Natural Ash Stratocaster – Body finishing

The new body for my Ash Strat has arrived. As my previous post highlights – the shape seems much more authentic, and the quality of finish is excellent. Despite my satisfaction – I’ve already given it a good check over. I’ve filled and sanded a few slight drags in the neck pocket end grain, and have given the whole body a fine dry sanding at 500 grit.

I’m using a Penetrating Guitar Finishing Oil from Crimson guitars. This is an excellent looking, and well performing protection coat for timber. I used it on the previous Ash body, and have always been really happy with it. This time – I want to really push the application, and try for an ultra-thin, but full gloss finish.

There are a few helpful videos online from Ben at Crimson Guitars. If you need help using this stuff – there’s no better place to look. His approach is to apply the oil with wet and dry paper – and to literally sand the oil into the wood. As the oil penetrates and soaks in, it mixes with the fine wood dust from the sanding procedure. This is pushed into the pores in the wood, and as the oil cures and hardens – the wood is coated and, simultaneously, grain filled.

To achieve a good shine – I’m going to have to build the finish up in layers – each time working with finer and finer abrasives. It’s vitally important therefore – to ensure that absolutely all of the excess oil is removed after each application. To keep the eventual finished coat to a minimum thickness – virtually only just the oil that has penetrated the wood should remain. For the first coats I use wet and dry paper – but after 3200 grit, I’ll be working with a series of Micro mesh pads. For the curved surfaces and edges – I can wrap the paper around my fingers – but for flat areas, it’s vital to use a backing block to ensure that there aren’t any drags or divots left behind.

Since the body is already well-finished, the first coat of oil is rubbed in with 500 grit paper. The oil is applied as evenly as possible – working it into the grain pores, along the lines of grain. Once the oil begins to get tacky, (and it goes off quite quickly in this heat), I take a bit of kitchen towel type, absorbent paper – and begin to wipe off all the excess oil on the surface. You really need to check that there isn’t any oil left in any of the drilled openings – so it helps to hang the piece up for a little while – to see what emerges. Once virtually all of the excess oil is wiped away – the wood retains a slight colour change. The end grain darkens noticeably – but I want to keep the faces as light as possible. If I run through all the grits available – I’m probably looking at a dozen coats at least. I don’t want the wood to colour up much, at all.

With each coat – It’s important to hang and leave the piece every now and again, to let any excess oil seep out of the wood. I begin to establish a sort of working rythmn. The oil is applied, and worked into the surface with the wet and dry paper. The oil is left to tack up a little – and then the whole piece is wiped dry. It’s then hung to harden, and periodically wiped over again, every half hour or so for a couple of hours. Then, it’s wiped over again every hour or so for the rest of the working day. Later on in the day – I start using a slightly harder paper, instead of the kitchen towel. There’s very little oil coming off at this stage – if any. It’s virtually cured, but what’s left on the surface must still be slightly soft. I find that using a harder paper at this stage – screwed up into loose balls and rubbed lightly over the surface – helps to burnish the surface finely. I use a sort of acid free tracing paper. It reminds me a bit of the old “Izal” and “Bronco” brand toilet papers – albeit considerably gentler.

The process is repeated daily through the full range of wet and dry papers. 500, 800, 1000, 1200, 1500, 2000 and 2500. The constant re-oiling and subsequent burnishing builds the oil coat up in exceptionally fine coats. After seven coats – there’s minimal noticeable colour change, and the surface is beginning to take on a lovely mellow shine.

The daily procedure continues through six grades of Micro Mesh – all the way up to 12000 grit. The final level of finish doesn’t quite have the liquid shine of a lacquer coat – but the overall look and feel of the body is exceptional. The long, drawn out process is certainly worth the effort. The final protective coat is ultra thin on the surface, but will have penetrated deeply – filling all the open pores. In theory – this should be the best possible option to get the best sonic characteristics from the tonewood.

After a few days to let the oil cure fully – I give the body a final protective coat of Renaissance Wax. It helps the wax to flow if you gently heat the applicating cloth first – but in this heat there’s no real need. The wax dries in a few minutes as the solvents evaporate off. Then all it takes is a gentle buff with a soft cloth – and the character and full shine of the oiled body is revealed. It looks great – but I also can’t over-emphasise just how good the body feels.

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