Introduction: Hand Painting a Guitar Pedal
Today I’m going to show you how you can prepare and paint an aluminium surface using acrylic paints. Even if you’re not painting a guitar pedal, this video will be useful if you want to paint on aluminium that hasn't been specifically treated for painting.
Aluminium guitar pedal enclosure
Fine grit sandpaper
Citrus brush cleaner
Deco art clear pouring topcoat (optional: use a Crystal Clear spray varnish instead)
Step 1: Cleaning and Priming the Enclosure
Because I’m new at pedal building, I decided to make things a little easier on myself by choosing a pre-drilled enclosure. If your enclosure needs to be drilled, you’ll want to do this before you start to paint.
The very first step is to sand the aluminium with some fine grit sandpaper, then to clean the surface to get rid of as much dirt and oil as you can. I wiped some citrus paint brush cleaner over the surface of my pedal, but you could use soapy water or any other suitable cleaner that you have available.
When you’ve cleaned the outside of the pedal, it’s a good idea to use some masking tape or washi tape on the inside of the pedal to cover the drilled out holes. This will help stop your paint and varnish from dripping inside the case.
When you’ve masked all the areas you need to, it’s time to prime the outside surface of the pedal. I’ve seen some people draw directly onto their pedals with paint pens, which can work ok, but you’ll get better paint adhesion if you prime the surface before you paint. I’ve also seen some people using specialised metal aerosol primer, which you can use if you want to, but I wanted to use what I already had, which was the standard type of gesso that you’d use to prime canvases and wood. I ended up painting about three coats of gesso onto the aluminium, letting each coat dry before applying the next one. If you want to, you can sand the gesso lightly between each coat to get a smoother surface.
Step 2: Sketching Your Image and Blocking Out Shapes
Leave your gesso to dry fully overnight before painting.
I normally paint with oils, but those take months to dry, so I used acrylics for this project because they’re durable and dry quickly, which is important with a pedal enclosure as they're made to be stood on.
I recommend mixing your own colours as it's less expensive and opens up a wider variety of options, so you can see that I put some neutral red, yellow and blue primaries out on my palette, along with titanium white and Payne’s grey, which is a dark blue/grey colour that I used in place of black. I use a palette knife to mix everything I need from these colours, and occasionally use my brush to mix small amounts of colour.
To sketch out the basic shape of my painting, I used a coloured pencil. It’s better to use coloured pencils rather than greylead pencils for this, as the pigments in greylead pencils can bleed through the paint. If you choose a coloured pencil similar to the colours you’re painting with, it will blend in really well without bleeding through.
After sketching out my heron, I used some base colours to block in the main shapes.
Step 3: Adding Detail to Your Painting
I painted wet into wet for this image, mixing colours on my palette then blending them further on the image as I painted. I used a reference photo that I took a few years ago for this image, and I recommend doing that if you're not painting an abstract design.
I used three main brushes to paint my image. Large areas of colour and feather shading were painted with two flat square brushes. The two I used for this project were an Isabey size 14 Mangou brush and a smaller Raphael Kevrin brush in size 8; both are made from stiff but soft synthetic fibres designed to mimic mongoose hair.
For the fine detail line work and lettering I used a very small round brush; mine is a Raphael Kaerell round synthetic brush in size 0.
The best method and most efficient method I find for painting like this is to start with your larger brushes and move down in size as you add more and more detail. If you'd like to see my painting process in detail, be sure to watch the video.
Step 4: Masking Off Shapes and Using Other Guides
If you want to paint stripes or sharp lines, use some low tack masking or washi tape to mask off areas then paint over the top and remove the tape carefully before the paint dries. Be sure to only apply the tape over other areas of paint when those areas are dry to the touch.
If you want to paint other shapes, such as circles, you can put a small coin or other item down and trace around it with a coloured pencil before filling the area in with paint.
Step 5: Varnishing Your Painting
Leave your painting in a warm, dry spot for at least three days before applying your varnish.
