Top 5 things I learned painting my car at home

It was challenging. It was rewarding. It was heartbreaking.

During the month of March I tackled what I consider to be the pinnacle of a car restoration — the paint.

When this project began in August of 2017, the 1967 Mercury Cougar arrived wearing dull white paint. I actually wasn’t sure if it was primer or a topcoat. There was overspray on most of the trim, rust was bubbling up on the doors and quarters, and the body panels looked as if someone had played bumper cars in a parking lot full of shopping carts.

Almost four years later, I finally finished the mechanical and interior refurbishment, and I was ready to tackle the paint and body. Here’s the most important things I learned during the process.

Number One: Don’t buy your paint online

I had a white Mustang in high school, and I know white is a popular color for Cougars, but I just wasn’t feeling it. To be honest, if I was building the perfect Cougar it would be Hunter Green with a Saddle Leather interior. However, I ended up with a white Cougar with red interior that originally was Onyx black. I decided to take it back to black, but with a metallic paint. Like many others, I’ve gotten in the bad habit of just ordering things online instead of getting out to a store to see what I’m buying. I ordered all my paint from Eastwood.com. I lucked out with their Epoxy Primer. It sprays really well. The 2k High Build — not so much, but if you dilute it enough it’s ok. The real problem was the Midnight Metallic Black.

The Eastwood base colors mix 4:1, so while it’s $185 per gallon, you’re actually only getting 5 quarts. By comparison the PPG Shopline paint mixes 1:1 at $205 per gallon, so you’re getting 8 quarts. Even with slow reducer I suffered solvent popping in the Midnight Metallic Black, which left dotted lines on the roof and trunk lid of the car. I also screwed up and accidentally drug my air hose along the edge of the roofline. There was nothing to do except sand it all down and start over. I needed more paint. Unfortunately, Eastwood had a big message on their site saying they were out of stock until May. I took a trip to my local Tasco where I should have gone in the first place. They gave me a handful of color chips to pick out exactly what kind of metallic black I wanted and then mixed me up two gallons. Their low-end Shopline paint sprayed better than the Eastwood, and by choosing Ford Tuxedo Black, future color match is easy. I can get touch up paint at any auto parts store.

Number Two: You need good lighting in your work area

I have fluorescent shop lights hanging in half my garage, but the other side is really dark. There is a noticeable difference in the paint work done on the bright side of the garage versus the dark side of the garage. Good light helps you see the wet edge, the extent of coverage, whether or not you’re running the paint, and if you have solvent popping or other issues happening. If I was going to paint more cars in my garage I’d add lighting to the other side of the ceiling or at least set up some shop lights on that side.

Number Three: Sanding is tedious and messier than spraying

Sanding cars is incredibly tedious and messy. I was expecting the spray mess, but being covered in enough poly primer powder that I looked like a ghost was a new experience. The powder gets into the air and settles on everything. It got tracked all over the house. Having a clean area is really important for a good paint job, and it took days of cleaning and washing out the garage to remove enough dust to spray again. Also, use blocks to sand, not your fingers. If you sand without a block you’ll end up with a sad, wavy finish. 2k is the only layer that will hide a few of the issues you don’t spend time sanding before you apply it. Every other layer is going to show everything, so spend the time sanding. But yes, it is really tedious.

Number Four: Carefully read your paint data sheets

Yes, the data sheets show mix ratios, but many of them also specify gun pressure and tip sizes. More importantly, it lets you know how soon you can spray your next layer. For instance, the epoxy primer I used took three days to cure enough for sanding. Three days is a long time to wait for the next coat when you’re trying to fit a paint job into vacation time. However, you could overcoat the epoxy primer with 2k primer after 30 minutes, but if you waited more than six hours, you were stuck waiting the full three days. Once the 2k was on the epoxy, you could sand it within an hour. The clear coat also has to go onto the base coat within a certain number of hours or you have to scuff and spray another layer of base before you can clear. Each paint is slightly different, so always ask for the data sheet when you’re buying the paint.

