Refinishing a guitar without making it perfect?

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Hi fretboarders,

I’ve got a 90s US standard Tele, which I love to bits. It had a poly finish until a few years ago, when I stripped it (fairly inelegantly), stained it and gave it a couple of coats of Tru Oil. Since then I’ve toured it pretty heavily, and the wood has got its fair share of scrapes and bumps.

I’ve now decided to refinish it in nitro, so I’ve sanded off the Tru Oil and as much of the stain as I can ready for grain fill, primer and colour/clear. There are still quite a lot of knocks visible - which I kind of like since it’s a 20-year-old guitar - and I just wondered if refinishing it over a less than perfect body would look crap? Will the grain filler even it out anyway if I do it properly?

If anyone wants to chip in with their superior wisdom, that’d be much appreciated!
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  • thermionicthermionic Frets: 4770
    I’m no guitar finisher, but I’m sure you could get a perfect finish by steaming out dings and/or wood filler (not grain filler). Assuming a solid colour of course.
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  • rexterrexter Frets: 161
    If it's got a lot of deep gauges in it i would use something like an acrylic putty to fill them. Especially if you're going to paint it a solid colour. Grain and wood filler aren't that good for filling deep imperfections. I would normally start by giving a 'bashed around' body a good sanding (always using a block or DA) up to 400 grit then filling the visible dents/dings. Sand flat again -  be careful  to preserve the roundover on the edges.

    Do your sealer and primer and then look at it carefully and fill any imperfections you can still see with the putty (most bodyshop type products work nicely over primer). I would then sand flat, prime again then flat that back as smooth as possible before the colour.

    I use this stuff a lot - it's cheap and can be found easily but works really well:

    https://www.halfords.com/motoring/paints-body-repair/fillers-preparation/holts-cataloy-knifing-putty-100g

    In my personal experience - before doing this professionally too - it's worth doing the prep to start with because if after a month-long finishing process you end up with a result that doesn't thrill you, you'll want to start again (at least I used to) and it's painful to strip everything off and start over.

    Just my take on it anyway!  :)
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    Great stuff @rexter, thanks for the info! I don’t necessarily mind a few imperfections in the finish, but I’ll heed your advice and take my time with the sanding. I’ve done plenty of DIY woodwork around the house, so I guess the same principles apply. Sanding, filling, sanding, painting, filling, sanding, painting...Should keep me busy for a while ;)
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  • rexterrexter Frets: 161
    dwheeldo said:
    Great stuff @rexter, thanks for the info! I don’t necessarily mind a few imperfections in the finish, but I’ll heed your advice and take my time with the sanding. I’ve done plenty of DIY woodwork around the house, so I guess the same principles apply. Sanding, filling, sanding, painting, filling, sanding, painting...Should keep me busy for a while ;)
    No worries, cheers. Yeah... all the boring stuff! It does pay off though. Spraying the colour is the really fun satisfying bit, but ironically the part you spend least time on!
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  • WezVWezV Frets: 8900
    It depends what end result you are after.

    if you want to relic and keep/recreate existing wear then you have some options for leaving it.  But you need to have some experience of relicing to get that looking natural.   

    Its actually much easier to deal with the issues properly as said above
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  • miserneilmiserneil Frets: 5035
    WezV said:
    It depends what end result you are after.

    if you want to relic and keep/recreate existing wear then you have some options for leaving it.  But you need to have some experience of relicing to get that looking natural.   

    Its actually much easier to deal with the issues properly as said above
    How did you get on with the Tele refin and masking up the original wear Wez? Did you post pics anywhere?
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  • WezVWezV Frets: 8900
    edited July 14
    miserneil said:
    WezV said:
    It depends what end result you are after.

    if you want to relic and keep/recreate existing wear then you have some options for leaving it.  But you need to have some experience of relicing to get that looking natural.   

    Its actually much easier to deal with the issues properly as said above
    How did you get on with the Tele refin and masking up the original wear Wez? Did you post pics anywhere?
    No pics of the back posted yet, but it’s looking really good.  I want to save some surprises for the end on that one

    peeling off the tape was a ball ache, it had been on longer than I usually leave for binding and left some sticky residue, but all sorted now.

    anyone not sure what we are on aboue, I taped up the back of a guitar like this


    to keep the wear it had in its last refin (edit:  the red paint below is an old refin now removed, but it had worn nicely so the challenge was to keep the wear 



    That was done for the extreme wear   Normally i do a lot less than that.   I simply let the lacquer sink into the flaw and the use the obvious imperfection as a guide to recreate the damage afterwards
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    Excellent work as always @WezV.

    The knocks on mine aren’t too crazy, so I’m just planning to get the surface as flat as I can before I start. Then once the grain’s filled and I’ve added the primer I should have a better idea whether or not to patch it up any further.

