There... I said it. It's about time someone in this industry was open and honest about it, so here we are. I've been wanting to say it for decades. Cream parts have been a frustrating part of my existence since I began playing guitar in the 90's. That's long before I ever worked for a guitar store, let alone owned a parts distribution company.
My Struggles As A Customer
I fully understand that it is a very painful experience for customers trying to match up cream parts, as I've been there myself many times. I used to love cream parts, and had all kinds of projects in my early years trying to change parts on guitars to get matching cream pickguards, pickup covers, binding, etc. It was a massive headache every...single...time. I would special order cream parts from my local dealer, only for them to arrive with different colours than what's on my guitar. Oftentimes, if I ordered multiple parts from the same place, even those parts didn't match each other. It was a never ending battle.
Then, with the advent of online ordering, I started trying my luck online. But, I got the same result over and over again. I was constantly receiving cream parts that didn't match other cream parts, even if I bought them together from the same company. And, when I did happen to get things that looked close enough to each other, they often weren't close enough to the other parts already on my guitar to be considered a match. I'm not just talking about generic aftermarket parts, I mean the "real" branded stuff (the same brand as my guitar).
I would reach out to these dealers to try and resolve the issue, but was always met with, "We can't guarantee a perfect match every time, you can return them if you want, and bla bla bla." To me it just sounded like excuse after excuse. I eventually got fed up with the whole thing and just started to avoid using cream parts altogether, because it bothered me that things never quite matched perfectly.
My Struggles As An Employee
Fast forward a few years to when I was working in music stores. As a salesman, I ran into this issue as well. Customers would order parts to match their guitars, and they were often just slightly off. Even Brand G's official cream parts for Brand G's guitars didn't always match. I became the recipient of the anger of other customers like me, just trying to do what I did. I would reach out to our suppliers hoping for a better answer than what I received as a customer, only to be met with the same excuses. Having to pass on those "lame excuses" to my customers at the time was just infuriating. I couldn't believe I was right back where I started, but now I was getting yelled at for it.
Our Struggles As A Supplier
Fast forward many more years to when I eventually launched my very own parts supplier. I thought for sure that we could get to the bottom of this and avoid it happening for our customers. At first, we were ordering products from other suppliers. Once again, the same problem. Parts often not matching each other, or the parts on customer guitars. After hearing the same excuses again, I thought this must be a sourcing issue. Like, maybe these suppliers were sourcing plastic parts from different manufacturers at different times, so their inventory didn't all match.
So, I went digging. That's when I realized the truth.
They Actually Aren't Excuses - Manufacturing "Cream" Parts Just Sucks
When I started reaching out directly to plastics manufacturers, I asked up front about ensuring that colour matching would be possible. Every time, I was met with the same excuses. Excuses, that after probing further, turned out to not be excuses at all. They are very real, very legitimate reasons.
Here are the reasons cream parts don't match perfectly, more often than they do:
1) The Name Is Useless
One company's "cream" is another company's "ivory", is another company's "parchment", is another company's "vintage cream", etc. It isn't like there's a worldwide standard for what any of these terms mean, which makes them essentially meaningless. They not only mean different things to different brands, they mean different things (or nothing at all) to different plastics manufacturers. Some manufacturers just straight up say, "Cream is not specific. What is the formula you want?"
I once asked for samples from one manufacturer of all of the types of cream parts they offer, and I received a selection of about 9 different shades of cream parts. When compared them to parts I have on some guitars and parts we have in the warehouse from different suppliers we've dealt with, I had 12 different shades of cream in front of me. Some were "close enough" in colour, but all of them were different enough that you'd definitely notice on close inspection that they didn't match perfectly. When I asked the manufacturer about it, they said there may be over a hundred variations of the colour, depending how discerning you are in seeing the different shades/hues.
2) Not All Plastic Parts Are The Same
Some parts are ABS, some are PVC, etc. Manufacturers have made it very clear to me that it is impossible to match colours of different types of plastic. But, it doesn't end there. Not only do you have different types of plastic, like ABS vs PVC, but you also have different formulas of the same type of plastic. ABS plastic is a general term. ABS binding needs a different formula than pickup bobbins/covers, etc. Just because they are both ABS, it doesn't mean they use the same formula. And, in the same way it is impossible to get the same colours between different types of plastic, it is also impossible to get perfectly matching colours between different formulas of the same type of plastic. The change in formula changes how the colour will present itself. It can be close, but never perfect.
