“Mary Kaye” Blonde Fender Jaguar. Change of plan. Repairing the finish on a different neck

After re-thinking my various Jaguar projects and builds, I now intend to re-fit the nitro-finished AllParts neck from my original “62” build, with the gold hardware I’d originally intended for my ’65 Fender “re-issue” neck. That means, in time, carefully backing those gold bushings out all over again – but the technique I used before should work safely, (with the additional help of some naphtha to dissolve the adhesive on the copper foil used to pack them out). There is a spare set of slightly shorter bushings supplied with the gold tuners, and they’ll better suit the stepped pegholes anyway. So that means I can leave the hardware in place on the Fender neck – for now – strip the AllParts neck, and carry out any repairs I need to.

Nitro finished AllParts Jaguar neck (JGRO)

After removing the neck from the “62” body, I can give it a good check over, and remove the nickel hardware which is currently fitted. I already know of a couple of issues with the headstock finish – having originally finished and fitted the neck a couple of years ago. Firstly – I know the lacquer on the face of the headstock is applied quite thick. So thick, in fact, that there are a couple of quite large areas under each string tree, where the lacquer has cracked and flaked off as I’ve drilled through it. (The worst of the damage was mostly hidden by the string trees, so I left the damage untreated at the time). I’ll probably only require one tree on the new Jaguar – so I’d ideally like to plug and drop-fill at least one of the areas. While I’m at it – I may as well plan to plug and drop-fill both, and then try to level and polish up the whole face anew.

There are also a few “check” marks evident in the lacquer here and there – where, presumably, temperature changes have led to the thick lacquer coat distorting and cracking slightly. Checking marks can occur frequently on nitro-finished instruments, and are often considered an attractive sign of an authentic, aged lacquer finish. These marks on the face of the headstock aren’t too noticeable. In fact they only really show under strong directional lighting – but they may also indicate areas where the lacquer isn’t adhering to the wood properly, underneath. If that is a problem – then that might become even more apparent when I try and back the bushings out to replace them. The lacquer may crack and flake off. There’s no way of telling, and often these check marks can “run” as the lacquer gets thermally or physically stressed. I’ll have to grit my teeth and find out the hard way…

AllParts Jaguar neck – The screw holes will need to be re-drilled…

Another problem with the re-appropriated AllParts neck, is that the bolt holes – as I’ve previously drilled them – do not quite match up to the standard Fender spacings, on the Guitarbuild body I’m using for my “Mary Kaye” Jag build. Now, I know that the “Vintage” pattern Jaguar body from Guitarbuild was precisely traced from an original, early 60’s Fender Jag, and I also know that my 60’s re-issue Fender neck fits the Guitarbuild body perfectly. I can only conclude that the body I used for my original “60’s”, Olympic White build, wasn’t quite as good a copy, and that consequently – the holes aren’t at precise Fender dimensions. I’ll have to bear that in mind in future, and that may have a bearing on what I eventually plan to do with my “62 project. It also means I’ll have to plug and accurately re-drill the bolt holes on the AllParts neck, in order to mount it properly.

“Backing-out” the headstock bushings

(A quick “hello” to “Minnie” the new house cat, who makes her debut here, and who is apparently quite keen to get involved in everything. A reminder to keep the workspace clean and tidy at all times. Minnie’s latest game is collecting all the pens in the house and squirreling them away in secret places. It’s probably only a matter of time before she takes a shine to something I’m working on, which is why all the parts are getting bagged and safely stashed away, as I remove them).

The tuners are removed – together with the two string trees. There are no faults on the back of the neck – but you can see the flaked and cracked areas on the face quite clearly. To be honest – I’m anticipating a few more problems once I back out the headstock bushings. The lacquer on the face is thick – I know that – but I also recall pressing the bushings firmly home with a drill press. In my inexperience – I probably fitted them far tighter than what was actually required. I’m nervous about splitting the lacquer around the pegholes – but I find I often learn the most important lessons by taking the odd (calculated) risk here and there and, besides, it’s not exactly an original Fender neck anyway. If you’re afraid to make mistakes – you’ll never learn anything. Here goes nothing…

Splits and “checks” in the nitro lacquer

…thought so.

