Luthier CSI August 2020: So you want a pimped out 1930s ALCOA aluminum bass....

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by james condino, Aug 12, 2020.

  1. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    'Been off the radar for a while contemplating a few things and decided it was time to re connect and post another issue in the series.

    I've been diligently working on my upcoming ALCOA book the last month and suddenly several of them show up at the shop and around the country. For years I've been telling folks that the high prices the get these days have very little to do with the actual cost of the core; they are a reflection of the huge amount of time it takes to get one to my level of final product; usually somewhere between 100-200 hours, depending upon how far I take it. 90% of the selling costs is the labor involved.

    To date, I've done a couple of dozen custom type restorations on these old tanks built in the old ALCOA skunkworks small production shop in Buffalo, NY from 1929-1934. I think I can comfortably say that is more than anyone in the country, and correspondingly probably more than anyone in the world. This thread is not about tone or voice -there are plenty of those in the archives. They are not a traditional bass in any manner that you would play in the symphony, but they have value & purpose & people who are very devoted to them. If you have ever played one on a big stage with a soundguy that takes care of the mix and you get a chance to step up with a killer solo with all of the lights and flashpots going and blow the doors off the guitar player, you'll understand.

    To start things off, here is my end goal- functional art for people who have mastered the traditional instrument and want performance art & visuals to elevate their live shows:

    condino alcoa 1.JPG
  2. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Step 1 is disassemble all of the fittings, heat and remove the fingerboard, pull the neck core and get rid of everything that can be damaged during the strip and polish phase. Be careful not to damage the wooden neck core or inserts...

    The originals were mostly painted from the factory in a 50 step patented process:


    Today's patient was painted white at some point in it's life. 'A pretty good job, but that means I have no idea what is underneath. Average factory jobs take me about 7-10 hours to chemically strip all of the old paint off using some pretty toxic stuff. Think full respirator and a safe place to do it. 'Not a problem when you have a few acres outside of town in North Carolina... head outside an know that you won't have to cut the grass in that area for a few years...

    DSCN0286.JPG DSCN0287.JPG

    As an interesting side note, you can see the blue chalk inside the neck area. This was used at the pattern shop to "chalkfit" the wooden core- still there after 90 years! That is the first time I've seen it.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
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  3. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Be VERY careful and study up on chemical stripper choices! The wrong ones will turn your aluminum jet black at a deep level and effectively destroy your intentions. You can completely wreck the thing with the wrong solution. Heat can cause the seams and joints to fail. Sandblasting will pit it excessively and if you use just abrasives, you are working with a .050" thin section of aluminum. In the past, I've blackened one, I've sanded through one, and I have heated a big hole in one....all before I got developed a reliable approach.

    Day one, covered in muckety muck toxic goop:

    DSCN0289.JPG DSCN0297.JPG DSCN0304.JPG
  4. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Approximately 7 hours of and four more sessions of toxic goop later....'not going as planned. $75 in goop, gloves, and tools that disintegrated.... It is now 2am...:

  5. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Day 2.

    It appears that some genius used a "primer" that is impervious to toxic chemicals. I've never seen anything like this before. I suspect it may be some kind of epoxy or possibly one of the older Imron type organic nastiness paints that they used to sell 25 years ago that seemed to last forever because they killed off anyone who used them. 'Not a happy camper today....6 more hours of effort and some of that layer seems to be softening....Notice the dark background...It is midnight again...

    KILLER display of the meteor shower- I can see 5 planets and a beautiful half moon through my respirator and full face mask...


    This is what the dark side of the moon looks like:


    'Made a little progress. I'm now in it for approximately 16 hours of toxicity...


    Keep in mind that so far I have stripped five old layers off only to find the hardest epoxy base layer...still in white. I really don't understand why they didn't just leave that. My suspicion is that they were going for some fancy pearl white type that involved may layers to work up like a hot rod...
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
  6. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
  7. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Day 3:

    $#@% all of this politeness. Today I drowned the entire thing in another gallon of toxic mess and then wrapped it mummy style in black plastic so nothing could offgass and cooked it it the hot 'Carolina sun....