Acrylic paint feels dry to the touch within about half an hour, but it can take around three days for it to dry all the way through. If you varnish your painting before it’s completely dry, you run the risk of trapping moisture inside, which could cause problems in the long run.
I would normally use a spray varnish like crystal clear to varnish my pedal, but because we were still in pandemic lockdown when I made this, I chose to paint on a varnish with a brush, as getting aerosols delivered is really tricky and expensive.
I went with a heavy duty acrylic resin varnish that’s actually made for pouring and isn’t particularly suitable for using with a brush, but I just used a few coats and tried to apply it as carefully as I could. Whatever varnish you choose, apply a couple of coats, leaving it to dry in-between.
It can be useful to prop your enclosure up on something while you varnish it so that you can coat the sides easily without it touching your table and without you needing to touch the outside of the enclosure to move it around.
Step 6: Finishing Touches
When the varnish is dry, you can remove the masking tape from the inside of your enclosure. If you need to tidy up around the holes, you can use a sharp scalpel to carefully cut away any extra paint and varnish. Your enclosure is now ready and waiting for its electronics!
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originally posted 3rd July, reformatted as a blog post 1st Jan 2018
IMPORTANT EDIT 4th Jan 2018!!!
TLDR? scroll to the bottom!
Preparing your enclosure
Obviously it’s better to paint your enclosure after it’s been drilled, so do that first. Next you’ll want to use 1500 grit (wet or dry) to get the enclosure ready for the primer. I always use a wee bit of water It stops aluminium dust getting kicked up into the air PLUS I’ve found that bare enclosures have a wax like reaction to water. The water starts to bead up. After a gentle sanding you’ll find that this no longer happens, that’s the sweet spot. I love the look and texture of unfinished enclosures, and I try to maintain that in my pedals. Feel free to sand your enclosure with ever finer grits (start much lower than 1500, early hundreds should suffice, and finish between 1500 and 2000) if you want a shinier finish.
Next you’ll need to give the bare enclosure a good clean with warm soapy water, rinse well, and give your workbench a clean too.
Primer is hugely important, and it’s a step I didn’t fully appreciate or understand early on. I use this,
and it works a treat. The posca paint adheres to it really well, and applying a second coat or wee touch ups is much, much easier. The paint won’t flake or rub off.
You only need a few coats (I usually do 3 or 4 depending on spraying conditions and how well the enclosures react). If you spray too much or not evenly enough you’ll get dull grey patches where the spray has pooled. When the enclosure is starting to look a ‘healthy’ kind of dull, you’ve done enough. Be sure to pay attention to the sides of the enclosure too.
Hand painting the enclosures
I’ve only used the posca paint markers so far, but I find them easy to use, I love the colour selection and the results are spot on. I recently bought some Winsor and Newton acrylics and brushes. I’ll post findings when I try them.
Krylon as colour protection
I’ve applied the Duplicolor clear coat directly to the artwork, and found that whilst the clear coat was nice and strong, it sometimes hasn’t preserved the colours as well as I’d hoped, especially for blocks of colour, and even more so for black. See below.
It’s not a huge problem and it has a charm of its own, but I generally prefer adding this extra step to add a touch more quality.
Final clear coat
For the final clear coat, I have been using these two (early – mid 2017).
I also go the matte finish for this one
The Acrylic Enamel clearcoat comes in matte and gloss, both had worked well, though the Gloss Clear with ceramic produces a thicker more consistent finish, which felt a bit more professional and tougher looking.
Having just checked the limited run of Big Muffs I’m about to box up, I’ve noticed that there are some very fine cracks across the top. I was pretty gutted. I remember when I was spraying them that I had a bad feeling about them. The spray didn’t seem to be taking to them well. There are three reasons I can think why this might have happened.
- It was a bad batch of spray cans (other pedals done with the same acrylic enamel haven’t cracked).
- I didn’t shake the cans for long enough.
