Guitar Refinishing

Guitar Refinishing

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.

116 Responses

  1. chris says:

    Sure, no problem.

  2. steve says:

    I’ve got a ’70s K+T, (Koontz, Mike not Sam, and John Thurston), solid flamed Mahogany body electric that has a number of fairly ugly dings/chips in the finish. I’ve read quite a lot about possible repair methods, but I’ve yet to come across a method for determining exactly, (or even ballpark), what kind of finish is on it on it in the first place. My assumption/educated guess is that it’s nitro, but since even in the ’70s there were many types of different clear finish material to work with, I’d hate to to make matters worse by working on an assumption, (‘when u assume, etc etc’). Is there a way to test the existing finish on this and other guitars not made by the big makers? Please don’t say ‘ask'; let’s assume they’ve gone under and are unavailable. Thanks for any advice, Steve

  3. chris says:

    Sure Steve there is a really easy way to test if it is nitro or poly. Find a super inconspicuous spot like the heel of the guitar or perhaps there is finish inside the pickup routs or in the control cavity. Take a Q-tip dipped in acetone or lacquer thinner or even fingernail polish remove (the strong kind with acetone in the ingredients), and rub a spot on the finish. If the finish seems to dull up a bit or if it gets tacky to the touch, it is nitro. If the finish seems unaffected by the solvent, it is poly.

  4. Randy McNinch says:

    I have a 58 Les Paul Special that is painted a red color…..It does not look bad but I don’t think it is original….I am thinking of selling it and am wondering what to do….Any ideas? RM

  5. chris says:

    That is always a conundrum. The guitar is certainly worth less (usually half the value) if it has been refinished, especially poorly. But, it may be more attractive to potential buyers if it is professionally restored. Unfortunately, you can’t really tell until you put it up for sale. A dealer is certainly going to give you a lot less for a refin and may not be interested at all if it has been refinished poorly.

  6. kevin says:

    any recomendations on doing a lacquer ontop of a poly finish? is it possible to just rough it up and paint over top of it?

  7. chris says:

    Yes it is absolutely possible. Fender guitars from 1963 and on have used a “Fullerplast” two part poly as a sealer, so those “nitro” finished vintage pieces actually have a poly sealer coat.

  8. pj says:

    hello I have a rhoads v I’d like to have redone in the black with white polka dot finish…how much does something like that cost???

  9. chris says:

    Pretty expensive. Look to spend about $1200 for us to do it, but it will be factory correct.

  10. Mike says:

    I’m taking the plunge and building an Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster. I’m purchasing a EC body that’s black. I want the same finish as EC’s custom ordered Custom Shop 1998 blue Strat. Clapton called it “Ice Blue” however it is a vastly different color than Fender’s Ice Blue. More like a Taos Turquoise. So, I have two questions. Can anyone tell me what the color is? Or should I just submit photos? Also, what level should I prep the EC body before sending off to be refinished? Strip the current paint completely and sand? Just sand the current finish? Never refinished a body before, but I have built guitars. This refinishing is all new to me. Thanks.

  11. chris says:

    The color is going to be hard to say. It looks pretty close to the Fender Ice Blue Metallic, but that guitar was a one off from the CS and apparently, they will only make one if EC says it is OK. You would need good photos to match it as close as possible. As far as stripping the body, that is a poly finish so you will need to sand it off. If you sand carefully, you should be able to get through the clear and color coats and just leave the sealer underneath. If you want to make sure it is all lacquer from top to bottom, you will need to sand all the way to the wood.

  12. adamv says:

    I have a raw unfinished prs carved top custom 22 body and neck I’d like done white with a gold top and headstock. But with a satin finish. The two have never been set just dry fit. What would that run me? And the neck has binding

  13. chris says:

    Should be around $125 to glue in the neck and make sure angle is correct and then about $850-900 to do the finish.

  14. chris says:

    It would be more cost effective to buy the trans red one in that model. Removing the poly, and refinishing the top in nitro would run around $550.

  15. Benny says:

    Is it necessary to remove existing paint before repainting Les Paul guitar body providing you sand the body?

  16. chris says:

    Well, yes and no. You can spray over the existing finish, but you may end up with too many coats of paint and that can cause adhesion/drying issues. When we refinish anything, we remove the paint down to the wood to make sure we are doing it properly. You could just shoot over a Les Paul with say a black finish and then scrape the bindings and clear coat it, but you may end up with 40 coats of paint on the guitar and that could be a problem. Like chris Rock said, “You can drive a car with your feet, but it don’t make it a good idea”.

Leave a Reply