Gold leafed Hardtail Stratocaster. Polishing a nitro lacquer guitar body

Polishing up a body is one of those things you can really lose yourself in. It takes time, and you can’t really take shortcuts. Things do tend to get a little less critical as you progress, but if you don’t do the groundwork properly – you’ll find it’s hard to conceal a sloppy approach. It’s a nice, late Autumn, sunny day today. With the return of Covid-19 lockdowns to the UK, it’s the ideal opportunity to spend a day in the workshop. Glove up, switch off, and let the process take over.

Flatting back cured lacquer with 800 grit

The lacquer has dried hard, and looks to be nice and smooth overall – with no apparent “orange peeling” anywhere. It will certainly have helped to have spent so long getting the body well-prepared for gilding, in the first place. Flatting back between lacquer applications will also have helped the end results. It’s not absolutely essential to have such a smooth starting point – most irregularities can be polished out given the right approach – but it certainly makes things easier.

The finished lacquer coat already looks shiny – but the first task will be to flat the finish back. The original body had been prepped to 400 or 500 grit, and previous lacquer coats have been flat-sanded with 600 grit. Now I’m beginning to polish, I move up to 800 grit. Personally, I always see 800 grade grit as just about the point where the abrasive stops cutting, (ie. removing a lot of material), and begins polishing instead, (where the finer grits work to reduce the visual effect of swirl lines). The first cut back with 800 wet and dry gives a final opportunity to properly level out the surface, and in flatting back, I’m trying to take all of the shine off the surface – leaving a dull, but consistent, sheen. On the flat surfaces, I use a cork backing block with rounded edges on the face – to keep the grit paper flat, and to stop the edges digging in and creating divots and witness marks. For the radiused edges, and on the sides of the guitar body, I wrap wet and dry paper around my fingers, flat-back and feather-in the surface so that it looks consistent with everything else. The radiused edges are the most delicate – so the least pressure possible is used, and the emphasis is on polishing, in these areas.

Checking for low spots by working into the light

The best technique to adopt with flatting back, is to work into a good light source – that way, as the surface dulls, low spots remain shiny, and will clearly show up. Areas which continue to display as shiny, can then be gradually flattened back more and more, until the surrounding areas are levelled to the point where the low spots are “absorbed”, and the whole body displays a consistent, dull, sheen. Obviously – this all has to be achieved without cutting entirely through the lacquer finish, and into the paint or gilding below. So it’s a gradual process – letting the grit paper do the work, and using a randomised, circular motion to avoid creating any clear cutting lines. Keep the paper moving across the whole surface, and deal with the whole surface methodically. When you have to work on a particular area to level it – focus on that area, but try to ensure you keep your attention on also feathering-in to the surrounding area. You don’t want to overwork any one spot, and end up sanding through.

I always find a little naptha helps to keep the grit paper lubricated. Keeping papers clean, and replacing them if clogged, will ensure that the best results are achieved. There’s usually no need to exert any real pressure on the grit paper, and it’s wise to ensure that the wetted paper doesn’t begin to suck onto the surface, too excessively. Letting the grit cut like this can help to blast through stubborn areas – but unless you keep the paper moving, it can cause the grit to bite more agressively in localised areas. Exactly the thing I’m trying to avoid. Keep the approach general, and consistent.

Keep the surface clean, and work through the grades

Once the body has been sanded to a smooth, flat finish with 800 grit – it’s just a process of repeating the same steps, all the way through the grades. I’m using 1000, 1200, 1500, 1800, 2000 and 2500. It is sometimes possible to skip the odd grade and get the same result – but once you get to the finer grades, there’s less of a chance of cutting right through the lacquer coat, and so every extra step just goes to smooth the previous cut that little bit more effectively. If you run through all of the steps properly, and you should happen to occasionally miss a small area – there’s more of a chance you’ll pick up it up and sort it with the next step, and you won’t, therefore, be hitting anywhere with too fine a grit, and leaving any fine scratches or swirl marks. It takes longer, but the results are always well worth the while.

As the grit paper cuts, the surface tends to cloud up with removed material – especially if you use a lubricating fluid. You can use water to aid the cut, but there’s always the risk it’ll seep into the body at the drilled openings. This can cause the wood to swell, and it can result in cracks in the top coats. For that reason – I prefer to use naptha. It usually evaporates cleanly before it’s done any real damage. Use a clean cloth and a little more naptha to clean away any cloudy debris as you work, and always clean the body down entirely, before switching to the next, finer grade.

