In the fall of '98, I found a cheap '65 Musicmaster II off gbase.com and bought it, sight unseen. I hadn't planned on refinishing it (it was already painted black, and I knew it had a painted white pickguard), but that quickly changed when I saw it in person. The body looked like it had been spray-painted, without the use of sandpaper; the brown faux shell 'guard was scratched up and appeared to have been been painted with white house paint. I said to myself, "I can do better than that." In retrospect, that might not have been true, because even though I had access to a professional lacquer spraying booth and had near professional instruction (many thanks to Messers. Ron Day and Barry Wymore!), it really didn't turn out so professional. I tried to do it the old-fashioned Fender way with nitrocellulose ("nitro") lacquer, using a "paint stick" plus nails to hold up the body while drying, but I'm pretty sure I would have been fired if did that bad in the old Fender plant. Anyway, below are some refinishing tips (most of which I learned the hard way) that I hope you'll find useful. However, your mileage may vary.
Most of the info below is derived from refinishing a poplar '65 Musicmaster body. Where appropriate, I've also included some info from my second (and final!) refinishing attempt, on an ash '56 Duo-Sonic body, which used spray-can nitro lacquer. All part numbers mentioned refer to the Stewart MacDonald catalog. I've never ordered from them, but the Guitar Re-Ranch also sells refinishing supplies, and is definitely worth checking out.
- If you use a chemical stripper, ALWAYS work in a well-ventilated area, and follow the manufacturers' instructions to the letter. If you're not careful, this stuff will also strip out your lungs!
- Chemical strippers will get most but probably not all of the paint off; use sandpaper for the rest.
- Try not to scrape the body when you scrape the old finish off.
- Shot-peening/sandblasting to remove paint works well on some metals, but it'll chew up wood and aluminum. Don't do it; the time you'd save will be lost in sanding out the scratches.
- Never use steel wool on wood (not even 0000 grade) to remove paint; too many scratches!
- If you have to remove paint from a pickguard, use wet sandpaper. Never get paint stripper on plastic -- it will dissolve plastic! I wet-sanded with 400, 600, and 1200-grit paper (although the actual grades used were arbitrary).
- Be careful! I sanded the pickguard under constant water irrigation (nitrocellulose dust = explosive?), and I wore disposable latex gloves.
- If you have extra pickguard screws (and don't mind scuffing them), the best bet would be to screw the pickguard into a large 3/4" thick board and then go to work with sandpaper and a sanding block. Old nitrocellulose-based pickguards have a bad tendency to warp with time, so screwing it to a surface should take some of the ripple out of it (but you'll probably find it's a losing battle).
- I sanded the 'guard with one hand while holding it in the other, until it was free of white paint and free of deep gouges. This process took a very long time, and I never acheived a smooth glass-like surface, but the final result wasn't too bad.
- Sanding should be done after any required routing is done.
- Depending on the depth of the scratches you need to get out, you'll need 120-180 grit paper to start, then 320-400 grit. Don't go higher than 600 grit (some people say stop at 400 grit, as some roughness will help the paint stick).
- Always wet-sand with wet/dry paper and use a sanding block when possible. Soak the sandpaper overnight if the manufacturer recommends it, and be sure to rinse your paper of potential abrasives often during use. (I've used so-called "no load" sandpaper; it wasn't very durable but otherwise performed well, without really getting clogged by residue.)
- Sanding bare wood should be done with the grain to polish it, or against the grain to level it (to remove really deep scratches).
- What's the weather like? For nitrocellulose lacquer (and sealer), I'm told ideal spray booth/area conditions are between 60-80 degrees F and 40-60% relative humidity. Also, please carefully read all warning labels on the lacquer can, especially the ones about ventilation and flammability.
- Screw the body on a surrogate "neck" (almost any stick will do) to give you a handle for holding/clamping/hanging to dry.
- If you're using nails in the pickguard screw holes to support the body off a surface while spraying, remember to spray the front first, then the back. Most importantly, how stable is your guitar body on 4 nails? Is it likely to tip over in one direction, marring your finish? Poor balance can lead to disasterous results. Use as many nails as possible (every pickguard hole), and/or screw a large hook into the end of your surrogate neck to let it hang to dry.
- If you have an alder or yellow poplar body, you may need sanding sealer. For my '65 Musicmaster II project, I used a 50/50 mix of Behlen Vinyl Sanding Sealer (#4843; 1 quart) and Behlen Nitrocellulose Stringed Instrument Spraying Laquer (#4841).
- If the body is made of ash, like my '56 Duo-Sonic body, you might need wood paste filler before the sanding sealer. However, do NOT use CrystaLac's "clear" water-based grain filler under a transparent refinish. The water-based filler is fully compatible under nitrocellulose lacquer, but when dry multiple (thick) layers of clear CrystaLac paste filler look a translucent milky-white rather than clear. (Curiously, StewMac discontinued this product in summer 2002.) If you're doing a natural refin, I recommend using just sanding sealer (or better yet, only clear lacquer). It'll be more wasteful, since you'll sand most of it off and respray as needed, but it won't look as ugly.
- The type/brand of sealer depends on the finish method you use (don't mix acrylic with nitro laquer products, etc.), if you're going to stain, etc.
