Jimmy Page Tribute “Dragoncaster”. Clearcoating – First stages.

The casein painted design on the Dragoncaster body has now dried thoroughly. Whilst conditions still aren’t perfect for clearcoating – I want to make a start on this lengthy process. Don Mare is still winding my pickups – so there’s no great rush, and getting the best possible finish will take plenty of time. I want to get on with it – not only to bring the end of the project closer – but also to begin to start protecting the delicate painted finish from possible damage.

The casein paint has dried with quite a few brush and flow marks. I tried to thin the paint out to avoid this as much as possible – but the paint was always going to sit on the surface of the sealed wood, and subsequent coats tend to build up a little unevenly due to the solids in the paint. The different colours seem to behave differently. The protein binder in the paint will have bound as well as it could to the underlying substrate – but the matte finish it provides can be easily marked, and a concerted effort will scratch and chip the finish off. It makes sense to get the first coats of protective, clear lacquer onto the body as soon as possible.

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So – out comes my trusty painting stick and, after a small amount of masking tape has been applied and trimmed to protect the inside edges of the neck pocket, the stick is screwed into place to act as a handle. The painting stick is just about long enough to turn and manipulate the guitar body as I spray – and it also has a hook at one end, which allows me to hang the body up in the painting booth, for both spraying and drying purposes.

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Just before I hang the body for the first spraying, I make sure the string through-holes on the back of the guitar are plugged up with small amounts of paper towel. I intend to try and sink the ferrules into the holes as drilled – so I don’t want to have too much lacquer building up here. I may have to ream the holes out again once the lacquer has cured – but I know how delicate the lacquer coat can be on the edges of openings, and how easily it can be fractured. Also – I want to try and stop up the fine string holes.

Since the weather still isn’t as warm and dry as I’d like, I take the opportunity to warm the workshop up for an hour or two before I start. It also helps to immerse the spray can of lacquer in warm water for 10 or 20 minutes – just to make sure that the spray is fine and non-clogging. Warmer lacquer seems to spray finer, and flows better. Warming the workshop helps keep the spray from hitting cold air too quickly. I want the spray to be a flowing liquid – not a powdery overspray.

I’ve bought new filters for my spray mask. No matter how good your mask is – the smell and taste of nitro sems to seep everywhere, and new active carbon filters are a must. I try to change them every few jobs. When I was studying screen-printing at art school, we used a screen cleaner called Sericol. Of course – we were too young and stupid to consider listening to, whatever passed as Health and Safety advice in those days. That is – we didn’t listen until we’d spent one evening hallucinating wild animals crawling over the walls of our local pub, after an afternoon’s printing session. Lesson learned. Wear your safety masks kids. And put that fag out too!

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As with all nitro spraying – the first coats are light, mist coats. You want to maximise adhesion – not try and lay down all the coats in one. For these first, critical coats, I usually manipulate the guitar body with the painting stick. This can be hard on the arms – but it allows the guitar to be turned sideways on – so that the sides of the guitar, and the insides of the neck cutaways can be reached more easily with the spray. Once the tricky areas and edges have been given a light coat, I then hang the body from the ceiling with the hook on the painting stick and lightly coat each of the faces of the body in turn. It helps to angle the body, so that the spray flows onto the wood, rather than hitting straight on, and then being blown about by the force of the spray. You always need to keep the spray nozzle equidistant from the surface, if you can, and keep it far enough away to achieve the ideal coverage. I usually aim for anywhere between 6 and 18 inches. It’s useful to try out your technique on a test piece before starting on the actual body. Keep the spray moving at all times, and cover with a series of even, overlapping passes. For best results – I try to start and end each spray, “off the work” – moving the spray on to, across the body, and then off the other side, before finishing each pass.

After the first light, even mist coat – I let the lacquer go off in the warm workshop. 15 minutes is all it takes to get touch dry – although I tend to leave it for an hour, before I return to repeat with a second light coat. Eventually, a third coat is applied in exactly the same manner – but this third coat can start to get a bit heavier. Between each coat – I check the body over for dust contamination. It’s easy if you work into the light, and also work with a good task light on the piece. It’s amazing just how many bits of lint and debris seem to float about in the air. A tack cloth can be useful – but sometimes I find that the glue on some tack cloths is too soft and sticky. This can cause more problems than it solves. I usually use an anti-static, goat hair brush to sweep the surfaces, and keep them free from as much dust as possible. At this stage – most stray contamination can be simply brushed off. The lacquer coats aren’t so thick as to completely drown any loose fibres. If something does get caught in the spray – it’s easy to lightly sand it off. Sometimes, bits of dust will literally rub off, once the coat of lacquer is dry. Once I get onto thicker coats – contamination can become more of a problem. I may have to rig up some proper dust screening if things get out of hand.

