In Davis Guggenheim's 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud, Jack White of the White Stripes describes his relationships with his instruments as fundamentally antagonistic. He hands his red plastic Airline guitar to his younger doppelganger in the film and tells him to "pick a fight with it." You have to pick fights with your instruments and "win those fights," he says.
While I appreciate where he's coming from, I don't share White's attitude... mostly because when I fight with my instruments, they usually win. Many a guitar lesson has ended with my ass thoroughly kicked, wondering why my guitar, not to mention my own fingers, have turned on me. An amazing thing about all musical instruments is how the same model of a particular instrument can feel and sound so differently from another, how the same guitar produces a noticeably different sound in the hands of different players, and how some instruments are so well designed that, as James B. Stewart noted in a 2001 New Yorker article about Steinway pianos, an instrument can actually make you sound like you're a much better player than you are. Despite my respect for White's point of view, if there is something that can make my instruments easier to play and make me sound better (or make us fight less, however you want to think about it), I'll do it. So a few years ago when my guitar teacher and overall music guru Mr. Chris Buono handed me his mid-70s Fender Strat, outfitted with Dunlop 6100 jumbo frets, there was no turning back.
Changing fret sizes on a guitar is no small thing, either in getting used to the new feel or the labor involved in making the switch. But the differences between Chris's guitar and my own Strat, made from Warmoth and Chandler parts, were not subtle the jumbo frets made it so much easier to play, so much easier to bend strings, do legato runs, and so on, that there was no question that I needed some myself. My Strat still had the birdseye maple Warmoth neck it had when I bought it in 1993, with frets a couple of sizes down from the 6100s. Doing a little research, I discovered that the cost of refretting a neck was almost equal to that of a whole new neck depending on the complexity of the job, most guitar techs charge between $200 and $400 for a refretting (if the neck is bound and/or has a maple finger board, costs go up).
There are many reasons why refrets cost so much after watching a few of master guitar mechanic Dan Erlewine's videos, I've come to appreciate the wide array of difficult tasks that go into refretting a guitar, and the expertise necessary to do it right. This is true of any kind of set-up or repair work on an instrument. After having my Strat redone with the new neck and a new bridge, I resolved to learn how to do as many maintenance and set-up things as possible, with an eye towards someday being able to build my own instruments from scratch. Fast forward a few years to graduation and having a very supportive and accommodating wife, and I was ready to start experimenting. Thus began the search for an inexpensive instrument I could use as a learning platform.
The catch was that it need to still be playable at the end utterly destroying a guitar in the process of learning to finish, fix, and do set-ups wasn't part of the plan. Chris recommended Dean Guitars because, unlike a lot of other manufacturers, they used quality tone wood in their cheaper instruments. I chose the "Vendetta," which had the added benefit of a Floyd Rose-style tremolo, which I'd never used and was curious about. The downside? It was camouflage. While I strive for face-melting solos as much as the next recovering graduate student clinging to unrealistic fantasies of stadium roof-raising rock intensity, camo is just not my thing. Refinishing, then, would be challenge #1.
I found a brand-new Vendetta on eBay for less than $200, marked down because of a flaw in the finish I was planning to remove anyway. Upon receiving it, owing to one part unfamiliarity with the Floyd Rose system and two parts naive exuberance, the first thing I did was strip the screw threads in the locking nut. Lucky for me, the folks who sold me the guitar were kind enough to send me a replacement nut at no charge. This would serve as a handy lesson for all my future wood- and metal-working endeavors: don't over-tighten. Anything. Ever.
Guides to guitar refinishing generally suggest two options for removing an old finish: chemical stripping, and sanding. Both have drawbacks, but chemical stripping means highly toxic and flammable goo in your house, and while sanding would make a big mess, at least it wouldn't give me cancer or blow up the house. After disassembling the guitar, I went after the camo finish with a newly-acquired palm sander. This is where I learned that sanding, and preparation in general, is both the most important part of wood finishing, and (not coincidentally) my least favorite of all the myriad steps.
