GUITAR WORKS VOLUME ELEVEN: Ovation Custom Job
By Geo Dell
Original Material Copyright © 2020 – 2021 by Geo Dell
PUBLISHED BY: Geo Dell
All rights reserved, domestic and foreign
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This manuel is Copyright © 2021 by Geo Dell & independAntwriters Publishing. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means, electronic, print, scanner or any other means and, or distributed without the author’s permission.
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Get your project surface ready for paint or stain.
Sometimes this can be as simple as scuffing the entire body with a Scuff pad and then shooting right over the old finish, but many times there are reasons not to do that, or why you can’t do that.
A stock body may require a small amount of sanding or a great deal of sanding depending on what you are working with. But with a little work you can end up with a nice guitar for a lot less money. Or you could look at that as a lot more guitar for your money.
I will show some of my own projects to help you along the learning path toward doing your own build. Or maybe you are already there and just need a few pointers. Either way this book can give the information you need that can assist you in doing finish repair or completely refinishing your own guitar projects.
Electric or acoustic they all have the same material in common, wood. I have built dozens of Acoustic and electric guitars. I have spent a great deal of time over the last ten years doing projects, special builds, and learning more and more, but I have been involved in this work for over thirty years. I simply enjoy it more now that I only do it for myself and I only do the kinds of builds I want to do.
As you work the body becomes smoother and begins to take shape. This body was sanded and then sealed. After sanding, the sealer, and a few clear coats that were then sanded flat it was ready as a natural finish body project.
You have to start somewhere, and I will start with the first things you need to do.
The first thing is to get a clear idea in your head what you want to do. Write it out. Get the parts you need to make the changes you are contemplating. Think about any changes you might want to make before you refinish the guitar: Changes that can’t be made afterward. Such as a new bridge, a different neck, taking care of gouges or deep scratches. Maybe a new nut or an upgrade to a bone or graphite nut. Maybe you will also want to set the guitar up for lighter strings at the same time, or heavier strings. Whatever it is; get it written down before you attempt to do anything else.
Write it out, plan your budget, get your parts and get the work done. Too many times I end up finishing projects that guys started and then didn’t feel they had the expertise to finish so they bailed out. The parts went in a box, the significant other gets tired of moving the box around, next thing you know it’s online and sells for next to nothing. Your project. Now someone else has that project. But even that doesn’t guarantee it will get done. I have sold projects before on my site that men couldn’t wait to get and put together. A year or so later I’ll see the parts listed for sale, or they’ll contact me and sell them back.
You conquer the problem by realizing that, yes, you can do the repairs or upgrades, as long as they are not out of your range or expertise. In other words don’t buy that Fender with the broken neck if you don’t know how to fix a broken neck. But if you can spray paint, use sandpaper, you can probably do a lot of other things with no problem.
The projects that follow are all projects I built either for myself or customers. Most of them are my own creations but I have also built to order a few times.
This book will deal with finish work. How to do spot repairs, complete paints, how to prep the body, and even a little custom work. There are a lot of tips to help you and some of the same good advice that was passed down to me over the years by instructors that taught me various aspects or wood working, Luthiery, and what I have learned from my own deep interest in guitar. Whether that has been building, playing, fixing or selling them.
The next image shows an Ovation build that I did from start to finish in the series of pictures. The concept was to build a a jazz guitar from an Ovation acoustic base. We will take quite a bit of the finish work from that guitar because it was photographed thoroughly, and it gives me a perfect opportunity to show you many techniques.
This Ovation acoustic guitar was a perfect candidate. The bridge was lifting. It had been repaired incorrectly. The soundboard (Top) had also been repaired incorrectly and was cracked. The decorative appliqué surrounds were glued to the surface of the soundboard before the finish had been completely repaired and so there were dull areas all around them that could only be reached and repaired by removing them. There were stress fractures in the clear coat all over the top from whatever damaged the bridge or soundboard or both. You can see the dull repair area next to the fretboard just above the appliqué.
I will sand this top down, repair it and then refinish it. I will use a few other projects to illustrate the repairs as we go. I will also illustrate a repaint on a neck repair, blending the paint. Give you a run down on paints and the basics of application and a little more beyond that. I would recommend reading this information a few times and having the book handy as you make those finish repairs on your own guitar, or refinish it.
