Custom built, Antique White, Fender Jazzmaster. Improving the bodywork

This, Chinese(?) made, Fender Squier Jazzmaster body isn’t a bad starting point – but I can see there have been a few corners cut – a few pennies saved here and there. I just know I can improve things. The colour’s fine – it’s just the overall “feel” of the paintwork that doesn’t quite cut it for me. I know I can improve on it, and through carrying out the improvements, I can begin a customisation process which will strongly personalise the instrument and “make it mine”.

It’s a difficult thing to describe. Sometimes, there’s a correlation between the perceived quality of a finished piece of timber, and several other factors, such as the overall weight of a piece. You can somehow feel and pick up on the “cheapness” of an object. It’s a physical, tactile thing – not just a matter of looks. (And careless little flaws like splits around drilled openings just go to give quality control operatives a bad name).

Although just under the scratchplate – this split will bug me

That’s not to say it’s the same for everyone. Some players aren’t bothered one iota by the “feel” of the guitar they wield. Others will be completely flummoxed by a single, slight unfamiliarity in their usual setup. For me – since I choose to develop my relationships with individual instruments by getting, as far as I can, right into the nuts and bolts of their construction – if I feel I can improve on the feel of a particular piece of wood, or a particular finish, then I figure that’s that’s fair game. It’s me and the instrument. I’ll hopefully be able to tailor the component to my particular requirements, and perhaps also learn something new along the way. Once the instrument is built – maybe it’ll gift me a tune.

And to me – that all seems to be in direct keeping with the Fender ethos. Or, at least the original, Leo Fender ethos. Back in the Fifties, when many of Leo’s iconic designs were coming together – the whole workshop approach certainly had more than just an element of the DIY’er about it. The original paint jobs were based on established car finishes of the day. Some early components were re-appropriated from other sources. Individual things like wiring, or even the seemingly unimportant choice of capacitors, altered through the years according to stock and supply levels. It was, to my mind, all down to the building of a new, modular manufacturing approach which Fender brought to the field of instrument manufacture. Historically, the building of musical instruments has always been a thing for craftsmen. Instruments were often hand-built – quite often custom commissions. With modern construction techniques, and with new processes geared towards mass production, the emphasis was now on the ability to build, and then switch out components easily. This was all about keeping hard working professional musicians, “on the road” – but equally, it evolved into a framework which positively encouraged customisation and modification. In much the same way that you could modify your car, or motorcycle if you wanted to – you could begin to easily modify and personalise your guitar.

Stabilising the smaller split with cyanoacrylate glue

This Jazzmaster body is typical of a mass-produced component, that has been produced to target a lower pricepoint. Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing what you actually get for the money – but that pricepoint can only be achieved if certain standards are “relaxed”. Of course, there aren’t so many variables on any one particular component – so there’s only so much a manufacturer can save. However – once production numbers are taken into account – pennies saved here and there can, very soon, turn into (thousands of) pounds. There’s something about the personalisation process of guitar modification, which allows the interested party, (me), to potentially revisit some of these “shortcuts”, and spend a little extra time putting them right. Perhaps even improving on the original intent. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to undo everything – otherwise I might as well build from scratch, but if I can target my attention on certain elements which might improve the overall character and performance of a given component, and potentially make it “as good as it could be” – then that seems a perfectly worthwhile activity. If I can do that for every component in any particular instrument – then I figure that’s all value added, and it’s all in line with my own, personal, ideal specification.

I think part of the character of this body is down to its’ light weight. That might be the choice of cheaper Basswood. It might also be cut from a slightly thinner wood blank – it being a Squier. (This one measures in at about 42mm, including the finish). Visually – it does the job – but the urethane finish just feels thin and cold to me. The routs are a bit sloppy – bits of loose frass at the edges are left behind – but I’ll eventually be covering all of that with conductive copper foil or shielding plates. There’s a fair bit of extra wood removed from the body mass, in order to physically link all of the routs together. That’ll make it easy to wire up – but will also have made the body even lighter. I’ll likely introduce a little more weight by using some traditional, brass shielding plates as part of the grounding work. I’m hopeful I can add enough mass here and there to eventually provide the finished instrument with a little extra “weight”, if you know what I mean.

