Rebuilding my Olympic White Fender “1962” Jaguar. Sealing and priming a new alder body for nitro lacquer

Since there’s plenty of scope for using the spray booth at the moment, I’m going to give my Olympic White “1962” specification Jaguar project a complete refresh. Starting with replacing the body. Actually – by the time I’ve finished – the thing will be almost completely rebuilt, and only some of the original key hardware components will be retained. Most importantly – the neck, body and pickups will all be upgraded and replaced. In fact – calling this a rebuild may be a bit of a misnomer: “Is this a rebuild, or a completely new guitar build?”

Two-piece, “Vintage JG” Jaguar body in alder – by guitarbuild.co.uk

As I’ve built various other projects over the years – I’ve gradually realised that the original body I obtained for my “62” spec Jaguar was patently sub-standard, and flawed. There was always something awkward about the way it mated with the AllParts neck – meaning I had to drill bolt holes in a “non-standard” Fender configuration. Getting scratchplates to fit correctly was also a little bit awkward – requiring slight tailoring to match the body contours. Since it was the first of my many projects completed – the guitar has also seen quite a bit of play by now, and some of my failings in painting the thing have been keenly exposed. It’s not that the paint job was particularly sloppy, (I was really pleased with it as a “first” effort) – it’s just that the final lacquer coat was probably too thick, and therefore particularly prone to cracking and flaking. Minor dings have a habit of turning into major chips. I’ve had a couple of big chips crack off the edge contours due to mis-handling, and the snug neck fit has led to more paint loss around the neck pocket. Wheras original Fenders might suffer the odd stress crack around the pocket – my original build sheds entire chips. Lacquer, paint and primer – right down to the bare wood. Since my “62” will be reaching it’s “spiritual” 60th Birthday this year, (and me my real 60th) – my birthday present to myself is to rebuild and refresh the Olympic White Jaguar – upgrading it, and fixing some of the things I’ve leaned how to do better, along the way. The AllParts neck will be replaced with a genuine Fender neck, to match with all the genuine Fender hardware already in use. I also want to prep and paint-up a suitable body – much closer in spirit and quality, to “the real thing”.

So – once again – I’ve selected a “Vintage JG” body from guitarbuild.co.uk . A two piece alder body, closely traced from an original early 60’s Jaguar – custom built to order, and weighing in at around the 2.1Kg mark. As usual, the body arrives well packed, and finished finely enough to allow for an immediate start on the finish. However – since I want to take advantage of some of the things I’ve learned about finishing with nitro here – I really want to take my time with this one, and make the best possible job I can of it. The first step is to provide an ultra-thin colour coat on the body, so I can build up from there. Although the woodwork is finely finished, I want to make doubly sure that it’s smooth enough – so that once it’s primed, it’ll take a minimum amount of lacquer over the top, to provide the desired, glassy, liquid-looking coat. As with most things – (most of) the secret, is in the preparation.

Two-piece, “Vintage JG” Jaguar body in alder – by guitarbuild.co.uk

The alder has a tight, fine grain, and really doesn’t require any serious amount of grain filling – (unlike, for instance, ash or mahogany). A decent application of sanding sealer and some fine sanding should do the job here. I’m using Mylands Lacacote, as usual – but applying it, this time, with a “rubber”, and using a technique similar to applying a French Polish. I want to try and achieve an economical and effective seal without necessarily leaving any obvious “coating”. However, I also want to ensure that the pores in the wood are fully sealed. I want to use the rubber to push the sealer down into the grain, and “spread” the finish as economically as possible. If the coat builds up too thick, it becomes difficult to apply more without the rubber “dragging”, (and roughing up the surface). Surplus sealer can also build up and dry on the surface – leaving shiny patches which, I’m sure, won’t necessarily help subsequent paint coats adhere to the wood properly.

Wood…sanding sealer…primer…paint

I’m going to thin the first coat of Lacacote again here – so that the shellac is carried deeper into the grain. Hopefully, it should take some of the stearate sanding solids down with it. Once the first coating has been rubbed back – I’ll look to apply another, more viscous coating, on top – to complete the seal. The Lacacote is stirred well – so that the solids are dispersed equally, and a little bit of the cloudy liquid is thinned – approximately two parts sealer to one part meths. Although the spirits are coloured purple here in the UK – the dye won’t affect the final job in any way.

