Custom built Fender USA “Original ’60’s” Jaguar. Applying the headstock decals

The nitro finish on my block-marked Musikraft Jaguar neck, has now dried. The surface of the paintwork appears much “taughter”, and the slight wood grain on the neck just about shows, if the paintwork is angled into the light. The surface has cured with the slightest “spray” texture. It’s a nice, thin overall paint coat – and since the red paintwork consists of just a few layers of clear lacquer applied over the translucent red finish – I really need to be careful when flatting-back the surface. Otherwise, I risk sanding back into the translucent coat, and I’ll leave obvious shading defects.

Candy Apple Red Nitro finish applied to headstock

I have a set of replica, 1965 “CBS” period, Fender decals to apply onto the headstock. These are pretty good quality – about the best I can find out there – and they have a metallic gold component, unlike some of the other replica decals, which tend to have a printed, orange coloured outline to the “Fender” logo. There’s also a small “offset contour body” roundel provided, which sits on the rounded end of the headstock. The decals need to be applied on a smooth, flat, clean background, and so I’ll have to prepare the surface first by flat-sanding. Since the headstock will later receive further layers of clear lacquer, to “bury” the decals – I needn’t worry too much about flat-sanding the entire headstock, evenly all-over at this stage. I really just need the decal areas to be flat.

Candy Apple Red Nitro finish on headstock – after flatting-back

I flat-sand the face of the headstock with 800 grit wet and dry paper. A little naptha helps lubricate the paper, and degreases the surface at the same time. I really don’t want to risk using a coarser grit, and there’s so little actual relief to the surface texture that I don’t really need it. 800 works fine. A light, circular motion with the grit soon dulls the surface enough to reveal any shiny “low” spots in the lacquer. These can then be gently smoothed over, until the surface has an overall, consistent dull sheen.

I use the grit paper over a small, flat backing block. This allows me to work from the centre of the headstock, outwards towards the edges. The edges of the paintwork are quite exposed and delicate, and if the paper curves over – or if the naptha causes the paper to “suck down” onto the edges – then the translucent finish at the edge, may be damaged. Working out from the centre helps keep the small block absolutely flat, against the face of the headstock.

Once the decal areas have that consistent, dull sheen – and there are no evident low spots remaining – I work out gently across the rest of the headstock face. It isn’t necessary to completely level the finish here – I’m just lightly keying the surface for the subsequent clear lacquer coats. Once I’m done with the grit paper, I switch to a fine, grey ScotchBrite pad. This cleans the surface down again, and unifies the overall effect. Then, I clean the whole headstock over with some naptha on a paper towel. This cleans up any fine powdered lacquer residue, and completes the de-greasing effect. The waterslide decals won’t stick at all well, if the surface is dirty or greasy.

Soaking waterslde decals

The decals need to be cut out from their square backing sheet. I use a good pair of sharp scissors, and try to keep the general outlines as economic, and fluid as possible. Any sharp edges risk creating weak spots on the edge, and if a decal is going to tear – it will usually tear between weak spots on the edge. The decals only need to be soaked for between 10 and 20 seconds. It generally seems to depend on the temperature of the water used. I like to use slightly warm water. If you leave the decals too long in the water – they can begin to float off, (you can see the “Jaguar” portion of the decal just beginning to lift here). The decals should be gently straightened out when they’re first put into the water, (they immediately curl up). As long as they remain easy to handle – they should always, ideally, be removed by handling the backing sheet, and not the surface of the decal. However, you sometimes need to hold the two parts together as you retrieve the decal from the water. If you have to tough any part of the decal – make it the front. Never touch the underside. If you remember this – then it’s possible to rescue even slightly detatched decals – such as this. But if you pull or drag at the surface of the decal – you risk tearing it.

I always wet the surface of the headstock with a little water, before applying the decal. Once the decal and it’s backing sheet have been taken from the water – the whole thing needs to be laid flat, and adjacent to where the decal will finally lie. The idea is then to “float” the decal off the backing sheet, and onto the film of water. Go gently. If the decal is reluctant to move – it’s not been soaked enough. You can always drop a little more water over the surface, and leave it a little longer to release.

Applying headstock decals

The decal needs to float across from the backing sheet, to the assigned area. Once the decal is in the correct approximate position – the backing sheet can be removed and disgarded. Usually, the decal position needs a little fine-tuning. It’s important that the decal is moved without creating any tears or wrinkles, and if you use enough water – that can usually be achieved quite easily. Don’t begin to soak up any of the water until the decal is in exactly the right position. With excess water remaining under the decal, it remains mobile – so fine tune the position immediately, but then be careful not to knock it out of position as you begin to remove the excess water.

The excess water is removed gently with an absorbent paper towel. Never rub from side to side – and press down only gently at first. The idea is to gradually draw out any water remaing under the decal, and to absorb it from around the edges. I like to use an absorbent paper towel draped over the entire decal first, without pressing down at all. This soaks up a great deal of the excess, and doesn’t tend to risk any movement. Whilst water remains on the surface – the decal remains prone to partial movement which can, in turn, lead to tearing.

Applying headstock decals

Once most of the excess water has been removed, I tend to change to a softer, but less absorbent paper tissue. This allows me to check for any small remaining bubbles of water trapped under the decal, and I can gently press them out towards the edges. There’s no need to press firmly down on the decal. It’s held there by a clear, gelatine-like adhesive and surface tension. So long as no obvious bubbles remain trapped under the decal – a gentle press down is all that’s required to dry the surface. The same procedure can now be followed, to apply the second, smaller roundel. Once the decals are clearly in place, and there’s no more obvious water to be mopped up – the decals should be left for at least 24 hours to fully dry.

