How to Apply A Decal To A Guitar Headstock

Guitars are often emblazoned with decals. The manufacturer will usually place one bearing its logo on the headstock and this is often the easiest way to identify the guitar. Some people like to refurbish old instruments and some like to customize the ones they have.

If you need to re-apply a manufacturers logo to your guitar during a refurbishment, or if you are the type who likes a custom look, there is no need to keep asking other people to apply a guitar decal for you.

This post is especially for those who want to learn how to apply their own decals. If you are new to this and unsure of how to do it properly, then this is for you. 

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to properly apply a decal to your guitar headstock.

Please make sure to read each step carefully to avoid any damage to your decal or even your guitar. We even advise that you practice on a project instrument or spare piece of wood first.

Custom FenderBass GuitarWith Headstock Decal

Fender Bass Guitar With Custom Headstock

Steps to Apply a Guitar Headstock Decal

1. Remove or mask-off the nut

Pick out the neck you want to use to apply your guitar decal on. The first thing you want to do is to remove the nut or cover it with tape to protect it.

This is to make sure that your decal application will be as clean as possible.

You can remove it by using your hands or a pair of pliers, or cover it with some electrical or masking tape.

There are times though that the manufacturers make it difficult to remove it, so if it comes to that, just let it be and cover it with tape instead.

2. Wrap the neck of your guitar properly

Find a piece of white wrapping paper and some masking or electrical tape. Wrap the neck of the guitar and make sure that only the headstock is visible.

Use the tape to hold the wrapper together. In fact, wrap the tape around the neck in strategic places (like near the top, in the middle and at the bottom) so that the paper won’t come loose.

3. Cutting your guitar decal

Use a sharp pair of scissors for this part. Make sure to cut around the decal and check if it’s neat enough.

It must not have any sharp edges as it will be placed near the bottom edge of your headstock.

Try to cut it close the bottom and top letters of the decal as much as you can but not too close that you might damage the logo or lettering.

4. Soak the decals in warm water

Once you have cut your decals into smooth shapes, get a bowl of warm water and soak them in it.

You will find that once they hit the water they start to curl up, so just straighten them up slightly and put them back in the water.

Wait for about 4-5 minutes. If you get them out sooner than that, the adhesive at the back will dry out and the decals will have an opaque color.

That amount of time is just enough to remove those adhesives to make them look nice and clear on your headstock later on.

5. Applying the decals on your headstock

Once 4-5 minutes are up, it’s time to apply your guitar decals.

First, use some of the warm water and apply a bit of it on your headstock. Make sure it’s nice and damp so that your decals will slide a bit easier on it.

Once that’s done, get your decals. Be very careful with this process as they are quite delicate and can tear easily.

Find the right spot and put your decal on it, then slide off the decal backing paper. Do the same for the counter body decal.

Use your thumb to check the sides to ensure they are in the right place.

Push them gently back with your thumb if they go over the border of your headstock.

You can move them gently if you feel they are still not in the right spot, the water on your headstock should make it easier to slide them around.

Only stop if you’re perfectly satisfied with their placement.

6. Use paper towels to dry the decal

When you’re finished finding the right spot for your decals, get a paper towel and put it over the headstock.

Press lightly and let it absorb the water that was on your headstock.

Once your headstock is dry enough, place the paper towel on top of your decals.

Be a bit firm when wiping out the water so that they will slowly start to stick. However, you can still move them around if needed to get them back to the right spot. Be careful, as they won’t slide around as easily this time.

Once done, check for any air bubbles.

Use a bright light or flashlight light and you can see if there are any small bubbles underneath the decal.

If there are bubbles, use the paper towel to press on them gently. Squeeze the bubble out to the edge of the decal to remove it.

Removing the bubbles will help the decals look perfect and stick better.

Repeat as needed.

Once you have confirmed that they are now nice and smooth, you can leave it overnight to dry fully.

Bass guitar headstock with a custom decal

7. Using Nitrocellulose Lacquer

After leaving the neck overnight, check if the headstock is fully dry. Try to find a Nitrocellulose Lacquer that has a clear gloss color.

Although guitars are mostly coated with polyurethane these days, there is usually no problem using Nitrocellulose on it. It is easier to use and Nitrocellulose was used on all old guitars before the poly lacquers were developed.

