Jimmy Page Tribute “Dragoncaster”. Polishing the body & installing the bridge.

There have been other things to keep me busy in Garageland. The clear nitro lacquer on “Dragoncaster” body has been curing for more than a couple of months now, but it’s a lengthy job, and I wanted to be able to clear a few, consecutive days to spend time getting a good, liquid shine to the finish. With a suitable gap in the schedule coming up – it’s time to crack on.

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The clearcoat has already shrunk back so that the finish looks pretty level, and there’s a decent level of reflection there before I even start. There is, however, a slight amount of “orange peeling”, together with a few slugs of overspray spatter – nothing that’ll cause too many problems though.

The body has been curing since the end of June. I had put a reminder in my “Outlook” calendar and, coincidentally, the Don Mare pickups I ordered way back in March turned up on exactly the same day that my calendar popped up with the “two month clearcoat drying” notification. A bass cabinet, and a Black Strat, however, conspired to keep the Dragncaster on the back burner throughout September.

Polishing the body doesn’t take much else – other than elbow grease, a methodical approach, patience and the ability to let your mind wander, while the actual process of polishing grinds on. I plan to take a couple of days to work up the best finish I can manage, with the tools I have at my disposal. I can let my mind wander constructively by contemplating the coming refurb of my MIJ Precision Bass.

Day one

I worked out I need to run through about a dozen different stages of polishing. Working, first, through a series of wet and dry papers, before following on with a series of different grades of Micro Mesh. All this before a mechanical polish with swirl remover, and a final application of Carnauba Wax Polish. I figure I’ll do the wet and dry papers on day one, and then the Micro Mesh and final polish on day two.

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I use good quality wet and dry papers by Mirka. They don’t seem to clog too easily. I use naptha to lubricate the papers- rather than water – since the naptha evaporates off harmlessly. It does mean you have to constantly re-wet the work, but it’s convenient, and cleans up well. Water can soak into the wood, and I’ve noticed it can cause swelling of the fibres and cracking of the clearcoat – especially at drilled and routed openings. I wrap the papers around a cork block, which has slightly rounded corners. This keeps the papers flat – but helps stop the edges from grabbing, and causing witness marks. The process of polishing takes a methodical approach – working across the entire body, and knocking back the finish just enough to provide a consistent level of flat-sanding for each pass. Great care needs to be taken on the edges – where too heavy sanding can cut straight through to the wood below. I tend to leave the edges alone until the end of each pass – and then just wipe gently around the main, outside edges with the paper before moving on. That seems to be enough. The hardest bits to get right are around the neck cutouts. it’s easy to overlook these bits – but equally easy to overwork them.

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The first pass – at 800 grit – takes the longest, and removes the most material, so it’s important to keep the block moving, and not to oversand in any one, particular place. It’s this, first, pass which gets to grips with the “orange peel” and other irregularites on the clearcoat surface. The first pass knocks the entire finish back to an even, matte state – where there are no high or low spots, and everything can begin to be polished up from that base. It’s important that the block is kept flat at all times, as it is this level which provides the basis for a good, fault-free, divot-free finish. It always helps to keep the papers unclogged as you work – I tend to wipe them on my fashionable apron-front as I go, and to take the opportunity to lay down a bit more naptha to keep the papers moving and cutting properly.

It takes me about two hours to do this first pass, but once the finish looks completely even over the entire surface, I can switch up to 1000 grit, and repeat the entire process yet again. Further passes with 1200 and 1500 grit take up the rest of the day, but by then the surface is beginning to shine – a little hazily at first, but each, successively finer, grit reveals a little more detail in the reflection. I find it essential to work against a source of light – a lamp or a well-lit window. Only then can you begin to see the shine develop. You can also pick up any little faults easier, and also ensure the finish is developing evenly.