Number Five: The cut and polish process is a completely different skill set

I was aware that I knew nothing about painting cars, so I invested in a weekend seminar to learn the basics long before I bought any equipment. We spent lots of time spraying, but the cut and polish process was just a PowerPoint slide with a quick demonstration. I was woefully unprepared to polish paint, and the Meguiars paste and $29 buffer from O’Reilly’s weren’t helping the situation. My first attempt wet sanding left too much orange peel. (By the way, did I mention sanding it incredibly tedious?) My second attempt was better, but after the cutting compound, you could still see swirl marks in the paint. My third attempt finally ruined the paint on the hood. After many, many hours I finally have a handle on wet sanding. A friend from the Cougar Club loaned me a professional polisher, and I bought some quality cutting compound and polish. The results are better, but if I could do it all again, I would have spent a long time practicing these processes on a car with bad paint, not the car I spent four weeks painting. Yes, when I mentioned heartbreak in the introduction, this is what I was talking about. There are definitely sections of the car I will have to paint again due to my own incompetence when trying to polish it. The wet sanding, cut and polish is not quick. It’s another job in itself, and it will make or break a paint job.

I know, there are no mind-blowing epiphanies here, but if anyone out there is debating whether or not to paint their car, I hope this helps.

Learning to Paint: Cut and polish

I only had an 18-hour window to apply clear coat after the last coat of color to ensure adhesion. However, I needed to wait a minimum of 24 hours after spraying clear before I could start the cut and polish process.

The clear coat brought out the color of the black cherry paint, but it had noticeable texture. I also had two runs on the air cleaner lid, which were easy to see, but very hard to photograph.

While I had plenty of lower grit sandpaper for paint prep, I hadn’t thought about the grits required for the polishing process. I made a run to my local True Value, but the finest grit they carried was 320. Thankfully O’Reilly’s had a full section of polishing supplies, so I purchased 1000, 2000, 3000, and some polishing compound.

Because I needed to remove the two runs in the clear, I started the process with 600 grit dry sanding. Once I got a cross hatch pattern across the entire surface, I rinsed the lid and sanded with 600 grit wet. I did another rinse, then sanded 1000 grit wet. Then I went to 2000 grit wet. Then I used my random orbital sander for 3000 grit wet. Then I finished the lid with a buffer and polishing compound.

The difference in depth, shine and texture was amazing. I still had some unwanted texture in the grooves, so I actually repeated the entire 600 wet through buffing again. The lid looked fantastic.

I was actually using the air cleaner before this project started, so I was anxious to get it back on the car. I tackled the bottom of the assembly next. I decided to forego the 600 dry sanding portion and just start with the 600 wet. By the time I finished, I could barely move my arms. I don’t think I’ve done this much intense sanding and polishing in my entire life.

I got the air cleaner back on the car, and I decided to tackle the valve covers and oil pan later.

The biggest lesson learned is that preparation is everything. My paint is smooth, but if you look down into it, you can see that the surface of the metal is not. There was quite a bit of pitting in these old rusted parts, and I should have done more sanding before the primer and more coats of primer to smooth it all out before the color coat.

Here’s a side-by-side example of the difference the cut and polish makes.

I do have confidence that I can tackle painting the entire car with the turbine sprayer and get an acceptable result. However, unless I fix some of the underlying alignment and body issues first, it’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

Learning to Paint: The first attempt

In September 2019, back when the world was normal, and we jumped on airplanes to breath up each other’s exhales without thinking twice, Mary and I made a trip to Salt Lake City.

During that trip Bryce Green and Freddy Carlson taught us how to paint.

When you have pro equipment being set up for you in a climate controlled spray booth with two of the best painters in the world coaching you, it’s hard NOT to paint well. Recreating that magic in my garage has proven to be more of a challenge. I didn’t really have the space or want the noise of an 80 gallon compressor. Additionally, I was going to have to install multiple moisture traps along the walls. I decided to take a chance on an Apollo 5-stage turbine sprayer.

Allegedly it delivers a continuous 9.5 psi of dry air, and it has a nice HVLP gravity fed gun similar to the SATA guns we used during our class. It’s fairly quiet, and I can spray anywhere there’s a wall plug. I’m hoping we can spray varnish and maybe even gel coat on the sailboat as well.

When we learned the Kindig It paint method, it started with bare metal, then epoxy primer, then filler, then polyester primer, then 2k urethane primer, then sealer, then basecoat, and finally clearcoat.

First off, I’m on a budget. Second, I don’t really have the time or energy to take the Cougar all the way down to bare metal. For my test run, I decided to see what would happen if I sanded the parts, used a little rust encapsulator where necessary, then jumped straight to a 2k primer.

By the way, I never thought I’d have a favorite sandpaper, but I ordered several rolls of Indasa paper from Big Kid Blocks, and I have to say, I love Indasa sandpaper. It is so much better than whatever I usually grab at the hardware store. I also highly recommend their Show Gun cleaner and AngelWax products.

