The clearcoat has shrunk back, and the finish looks pretty level. There’s a decent amount of reflection there before I even start. There is, however, a slight amount of “orange peeling”, together with a few slugs of overspray spatter here and there – but nothing that’ll cause too many problems.
The body has been curing since the end of June. I had put a reminder in my “Outlook” calendar and, coincidentally, the Don Mare pickups I ordered way back in March turned up on exactly the same day that my calendar popped up with the “two month clearcoat drying” notification. A bass cabinet, and a Black Strat have conspired to keep the Dragoncaster on the back burner throughout September, but polishing time has finally arrived.
Polishing the body doesn’t really take much. Just elbow grease, a methodical approach, patience and the ability to let your mind wander while the lengthy and repetitive process of polishing grinds on. I plan to take a couple of days to work up the best finish I can manage, with the tools I have at my disposal.
I worked out that I’ll need to run through about a dozen different stages of polishing. Working first, through a series of wet and dry papers – before following on with a series of different grades of Micro Mesh. All this before a mechanical polish with swirl remover, and a final application of Fine Carnauba Wax Polish. I figure I’ll do the wet and dry papers on day one, and then the Micro Mesh and final polish on day two.
I use good quality wet and dry papers by Mirka. They don’t seem to clog too easily. I use naptha to lubricate the papers, rather than water – since the naptha evaporates off harmlessly and doesn’t leave a residue. It does mean you have to constantly re-wet the work, but it’s convenient, and it cleans up well. Water can soak into the wood, and I’ve noticed it can cause swelling of the wood fibres, and cracking of the clearcoat – especially at drilled and routed openings. I wrap the papers around a cork block, which has slightly rounded corners. This keeps the papers flat – but also helps stop the edges from grabbing, and causing witness marks. The process of polishing takes a methodical approach – working across the entire body, and knocking back the finish just enough to provide a consistent level of flat-sanding for each pass. Great care needs to be taken on the rounded edges – where too heavy sanding can easily cut straight through to the wood below. I tend to leave the edges alone until the very end of each pass – and then just wipe gently around the outside edges with the paper, before moving on. That seems to be enough. The hardest bits to get right are around the neck cutouts. It’s easy to overlook these bits and they’re sometimes tricky to access. It’s equally easy to overwork them too.
The first pass – at 800 grit – takes the longest, and removes the most material. It’s important to keep the block moving, and not to oversand in any one, particular place. It’s this first pass which really gets to grips with the “orange peel” and any other slight irregularites on the clearcoat surface. The first pass knocks the entire finish back to an even, matte state – where there are no high or low spots, and everything can then begin to be polished up from that base. It’s important that the block is kept flat at all times, and this is the basis of a good, fault-free, divot-free finish. It’s important to keep the grit papers unclogged as you work – I tend to wipe them on my fashionable apron-front as I go. A little naptha also helps to keep the papers moving, and cutting properly.
After a fair bit of fussing, it takes me about two hours to do this first pass. Once the finish looks completely even over the entire surface, I can switch up to 1000 grit, and repeat the entire process yet again. Further passes with 1200 and 1500 grit take up the rest of the day, but by then the surface is beginning to shine – a little hazily at first, but each, successively finer grit, reveals a little more detail in the reflection. I find it essential to work against a source of light – a lamp or a well-lit window. Only then can you begin to see the shine really develop. You can also pick up any tiny little faults much easier, and also ensure the finish is developing evenly.
The second day of polishing moves onto passes with Micro mesh. I’m using a set of cushioned cloths – which are sized to work well with my cork block. I keep using naptha to lubricate the work, and to ensure that I keep the matrix of the sheets clean and unclogged. The meshes are so fine – that even the smallest clog can lead to big scratches in the finish. If anything like that does happen, it tends to slow the whole process down. Any scratches like this need to be re-worked over with a slightly coarser grit. It’s essentially a localised re-polish – but you need to work just the general area of the scratch at first, and then begin to gradually feather-into the surrounding area with lighter grits until the whole face is back up to the same level of shine again. The approach to fixing faults needs to be subtle and blended-in, so that the end result is a consistent, shiny, flat finish.
