Jimmy Page Tribute “Dragoncaster”. Painting the Dragon.

I want to get on and paint the design onto the body – before the pencil gets smudged, and so that everything has plenty of time to dry thoroughly, before I apply the protective clearcoat. I also need build a bass speaker cabinet – but that’s another project.

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I’ve done a few tests on a spare piece of Ash, which I’ve prepped alongside the Telecaster body. My first discovery is that, although acrylic paints will adhere to the sealer, it’s all too easily removed, and especially prone to scratches. That might actually be a useful thing – but I’m looking for a long-lasting, sturdy paint job. I always thought casein paints would be the way to go, and my test show that the finish provided is highly durable over the sealer coats. Casein, (sometimes called milk paint), can be thinned with water – so it’s possible to thin the paint to a level where it flows and covers nicely. It also tends to dry to a flat, even, matte finish. Since it’s water based, and pretty stable when dry – it’s unlikely to suffer any effects from being buried under clearcoat either – just so long as it’s thoroughly dry.

The only thing with casein paint – is that the availble colour pallette is quite limited. The paint colours are mixable – but unless I’m going to pre-mix all of the colours and use them throughout – it’s always going to be easier with ready mixed colours. The paint colours can sometimes tend to be a little inconsistent in how they dry, so I don’t want to have to mix up extra paint on the fly. Some of the colours also dry a little more translucent than others, and so these, especially, will require extra coats to cover the wood properly. After going through the catalogues of a few of my materials suppliers, I find that Pelikan Plaka is available in 50ml bottles, and in a reasonably useful variety of colours. Importantly – four greens, and several reds. Rather than go on the catalogue reproductions, I buy a bottle of each candidate colour, and try them out on my sample piece of wood – letting them dry, and seeing how they work together. In the end, I settle on:

Pelikan Plaka – Signal Red #23, Blue #30, Orange #15, Green Middle #43.

The colours, especially the green, are little bit different from the original – and they’ll probably darken a little more under the clearcoat. As far as I can see – this is the best combination as regards all the colours working together. The green is perhaps the furthest away from the original – but the alternatives are either too dark, or way too vivid. Whilst researching the design – I came across a few other replica builds who seem to have used a yellow paint to highlight some of the lines in between the various drawn elements. I’m not quite sure where these came from – perhaps a misreading of some, (poor quality), photos of the original? From what I can find out – the design was only ever a four colour job. Perhaps the yellow was an extra colour, included to overpaint some mistakes where areas may have run together across the drawn “tramlines”? Whatever – I’m sticking to a four colour design. I think it looks better that way.

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The other important thing I discovered when running the tests – was that the graphite tracing lines I’ve made on the wood are much too dark. Not only does the carbon leach off into the paint as the brush passes – darkening the colours, but where it remains uncovered by the paint, it stays to make the clear tramlines indistinct and liable to smudging over the final paint job. I use some masking tape and the back of a spoon to rub over the design, bit by bit, to remove any excess carbon, but I manage to leave enough of the design – just light enough to follow – as a guide. I start the painting with the design on the upper bout, and decide to work with the green first. The “spines” of the dragon down the length of the guitar need to be sharp and are a main feature of the overall design. It’ll be a challenge to get these as sharp as they need to be – so I don’t want to leave these until last. Just in case…

The work on the upper bout has to be precise – but it’s also a good way to get my eye in, and to find out the best brushes for the job. No rush – but this may take some time.

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When I get to the “spines” I decide to try a latex masking fluid. This enables me to draw the edges of the spines in negative, and so get a much sharper end result. Latex masking fluid can be pretty tricky to work with. First rule – Don’t ever shake the bottle. Shake the bottle, and you inexplicably end up with a globby, sticky mess. Let it dry too much, and it goes all stringy – pulling off other bits you’ve already painted on. Let it dry on your brushes, and you’ll need to buy new ones. For that reason alone, it’s always wise to have a jar of water by the side which has a drop of washing up liquid added. If you keep your brushes clean with this water, it’ll help lubricate them and keep the latex flowing. It’ll also make your brushes easier to clean when you’re finished. It can help to use a little bit of this, slightly soapy, water to thin the latex in a mixing palette – but you need to experiment. 

