Ages ago, someone emailed to ask how they should go about applying a decal to a headstock. I promised I’d write something about it. Then I forgot.
Sorry about that. Better late than never?
Putting a logo on a headstock
It still feels great to put my logo on the headstock of a guitar I’ve made. But, you don’t have to do this stuff for a living to do it. Maybe you’re customising or modifying your own guitar. Maybe you’ve made a parts-caster or a kit. Maybe you’ve hammered hunks of lumber into a guitar shape and want to make it ‘yours’. It’s relatively straightforward to make your own mark on your guitar.
If you were/are a big old nerd, like me, you might know about waterslide decals from your time spent glueing model airplanes together.
These decals are printed on a super thin ‘film’ (for want of a better word). The film is fixed to a heavier paper backing. Soak the whole thing in warm water for a minute and the film separates from the backing and the image can be placed on the wing of your 1:32 scale Spitfire Mk IX model.
Or a guitar headstock, I suppose.
Because the film is so thin, it’s possible to apply clear lacquer over it without any noticeable bumps or raised sections at its edges.
If you do a bit of googling for something along the lines of ‘custom waterslide decals’, you should find heaps of places that will print your design for you.
Applying a Decal
OK. You’ve got your decal. Now, prep your headstock.
I’m assuming you’re starting with a bare headstock as if you’ve fitted or made a new neck. If this isn’t the case, you’ll have to sand back your current finish and logo until it’s gone.
I don’t like to apply the decal to bare wood so a few coats of lacquer are needed. Just enough build to be able to sand back flat. Spray a few coats, wait a couple of days and sand it flat so there are no dips or shiny spots where your decal will go. Then, mask off the sides and back of the neck and headstock.
Put a little warm water in a bowl and cut your decal close to its final size and shape. Pop it in the water.
After thirty seconds to a minute, the film should have loosened on the backing paper. Don’t separate them yet, though. Use a tweezers to lift both from the water and place it on the headstock near where you want it.
Gently press the decal film while you use the tweezers to slide the backing paper out. The decal should now lie on the headstock face.
Because you’ll have a little water around and under the decal, you can (carefully) reposition it until it’s in the correct place. If it doesn’t move easily, a drop or two of water on/around the decal will ‘float’ it and allow you to slide it about.
Use some kitchen towel to wick up most of the water. Then, gently dab the decal with a fresh piece of towel to press out and absorb the remainder of the water. Be really careful here. It’s easy to accidentally nudge the decal out of position and it’s really easy to tear the decal film.
Once it’s dry and flat, with no wrinkles, leave it aside until tomorrow to make sure any small amounts of residual water have evaporated.
Time for clear coats of lacquer to cover the decal. Very, very important is that the first couple of coats should be incredibly light. Smacking on heavy coats straight away can damage and wrinkle the decal. You want to just ‘mist’ the lacquer on. Hold the neck away from your spray can or gun for a really thin, misted coat. Apply one coat, wait a half hour and then mist on another. Don’t worry if it looks ‘pebbly’. That’ll sort itself out as the later coats go on.
Next day, you can hit it with normal wet coats to build up enough lacquer for sanding and buffing. How many depends on a lot of factors but you’ll probably want half a dozen or maybe more.
Let the lacquer cure off as per its instructions and then wet-sand and buff.
Ta-da! Now your custom axe has a custom logo. Nice.
I don’t know why but tiny flies seem to love wet lacquer.
Don’t be tempted to try get it out straight away. Wait for the lacquer to cure off a little and sand it back to get the fly out and apply more lacquer to get rid of the fly-crater. 😉
I should say a final word about the elephant in the room: fakes. It’s possible to buy decals for just about any famous guitar brand you might want. This can be really useful — there are legitimate uses for these in instrument repair.
But, of course, you can think of other uses for these. Here’s my two cents on this topic:
If you feel you need to stick a Fender logo on your Squier, I guess you can go ahead and do it. Personally, I’d advise you put the insecurity aside and learn to be ok rocking a Squier (screw the snobs — those guys suck) but go ahead if you really want.
It’s not cool to go beyond that, though. I’d hate to think anyone was trying to con someone by faking a headstock decal. That’s not cool.
With great decal application knowledge, comes great responsibility. Use your powers for good. 😉