Rubbing-back, and “flatting” the surface

Although it’s not absolutely essential to seal the body cavities – I do like to apply an undiluted coat of sealer in there first. Using a flat brush, I can carefully paint the insides of each cavity easily – without any of the sealer flowing out onto the front face of the body. The first coat of 2/1 thinned sealer is then applied over the whole exterior surface of the body, (except, of course, in the neck pocket, and the now sealed routs), using the rubber – a small pad made out of fine cotton. This first coat goes on easily, and the wood literally drinks the sealer up. Using the rubber means I can push the sealer into the pores and fine grain on the surface. It also controls the “flow” of the lacquer, and so is much less likely to create pooling on the surface. Too much lacquer can cause runs in the finish – which of course, can become a problem – especially down the sides. The fact that the alder is changing colour tells me it’s absorbing sealer, and the gradual lightening of the wood again – with no apparent “glossiness” to the surface – suggests that the sealer has been drawn right down into the wood grain.

Using a French polishing “rubber” to apply the sanding sealer

The body gets an even coating over the front surface – including over the roundover edges, and onto the sides – checking all the time that the application is soaking in, and not running down the sides anywhere. After ten minutes or so, the sealer is dry enough to flip the body over, where the process is repeated – finally feathering-in over the sides, to ensure a complete coat.

The lacquer is given a couple of hours to dry properly, and then the whole surface is knocked-back with some 320 grit paper, over a backing block. The idea is to remove any “texture”, and to check for low spots on the body. By gently sanding, with clean, sharp grit paper – any raised “knap” in the wood is neatly cut off, and the end result appears much, much smoother than you might normally expect with 320 grit. As I’m rubbing-back – I’m also on the look-out for any thin lines of grain, or slight indents, which remain slightly shiny after sanding. Here, the lacquer won’t have been touched by the grit paper, because it’s lying slightly below the level of the sanded surface. There’s no real evidence of any problem areas here – but if you do find any knocks or divots in the surface from manufacture – this is often the first time you spot them, and now is the best time to fix them.

The body is gently rubbed down all over – treating the rolled edges with extreme care. The edges do sometimes tend to get a thinner coating of lacquer – and they also tend to “catch” the grit paper more than the flat surfaces might. If you’re not careful – you can easily sand right through to the wood, and cause flat-spots on the contours, which will always show in the reflections from the final finish. I only give the radiused edges a very cursory rub, with the paper wrapped lightly around my fingers only. The intention is just to knock-off any shininess from the sealer only – without abrading the surface enough to leave obvious marks. Once the entire surface of the body has a uniform, matte sheen all over – I give it an extra rub down with a clean, red Mirka Mirlon sanding pad. This just about eliminates most of the sealer left on the surface, and regularises the finish – so that the wood feels silky smooth, yet is keyed for the next coat.

After applying lightly thinned sanding sealer, and rubbing-back

After rubbing-back – the body is scrupulously cleaned down with a soft, clean, dusting cloth and a tack cloth. The sanding residue is extremely fine, and gets literally everywhere. It’s a pretty good idea to wear a mask. I’m taking my time over this piece – so “getting to know” the wood is vital. As you pay close attention to the way the wood is taking up the sealer – how the grain is filling, and how smooth the sanded shape is to your fingers – you can tell what areas may need closer attention, and you often have a chance of spotting potential problems before they even arise. Keep an eye on especially “thirsty” pimples or knot holes, and be aware that the end grain of the wood is capable of absorbing quite a lot of liquid, which will then tend to seep out again, if it doesn’t cure properly in place.

Once the surface has been scrupulously cleaned off – a second coat of sealer can be applied. This time, I’m applying the Lacacote without any thinning at all. Again – the sealer is applied with the rubber and, once again, it’s worked into the surface – following along the lines of grain. The lacquer is pushed into the grain again – but the friction is obviously too much for the fine cotton of my rubber, which is disintegrating, and shedding fine fibres from time to time. So much for vintage fine cotton. Fortunately – the loose fibres rub away once the sealer flashes off. Again – the colour of the alder darkens, but this time it doesn’t lighten again quite as much, as the lacquer dries. The finished coat appears a little bit glossier than before.

