Kurt Cobain “Jag-Stang”. Applying a nitro lacquer basecoat to the neck

Right now – I’m hanging back on the order for my JagStang body from the US. Maybe it’s the elections – maybe it’s Covid uncertainty – but since the body will have to be custom cut, and then shipped over here – I’m looking at a long lead time anyway. At least a couple of months. Since the weather will be quite the opposite of ideal in January – I’m thinking that there’s no real rush in pursuing that particular detail right now. But I do have an unfinished neck sitting waiting for lacquer – I can push on with that, and have plenty of time for the lacquer to cure properly.

AllParts (JGRO) Jaguar neck – unfinished, as supplied

Kurt Cobain seemingly favoured a particular Mustang / Jaguar neck with a rosewood fingerboard and a 60’s/CBS style, “large” headstock. I can’t quite match that exactly – but I’ve previously used an AllParts Jaguar neck on my Olympic White “62” Jaguar project, and I really like the 7.25″ neck radius on that. Since the AllParts neck (JGRO) also ticks the boxes for fingerboard wood and headstock style – that’ll be the starting point for my JagStang. The neck had to be sourced from the USA because of stock limitations here in the UK – but I’ve seen them on sale over here from time to time. Perhaps the supply problems are a hangover from the CITES regulations, which clamped down on Rosewood imports, until the end of 2019? The AllParts necks are made in Nagano, Japan – and are usually really well built and pre-finished. This one is no exception, and the maple looks to have been sanded to at least 400 grit. Although the edges of the board are a little bit “new” and “sharp” – the actual finish overall is very smooth. It’s also very clean and very light in colour. This may eventually require a little bit of tinting, as a part of the lacquering process.

Masking off the rosewood slab fingerboard

As with all other lacquer jobs – proper preparation is essential. Even though the wood looks super clean and free from contamination – it always pays to clean off the surfaces. You don’t want to get a super smooth, liquid finish – only to find bits of it flaking off over time. Since the wood is already well prepped – I wipe the bare wood over with a little naptha, (AKA “lighter fluid” – here in the UK). This degreases the surface and also tends to raise any knap left in the wood. After the naptha has dried – if there is any knap raised, (and on this job – there isn’t) – I usually give the maple a light rub over with a grey Scothbrite pad. If there is a slight knap to be removed – it’s better to work across the grain at first, and then polish out along the grain. Repeat if necessary, and then clear off absolutely all the sanding residue with a soft, clean cloth. the wood should now be smooth, clean and keyed for the lacquer application.

Since the rosewood slab board will eventually be oiled, and will therefore remain relatively dull in contrast with the shiny headstock – the board needs to be carefully masked off so the lacquer can’t contaminate it and seal the fingerboard. I’m using a 3M “Blue” painters tape. Pretty much any masking tape will do the job – but use one which will stay in place for a while, without damaging the wood, lifting any previous finish coats or leaving any residue.

At the headstock end – I’ve masked to the maple / rosewood transition line, and I’ll keep it like that for the first few coats. However – I’ve found that if you leave the tape in one place for the whole duration of the lacquer job, you tend to get a distinct physical ridge which needs polishing out. You also tend to get a similar ridge along the edges of the neck, although the lacquer load is usually less here, and the “ridge” is easier to polish out. I’ll eventually remove some tape at the headstock end, and mask off to the nut slot for later coats. This will help blend in the transition, and I can rub the rosewood portion down so that the finish there isn’t too glassy.

Obviously – don’t apply the masking tape if you’ve just had a pie for lunch, or changed the disc brakes on your car. You’ll just transfer residual grease onto your nice, clean maple. At the bare minimum – clean and dry your hands properly before handling the bare wood. Use gloves if you have to – but always remember that a light wipe over with naptha will degrease any accidental contamination. Just be sure to let the naptha dry properly before you proceed with spraying.

Taping up the truss rod adjustment nut

While you have the tape out – it also helps to remember to tape up the truss rod adjustment nut. I tend not to build up too much lacquer over the actual length of the neck, and I taper and feather it out even more towards the heel – but you need at least enough to seal the wood and help build up a consistent, sandable tint coat. I find that a few layers of masking tape – trimmed accurately round the adjustment nut opening with a scalpel, helps to keep most of the undesireable overspray out of the truss rod workings. What little does get past the edges of the tape protector, tends to crack and flake off with a slight twist of the nut.

