Personalizing a Guitar, Using Waterslides. (or, How to Turn a Free Acoustic Guitar in to Something You Can Feel Proud to Jam With)




My son got given a free classical acoustic guitar from his aunt. He doesn't know how to play, but wants to, so she handed him down a "junk" guitar; because hey, when you're 9 and beginning to learn not only how to play but also how to take care of an instrument then who cares if it has dents and cracks in the finish, etc, as long as they don't affect sound. It also needed some "work" done to it.

Step 1: What I Started With. . . .

Ok, so what he got given, basically, was a sad, neglected orchestra size classical acoustic, unknown brand. Was missing a couple strings, missing the knob off of one of the tuners, the machine heads were kinda mucky (and cheap anyways), the neck had a backwards bow, dried fretboard, and with some finish issues. Not BAD, in fact, great size for him, the finish issues didn't affect the sound, and hey, it was FREE! So, with the help of an online auction site my quest to fix it up began.
This is kind of what I started with, I didn't think to take a picture before adding a pick guard but you get the idea. (It didn't have one, no biggie, but I thought it might be a good thing to add.)

Step 2: Assessing the Cracks.

It had 6 cracks in the finish, probably from being in a storage unit, or from temperature changes, who knows. But even though they didn't affect the playability I started thinking of ways to cover them up, but needed a way that would not affect the sound. Also, since this was a free guitar, and for a beginning player who is 9, it really was not worth it to me to completely strip the finish (it's polyurethane so that would have been a pain in the rear anyways!) and refinish. Or take it to a luthier or anything like that.

Step 3: Devising a Plan

So, after much, much research online I came up with "waterslide" decals. If you ever did models you would know them as those really, really thin decals that you soak in water and then the decal slides off of the paper backing and when it dries it is stuck on the item you slid it on.
They're not completely permanent so I had to think of a way to make them so also.

Since I needed decals that would work for my specific needs, so I decided to design my own. I taped paper to the guitar so I could draw them to cover the cracks.
The way the cracks were kind of made me think of creatures or something crawling around the guitar so I "went with that" and the creatures became dragons, and so the rough sketching took place.

Step 4: Completing the Sketching.

Kind of self explanatory, got the dragons sketched out in a way that made me happy and also got my son excited.

Step 5: Coloring

I let my sons both pick and agree on the colors to make the dragons. Then colored them in, and touched up and finished the drawings till I was happy with them.

Step 6: Creating the Decals

Next step was to copy the drawings on to ink jet water-slide decal paper. This was then coated with Krylon Acrylic Crystal clear coat and allowed to dry overnight.

Step 7: Applying to the Guitar

I then sanded down the poly coat for two reasons. 1)And the most important, so that the Nitrocellulose coats I would be adding on top of the decals would have a better surface to "grab" to, and 2) since I knew I would be adding coats then the less already on the guitar the better. (This is why this picture looks all dull and flat.)

I applied the decals and then let them dry for 24 hours.

Step 8: Finishing It Up.

Now for the nitro lacquer. I found nitro at Lowes, they sell a spray type made by Deft. It does not say on the can that it is nitro, however if you look on the brands website you can confirm that it is. Although, I would imagine any kind of clear coating finish would do, I chose nitro because it is known for being thin, and for me thinner is better since there was already poly on it.

You have to start out spraying VERY lightly, like a very, very light "dusting" and letting that DRY about an hour so you do not disturb the decals and cause them to peel up, or crinkle, or such. Again, I got most of this info from various places online and I am thankful for this warning because I had no problems at all. :)

I added enough Nitro so that I could safely add about 2 normal coats without fear (always an hour between coats). I then let this sit and cure for a week.

I then VERY carefully sanded down the nitro. I did this to make a smooth surface on the guitar, so there would be no ridges around the decal, because even though they are thin they still were more raised than the rest of the surface obviously. This basically left barely anything over the decals themselves and brought the rest of the face "up to" the same level.

I then sprayed two more "normal" coats (hour dry time in between) over the face of the guitar so that the decals would be nicely  "buried".

Again, another week long cure.

After that I gave it a good wet sanding, working from 400-800-1000-1200-1500-2000 grits. Then used 3M Finesse It to bring it to a nice glossy shine.

I wish I could get better pictures to really show the glossy shine it has now, as well as how well the decals turned out. They almost look drawn or painted on as you can't see any ridges around them. It's cool since they are in-between layers of finish they almost have a 3D-ish effect as well.

For how time consuming, and how bad my arm still hurts from all that sanding, I think it was still very much worth it. Even though, unfortunately, you can still see those darn cracks underneath! Agh! But at least there is a distraction to keep one from focusing on them. :)
And the guitar actually has a nice "richer" sound to it, I am ECSTATIC that it actually sounds BETTER.

Step 9: Finishing Touches.

Then all there was left to do was change out the cheap gummed up Taiwanese machine heads, for an economy Gotoh machine head set.
Adjust the truss rod to fix the bow.
Check action and intonation. (yay for online guides)
Used lemon oil on the fretboard and made it all nice and "healthy" looking again.
And for good measure I added a guitar strap button.

Step 10: Happy Child.

Free guitar + about $50 worth of accessories (like a nifty new strap) and detailing supplies and the stuff I needed for the decals and such + some extra time and a lot of effort = super happy kid.

Oh, and now I am inspired to learn how to play too just so I can play around with it. :)



    • Paper Contest

      Paper Contest
    • Remix Contest

      Remix Contest
    • Pie Contest

      Pie Contest

    6 Discussions


    2 years ago


    Thanks for sharing, and I'll admit it looks great. Great job including your children in the process. Future hackers/makers learning from their father.


    Reply 7 years ago on Step 6

    You need to add a clear coat over top of the decals after you print them so that when you cut them out and soak them in the water to slide them off the paper backing the inkjet ink is protected from the water. :)


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Cracked guitar -> work of art. Great custom guitar, good work.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    great job on the dragons. that's a sweet little guitar and a pretty unique shape for a little nylon string, too.