My understanding of the finer points of sanding at this point didn't extend much further beyond the preschool version of taking a piece of gritty paper and rubbing it all over a piece of wood until you make sawdust. As with so many other things, the sanding required to prepare wood for finishing (that is, if you care how it looks later) is a skilled activity, requiring a great deal of practice to do well. There is technique involved that is very difficult to communicate in words. In science and technology studies, scholars often address the significance of "tacit knowledge" in various pursuits; in other words, the things people know without necessarily knowing that they know them. Transmitting this type of knowledge is made more difficult by the fact that, often, an expert in a field may not realize the significance of a thing they know, and thus isn't compelled to describe it to a newcomer. This is why apprenticeship is so important, and why science and technology studies scholars often use ethnographic research methods (namely participant observation) for conducting their research you can learn a great deal by watching people do what they do. In my case, my lack of enthusiasm for sanding came not from the work involved so much as the frustration of not really knowing how to do it right. In addition, large scratches, and even small scratches, often become obvious only after it's too late to do anything about them.
After many hours and sheets of sandpaper, I finally managed to remove the camo finish and get to bare wood. The palm sander would not, of course, get inside the horns of the guitar, which were the most difficult part to sand. I tried a technique I'd read about wherein one tapes a piece of sandpaper to a dowel and scours away, but that wasn't going well and was trying my patience (another thing one must cultivate to do this type of thing well). I finally went after the horns with a rotary tool and a sanding drum, which was great at removing the finish quickly, and also quite good at putting big, ugly gouges in the wood. Further sanding could only partially remove these gouges, so they became permanent fixtures.
But now, I thought, I could get to the fun part: staining and applying a topcoat. I'd decided on a red mahogany stain from Behlen, a well-known British manufacturer of wood finishing products. Mahogany, like walnut, korina, ash, and a variety of other woods often used for guitars, has deep, open grain. In order to have a totally flat, smooth finish, the grain must be filled and level sanded prior to staining. A staff person at my local Woodcraft store recommended Behlen's mahogany-colored grain filler, so I bought a can along with a bottle of tung oil, which I was planning to use as the topcoat. Here are two important things I learned about grain filling: first, you shouldn't just paint grain filler on and then let it dry, even if it looks like you're not getting enough into the pores of the wood. Grain fillers need to be squeegeed off somewhat aggressively or they leave a thick coating that is quite difficult and time consuming to sand off. Second, Behlen's mahogany grain filler is not the color of mahogany. It is, rather, the color of Pepto Bismol. Yes, I did mix it, and no, I'm not the first person to make this discovery. I expected perhaps that it would change color, and hopefully darken, as it dried. It did not.
What it did do well was fill the grain, although the hours I spent sanding the far-too-thick coating off the surface of the guitar made me wonder if the "open pore" look would be so bad. One I'd gotten down to the surface off the wood again with the pores nice and filled, I set about staining. Behlen's stain can be applied with a rag, which is what I did, and the color came out quite nice: a deep red. Unfortunately, in my ignorance, I diluted the first application with water, even though the stain is alcohol based (another important lesson: dilutions in general must be done with like bases or with specially formulated reducers). This made the color somewhat lighter, but it also raised the grain on the wood, which had to be sanded down (see earlier comment re: how much I love sanding).
After a second, straight-up coat of stain, I set about putting the first layer of tung oil on the body. I'd chosen tung oil after reading of its many virtues on various websites and guitar forums, and thought it would be great since it could be wiped on and was a non-toxic, all-natural finish. As the guidelines had suggested, I cut the first application with 50% mineral spirits, and let it dry for a full day. As it turned out, that was not nearly long enough. With tung oil, as with other finishes, if the first coat isn't completely dry when you apply a second coat, you have just given your piece the kiss of death. Further, oil finishes can look dry without actually being dry a nasty characteristic for a first-time finisher working alone. Sure enough, after applying a few more coats, I noticed that the body never seemed to fully dry out. The surface remained greasy in spots, and it looked splotchy. After posting some questions to a wood working forum, I came to the sad realization that A) tung oil is actually very difficult to work with and requires drying conditions I was not able to create in my basement workshop, and B) I was going to have to start over.
