“Mary Kaye” Blonde Fender Jaguar. Polishing the body in six *(or seven) simple steps

The lacquered ash Jaguar body, for my “Mary Kaye” type build has had a couple of months to dry, and the colour now seems to have mellowed down to a quite “natural” looking tone. Colour-wise – it’s somewhere in-between white and blonde, but what you perceive is mostly down to lighting conditions. In bright daylight, it’s almost like a “vintage white” colour coat – albeit a semi-translucent one, through which you can pick out the darker figuring of the wood grain. Under indoor lighting, (and as the days shorten and the daylight becomes duller) – it seems the amber tones of the tint coat seem to come out. In such lighting conditions, the general finish resembles bare, oiled wood – although the translucent coat has an effect which slightly blurs and fades the grain figuring below. Overall – the finished body is, perhaps, a little darker in tone than most typical “Mary Kaye” type finishes – but then it’s nowhere near as dark as a Fender “butterscotch”. I’d say it’s right down the middle – between the two. Definitely “blonde”. Crucially however – the finish has achieved the pale, semi-translucent look which I was originally looking for, and it should work really well with the gold hardware I’ve chosen.

The lacquer has shrunk back, and it is now really hard and durable. This should take a polish well – but it’s noticeable that the finish has shrunk back again into the grain lines in a few places. This seems to be a constant issue when working with ash. No matter how much I seem to prepare, fill and flat-sand an ash finish – the slightly softer, darker grain lines always seem to drink more lacquer than than paler, harder areas. Once the lacquer tightens – the grain seems to emerge again in very slight, physical relief, and it seems I need to flat sand everything all over again. However – to properly flat-sand to a consistent, flat, “glassy” finish – I’ll obviously need to apply a lot more clear top coat, let it all stabilise, (perhaps numerous times over), and then properly flat-sand and polish again and again. I’m just not sure that’s the kind of coating I want on this body.

There are also still a few pin-holes evident, here and there – although the worst have already been sucessfully dealt with. I’m not going to get too hung up on the few that remain. I’m looking for as thin a nitro finish as I can get away with here. One which appears hand-finished – not super smooth like a polyurethane machine finish. I can still drop-fill any really noticeable and troublesome pinholes later on, with cyanoacrylate. That won’t add to the overall nitro coverage at all. With the thin coating polished up – there may well be a little rippling of the finish here and there, when I’m finished – but any irregularities in the surface should generally flow with the movement of the grain lines. I’m hoping the eventual result will still look smooth, glossy and well finished overall – but with a “natural” look. Ultimately – the tonewood is the most important thing. At the end of the day – you have to accept that the lacquer only really serves to protect and complement the wood, and the final finish can only reflect the amount, and quality, of the preparation you initially put in. Continually slapping more, and thicker, coats of lacquer just to cover up poor prep, is a waste of time and effort.

“Mary Kaye” nitro finish, over ash – Finished state of applied clearcoat after two months drying

You can see from the image above how the grain has emerged (again) as the finish has shrunk back. The difference in levels must be infinitesimal – but it’s enough to transmit in the reflections generated by the smooth, polished coat. I should be able to remove most of the detail, but since I already accept it will probably be a fools errand to try and give the piece a comprehensive flat-sanding, (involving yet more lacquer) – I think I’ll modify my polishing approach, and concentrate more on buffing the coat up to a shine, rather than eliminating every last bit of texture on it. Working the surface too hard will bring with it the attendant risk of sanding through to the bare wood again.

So, instead of hitting the finish initially with 600 or 800 grit, and then progressively working through countless grades of polishing papers and micro-mesh pads – for this job – I aim to focus my polishing input on the absolute essential processes, to get the job done. Since the surface is already well-prepared, and since the lacquer coats have been applied smoothly – with no sagging, dripping or “orange peeling” evident, I should be able to start with a light “flatting back – except beginning with a 1000 grade wet and dry paper, instead of a coarser starting grade. With a little naphtha as a lubricant – the super-fine grit should begin to “polish” more than it “cuts”. I’ll lose much less of the finish to abrasion, and should end up with far fewer swirl marks and witness scratches along the way.

The two images above show the result of my first pass with 1000 grit. The effect is to generally flatten the overall finish – but perhaps not as “equivocally” as I might have previously approached the job. Much of the grain texture has now blended away – but a few shiny “low spots” do still persist. The worst of these – and especially where they group together – I gently work and polish out, with a few more passes of the 1000 grit. (Small inconsequential areas are left for the next step). The important difference here – is that in working any of the low spots I do choose to deal with – I’m not using a flat backing block. Instead, I work the grit papers much more gently, and with the paper wrapped around my fingers. This allows me to almost “blend the low spots away” – into the overall, rubbed-back finish.

