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The Swirl Experiments


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There are some very good threads on here about 'swirling' or 'marbling' paint on bodies but in all of the information I read, there was very little specifics and very little discussion on what went wrong. I figured, since I hadn't posted in a while :D maybe it was time to step back in with something I've been working on quietly in the shadows - sort of a list of exactly what was tried and what failed, with brand names, etc. This is not so much a how-to, but a list of trials and results to hopefully help someone save some time/money/stress.

Paints Tested:

- Humbrol Enamel

- Testors Enamel

- Testors Model Masters Enamel

- Faskolor (w/ carageenan)

Primers Tested:

- Rustoleum Painter's Touch

- Testors White Primer

- Behlen's Grain Filler

Materials Tested:

- Primed Guitar Bodies or dummies

- Primed and Unprimed pickguards (cause, they need love too)

Containers Used:

- 5 GAL Bucket

- 33 GAL Tub

To be fair, I attempted the dipping method in all tests and started out trying the acrylic method with "seaweed enhanced" water. Basically, the science behind this method is to make the water gelatinous enough to allow the water-based paint to float and stay stable while you break the surface with whatever object you intend to swirl. While I could make the paint float, create beautiful swirls, etc., for the life me, I couldn't get anything to stick in there. The paint that did stick to the various test objects came out VERY thin regardless of amount used - until I got it so thick it started to sink. This method was abandoned because it was easier for me to understand the science of oil floating on water - so off to the enamels.

Preparing the water -

I've read many articles, postings on the Internet stating that Borax was/wasn't necessary and that the common ratio was 1 T (tablespoon) to 1 GAL of water if used, yet, there are videos of people using 1 C of Borax in 33-55 Gallon drum/trashcan and producing acceptable results - so.... Why use Borax?

Despite some postings, the use of Borax isn't really to "soften" the water as much as it is to provide a safe surfactant. Will it work without Borax? Yes. I could not make it fail. Did it work better with Borax? Yes - why? Because the borax 'lubricated' the surface of the water providing more of a platform for the oil-based paint to sit, thus allowing more color to adhere to the object and less chance of it being pushed away. By default, oil-based enamel is attracted to and will stick to anything (esp. carpet and the shower stall floor, but that's another discussion). The other reason to use Borax - it retards the drying process of the paint. This is important as all of the enamels I tested have an extremely fast evaporation rate and you need the paint to spread about in the container you are using to get the best results - this takes a few seconds. To see this in action, time it with and without - OR - steal a bottle of your daughter's nail polish and add it to two containers. The one without Borax will skin almost instantly, while the other gives you a few seconds of working time. I stuck with 1T/GAL.

I have also read of using Alum in this process, especially when using water-based paints to 'treat' the desired object with alum somehow to make the paint stick better, or adding it to the water - yet never explained why. Alum has excellent abilities when it comes to making a gel - thus, when an alum treated object is used, it causes the paint to thicken quickly and stick at a very low level. Also, adding a small amount of alum to the water bath before anything else and stirring it around can ensure that any tiny particles of crap coagulate and sink vs. sticking to your guitar body. The most I used in any experiments was approx. 1/4 tsp.

Preparing the object -

I found that regardless of the primer used, the smoother it was, the better. The best results were of course on a plain plastic pickguard; however I didn't think that sanding to 400 grit was smooth enough and settled on 800 grit. It seemed the porous nature of the primers/grain filler quite an effect on the flow of paint as the item was dipped. I also wiped things down with denatured alcohol and let them dry completely before dipping anything (including a set of Christmas tree ornaments that fell victim).

Once ready, I firmly mounted (via screws) the object to a dipping stick and set it aside. Since time is critical in this process, I decided each color to be used and stirred (shaking seemed to cause bubbles) the paint, and thus in the finish. Got my newspaper ready and proceeded to pour or drop (via droppers) the paint as close to the surface of the water as possible without touching it.

I was able to get acceptable results with ALL of the products used, yet had a difficult time with any of the Humbrol metallic finishes. They spread awfully thin and escape to the edges of your container very rapidly - then, don't like any other paint you've got in there, so you get gaps in the colors of the swirl.

Dipping the object -

I tried straight in and out, moving side-to-side and various angles and reached the conclusion that using about a 25-30 degree angle of insertion with random side-to-side movements and VERY slow speed worked best.

Some key notes:

- Testors is a bit thicker than Humbrol. Thinning was attempted by mixing beforehand, adding thinner to the surface of the water and dropping thinner on the paint once it was in the water. 1:10 thinner to paint seemed effective for regular Testors only. Model Masters only needed thinning on colors containing Orange.

- Red is an extremely dominant color. It loves to spread and take over everything, use it sparingly if you don't want it to be the focal point

- Runs can be caused by paint that's too thick or divots (screw holes) in the object. Remember - the smoother, the better.

- Bubbles under the paint seemed to happen from dipping too fast or moving too fast in the water.

- Use a dryer (with no heat) or a fan to expedite removing any droplets of water from the object when removed from the water. If left on, these can push away the paint around the shape of the droplet leaving undesirable results.

- Fluorescent colors seemed to be temperamental and needed thinning or nothing to work right.

Final note,

I dipped 2 guitar bodies, 7 pickguards and 2 Christmas ornaments and still have paint left over. It doesn't take much.