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For the Dragoncaster, I want to try and use as thin a coat of nitro lacquer as possible. That shouldn’t be a problem on the back and sides. As long as I can get a few, substantial but consistent, coats there – with as little “orange peeling” as possible to smooth out – I should be able to flat back the lacquer and polish the body up nicely. On the painted face, I may have to apply quite a few more coats to begin to “bury” the painted design under the lacquer. I’m anticipating the process to be a bit like the process which buries waterslide decals under lacquer. After a few coats have been applied, the lacquer is left to cure fully. In curing, the lacquer tightens and shrinks back considerably – so, whilst a hollow may look filled when the lacquer is wet – it’s almost certain to show through again, once the lacquer has dried. That’s why grain filling on ash and mahogany is so important. Filling the grain using only clearcoat lacquer would take forever.

Levelling over the painted design needs to be achieved by building up lacquer in coats – with some later flatting of the surface required – preferably when the lacquer is fully cured. It’s intended to flood low points with lacquer, and then subsequent flat-sanding can reduce high spots. By tackling the task in stages, and with plenty of time to let the lacquer dry and shrink properly, it’s usually possible to gradually raise the low spots with lacquer, and lower the high spots by lightly sanding back – enough to eventually meet at a level mid-point. If it’s done correctly, and not rushed – it should be possible to bury the painted design entirely within the sprayed and levelled lacquer. The difficult task is to make that lacquer coat as thin as possible, whilst not sanding through into the actual design at any point.

So back with the Dragoncaster body – once a few light coats have been built up over the whole body, I begin to apply a couple of heavier, overall coats. This time, the warmed lacquer is sprayed as a series of passes. I usually build up a single coat by making three lighter passes – each one from a slightly different angle. I try to make sure that the passes on the edges combine with passes on each of the faces, so that the edges of the guitar get a good coverage too, and that the coverage, in general, over the whole guitar is consistent and even.

After each series of passes, the sprayed coat is left to dry for an hour. I then repeat the process. After the general coats have “gone off” and become dry to the touch, I take the guitar down from the hanging hook, and use a small table in the spray booth to lay the body face up. Several thicker coats are then applied over the painted face of the guitar – again, letting the spray feather over the edges and sides of the body. After a couple of heavy coats have been applied to the painted design – I’ve used up the first can of clearcoat. I don’t want to have to use more than three cans for the whole job, if at all possible, (and that includes the neck!). So, I now intend to leave the body to dry for a good week or so – to see how the lacquer shrinks back. Looking into the light, I am quite surprised to see some of the grain of the sealed ash peeking through. I thought that was as smooth as glass, after the care I’d given to the grain-filling. It just goes to show. Anyway – let’s see what the body looks like in a week or two’s time. I may have to fix some of the grain irregularities under subsequent layers of lacquer.

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The other thing to note – once the lacquer has dried – is the difference in colour that the lacquer brings to the bare wood. Archive colours of Jimmy Page’s original show it to be quite an orange tone, wheras new ash can be quite pale. If anything – the initial coats of sealer and nitro have produced a slight darkening in tone – but nowhere near as much as I have experienced with other woods. If the wood doesn’t begin to show any warming or darkening of tone, I may consider applying a couple of coats of Light Amber Tint lacquer over the base clearcoat, before building up the clear coat, over the top. Of course – some yellowing of nitro lacquer over time is quite natural, so it’d be a mistake to over-tint the body, at the beginning. A little may help establish a bit of a vintage tone, but I’ll need to make sure that the tinted layers are safely isolated under enough clear lacquer. If there’s a danger of sanding into the tinted layer – then there’s a risk that the tint will become patchy.

For now – I just have to let the clear lacquer do its’ thing. The guitar body is put away where it will remain at a pretty even temperature. Not too warm, not too cold. I’ll have another look in a week or two, to see how things are going.

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