There's nothing quite like trying to sand off a greasy, oily, uncured finish, even after you've wiped it down with solvent to try and remove as much surface goo as possible. Oh, the rate at which I destroyed sandpaper in this process... it boggles the mind. Normally, all sandpapers will "load" as you sand, and have to be periodically replaced or cleaned off so you get an even surface. With dry wood this is not a big deal, but with oily wood such as I was trying to remove, it's a different story. Eventually, I managed once again to get down to bare wood. I shudder to think how much wood I'd removed from the body by this point. But onward march we must!
Following the tung oil debacle, I sought out more advice from the forums regarding easy-to-apply, nice-looking, and durable finishes. I decided on Minwax wipe-on polyurethane, which was actually a fairly common DIY guitar finish. Finishes, however like body shapes, pickups, colors, and virtually every other part of a guitar inspire a lot of heated debate among enthusiasts. Many believe that anything besides a standard nitrocellulose lacquer finish looks terrible and negatively affects the tone. But just as many others don't believe the finish has any impact on the sound, and sing the praises of poly's easy application. As it turned out, it was both an easy-to-apply and, I think, decent-looking topcoat.
After two more rounds of staining (pure, of course), I set up the body on my make-shift finishing rig and applied the polyurethane. Indeed, it did seem to go on quite easily, and was surprisingly smooth and free of wipe marks (although I did get a few drips). After three or four coats I learned my next important lesson: polyurethane doesn't just stink: it is very, very bad for your lungs. Although I'd always worn a dust mask, and the guidelines on the can speak of good ventilation and moving to fresh air if you feel dizzy, I found the poly to have an affect on my lungs something like asthma tightness and a generally unpleasant feeling in the chest. A respirator is an absolute must when working with this stuff.
Eight coats of poly and a week's worth of drying later, I had a fully refinished body. I'd done a small amount of rubbing with steel wool between coats (another recommendation from the forums) but a few lingering drip marks suggested that my technique needed some work. I'd also noticed sanding scratches that had eluded me during the actual sanding process, when they could have been repaired. But I tried not to let those things irk me too much. What did irk me were other mistakes, particularly in masking off the various cavities. That damned grain filler had gotten into the shelf for both the tremolo cover and the control cavity, and removing it required chipping away with an exacto knife. Naturally, the knife slipped a couple of times, making big gouges in the finish. At least they were on the back of the guitar. But still: arg!
In addition to a new finish, my other big plan for this guitar was reconfiguring the electronics and adding new pickups, along with an arcade-style kill switch (an idea blatantly stolen from Chris). So the next order of business was drilling a new hole for the kill switch. I decided that the kill switch would go where the pickup selector had been, and I'd drill a new hole for the selector. Arcade switches are quite a lot larger than regular guitar controls, so I had to improvise a bit in order to get it to a large-enough size (with some help, once again, from the rotary tool). When drilling the new hole for the pickup selector switch, I also discovered that the wood was too thick for the post to fit all the way through on its own, so I routed out the inside edge with the rotary tool in a manner that surely would give a professional luthier a serious case of "WTF is that idiot doing???"
Next up was insulating the cavities with copper tape to eliminate spurious noise and radio interference. Once that was done, it seemed a shame not to just wire it up and put it all the way back together. With the helpful directions that came with my new DiMarzio pickups (an Air Norton in the neck and a PAF Pro in the bridge), I wired in a series/parallel switch for the neck pickup and a phase switch for the bridge pickup, both controlled by push-pull knobs that doubled as volume and tone controls, respectively. The wiring, which I had a lot more general experience doing than any other part of this job, was easily the smoothest aspect of the whole operation. Testing out the reassembled guitar, I discovered that the pickups were out of phase and reversed the hot wire of the bridge to compensate. But otherwise, amazingly, everything worked.
Over the next week or so I made very basic tweaks to the action by raising and lowering the Floyd bridge, but no adjustments to the intonation turned out to be necessary. And although I'm surely biased, I think it sounds great and plays better than I expected. Next up is putting in those massive 6100 frets. That job will certainly require a lot of adjustments to the action and intonation (and truss rod). But, until then, the camo-tar rocks.
|© 2010 Kieran Downes (last updated: April, 2010)|