Drying headstock decal – before the application of protective lacquer coats

Although the dried decals are quite firmly attached – I always like to protect them under lacquer. This buries them in the clear coat and, in ideal circumstances, I like to try and polish out the decal edges completely – so that the graphics finally appear to be “painted on”. However – it’s a lengthy and tricky process. The decals themselves are generally of varying quality – depending on supplier – and the lacquer tends to be quite corrosive to the plastic film the decals are printed on. The key to applying lacquer over deacls therefore, is to apply it very gradually.

Headstock prepped for clearcoat

The neck is prepped again for spraying – with the fingerboard taped off up to the nut, and leaving the sides of the headstock exposed. The lacquer is applied in a series of mist coats, with 15 minutes or so between each pass. This gives a gradual build-up of lacquer over the entire headstock, and also allows for periodic checking for dust, and other airborne contaminants. Since each pass is very thin – most dust or fine fibres which may fall onto the surface are usually easily removed.

Cracking and crazing due to lacquer/ink reaction

I’ve used this particular type of decal before, (on my JagStang headtsock) – and I’m tentatively anticipating some sort of reaction between the ink and the lacquer. It seems that the black ink has something in it which causes the printed graphic to “bubble up” in reaction to the solvents in the lacquer. Keeping each pass as fine as possible helps reduce the risk of reaction – but since I aim to bury the decal under a thick enough coat to flat-back, and since each pass of lacquer reacts with and melts the layers underneath – I’m not entirely surprised, when I see a few marks begin to appear in the lacquer over the graphic. This might prove to be troublesome – but having taken pains to carefully build up the translucent paint coat in the first place, I’m already “all-in” as far as process goes. I could always try again with another decal – but then I’d have to remove the entire finish back to bare wood, and start all over again. That’s not an attractive option.

Pinholes in lacquer developing over the decal

When I look in against the light – most of the graphic looks OK, but I can see that there’s clearly been a reaction in a few places. Whilst most of the graphic appears to be buried under the drying lacquer – there are a couple of areas where the coverage appears uneven. The lacquer over these faulted areas looks slightly crazed and cracked, with some associated “pin-holing” in the drying lacquer. Sometimes – light coloured faults in the lacquer, such as these, can eventually “dissolve” into the thickening overall coverage, as subsequent layers of lacquer are applied, and everything “melts” together. It’s quite possible, that if I can eventually get the pinholes filled – then the faults will almost polish out when I rub back the surface. However – I won’t know for sure in this case, until I try. Apart from the pinholing, there’s also a slight cloudiness to the clear plastic of the decals, in a couple of places – most noticeable over the roundel. Normally, this would go undetected against a wood background – but being against a painted ground – it seems to make it doubly noticeable. Again – some of the effect may become less pronounced after final flatting-back and polishing – but that’s just a best-guess. Looks like I may have to expect a few visual faults in the headstock finish, and chalk them up to experience. However – I think I should be able to make them a little less noticeable, and that has to be preferable to stripping back and starting all over again

I leave the work to dry for 24 hours, and then gently flat-sand the troublesome areas before applying some more fine mist coats over the top. There doesn’t seem to be quite the same reaction again this time – however, the pinholes are noticeably taking time to fill. My aim is to gradually bury the faults under more and more layers of lacquer – hoping that they’ll eventually become invisible. However, at this rate, I’ll have to build up quite a thick coat. This approach may work, but it also risks creating a thick, glassy finish to the headstock, and that, in turn, comes with it’s own risks when it comes to attaching the hardware. I’ll just have to live with that – and deal with things as they come. In some extreme cases, and especially where reactions between the decal and lacquer solvents continue, the graphic can also melt and distort. A controlled, gradual build-up of lacquer is essential. These things take time, and it’s important not to rush.

Eventually – I manage to build up quite a liquid coat over the whole headstock. The slight milkiness on the roundel looks like it’s here to stay, and I can see there’s another similar patch just above the main logo. I think these are faults in the clear plastic of the original decal. They were undetectable beforehand, and only really became noticeable when the lacquer began to be applied over the red background. I’ll have to live with them – although I’m still hopeful that they might be much less noticeable under a final, full polish. The pin-holes have filled to some extent, and most of the associated fine, white crazing lines have dissolved into the lacquer. It’s possible that things might settle back during a lengthy curing period, and so I’ll leave the piece for now, and see how things stabilise. I’ll eventually flat-back the surface to begin to “lose” the edges of the decals, and will have to see how pronounced the pin-holes are then. It’s possible I might have to rub back and then spray again – although the decalsmay continue to react as the lacquer over them softens again. Possibly – I’ll have to find another way to cure any particularly troublesome holes. It might be possible to use cyanoacrylate drop-fills, since they will be less likely to cause a chemical reaction. I’ve also once tried using Lacacote sanding sealer over a particularly deep pinhole – I’ll just have to see how the piece dries, begins to polish out, and then take a punt from there.

At least things seem to be moving in the right direction again. Most problems have a way around – although you sometimes need to step back and take time to assess. Meanwhile – more fun in the workshop… literally watching paint dry…

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