- There was some issue with drying times for the Krylon coat. Too short perhaps?
- Temperature/ humidity. These were sprayed in warmer conditions, it’s winter now and it’s pretty dry too. I wonder whether this combined with one or more of the other reasons is underlying cause.
Luckily in the last batch I did (October 2017) I only used the ceramic, and though there were a few minor issues with a couple of areas of the black posca paint they are looking absolutely fantastic! The reaction with the black paint might have been for a couple of reasons, and I won’t know until I experiment further, but I suspect I didn’t leave long enough between painting and the coat of Krylon and the final clear coat. I think the thickness of the paint might also have been an issue. In the places where I had doubled up (especially text) everything looks spot on. I should also mention that I did 32 pedals in the last batch, they all have a great glasslike finish, and they’re all looking better than any of my previous attempts, but I think there’s still room for improvement. When weather conditions improve and I can get out and spray again (each spray has a an optimum spraying temperature and humidity range), I’m going to try a few things. Firstly, I’m going to try some acrylic lacquer, and secondly, I’m going to try cutting out the Krylon coat. I’ll post my findings in March or Aprilish, depending on the weather.
Anyway, here’s how I currently prepare, paint and finishing Champion Leccy pedals…
- After drilling, use 1500 grit wet or dry paper to gently sand down the enclosure.
- Give the enclosure a thorough clean with warm soapy water
- Dry thoroughly, and wipe clean with paper towels
- Stick the enclosure in a spray box
- Apply Duplicolor adhesion promoter primer in 3 or more coats, first two coats light, third and fourth (etc.) a little more comprehensive, wait three minutes between coats. If you spray too much or not evenly enough you’ll get dull grey patches. When the enclosure is starting to look a ‘healthy’ kind of dull, you’ve done enough
- Leave enclosure to dry for a couple of days.
- Do the artwork with posca pens, leave for a couple of days to dry.
- Apply a couple of coats of matte Krylon to maintain the integrity of the colours. Leave it to dry in a warm, dry place, covered for a week (longer if possible).
- Apply Duplicolor gloss clear ceramic in 5 or 6 coats, first two coats thin, slowly applying slightly thicker coats as you go. Each coat ten minutes apart. Don’t exceed 1 hour total spray time.
- Place box of pedals in a warm dry place out of direct sunlight and leave to dry for at least a week. you’ll find it takes much longer than that for the smell to go away though.
Don’t forget to give all the sprays a good shake before use (at least 2 mins), and a smaller shake in between coats. Remember to read the instructions on the can carefully. Spray in a well ventilated area, away from direct sunlight.
I do pedals in batches of about 5 depending on size
Primer – one can is good for one batch.
Krylon – one can is good for one batch.
Duplicolor clear coat – two cans should be plenty, remember don’t overspray otherwise you’ll get gloopy sags.
Enclosure art: how to make good looking DIY pedals
Here are a few techniques to make guitar enclosures pretty! You can of course combine these techniques to get the best looking pedal possible!
I will present you a lot of techniques, from the most basic ones to the most professional looking ones.
1. Bare aluminum enclosureIt is the simplest way to do: just let the enclosure in bare aluminum.
Please don't do that.
| Pros|| Cons|
2. Polished / Brushed aluminum enclosureThis already look waaaaay better than the bare aluminum enclosure, and good news: it only take a few minutes to do!
Here is an example of a Big Muff I have made this way:
Just grab some sandpaper (I recommend to use different grit, 150 for the beginning and 400 for final polishing), and start polishing your enclosure under running water. Finally, apply a varnish layer to protect it!
If you want to go for the "mirror finish", be prepared to spend some time on it. Use really fine grit sandpaper and a polishing spray for the last Polish. Here is a good tutorial
Beware: I noticed that the maximum quality of the polishing that you can get highly depends on the quality of the aluminum used. For instance, a "mirror" finish can be really difficult to achieve with low grade aluminum.