It doesn't even end there...
3) Too Many Uncontrolled Variables
Apparently with all of our advancements in technology in the last 50 years or so, the colour chemistry of plastics still eludes us. This is high science man!!
According to the plastics manufacturers I've spoken with, it's because perfect colour matching relies on too many factors that can't be controlled. Not only do you need the formula of the plastic to match perfectly (which it rarely does between production runs, given their batch mixture tolerances), but everything right down to the ambient temperature and humidity of the room impacts the final colour appearance. The colour sets as the parts cool and solidify, so every part of that process is part of the final result. Parts cooling in one area that is half a degree colder than another part of the same facility will have a slightly different hue than the other parts from the same production run. It really is that sensitive.
For those reasons, every single production run that comes off the line is a slightly different colour than the last time. Even some parts in the same production run can have variation in colour. Unfortunately, the only way to ensure perfect colour matching between production runs, is to make the parts in essentially an oversized "clean room" with much tighter mixture tolerances, and a perfectly controlled environment. That would increase the cost by about 1000X.
People expect plastic parts to be cheap, so that will never happen. Not to mention, it still doesn't solve the problem of different types of parts needing different chemical formulas (binding is more flexible for a reason, even if it is made of the same type of plastic).
That's It? Can Anything Be Done?
That's pretty much it. The fact is, even for the largest companies in the world, it's just too difficult to manufacture to an exacting standard. This can be confirmed by looking at highest end guitars, expensive "G" and "F" guitars, and other worldwide brands. The creams on one guitar aren't always the same as the next. Even the parts on a single guitar don't always match up. You can even see the same issues with black and white parts, as well as many other colours, but the issue is the most obvious with cream.
We're small potatoes, so it probably sounds like I'm making this stuff up. But, aftermarket parts suppliers 100X our size have warnings on their websites about this exact problem. Here's a quote from the largest aftermarket parts supplier in the world (posted on their website at the time I'm writing this):
"Color-matching Cream Parts and Bindings
There have always been slight variations in the color of the cream plastic parts used on Gibson and other guitars. It's not uncommon to see brand new and vintage guitars with bindings, pickup rings, toggle switch rings and pickguards that don't perfectly match in color. We do our best to match all our cream products, but there's no absolute control from batch to batch, or from supplier to supplier."
This is, of course, the most you'll ever hear publicly about this issue from these companies. But, behind the scenes, they share all the same frustrations I'm expressing here. They just know they can't talk about it publicly because it's bad for marketing. Sadly, I'm too honest and open for my own good.
The point is, if the largest guitar brands in the world and the biggest aftermarket parts suppliers in the world can't get it consistent, all we can do is our best to keep customers informed about what to expect.
What Do We Do?
We do our best to ensure our colours match with each other. We provide a cream colour type comparison photo on many products, and we name some of our cream products differently depending how they present compared to the other parts we stock. That's pretty much the best we can do. There is absolutely no way for us to guarantee whether or not what we sell will match what is on your guitar.
So, What Can You Do?
Sadly, it's always a gamble... If you're trying to match parts to your existing guitar, try to get your guitar brand's actual brand specific parts. It'll be more expensive, and it might not match perfectly, but your chances are better that it will be closer than anything purchased on the aftermarket.
If you're making a new guitar with a lot of cream parts that you want to match, your best bet is always to order all of the parts you need from one supplier at one time, and confirm with them that the parts will match prior to actually placing the order. Hopefully they will be honest and/or share pictures of what they will look like prior to making the sale and shipping to you. Whenever possible, try not to order cream parts from multiple places, or at different times. Even if you use the same supplier as last time, there's no guarantee they will be a perfect match with what you previously bought.
I wish I had better news. This is certainly not the conclusion I wanted. And, I know from experience that no matter how I articulate all of this, some customers will just shout at me that it is just a bunch of BS excuses. I try not to take it personally. But, after a decade of dealing with this in my personal life, and 2 decades of dealing with it in my professional life, there really is no other conclusion. Sometimes the truth just sucks, the same way cream parts do.
They sure do look cool though...