Plug up those pegboard holes

It’s also essential to plug up those pegboard holes. At least enough so that the lacquer can adhere up to, and over the edges of the holes. (I’ll ream them out to the correct diameter again, before fitting the tuner bushings). You need the lacquer coat to be the correct thickness here so that it’s thick enough to count – but also thin enough so that it doesn’t split or flake when you press the bushings home. Plugging the holes so that there’s a little bit of room for overspray around the edges will stop too much lacquer from building up further down the pegholes, and will make it a much easier job to prep and ream the holes correctly, when it comes to fitting the bushings.

Spraying the back and sides of the neck

Once the neck has been prepped for spraying, since winter is approaching, I make sure the spray booth and surrounding areas have been nicely warmed, in advance. I also warm the spray can(s) by sitting them in a pan of warm water. Warming the booth helps drive away any residual dampness in the air, and should also help keep the spray at a liquid consistency until it hits the wood. Warming the cans, and then shaking them well, helps distribute the can contents evenly. It also seems to help the flow of the lacquer.

I usually spray bodies by hanging them up – but for necks, I like to lay them down on a piece of scrap wood. This means I have to do each side in turn – but I can move the neck around so that I can spray from both sides, and from various different angles. Since I’ll subsequently be adding decals to the headstock – both front and back – I need to seal the bare wood, and provide a flat, thin substrate for the decals. The plan is to spray the whole of the back of the neck and headstock first, and then to repeat the process on the face of the headstock. The edges around the headstock will therefore get a double, overlapping dose of lacquer.

I also want to tint the headstock a little. Because of the dangers of sanding back through tinted coats – making the end result look patchy – I really should apply my tint over the decals. But even then, the tint will need to be submerged below enough clear coat to flat-sand safely. This can result in a very thick, overall coating. I don’t really want a full, vintage type amber stain here, and I’d like to keep the lacquer coat as thin as I possibly can – so I’ll look towards laying a little tint down early on, and underneath the decals – just enough to take the edge off the whiteness of that clean maple. I’ll look to add most of the final, colouring tint as an adjustment – later on in the process.

The first coat of lacquer should be very sparse. Nothing more than a light mist, really. This helps subsequent coats adhere better. I find it easier to apply this first coat by laying the neck down flat, and then spraying thinly along the full length of the neck, from a slight angle, down each side in turn. This helps keep the application reasonably even. I turn the neck around to do each side, (handling it by the supporting board only – you don’t want finger marks in the finish!)

A quick note on spraying. You can get a really professional job – even with rattle-can lacquer. But you need to know what you’re doing with the spray. It really helps to follow the following basic rules, and they go for just about any lacquer job:

  • Plan each pass of the spray in your mind – just before you do it.
  • Position your work properly, and have it well-supported
  • Begin each pass slightly off to one side of the surface to be lacquered, and end it slightly off the other. Always keep the can moving at a steady pace. Don’t stop, start or hold in one particular spot.
  • For each pass – press to spray, hold and then release once the pass is completed.
  • Slightly overlap each spray pass, so that the surface is gradually covered by equally overlapping passes
  • When spraying – keep the spray head an equal distance from the work for all passes. The ideal distance varies – but will depend on the spraying conditions. It’s always adviseable to check with a spare piece of wood, before commencing the actual job.
  • Some rattle cans allow you to turn the spray head nozzle to provide a “fan” of lacquer, oriented either vertically, or horizontally. It’s usually easier to set the spray for a vertical fan, and then apply the lacquer in passes running from left to right, and vice versa.
  • Don’t spray too much lacquer. You’re looking to build the coat up gradually. It’s far easier to spray another thin coat if you miss a bit – than it is to level off a dripping and sagging mess of “orange peel”.
  • Don’t rush the job. You need to let the lacquer dry between coats. This helps stop “orange peeling” and pin-holes. Break the job down into chunks of time, and use the breaks to do something else. If you fuss about and try and rush steps – you’ll just mess things up.
  • If you’re getting towards the end of a tin, or if you notice the pressure dropping in the can – you risk the lacquer “sputtering” onto the job. Save these “can ends” for jobs that don’t matter so much, and you’ll save yourself time, flat sanding out the irregularities.
  • For the absolute best lacquer finishes – get the work super smooth to begin with, and then lightly flat back and key after each coat. (I use a grey Scotchbrite as standard). This does add time to the overall process – since you really need to leave each coat for a day or so, to dry properly. Doing it this way, however – can lead to some super smooth, liquid applications. It drastically cuts down on “orange peeling”, and it saves hours on the final stages of prepping and polishing. I use this approach now more for guitar bodies. Since guitar necks have a smaller application area, and a generally thinnner, finished coverage – it doesn’t really make sense to key every step. Not at this stage anyway – although if you want a super-thin lacquer coverage on the back of a guitar neck – this is the way to go.
  • Finally – Always ventilate your spray area properly. Follow safe procedures and wear a suitable mask at all times. And of course – no naked flames. Nitro is highly flammable.

