Kurt Cobain “Jag-Stang”. Applying and sealing headstock decals

To properly bury waterslide decals in the lacquer matrix – you really need to apply quite a few layers of lacquer over the top, so that you have enough to flat sand without degrading the decals themselves. But you also need to build up enough to incorporate amber tint coats, as well. You need to have enough clear lacquer on top of any tints, to flat sand back without cutting into the tint layers. That’s potentially a lot of lacquer, and in the past I’ve had some issues with headstock coats getting too thick. Whilst they finish the headstock well – they’re quite fragile and are prone to cracking and flaking when they’re drilled for string trees and tuners.

The first lacquer base coats have now dried

As I’ve become more experienced with lacquer spraying – I’ve sort of arrived at a technique which tries to keep the coats as thin as possible. It’s partly about being economical, but there’s also a general theory that thinner lacquer means a more “honest” and “open” sound from the finished guitar.

The first base coats for the neck lacquer are now reasonably well cured, and the coverage is quite flat and consistent. This is largely down to applying thin, even coats – and not overloading or flooding the surface of the wood. Because the coats are only thin – they’ve dried quite hard in about a week. The decals need a sealed and smooth substrate – so the first thing I need to do is flatten, and then key, the first lacquer basecoats.

Headstock after flat-sanding

I do this with some 800 grit paper over a cork backing block. A little naptha is used to lubricate the paper – but this is only a very light sand. I just need to get rid of any tiny imperfections, and flat the surface down to a consistent, slightly dull finish. It’s important not to let the abrasive roll over the edges of the headstock too much. If you press too heavy – the abrasive seems to bite especially keenly there. The entire headstock is sanded – including around the edge curves.

Since the lacquer on the length of the neck, and down towards the heel, is thinner – and since I don’t want a thick build up there anyway – I use a grey Scothbrite pad to rub the lacquer right back along the neck. This makes the length of the neck incredibly smooth and silky, and although a few more layers of lacquer will eventually be applied along the neck – I’ll ultimately be sanding back to this sort of, eminently playable, satin quality. Finally – I give the headstock a gentle going over, front and back, with the grey Scothchbrite pad. This allows me to blend and feather the lacquer on the headstock into the neck, around the neck join. It also keys the whole surface nicely – ready for the decals, and more applications of lacquer.

It always pays to keep things scrupulously clean when working with lacquer. Now’s a good time to give everything a good wipe over, and to remove any powdered residue from the sanding process. Sometimes – if it mixes with the lubricating naptha – it can dry into troublesome plaques as the naptha evaporates off. They can sometimes be hard to spot – so it’s always worth taking the time to closely inspect the work as you progress. Sometimes – the paper plugs in the pegholes begin to get discoloured and clogged. If that’s the case – don’t risk it – replace the plugs rather than risk surface contamination.

Plan where you want the decals

On this build, I’ve got decals for both the front of the headstock and the back. The more visible one – the “Fender” on the front of the headstock is the larger, and will be the more visible of the two. It makes sense to do the smaller decal on the back of the headstock first. If there’s anything wrong with my materials, preparation or approach – it’ll be much easier to strip things back and make good there, without leaving too many tell-tale signs.

The Fender production models of the signature Kurt Cobain JagStang, carried a decal on the back of the headstock – “Designed by Kurt Cobain”. Rather than try to duplicate the original, I’ve managed to find a reproduction KC “autograph” in waterslide form. It’s all a bit unnescessary – but it’ll tip my hat to the original designer of this hybrid offset, and mark this particular incarnation an individual one-off. When I source decals from suppliers – I usually make sure to buy two at a time. A spare is always useful, since applying these things can sometimes prove to be quite tricky.

I’m not going to overthink the placement – I just want it to look fairly incidental. Somewhere in the middle of the meat of the headstock. It doesn’t have to exactly line up with anything – but it sort of makes sense to roughly sit in line with the tuners. Like I say – I’m not going to overthink an incidental detail like this.

With any decal – you need to trim it down so there’s not too much excess paper surrounding the print. However – you do need to leave enough so that you can sand into it later, without abrading the design. As you trim it, (use sharp scissors), it helps to keep the edge as one, continuous, smooth curve. If you cut sharp angles, you create points of stress where the waterslide film can easily tear. Lay out the trimmed decal where it’s going to be attached, and settle on it’s positioning. Once you start – you don’t want to be changing your mind about these things.

Applying the decal

Get yourself a bowl of warm water, and drop the decal in. It’ll probably curl up a little, and then flatten out again. If it stays curled – you may have to intervene and gently unroll it. Do this with great care. The decal will begin to become detatched from it’s backing. Move the decal gently, so that it’s floating in the water, and in the middle of the bowl. Apply a few drops of water from the bowl, onto the area where the decal is going to sit. This will help it slide into it’s final position.

