Polishing the Jag.

Summer seems to have passed finally, and we’re into autumn. With it goes the warm, dry days which are ideal for spraying nitro finishes. Duller, damp days, however, are great for sanding and rubbing down. With my framing work, I’ve always tried to save the dusty sanding jobs for a rainy day – since the damper atmosphere seems to reduce the amount of fine dust in the air. I’m hoping the same will apply for polishing up the Jaguar body, which has been away curing for a good few months.

This is the first body I’ve done with nitro – so every step is a bit of an experiment. I’m taking as much advice from StewMac, Crimson Guitars, Manchesterguitartech etc., who have all posted useful resources up online. There’s a bit of trepidation in pushing this forward, since every subsequent stage seems to risk damaging all previous work and efforts – a bit like building a house of cards – but that’s just the nature of projects like this. I’ve learned a lot from doing the Ash Stratocaster at the same time, and I’m hoping things I’ve learned along the way will help towards the best result I can achieve.

In theory, polishing should be a relatively straightforward process – albeit a time consuming one. I’m going to be doing this entirely by hand. I check the body over first, and can see that the nitrocellulose finish has markedly shrunk back. What looked like a thick, glassy coat is now hard and very revealing. There are quite a few surface scratches and marks visible in the finish – although it looks far smoother than I anticpated in terms of the “orange peel” effect, which most people note in their online advice. From my experience with paint and painting, I’d expect orange peel to be a sign of a too thick coating of paint, which may still be softer underneath. I take the relative lack of orange peel to be a good sign. I think applying the paint in very many, thin coats, and then leaving plenty of time to dry in between has proven a good rule of thumb.

There are a few signs of cracks in the surface however. These are all quite slight – but they’re in the finish, and I don’t know if they’ll polish out. All of the cracks seem to originate at the drilled and routed openings. I think some moisture must have got into the wood at some point – probably when I was rubbing back a primer coat – and then swelled the substrate slightly. There’s another lesson learned. I’m going to have to find a way to make existing holes fully resistant to moisture – especially at the surface, where the paint coat sits. Fingers crossed I can polish these out.

To avoid any more moisture getting in, I decide to continue sanding and polishing with naptha as the only lubricant. It tends to evaporate off quickly, and you can then wipe away any “sludge” which forms. It’s supposed to be less likely to be absorbed by the wood and swell the grain. The naptha also helps to stop the grit paper from clogging. Clogs can cause scratches and witness marks, which can mean going back to square one and starting the polishing process over again. The cured paint and clearcoat layer doesn’t look so thick after it’s fully cured – I don’t want to risk sanding through.

Starting with 400 grit – I go over the body and level sand everything. This effectively mattes off all the shiny areas, and results in an overall dull looking body. Any low areas show as shiny, so the idea is to go over until there are no shiny highlights, at all, on the body. I work into the light, so I can keep an eye on how I’m doing – working first around the flat edges, and then on each side in turn. On the edges, I use paper wrapped around my fingers. On the sides I use a cork block with slightly rounded edges, to keep the paper flat and level. Here I mostly use a circular motion. It’s important to listen and feel how the paper is cutting, and to keep enough naptha on the surface to keep things slippy. My old gilding tutor used to describe the ideal sound from the paper as, “like ripping silk”. Too much pressure is a bad idea. Always let the paper do the work. On the radiused edges, I go over with my curved fingers just enough to let the paper bite. The finish is probably going to be at its’ thinnest here, and I don’t want to cut through to the paint, primer, or the wood below.

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It’s a time consuming job – especially on the front where you have to work around all the openings – but if you’re the sort of person who can lose themselves in a task, then it’s not a bad way to spend a day. Just keep focused on the task in hand, rather than on the next project. Calm that Monkey Mind. Once the body has been dulled over to a consistent, flat finish, it’s time to move up the grits – working finer and finer. The initial 400 grade is rough enough to remove quite a suprising amount of material. Moving to 600 and beyond starts to focus the cutting power of the paper onto the little scratches and polishing marks themselves – so there’s not as much worry about cutting through the clearcoat and into the actual paint coats. However – I always try to keep the paper moving and keep focused on what I’m doing. I don’t want to miss an area, or leave marks which won’t polish out later, if I can help it.