    This is what it looked like after I uncovered the mummy:


    Long past darkness again and here are the day's results:

    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
  8. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    That is a custom Condino carbon fiber hybrid from a couple of years ago:

    condino alcoa 6.JPG

    (edit) Here is the matching carbon fiber fixed endpin:

    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
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  9. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    24 hours later, $150 in toxic goop and dissolved supplies, and I'm at 300% of the estimated time commitment for this part, typically the easiest part of the process. All of the surface scratches are a combination of original factory issue and the prior owners. I counted 7+ layers of material removed.

    DSCN0382.JPG DSCN0378.JPG DSCN0379.JPG
  10. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    As a native-born Buffalonian, I am stunned that something so Shiny, Artsy/Fartsy, and Beautiful, was ever made in my hometown.
    A visiting sportswriter in the 1970's once referred to Buffalo as "...the Armpit of the East." (We've never been known for our Opulence, or our pleasant Fragrance. )
    Thanks, james.
  11. kesslari

    kesslari Groovin' with the Fusion Cats Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 21, 2007
    Santa Cruz Mtns, California
    Lark in the Morning Instructional Videos; Audix Microphones
    @james condino I'm not very familiar with these basses (other than the fact that they seem crazy cool).
    The first pic (the wooden bass) confuses me.
    Are the Alcoa basses aluminum over wood?
  12. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    I took in an old Slowey aluminum bridge a few months back. 'Not my first choice for an old Prescott, but it seemed like a good fit for this project:


    'Enough talk and metalwork for today. I'm taking the rest of the week for wooden basses....
  13. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    For the moment I can answer this, although James probably has much better and more in-depth info than I...

    My Alcoa was originally a mock wood-tone paint job like the pic you're referring to. When in good shape this paint job is pretty convincing of wood to the eye, but the minute someone taps the instrument you know for sure that it's lineage was the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).

    When the original paint gets old and thrashed, it's pretty much an eyesore, hence the willingness on most people's part to re-paint and/or strip and polish.

    My understanding is that Alcoa also painted these in metallic gold, however I've never seen one like that.

    Here's a pic of mine before it was stripped, repaired, powder-coated and functionally restored...
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2020
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  14. 2saddleslab

    2saddleslab Supporting Member

    May 30, 2003
    OP, what a gargantuan task you've taken on! Good on ya' for seeing this thru. I played a doghouse once for about 20 minutes and it damn near killed me. But would love to have one to noodle on at home.

    That CF bridge is gorgeous! Can't wait to see this process unfold, well done!
    dhergert likes this.
  15. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    Man I can smell that mess all the way from Black Mountain...
  16. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Makin' the doughnuts wilt....;)
    kesslari, dhergert and unbrokenchain like this.
  17. misterbadger

    misterbadger Supporting Member

    Sep 13, 2012
    Northern California
    What an incredible job! Out of curiosity, how did you dispose of the pile of dead tools, stripped-off old paint, stripper, and plastic wrap?
  18. RSBBass


    Jun 11, 2011
    Mine looked like Jackson Pollock had painted it. I went straight for the chemical stripper and mummy routine. Looks like I saved many hours. Oc nurse I used them putting the twenty or so pieces of the smashed scroll back together (Pfieshner, not Alcoa).
    dhergert likes this.
  19. marcox


    Dec 10, 2007
    Following with great interest, as my original-finish Alcoa watches from a few feet away ...
    james condino and dhergert like this.
  20. Dudaronamous

    Dudaronamous Supporting Member Supporting Member

    Oct 16, 2005
    Bothell, WA
    James, I love these CSI threads. Thank you for sharing with us.
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    Primary TB Assistant

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