Custom built Fender Jaguar USA. Bound and block-marked neck – Painting the headstock

I’ve already prepped my custom-built, Musikraft Jaguar neck for headstock painting. Mornings at this time of year tend to be cold and damp, but by the middle of the day – things are beginning to warm up enough to make spraying nitro, a little bit more practical. This is a nice, small-scale painting job. Perfect for a shorter working day. Since I’ll need to wait for the various layers to dry – including providing a smooth base for, and eventually lacquering over a couple of waterslide transfers – I’m probably not going to get this neck completed for a good few months. I’m keen to get on with it, and with other projects waiting for their own turn in the spray booth – it’ll be good to get things moving.

But before I even think of spraying the first, tentative coats – I really need to clean out the workshop. A winter of cold and damp, dust and cobwebs, has created an environment far from ideal. A day with a HEPA vacuum cleaner – windows and doors open, followed by a period with extract fans and dust filters running – eventually creates a relatively dust free spray area. Over the winter, I have a habit of running to the (freezing) workshop – grabbing what I need, and then running back to the warmth of indoors. Things aren’t so much “put away”, as “temporarily parked” on the work benches. In a heap. So much for precision workmanship. Consequently – the whole workshop needs a good spring clean and reorganisation. Oh look! – that’s where I put that screwdriver.

Back to the (newly cleaned out) spray booth

To try and replicate the Candy Apple red finish on my USA “Original ’60’s” Jaguar body – I’m using a combination of nitro paints and lacquers from both manchesterguitartech.co.uk, and Northwest Guitars. Without actually stripping back the Fender shop finish, to see what underlayers were actually used – I was always going to be going on a certain amount of guesswork. It’s not ideal – but even if I could identify the exact colours and tones I need, there’s no guarantee I could even find matching colours in the limited ranges available. From what I can see from a couple of scratched and worn areas within the body cutouts – I, at least, know that the paint is built up over some kind of gold finish, as opposed to something like “Inca Silver”.

Headstock face prior to priming

The maple on the face of the headstock is already super-smooth, and has been lightly sealed with clear nitro in the Musikraft workshops, prior to shipping. I’ve already lightly keyed the finish on the face of the headstock with a red Scotchbrite pad, and if I had some nitro sanding sealer in stock, I’d probably proceed by spraying an initial, light key-coat with that. However, all I have is some white primer. I need to ensure good, initial adhesion for the paint layers – so a light mist coat with primer should simultaneously key the surface and also show up any hidden imperfections.

Headstock face after light primer “mist coat”

It takes just two light passes to build up a thin, but consistent layer of primer. Coats this thin only seem to take about 15 minutes to become touch dry. The main challenge is to get the result looking consistent, without creating too much opacity. I haven’t plugged the pegholes for this stage of painting. I want the finish to adhere properly round the openings, and I’ll eventually ream the holes out again, to the proper diameter for the tuner bushings. Once I start spraying more, and thicker, coats of clear lacquer – I’ll plug them then, to prevent major buildup. After just two, light coats – the area is lightly primed, and is showing no signs of open grain, or other surface defects. Once the thin coats of primer have dried – I leave the neck to cure overnight in the drying cupboard.

Headstock face – first coats of “Shoreline Gold” undercoat

Next day – it’s time to apply my undercoat layer. This is a “Shoreline Gold”, rattle-can nitro finish from Northwest Guitars. Tests on some spare pieces of wood show this to have a sort of “Vintage Gold” look to it, with some metallic flake in there – although it’s quite fine. The result, when sprayed, looks like a slightly yellowed pewter. Under strong lighting – the highlights completely overpower the hue of the paint. I can see the point now of having a metallic component underneath the translucent “Candy Apple” red finish – however, I’m thinking a yellower gold, with a slightly larger flake effect might be what’s actually needed here, in order to create an absolutely perfectly matched finish. The problem is – whenever the headstock is tilted to reflect the light – the painted area, being so small, tends to get swamped by the reflected highlights, and all sense of colour is lost. It’s especially difficult to match the neck to the body finish, since the body colour sits under a highly polished clearcoat. The raw paint on the headstock is slightly dimpled, and so reflects less light, much less consistently. I know some nitro colours have a tendency to lighten slightly as they dry. Perhaps I need to figure that into my approach?