The first thing to do, before you think about spraying a finish, is to make sure you have done all of your prep work. We will get in this further in the book, but we will address different aspects of it as it pertains to each build or circumstance.
This is the guitar after stripping off the bridge, the appliqués, routing the new bridge recess, drilling the control holes, as well as routing the slider switch, and cutting the area for the new Humbucker pickup.
It makes what was a nice looking donor guitar look pretty rough. Sometimes it’s tough to take that first swipe, but you’ll never get the rest done if you don’t start at start.
Now that the area that needs to be repainted has been stripped down we can see the work we have to do. This top needs to be perfectly flat before we can put paint on it.
I’ll start with a block and sand the high spots from the bad bridge and soundboard repairs out. I’ll also sand out the chip that resulted from the removal of the rest of the bridge. You can see where there was a large area of sagged clear coat near the area where I drilled holes for the controls (Upper right in photo). I used a razor blade, held at an angle to flatten that surface and remove some of the clear coat.
A razor blade is a cheap and easy to use tool for this type of levelling. I simply go over the area and flatten it. The blade does the work: That way when I sand the surface is already levelled at will therefore come down evenly. You can buy tools made for this purpose, but it’s just as easy to use a razor blade or build a larger tool if you need one. Just take a flat piece of metal, take one side and run it across a very fine file to put an edge on it, then burnish it on that same side on a wet stone to take the roughness of the file out of it and make a nice flat scraper to take a finish down with.
In the proceeding image you can see that I have sanded the bridge area and test fitted my bridge modification, as well as mounted and checked the under soundboard modification that will allow this bridge to work correctly. This is a hand-made pinless top-mount bridge. These are things that have to be done before paint. The last thing you want to do is get the paint done and then find you have a problem with fitments of parts. So do the rough work and then test fit your new modifications.
Here I have sanded the top flat. Remember when you are sanding the top of an acoustic guitar that the top is only about 1/8” thick. Be careful not to take too much surface off once you have sanded through the finish and into the wood. Use good tape when you mask. Cheap tape can cause many problems, for a few dollars more get a masking tape that was designed to do the job. Additional, take your time when you mask the area off and make sure you are protecting against over spray on all the surfaces of the guitar. Surfaces a foot away could still receive over spray that can stick, so make sure your masking job covers all exposed areas before you spray the paint.
You can see I have just a few small areas that needed a little spot putty. Spot putty is lacquer based filler designed for small scratches and nicks. It dries completely within a half hour and you can sand it then. Since I am looking for a dark finish on this top I am using the red primer and the red putty. I can use black, white, grey or natural transparent sealer fillers as well if I were working on a top that I wanted to stain, leaving the wood grain.
I use acrylic as well as nitrocellulose lacquers. The acrylic family includes automotive products that can be used together on wood as well as metal. The nitrocellulose group contains products meant to be used together on woods only. I’ll discuss that a little further on. This finish will be a combination of acrylic and Nitrocellulose lacquers. Normally that can be problematic, but there are ways around it.
The guitar bodies above are examples of low budget paint jobs that nearly anyone can do once they gain a little skill with painting. The first one was shot with rattle cans of acrylic lacquer in a teal blue. The second is a standard Nitrocellulose paint job that was cleared and buffed out. Clear primer sealer and filler were used. The last is a urethane job done with spray equipment: A standard Binks seven gun and automotive paint. All three turned out equally well.
The skill I had with acrylic lacquers, doing automotive paint work for many years, transferred easily to Nitrocellulose lacquers. The two paints spray very similar, flash and drying times are close to the same. The thing I see with Acrylic is a slightly longer drying time for the initial drying. It is also perceived as not being as brittle as nitrocellulose lacquer can be. I have cut myself on chips of nitrocellulose lacquer and I can tell you it is very hard and very brittle/glass like when it breaks. When I see damage to the top of guitar, like this Ovation I also see stress fractures in the finish. Spider webs of cracks that have to be completely sanded out or they will allow the new paint to bleed into them, suck down, and then show through the finish. I don’t see that as often with acrylic lacquer unless it is a very hard crushing type of damage, and I never see it all with instruments that are refinished with Urethane paints.
