Custom built Fender Jaguar USA. Candy Apple Red headstock finish – Flatting the decals, and polishing out

The clearcoat lacquer on my painted Jaguar headstock has had a few weeks to dry now. The lacquer clearcoat has shrunk down and is now much smoother, and appears glossier. The small pinholes I previously spotted – where the decals had presumably reacted with the lacquer in places – have also apparently shrunk back, and they’re not quite as obvious as they originally were. However, something has clearly occurred, which has caused the clear areas of the decals to cloud in a few specific and localised areas. There was no evidence of these marks prior to the clearcoat applications – so I can only presume some sort of chemical reaction has left a lasting presence. Unfortunately – I don’t see these marks disappearing over time, and I think they’re possibly in the clear plastic of the decals. I don’t think I’ll be able to polish them out. Perhaps they’ll be less apparent under a polished finish?

Candy apple red paint job and applied waterslide decals under cured, clear lacquer

At first assessment – It’s quite disappointing really. This is a quality neck, and I wanted to pull off a suitably deft paint job for the headstock. The problems with the decals, although not perhaps a complete disaster, are enough to make me consider stripping back the job, and re-doing it. However – since it’s a translucent finish, that will mean stripping the entire finish off and starting all over again from smooth, levelled wood. That’s not an attractive, nor simple proposition – perhaps even less attractive than putting up with a few, slightly blemished decals?…

Normally, I’d leave clearcoat lacquer coats at least a month – maybe even two – to cure and shrink back. The headstock has had just two or three weeks. Since the slightly sub-standard decal results have already “taken the edge off” the finish – there perhaps doesn’t appear to be quite so much at stake, as regards a perfect, pristine finish. I’m tempted to push on now, and see what happens when the headstock is polished and finished. Perhaps a high shine might take the edge off the decal flaws? Certainly – if I should happen to sand through the clearcoat – it might not be quite so much of a total disaster. In some ways – the (self-inflicted) pressure is off now. I’ll press on and finish the headstock as best I can. That way I can move towards getting the whole guitar up and running. I can always revisit the headstock finish issue again, in the future – if it still really bugs me.

Cutting back the lacquer at the peghole openings

Before beginning to flat-sand the clear lacquer coats, I want to prepare the peghole openings and cut back the lacquer a little. Like my general approach with screwholes through nitro – it’s not exactly “countersinking” in the true sense – but I do use countersink drill bits to cut the lacquer right back to the wood, around the edges of the openings. The pegholes on the Musikraft neck are drilled out for standard Kluson, 11/32″ fittings, but I’ve checked them against the tuner bushings I’ll be using, (Gotoh 510’s), and they’re still going to be a tight squeeze. (The fit will be potentially even snugger now, since I’ve sprayed the headstock without plugging the pegholes). I will be able to widen the holes a little with a tapered reamer – but there’s still a potential problem at the edges of the holes, where the lacquer flows over and down. Too much stress from a too-tight bushing might split and crack the surrounding lacquer. By trimming back the lacquer at the hole edges with a countersink bit – the lacquer on the face of the headstock is cut back – just enough to allow for the grooved sides of the bushings to push home and seat properly.

The bits I use are really designed for cutting screw countersinks – the cutting edges are sharp, but are equally spaced around the bit and so the bit can sometimes cut an irregular opening if turned too fast. Consequently, I use them by turning with my fingers only – one slightly duller bit, anticlockwise, to wear the lacquer back a little without lifting the surface, and then a second, sharper bit, clockwise, to gradually cut the excess lacquer away, down to the wood.

Flat-sanding the finish on the headstock

Once the pegholes have been prepared – the headstock is flat-sanded in the usual manner, using 800 grit upwards. The edges of the decals are initially quite pronounced under the clear lacquer – so the idea is to reduce the thickness of lacquer over the decals down to match the surface of the surrounding coverage. This takes a little careful work, and it’s particularly delicate where the decals approach the edges of the headstock. Care must be taken to keep the grit papers level, and to stop them wrapping around the delicate edges of the paint finish – otherwise it’s easy to sand through and leave irreperable marks in the colour coat. Where the edges of the decal are particularly difficult to hide – it’s sometimes necessary to sand more locally, and without a flat backing. A little paper wrapped around my fingers, and used gently, can gradually smooth the transition at the edges of the decals, and a following flat-over with grit papers on the backing block, helps restore the overall level.

Using naptha, (lighter fluid), to clean and lubricate the cut

I use a little naptha to clean and lubricate the wet and dry papers, and this helps avoid the risk of soaking any exposed wood. If any moisture gets into the wood, (especially around those newly reamed peghole openings), then the wood can swell and distort the lacquer. In the worst cases – the lacquer will split and begin to flake off. Using naptha is preferable, since it evaporates off quickly, and leaves no residue. After flatting the surface back to 800 grit, and once the decal edges are beginning to disappear into the lacquer – I move up to 1200 grit and repeat the process. This time looking to flatten the surface to a consistent, dull sheen with no stand-out scratches or witness marks. Once this has been achieved, I move up to 2000 grit, and repeat.

