that the best stuff to use is also the easiest stuff to find. That would be the cotton or cotton blend material that makes up 90% of the inventory you find at craft/fabric shops. People are always asking me about silks and other stuff and my answer is always the same. Just because I don’t use it doesn’t mean that it isn’t suitable. I would urge you to try this stuff out before you glue it to your guitar. Doing a little test patch is always a good idea. Some things that I can tell you… it will always get darker, light colors will always become more transparent and the more gold or silver metal things there are woven into the fabric the cooler it is going to be. You can make some neat things happen knowing these bits going in. I have always wanted to do an old concert t-shirt top guitar or even a wet t-shirt guitar. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Selecting a guitar body that is right for your project is one place where people have questions. These days we do as much cutting to the body as possible after the fabric has been glued down. For example, if we were doing a Stratocaster shape we would contour the top and back (forearm and tummy cuts) onto a rectangular blank, glue the fabric down, seal it and then attack it with the pin router. This way guarantees that you won’t get any glue or sealer into the cavities and ensures that you will have crisp edges to bind on or nice clean transitions for, say, the neck pocket. Of course, you can do it with a guitar that is already ready to go. More on that latter. We get the most questions about attaching the fabric to the guitar body and sealing it. We pretty much landed on a technique that works great for us. If you practice my method, just as hard as you can, you’re going to get a reputation, as a lovin’ man. If you use the products I’m going to tell you about I am positive you will have great results too. If you want to be different or are having trouble locating this stuff… you will need to blaze some new trails. Again, I would advise that you do a few tests before you damn the torpedoes on your guitar body or body blank. To attach the fabric, we use regular old Titebond wood glue and a foam roller. There are usually snickers from the peanut gallery about the term “wienie roller” ... Chris assures me that this is the industry standard name and anyone at the home center will know exactly what you are talking about if you ask for this. You want to get an even layer of glue on the body, just enough to glue it down is the right amount. If you spread the glue with any other tools you might get a thick patch of glue which can seep through the fabric and that is not good. Now place the fabric where you want it and gently press it in place. That’s it! Just walk away. Don’t fidget with it. Don’t soak it in water first don’t make this any harder than it has to be. If you are looking for something to do go watch some other videos on fabric top guitars and see how much more labor intensive it is to do it another way. In a little while you will be ready to seal the fabric and that’s when it starts to get really cool.
The next step in this process is to seal everything up, naturally, we will be using sealer. I get the most questions about these next bits. The product that I use, have always used and will continue to use is Simtec EZ Sanding Sealer. This is a 2-part, catalyzing, polyester base coat that sands easily (as the name suggests) and works great. If you are familiar with the thick stuff Fender uses than you know what it is like. I’m not going to say it’s the same thing, but it is close. Time for a quick rant; When people use the term “poly” to describe the paint on their guitar that isn’t lacquer this is what they are really talking about. Now this next part is important… it does not have to be thick, gloppy or anything else you have read on the internet. This product can be applied very thick, very thin or somewhere in-between. It can be sanded until it is almost gone and the subsraight is smooth or left so dense that if you drop your guitar on the ground 1/16 chunks can chip off the edge. The thickness of this basecoat has more to do with the labor force and less to do with the actual polyester resin. The Simtec sealer is ideally suited for spray applications. However, unless I’m going to do a bunch of spraying I will usually do the first few coats with a roller, brush or even pour it on and smear it around with a flat piece of cardboard. You want to get in and get out quick because this stuff isn’t exactly Channel #5. DO NOT use this in the house. Once you get the first round on your guitar you should lightly scuff back the top with 220 sandpaper and go around again. You can keep using rollers if you want but at some point, you are going to start spraying, now is a good time. This is the part where people ask questions like; I can’t find Simtec, can I use something else? I don’t want to use Simtec, can I use something else? I’m not going to pay for Simtec, what can I just buy at the hardware store? And so on. I do not know the answers to any of these questions. I have seen good results from my contemporaries using water-based polyurethane or this other stuff called ModPodge but I haven’t used it myself. I use the Simtec because it is compatible with all the paints and top coats I will use later. As everyone knows that if the basecoat isn’t compatible with the top coats it will eventually flake off. I know I have already said this but if you want to be different my advice to you is test any new combinations before you work over a poor defenseless guitar body.
Believe it or not, once you get a decent amount of sealer on the body blank it is time to start sanding it off. The idea is to start smoothing out the bumpy topography that is, probably, inevitable. It might look like you are going to sand through, but I assure you, a few rounds of sealer goes’ a long way. Sanding it back now will mean that the next few coats will go on smoother and make the finished product like a piece of glass. The idea here is to knock off the high spots rather than to level sand everything. Unless you have some crazy runs or huge boogers I would start with 220. You should be using a block or if you are really daring an orbital sander. I would urge you to go slow here (especially if you are using power tools) until you get a feel for how much sealer you have on the piece and how much sanding you can get away with. Remember you can always sand it some more… until you can’t. You probably aren’t going to notice a couple spots where your hit the actual fabric with the 220-grit sand paper and that’s a good thing because you will probably have a few. If your project has enough sanding sealer you can also start cutting off the excess with a sharp razor blade or my personal favorite high speed, floor mounted cutting tools. Notice how clean the edges are? I told you this stuff was easy to work with. Make all your cavities, neck pockets or what ever blows your hair back now. This is also a fine time to think about binding if you are going to go down that path. It is classy and looks way better than that goofy big burst pattern Fender used. You can keep applying rounds of sealer until you get everything smooth, just remember to mask off the areas where you do not want sealer after you trim the neck pocket.