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3. Spray painting
I would not recommend spray painting guitar pedals enclosures. Read my post about it for more detail.
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4. Hammertone finishThis is a special kind of spray painting that will give an amazing vintage feel to your pedals. You can create really beautiful textures with this kind of paint and it also does not wear off as easily as spray paint.
Here is an amazing example done by Basic Audio:
Here is a very good step by step tutorialabout how to use it.
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5. Powder coating
Powder coat is the kind of paint used on cars, and the one used on most guitar pedals as well. It looks very professional and there is a wide variety of colors available.
Here is an example of a commercially powder-coated enclosure:
You can either buy pre-painted enclosures, or make it yourself. Making it yourself would require some space and equipment, but it is not that hard.
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6. Aluminum etchingAluminum etching is an easy way to have a custom design without spending too much time and money. It requires a bit of practice though.
Here is a beautiful example:
You can find a nice tutorial here. It is not an easy technique to master (requires a bit of practice before managing to have a precise etch), but it can give really good results. Moreover, you get a fully custom design with anything you want on it.
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7. Reverse etchingIt is very similar to the technique above, except that the etching is reversed, so the non-engraved parts sticks out of the paint that you can apply afterwards.
I tried this technique once on one of my first pedals (+spray painting):
Cody of "They Remained Silent" is an absolute expert with this technique and has written up a really good tutorial about it. LIke etching, it can be a bit long before your perfectly master this technique, but it really worth it.
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8. DecalDecals are a good way to have a fully personalized design.
If you are good with Photoshop or Illustrator, you can make your own design on your computer and use it for your guitar pedals. Print it on a decal paper, then apply it on your guitar pedals. You can use prepainting guitar pedals as well.
However, this technique is quite hard to master and to have good results. Most of the times, you will need to apply varnish layers. You can use Envirotex for a professional look,
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9. Laser engravingSome folks use a laser etching maching to remove the paint and engraved their design.
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10. Laser etched plateMore and more common on commercial effects these days. All the Greer amps pedals are made this way for instance.
In France, Anasounds makes its pedals with a similar process, on wooden plates, they look great!
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This technique is used by many professional pedal builders. It looks great and you can make hundred of enclosures in a few hours. Walrus used it for their pedals for instance:
It consists of a fine mesh that will let a special acrylic paint goes through only in specific parts of it (like a pochoir). With a râteau, you can pass the paint over this mesh on a powder coated enclosure, and directly print your graphics on the enclosure. Here is a video of how it is done:
It is a great technique if you have many many similar pedals to make in a row
Making this mesh is quite a complicated process involving projecting UV light on a light sensitive plate, but fortunately, you can order these meshes to specific suppliers. Applying the paint is quite a messy process, which requires both space and practice.
Once the technique mastered, you can make lots of pedals very quickly. The graphics will be very precisely printed on the pedal, and will last for a very long time. It looks really professional. However, the only problem with silkscreening is that you can only print one color at a time. You have to make one mesh per color and it can become quite time consuming if you want to use more than 3 colors... So adapt your graphics!
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12. UV printingThe nice part about UV printing is that you can print litteraly anything you like on your enclosures :)
This is the technique I use for my commercial projects like the Dolmen Fuzz or Montagne Tremolo:
UV printing machine are highly expensive, however it is possible possible to lease it. That is what is done by many professional like Kelley Electronics. A solution easily accessible to hobbyist is to use Pedal Parts Plus services.
They can UV printing pedals for a reasonable price. However they are based in the US so you can unfortunately expect some shipping delays and customs issues... Anyway the people there are great and really helpful so I highly recommend it.
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There you go! I hope that you liked this post! Show me your best guitar pedal and let's share our ideas on the Coda Effects Facebookpage. You can also follow Coda Effects on Instagram.
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.How To Add Labels and Graphics to Pedal Enclosures - DIY Stomp Box Tutorials by StompBoxParts.com
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