We will move on to the balance of the finish work that needs to be done on the surface of our Ovation guitar before we can shoot the paint. Preparation is the single most important aspect of the work because if it is wrong, everything you do after that will fail. You can shoot the best paint job in the world and will look horrible over bad prep work. I like to remind myself that it isn’t a situation where fast is good. It’s a situation where whatever time you need to take is the time you will need. If you can’t fit that into your spare time this week, put it off to next week, or over three or four weeks, until you get the results you need.
Now that the primer is on we’ll deal with some other aspects of this particular finish. The paint will be a dark red metallic and I am blending black in to it to get a Black Cherry finish, as well as a subtle black sunburst effect. We will move forward from the sealer and priming of the bare wood.
I have finished the custom work to the top of this guitar. After I was satisfied with the work I sealed the area with a dark red primer to give me the under coat color I desired in the finished paint job. The darker the under coat the darker the finish, within reason.
I used a fast drying lacquer primer to seal the wood surface. When you are building this surface be careful on an acoustic guitar, or a hybrid such as this is to keep the paint thickness to a minimum. The thicker paint can affect the resonance of the sound board (Top) of the guitar.
On my last coat of primer/sealer I removed the tape that has masked the binding and over sprayed that binding so that I could feather the surface back in and have no noticeable paint lines. I am taking down the over spray and bringing the surface finish back past the banding line into the old lacquer surface. I had sanded this before, but after taping several times, no matter how careful I am, there are bound to be tape lines. I am doing this by hand, before I do the rest of the final sanding, so I can watch the surface and bring it back to where I want it.
When I say watch the surface, this is a term that means exactly what it says. I get my eyes on an angle across the surface so that I can see the shine from my overhead shop lights on the area where I am going to work. This will highlight any finish imperfections. I watch those as I sand so I can take them down flat. By taking advantage of the angle and the light I can see things that I might not see looking straight down at the finish.
You can see the banding clearly here. I want my eventual paint line to come right up to the edge of the first white line and end there. Because of that you can see that I have gone back into the old surface and the black paint that was part of the sunburst on this guitar. I did that because after my color coats I will wait 24 hours and then I will sand those color coats back to that first white line of the banding. If I happen to sand through my new color coat, which will again be a burst at the edges, I want to be sure I sand through into the same color, not the red oxide of the primer. This is very easy to do while sanding because these color coats are not very thick: The thicker the finish the less vibration from the top, so I don’t want a lot of paint sitting on top of this finish. There will be three blended color coats. 24 hours after that a two to three coat clear coat that I will shoot over the lacquer.
After I have sanded the edges I will scuff the top with the same scuff pad I used on the edges.
A note about using lacquer thinner: I use it because I know what the old finish is and I know what I have put on top of that finish. If you do not know what the old finish is you may risk causing the paint to lift, or peel because of the chemical differences between the paints. It is therefore sometimes a better idea to use mineral spirits and not lacquer thinner as I do. Look the make and model up online and you can usually find out what type of paint finish is on your guitar. But if you have used lacquer primer with no problems, the chances are good that you won’t have any further problems finishing the paint job.
I picked up paint dust and other contaminants I am sure. If you handle the guitar without gloves at any point during this process, you risk contaminating the surface with oils from your finger tips. Some builders wear latex gloves through the entire process. I keep a box in the shop. If you are latex sensitive there are other choices to provide the same protection.
In the photos I have removed my gloves to shoot the images. After I clean the top and tape it I am very aware of where my fingers are and what they come into contact with. Oils from your finger tips or silicones that may be in the air, or that you pick up from materials in your shop, can cause the paint job to be ruined. It is best to make sure you clean the surface well and wear gloves.
I begin masking carefully. The tape should cover the first white line of the banding. If it falls a little short, that is okay, because we are going to sand it out, but it must not go past that banding line onto the surface itself because once you pull that tape up there will be a part of the guitar that is lacking the correct color. I start with 1” tape, but you can use 1/8” or 1/4” if you choose to. I have done enough to know where I want to be and to feel comfortable with the 1” tape.