Get it all right, and it’s then possible to add the latex mask lines quickly – in as few strokes as possible. Then – let it all dry thoroughly.

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Once the latex is properly dry – it’s virtually invisible – so it helps to work into a light, so that it shows up as a slightly shiny coating. Then, I can paint the green spines, using the masking fluid as a resistant edge. Water paint and latex don’t mix. The paint takes a little while to dry properly – so there’s no point in rushing things, but once the paint is dry enough so that it won’t rub off at all – the latex can be peeled off and “rolled” back. It helps to use bits of removed latex to roll over any other, stubborn little bits that are left. Don’t scrub or pick at it with your fingers. The latex sticks to itself much more readily than any other surface, and you can therefore avoid too much overall rubbing or scratching, which might damage or dull the painting. The end result needs a bit of patching here and there – but looks to have provided the necessary sharp spines where they matter most. It would have been difficult to do these with just a fine brush and a steady hand. A few bits of patching to restore and properly define some of the curves, and the “spines” are gradually integrated with the rest of the painting. I move on, and around the body.

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And then it’s just a question of time and patience. Since at least two coats of paint are to be added for each colour, I’m working with the green and red first, then the blue, and finally the orange. The orange is the lightest, most translucent colour. Since it’ll be the last coat to be added – it’ll also be the first to be completed with the final coat. The edges can then be defined by painting “over” the orange, with the darker colours. This is important in several areas where the colours butt right up against each other. The orange just doesn’t have the necessary opacity to fully block out any of the other colours. So the sequence will be green, red, blue, orange, orange, blue, red, and green.

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It’s impossible to paint some areas without working across the design. So it’s vital to make sure I don’t accidentally smudge any of the painting as I go. The casein paint is pretty permanent, and can’t easily be removed if there’s a mistake. For the very edges of the guitar – it helps to have a piece of wood the same thickness as the body, to lean on – so that my hand isn’t left hanging as I paint. Beyond that – the only real tips are to take things slowly – let things dry properly as you go, and to always let the brush do the work, especially when it comes to the curves. I also found it useful to check the design, with a standard Telecaster scratchplate, as I went – just to make sure the curves in the design work. They want to follow and work with the outline of the scratchplate – especially at the top of the neck pocket, at the bottom curve between the two bouts, and along the top curve. Although the eventual scratchplate will be somewhat modified – the shape of much of the plate will be based on the shape of a standard Tele scratchplate.

And so, after, (a few), days…

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When painting the first coats – I noticed an area where the grain filling hadn’t gone according to plan. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an area which would later be hidden by either the bridge or the scratchplate. I had to decide whether to try and tackle it and risk damaging the painting, or let it go and run the risk of the lacquer pin-holing, or otherwise shrinking into the grain. In the end, I decided on a bit of micro-surgery. Using a couple of very fine scalpels and razor-blades, I managed to fill the offending grain with some undiluted grain filler. Although this discoloured the first coats of paint, it was possible to carefully scrape away the excess filler and then scratch-away the discoloured paint. (It helps to work away from the “tramlines” and into each of the affected colour areas in turn. That way, any contamination can be limited in effect, and you can try to keep things as clean and undisturbed as possible within the clear tramlines). Then, with the filled grain left to dry, a couple of extra coats of casein over the top restored the sharpness of the design and covered up any sign of filler residue.

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Where the “tramlines” had discoloured, I managed to gently scrape away a tiny bit of the top layer of sanding sealer. You can still probably just about see where the filler has been – but only if you know what you’re looking for. Hopefully, it’ll all disappear under a shiny, polished clearcoat.

And so with the painted design complete, it’s time to lay it all aside for a while to thoroughly dry. The next job will be to build up some coats of clear lacquer to seal the artwork, and to begin to build up a full coat for polishing. The weather, as yet, still isn’t up to the ideal for that sort of thing – so I’ll put the Telecaster body back into it’s storage box for a few weeks. In the meanwhile, I’ll need to source a suitable neck. And I really need to get on with that bass cabinet too…

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