All of the engine parts for this test were giveaways from various members of the Southeast Texas Cats Mercury Cougar Club. The valve covers were from a 68 Cougar. The oil pan was from a 65 Mustang. All of the pieces had different color paint and varying amounts of rust. I cleaned them with a wire wheel, but the gold paint on the oil pan was especially stubborn. I gave it all a spray with rust encapsulator, then sanded with 220.

I emptied all 22 ounces of 2k primer onto the parts. At times I felt like I had the gun spraying well, but at times it felt like I was barely getting any paint out at all. I was using a 1.5mm nozzle, but I think I probably needed a 1.8mm. (Unfortunately, I haven’t purchased a 1.8mm.) I kept turning the air pressure up, but in fact, I probably needed to turn it down to increase paint flow.

When the primer dried, it had a very rough texture. It smoothed out easily with 400 grit, but sanding won’t be an option when I get to the color coat.

I finished sanding, wiped it down with paint prep, then re-assessed. The coverage had become a little thin in some places, and there were a few spots showing bare metal.

I decided that instead of moving on to the base coat, it would be better to troubleshoot my issues and try another coat of primer. I’m going to spend more time adjusting the gun and increase the amount of reducer for better flow. Hopefully I’ll have time for attempt number two before the weekend is over.

The low tides and high times of GBCA Icicle #3

Spoiler alert, we did not start (DNS) Icicle Race #3. The north wind was gusting all day Friday, and there just wasn’t much water left in Clear Lake.

On a normal day, there is no beach here along the bulkhead of our marina. Due to low water and a low wind forecast, we decided not to risk leaving Finn with a baby sitter and getting stuck in the bay for hours. Had we made it to the race, we would have had less competitors, but sometimes the risk is not worth the reward.

Earlier in the week Mary began re-stitching the sacrificial sunbrella that was ripped on our jib during Icicle 1. Her Sailrite sewing machine has seen at least five years of hard use, and it finally gave out. While it awaits repair or replacement, we had to hand stitch the sail. I finished about four feet, and that has put me over my sewing quota for all of 2021. I don’t know what kind of sewing machine Mary wants this time, but I will buy it.

Despite the extreme low tide, the weather was really nice, and Finn enjoyed his weekend at the marina. His crawling is getting more advanced, and he made dozens of laps around the cabin floor.

He also tried out the swings for the first time.

During one of his naps we managed to get the jib back on the roller furling unit and ready for Icicle #4 (knock on wood).

It would have been a perfect, relaxing weekend except for one thing.

At some point, my wallet disappeared. The most likely timeframe is when Tex decided to randomly start peeing on the rug in the boat, and I rushed to grab him and corral Hemingway, then wrestle and carry them both up the extremely high bulkhead to get them to the grass for a bathroom break. I think as I was stretching and then sitting and twisting on the bulkhead, my wallet must have broken loose and taken a dive.

I spent several hours retracing my steps all over the marina and turning the boat inside out in the hopes that I had just set it somewhere, but with no luck. It is gone. Now starts the process of canceling cards and ordering a new driver license.

Honestly, I’m surprised I made it almost 43 years without ever losing a wallet before, especially since I’ve spent the past 11 years on boats every weekend. Here’s to hoping that will be the big loss of 2021, and the rest of the year will be smooth sailing.

GBCA Icicle Series 2: We learn more limitations of the boat

After the line adjustments and repairs, I was fired up for race 2. Our handicap boat rating went from 218 to 221, so our start time was moved a minute earlier. We got to the course on time and managed to get the main unfurled correctly on the first attempt — everything was going great.

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That’s us in the background of this photo Sunspot Baby took just before the start.

We started exactly on time on a starboard tack. It was beautiful, and a huge improvement over our late start last week.

Then the wind died.

The forecast projected 8 knots until 1 p.m., then down to 7 knots through the afternoon. In reality, it was closer to 4 knots with occasional gusts up to 7.

At 4-5 knots, the boat did creep forward but couldn’t point better than a broad reach. Below 4, we didn’t move and all steering was gone. We spent two hours bobbing around on the first leg of the course with no perceivable forward motion towards the mark.

We spent some time diagnosing why the jib sheets keep binding up. I think we’re going to have to invest in new jib cars. We also noticed the sheets tend to bunch up and bind in the turning blocks near the winches. Our options there are to either upsize the blocks, which will require quite a bit of teak work or the downsize the lines. I haven’t decided the best option on any of it yet since whichever route we go, it’s going to be expensive.