Candy Apple Red, custom-painted Jaguar headstock. After polishing

After the headstock has been polished with wet and dry papers – I move onto a range of Micro-mesh pads, running from 2400 grit all the way up to 12000. By the time the Micro-mesh is utilised, the surface is already beginning to shine up and so the process really just begins to focus on managing all of the swirls and tiny scratches which remain. There usually comes a point where using a proprietary automobile swirl remover is more effective at producing a real shine. I usually use Meguiar’s SwirlX 2.0, although others might suggest T-Cut, or other fine restorative car polishes. Whatever is used – it’s important that it doesn’t contain any silicone. Silicone can make future polishing an absolute nightmare – especially on nitrocellulose finishes.

In these final stages of polishing, it’s also important to use a clean cloth, since any coarse dust or grit – even sanding residue – can leave more ultra-fine scratches than you’re actually managing to polish out. Working into a light helps reveal detail which can, sometimes, get lost in the reflection. Eventually, careful attention eliminates all of the surface imperfections, and gradually imparts a rich, liquid shine to the surface of the lacquer.

Headstock in the final stages of polishing. Flaws apparent, but perhaps not disastrous.

Eventually – the headstock is just about polished up, and I get the chance to assess the job properly. Colour-wise, the effect has lightened to the point where it looks to be a reasonably good match for the body. It’s probably slightly too dark – a slightly richer red. The colour coat is consistent, but maybe there is, perhaps, just a little too much translucent red – (but then that’s probably being really picky). It’s difficult to properly compare the body with the headstock since they both reflect light in slightly different ways, and in reality – they’ll be separated at either ends of a block-marked neck. Given the benefit of hindsight – perhaps I should have used a more “golden” metallic basecoat, and applied the red thinner, and just a little more translucent? However – it is what it is – the “candy apple” effect of a slight metallic sheen under a translucent red is certainly still apparent here, and the polished gloss finish is rich and “liquid”. Shinier, in fact, than the Fender-finished body. (Nitro does always seem to dull, just a little, with exposure and use – so I think the current, pristine state of the lacquer might naturally fade back a little, given time). I think once the neck is attached to the body, and the guitar is fitted-out – it’ll look reasonably balanced, and in-keeping with the rest of the finish.

There are just a few, slight visible scratches in the polished surface – and they’re only really visible under extreme lighting. Rather than cutting-back and refinishing again with a few grades of Micro-mesh, I’ll probably try a little T-cut on mutton cloth, (fine cotton stockinette). It’s a finishing tip from Steve at manchesterguitartech.co.uk . That should take care of the fine swirl lines, and help avoid the risk of creating a fine misting of even lighter scratches – Always a possibility from dust contamination on a polishing cloth. Once the surface is as good as I can possibly get it – I’ll apply a, (silicone-free), Meguiars Carnauba Wax polish, and then buff the surface up to a full, glassy gloss.

Although the colour coat and finish are quite satisfactory – there are still a few obvious issues with the decals. The apparent cloudy patches are still fixed in the finish – I think as part of the clear decals. There’s a small area just above the “d” in Fender, and another similar area covering much of the area of the “Contour Body” roundel. Elsewhere – there are some irregularities under the black of the “Fender”, and on the “..guar” of the main decal. Under directional lighting, and a magnifying lens – these appear almost like a fine crazing under the surface. You have to really look for the problem – although it’s particularly noticeable on the “a” and “r” of “Jaguar”. Here, the crazing seems to have breached the polished surface in a few places – so there are a few tiny pinholes which are showing as slightly cloudy specks. It’s possible I might be able to polish deeper – but there’s also the possibility of sanding into the decals, and even the colour layers. It’s a balancing decision – push on and potentially make the job much worse than it actually is, or call it a day and live with a few insignificant imperfections…

And then there’s also something about the edges of these decals. Normally – under a clear lacquer coat – the edges of the waterslide decals completely disappear. First, the lacquer melts into the plastic and then, as the lacquer is levelled and polished up – the transition lines usually become completely invisible. Here, however, the edges of the decals are still detectable as a faint outline, under certain lighting conditions. I think the problem stems from the fact that the decals sit over a translucent colour coat. The edges of the decals, although polished into the surface, are still, just physically distinct enough to be able to cast a slight shadow onto the underlying colour. This is only really visible when the decals are viewed from a particular direction, and under favourable lighting – although I had hoped to eliminate them completely. Unfortunately, this looks like an unavoidable problem with waterslides over translucent colour. I’ll have to learn from, and bear this in mind. Then again – Fender never used to worry about burying decals under lacquer. Some vintage examples show that decals were often applied on top of the finish and then, apparently, left to peel and abrade with little obvious protection. I probably shouldn’t be overly concerned here.

So – not wishing to make things worse, and also not wishing to begin the process all over again – it’s perhaps time to call a halt and recognise that I can’t possibly do everything perfectly. It’s a reasonable job after all! – I reckon, a solid 8/10. Sure there are a few things to pick at, but what’s “character” anyway, without a few flaws, here and there?? Once the tuners are installed, and the neck is on the guitar body – small details like this will mostly pass unnoticed. It’s all part of the learning process, and I’ve got plenty of other things to get properly hung up on…

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