The first mesh is a repeat at 1500 grit – and a chance to review yesterdays work. The Micro Mesh cloths work from 1500 grit, right through to 12000 – There are eight steps in total, so it’s a lot of work to keep plodding through the process methodically. But with every pass, the shine becomes more and more apparent, tiny scatches and swirls begin to disappear, and the whole body begins to take on a rich, liquid shine.
In fact, it takes the entire second day to work through the Micro Mesh sheets – but at the end of the second day, the body already begins to display a highly reflective shine. Even then – there are still some extremely fine swirl marks remaining. That’s something I’ll look to improve on with the final, mechanical polish coats.
I use a mechanical, electric hand buffer – the sort of thing you get to polish car bodies on a Sunday afternoon. It’s got a 7″ radius polishing head, which works well on the flat faces of guitar bodies – (although I still have to do some of the tighter curves around the edges by hand. I could really do with a smaller, detail polisher). I keep separate applicator and polishing bonnets for the two stage process – so that’s four bonnets in all. The first pass, with Meguilars SwirlX 2.0, swirl remover does most of the work. Using the electric buffer means I have to keep the head moving at all times – it’s still possible to wear entirely through the finish if you leave the pressure on a single spot. It’s also easy to get carried away and to keep polishing too long. It might be very fine, but swirl remover is and abrasive, and it’ll eventually eat right through your clearcoat, if you machine it too long.
Once the swirl remover has done it’s job, it’s time to apply a final, protective polish coat. I use Meguilars Carnauba Wax, and I apply a very small amount with a soft cloth. Once the polish has dried to a chalky finish – the mechanical buffer and a soft, wool buffing head soon provides the highly polished and lustrous finish I’ve been looking forward to seeing on the Dragoncaster body.
The body is already pre-drilled for the bridge attachment screws, and for the string ferrules on the back. Now that the clearcoat has been polished, I can take a suitable drill bit, and ream out the ferrule holes, so that the nickel, vintage style ferrules push easily into place. I use a small dab of superglue to hold each securely. Since they won’t actually be in use – there will be no strings running through to keep them secure.
Although the bridge screw holes are already pre-drilled, I need to re-tap them to clear out any lacquer, sealer or dried polish that’s got stuck down there. While I’m at it, I also countersink the outer edges of the holes, by hand-turning a suitable drill bit anti-clockwise around each, in turn. This burrs off any hard lacquer edge, and is supposed to stop the screws from lifting the lacquer as they tunnel downwards.
The bridge is the first of the important bits of hardware to be fitted, and it’s one which is totally independent of the fitting of any other components – unlike, for instance, the control plate, which relies on the correct positioning of the scratchplate, (which itself relies on the correct fitting of the neck, and neck pickup). The bridge is a Fender Vintage, “Pat, Pend.” style bridge, with nickel, turned saddles. The bridge is drilled, (as is the body) for through stringing but – importantly – the bridge plate is also drilled along the bottom edge for “toploading”. This is an important period detail of Jimmy Page’s original guitar. Fender produced toploading bridges for only a very short period, at the end of the 1950’s. Toploading the strings, (or fitting them through the plate – rather than through the body), is an important technical feature of Page’s original guitar. It is supposed to provide a “slinkier” feel to the strings, along with specific tonal characteristics. The bridge is an original Fender part, but custom-modified by The Rhoadhouse, in Brighton.
The stainless steel screws are lubricated with wax, and are then driven into the tapped holes – securing the bridge plate tight against the body. It’ll need taking off and re-fitting a few more times yet – but a test fit at this stage is good for morale, and I can begin to see the “Dragoncaster” finally coming together. And just look at that shine!