We finally threw in the towel and turned the boat around. Icicle Series 2 was a DNF for us. However, it looks like only one boat in the non-spin club handicap division finished.

I did get the new strainer basket installed in the climate control system, so we have heat and air-conditioning again. Mary and I also spent a couple hours removing old wires and autopilot equipment this morning, but due to the cold and rain we only got the interior sections of the boat finished.

We still have major water leaks that need to be remedied. We removed the old staysail track and epoxied the holes, which stopped the leaks coming down the front of the mast. I think the track was leaking into the core and that water was then flowing out at the mast opening. I’m not sure where all the water is coming from at the front of the mast. It’s a virtual water fall when the rain gets heavy. We used spartite to seal the mast in the collar, but the base of the collar itself could be leaking.

Fingers crossed that Icicle 3 will finally be our race.

Here’s to new adventures in 2021

2021 started on a good tack. We spent New Year’s Day on the boat prepping for GBCA Icicle Series 1, and we were treated to an absolutely amazing sunset.

I finally broke down and bought a 3M Stripe Removal wheel to take the old Florida registration numbers off the hull. It was working pretty well until it popped out of the drill and into the water.

Poseidon demands his sacrifices. I almost went diving for it, but then I remembered I still have stitches in my stomach from the hernia surgery, so I decided against it. Guess I’ll get another one and try again next weekend, but I’ll be checking the chock tightness frequently.

We were up early Saturday to finish boat prep before our crew arrived, and we cast off just after 11 a.m. for our first race aboard the Krogen 38. There’s no better way to shakedown a boat than to race it. As a wise man once said, “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.”

We’re still having trouble with our furling main. It’s an early design, and it just doesn’t seem to work very well. Someone has to literally sit under the boom and guide the line onto the drum by hand or it wraps too low and then overwraps. It took multiple attempts to fully deploy the main. Then our staysail and jib furlers just don’t want to spin. Even with decent wind, it took some real effort to get them started. It probably doesn’t help that the staysail furler lost an eyelet during transport to Houston, and I had to rig it with a big U-bolt to stop it from overwrapping immediately. Apparently it’s not a great solution because when we attempted to furl it back in after the race, it was still an overwrapped mess.

Hopefully by the end of the series we’ll have it all figured out and working correctly because replacing two furling units and switching the main to a smart track is a really expensive proposition. We’ll see how it goes. Our furling issues definitely contributed to a late start for race 1.

Overall we did well. Our tacks were messy, but it was literally everybody’s first time sailing the boat. Yes, Mary and I have been out on the boat previously, but we never had the jib out in more than maybe 5 knots of wind.) We learned that the jib does tack across in high wind, but that it has seen better days. It did not hold shape well, and there were several patches of sunbrella fluttering in the wind by the end of the race.

Mary helmed the start and the first leg of the course while I was fixing furlers, then I took over the second two legs.

I have no idea when we could have possibly hit 16.8 knots. It must have been while Mary was driving.

Racing with dogs aboard was interesting. Tex has been sailing for the entire 10 years we’ve had him, and he could care less except when we start heeling, and he gets dumped off a bench. However, he does get cold.

Hemingway, on the other hand, was nervous the entire time. By the third leg Mary was designated dog holder. There had been discussion of possibly bringing Finn along for a race in his car seat, but I think that will have to at least wait until the summer rum races.

We spent this morning addressing all of the little issues we documented during the race. I also noticed the air-conditioning water return wasn’t flowing very well, so I decided to clean the strainers.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much strainer left to be cleaned. The underside of the lid was coated in barnacles, and the basket was completely deteriorated. The good news is that the basket is a common size that is still being made. The bad news is, nobody had it in stock, so we may not have air-conditioning or heating for a couple of weeks — but that’s the excitement of boating, right?

Here’s the hoping 2021 continues to stay exciting, not just in sailing, but in all of our endeavors.

Prepping for 2021

We entered 2020 planning to take things easy.

I had just started a new job, and we had a baby on the way. Focusing on the baby and staycation was the plan. We just had no idea the extent we wouldn’t even leave the house for months at a time.

It worked out great for the dogs. They’ve never gotten so much attention.

I think they actually appreciated getting a little less attention once Michael Finley arrived on the scene as the cameras are now pointed at him.

Although it’s hard to tell if they enjoy the attention they get from him.

I don’t know that you could say we really had an active social life before the pandemic, but we did at least occasionally have friends over for dinner or guitar jams or take people sailing, etc. Trying to be extra careful with an infant, that dwindled down to people visiting from afar.