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I spend possibly the best part of the day working up to 2000 grit. You can see how the body starts to shine, although there’s also a marked increase in a kind of specular diffusion caused by all the little polishing scratches and marks. The next set of passes are done using Micro Mesh cloths. These have a fine matrix of tiny cutting teeth. I use them the same way as the wet and dry grit papers – although the Micro Mesh cloths are washable and re-useable. As it is, I think I probably use way too much grit paper. I tend to discard a piece at the first sign of clogging. I know with some previous experience with wet and dry paper, that they can be soaked for ages before use and then, effectively, washed out and used all over again. However, I’ve noticed that some of the cheaper grit papers tend to degrade and leave behind a grey sludge, which is presumably made up of abrasive coating mixed with some of the material that’s been removed. Since the body is white – I don’t want to risk dirtying the finish at all. Maybe I move to new bits of grit paper too quickly, or maybe I don’t let them soak enough before use? Perhaps that’s what all the little swirl marks are caused by? I’m hoping I can buff them out with the Micro Mesh anyway.

02_mesh

Working with the mesh cloths, and in the same way as with the grit papers, I gradually work my way through finer and finer meshes. You can see how the shine develops, and how the surface becomes more and more reflective. It’s turned out to be a decent afternoon after all – and you can see how the reflection of the sky gradually becomes clearer, in the photos above.

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Into a strong light source, and with a bit resolution however, and you can see the swirl marks created by the circular polishing motion. I’m really hoping for a liquid, glass like finish – so I’m going to have to reach for the Swirl Remover.

I’ve had a few, valuable lessons in motorbike spray painting from my good friend Tosh, and I remember that an awful lot of polishing was involved before the finish really came up well. I’m also reminded that nitrocellulose paint is the same finish used on cars in the 50’s when Fender were looking for a durable system to finish their guitars. That’s why standard Fender paint colours of the era are the same colours as all those iconic American cars of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The best advice available as far as guitar finishes seems to be that, “you can’t go wrong if you go with a high quality car polish”.

The guy at the paint shop recommends Meguiars, (what’s more – they have a sale on), so I return with a bottle of Meguiars Scratch X 2.0 swirl remover, a bottle of Deep Crystal Carnauba Wax Polish and a few new, lint free, polishing cloths.

First on is the Scratch X. It spreads on easily, and almost feels like polishing with French chalk. The polish quickly dries, and you can then polish the body with the residue as you remove it. In doing so, you can hear the polish cut, and the cloth squeaks as the fine abrasive bites. I work over the entire body, again working into a light source.

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After the Swirl X, I repeat, this time with a coat of the Carnauba Wax Polish. I’ve managed to remove most of the swirl marks, and the finish isn’t too far from what I originally envisaged. The whole process has, however, unearthed a few flaws in the finish. Apart from the cracks I discovered earlier, there are a few other scratch marks which were apparently too deep to polish out. Fortunately – they’re hardly visible, and they’re consistent with owning the guitar for a few weeks anyway. There’s always that “new owner” syndrome with a new guitar – as with anything – until the first bump or scratch happens. I guess I’ve just got past that stage already. I always remember the advice a painting tutor gave me years ago. He told me that every Persian carpet was woven with a deliberate missed stitch. A single, deliberate error in the pattern. The deliberate error was there to acknowledge that only God could make things perfect.

There are a few problem areas around the neck pocket also. These were probably caused when I test fitted the neck on a previous occasion, and a tiny bit of paint has flaked away at the edge of the neck cut out. Again, it’s hardly noticeable – but I know it’s there, and it’s another lesson learned. Fortunately, it’ll sit hidden by the scratchplate – but it does raise a few concerns about how durable the paint coat is at physical edges – at routs, neck pockets and drill holes. And then I’m reminded that I still have to drill all the holes to attach the scratchplate, the control plates and the tremolo. I’m pleased with the results having polished the body. I now have to risk cocking it all up as I drill holes through the hard paint covering.

Another storey to the “house of cards”. But, then that is the nature of the construction process.

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