The bushings backed out OK, using Billy Penn’s useful “screwdriver” technique. However – the fact I’d shoved them in so tightly in the first place, combined with the extra thick lacquer coat, means I have ended up with a few more chips and cracks to contend with – most notably around a couple of the tuner holes. Most of the visible damage should just about be covered over by the flanges of the new bushings – however, by rotating the same screwdriver around the inside of each peghole – some of the splits appear and disappear as the shearing force changes. I’m concerned that the adhesion might not be great around the peghole edges, and that as I press the new bushings home, the lacquer may distort again, propagating the splits further out across the face – and beyond the edge of the bushings. I’ll need to stabilise the worst of the faults around each of the affected pegholes and try to generally consolidate the lacquer finish, as I also attempt to deal with the other localised crazing, and the string tree chip drop-fills.

Filling the old bolt holes

But first, I fill the four bolt holes on the heel of the neck with a firm durable filler. I use a two part mix, and pack the filler all the way down with a suitably-sized piece of dowel. A two part filler seems to work best because, once cured, it’s a much closer match to the firmness of the actual wood than some of the other, more powdery, pre-mixed fillers. There’s a distinct possibility the new drilled holes may overlap parts of the old, and I need the filler to hold up, and not drag the drill offline, down the old paths. After pressing the filler in firmly – all excess is scraped back, the holes levelled off, and the filler left to cure.

A closer view of the damage to the lacquer

Turning the neck over – the damage to the lacquer on the face of the headstock probably can’t be easily fixed with dropfills alone. I could probably fill the chips with cyanoacrylate, and then make a reasonable job of sanding everything clear and level – but that won’t address the fine splits and cracks, and any adhesion problems. Consequently – I’m not sure I’d be too confident about how long the repairs might last. Instead, I’ll opt to dropfill with my favourite shellac-based “building” lacquer – Mylands Lacacote Sanding Sealer – but will also try an approach I’ve heard about, which may help to bond the existing coat together better. By “amalgamating” the existing lacquer with thinners – I hope to be able to literally melt and reconstitute the existing lacquer into a “new”, consistent coat. Hopefully – the process will also help the dropfills bond into the whole, and I should already have plenty of thickness in the applied coat to allow for a few stages of flatting back.

Plugging the string tree holes

However, before any filling – I need to plug the existing string tree holes. I don’t have any maple dowel – so plugs carved from pine matchsticks will have to suffice. I size the plugs carefully, so that they won’t require any glue. I don’t want to contaminate the lacquer unnecessarily. The accurately carved plugs will stop up the holes, and should be held in place with lacquer over the top. (Enough should wick down around the edges and dry – acting as a glue). The pine will also easily drill out again, in the spot where I’ll replace just a single tree.

First drop-fills

After cleaning the entire area over with naphtha, wiping it clean and letting it dry thoroughly – the first drop-fills are made. I use a piece of fine pointed dowel to apply quite large droplets onto the key areas – allowing the Lacacote to flow out slightly over the edges and onto the original lacquer. This should help the drop-fills bond with the surrounding lacquer. The Lacacote softens and dissolves some of the existing lacquer as it “burns-in”. This usually results in the centre of the fill burning a little bit deeper – with the lacquer gradually shrinking back as it dries. Wide fills like this therefore tend to take many separate, thin fills – before the centre can be built up to a level, slightly higher than that of the surrounding lacquer. As the lacquer builds up, a pronounced outer ring tends to form, with a depressed centre – where the fill melts into the existing lacquer the most.