    I don’t want to relic it, but equally I’m not too fussed about having a perfectly smooth finish either. 
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  • WezVWezV Frets: 8900
    If you don’t want to Relic it then you definitely want to fix the issues.  
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    WezV said:
    If you don’t want to Relic it then you definitely want to fix the issues.  
    Noted. I’ll get down Screwfix for a job lot of sandpaper!
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  • axisusaxisus Frets: 10738
    @WezV That red body looks so cool! Real good job there.

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  • WezVWezV Frets: 8900
    axisus said:
    @WezV That red body looks so cool! Real good job there.

    Lol.  The red is an old refin, I have removed it to restore the original colour
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    Thanks for the tips so far. I've spent this morning sanding and grain filling in the garden, sweating like hell in our newfound tropical climate. While I'm waiting for the filler to dry, I thought I check the other stuff I need.

    If I want to finish in a solid colour, am I right in saying that after grain filling, I just need to use primer (with no need for sanding sealer) before a couple of coats of colour and clear? I'm planning to use the white primer that @SteveRobinson sells, followed by olympic white nitro and a clear gloss to finish. Sound good?
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  • SteveRobinsonSteveRobinson Frets: 1774
    You don't need sanding sealer but I prefer it as it's harder than primer and penetrates the wood better I think.

    Once the body is primed, I'd fill all the holes with Ronseal high performance wood filler sand smooth and prime again. Keep filling and priming (you'll probably miss bits on the first pass) until you have a perfectly smooth substrate. Then spray the white.
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    You don't need sanding sealer but I prefer it as it's harder than primer and penetrates the wood better I think.

    Once the body is primed, I'd fill all the holes with Ronseal high performance wood filler sand smooth and prime again. Keep filling and priming (you'll probably miss bits on the first pass) until you have a perfectly smooth substrate. Then spray the white.
    Thanks Steve. So do you mean use the clear sanding sealer first, then fill and build up coats of the white primer?
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  • SteveRobinsonSteveRobinson Frets: 1774
    dwheeldo said:
    Thanks Steve. So do you mean use the clear sanding sealer first, then fill and build up coats of the white primer?
    Yes that's what I'd do but there are lots of ways to achieve the same results and others will probably have their own way of tackling it.
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    dwheeldo said:
    Thanks Steve. So do you mean use the clear sanding sealer first, then fill and build up coats of the white primer?
    Yes that's what I'd do but there are lots of ways to achieve the same results and others will probably have their own way of tackling it.
    Ok, gotcha. There’ll be an order coming your way tomorrow...
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    The rattle cans have arrived (thanks @SteveRobinson), so I'm planning to get started on the spraying at some point this week.

    But before I do, I wanted to check what to do about the neck pocket - I definitely want to cover the plate with the date stamps on, but should I cover up the sides as well to make sure the neck still fits properly?

    I see most people use a painting stick in place of the neck, and this is what I was planning to do. Are there any disadvantages to this method, and does the wood need to be exactly the width of the neck?

    I guess as nitro should be pretty thin I may be worrying about nothing, but it's always best to check!
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  • SteveRobinsonSteveRobinson Frets: 1774
    I never mask the neck pocket although plenty of people do. Be careful not to overmask near the edges, it's easier to scrape back a bit than add lacquer to the edge.

    For a painting stick I have a length of 1" square-section tube drilled and tapped to take M4 machine screws. I appreciate this is overkill for a one-off job!
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    I never mask the neck pocket although plenty of people do. Be careful not to overmask near the edges, it's easier to scrape back a bit than add lacquer to the edge.

    For a painting stick I have a length of 1" square-section tube drilled and tapped to take M4 machine screws. I appreciate this is overkill for a one-off job!
    Yep, I might see how this first attempt goes before I make anything as heavy duty as that! I've got some inch-thick batten in the loft which should do the trick, but I think I'll leave that until I've sealed the body (including the neck cavity).

    Is there much value in blocking the ferrule holes? I saw your handy video about using a soldering iron to get them in, but mine are already a pretty snug fit.
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  • WezVWezV Frets: 8900
    Nah, you can always run a drill backwards on a slow speed to clean out the holes
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    WezV said:
    Nah, you can always run a drill backwards on a slow speed to clean out the holes
    Ah, great call. Nice one Wez.
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    Time for an update on this one. So far I've:

    - Grain-filled and sanded back to 240 - this did a pretty effective job of filling low spots and dings, but possibly not such a good job of filling the actual grain (see below)...
    - Applied 3 coats of sanding sealer and sanded back to 400
    - Applied 2 very light coats of primer

    Unfortunately, I didn't notice the low spots in the grain (see pic) until after the primer dried - I guess because primer raises the grain. I've since sanded it smooth, and while they're now much less visible, I fear they need to be dealt with.

    So at this stage, can I re-apply grain filler to the problem areas, or will that mess with the primer and sanding sealer?

    (Note that the dark spots in the image are just areas where the previous stain had soaked further into the wood, not low spots.)


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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    @rexter - At this point should I be nipping down to Halfords and buying some putty?
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  • rexterrexter Frets: 161
    edited July 25
    Hey man, sorry a bit slow off the mark... I'm confused - the pic above looks like you don't have primer on it? But you do?
    Maybe i'm being thick, it's highly possible lately... 