The paint job is obviously one of the first things I can improve on. The fine tracery of cross hatching seen in the finish under certain lighting, is just a sign that the finishing hasn’t been laboured over. If I take the finish back to the paint coat, or just above – I should be able to build up a really smooth, glossy lacquer without having to spray too many coats. Those drill holes look rushed too. The external edges are unfinished and, in some places, loose material has been finished over with paint and lacquer. Clearly, as the body has proceeded through the manufacture process, a couple of these unfinished areas have been stressed somehow – resulting in the two small splits under the scratchplate.

Since I want to stabilise these – the plan is, to rub back the gloss urethane varnish, fix the splits, and then build up a thicker clearcoat in nitrocellulose over the top. This will polish up just as nicely as the previous urethane coat – hopefully even better – and it should allow me to thicken up the protective topcoat, and give the piece the familiar, warmer, more organic feel of polished nitro lacquer. If I do it right – I can incorporate the bodywork fixes into the refinishing process.


So – decision made – the first thing to sort is the smaller split, which lies just forward of the three-switch plate, on the lower horn. I just want to eliminate the possibility of the split running out onto the visible face of the guitar once I begin driving screws back into the drilled holes. I usually try to prevent this happening by lightly countersinking all holes that are drilled through paint or lacquer – but since these two holes have already split, I’m going to additionally try to get the two sides of the split to bond, with a little cyanoacrylate, or super glue.

The split here lies completely below the line of the scratchplate – so I don’t have to worry too much about hiding the fix, and I can test my approach here before moving onto the other, more visible split. I apply a thin line of glue along the length of the split and let it flow into, and around, the fault. It helps to use a fine, flexible applicator if you have one, but since I don’t – I use a pin instead. With my eyesight – it’s tricky.

Polishing out a drop fill

Once the glue has dried – I cut a few, thin lengths of wet and dry paper. I choose grades running from 280 through to 2000, and I also have a set of Micro mesh pads to try and totally polish-out and eliminate any sanding marks. The polishing procedure involves pulling each succesive length over the drop-fill, with the index finger of my left hand pushing very lightly down onto the fill. Each length is used lightly – only, perhaps three or four passes – before I move on to the next, slightly finer grade. With each pass, however, the angle of attack is varied – and as the grades get finer, care is taken to ensure the effect is well feathered into the surrounding, polished finish.

Of course – since this will be left invisible anyway, under the scratchguard – there’s no point going mad on it. The more glue that is left on the surface – the better the bond should be. It’s just a question of leaving things as tidy as possible. I can always cover the area with a small, copper foil lug. Leaving the fix standing slightly proud, and covered with a small tab of copper foil, willgo to assist the conductive contact between the copper-lined body cavities, and the foil-backed scratchplate.

This one’s a little more annoying

With the second, slightly larger split – it’s a bit more annoying. The end of the split has, ever so slightly, spread out from under the line of the scratchplate. Perhaps just 1 to 1.5mm. It’s very minor – but it’s just visible. (It’s one of those things that seems to easily draw the eye. “What is that??“) Since I’m going to refinish the topcoat – I need to make sure that whatever I do won’t attract the eye any more than it already does. What’s particularly annoying, is the way the split actually appears dark inside. Normally, a split in the paint might just show as the same colour, and a drop-fill of clear lacquer might be enough to smooth everything out again. This, however, looks like the paint may have been applied over a dark undercoat – and that undercoat is now clearly showing through.

I’m not sure if the crack is deep enough to stabilise with just super glue – but it’s a reasonable starting point, and it should, at least, successfully deal with the portion which lies inward of the drill hole. I treat the split initially in the same way I treated the one on the other side. A light application of super glue, followed by a polish through the grades – including, this time, the Micro Mesh. Care has to be taken to keep the overall finished surface as flat as possible, and so much of the fine polishing requires the use of a small backing block. This allows the fix to be somewhat polished into the existing paint and varnish coats. After polishing – there’s not much glue left there – but hopefully there will be enough to stabilise the split, and stop it from spreading further.

Flatting back, and keying the surface

The next task is then to flat back the entire body, using a red ScotchBrite pad. This is a coarser grade of abrasive than the grey pads – but it isn’t too severe if used lightly. I’m trying to key the surface, rather than take off too much material. I just have to make sure the result is consistent, smooth and flat, and that I don’t press too hard, and sand through the paint finish. I use a cork backing block on the flat faces, and wrap the flexible ScotchBrite around my fingers for the rest. The finished result should offer a good enough key for the first, light, coats of nitro clearcoat. (Once keyed – it’s actually quite an attractive finish on it’s own. The surface almost looks like burnished bone).

