Should You Repair the Crumbling Celluloid Binding on a Vintage Guitar?

Binding replacements on vintage guitars are becoming increasingly common as more and more old celluloid turns to dust
old Gibson guitar binding

Q: I have a 1972 Gibson J-55 and it sounds great, but the binding is deteriorating, and the original pickguard was shrinking and has been removed. I had a luthier tell me the lining in the guitar case is the root of these problems, which I find hard to believe. What is the real reason, and is it worth investing in repairing the instrument? —Jim Weber

A: There are a few good questions here, and I’ll try to touch on each of them. Let’s begin with the deteriorating plastic. In previous columns, we’ve discussed the unfortunately all-too-common problem of celluloid plastic degrading over time, as the plasticizers in the polymer migrate out and evaporate. The vapors from this process are corrosive and can cause rust, oxidation, and discoloration in surrounding metals, finishes, glues, and even case lining. This has led some people to believe that it is the case lining affecting the plastic, as the discoloration on the lining matches the location of the plastic on the guitar. However, in almost all cases (ha!) the plastic binding is itself the root of the issue. The pickguard most likely suffered the same fate.

I say almost all cases because I have come across instances of cases causing damage to guitar finishes. Usually, these situations arise when either the case or the guitar (or both) is quite new and still releasing solvents from its manufacture. Case lining and foam padding are often applied with solvent-based cements, and the dense, plush fabric and foam can retain these vapors longer than some would expect. Also, modern molded cases are quite good at maintaining a closed airspace, so the residual solvent vapors often accumulate in a new case. Similarly, some guitar finishes, especially nitrocellulose lacquer, can dry quickly on their surface, creating a skin that traps solvents in the lower layers. These solvents have to slowly migrate out of the finish, a process that can take weeks or even months depending on the thickness of the finish and how quickly it was applied. When either or both of these conditions exist, the unfortunate result can be case fur that imprints a rough texture on the guitar’s glossy surface—in some cases even leaving fur stuck to the finish. In rare instances, I’ve also heard of cases imprinting their texture into finishes after long periods of storage, usually in warm places such as attics. However, this doesn’t sound like what happened in your situation.


Binding replacements on vintage guitars are becoming increasingly common as more and more old celluloid turns to dust, but the repair is labor intensive and expensive, and many of my clients prefer to simply leave the old, crumbled binding as is. This brings us to the last part of your question—cost of repair vs. instrument value. As a repair luthier, I guide clients through this conversation quite regularly, and it’s not always simple. Guitarists often develop relationships with their instruments that are full of personal history and meaning. The value of these kinds of things is hard to calculate but certainly worth considering. I’ve done full restorations on old folk instruments, and in some cases the repair estimates were more than double the realistic street value of the guitar. In these cases, I am always frank with clients, and more often than not they proceed with the repair, since the instrument usually holds sentimental or personal value that more than makes up for the monetary differences.

With vintage guitars, I also feel it’s important to maintain and preserve their function and structural health wherever possible. A 1972 J-55 may not be the most valuable vintage guitar right now, but in 30 years it will likely be worth quite a bit more. I’ve seen the market value of late ’70s Fender electrics go up dramatically since I started playing, and even some ’80s instruments are now showing up under the vintage banner. Some kinds of repair work, like a well-done neck reset, will preserve or even enhance market value. Binding replacement is trickier—it generally involves some amount of refinishing, which can lower market value. For this reason, I always do binding replacements without a full refinish—rather, I work around the existing finish, and then touch up the new bindings to match. This process is much more laborious, but it preserves the originality of the guitar as much as possible.

If your goal is to sell the guitar, my advice would be to skip the repair and let the next owner make these decisions. There may well be a player out there who couldn’t care less about the condition of the binding and might even appreciate the vintage vibe it offers. If you wish to keep the guitar, then this simply becomes a question of your own visual and functional preferences, and your personal history with the guitar. There is no right or wrong on this type of repair, as long as you find a luthier who is able to do good work that is appropriate to the quality of the guitar. Beware of anyone who says this is a quick and easy job—if they think it is, they’re probably not doing it right!

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 342

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Martin Keith
Martin Keith

Martin Keith is a luthier, repair and restoration expert, and working musician based in Woodstock, New York.

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  1. This article is so timely for me. I have a 1990’s Martin HD 45 and I just yesterday noticed the binding at the top of the body is loose, about two inches. I don’t know what to do about it.