    If it's at the stage above it looks like you could hit it with quality grain filler again, but if it is primed with white etc it does get a little trickier in my experience and that's when I normally reach for the acrylic putty or auto glaze stuff. Good adhesion over painted surfaces.

    I had a similar situation lately with a very porous swamp ash body after priming where I actually ended up going along the grain lines individually with putty and squeezing across the grain a few mm at a time with a plastic scraper forcing the putty down into the grain. 

    Took a while to do each individually but did work. Then sanded flat and another coat of primer for luck.
    What colour are you going for in the end? 
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  • octatonicoctatonic Frets: 18264
    "Refinishing a guitar without making it perfect?"

    Might get you a job working for Gibson.

    I am the juice of four limes.
    Trading Feedback
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    rexter said:
    Hey man, sorry a bit slow off the mark... I'm confused - the pic above looks like you don't have primer on it? But you do?
    Maybe i'm being thick, it's highly possible lately... 

    If it's at the stage above it looks like you could hit it with quality grain filler again, but if it is primed with white etc it does get a little trickier in my experience and that's when I normally reach for the acrylic putty or auto glaze stuff. Good adhesion over painted surfaces.

    I had a similar situation lately with a very porous swamp ash body after priming where I actually ended up going along the grain lines individually with putty and squeezing across the grain a few mm at a time with a plastic scraper forcing the putty down into the grain. 

    Took a while to do each individually but did work. Then sanded flat and another coat of primer for luck.
    What colour are you going for in the end? 
    Thanks for the reply Rexter, and no worries about the delay - the lesson I'm learning about nitro finishing is that you can't do it in a hurry anyway ;)

    Although it's hard to see in the photo, there is a light coat of primer on there - I wanted to check that the wood was all good before I laid it on too thick. Glad I did now!

    Is there any significant risk to me using water-based grain filler now? Is the risk that it won't stick to the primer? I'm tempted to give it a go, using the same sort of method as you described, but I don't want to do it if it'll bugger up the final finish.

    Oh, and the final colour I'm going for is Olympic white.
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    octatonic said:
    "Refinishing a guitar without making it perfect?"

    Might get you a job working for Gibson.

    Ha. Unfortunately I've now developed an obsession with making it perfect, so Gibson will have to look elsewhere.
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  • rexterrexter Frets: 161
    dwheeldo said:
    rexter said:
    Hey man, sorry a bit slow off the mark... I'm confused - the pic above looks like you don't have primer on it? But you do?
    Maybe i'm being thick, it's highly possible lately... 

    If it's at the stage above it looks like you could hit it with quality grain filler again, but if it is primed with white etc it does get a little trickier in my experience and that's when I normally reach for the acrylic putty or auto glaze stuff. Good adhesion over painted surfaces.

    I had a similar situation lately with a very porous swamp ash body after priming where I actually ended up going along the grain lines individually with putty and squeezing across the grain a few mm at a time with a plastic scraper forcing the putty down into the grain. 

    Took a while to do each individually but did work. Then sanded flat and another coat of primer for luck.
    What colour are you going for in the end? 
    Thanks for the reply Rexter, and no worries about the delay - the lesson I'm learning about nitro finishing is that you can't do it in a hurry anyway ;)

    Although it's hard to see in the photo, there is a light coat of primer on there - I wanted to check that the wood was all good before I laid it on too thick. Glad I did now!

    Is there any significant risk to me using water-based grain filler now? Is the risk that it won't stick to the primer? I'm tempted to give it a go, using the same sort of method as you described, but I don't want to do it if it'll bugger up the final finish.

    Oh, and the final colour I'm going for is Olympic white.
    Ah ok makes sense! The coat of primer looks thin enough that you could use your grainfiller again. It's common to do it over a layer of sealer so don't see why it shouldn't work. Obviously just leave it at least 24 hours before sanding pack and spraying more primer.

    Was priming a '66 Jaguar body that has a lot of big dings and dents yesterday and it made me think of this thread. The primer coat has filled some of the smaller imperfections but revealed larger areas that will need the putty treatment! Then another coat of primer.

    Don't be afraid to slather the primer on in the knowledge that you will flat it back to a level, smooth surface. I also started thinning mine much less than I used to which gives it better filling properties but understand with aerosols that's probably not helpful.

    Sure this will turn out good - you're definitely taking your time to get it right - the most common mistake is to get carried away and rush it!
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  • dwheeldodwheeldo Frets: 54
    Thanks again @rexter. I sanded the primer right back last night, and now I'm pretty confident grain filling again is the right thing to do, unpleasant as that stuff is to work with. I'm also going to try using a slightly thinner mix for the filler than I did first time around to really get it into those pesky ash pores. Times like this I wish it was alder ;)

    And yeah, I'll make sure I layer up the primer next time - once I'm sure the grain's well and truly filled!

    I doubt I'll end up refinishing another guitar for a long old time, so I want to make sure I get this one right.
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