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Dr. Mac: Rants & Raves

What Do You Do For Fun, Dr. Mac?
November 21st, 2003
Episode #6

I'm always being asked, "what do you do for fun?" Or, "what do you do to relax?"

"I paint," I say.

That leads to questions like, "What do you paint? Landscapes? Portraits? Or what?"

"Yeah. 'Or what' pretty much sums it up. I paint objects."

Which inevitably leads to the biggie: "What kind of objects?"

So, in a blatant attempt to answer it once and for all, here's the story. I paint Macintosh peripherals. It all started with a bunch of cheap rodents. I went down to Fry's one day and bought half a dozen PS 2 mice for US$3.99 each. They became my practice objects. Once I'd wrecked them all, I moved on to old Mac trackballs and mice that were lying around the office. That was all practice, though, building up to my most recent project -- applying a faux wood finish to my keyboard and trackball.

So here's how I did 'em, with tips and hints that should come in handy if any of you are crazy enough to want to paint objects made of acrylic, plastic, polycarbonate, or other materials you find Mac peripherals made of.

Let's start with the unpainted versions.

The keyboard looked like this
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

And the trackball looked like this
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Now, here's how the finished products look on my desk
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Close-up of the keyboard
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Close-up of the trackball
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

The pictures don't do them justice -- both items are as smooth as silk and look very much like wood with a high-gloss lacquer finish.

OK. Here's how the process works…

First, I disassembled both items.

TIP: Take pictures or notes when you take the item apart. Trust me, you'll be happy you did when you try to reassemble the item a week or two later.

I placed the guts of both in Ziploc bags and set them aside. Then I (wet) scuff-sanded both pieces with 600-grit sandpaper.

TIP: Scuffing the surfaces before painting makes the primer coat adhere better.

Then I painted both items with three medium-heavy coats of white primer, allowing 20 minutes between coats.

TIP: I didn't have to sand between coats because my airbrush applies paint extremely evenly. If you use canned spray paint or a brush it may help to sand lightly between coats.

By the way, I do all my painting in a corner of my garage I converted for that purpose.

Here's how it looks
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Here's a closer look
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

And, as long as I'm at it, here's a close-up of my favorite brush, a Badger 150
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

After allowing the pieces to dry overnight, I wet-sanded with 600, 1500, and finally 2000 grit, using each grade of paper until the surfaces were as smooth as glass.

TIP: Make sure the primer coat is PERFECTLY smooth before applying any real paint. You won't end up with a smooth finish if you don't start out with a smooth primer coat.

Once I was satisfied with the primer coat I downloaded pictures of wood grains that appealed to me and used them as a reference for cutting (and tearing) friskets (a.k.a. masks).

Here's what some of the masks looked like
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Now it was time to get down to the serious painting. I went to the local hobby shop and bought a variety of wood-colored enamel paints -- mostly made by Model Master, plus several smaller bottles of Testors brand paint in primary colors to mix with the browns to create additional hues.

I began with a base coat of very light tan, holding pieces of torn construction paper (like the orange sheets in the picture above) against the surface, using them as loose masks to simulate the grain.

TIP: Two or three light coats are better than one heavy coat. Use the appropriate thinner or reducer, if necessary, to insure that the paint flows freely through the airbrush. I like mine thinned to the viscosity of skim milk or 2%. If you try to use paint much thicker than that, you'll find the airbrush clogs up frequently and spatters your work. Not good. I figured all this out by trial and error -- I destroyed a dozen (or more) cheap mice and other plastic objects before getting the hang of it. The point is, you should do this before beginning work on any object you care about.

Once the base coat looked suitably wood-like, I began painting darker brown and rust tones. Some of this work was done freehand, but mostly I used detailed masks (the non-orange pieces in the photo above) held in place with a light coat of 3M Spray Mount Artist Adhesive, which is kind of like rubber cement spray.

TIP: Spray Mount is great stuff. Just make sure to let it dry almost completely or it will gum up the paint beneath it.

Then I used very small amounts of black paint to emphasize the pattern of the grain, again, doing some of the work freehand and the rest using masks. When it looked enough like wood, I wet sanded everything (very lightly, taking great care not to rub away too much paint), first with 1500 grit, then with 2000 grit sandpaper.

TIP: Always sand off any crud or irregular surfaces before you even think about applying the top coat(s). The painted surface needs to be as smooth as you can make it before you apply final finish. If you don't do this, it's unlikely you'll end up with a perfectly smooth finish.

Finally, when everything was smooth as a baby's bottom, I applied three coats of clear urethane finish, taking care to avoid getting dust or other crud on the surface while it was wet.

TIP: Urethane is nasty, carcinogenic stuff. Use a mask. If possible, use a two stage mask rated for paints and solvents, like this one:

TIP: Invert a large, clean Tupperware bowl over your work when you finish each coat. Don't peek until the paint has had several hours (or more) of drying time.

After applying the third coat I left the pieces under the Tupperware cover for 48 hours to insure the top coat was completely dry before I began polishing…

Once the top coat had hardened sufficiently I began polishing it using Micro-Mesh abrasive sheets from Micro-Surface Finishing Products. Since the final coat was relatively crud-free, I started with a 2400 grit sheet and then 3200, 3600, 4000, 6000, 8000, and finally, 12000. Once that phase was finished I polished everything using their Micro-Gloss Liquid Abrasive with very soft flannel cloths.

TIP: I've yet to find anything better for finishing and polishing than the sheets, pads, and liquid abrasives made by Micro-Surface. Their kits start at under US$15 and most include everything you'll need. You'll find them at

The final step was a liberal coat of wax -- Mothers California Gold Carnuba Cleaner Wax (which you can probably find at any good auto supply store). I applied it with a piece of old t-shirt, then let it dry to a haze, and finally, buffed it out with a soft flannel cloth. When I had removed almost all the wax I sprayed a fine mist of clear, cool water and buffed some more.

The results, though you can't tell from my crummy pictures, were spectacular.

Yeah, it took me a few tries before I felt confident enough to tackle the keyboard and trackball, but the results, I feel, were well worth it. I now have a one-of-a-kind keyboard and trackball on my desk, and they never fail to evoke comments -- mostly positive -- from visitors.

Next up: My Apple Cinema Display, and then, perhaps, my iPod.

So there you have it -- that's one of the things I do for fun and relaxation. (Two others are: Play my guitars and play poker. As you might guess, I like to play.)

Please feel free to drop me a note if you want to know more, or if you have any questions. I enjoy my unusual little hobby and will do my best to reply promptly and help you if I possibly can.

Have a great Thanksgiving; I'll be back in 2 weeks.

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit

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