When I was 16 or 17 years old, I saw a classified advertisement in my local newspaper about a Fender Jazz Bass for sale (to those of you under 30: classified ads used to be PRINTED. ON PAPER. I know, right? Totes retro!). I'd been keeping my eyes pealed for one since I'd started playing bass a year or two earlier. This one was from 1976, with a case, for the improbably low price of $350. My older brother, always happy to facilitate the acquisition of cool shit, drove me out to the seller's house the following day. The seller was a middle-aged fellow and very friendly, but his apartment was a disaster. There were boxes and random pieces of gear strewn all over, and general disarray everywhere. He had a slightly nervous air about him, but he seemed happy to show me the bass, and it was a beauty. I didn't take long to decide I wanted it, so I paid him, and we went on our way. During the ride home my brother commented ruefully that he suspected the seller was in some kind of trouble and was selling all his stuff to make money quickly. In my excitement that hadn't occurred to me, but this observation was given some extra weight when I brought the bass into my local music shop a few days later, and the owner told me he'd give me $900 for it right then.
This bass served me well for many years, despite my shifting focus to guitar over the last six years or so. My primary issue with it, and my issue with all vintage instruments, is that you cannot work on them, change anything, or do any customization without destroying their vintage value unless you are an absolute pro like Dan Erlewine. Even getting new frets, which I'd hoped to do a few years ago, costs significantly more because of the extra care and time needed to remove the original neck binding and put it back on (because new binding would, of course, mean it was not fully vintage anymore). As my interest in maintaining and customizing my own instruments increased, the practicality of keeping this particular bass decreased. Knowing that its vintage-ness would mean a lot more to someone else than it did to me, I decided it was time to part with it and build my own.
Before this all sounds too hoity-toity and principled, I must admit that this decision was certainly influenced by something else: the 30th anniversary sale at Warmoth. What a glorious thing that was. I should step back for a moment and acknowledge further that, by last fall, I'd been visiting the Warmoth website at least a couple of times a week just to indulge in a little guitar porn. The variety of woods they have available is stunning, and there were some especially nice VIP bodies in black korina that I could not believe weren't selling like hotcakes. When I visited the site in mid-November, suddenly all the prices had been reduced by 20%, and the machinations began.
During the drive to visit her parents for Thanksgiving, I gently raised to my wife the possibility of building not only a new bass, but a new guitar, and selling my Fender Jazz Bass as a way of funding these totally expensive, indulgent projects. Since I am the most fortunate man on the planet Earth, she said go for it. So, as soon as we got back, I did. I chose alder for the new jazz bass, as I was fairly certain my old Fender was alder, and many believe alder is the wood for getting that quintessential jazz bass tone. I also ordered a birdseye maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard, in part because I prefer the look of rosewood to maple, and because, unlike maple, rosewood fingerboards do not need to be finished, which reduces the cost and work involved in refretting. The VIP is another story for another page.
After a few weeks of waiting, all of the parts arrived at my office, and I opened the box containing the both the bass and VIP bodies. There they were, looking amazing and ready for prep work, and my first thought was, "oh $^#*%&@^... what have I done??" It's one thing to fantasize about doing all sorts of complex things you have no idea how to do, and quite another to be confronted with actual, real, three-dimensional wood that is now yours to properly care for. That said, the bass felt a little less intimidating to me than the guitar (no grain filling needed, more straight-forward overall, etc), and I resolved to build it first. As my wife said when I showed it to her that evening, the alder jazz bass body just looked "friendly."
In keeping with my mild obsession with the 1970s, I decided on a rich, deep orange for the stain, which I felt would go very nicely with the black-white-black pick guard I'd selected. But before any staining or sanding could happen, I needed to test out topcoats. Not wanting to necessarily go with poly as I had with the Camotar just by default, I did some more research on other easily-applied finishes. After posting a photo of the VIP body to the Warmoth user forum, one of the regular pros suggested using Tru-oil, an oil/varnish blend that was originally designed for use on gun stocks. I bought a bottle, along with a small chunk of alder and a board of black korina, both of which I cut into pieces and numbered in correspondence with the various topcoat combinations I intended to try out, and went to work.