After both sides have had a second coating, and the body has had another couple of hours to properly dry – the surface is rubbed back once again with 400 grit. Still checking for likely problem areas – I have a careful eye on a couple of “freckles” in the finish, which are like small “knots” in the grain. Knots like this can drink in a lot more lacquer, and then reappear, as the lacquer shrinks back – leaving tell-tale “pin-holes” in the painted finish. If faults like this telegraph as persistent low-spots when flatting-back, or if they produce obvious pin-holes when drying – these should be properly filled and sealed before proceeding with the paint job. They can still sometimes surprise you even as you apply the colour or clear coats, and take a lot of time and effort to reduce.

Sealed body after second coat of sealer, and rubbing-back

Since there aren’t any other problems evident – (overall, the body looks and feels super-smooth) – I really only want to gently key the surface again, and knock off any apparent “shininess” from the second sealer coat. I use a new, clean Mirka Mirlon pad all over the sanded body, and work gently along the grain lines again, until the surface is completely matted-back, and the wood has a even, matt look all over. I’m aiming for the wood to look pretty much like it did fresh out of the box – (albeit, perhaps, with a slightly more golden tone than it originally had). And I want the sealer way down in the pores of the wood, making the surface of the wood smooth – not really sitting out on the surface.

Priming the prepped Jaguar body

The primer coat is the next important step – working in conjunction with the sealer, to ensure that the grain of the wood is “flooded”, and that the surface is as smooth as possible before painting. This stage covers up all of the textural and tonal imperfections in the surface, and helps provide a suitable base for the smooth, glassy coat – typical of lacquered finishes. I’d usually have started with a slightly thicker, “obvious” application of sealer left sitting on the body – but this time, I’ve got a much more subtle sealer coat. Hopefully, this will allow the primer to bond to the wood itself, much more effectively. I’ve had too many cases of paint chipping off all the way down to the bare wood itself. I’m beginning to wonder if the bond between the primer and the wood is compromised to some extent, by an obvious layer of sanding sealer on the surface – coming between the two.

The body is hung in the spray booth, using my usual hanging stick. This effectively masks off the neck pocket, leaving the sharp edges slightly exposed – so I can shoot paint, and not leave a vulnerable, straight, hard transition at the angles. I can manipulate the body with the stick to get right into the cutaways – make sure the edges get a good coverage – and then hang it from the ceiling while I cover the flat faces. I’ve cleaned out the spray booth and then set the extract fan to run for a while beforehand, to draw out any, already airborne, dust or fluff.

I apply a few, light, even, overlapping “mist” coats of primer at first. Any initial coats of solvent-based paint and lacquer onto dried layers below, should always be applied as “mist” coats – since this further aids adhesion. Each light pass of over-spayed lacquer is allowed to “burn-in” to the layers below. Misting the primer in a series of light passes takes slightly longer – with approximately 15 minutes left between passes, for the surface to become “touch dry” – but the overlapping coats soon build up to form an even, thin, opaque coat of primer. Any faults in the finish are picked up early, and can usually be wiped away gently with some fine grit paper – cleaning away any dust with a tack cloth as you go. After about three quarters of a can in all – I have good coverage, and can let the primer cure overnight.

After the primer’s cured – I have a little spare paint left in the can. Now would be a good time to test-fit the neck, and to tap the screw holes for the tremolo unit. I can take the opportunity to give the body an extra close inspection, and if any issues should arise – either with the check over, or from the tremolo fitting – I can deal with them and still have enough primer left to restore a consistent coat. I use a pattern square to measure and mark the true centre line of the body – carefully drawing fine pencil marks at key points, which will eventually be removed with naphtha. The tremolo fixing points will be measured off this centre line – rather than relying on the “squareness” of the cut of the tremolo rout. Even though the body may be a direct tracing of an original Fender – you should never assume that the tremolo rout is cut absolutely straight or true. You need the neck / bridge / tremolo relationship to be straight – so it’s adviseable to establish the centreline established by the neck and bridge, and to locate the tremolo plate accordingly.

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