However, check that the lacquer is not going to damage the guitar beforehand by spraying a small amount at the back near the bottom of the neck. It’s always good to be careful.

Now, when you have confirmed that there are no issues, please remember that this stuff can be toxic. So when you’re going to use it, please use a mask and open all windows, or use it outdoors.

Begin by spraying about 3-4 light coats on the headstock. To make it sure you don’t overspray, start at a part of the neck that is covered in paper and then move it up to the headstock.

Every coat dries in about 40 minutes, so once you’re done with the first coat, wait for it to dry and then come back to put in the next coat.

Repeat until you have 3 or 4 coats all in all. Then leave it again overnight to fully dry out.

8. Sanding the Headstock

Once you’re done leaving it overnight, make sure you have some Wet and Dry 2000 grit (ultra-fine) sandpaper, paper towels and warm water mixed with a little bit of dishwashing soap ready.

You will notice that the color of your decals may be a bit opaque and has some bumps on it.

What we’re going to do is sand it down using the sandpaper. Don’t go too crazy with it though as it may damage it. Just get a little bit of sandpaper and put some warm water on your headstock.

Then sand your decals down gently but put some pressure on it as well. Make sure you put on some warm water every now and then on your sandpaper to ensure it will not be damaged.

Try to find the bumps on your decals using your fingers and reduce them with the sandpaper as much as possible.

Don’t push it too hard, it’s fine if you leave the outline visible as if you try and remove it, you will damage your decals in the process.

Once that’s done, wipe it with the paper towel and then you’re gonna provide another 3 coats of Nitrocellulose Lacquer. Do it the way like you did before and once again leave it overnight.

Repeat again the sanding process the next day, do this until you can barely feel any bumps or until the opaque color can no longer be seen.

Be careful of sanding the edges of the headstock as this may remove the lacquer.

Put another 3 to 4 coats of lacquer onto the headstock and finally finish it off the next day with the final sanding.

Congratulations! You have now completed the process of applying your guitar decals to your headstock.

I hope you found this useful and that you followed the instructions carefully.

You can always come back if you need to refresh yourself on what needs to be done if you’re going to attempt another guitar decals application.

To conclude, here is the entire process explained in great detail by an absolute expert on the subject.

We recommend that you watch this video and also read the transcription below before attempting your own headstock decal.

Tips on How To Apply A Waterslide Headstock Decal

Video transcription:

Hey Guys, Jeff from Starr Guitar Works back here with a quick demonstration of how I apply waterslide decals.

I just started manufacturing these reproduction decals for people that are doing restorations, or I hate to say it, but if you do want to modify a Squire guitar by removing the squire logo and applying one of these waterslide decals, you could certainly use it for that method if you’d like.

Or if you’re doing a custom build where you have like a Warmoth guitar neck, you might want to actually be able to use the actual Fender logo or whatever logo of the manufacturer that you’re trying to replicate.

So real quick, what I’ve got here is, that I’ve got the decal that I printed. My custom print. I also sell these on eBay.

This is the decal that’s already been printed and coated with nitro (nitrocellulose). So it’s coated with nitro just to protect the ink, and then obviously once it’s applied to the guitar hopefully you’re applying nitro or some other type of clear coat over top of it and it will blend in really well and look fantastic.

So this is how it starts out. So we’ll take this out of here, and this is what I’ve done is that I’ve taken just a small pair of scissors here and I’ve cut as close as I can to the shape of the decal.

This is important because when you actually apply it to the headstock and clear coat over top of it,  you don’t want a big block of the clear waterslide decal paper showing.

If you put enough coats of clear lacquer on top of it and then sand it smooth it won’t really matter what size the decal is, but I think it’s best to trim it close like I’ve done here.

So the next step in this process, once we’ve got that cut to size, is to take a bowl of lukewarm water and see that’s kind of that’s going to coil up in there. That’s completely natural and you’re going to have to let it sit in there for, you know, I don’t know, maybe 30 seconds at least. I think the longer the better.

The reason I say that is is that as you remove it from the backing paper you want it to come off smoothly. If it’s not completely saturated then you’ll have some difficulty removing it from the backing paper.

And then the one thing that I do on my headstocks before I actually apply the decal is you know I’ll take some water just on my hands here and then the area that I’m going to apply the decal I’ll put some water down.

