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Arts and crafts time! (bass refinishing project)
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Guitars, Basses, Amps & FX  
Author Arts and crafts time! (bass refinishing project)
Every now and then, a good ol’ therapeutic arts and crafts project is in order. Thought I’d share some pics (and epic post hihi ) detailing my first refinishing effort.

I’ve been dabbling with guitar (bass) repair for years out of necessity and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at refinishing a bass, but I’ve never had the right candidate to practice on… until recently.

A mysterious Czech-made clone of a 1965.5 to 69 Gibson Thunderbird bass (referred to as the "non-reverse" body style) came into my life last May and immediately captured my interest. I generally don’t go out of my way for a copy, but this one is pretty remarkable. My gigging bass these days is a scruffy old ’76 Thunderbird, and I was impressed (amazed) by how closely this one nailed the distinctive sound and feel of the “real” Thunderbird. The dimensions of the skinny neck and thin body, the shape of the set neck heel, the break angle at the headstock, the position of the controls and jack, and the repro bridge assembly… everything together yielded an almost dead-ringer copy of an original (which is relatively scarce; only a few hundred ever produced; never reissued).

These stock photos of the bass show how it looked when it arrived:

I’d always liked the pelham blue color that was a custom finish option on some of Gibson’s instruments back in the days, and since I wanted this one to look and feel more like the ’76 I decided to strip it down and build it up to more of an exacting, “period correct” spec – with a pelham-blue-ish nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The plan was to:

- Strip off all the white polyurethane, and spray on a blue lacquer finish
- Install a set of reverse-wind tuners to match the original Klusons used on these
- Replace the single soapbar “BassLines”-type pickup with two Gibson TB+ pickups.
- Replace the pickguard (not quite the right shape, and lacking the insignia) with a repro of the original
- Install all the original accouterments – pickup and bridge covers, thumbrest/tugbar, reflector cap knobs
- Rewire it with better quality components

(example of single pickup non-reverse Thunderbird in Pelham blue)

(the dual pickup variant that I wanted to mimic)

(some dude playing one)

Note the subtle differences in color above. That happens when the clear lacquer yellows with age (and UV exposure), and renders more of a greenish hue. I kinda wanted to recreate that, but was afraid that trying to tint the clear might render blotchy results (being that I’m a newb with this stuff). I found a color, though, that got in the ballpark of what I had hoped to achieve – Fender’s “ocean turquoise”. I bought the lacquer from Guitar ReRanch:

First order of business was to strip the bass bare and get the existing finish off. The local auto parts stores here sell “Aircraft Stripper” (Methylene Chloride) that will melt off this type of poly finish. It took quite a few applications of the gunk, and I bagged the bass up and left it in the heat to help accelerate the process. This is what it looked like after some gentle scraping:

Unlike an original Thunderbird, this one has some maple content. I imagine the veneer was done to ease the finishing process, since mahog is very open grained and requires pore filling to create a flat smooth surface for the finish. Maple is a sturdier choice for the neck too, as headstocks on the skinny mahogany necks have a tendency to jump off.

Per suggestions from the guitar refinishing sites, I used Bondo to fill the holes left by the original pickguard, and a small area on the edge that had been filled at the factory.

One trick someone taught me is to use Styrofoam blocks when sanding the contours. This way, if you apply too much pressure, you deform the sanding block and not the bass.

The mahogany core had to be “pore filled”, to create an even surface for the finish:

After that, this stuff called sand-and-sealer gets sprayed on to level and provide a uniform surface for the subsequent coats, in terms of absorption. It almost looks like a glossy clear coat. The primer goes on after that:

Then its sand, sand, sand… I used a crosshatch pattern when block sanding the big surfaces, and used a small pink eraser to block the sides and ensure they keep their correct contours.