During this process clean the banding well with the lacquer thinner. Wear a mask for vapors and make sure you are in a well ventilated area. I am using a green lacquer thinner that is made from recycled product and is biodegradable. It is slightly more expensive, but it is worth the disposal problems you can encounter with products like this that are not biodegradable. Some collection places will not accept non biodegradable products for recycling. Check your local laws and be responsible with the environment.
I would also like to point out that I am once again using a good quality masking tape. That is very important at this point. Cheap tape can cause real problems when you go to peel it off. It can leave residue, it can pull off the paint and other things that can cost you time or even the necessity of a re-paint.
I have finished my tape work and have wiped the top down one more time just to be sure that there are no oils or other contaminants on the surface.
About Contaminants: I used silicone to install Piezo discs as part of the custom work I performed on this guitar, and I have touched the top at various times with my fingertips. It only takes a very small amount of contaminant to destroy the paint job. What happens with a contaminant like silicone or oil on the surface is that the paint cannot adhere to that part of the surface. It may be an area smaller than you can see, but because the paint cannot adhere to it it will flow away from that part of the surface causing what we call a fish eye. A fish eye is a dimple in the paint. It goes all the way to the surface. If I were spraying this with spray equipment and a fish eye developed, I could use a flow agent in the next coat of paint to cause the paint to flatten out and flow over those areas. But I am using spray cans, and so there is not much of a way to be able to take care of the problem once it develops. That is why I am being so careful with the surface preparation. The better you prep, the better your finish is going to be. It is that simple.
I have a fan to pull contaminants in the air and vapor out of my shop area directly above the painting/sanding area. I recycled the fan and hoof unit out of a kitchen remodeling job. It was free, it has the ability to pull the paint vapor away as well as dust, etc, and the light gives me light right where I need it most.
Because of the fan I am unconcerned with paint dust floating around the shop. I have the secondary shop fan on to create a cross draft, and the hood fan on high.
It is a fairly simple fix to shop ventilation. I also have a small booth that is built into what used to be an old window. That is made from simple poly sheets, plastic sheeting, and an overlapping entrance. Three sets of air filters you can pick up in any home improvement store, in sizes to fit you application, filter the air to the outside. I use the downdraft method of ventilation, installing the air pipe near the floor. That pulls all vapors toward the floor. Keeps dust down, pulls contaminates from the air before they can rise. I can spray the floor, concrete, with a water bottle keeping it moist which further traps contaminants.
I used a basic black lacquer for the outline. I am allowing this first coat to set for the required half hour to dry well because I spray my blended coats over the top of this. I want the black to be solid at the edges so that when I sand back into the finish from the banding I will have plenty of black there.
Rattle cans VS spray equipment: I have used low and high pressure systems for over 35 years. On a large job I prefer to use a high pressure system with a Binks model 7 paintgun. Old school, yes, but I like the ultra fine finish, and I can use it with Lacquers, Acrylics or even straight Enamel, I use a second gun for my primer coats. Easy to fix, re-build and maintain. But a top is overkill for dragging out the gun. Spray cans, or Rattle cans, whichever you prefer to call them, will do the job every bit as well. This is because most Rattle cans are not cheap technology any longer. The nozzles, the paint they contain, can produce results comparable to a gun sprayed job. I have done both, placed them side by side and presented them to other painters and asked them to identify the Rattle can job. Invariably they see no real differences. This is because the paint will be sanded and buffed out. And that goes for either method of application. So both will end up as flat paint jobs with good shine, or in this case a good satin finish. Recall though that I said most Rattle cans. It is possible to get garbage paint. So spend a few dollars extra to get good paint. The brand names usually warranty it. The non brand name guys don’t.
On these next two coats I keep the paint wet as I spray first the outer edge with the black and then the inner area with the Dark Red Metallic. I want it to be wet because I want the paint to blend well. Yes it will blend dry too, but it always looks like it was blended dry, there may even be a visible blend line. This way the paints flow together and you can see the difference.
The second coat goes on after the first begins to tack up well. I want it to set up, but not fully. I want a good bond between coats. I am a little more careful with my blending on this coat because once this dries and is scuffed the clear will go on this finish. This is a heavier, wetter coat, but it is clear I will have the Black Cherry look that I wanted by blending.