- Don't use too much! The first coat will get sucked up by the wood, drying almost instantly. I then re-sanded with 400-grit and sprayed 2 more thin coats, with 15 minutes between them. With my '65 Musicmaster II, the final result will look something like this.
- My '56 Duo-Sonic body, after spraying with sanding sealer: front and back. Most of the sanding sealer was sanded off 2 days later with 320-grit FreCut paper. I think this could have substituted for the paste filler, no problem. Tip: Make sure you don't subsequently sand through the sealer on the edges, or it'll really look bad!
- Practice on scrap before trying the real thing. Spray in a sweeping motion; start spraying a few inches to the side of the body before you start to sweep across it, and stop spraying a few inches after you've passed it. Don't let too much spray build up at once. Drips are very tricky to sand out!
- Be sure you consider the physics of the system you're using. For example, a spray gun has a hose to feed it compressed air, which must be snaked about you as you work. The tendency is to get the spray gun nozzle as close to the surface as possible (really, you should spray from ~8-12" or so), but remember the bottom rim of the spray can could hit what you're spraying and leave a nasty dent in the wood and finish.
- With my '65 Musicmaster II project, the original plan was to refinish it natural, or with an amber tint to match the headstock, but then I saw the wood the guitar was made of. It was made of three pieces of yellow poplar, but the middle section was considerably darker than the wings. If you're refinishing a MM/DS, remember that these were the least expensive guitars Fender made, so there's a good chance it's made of ugly wood (with knots, etc.).
- I attempted a solid white color, using Behlen Master Color pigment (#1596, white) mixed with clear nitro lacquer, in the maximum recommended ratio (1:3 color:clear). You'll need a graduated paint mixing cup; try an automotive paint supply store. A 1 pint can of Behlen was way too much for one guitar body.
- If you're thinking about a white refin, remember that before the clear topcoat is applied, it will look VERY WHITE, enough to make the Cure's Robert Smith look like George Hamilton. I'm sure any solid color (except black) is the same way; don't be alarmed.
- When spraying a clear topcoat on a light-colored finish, remember this: EVERY HAIR AND DUST PARTICLE IN THE AREA WILL FIND YOUR GUITAR. It's a good idea to completely sweep out the area well beforehand (if you're in a lacquer spray booth, use the gun as a source of compressed air to blow out the dust). Be sure you let the dust settle before you start.
- Don't try to "dig out" a hair caught in a finish; it won't come out, and you'll just mar the finish further. Differences in the amount of a clear coat over a color will affect the final shade; you'll NEVER be able to match it if you just try to touch it up. Either live with it and like it, or spray another opaque coat over the entire body and try again.
- If you're using nitro lacquer, try a minimum of 2-3 coats of color, then 1-2 clear topcoats. You don't want too much, but you don't want to risk rubbing thru to bare wood during the final polishing/rubdown (watch out, especially on edges!). If you use acrylic lacquer, I think you'll need more coats, though.
- The final clear topcoat was 50/50 lacquer/thinner to aid flowout.
- For my '65 Musicmaster II project, I ended up using a quart of clear nitro lacquer overall. I didn't need any blush eraser or "fisheye" flowout. If you have problems with water getting in your lacquer gun's air line, or you spray in a very humid environment, you might need blush eraser. If your skin is naturally very oily, you might need fisheye flowout.
- My '56 Duo-Sonic body was refinished with clear spray-can nitrocellulose lacquer: front and back. I shot all 3 coats during one afternoon, about 45-60 minutes apart with no sanding in between, for effectively one continuous coat. One entire spray can and part of another were needed to give 3 clear coats for the body.
I wish I'd read a little bit more about refinishing before I tried it. Hopefully, you'll learn from my foolhardiness, but please don't stop there. The Guitar Player Repair Guide, 2nd Edition is a pretty useful book to have, and it has a lot of info on refinishing. And if you're buying nitro lacquer, chances are it'll be from either the Guitar Re-Ranch (a website dedicated to refinishing supplies and tips), or StewMac. The StewMac catalog itself has some tips, and they offer a few books/videos on the subject. StewMac used to offer a free 28-page "Finishing Information Booklet" (part #4001), but it was discontinued after they published a $24 full-sized book on refinishing (part #5111). However, their 28-page booklet "Electric Guitar and Bass Assembly Guide" (part #4003) is about $3 and includes a section on finishing.
- Yes, you really do need to wait up to 30 days after spraying before doing the final rub-out, especially after nitro lacquer. One week is not enough!
- Wet-sand, starting with 400-600 grit, then go to 1200 if you can. Rinse your paper early and often. Rub lightly, especially around the edges!
- By this time, it was evident I had an amateur at best refin, so I didn't try to polish it too much. Check elsewhere for guides to finish the job.
- Buffing out the ash '56 Duo-Sonic body: front and back. (Yecch!!) Two weeks after the last coat of clear lacquer was applied, I buffed it with StewMac's #2 polishing compound, followed by polishing with #4 swirl remover.
- Don't use steel wool or any dark-colored rub-out compound (such as rottenstone) on a white guitar. Some of the color of the rottenstone won't come out! If in doubt, start in an area that will be covered by the pickguard.