As the grit gets finer, a full gloss shine begins to emerge

As I work through the grits, it always seems that each pass gets progressively easier. Gradually, the surface dullness gives way to an emerging shine. Strong highlights tend to appear – especially working into the light, and so it’s necessay to keep the work moving around, so that as you polish, you’re keeping your attention on the whole surface – rather being distracted by the highlights. In fact – you can use highlights to help locate irregularities, but you must keep rotating and moving the piece so that you can assess the effect. The secret, I find, to polishing – is to try and lose yourself in the process. Work methodically, but always with the final aim in mind – to gradually remove all of the little scratches and inconsistencies. You can’t do it all at once, and so the process is much more of a journey. You might as well enjoy it as you go along. If you stay on top of the task, gradually, all of the small defects and scratches begin to disappear. Eventually, the real character of the piece begins to emerge, and the whole feel of the body changes. It’s one of the reasons I prefer a nitro finish over a polyester one. Lacquer polishes somehow feel warmer and more organic. As the full shine begins to emerge, you can see and feel the difference, and the piece seems to come alive.

Shining up the lacquer with Micro Mesh

Once the piece has been polished up to 2500 grit – I move onto using Micro mesh cloths. These allow me to work through another six grades – 2500, 3200, 4000, 6000, 8000, and finally 12000. The Micro mesh cloths are flexible, and so they can easily be used over the edges – but I continue to use a backing block for the flat faces. It is possible to use naptha again as a lubricant with these fabric backed cloths – but I’ve found I tend to get better results on lacquer, if I use them dry. You do need to make sure they don’t clog – otherwise it’s easy to leave witness marks. The abrasives are incredibly fine, so that – especially with the finer grades – you’re not really aware of any cutting. Rather – the cloths almost squeak across the surface. Even if visually, they don’t appear to be doing much – stick with the routine consistently, and the shine gradually begins to take on a rich, liquid quality. The finish is really glossy. Previously, I’ve managed to use Micro Mesh pads to restore a brand-new looking shine to pickguards. Even clear plastics.

Gilded and lacquered body – polished to 12000 grit

Eventually, all that work – all those hours – begins to really pay off. It might not be the greatest gilding job in the world – but it’s not too shabby. The lacquer has helped to seal the yellow metal without killing the fire of the reflection too much. The colour of the leaf has dulled slightly, and looks more “Antique” and less “brassy”. The shine of the metal now mostly comes from the lacquer. In fact – catch this at the right angle and it really shines. The complexity of the tracery of detail in the finish is, for the most part, really effective. Only a few “lean on fat” areas are noticeable – and even then, most people won’t see them. As my old man used to say: “A blind man will be glad to see it”.

Now – all I need to do is apply my usual, Carnauba Wax finish. I use Meguiars Deep Crystal Carnauba Polish for all of my nitro jobs. It’s essential that you use a polish which doesn’t contain any Silicone. This Meguiars car polish is super fine, super durable, and is Silicone-free. I apply a liberal coat with a soft mitt – let the polish dry on the surface, and then buff to a full shine with an electronic, rotary car buffer. It’s a final layer of protection for the finish, and the polish just seems to almost “feed” the lacquer. I used to use a Meguiars swirl remover before applying the polish, but I’ve discovered that the 12000 Micro Mesh seems to achive a much better result – providing, of course, that I’ve followed the full sequence of polishing grades first.

String ferrules countersunk and sealed into the lacquer finish

While I check the piece over closely – I can remove the tissue paper plugs which were inserted to keep the string ferrules clear from potential blockage. Countersinking the ferrules into the gilded finish and then lacqering over has sealed everything nicely, and the finish looks really professional. Well worth the extra time and effort to get right – and much better looking than having the ferrules sit out on the surface.

Planning the next steps

And that’s a few hours well spent. Finally – there’s a chance to test fit a pickguard, and have another look at how the guitar is beginning to come together. I should soon be able to begin fitting a neck and scratchplate, and so any changes I want to make to my original plan, need to be sorted now. One last chance to play around with a few different colour ideas – but the clean, white option on the gold ground still looks good to me.

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