Waterslide films seem to vary – and some suppliers will tell you it’s OK to apply the decals after as little as 20 seconds in the water. I always leave mine for a full two minutes. If you don’t leave them long enough – you risk tearing them as you slide them. Conversely, you can easily leave the decals too long – so that they detach from their backing and float off, (if this happens they’re pretty much useless) – but I’ve found that two minutes usually gives good results.

Once the decal has had time to soak, the film is still attached to its’ backing paper – but it can slide freely. You need to carefully get the decal out of the water with the backing paper still attached, and then lay both flat onto the moistened wood, (obviously – decal on top – right side up). The decal itself should then slide easily off the backing paper, and onto the surface of the wood – lubricated by the excess water. Actually – the safest technique is to move the decal slightly to one side, and then pull out the backing paper from underneath – that way the decal will stay roughly in position, and shouldn’t ruck up, crease or split. The decal, on it’s own, is incredibly delicate – but you should now be able to gently move it , and fine tune it’s final position, as it floats on its’ cushion of water. It’s still possible, at this stage, to add a few extra drips of water onto the surface to help keep the decal lubricated, should you find you need it.

Waterslide decal – attached and drying

Once in position – begin by drying off some of the excess water around the area, with absorbent paper towels. Avoid touching the decal at first. Work around it, and let the absorbent paper do most of the work. When most of the surface water is absorbed, you can then begin to use some fresh paper towel to gently press the decal into position – mopping up any water which is squeezed out from underneath. The idea is to remove all of the excess water – together with any trapped bubbles of water and air from underneath the decal, (although if you’ve done it right – there won’t be any air bubbles). As you gently press down, it’s best to work outwards from the centre if you can – to avoid any bubbles of water getting permanently trapped. Always press gently – do not scrub from side to side, or you risk tearing the delicate film. Eventually, surface tension and a light, water based adhesive, is all that is left underneath the film – and the decal sticks firmly in position.

Once you start pressing down – you really can’t attempt to move the decal again. If you do need to make final adjustments – do it while the decal is still floating on a thin film of water, and even then – always move it gently and slowly. The larger the decal – the harder they are to move.

Applied decal after 24 hours drying time

Once all of the excess moisture has been dabbed off – the decal needs a full 24 hours to dry properly.

Applying the first protective lacquer mist coat over the decal

Next day – it’s back to the spray booth. The decal is completely dry – but the thin film is prone to damage from mis-handling and, accidents do happen. I’m going to spray some protective lacquer over the decal before I apply the other decal on the face of the headstock.

It’s important to note – that not all decals are produced to work with nitrocellulose lacquer. Check with the supplier first. The worst thing that can happen is that the nitro reacts with the printing inks, or the alcohol in the spray begins to actually dissolve the thin plastic film the decal sits on. Always check suitability first. You really don’t want to have to strip off a melted decal and all that lacquer again.

The best decals always seem to come with a light misting of lacquer already applied. If the decal already has a light spray of lacquer – then applying another light mist over the top will slightly melt the original layer, as well as the surrounding area. It will begin to “bed” the decal in place. (The actual film of the decal might also soften and melt – but if you do it gradually, and leave time for the decal to adjust – then the effects shouldn’t distort the graphic).

The idea is to gradually bury the decal, and effectively melt it into successive layers of lacquer – but then to flat sand the entire area, so that the edges of the decal become completely invisible. It’s important to make the first layers of extra lacquer as fine as possible – so that any adverse reactions to the inks or to the decal film itself, are controlled as much as possible.

First, fine application of lacquer over the decal

Spraying lacquer this time is much more localised at the headstock- and I only run the spray down the neck every now and again – just to feather and blend in the overall application. Because the first few applications are very fine – this will be quite a lengthy overall process. Not much action – but plenty of waiting time. But you can’t rush it if you want a decent result. A few seconds to spray an even, light coat – and then an hour or so for the lacquer to dry. Repeat. As the applications build up – and providing there has been enough time between coats to allow for the lacquer to do its’ thing – you can begin to make later applications a little thicker. Each time – the decal appears to be buried, but as the lacquer shrinks back, the edges of the decal begin to appear again.

Subsequent, thicker coats of lacquer begin to bury the edges of the decal

Before you attempt any flatting back – you need to build up enough lacquer over the decal so that you won’t eventually risk sanding back into the actual design as you level everything up. Usually, at least four or five coats will do it, to begin with. Obviously, the application will be getting quite thick around the tuner openings – (and bear in mind I’ll eventually have to drill the back of the headstock for the tuner screws). Because drilling through thick lacquer can be troublesome – it’s adviseable to keep the lacquer thickness to a minimum here, as much as you possibly can. Either by carefully directing the spray, or by later removing a little more in this area. Either way – lacquer applications should be carefully planned so that the lacquer is feathered in everywhere, and looks consistent. You don’t want obvious spray marks or ridges anywhere, if you can help it.