In practical terms – Lacacote drop-fills usually build up much quicker than ordinary nitro clear coat fills – probably due to the stearate sanding solids, and the percentage of solvents present in the mix. I apply a few fills over a day – letting each fill firm up, before adding the next. Then, I let the whole thing dry off overnight.

Consolidating the lacquer coat by “amalgamation”

Next day – the dropfill areas are scraped flat, and then the whole face is carefully flat-sanded with 320 grit, wet and dry paper. The Lacacote has a slight yellow tint to it from the shellac, and since the larger of the two fills took a few more layers to build up – it appears a little darker than the surrounding. Generally, the fills have taken some of the sharpness out of the chips – but I’ll need to add more drops and re-flat all over again – probably a few times – before the finish begins to sand level. My approach will therefore to be to gradually fill the holes, as I gradually flat back the existing lacquer – meeting somewhere half-way. Hopefully there will be enough of a thickness to the existing lacquer, that I’ll be able to reach an equal level, before sanding into the decals – although I do have the option of keeping much of the work localised towards the top of the pegboard, and feathering-in a smaller area. I’ll see how I go.

They’re difficult to photograph – but there are actually quite a few fine cracks and splits apparent in the original lacquer. So, in-between drop fills, I’ll aim to soften and re-consolidate the finish by “amalgamating” the lacquer surface. This is achieved by literally melting the finish with applications of cellulose thinners – then letting the lacquer re-solidify. I’m using non-hazing, “bloom-free” thinners from Northwest Guitars. The thinners are accurately applied with an airbrush, and left to settle. In theory, the thinners should be drawn into fine cracks, and will liquify, or gellify, any lacquer they touch. As the thinners evaporate, the liquid lacquer should re-constitute itself and re-harden into a strong single layer again. With luck – any weaknesses or splits should almost heal themselves. This process is often used on flat, varnished table tops to remove crazing, and relies on the substrate being totally flat, to help the lacquer re-flow and find it’s level again. The method should, theoretically, be useful for lacquered guitar bodies – but unfortunately, the 3D nature of their form will always tend to produce sags and runs in the lacquer as it becomes liquid again. The technique should, however, be ideally suited to localised use on the flat face of a headstock like this – where everything can flow back level, as intended.

Since the Lacacote does seem to be darkening the deeper fills – I’ll continue filling, but with clear lacquer instead. This has the same effect – but will likely take much longer, since the lacquer dries to a very thin film, and there are no sanding solids to “build” the lacquer any quicker.

Dropfills – Scraping level – Consolidation – Flat-sanding… Repeat

The process continues. More drop fills, and after letting the whole dry overnight – scraping back the fills, spraying another consolidating layer of thinners, letting the lacquer dry out and solidify, and then flat-sanding the face, (this time with a finer, 420 grit). From the image above, you can see how the thinners are penetrating the lacquer enough to cause the ink from my home-made roundel, to bleed out onto the surface. The toning sands away without leaving a visible mark – but it’s probably a sign to begin to go a little easier over this particular part of the headstock. Elsewhere – some of the cracks and crazing have now completely disappeared after the amalgamation process. Other areas do still appear to need a few more applications – and I still need to work on the drop-fills. So I’ll probably need to amalgamate, fill, and level-back, at least a few times more.

Dropfill repairs in nitro lacquer

After another couple of cycles – the dropfill areas appear noticeably smaller, and virtually all of the splits around the pegholes have now also disappeared. I’ll continue to work on the fills until I can get a stable enough leve,l to allow me to re-polish the whole face. I’ll have to ream out the pegholes for the new bushings, and will ensure, at the same time, that the edges are slightly countersunk – so that any remaining points of weakness around the edges are much less likely to propagate splits in the lacquer. If I can size the pegholes correctly – so that the bushings push home easier, but still stay firm – then I’ll be on the right track. In the meanwhile – each day sees another cycle, as the drop-fills gradually settle into the chipped areas, and the lacquer cures and shrinks back again.

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