And the reason that I do this is is that as you’re positioning the decal, you want to be able to slide around. If you don’t do this step you’re going to have some difficulty because once you actually apply the decal to the headstock, if you’re only relying on the water that’s on the decal probably once you put it in place it’s going to stick there and you’re going to have difficulty moving it.

So, if you don’t get the position right you’re kind of screwed, whereas if you put some water down like this you know you can be fairly liberal. Don’t put a lot down and I don’t recommend doing this with a bare headstock. If you do this with a bare headstock you’re going to raise the grain in the wood.

Ideally, if you are applying a waterslide decal to a headstock that you sanded down smooth to bare wood it’s ideal to put at least a couple light coats of clear lacquer, whatever clear you’re using if it’s nitrocellulose or poly or whatever.  Ideally, you’re going to want to put, like I said, a couple coats down first.

That’s going to be the best method because the clear can actually tint the wood a little bit, and so if you apply the decal to the dry wood you might be able to see where the decal is, because once you start putting clear on top of that you’ve essentially covered up the bare wood with the decal and then the clear starts going on. If there is any color change you’ll see the outline of the decal.

It won’t be hugely noticeable, but if you want the best finish I recommend putting a couple coats of clear before you apply the decal to a bare headstock.

I might be able to do this with one hand because this is fairly saturated. Yeah, so you can see it’s sliding off quite well because I have a decent amount of water down there. I can pretty much now position this wherever I want and so I’m going to position this in a place where you can see the wood behind it really well.

And then the last step here once you get this installed is that you’re going to want to take some sort of cloth and gently come in here and kind of tap the residual water, and just get that out of there. It’ll help it dry quicker and adhere better.

We’re pretty much set there. So this is the decal installed and I’m just drying off some of this water here around it and we’ll get a closer look at it. As you can see, because this is clear coated you don’t lose any of the ink off the decal and obviously you can see right down through the through to the grain in the wood.

So if you back out here, that’s kind of what your finished product is going to look like.  Actually better if you apply multiple coats of clear, and I always do very light coats so it’s better to do 12 light coats than two super thick coats.

If you do light coats of the clear nitro on top that’s what you want to do is you want to build up the level of nitro to where you can sand it smooth, because as you as you know because the decal paper is very thin, but you’ll still see a rise in the clear as you as you start adding coats of clear.

What you want to do is you want to add enough coats of clear to where you’ll be able to come back with like varying grits paper you know 1500 – 2500 and sand everything smooth on the headstock.

And when you do that after you build up enough clear it’ll essentially look like the logo is kind of like floating in glass. I mean that’s that’s how you’re going to get the best result.

Back in the day, Fender on some guitars just put the decal on and left it like that and some of the reissues of the telecasters, that’s how they still build them is that they just put the waterslide decal on, they don’t put any clear on top of it so it’s really up to you how far do you want to go.

If you want to just put a light mist coat of clear over the top of the decal once it’s on there that’s fine. If you want to do like I said, and I recommend, is you know, put multiple thin coats on until you build it up to where you can sand everything smooth and you don’t see any raising where the decal was applied, you know, it’s really up to you.

However you want to, you know, apply it what materials you want to use, I recommend nitrocellulose.

If you go to Home Depot and buy the Minwax lacquer in the spray can and it’s by all the wood stains at Home Depot, that is real nitrocellulose lacquer. It’s really easy to work with especially if you apply thin coats and it gets great results.

So we’re dry here, I can tap this you know I mean it might be, you know, still a little bit wet but I would also recommend enclosing that before you start spraying clear coat, that you allow this to dry I would say at least for, you know, half an hour.

It doesn’t hurt, you know, to take your time when you’re doing these projects.

You know that’s one thing that I always say, you know, is take your time. Go slow. You know the whole process can take 15 steps, but you want to take all those extra steps because if you do that the end products going to look really good.

So, I just wanted to show you a demonstration of actually what it looks like once one of these are applied and if you happen to be buying one of these off of eBay from me, or if you bought your own, whatever. That it’s a fairly simple process.

The results can be really good and like I said, just take your time and I think you’ll be happy with the results.

So if you have any questions or comments feel free to post them below and subscribe because I got more videos coming your way. Take it easy we’ll talk to you later.

Step-by-step Guide to Applying a GuitarHeadstock Decal


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