A note about Lacquer coats: After the first coat, if you do not wait for a complete drying, you will notice that the finish appears to dry up as you spray, giving the appearance that you have not put enough paint on it. Don’t be tempted to put more paint on or you risk a run or a sag in the paint, and with metallic that means taking it completely down and re-shooting the surface again. Shoot it, continue on, and in a few moments you will see that the surface has flattened and absorbed the paint, once again coming up to a gloss.
Find something to practice on if you are unsure of your paint skills and you will quickly become familiar with how the paint goes on. This will change with the type of paints you use and some specific types have their own specifications and recommended usage. Read the label and practice. It isn’t that hard to lay down a good paint job given the time and practice with either Rattle Cans or a gun/compressor system.
I have used finger pressure to sand into the red, remove it, so that the black I sprayed under it will appear to be a wild grain on the guitar top.
Next I will clear the top. Three coats, allowing the coats to partially dry, about 15 minuets between full coats.
I pulled the masking tape off, so the spray line will relax. Do this slowly and carefully. I will allow this to dry thoroughly for the next 24 hours and then I will sand the edges flat. This project has come a long way, but with any project it needs time. Some things will be easy, but not everything will go without a hitch.
About The Paints I Used: I used lacquer products for the finish of this build, but I did not stick strictly to nitrocellulose lacquer, I also used and blended acrylic lacquer. There is pro and con about doing this, but they both use the same thinners, reducers. There are differences between the two lacquers. Nitrocellulose is generally considered harder, a little more brittle, and the acrylic is a little more flexible. They blended well for me, but I blended them wet and that does make a difference. I do like the Acrylic Lacquers better than the Nitrocellulose. It is a personal preference, coming from an automotive paint background many years ago when we painted with lacquer on a regular basis. I thought there was nothing better. When Acrylics came out I thought that had to be the best thing ever invented. What could be better? Of course urethane additives came and then two stage urethane and now one stage urethane seems to be the rage. My advice is to give it all a try. Nitrocellulose is fairly easy to get, whether in rattle cans or for spray equipment. Acrylic Lacquers such as the red metallic I used is automotive based paint, also easy to come by. Primers can be Acrylic or Nitrocellulose, and some are even Acrylic enamels. Sometimes it is hard to tell what you are holding in your hands, and rarely will you get away with mixing paints like I did. Something I would not have done had I not known I could do it. But what does the average guy do?
The best thing to do is practice as I said. Use this rule of thumb. You can use Acrylic or Nitrocellulose Lacquers on a guitar body. You can also use Urethane. You should not use enamels because they are too soft. Purists will say you shouldn’t use Acrylic Lacquers either. It’s just wrong, they will say. Stick to lacquer for a good outcome, but try both. Pick up a rattle can of automotive Lacquer the next time you’re in Walmart and then order a can of Nitrocellulose Lacquer online. Try it out. See what you like, what you don’t like and go from there, because the truth is it is really personal preference. The Gods of the Guitar Builds will not crash down on you for using Acrylic.
As for urethane finishes on guitars, I have done it. It is not as hard a finish as lacquer is. You can get it flat if you spend the time sanding it out, I’m speaking about a two stage Urethane application. But if you are going to go through all of that, why not use a harder finish to begin with? With lacquers you don’t have to worry about easily scratching your finish, or marring it, or the scuffed up areas where it rests against your body, or your pick hits. Yes, it will scratch, but my point is it will not mar and scratch as easily as Urethane and Acrylic enamel paint will.
One stage Urethane is also fine for spraying bodies, but again they are softer and if you have any issues with the paint, dust, fish eyes, orange peel (A condition that often happens to inexperienced painters who do not put enough paint down and so the coats tend to stack up rather than flow together, and you end up with a finish that resembles an orange peel.) you will end up having to sand out the finish to flatten it and then clearing it with a Urethane Clear, which is not actually clear but has a yellowish tint to it, so that when you buff it, if you burn through the repair area will be easily seen.
Acrylic enamels are not suitable for a guitar. They are cheaper paints and they don’t dry as hard even if you buy the urethane conversion or hardener kit for them.
I am very happy with the way this finish sprayed out. I wanted the darker Black Cherry look and I got it without too much trouble. The finish is very subtle. From a few feet away you don’t really notice the metallic; it is very small flake, so it almost looks chromatic in half light. In strong light the surface looks darker. Up close you can see the flake clearly.