When spraying the lacquer – it makes sense to vary the angle of attack. This helps combine each application, and also allows a slight overspray to different areas of the headstock sides. Making sure any application is targeted at the flat surfaces, as well as the sides, helps ensure a good coverage at the edges. These can often be overlooked. Keep the nozzle of the spray close enough to the work so that a good coverage is achieved – and without too much dry overspray. However – keep the nozzle far enough away from the work so that the pressure of the propellant doesn’t actually blow and distort the surface of the liquid lacquer. Conditions always vary – so if in doubt, keep a spare piece of timber handy and do a dry run first.

First decal secure…

Eventually – I build up five decent coats. That will be more than enough to begin with. The neck is transferred to the drying cupboard, and left for at least 24 hours – so that the lacquer can harden. Bear in mind that even though the lacquer might be touch dry on the surface – it can still be quite soft underneath, at first. You don’t want to leave marks or indents which can’t easily be polished out. As always with lacquer – take your time.

Applying the Fender headstock decal

In the event – I leave the neck for a full 48 hours to allow the lacquer to dry on the rear of the headstock. After another clean down, I prepare the face of the headstock in exactly the same way as previous. The first lacquer has already been flat sanded – so after I degrease the surface with naptha, and allow it to dry properly, I can cut out the Fender decal, and mock up its’ placement.

I’ve looked at a few options for the logo. I don’t want to use a full “JagStang” decal, since Kurt’s original prototype didn’t display the “JagStang” name either. Only the Japanese Fender production models had that. Instead – I’ve opted for a reproduction, 1965 Jaguar marque – trimmed to “lose” the Jaguar bit. (It’ll still display the superfluous Jaguar patent numbers below – but trimming these off may bring the edge of the decal too close to the printed design. I’ll leave these on as an “obvious mistake”). As I say – the 1965 marque was selected from a few options available – but this seemed to be the best overall reproduction compared with the rest of the bunch, and the gold outline is real gilding – not the brown painted approximation you sometimes find. The scale and aspect ratio of the logo also seems much more accurate to my eye. I know most of the authentic “reproductions” out there are just unauthorised prints run off on laser printers – but how some end up getting wildly scaled in one particular direction is beyond me. Maybe it’s my experience with graphic design over the years – but that sort of thing just screams out at me. I’m not interested in badging the build as a fake, and trying to pass it all on with the intent to decieve – but, at least, I’d like it to reflect the overall quality of the original. I’ll be putting in quite a few hours on the project, and I want it to be the best I can make it.

Fender decal, in position. In the process of pressing down.

The decal is applied in the usual manner. I’m placing it where it would usually lie – rather than moving it along to the right to compensate for the lack of a model name. I just think it looks neater this way. Obviously – with Kurt’s original JagStang being a leftie – the original logo sort of floated in the middle of the upturned “hook” of the headstock, and above the strings, rather than below. Weird. I always thought the various Fender logos look really at home nestled in the point of the headstock. Something about that forward thrusting “F” and it’s relationship to the curve, and point of the hook, (I think). It just doesn’t seem to sit right on a reversed headstock. (I know – but it’s little things like this that get me through the day.)

Back to the spray booth

The applied decal gets another 24 hours to dry, and then it’s back to the spray booth. Once again, to protect the back of the neck, I tape on a few thicknesses of kitchen roll underneath – to add a bit of protective padding. Again – I’ll spray the headstock with it hanging over the base of the booth. This should prevent any overspray getting trapped under the headstock, and possibly degrading the finish there. As I spray, I’ll be able to move the neck around – so that the spray can be directed from different angles, for subsequent coats. This should help keep the lacquer coverage even.

First mist coat applied

The lacquer is applied in exactly the same way, and in exactly the same sequence as before. Light mist coats to begin with – gradually building up to thicker, more liquid coats. Once again – I try to go easy around the tuner pegholes – but every now and again, it’s important to cover the whole face of the headstock, so that the overall effect is seamless.

…a few more lacquer coats…

The spraying procedure follows the exact sequence as before. Five coats in all – with the coats being built up a little thicker as the decal beds in. Once the final coat has had time to dry properly – I place the neck in the drying cupboard for 24 hours.

Headstock decal applied and sealed

Whilst the decal on the reverse appears to have settled perfectly – the Fender decal on the front does show a couple of pin holes which will need attention as I progress. Fortunately they don’t affect the marque visually – they seem small, and localised in a few places at the junction of the black ink, and gilded outline. Presumably – there’s been a slight reaction between the lacquer and something or other, to cause what looks like outgassing – and that’s left marks in the drying lacquer. I’ll have to see how the flatting back proceeds, and see if they disappear. The holes may well fill with lacquer on later applications – but if they remain problematic – I may eventually have to drop-fill them, as I work towards the final coats.

The next step will be to begin sanding the outlines of the decals, flatting back and keying the lacquer for more applications. First however – the lacquer needs to dry properly – shrink back and bond with the decal. A couple of weeks – at least.

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