Since most of the drilled holes are a bit rough round the edges – I’ll be looking to lightly countersink them all – but for now, I just make sure that any loose, or sticky-out bits, are carefully removed so they don’t snag and potentially tear out, later on.

Masking-off

The ScotchBrite process produces some very fine, powdered material – and it’s important to clean it all off before proceeding. I also like to degrease all surfaces prior to painting – and so a good going over with naptha helps to wash off most of the debris, whilst preparing the surface for paint. Make sure you get all of the loose stuff out of the routs – even the drill holes. Any loose residue will likely blow out again as the spray hits it. Check the corners out for tiny little fibres which might have broken away whilst using the ScotchBrite pads. These will easily ruin a paint or lacquer job if they’re blown out onto the surface.

Once the body is scrupulously clean again – I mask off the bridge post bushings with masking tape, and protect the neck pocket. Then, the body is attached to my painting stick, and hung for spraying.

Nitro spraying

The first coats of nitro are incredibly light. I want the lacquer to have the best chance to bond with the existing colour coat. Normally, each lacquer coat will slightly liquify, and so bond with, each previous coat. However, in this case, the lacquer has to stick to the keyed polyester surface the best it can. Applying the first coats lightly, and letting the first thicknesses build up gradually, seems to be the best way to proceed. It takes time – but it’s better than a having a finished lacquer coat which will chip easily, and flake off.

Lacquer is applied thinly – in a light mist – and allowed to dry for an hour before the next, light coat is applied. Obviously – this being a light coloured body – all of the dark dust and bits of fluff in the workshop are highly attracted to its’ sticky, newly lacquered surface. After each application – it’s worth checking the body over closely. Any offending bits can be lightly sanded out and cleaned away. If you miss anything, you risk sealing the flaws under progressively thicker and thicker depths of lacquer – until removing them becomes impractical. Go slow – check the work, and fix any flaws before proceeding. Some people like to use tack-cloths to remove debris, but I haven’t yet found cloths which are tacky enough without leaving some kind of residue behind. In the worst cases – cheap cloths seem to almost make the surface even more attractive to dust. I prefer to use a goat hair brush, (which doesn’t seem to cause static build-up), and I’m prepared to check each application over, and lightly sand out any flaws I find. It takes far longer – but I find I’m more in touch with the actual surface I’m gradually building up. I also find it helps to make me a bit more methodical in my overall approach.

Once the whole body has a light, but consistent coat of lacquer – I leave the body to dry for 24 hours. Then, next day, I apply two, slightly heavier coats – again, with an hour’s drying time in between. This is then left to dry for another 24 hours.

Priming the scratch

I can now return to work on the larger of the two scratches. So far, I have (hopefully) stabilised the crack – and it’s now sealed under a couple of coats of clear nitro. Obviously – since it’s dark – it’s still highly visible. I want to try and do another drop fill – but this time with some coloured nitro. Hopefully, I can then get the fill to blend in nicely with the new surface of the clear coat, as it cures. Unfortunately, coloured nitro isn’t quite as opaque a medium as would be desired here. It tends to take quite a few coats to build up a full, opaque colour coat. Ideally – I’m going to need something which will do the job in one.

In the end – I decide to try some white nitro primer. This seems more opaque, and it also has some slight building properties. I’m not going to be able to build out the scratch entirely, but I should be able to cover over the dark colour. To make sure I can get right into the split, I scratch a little more width along the split, using a sharp blade. In effect, I’m widening the split slightly, and giving it a more stable, V-shape. This actually draws the end of the split a little further out onto the body, although it does also help gauge just how prone the end of the split is to further spread.

This might appear a little counter-intuitive – making the problem worse – but I need to make sure the primer can flow inside the split, and also check that the slight area available for the primer to bond with, is stable. I’m hoping the primer will bond with the bottom and sides of the split – and will also melt slightly into the surrounding clear nitro. That’s the theory, anyway.

I spray a little primer into the clean cap of an old spray can, and then take a drop out on the tip of a pin. I then place the tip of the pin into the split – right by the drill hole, and then draw it along the rest of the length of the split. The paint sits on the surface – but it’s important not to leave too much bubbled up there. Too much might result in the paint drying and shrinking back with “pin holes”. (If they do develop, these can be levelled and filled again, in much the same way – but it’ll lengthen the job).

