Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Pursuits
Photographer: Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Pursuits

Behind the Scenes at Gibson Custom Guitar Workshop

How an uncanny reproduction of the famed 1959 Les Paul gets made. Photographs by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Pursuits
Begin at the Top
Begin at the Top

It all starts in the forest. The top—the guitar’s front—of the True Historic 1959 Les Paul is carved from a piece of American maple that, after being tested for excess moisture, is attached to a one-piece mahogany back. It’s the most important part of the guitar for collectors, says Gembar, who’s been running the workshop for 23 years. “We might go through 15,000 pieces of maple to come up with 10 killer-looking tops.”

Install the Frets
Install the Frets

Workers then cut what will become the neck of the guitar and lay down the fingerboard with inlays of mother-of-pearl. They place the frets by hand. The binding—a cream-colored edge that’s become a Gibson signature—is laid over them. Any excess is then carved away.

Join It Up
Join It Up

The fingerboard then gets added to the headstock.

Let It Cure
Let It Cure

Early-stage guitars hang around as the glue dries, joining the neck to the body. Then, lots of sanding.

Even It Out
Even It Out

The one part of the process that isn’t historically accurate is the use of a Plek machine. You can’t get a true flat fret when working by hand, says Kevin Van Pamel, of Gibson Custom, because you’re always putting pressure on the neck. So after the frets are in place, the machine double-checks the height by scanning for high and low points.

Add the Finish
Add the Finish

To get that recognized sunburst look, the shop uses aniline, the same dye used in the 1950s. The original guitar came in only two colors, but the dye was so susceptible to light that if left in the sun it would turn the color of a lemon drop. Now it’s kept in a climate-controlled “Willy Wonka room,” suspended in liquid.

 

 

Clean It Up
Clean It Up

After the paint dries, the guitar is wet-sanded using 600-grit paper, a perk no other Gibson guitar gets.

Perfect the Details
Perfect the Details

The top is peeled, scuff sanded, and polished until perfect. The veneer that’s applied afterward is measured by thickness rather than number of coats. “We’re as thin as possible because the finish impacts the sound,” Gembar says.

Install the Electronics
Install the Electronics

All the components are hand-soldered and connected by copper wire, not attached via the usual printed circuit board.

Screw It Tight
Screw It Tight

After the pick guard and tuning peg are placed, the guitar is strung. Then everything is secured a final time prior to thrashing. The fidelity to analog techniques remains faithful.

Final Product
Final Product

The True Historic 1959 Les Paul Reissue is customizable. This model sells for $12,000.