Our friend Tammy was in town for the first time in two years, but instead of catching up over lunch, she stood in the rain and chatted with us from the dock while we sat on the boat. Thanks for coming by, Tammy, and thank you for the family photo.

So with 2020 being such a letdown, I’ve been focused on getting ready for life in 2021.

The boat projects have been intense. In the past year we’ve replaced the mainsail, replaced the engine’s freshwater pump, added a new isolated start battery, replaced the 4D AGM house batteries, and started replacing the autopilot system.

Turning the boom and mainsheet into a crane to lift the 150-pound batteries onto the boat and lower them into the bilge worked much better than expected.

There’s still many, many things to do, but we have her in shape to run the Icicle Series Regatta in January. I’m very excited. While I don’t expect to be competitive, racing is the best way to get to know your boat and identify problems that still need to be addressed.

In addition to getting the boat ready to sail, we also finally got a slip back on the peninsula of fun. Our O’day had been in one of the 38′ slips for several years, which gave us great access to the pool and the fire pits, but the Kadey Krogen was too long, so we were exiled to Pier 19 for the past two years. One of the 50′ slips finally opened up, so last weekend we moved back. The real perk is that our baby monitors reach from the boat to the pool, so once Finn goes to bed at 7 p.m., we can sit out with adults for a while, which will be refreshing. I’m sure Finn will also appreciate the swingset that is only about 15 yards away.

Then there’s the car.

We sold the old Z3, which Mary had been driving to work because the car seat didn’t fit, and it hadn’t left the garage in several months. That means the Cougar is now my daily driver. So far it has gotten me to all of my appointments, but I took a nice 100-mile cruise with the Southeast Texas Cats Mercury Cougar Club, and it ended with a screeching alternator.

The alternator was still under warranty, so there’s a new one on the way. However, I’ve got to decide if I’m going to pour some more money into the car to make it suitable enough to carry Finn’s car seat in the back or if I need to buy another new car with no exhaust leaks, etc.

But the car repairs have been nothing compared to body repairs.

Around August, I started falling apart. I had an ingrown toenail that just got worse and worse. Then my belly button started to bulge and my abdomen was super uncomfortable. When you compound that with lack of sleep, staying in shape was next to impossible. I finally sucked it up and went in for both toe surgery and hernia surgery in the past week. Fingers crossed that we kick off 2021 totally healthy and ready to lose the sympathetic pregnancy weight, baby weight, and covid weight.

I know that Jan 1, 2021 won’t magically solve all the problems created by covid in 2020, but I’m very optimistic that it’s going to be a better year.

The guitar project that went wrong … then wronger

Back in the 90s when the distinction between music store and pawn shop was rather blurry, I acquired a second-hand silver sparkle Les Paul guitar that only said “Lady Luck” on the headstock and “Made in Korea” on the back of the neck.

This was a time when cheap guitars were really bad. Everyone and their brother had a beginner-level Squier or Jasmine that wouldn’t stay in tune and had the tone of a brick.

Lady Luck played well, but she had an extremely bass-heavy tone. It just never sounded good. Sometime in the early 2000s I actually tried to revive her by transplanting some nice Seymour Duncan pickups, but she still only sounded marginally better.

The silver guitar just hung on the wall for the past 15 years.

Since I’m now working from my home office at least eight hours a day, I’ve been trying to clear the clutter and make it a more pleasant, usable environment. That meant some of the guitars, amplifiers and camera gear had to go. I decided to clean up Lady Luck and put her up for sale.

I opened the back panel and squirted a little bit of contact cleaner into the crackling volume pots. The knobs got stiff. Then they froze. Then they unfroze … completely … and just kept spinning.

In the past few months I’ve cleaned the pots on an amplifier, a vintage clock radio, and another guitar. This has never happened before. I also couldn’t believe the same thing happened on both volume pots. I guess the corrosion was the only thing holding them together.

I had just rendered the guitar unplayable. Selling it was no longer an option.

The “hand wired” tone craze started a few years ago when Gibson started using pots connected to printed circuit boards in their guitars. That was actually good news for me because there were dozens upon dozens of pre-assembled pre-wired pots available to replace those PCBs that ranged from $30 with some questionable looking hardware up to $250 with vintage bumblebee capacitors.

Since Lady Luck isn’t a real Les Paul, I was worried the pot spacing wouldn’t quite be the same. I was wary of buying a pre-assembled kit. I decided to spend $50 and order an unassembled kit from Amplified Parts that included everything from the input plug to the switch. It also came with some really nice shielded wiring.