Polishing the nitro finish with a fine “Mirlon” pad

The body is given a general clean over, and is then rubbed down with a fine grey, 1500 grade Mirka “Mirlon” pad. Again – I don’t use a backing block – but the pad is ideal to blend away any remaining low areas and fine scratch marks from the general finish. It’s always important not to overwork, or drag abrasives over the delicate curved edges of the body, and the flexible Mirlon pads are ideal to wrap around the gentle contours. After just a couple of passes – and already at 1500 grit – the polish is beginning to emerge.

Polishing the nitro finish – 2400 grit, wet and dry

It’s vitally important to remember to clean and dust the piece over carefully, each time you move on to finer abrasives. Otherwise – stray abrasive particles can gouge out scratches in the developing sheen. After a good wipe over, I hit the body next with 2400 grit, wet and dry paper – again lubricated with a little naphtha. By this time, the shine is really beginning to emerge. Once the body has been worked all over, and checked for scratches and defects – I clean the body carefully with naptha and a new, soft cloth. Normally – I’d have run through eight different polishing stages to get to this point. Here I’ve developed a good, liquid-looking shine after only three.

Once the body has been cleaned and buffed again – (remember also to clean out the cavities as you go, and ensure the surface you lay the body on is kept spotless) – I start to work up a super-fine finish by using some automotive cutting compounds and swirl removers. The first is a white paste cutting compound by Halfords. This is applied sparingly, and then worked into the surface with a damp cloth. As the paste begins to dry on the surface – you can feel and hear the paste “cut”, and quite often you will hear a “squeak” as the surface is polished. There’s no point over-working this stage, since I’ll be moving on to even finer polishes – but it’s amazing just how quickly the shine builds up, and most of the hazy swirl marks begin to disappear.

Polishing the nitro finish – Cutting compounds

As with all polishing stages – it’s important to remove all of the cutting paste, and any residue, before moving on. Once the paste has been worked into the surface – it tends to dry, leaving a chalky, grey haze. This cleans off easily – so it’s pretty obvious when you can safely move on to the next level of polish. This is achieved using a finer automotive swirl remover. I like to use Meguiar’s SwirlX 2.0, which is a chalky kind of fluid – almost like a metal polish. It’s applied, and the polish is achieved in exactly the same way as with the rubbing compound. Apply sparingly… evenly work into the surface… let the residue dry… clean off.

Normally – the SwirlX is enough to remove most of the fine swirl marks, but I’ve got into the habit of using an additional application of T-Cut afterwards. T-Cut is a liquid swirl remover, although I think the T-Cut carrier is petroleum based, wheras the SwirlX appears to be water based. I think the carrier might chemically affect the lacquer – (you certainly shouldn’t rub car paint too hard with T-Cut, and I was always warned about leaving it on for too long when I used to spray bikes). It looks and feels slightly finer than the SwirlX though. Logic suggests it’s another step towards the perfect polish – *(although skipping this step reduces the overall polishing schedule to just six passes).

Polishing the nitro finish – Final polishing

While the T-Cut is being applied – it’s a good idea to check the work over in close detail. If there are any small problem areas that need extra attention – quite often that can be achieved whilst working the T-Cut. In some local cases – you might have to go back to the rubbing compound, and then work through with the swirl remover again. Either way – the hard work with the grit paper has already been done, and any risk of rubbing through the finish is vastly reduced. That’s not to say you can’t still damage the finish by rubbing too hard in one particular place – it’s just that it’s less likely now, and fine polishing can actually turn into one of those relaxing tactile tasks, you can lose yourself in for a while.

Polishing the nitro finish – Final polishing

After the T-Cut has been wiped away, and the body has been cleaned and dried, (I use naphtha and a paper towel) – all thats left to do, is to apply the final polish. I like to use Meguiar’s Carnauba Wax polish, but any silicone-free polish will work in much the same way. (I just happen to like the pear drop smell of the Meguiars, and it dries to a really hard and durable, “diamond” finish). A little polish goes a long way, but I like to work the first coat in by hand – apply sparingly and work it into the surface with a gentle circular motion… let it dry… then buff it off with a clean, soft cloth.

I follow this with a second coat – but this time, while the polish is still just liquid – I use an electric orbital car buffer, to work the polish into the surface. The buffer moves much quicker than I can manage, and it generates a little bit of heat as it goes. This seems to help the polish to penetrate – although it can also damage the finish, if you don’t use a light pressure and keep the head moving evenly across the work at all times. Once the second coat of polish has been applied, and once any residue has dried on the surface – the hazy film can be wiped away with another clean buffing cloth. This reveals the liquid, lustrous shine I’ve been working towards.

All this in just six, *(or seven), steps!)

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