Mixing Cherry Lacquer

One of the most popular colors for guitars is red, and it’s fitting that our cherry blossom guitar will be just that. There’s something electrifying about a bright red instrument—guitar or otherwise. The Sakura is ready to be colored, so it’s time to mix up the color. I’ll use a coat of red transparent lacquer (referred to as a shader) which I mix using a concentrated tint. The first step is to measure out enough natural (clear) nitrocellulose lacquer into a cup.

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Nitrocellulose lacquer is a quick-drying, solvent based coating that was developed in the early part of the twentieth century. Basically made from cotton cellulose, chemical solvents and various additives, it differs from the ancient Chinese and Japanese lacquers in both substance and in the technique used to apply it. Known as a thermoplastic, it reacts to heat, cold and solvents. Nitro bonds to previous applications by melting the surface of previous coats. As the solvent escapes over time, the hard cellulose material is left behind as a coating. Nitro is revered for its luxurious look and feel, and has been associated with the finest guitars of the last century. Nitro can be buffed to a gloss, but it never looks plastic or overly glossy, which gives a guitar an elegant sheen and depth.

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The tint that I use is made from a powder mixed with solvent. This creates a super-concentrated dye called a toner. Just a few drops of this stuff is all that is needed—you can see how dark the color is in the squeeze bottle.

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Now I use a squeegee  to “draw down” a streak of the color on a test piece of mahogany. The first test was just the cherry red color. I added some amber and blue to the mix and drew those down too in order to get the exact color I wanted.

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Nitro lacquer is slightly yellow, and as it ages it yellows even more. This is what gives vintage instruments their glow, but it also means that the color I mix will not be the final shade. Keeping this in mind, I stop short with the yellow. When the color is exactly what I want, the mix is complete.

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Now the shader is ready to be applied over the base coats already on the guitar. Although there is a definite place for staining or painting directly on the wood, sometimes I like to “float” the color. Layering the color between sets of top and base coats is my secret to adding depth to a finish. Here, I’m pouring the color into the spray gun cup, it’s showtime!

“Super Moon” and Sanding Lacquer

Much was made of the so-called super moon a few weeks back. Out here in the woods, most every appearance of the moon is pretty super looking. I did go outside the shop and shoot a few photos of the event as the moon peeked through the trees.

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I’d forgotten about the photos until last night when I was sorting through the desktop looking for something else. When the image popped up on my screen I was immediately struck by the emotional feel and how it related to The Crow guitar. Can’t you just see a huge black crow flying under that moon? Maybe when the guitar is complete I’ll stick it up there and take a photo.

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Today I’m leveling the first lacquer coats on The Crow, and spraying the first coats on Sakura. Using a hard rubber block, I’m sanding with 400 grit paper. The first level is the most important because it is the foundation for everything else. I like to take my time and I always follow the exact same pattern.

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Once I’m done, it’s time for my signature on the headstock faceplate. The plate is made of black ebony, and no color will be used on it because I like the grain and streaks of color to show through.

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Here’s a look at the carved maple back with the black stain. When the guitar is finished, this and the ebony headstock face will be the only transparent areas. I like the idea of a little surprise on the back of the guitar.

The Electric Crow

After a couple of gloomy days that saw a few inches of snow fall, the sun is breaking through again. Of course the sunshine makes us feel better and the workshop is humming with electric activity. The Crow guitar is sanded and ready for its first coats of nitro clear. I’ve stained the figured maple back with a black transparent stain that I think will go nicely with the main finish that I have planned.

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While the stain is drying, I’m collecting all the electronic parts that I want to use. This build will feature authentic recreations of the Charlie Christian pickups, which my good friend Seymour has created in his lab. The Christian pickups are completely different from any other type, and the resulting tone is incredible. Here are my notations in the Crow’s journal—I’m including a scrap of the #42 wire as well.

 

I use a unique mounting trestle machined from 6061 aluminum. Here’s my drawing of the part that will go into the journal. I had a friend down the road help me machine the parts on his Bridgeport. The oval mounting holes will allow the pickups to be adjusted transversely relative to the guitar’s center line. Stainless steel hex socket screws will allow height adjustment from the rear of the instrument, keeping the front of the guitar clean and uncluttered.