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Day Two

The second day of polishing moves onto passes with Micro mesh. I’m using a set of cushioned cloths – which are sized to work pretty well with my cork block. I keep using naptha to lubricate the work, and ensure that I keep the matrix of the sheets clean and unclogged. The meshes are so fine – that even the smallest clog can lead to big scratches in the finish. If anything like that does happen – it tends to slow the whole process down, since each scratch will need to be worked over with coarser grits – gradually working the surface and feathering back to where you should be.

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The first mesh is a repeat at 1500 grit – and a chance to review yesterdays work. The Micro Mesh cloths work from 1500 grit, right through to 12000 – I think there are eight sheets in total, so it’s a lot of work to keep plodding through the process methodically – but with every pass, the shine becomes more and more apparent, the tiny scatches begin to disappear, and the whole body begins to take on a rich, liquid shine.

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In fact, it takes the entire second day to work through the Micro Mesh sheets – but at the end of the second day, the body already begins to display a highly reflective shine. Even then – that’s something I’ll look to improve on with the final, mechanical polish coats.

 

Day Three

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I use a mechanical, electric hand buffer – the sort of thing you get to polish car bodies with. it’s got a 7″ radius polishing head, which works well on the flat faces of guitar bodies – (although you still have to do some of the tighter curves around the edges by hand. I could really do with a smaller, detail polisher). I keep separate applicator and polishing bonnets for the two stage process – so that’s four bonnets in all. The first pass, with Meguilar’s SwirlX 2.0 swirl remover does most of the work. It just seems to take a shiny piece of wood, and then lift the shine even further than you thought possible. Using the electric buffer means you have to keep the head moving at all times – it’s still possible to cut entirely through the finish – even now. It’s also easy to get carried away and to keep polishing too long. Remember – even swirl remover is abrasive, and it’ll eventually eat right through your clearcoat, if you machine it too long.

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Once the swirl remover has done it’s job, it’s time to apply a final, protective polish coat. I use Meguilar’s Carnauba Wax, and first apply a small amount with a soft cloth. Once the polish has dried to a chalky finish – the mechanical buffer and a soft, wool buffing head soon provides the highly polished and lustrous finish I’ve been looking forward to seeing on the Dragoncaster body.

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The body is already pre-drilled for the bridge attachment screws, and for the string ferrules on the back. Now that the clearcoat has been polished, I can take a suitable drill bit, and ream out the ferrule holes on the back, so that the nickel, vintage style ferrules push easily into place. I use a small dab of superglue to hold each securely. Since they won’t actually be in use – there will be no strings running through to keep them secure.

The bridge screw holes are already pre-drilled, but I need to re-tap them to clear out any lacquer, sealer or dried polish that’s got stuck down there. While I’m at it, I also countersink the outer edges of each of the four bridge screw holes, by turning a suitable drill bit anti-clockwise around the edge of each, This burrs off any hard lacquer edge, and is supposed to stop the screws from lifting the lacquer as they exert an outwards pressure.

The bridge is the first of the important bits of hardware to be fitted, and it’s one which is independent of the fitting of any other components – unlike, for instance, the control plate, which itself relies on the correct positioning of the scratchplate, (which itself relies on the correct fitting of the neck, and neck pickup). The bridge is a Fender Vintage, “Pat, Pend.” style bridge, which has nickel, turned saddles. The bridge is drilled, (as is the body) for through stringing but, importantly, the bridge plate is also drilled along the bottom edge for “toploading”. This is an important period detail of Jimmy Page’s original guitar. fender produced toploading bridges for only a short period at the end of the 50’s.  Toploading the strings, (or fitting them through the plate only – rather than through the body), is an important technical feature of Page’s original guitar, and is supposed to provide a “slinkier” feel to the strings, along with specific tonal characteristics. The bridge is an original Fender part, but custom-modified by The Rhoadhouse, in Brighton.

The stainless steel screws are lubricated with wax, and are then driven into the tapped holes, securing the bridge plate tight against the body. it’ll need taking off and re-fitting a few more times yet – but a test fit at this stage is good for morale, and I can begin to see the “Dragoncaster” finally coming together. And just look at that shine!

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