Jimmy Page Tribute “Dragoncaster”. Laying out the design.

The finish on the “Dragoncaster” body, after the sanding sealer has been knocked back to 400 grit, is super smooth. Basically – it’s already well on it’s way to a nice French Polish. I could carry on building up layers of Shellac, Button Polish, whatever – but the painted design has to be applied at some point. Since the intention is to seal the painted design under a few layers of nitro clearcoat – I really don’t want to build up too many layers of finish before the painted design is even applied. I had wondered about tinting the ash to, more closely, match the golden tones seen on some of the archive photos of the original guitar – and had thought about doing that with some Light Amber Tint Nitro – but that would only build up the basic finish even further, and would take months to fully cure and shrink back.

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As it is – the ash has darkened slightly, and the grain filler has lightened some of the grain a little – it’s a nice piece of wood, but like most ash – it’s pale, and there’s a little bit of pink in there. This is likely to fade and mellow with age, and the pink will probably fade to brown. Overall – it’s unmistakeably “new ash” coloured. Since Jimmy stripped the original guitar down to bare ash before painting his design – I can’t think he would have bothered to tint the original himself. I have to believe that the yellowing, visible on the archive photos, is a result of natural ageing of the wood. In moving forward with the project – I’m now minded to work towards the best results I can achieve, without necessarily getting bogged down in the whole relicing business. If it ends up looking brand new, and less like an exact replica of the original – then so be it. I’m going to try and make my Dragoncaster, the best overall quality I can.

I’m minded now to crack on with painting the design onto the body, and then bury that under a clear coat once it’s fully dry. It’s likely that the nitro coat itself will yellow a little over time – especially if it gets a bit of extra UV exposure over the coming summer months. I could always consider a few additional layers of Light Amber Tint to help it along. This approach may well change the colours of the painted design slightly, but it will, at least, be an overall and, hopefully more natural, way of colouring the body over time.

So, having made sure the body is clean with a quick wipe over with naptha – I make a few careful measurements, so I can double check the design in Illustrator and print it out at the right size. So far, I’ve used a PDF image taken from some Fender schematics of a Reissue 50’s Vintage Telecaster. It looks pretty close – right down to the ridge detail at the neck pocket. But I need to make sure to transfer the design properly.

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I take three measurements from the finished body. Neck pocket to tail, (323mm) – Width across the lower bout, (320mm) – and Width across the upper bout, (275mm). Back in the Illustrator document, I scale the entire drawing down so that the lower bout matches the measured dimension. Checking the upper bout measurement – it’s only 1mm out. The neck pocket to tail measurement is a little further off – but only about 5mm under, overall. So, I stretch the whole design along the x-axis to compensate – until the whole design exactly matches the outer body measurements. I’ve only got an A4 printer, but it won’t hurt to work on different pieces of the design separately – so long as they are all carefully aligned. I print out the line work layer of the Illustrator artwork file onto some medium gauge tracing paper, using a standard Canon inkjet.

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The design takes quite a while to dry on the trace. It’s sort of a faux-vellum and the inkjet ink is clearly water-based, but a few hours drying time makes sure the ink doesn’t smear. I’m going to transfer the design using the old technique of tracing over with some carbon on the reverse. That should mark things out clearly enough – yet still be easily removable with a putty rubber after the design has been painted. I have a thick, stubby, XXB sketching pencil, (way softer than even a 6B pencil- but thicker and stronger). This makes short work of laying down a good coat of graphite. Having turned each piece of the design over, I make sure all of the design is backed with carbon. Once done – the sheets can be turned back the correct way, and then laid onto the guitar body for positioning. At this stage – the carbon can easily be rubbed off, so care needs to be taken to keep things as clean as possible. Even light pressure from hands and fingers can press hard enough to transfer some of the graphite, and I want to try and keep the marks as precise and succinct as possible.

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The sheets are carefully positioned, and held in place with masking tape. It’s a little tricky to keep them exactly in place – especially at the edges – so there’s a danger that the design might “wander” in a few places if I don’t pay attention. The next stage has to be a one-hit affair. No room for going backwards and forwards over any particular area. One pass has to be definitive. Using a ball-point pen I follow the lines of the printed design – pressing down with enough pressure to transfer a thin, light line of graphite onto the wooden body.

It’s difficult to describe how to achieve the right pressure. Since you shouldn’t lift the paper to check, (which would risk mis-alignments on relaying the design), the only thing I have to go on is, perhaps, a quick test in an area which won’t show on the finished body – like the bits around the bridge pickup. I also have to try and avoid getting caught in the grain. Pressing too hard risks digging into the wood and – especially when drawing across the grain – the pen or stylus can get deflected. But ash is quite hard, and the surface is well sealed, and as flat and consistent as I can make it. The best approach seems to be, to work slowly and carefully and with a reasonable pressure on the pen. Mistakes will happen, but remember – this is only a guide anyway. The actual design can always be fixed in the actual painting.

Having checked all the lines have been traced, the paper template is untaped and removed – revealing the design traced onto the body.

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As I say – the graphite is highly prone to smudging – so the body needs to be handled and laid out so that isn’t a possibility. When it comes to painting – I’ll have to make sure I use a shield over the areas where my hand and arm lies. The design seems to have transferred well enough, and it’s alignment looks OK. There are a few inconsistencies as regards the clear lines in between some of the areas, and I’ll have to try and make them a little more equal when it comes to painting the design. I’ve also run slightly offline in a few places, leading to a few ugly looking curves and muddled guide marks – so I’ll look to make the design a little more “painterly”, and less looking like a traced copy, when it comes to applying the paint. If the design had been transferred perfectly – I could have always sprayed a thin coat of lacquer over to seal the design, and make it easier to work. But that would only serve to make permanent all of the faults. It should be good enough to work with, and if anything does go wrong – I’ll just have to clean all the graphite lines off, and start over again. For now, at least, it’s time to move onto my test piece of ash – to check which kind of paint works best direct onto the sealed wood, and to see if I can pick up any tips on the right painting technique to get the flattest, most consistent results.

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