Headstock face – full coat of “Shoreline Gold” undercoat

Ultimately, since the headstock is well separated from the body – visually speaking – I don’t suppose there’s much point sweating on an absolutely perfect colour match. I think I’ll have to be happy enough with getting reasonably close. As long as the two elements have a similar hue, and a similar polished, liquid shine – by the time the decals and tuners are in place – I figure ambient lighting differences will always act differently on the two elements anyway, (one slightly curved and sculptural – the other flat and straight-edged).

It only takes a few coats of the gold nitro to produce a consistent effect, and to cover all of the primed wood. I try to make each pass as light as possible, but also try to ensure that the headstock is sprayed from all angles. This should help even out the flake effect, and also allow an even application over the entire masked-off area. (Including where the paint colour just wraps slightly over the edge). I want a nice, clean line at the edge of the paintwork, and I’ve taken pains to make sure that the masking tape is evenly applied all around. Each light application is given at least a half-hour to become touch-dry, before the next coat is applied, but as the total number of applications begins to mount up – I begin to leave the neck slightly longer to dry, each time. This is because each successive layer effectively melts into the layers below. If you damage the top layer even slightly, (by wiping away a speck of dust, for example) – you can easily “drag” an apparently dry surface, over the gel-like sub-layer, underneath. Even slight damage at the very surface can therefore effect lower layers of lacquer just as badly – and that would prove disastrous for translucent finishes, such as this Candy Apple Red.

Once the desired gold coverage has been achieved – I leave the neck to dry and cure again, overnight.

Headstock face – first coat of “Translucent red” colour coat

Having ridden the workshop air of much of the winter dust, that was previously floating about – I’ve been able to keep the finish completely free from flaws, thus far. This will become more critical as I begin to apply the translucent colour coat. There’s no real opportunity to sand back with a translucent coat, since this will result in an inconsistent coverage of the key colour. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate absolutely all of the fine dust and floating fibres in the atmosphere – so it’s vital that the spray area is well lit, and that spraying stops the moment any dust contamination is spotted. Providing the contaminant – fine fibre, or mote of dust – is not swamped with lacquer, it’s usually possible to let the current coat dry, and then to simply and lightly brush the speck away. With translucent coats – if anything does happen to get swamped with lacquer – it then embeds itself within the coat, and you simply have to cover it over, and learn to live with it. It’s best to keep an eye on things – move slowly, and nip any problems in the bud, while they’re easy to deal with. Even if that means waiting a few extra hours for a particular coat to dry sufficiently.

I’m using a “Translucent Red” nitro colour coat, from Northwest Guitars. From what I’ve seen so far, I have two main aims, and two main challenges. I need to get a fault-free, consistent colour coat which has just the right opacity, and I also need to know exactly when to stop, without going too far, and realising I should have actually stopped on the previous coat. I need to balance the colour rendition, with the amount of underlying gold which shows through – and I need to gauge all that, knowing that the eventual finish will be much shinier, and more polished. I also suspect that the eventual colour may lighten slightly, as the paint dries. There’s as much guesswork here, as there is confidence…

Headstock face – matching the colour coats

To give myself the best chance – I spray exceedingly light coats, and then let the finish dry. each break gives me the chance to check the surface scrupulously for little bits of dust, and it also gives me a chance to assess progress under different lighting sources. It’s astonishing, the difference in effect, when viewed in the workshop, and then again in daylight, or under a halogen task light. Spraying light coats, one at a time, will hopefully give me enough thinking time, so I can make the best judgement as to when the balance between colour coat and metallic undercoat achieves the closest match to the existing body finish. The first coats tend to speckle, as the spray is made up of individual, fine droplets. I want to try and achieve a consistent, even coverage – whilst keeping the colour coat as light and translucent as possible.