Letting the instrument sit for the last twenty four hours has allowed the lacquer to begin to set up. What this means is that the thinner used to allow the paint to flow has mostly dissipated and the finish is now dry. It is not completely set, it will actually take a week or more for the finish to set up, sometimes even longer dependent upon the temperature of the thinner, conditions and many other things, but for our purposes it is set up as well as it needs to be.
The finish has darkened up a small amount as it dried. That is common and something you might want to keep in mind when you finish an instrument. This is another aspect of paint work that you will pick up only through trial and error. That is why it is best to practice and get to know and understand the paint process. Nearly every paint system has information about it, and the internet is really just a huge database of that information. Plug in your keywords, something like “Guitar Finishes” and you’ll soon find enough information, videos and project builds to teach you nearly anything you wish to learn about finishing an instrument, custom work or instrument building.
I begin with a very small amount of rubbing compound on a soft cloth. There are many brands that you can use, but you are looking for a light duty compound. I am using a rubbing compound rated light for removing oxidation. Light duty means that the grit is very fine. Finer grit removes less material and leaves a higher shine. Talk to the people selling you the products. Tell them what you want to do. If they are unsure, talk to and buy from someone else. Most paint, hardware and of course wood workers or instrument makers will be able to give you exactly what you need.
I work the entire surface of the guitar by hand. It takes little time. You are going to put this on in a swirling motion similar to waxing your car. Rub the section for just a few moments and then move to the next section. After you have finished the entire top take a damp, not wet, but damp, cloth, ring it out thoroughly and leave it just damp, wipe down the surface and remove all residues. Let it dry and look over the top. You may see that you are finished, or you may see areas that need more work. In this particular case I am working with a satin finish. I don’t want to do a heavy buffing job because it will cause a shine that I don’t want.
As you are working you are looking at the surface. You are looking to make it consistent. Remove dull spots, blend it all in. The finished product should be uniform in appearance. It should also be ripple free, distortion free. It should both look smooth to your eyes, and it should feel smooth to your hands. Go slow. Take your time. Remember that you are removing material, so don’t go too far. Better to go slow and check often.
Once I have done the compound work and wiped the surface down with a damp cloth to remove the residue, including the abrasive rubbing compound, I will switch to a finishing product. I am looking for something to further smooth the top. I could use a polish, or a wax, not necessarily the same thing, or I could leave the top as it is. The top on this guitar is satin finished, so it is supposed to be low luster, and so it limits my options a little bit. I could choose to leave it as is but I want something to fill all the pores of the paint that I just opened when I used the rubbing compound. So I am using a polish compound made from silicone and designed for matte or satin finishes.
On a gloss top I would use a silicone polish and put a nice full coat on. Then I would touch that up with a product designed to remove the swirls that the polish might leave. I would wait twenty four hours and then do a second coat. That will seal the finish for a very long time.
I like silicone polishes at this stage because of the same tendency they have to mess up paint jobs by not allowing anything to stick to them. They bring that same protection to your finish. They are hard finishes, they are long wearing, and unlike a compound polish they do not remove even more or the paint surface to obtain the shine. Instead they build up a protective layer between the paint and the environment.
The finished project:
Pickups, controls, knobs, bridge saddle (Bone) and all of the other things to finish it, including fret polishing, play set-up and first stringing and height set-up.
Now time to clean it all up again, play it, continue to tweak it until I am satisfied.
I hope that the information in this book was useful to you. Please check out the other books in this series available online:
Volume One: Finish Work
Volume Two: Custom Builds One
Volume Three: Custom Builds Two.
Volume Four: The CD60 build
Volume Five: Repair Techniques
Volume Six: The Seven String Jazz Build
Volume Seven: The Scrap Wood Build.
All are available at Amazon in Kindle or paperback versions.
Geo Dell is a guitar builder. He has been building his own guitars for many years. He has built complete acoustic guitars from scratch as well as electric guitars. He works out of his own shop in Western New York State.
Geo Dell’s Guitar Works on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Guitar+Works+Geo+Dell&ref=nb_sb_noss
Geo Dell’s Author Page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Geo-Dell/e/B00BI08VNY
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