By far the most challenging part of this whole effort was the positioning of all the parts to replicate the original bass. I had Terrapin pickguards build me the correct pickguard with a laser-etched logo that had been back filled with black epoxy, and I used measurements from an original bass to get the layout down:

(second pickup routed, neck pickup repositioned slightly, new pickguard added, holes for covers and new pickguard drilled, and tailpiece repositioned closer to bridge)

Side note about the pickups- I bought those nickel chrome pickup covers (and a bunch of other parts) from someone on Ebay that somehow ended up in possession of a ton of NOS Gibson parts from the 60s and 70s. For their guts, I used a pair of late-model Thunderbird TB+ humbuckers that I “skinned”- removing the black plastic covers, and using the epoxied coils to load up the nickel covers (a trick shared on one of the bass fanatic forums). The original 60s pickups, which were comprised of a pair of lap-steel bobbins in a humbucker config, are nearly impossible to find without a $4-6000 bass attached.

Ok… back to the finish. Usually it’s recommended to spray the guitar in a vertical/hanging position, so there isn’t a big surface for dust contaminants to settle on. With metallics, however, it’s important that the small pieces of aluminum suspended in the paint “stand up” randomly in order to reflect light properly – otherwise you end up with bands of color in a slightly different shade. It’s for that reason they recommend spraying the metallic coats rather “dry” (dusted on) with the instrument laying flat.

With the color coats dry, I hung the guitar back up for the clear coats:

Finally came the most painful part of the process… waiting! The finish has to cure about 30 days and reach its effective hardness prior to attempting any finish sanding. That’s the step that brings out the mirror shine, and it involves sanding the clear coat with incrementally finer grades of sandpaper soaked in water (I used naptha instead of water, based on recommendation of others). I stared with #400 and worked up to #2000. What’s left is a chalky appearance, which gets buffed out with polishing compound. I used an orbital polisher to help save my hands- pretty tough work!

End result:

(birds of a feather! the shameless clone next to my bicentennial thunderbird)

Rewired it too! Always nice to end a project like this back in familiar territory hihi

Chugging Beers
Muff Wiggler
that is awesome!!! amazing job we're not worthy

you took a bass that I wouldn't even give a second look to, and turned it into an absolutely must-play classic. Very well done!!

I agree that a little bit of physical crafts really feels good and there's nothing like the pride of a job well done when you're all finished.

really awesome, many thanks for making this post and sharing this with us!! Picked up some great tips as well, like the styrofoam block on the contours.... very very handy, won't forget that one!
Thanks Muff!

I could hear and feel the potential in the bass- they got the basic structure right, but what let it down for me was the all the cheap-ish finishing details... and the fact it just felt too brand-spanking-new with the modern plastic-y finish (although they had done a nice job executing it). I'd have never given it a first glance either, had I not been lusting after an original...

One other thing I did to make it feel a bit more settled in was to roll the fingerboard. I had heard of that before, but never knew exactly what it entailed. Going off of one of the tutorials that I found, I just ran a #2 Phillips screwdriver along the top edges of the fingerboard with a slight bit of pressure, compressing the wood of the sharply defined edges down into more of a rounded contour. This probably works better with the frets out, but it still came out great - and now it feels like a neck that's been loved and played. I also hit the top of the board with some 0000 steel wool soaked in lemon oil (frets and all). This is an effective way to clean up gunk from an old 'board, or in this case aircraft stripper residue... hihi
ahhhhh! ahhh! ahhhhh Ahhh!!!

Wow! and no, I'm not jealous ,not at all. really

really beautiful craftsmanship, fine and dandy!.
thumbs up
Looks great!!
I went back for another look I must say your work is very impressive
Chuck E. Jesus
looks great! i always liked the non-reverse style myself, and i love the color...
Thank you all!

Since I last posted, it looks like the Czech outfit that made these is at it once again. They have more finish options available this time:

I've had this one out to a few gigs now, and it is an awesome player. I have a number of old Gibson basses (always found their "throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-nothing-sticks" bass product strategy kind of endearing hihi ) and this one can hang with the best of 'em. I'm really happy with the outcome- and thankful I didn't botch it up Mr. Green
Needs more macaroni and glitter.
Waz wrote:
Needs more macaroni and glitter.


Forget nitro... next time I'm using the hannah montana glitter pens

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