Guitar refinishing is one of the most exciting things we do at our shop. It is also the most frustrating and time consuming work that we do. Many a day RD has been heard crying out for mercy trying to remove the finish from some vintage piece that an old Hippy repairman has re-finished with some kind of THC resin. Sometime we have to start all over because the gold flake from the last ’59 Gold-top reissue Les Paul touch up just looks too good, and we have to match the factory’s so-so work. All in all though, when you restore or refinish an old or misused guitar back to it’s original look (or the aged equivalent), it gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as the gratitude of a client who can truly appreciate it.
There are two basic types of guitar finish, nitrocellulose lacquer (AKA: nitro or lacquer), and Polyurethane or one if its equivalents (AKA: poly). Lacquer offers a softer layer of protection, but allows the wood to “breathe” more, while poly has a harder glossier finish, but many players feel it “shells” the sound of the wood, dampening tone and sustain. Nitro was and continues to be used on Martin and Gibson guitars since about the 1930s and on Fenders up until the late 1960s (Custom Shop and Reissues excepted). Many vintage guitars (Guild and Gretsch among them) have lacquer finishes, but have since moved to poly. Most modern instruments have poly or one of its variations as a finish.
Technological advances have made poly cheaper, quicker and more environmentally friendly than lacquer. Also, new techniques and advancements have allowed guitar makers to spray very thin coats of poly, overcoming the “sound dampening” effect while offering the protection of a urethane. Taylor, Larrivee and Paul Reed Smith guitars all offer non-nitro finishes and one strum can tell you that big leaps have been made in respect to poly’s tonal response over the last decade. Poly remains the most difficult finish to touch up. Short of refinishing parts of or all of an instrument, polyurethane damage is next to impossible to get to look “as good as new”. Which finish is right for you is your own personal choice.
When we begin the refinishing process, the first stage is the sanding stage. Poly or nitro requires the removal of the old finish, and the sanding of the existing surface. Often on opaque finishes, we remove the finish down to the old sanding sealer coat and re-sand the sealer coat. On translucent finishes, we remove all the finish, sealer coat included, and sand the wood. Any flaws in the sanding process will stick out like a soar thumb, so this is the most important step. Next, the sealer coat is applied to the wood and allowed to dry. If we’re doing a candy or metallic finish, the undercoat of metallic paint is applied. This stuff gets everywhere!!! We have a separate spray room for spraying metallic. Then the color coat is applied and allowed to dry. We wet sand the color coat and apply the next layers of color if it’s a sunburst. The clear coat is then applied and the instrument is wet sanded and buffed out to high gloss.
What takes a few sentences on paper can take many weeks in the spray booth.
Drying time is essential, especially with lacquer. Wet sanding is done between every dried coat and is very time consuming. The guitar still hasn’t even been reassembled and set up! Getting factory finish is very difficult for even an experienced tech. If you want a pro look, get it done by a pro. Many people have come in with guitars that “Cousin Wade” was going to refinish for them, only to get their axe back looking like a Junior High wood shop project. Refinishing is time consuming and expensive because of the high degree of experience that is required of the technician. Very few of the techs in our shop are allowed to do these repairs. It requires years of learning and experience to pull it off, but once it’s done, you will see and understand what all the fuss is about.