Dried primer after smoothing back

After 24 hours – the primer has dried into the split, but also slightly raised around it’s length. It appears to be opaque enough to mostly disguise the split, tonally speaking. I use a small backing block to flat sand over and around the area, using 400 grit. The primer appears to have taken well, and seems to have blended ever so slightly with the surrounding clearcoat. There’s a very slight, but virtually imperceptible, blurred lightening of the colour around the split – with the split itself showing the colour of the primer as a bright white. Even if the split were left with this slight difference – it would still be far less of a draw to the eye, than having the black undercoat show through in distinct contrast. Happily – the split now shows characteristics of being more of a scratch in the surface, than a physical split. And scratches are usually easier to deal with.

Over spraying with more lacquer

Since the rest of the body already has a reasonable coating of clearcoat – there’s no point covering the whole body again, just to bed the scratch coverage in. Instead, I lay the body flat, and apply a few light mist coats in the general area of the scratch – feathering the coverage into the surrounding areas. I build the coverage up gradually, as before – leaving time for each coat to dry, before applying the next. The intention is to reproduce roughly the same initial spraying schedule as with the body. I want to build up the overall coating so that it can easily take another light flatting with a coarse ScotchBrite. This will then give me a good base to build up a thin, but effective, lacquer coating – whilst simultaneously flooding, and eventually polishing out the scratch

Primed scratch with two full, but localised, coats of lacquer

After the repaired area has had two coats of lacquer applied – the whole body is transferred to the drying cupboard to allow the whole thing to cure properly. The lacquer’s probably best left for at least a few weeks – although at this time of year, spraying days are usually dictated as much by weather conditions as anything else. No doubt – the lacquer will shrink back, and I anticipate that I might have to drop-fill the scratch again – either with lacquer or cyanoacrylate – in order to fully bed it into the developing lacquer coat. However, I will have a chance to assess the appearance of the primer first. It might be possible to apply a more closely matching colour spot-fix over the top of the primer. That, together with a smooth clear lacquer top coat will hopefully, almost completely hide the mend.

The whole body will probably require another three, or so, full coats of lacquer before I can begin to polish – so that should give me a few extra layers to try and incorporate an effective colour match into the lacquer matrix. I’ll continue to flat back each phase with a scotchbrite pad. This will help keep the lacquer coats as thin and as flat as possible, and should help speed the eventual polishing process.

Countersinking the drilled openings

Drilling through finishes is always a bit tricky – so it helps that all of the drilling is already done on this body. However – as I’ve already pointed out – there’s always the danger that a screw thread might just lift the loose edge of an unfinished drill hole and consequently split the topcoat. In the worst cases this can cause cracking – even flaking of the finish. On this body, this is probably the cause of the main split, which has spread out just onto the visible face of the guitar. This sort of thing is always much more likely if the edges of any hole are left unfinished and/or irregular. I usually always take the time to examine any drilled openings, and then try to somehow finish off the edges, to prevent any screws from lifting the finish. To do this – I usually try and run a countersink around the rim of each opening. Not enough to countersink a full screw head – but just enough to leave a little extra room through the thin layers of lacquer and paint.

Since fully cured nitro can be that little bit extra prone to fracturing – it makes sense to clean up the edges of the screwholes whilst the lacquer topcoat is still curing, and still slightly soft. I use a countersink bit and a hand operated drill. This allows me to keep control of the bit speed, and make sure I’m not letting things run away, out of control. It helps to make the first few turns anti-clockwise – that way the bit is providing friction to any loose bits at the edge but, crucially, not trying to lift, or pull them out with the thread of the bit. That, in itself, can cause the edges to break away unevenly. If you turn anti-clockwise first – any loose debris is pushed down as it is broken away, and the stresses on the surrounding coat are less. Loose debris is only lifted once you begin to work the drill bit clockwise. I always make sure I use minimum pressure with the hand drill – just letting the drill apply it’s own weight, and letting the countersink bit do it’s work.

Remember also to do the strap button screw holes too. Once all the holes are lightly countersunk – the edges should be slightly clear of the screw threads, and a few more thin layers of lacquer on top should eventually ensure that the hole edges are clean, robust, and stable.

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