Sadly, it’s been entirely too long since I’ve made the time to work on my Tele project.
I could (and have) come up with a thousand excuses why, but in the end, they’re mostly just that – excuses. I did have a couple of things come up that were temporarily higher priorities, and wound up traveling a few weekends when I would normally get to the guitar project, but by far the biggest obstacle was my fear that I would sand through the clearcoat and wind up ruining my beautiful Butterscotch Blonde nitro finish.
If you’ve followed this project from the beginning, you know that I sanded through the first sand-and-sealer coats. Those are easy to fix by resealing and sanding, but If I did the same thing with the lacquer clearcoat, I would have to sand back to bare wood and start over.
This body has been hanging in my hall closet curing for over five months. It really only needed four or five weeks curing time before it was ready for this step.
You can see from the reflected highlights at the top left corner that there’s some “orange peel” texture in the clear coat. The point of wet-sanding the body is to remove this texture and leave a perfectly smooth surface for final polishing.
Most people start wet sanding with approximately 600-grit wet/dry paper. Since I’m paranoid about sanding through the lacquer, I traded off some speed and a bit of elbow grease by starting with slightly less aggressive 800-grit wet/dry sheets.
The plan was to use a large gum eraser (the tan colored type) as a sanding block, but the package I bought for that purpose disappeared. I found a foam fingernail sanding block in my daughter’s manicure set and appropriated that for use as a sanding block.
I soaked the sanding sheets in a bowl of warm water with a few drops of liquid dish soap as a lubricant. Whenever the surface started to dry too much, I just dipped the sheet in the bowl to pick up a little more water.
I sanded a small area at a time in a circular motion, occasionally wiping off the excess water to check my progress.
I looked for any low spots in the clearcoat, which show up as shiny “pits” in the surface like you can see in the red circled area in this picture:
I continued dipping and sanding until all the low spots were gone. The edges took the longest, since the edge of the body built up a slight “ridge” of lacquer when I sprayed it.
When the surface was a nice, even matte finish with no low (shiny) spots left, I flipped the body over and sanded the back, then the sides.
I used the block on all of the flat surfaces and as much of the sides as I could to avoid the ripples I would have gotten by hand sanding. I did have to sand the inside curves at the waist and horn by carefully holding the paper with my fingers and sanding with a feather light touch. This is where I held my breath since, it was where I was most likely to accidentally sand through the lacquer.
Once I got all of the low spots sanded out of the lacquer, I switched to 1000-grit paper. This took quite a bit less time and effort than the initial sanding, since the surface was already smooth. The finer grit is used to sand out the micro scratches from the 800-grit (effectively trading them for smaller scratches).
After sanding the top, back and sides with the 1000-grit, I quit for the day. I had to go to the auto parts store to pick up some polishing and swirl remover compounds so I can buff the clearcoat to a mirror shine.
Some people continue to sand with progressively finer papers all the way up to as high as 2000-grit before polishing, but a respected luthier on one of the guitar forums maintains that is a waste of time, since a power buffer can work nicely starting with the 1000-grit surface.
I intended to pick up the 3M compounds, but the local Auto Zone doesn’t carry them, so I bought Meguiar’s “Clear Coat Safe” Polishing Compound and “Mirror Glaze” Professional Swirl Remover. These are also high-quality compounds, and about equally popular with the old hands at nitro finishing guitars. The total for both compounds was about $20 with tax.
The buffer I’m using is a 7″ variable speed polisher/sander I picked up on sale at Harbor Freight. It’s worth waiting for the sale; I saved more than $20 off the retail price. This tool is a little heavier than I thought it would be, it bears handling with extreme caution. The right power tool can save a lot of time and effort, but it can also do a lot of damage very quickly it’s mishandled.
I put a healthy dose of the polishing compound on the guitar body and buffed with a feather touch using a fresh wool polishing bonnet. You may have heard the old adage “let the weight of the tool do the work.” DON’T DO IT! This tool is much too heavy for that; it will cut through the clearcoat. I set the polisher just above the lowest speed to keep from burning through the finish. When the compound started to dry, I sprayed a little plain water from a spray bottle on the surface to re-wet it.
I buffed the surface to a light haze (like when you apply wax to a car)…
…then wiped the compound from a small test area to check my progress.
This part goes very quickly. The polisher shined up the 1000-grit sanded surface to a nice gloss in a couple of minutes. The buffer can’t reach the inside curve of the lower horn, so I hand rubbed that area with the corner of a spare terrycloth bonnet.
I cleaned off the polishing compound residue with a microfiber cloth and plain water, then repeated the process using the swirl remover and a fresh bonnet on the polisher.
Looking at the reflected sunlight coming in the window gives a fair idea of the level of shine I achieved.
I took it outside and inspected the finish under full sunlight to make sure I didn’t miss any spots, but that didn’t photograph well.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results. The total time I spent wet-sanding and buffing the lacquer was right around an hour. As it turns out, my anxiety over this step was entirely unwarranted.
I don’t think I would have gotten better results if I had paid $250-300 for a professional paint job.
All that’s left is wiring and assembly.
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