The mist coat needs about 30 minutes to dry – then I apply the first real coat of clear lacquer. Even then – I tend to keep the first coats thinner than later ones. For a full coat of lacquer, I lay the neck one way, and spray a couple of passes – working from the headstock end towards the heel. I hold the can at a slight angle, and spray down and across the piece – so that both the edges of the neck and the back of the neck gets an even coating. I make sure that the curves on the edge of the headstock are also properly covered. Sometimes, you may need to double up the application at the headstock end – just to make sure. I don’t tend to worry about the heel of the neck too much, although I try to make sure that I get at least a little coverage around the heel whilst I’m doing the sides.

Once the neck has been sprayed from one angle, I turn the piece around and repeat. Again working from the headstock towards the heel, and checking the edges as I go. Once the neck has been sprayed from both directions, I turn the whole piece again, so that the headstock is facing towards me. I can then make sure that the back of the headstock is evenly coated, and that the transitions between passes are nicely blended in. The neck is then left for an hour – to let the first clear coat dry.

I then repeat the process – but this time, I use a clear, light tint amber spray. It always helps to spray tints onto a good coat of clear lacquer. This will, theoretically, allow me to sand off the tint if it all goes horribly wrong. I apply the tint using the method outlined above – but very gradually, to avoid obvious blotches or shaded patches. It’s really just a process of “warming up” the tone of the finish – but it’s surprising just how quickly things can darken, so you have to go slowly. You also really want to avoid drips or sags when using tints. If you have to end up flat-sanding imperfections – you’ll just end up creating light patches in the tint. Go slowly, and build up the lacquer gradually and evenly. Two coats of light amber tint – with an hour to dry between each coat should suffice for now.

Two full coats of tinted lacquer tones the wood, but it’s nowhere near, noticeably “amber”. I’ll probably need to go darker still, but I’ll do that later, and over the decal(s). In the meanwhile, I still need to apply a few light coats of clear, to seal off the tinted coats. The waterslide decals will eventually need a flat, sealed surface to sit on. I don’t really want to make the substrate too thick, knowing that I still have even more lacquer coats to apply over the top. So – once the last tinted coat has had an hour to dry – I repeat the steps with clear lacquer. Because the coats can be a little bit thicker now, I apply two coats – once again, with an hour to dry in between. It’s still important to make sure there are no unwanted drips or sags – so it’s best to go lightly. Once the final coat has been evenly applied – the neck is left to dry again.

Schedule thus far:

  • 1 x light “mist” coat – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time)
  • 1 x medium/light coat – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time)
  • 2 x coats – light amber tint lacquer (1hr drying time between coats)
  • 2 x coats – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time between coats)
Spraying the front of the headstock

So that’s the back of the neck done. I now need to turn the neck over, and repeat all of the above steps – but this time on the face of the headstock. Before doing this, however – I want to make absolutely sure the lacquer on the back of the neck is completely dry. Dry enough so that some protective paper can be taped over, and the neck laid on its’ back. The lacquer, when soft, is still easily marked. When I sprayed the back of the neck – the neck sat on the taped up fingerboard. There was no danger of any overspray falling anywhere it shouldn’t. However – the back of the neck now needs protecting – both from accidental overspray, and from the possibility that sticky lacquer residue on the supporting block might actually dissolve and mark the previous, smooth lacquer job. I use a few thicknesses of regular kitchen towel – taped round onto the fingerboard. This masks off the previous lacquer, and also provides a cushion to pad the neck. To completely eliminate any chance of overspray rebounding onto the rear of the headstock – I position the neck so that the head hangs over the base of my spray booth.

Spraying schedule – repeated for front and edges of headstock:

  • 1 x light “mist” coat – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time)
  • 1 x medium/light coat – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time)
  • 2 x coats – light amber tint lacquer (1hr drying time between coats)
  • 2 x coats – clear nitro lacquer (1hr drying time between coats)

Once the full process is complete, and the neck is touch dry – I remove the paper towel mask and then transfer the neck to a cupboard, to dry and cure completely. I usually lay sprayed necks on a beanbag – with the taped fingerboard side down – so that there’s no actual pressure on any of the newly lacquered surfaces. The decals will need a lightly levelled and keyed lacquer surface to adhere to. I should be able to safely apply the decals, once the lacquer has had about a week to cure.

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