Over the next few weeks, I added a layer of finish to each of the pieces every day or so, testing out poly, Tru-oil, and tung oil. Although I'd been thinking of Tru-oil for the VIP, it actually looked great on the alder, so I decided to use it for the bass as well. The alder pieces had been stained with a water-based stain from General Finishes that was just the color of orange I'd been after. But here again was another important lesson: water-based stains, since they contain water, after all, do what water does to wood: they raise the grain. This is known as "whiskering," and creates a rough surface. But, as usual, a solution does exist: prior to staining, you wet the surface with a damp rag, and lightly sand back the grain once it dries. This step may have to be repeated to get it all down. When it came time to stain the actual bass body, I wet and sanded back twice, but the first application of stain still raised the grain a bit. And for some reason, the color wasn't quite as deep and uniform as I wanted.
I thought I'd just give it a light once-over with some sandpaper to take down that bit of raised grain, but I ended up basically sanding back the stained surface almost, although not all the way, to the bare wood. The second application of stain didn't raise the grain any further, and it looked much better. Huzzah! After letting the stain dry for a full day, I applied a coat of Birchwood Casey sanding sealer, and once that was dry, I lightly sanded that back. Then I was ready for the Tru-oil.
"As thin as humanly possible." This is the refrain from the forums regarding how to apply finish, whether wipe-on, spraying, or brushing. The reasons for this are many: for one, that's the only way it will ever get dry. It also can help reduce the amount of level sanding that has to be done later by giving you a thinner, more uniform set of coats. In terms of how long to wait before the final finishing steps, drying is not the only issue. There is also this thing that finishes need to do, which I'd heard of but didn't really understanding, called "curing." Curing is essentially the hardening of polymer materials a process that, in the case of wood finishes, happens over time and with the right amount of heat, air, and humidity. As with tung oil and other finishes appearing but not actually being dry, curing is very difficult to monitor and somewhat confusing for amateurs who lack the cultivated experience and patience of experts. This, like many other things with these projects, I discovered the hard way.
After applying seven coats of Tru-oil to the bass, I followed some directions from the internets regarding "wet sanding" the finish to level it (wet sanding being basically exactly what it sounds like: using water or some other lubricant on your sandpaper to help reduce heat and take up sanded particles that would otherwise load your paper; it also seems to give a sheen to things that dry sanding cannot). I used some expensive micro-mesh pads for this, and a bowl of water with a little Murphy's oil soap (again, a recommendation from the internet I would not have come up with that one on my own). The surface definitely became smooth, but did not look uniform peaks and valleys in the finish reflected the light in weird, ugly ways, the color looked washed out, and as I continued I started to get worried that I hadn't applied enough Tru-oil and would eventually hit bare wood and ruin the stain. So I stopped, posted some questions to the Warmoth forum, and determined that I was going to have to add more coats of Tru-oil and kind of start over (although not all the way).
At the very least, the smoother surface made the additional coats of Tru-oil sit very nicely, and the bass regained its rich color. After seven additional coats, I let the bass sit in the basement for two weeks to cure. On the forums, another of the pros had recommended against the micro-mesh/wet sanding route, and suggested using 600-, then 800-grit sandpaper, then two different types of automotive polish to really smooth things out and make them shine. It was here that I started to get what all the sanding and polishing actually does: while leveling things off is part of it, finer and finer grits of paper and polish essentially put smaller and smaller scratches in the surface of whatever you're working on until light is reflected more and more directly. After the two week wait, I was ready to take on the bass once more, and maybe even finish the whole build in a weekend.
You can probably tell where this is headed. After working through the 600- and 800-grit papers, the surface was quite smooth, though I could still see high spots. I decided to test out the polishes on the back first to see if they'd take it down the rest of the way. They definitely smoothed things over, but now the surface had a weird, mottled patina I was unable to polish out. Again, in my ignorance, I thought perhaps what it needed was waxing the very final stage in the process. Taking some Briwax I had purchased for this purpose, I proceeded to test out a spot behind the neck plate.
Big mistake. When I buffed off the wax, it took two big chunks of finish with it, including a spot below where the neck plate would cover it. Aghast, I stopped working, tried to photograph the weird surface blotches I was seeing, and posted back on the forum. Again, the pros stepped in and said it looked and sounded as if things were not cured properly in other words, the finish was still too soft. Nooooooooo!
This was certainly disheartening news, but the solution, at least for the time being, has been to just wait and see. For now, the bass is hanging from the new pot rack I built for our kitchen where it will remain until mid-April when I'll try polishing it again and see if I can get it to properly shine. By then, it will have had an addition month of curing inside the apartment, where the temperature is more steady (and warmer) throughout the day and evening than in the basement. The saga continues... stay tuned.
|© 2010 Kieran Downes (last updated: April, 2010)|