I hope to post some pictures of these experiments shortly.

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KPCrash that was very useful and I think this should be a sticky for future reference, also what could be added is how to correctly seal a existing or new guitar body before dipping ie how to seal holes routs etc,etc before dipping as water can cause these areas to swell and cause all sorts of problems and this is one area I thnk should be covered for newbees and 1st timers.

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KPCrash that was very useful and I think this should be a sticky for future reference, also what could be added is how to correctly seal a existing or new guitar body before dipping ie how to seal holes routs etc,etc before dipping as water can cause these areas to swell and cause all sorts of problems and this is one area I thnk should be covered for newbees and 1st timers.

Thank you. I'm working on some trial and error with that today actually. Testing melting candle wax vs. paraffin vs. bees wax - just waiting on the bees wax to show up. For the bodies discussed previously, they were sealed with rather heavy coats of primer/sealant only as they are bodies/slabs I have no intention of every using in a real instrument. I'm also looking at using epoxy as a sealant/primer to see what it might look like to allow some grain to show through some clearer colors.

Again, thank you for the kind words.

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Ok, here is a picture from the testing on two pickguards. The one on top (strat) was un-primed, the RG pickguard was primed.

The orange runs caused on the strat pickguard were from two mistakes - 1 was taping over the metallic film around the control knob holes (which made divots) and two, the orange paint was simply too thick.

Also, note on the RG pickguard how the green darkens at one end. This is from the paint not being evenly spread out and hitting a 'deep spot' of paint.


The above picture shows another 2 mistakes - too much paint AND adding darks after lights. Good news is a few hours later, this was easily removed with a hair dryer and putty knife. The rest came off with a little 220/400 grit.

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KPCrash, I just used whatever kind of paint I could find in my country.

we have very limited option here.

I've tried some paints: synthetic paint, oil based paint, automotive paint, wood paint.

for my latest swirl, I used wood paint, basically oil based paint.

if I could get testor, I might try it as well.

last time I tried to take some testor home, the UCBP took them away from my luggage at LAX :D

Edited by Ricky Anderson
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Actually, I just wrapped up doing some clear coat tests on some of the 'victims' that I swirled and had the following results:

Clear coats

Please note that the paint after swirling was of course not perfectly flat and level, so I decided with such a thin coat of paint, it would be better to use some sort of leveling agent (epoxy) or something easier to work with that did the same job (shellac). I chose between these two items because when dry, they should not cause any negative interactions with any of the commonly used clear coats and have been used numerous times by many members on this site and produced acceptable results. One other note - this section may be modified the more I play with sealing bodies with wax/other substances. Wax can cause undesired results when it comes in contact with many finishes, so I'm trying to find a few guaranteed ways to make sure what gets used gets removed effectively and completely before finishing. I'm also playing with sealing holes with epoxy as it can easily be drilled out once the finish is ready to be clear coated.

In these tests I used ZPoxy, Wax-Free Shellac (Bulls-Eye Clear), Rustoleum Painter's Touch Clear Gloss (rattlecan), KTM-9 and Nitro Lacquer.

Quick lesson learned was that if the enamel is not COMPLETELY dry (like 48 hours dry) you will get the crackle effect from rattlecan solvent :D Whoops.

Since all methods that I tried worked, perhaps it would be best to classify them in order of best results:

Note: Fixing any sandthrough spots (burns) was done with a q-tip dipped in solvent, then a drop or two of enamel paint. This made sort of a 'magic marker' for filling in tiny areas.

Method #1:

Z-Poxy + KTM-9. This produced a result that was similar to being under glass. Used my super advanced epoxy spreading system (credit card) to add a layer between 1/32 and 1/16" thick. Leveled the epoxy to 800 grit and shot KTM-9 in several thin layers. Once the KTM cures (5-10 days, I waited 7) it gets leveled/buffed and polished like any other clear coat. This produces an ultra-clear finish. I'm sure that more work on the epoxy would have led to a better finish - but quite sparkling.

Method #2:

Shellac + Nitro/Shellac + KTM-9. Sprayed 3 heavy coats of shellac and let dry, then leveled and started with the clear. The KTM-9 finish worked great as described above, yet by using only a few layers of shellac, did not have the depth of using ZPoxy. The nitro is still curing, so I may swap these two when it's done. (I should mention here that this was leveled with a method learned from Avengers63 - used oil-free 0000 steel wool + a little mineral spirits)

Method #3:

Rattlecan clear on unsealed enamel paint - basically, just let it dry and spray several thin coats of clear on top, let dry, level and buff as described in several other tutorials on this site. This produced an acceptable result, yet without quite as much depth or clarity as the others. Will a person viewing you on stage notice? No. However, the Rustoleum product doesn't cure quite as hard as the others and may dent in high use areas around the strings/knobs. Otherwise, worked great.

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Wow thank you! Very well done. Have you tried polyurethane? Id figure that would build fast and maybe do both jobs with a single product?

BTW i love the glass look with swirls, it makes it really pop!

Duh... :D I didn't even grab any poly when I was getting the clear stuff out. You are correct though, it could do both jobs in a single product - I'll have to create a new dummy now and test it. I'll probably test with standard Minwax poly and not anything 2-stage/catalyzed as I simply can't afford to "play" with that stuff.

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