I immediately ran into a few issues. The pots and the output jack had larger diameters than the original hardware. I wasn’t excited about drilling out the holes and risking a chip in the paint, but I decided it was worth the risk.

Then I had to address the fact that the new knobs were also longer than the old knobs. I made a run to True Value for 3/8″ spacers. Unfortunately, they were out of 3/8″, so I had to pay double and buy a set of both 1/4″ and 1/8″. I ended up $20 into the project just for spacers!

The new selector switch was more of an issue. It was taller than the original switch, and it needed to be countersunk to reach through the body. Lady Luck is mostly plywood with an unknown top. The switch area was not that thick to begin with.

I finally decided that countersinking the new switch to make it fit wasn’t worth the risk of having the new switch rip through the front of the guitar. I had already replaced the switch in the 90s because the original had been snapped off when I bought it. It was clean and seemed fine. I mean, after all, a switch is a switch.

The instructions that came with the MOD kit were very clear, so it only took about an hour to put everything together. Of course, I still somehow managed to hook up the switch backwards. There were no strings on the guitar, so all I could do was plug it in and tap the pickups to see which one was active with each switch position.

I thought, it’s fine, I’ll just rotate the switch 180-degrees and let the wires wrap around. Wrong.

Assuming all was well, I got to the business of reassembling the other pieces of the guitar with the new stainless steel screws I’d picked up while I was True Value. I also decided to put the chrome pickup covers that originally came on the guitar onto the Seymour Duncan pickups. That entailed a little double-sided tape and some solder on the back, but it seemed easy enough.

The next morning I spent quite some time adjusting the truss rod, setting the bridge height, and adjusting the intonation to get the action just right. Then, the moment finally came. I plugged her in.

A very loud hum came through the amplifier.

I strummed a chord.

Nothing.

When I touched my fingers various places the hum would change tone or sometimes stop completely, but never did a single note come through the amplifier.

Did I wire something wrong? Is one of the new pieces bad? Did I ruin the pickups by putting covers on them?

This project had gone wrong when I destroyed the original volume pots. Now I was an additional $70 and 5+ hours into the project, and I had NOTHING.

I hung the guitar on the wall and walked away.

The next morning I got out the multimeter and started checking continuity. This was my first time using shielded cable with a metal sleeve. My first discovery was that I hadn’t peeled the shielding back far enough on the wire going to input jack, and it was touching the base of the prong, causing a short.

My next realization was that by spinning the selector switch 180 and letting the wires wrap around it, they were shorting to the sides of the selector switch.

I remedied this situation by rotating the switch back the correct direction and adding a little bit of electrical tape for insulation — just in case.

At this point, I was still getting a terrible hum, but I was also getting intermittent sound depending on what I touched.

I decided to yank the pots and see if I could get anything to work outside the guitar. Unfortunately during this maneuver I lost one of the $3 spacers into the body of the guitar forever.

After a few solder repairs, which included hooking the switch leads up correctly, I suddenly had sound. That was amazing news since it meant I didn’t destroy the expensive pickups when I put the covers on them.

I made another run to True Value to get another 1/8″ spacer.

I put everything back into the guitar.

The hum was back, and the sound was gone again.

The shielded cables were just touching too many things inside the guitar.

If I ever do this again, I will purchase shrink wrap or some sort of plastic sleeve to put over the metal braid. I didn’t have either of those things, so I started wrapping it in electrical tape. A few minutes later, the hum was completely gone, and the guitar was singing.

So after more than 20 years, this guitar finally plays the way it should. Now I can’t decide if I still want to sell it or if I should hold onto it a little longer.

And for any tech geeks out there who might be wondering, Lady Luck has a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan SH4 in the neck. 220k-ohm resistors tie into 470pF ceramic capacitors on the 500k-ohm volume pots, and .022mf 600v MOD capacitors run between the volume and tone pots.

Resurrecting my first guitar

Did you ever visit The Golden Pawn II?

It was located on Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Apparently the building is about to be torn down.

The Golden Pawn II: It was a pawn shop … and also golden.

When my granddad took me there in 1992, it was both my first time inside a pawn shop and my first time to experience the joyous overwhelming sensory overload generated by a wall of guitars and stacks of amplifiers.