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This is the resulting part which will be attached to the bottom of the pickup.

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Gotta get back to the paint room and start spraying.

 

Guitar Hardware from Scratch

After completing the strap buttons and switch tip made from buffalo horn, attention now turns to the rest of the hardware. The Crow will be fitted with variegated nickel finish metal parts, so I was thinking now about the control knobs. Amber speed knobs seemed like a good bet, but the match to the rest of the guitar seemed less than perfect. One consideration was Daka Ware 1930s bakelite knobs. The brown color and retro look was classic Charlie Christian, so they seemed like a good possibility.

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I found some in my parts vault and laid them out on a black background and wasn’t impressed. They’d probably be good on a tobacco sunburst guitar.

I’ve always loved the clear plastic lap steel knobs from the 1940s, so I thought that I could make my own based on an original one. The precursor to the “speed” knob, they were slightly taller and not tapered like modern knobs. They were painted gold or sometimes silver underneath, but I just wanted one for a model. A fairly exhaustive search only turned up a few knobs for sale, and those were in really rough shape. I called a few friends in the vintage trade, but no luck. Finally, I found one in almost new condition—amazing for sixty-plus year-old plastic. Needless to say, it didn’t come cheap.

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My idea was to make some replicas in clear acrylic and maybe paint them underneath with slver. The lack of color would help mimic The Crow’s reflective finish without detracting from it. The first step was to make some molds from a pourable silicone material. This entails pouring the silicone over the original knob allowing it to cure for twenty-four hours. The result was very good so I made a few more, including a two-piece mold just for backup.

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This is what the mold looks like when fully cured. The next step was to mix up some casting acrylic in a cup. The amount of  catalyst is determined by the total thickness of the part, and I’d have about ten minutes to get it into the mold.

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By pouring the first of the material into the center recess I was avoiding any trapped air which would cause bubbles in the finished part.

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After another twenty-four hours, it was time to pull the part from the mold and see how it looked.

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Not bad for a first try, but it was obvious that I was going to have to sand and polish the part to get it to look like the original. I went ahead and made about another seven parts in order to experiment. I mixed some color into the liquid on a few just to try it, but it wasn’t a good result.

Once I figured out how to sand and polish the molded knobs (using the trusty drill press again) I also tried painting some of the knobs with chrome, silver and copper paint. In the end, it was the fully clear versions that I liked the best.

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Here’s the finished knob, polished up and sitting on my desk. I really like the way it catches the light—like a crow’s feathers. I think they are going to look great on the guitar, and the fact that they are not off-the-shelf parts makes me happy too.

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I think I’ve found my “signature” look.

Headstock Monogram Inlay

The Dantzig headstock design came fairly quickly. I’d been reading about the history of New England at the time, and was struck by some headstone carvings described in the book.

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This is the entry in The Crow’s journal—you can see the idea taking shape.

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With The Crow guitar, I wanted the monogram “D” at the tip of the head to be inlaid mother of pearl. I have some nice chunks that are about .070″ in thickness, and large enough to do the circle in one piece. The thickness will help avoid breakage when cutting the piece which is very delicate.

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The first step was to clean up my sketch and commit it to a paper template. Then I could glue the template to the pearl and begin my cut with saw. Most times, I use a powered jigsaw, but this piece is so complicated I decided to use the hand saw. I’m using an extra-fine blade (.009″) so patience is imperative. The work is backed up on a .125″ thick piece of maple with a slot cut in it for clearance. The inner cuts are made by using a micro-drill to put a starter hole in the pearl; then inserting the saw blade through and into the handle.

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Once the cuts are made, I can use a set of miniature files to smooth out the edges. The finished monogram looks good. It needs to be clean because the headplate is unpainted ebony; so there is no way to hide the edges.

The monogram has also been repeated on the headplate. Here it is on the overhead router. There is a matching template to follow, and by using a .020″ micro-mill bit, I can get very close to final fit—the last adjustments being done by hand with an air powered mini tool that is similar to a dentist’s drill.

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Here’s the headstock with the pearl inserted and some of the binding in place. I like how the white ivoroid purfling stripes terminate in a blend to the top of the monogram’s circle. The rest of the treatment will be my signature in the center of the headstock. After all, it is a “signature” guitar.