Headstock face – matching the colour coats under ambient lighting

The image above, taken under normal indoor lighting, illustrates the difficulty in precisely matching colours. Because the headstock finish is slightly dimpled and “orange-peeled”- the reflection there is relatively dull, and much more diffuse than the reflections and highlights evident on the highly polished body. Any “pink” or lighter red highlight colours are largely absent from the relatively unfinished headstock. The effect of the metallic undercoat is also reduced. Instead – all I can do is compare areas of paintwork which are more in shadow. There, the general hue is quite close, as is demonstrated by the similarity in hue, in the shadow areas around the edge of the guitar body – it’s just that, in it’s unpolished state, the headstock looks a little bit darker overall. And yet, it would seem to be virtually impossible to create a consistent paint effect with fewer coats of colour coat. I think I’ve applied just about the absolute minimum I could get away with – without the colour coat appearing speckled. I just have to hope that the headstock colour will eventually lighten slightly as the nitro shrinks back, and that the colour will begin to sit “in” the finished, polished, shine – as is usually the case. I still think a slightly yellower gold might have been the ideal strating point – but I think I’ve now got the balance about as good as I can get, with the colours I’m using.

Headstock face – colour effect under task lighting

The above image shows the headstock illuminated under a strong task light. The full effect of the metallic undercoat becomes apparent, and the colour literally “lights-up”. I’ve no way of telling if, or how, the colour changes subtly as it dries. In theory – the layers of nitro should gel together and shrink back as the lacquer cures. There’s an inevitable amount of guesswork at play here – but after a few, light coats – I think I’m as close to the body finish as I’m going to get.

Once the paint has dried sufficiently – I strip the masking tape and protective bubble wrap off, and assess the overall result. Annoyingly, the masking tape has slightly lifted in one or two areas – resulting in a slight blurring of the transition line, at the top edges of the headstock. I’m able to restore a crisp edge by scraping away the slight overspray with a sharp, curved scalpel blade – (although it’s work you’d ideally have perfect vision for, and I drive myself half-mad by attempting to scrape away just a couple of tiny, miniscule bits of stray paint). Once the edge looks good, I re-mask the fingerboard and the edges of the binding. I don’t intend to spray much lacquer down the actual length of the neck – but I do want the clearcoat to extend down over the edges of the headstock. Gradually, I hope to bury the paint under a good protective layer of clear lacquer, so it’ll polish out and provide a good, resilient-but-smooth edge. Since I’ll be applying lacquer coats over applied decals – I’ll have the opportunity to lay lacquer over the edges as overspray from a succession of light passes over the face of the headstock. I’ll eventually polish up the face of the headstock, but rub the lightly lacquered edges back to a smooth, satin finish – so it feathers-in nicely with the existing, light lacquer coat on the back of the neck.

The masking-off also leaves the top edge of the rosewood fingerboard exposed, this time. I like to leave a clean edge to the lacquer work, by running it right up to the nut groove. To achieve this, I mask off the inside edges of the nut slot. The finished edge of the lacquer will then run right alongside the bone nut.

Jaguar neck – completed lacquer work, prior to curing, and decal application

Finally, thin applications of clear lacquer are applied, until the paint coat is sufficiently protected, and the finish begins to look a little flatter overall. I don’t want to put too much lacquer down underneath the decal – but I need enough to prevent me from sanding through while I prepare and flatten the areas where the decals will sit. I need a really good, flat base to apply the decal, but any sanding back at all will risk me spoiling the even translucence of the paint. I apply sucessive coats of clearcoat, just until the surface begins to look a little more “liquid”. The slight “orange peeling” visible from the metallic undercoat and translucent colour coats begins to disappear. By the time the lacquer has shrunk back – I’m hoping the surface will need minimal flatting-back, before it’s suitable to receive the waterslide decals. Clear lacquer coats are thinly laid, approximately an hour apart. About four passes will hopefully do it. I’ll see how things look when the clear lacquer is fully cured.

And that’s all I can do for now. The lacquer has a month, or so, to dry and cure properly. I’ll take another look at the neck then, and will hopefully be in a position to begin applying the decals. The maple of the neck still looks clean and light, and I’d really prefer not to have to begin artificially colouring the wood of the neck with tinted lacquer, at all, if I can help it. Instead of the closed drying cupboard – I’ll leave the neck out where it will be exposed to some natural daylight. It’s possible to lay the neck – fingerboard down – so that all of the exposed maple can see daylight. Let’s see what a little natural ageing will do to the colour of the maple, while I wait for the paint to dry. Meanwhile – my Jaguar build continues with the original ’65 Reissue neck in it’s place.

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