I didn’t know anything about guitars. The Internet did not exist. I had been learning on an old classical guitar I found in my dad’s closet. My knowledge was limited to what I’d seen artists playing in music videos (which I wasn’t supposed to be watching) and one second-hand Guitar Player magazine a friend gave me at school because he didn’t like the songs in that issue.

My guitar selection method began with choosing black guitars that looked cool, but quickly shifted to black guitars that actually worked when plugged in. I finally landed on a black Arbor stratocaster knock-off that looked much like the guitar Bryan Adams played in the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves music video. While the style hadn’t been my first choice, I decided that it was “cool enough.”

Sidebar: It was actually moderately difficult to find this video. When I finally did, it turns out the Stratocaster was red, and it’s clearly not plugged into anything. Definitely not as cool as I remember. Also, fun fact, Mattel re-used the Return of the Jedi: Ewok Village playset in a different box as the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves forest hideout.

Amplifier selection wasn’t nearly as complicated. The deal was whichever working amplifier — with distortion — Granddad could get them to bundle with the guitar for $100. The man was a negotiator.

I played and played and played that Arbor Stratocaster and the little Peavey Rage amp for years. Eventually the amp died, and I upgraded to something bigger, but I always held on to that guitar.

The Arbor was gigged exactly two times for two songs.

My sophomore year of high school I played Creep by Stone Temple Pilots at the Bartlesville Mid-High Talent Show. My friend Chad sang the second part of the chorus with me. As far as I know, there is no photographic evidence of that performance.

Project Graduation (ProGrad) Talent Show Dinner at William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, March, 1996. (Thanks, Mom. Your decades of hoarding really paid off for this blog post.)

In 1996 I opened the senior talent show with The Joker by Steve Miller Band with my friend Steve Love playing the wolf-whistle lead guitar part. Then I played Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton to end the show — but not on the Arbor. The audience was really into The Joker. Unfortunately, it was my first time to encounter large-auditorium off-beat clapping, and I ended up having to stop for a moment in the middle of the song just to find the beat again. I thought Tears in Heaven went better, but feedback at school was, “You sang it too low.” Nevertheless, photos of my performance did appear in the school newspaper.

That was both the first and last time my music ever garnered any media attention.

The Arbor came to college with me, and many people took a turn on it during dorm jams and sing-arounds my freshman year. However, as time went on, it had more and more electrical issues. Eventually I was seduced by a brand new Epiphone Les Paul, and the Arbor was left in a case in the closet for years.

Having had success with the recent amplifier repair, I decided to see if I could work some magic on the Arbor.

At some point the tone pots had frozen up. Turning the tone knob equated to rotating the entire pot, which put strain on the wiring. Eventually one of the leads from a resistor had pulled loose, which was why the guitar had a terrible hum when it was plugged in and why it got put away in the first place.

As a kid I never realized the pick guard was just one big nicotine stain.

When I pulled the knobs, I realized just how much nicotine build-up was on the pick guard. I wasn’t aware of nicotine staining as a kid — no one in our family even smoked. However, I do remember always feeling like I could never really get the pick guard clean. Who knows what life this guitar had before my granddad and I came across it.

A few squirts of CRC cleaner got the pots working freely, and then it only took about 30 seconds to solder the broken lead back to the correct tab. I tightened the nuts on the pots to make sure they wouldn’t rotate again. I cleaned the 5-way switch, then put it back together.

The next issue was the bridge setup. Teenage me really didn’t have a concept of intonation. I had adjusted all the saddles to make a nice, neat straight line. As a beginner guitarist, I also had a tendency to miss the high E string when picking, so I remedied the situation by raising the high E above all the other strings — couldn’t miss it.

It’s not recommended to raise the high E above the rest of the strings, but if I had become famous, everyone would be doing it. The strings are finally level and intonated.

I adjusted the neck truss rod, leveled the bridge saddles, and put some new strings on it. Then, for possibly the first time in this guitar’s entire life, I intonated each string.

Playing her through an amplifier last night generated a brief time warp.

Fourteen-year-old me was home alone in his small-town Oklahoma bedroom, the amplifier pegged to ten, fumbling through the chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit before kicking the amp over and pretending to smash the guitar onto the mattress of his bed.

The action is nice and low. The tone comes through dirtier than it does on my American made Telecaster, but that’s what you’d expect from old, cheap electronics. It plays as well as any cheap guitar can.

Maybe someday Finn will think it looks “cool enough” to give it a try.

Repairing a 1964 Gibson Skylark GA 5T Tremolo Tube Amplifier

“Adopt a son,” was the tagline under the Instagram photo. A local music shop had a vintage Gibson amplifier listed for sale in remarkably good cosmetic shape — except for the logo.

1964 Gibson Crestline GA 5T Skylark Tremolo

I had a quick chat with Mary about the rising value of vintage instruments that veered into a promise to sell the large Line6 AX2-212 amplifier sitting in my study, and I was off to retrieve the Gibson.

The amplifier had the original speaker, the original leather handle, no tears in the tolex or cloth, and very minimal rust on the faceplate. Unfortunately, the amp didn’t play quite as good as it looked. We still brokered a deal, and I brought it home. That’s when I took the week long deep dive into vintage radio and amplifier repair.

Yes, we have gone way beyond banana bread.

The Death Cap

It wasn’t until 1969 that Underwriters Laboratories mandated three-prong plugs on appliances. Amplifiers from the 1950s and 1960s came with a two prong power cord, which could be plugged in either way. The lack of earth ground made those amplifiers susceptible to RF noise. To combat this, designers added a capacitor between the negative terminal of the power cable and the chassis ground of the amplifiers. It was well-known and accepted at the time that if a musician was touching the guitar strings and touched another reverse grounded object such as a microphone, he or she would receive a noticeable shock. The problem with having a capacitor coming from the cable to ground was that if it failed open, it would deliver the full 120 volts AC to the musician.

The “paper caps” and the “death cap” on the unmolested board.

While I wanted to keep the amplifier as original as possible, I decided removing the “death cap” and adding a three-prong power cable with ground to earth was the way to go. I also relocated the positive cable lead to run through the fuse before the switch for a little added protection of the amplifier internals.

Three strand power cable with earth ground installed.

120hz Hum

The most noticeable issue with the amplifier was a very loud hum coming through the speakers even with the volume turned to zero. A lower 60hz hum can be an indicator of poor shielding, but a 120hz hum is usually an indicator of bad filter capacitors.

From what I could tell, the amplifier internals had never been touched, so the circuit was sporting two paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitors — a Maximite and a Minimite. I didn’t have a way to test those capacitors, but it’s generally accepted that the lifespan for a paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitor is 6 – 10 years. Being 56 years old, it was a pretty solid bet that both of them needed to be replaced.

I replaced the Maximite with two modern 22mf 450volt capacitors, and the Minimite was swapped for one of the same. I flipped the amplifier back on, and the hum was gone.

A pair of 22mf 400Volt capacitors in place of the Maximite.

As a side note, if someone is selling you a tube amp and says, “It has a hum, but it still plays great,” walk away. You can’t play great battling that hum. You can’t record with that hum. You can’t perform with that hum. Also, it’s just a matter of time before the leaking capacitors fry the power transformer and cause more damage to the amplifier.

The Mysterious Disappearing Tremolo

This amplifier has a built-in tremolo circuit powered by the oscillations of a vacuum tube. When I purchased the amplifier, it wasn’t working at all. Later at home you could hear the oscillations in the 120hz hum, but it wasn’t evident in the actual guitar sound. Then I tapped on a few connections and spread some crowded wires apart, and the tremolo disappeared completely.

My online searches turned up conflicting diagrams, some indicating a 6EU7 tube and some indicating a 6C4. As I researched both, the 6C4 was noted for it’s oscillations, so I ordered one thinking I had the wrong tube. Turns out a 6C4 isn’t even the right size for the plug. I tried a new 6EU7, and the tremolo was back.

Matched Power Tubes

When I purchased the amplifier, the dates and makes of the tubes varied greatly. The schematic called for two 6AQ5 power tubes, but one was a much more recent 6005. Power tubes are supposed to be electrically matched, so that they have the same plate current and amplification characteristics. The performance of vacuum tubes can vary wildly, so matched tubes were allegedly manufactured at the same time and more rigorously tested to meet the same specifications. When I ordered replacements from Amplified Parts, they sent me a pair of matched new old stock 6AQ5 tubes that were manufactured together in France in 1963. It kind of blows my mind that there’s still parts for these amplifiers sitting in warehouses.

Does the amp sound better with the matched tubes? Maybe I’m just a auditory plebeian, but I can’t tell a difference.

With the three-strand cable, new filter capacitors and new tubes, the amp is playing well, and I imagine it should be able to handle another 50 years. However, if I get the chance to upgrade my testing equipment I’d like to take some measurement and see how far off the original values the other capacitors and various resistors have wandered.

I should also probably spend a little time working on my guitar skills, so they do justice to this amplifier.