How to Make a Guitar Look Like New Again

The Touchup

At least once a week a client comes in with a guitar that has a scratch, dent, small ding or giant gouge in the body of his guitar. Inevitably, he asks the question…

“Can you guys make this look new again?”

I shuffle my feet, trying to explain how difficult and time consuming it is. “How long would it take?”

I exhale loudly and ask, “Do you have a back up guitar?”

“How much will this cost?”

My answer, as always is, “How much is it worth to you?” These questions are not always easy to answer. Guitar finish and touch up are two of the hardest repairs that any tech can do. Even if that tech is a master, it can be time consuming, costly and may not always turn out perfectly. Most people are shocked to hear how much a finish touch up can cost. “It’s only a little chip in the finish!” they say. If you take your car into a body shop to get finish damage taken out, they will mask off the rest of the car and totally refinish the panel that has the damage done to it. We don’t often have the luxury of refinishing an entire guitar to remove dings and dents from a small portion, so touching up the damage is in order.

There are traditionally two different kinds of guitar finish, nitro-cellulose lacquer (AKA: nitro) and polyurethane (AKA: poly). Both have their pluses and minuses and there are several variations on the two finishes. Nitro is the softer of the two finishes but tends to let the wood “breathe” more, while poly is harder and more durable, but many players feel it “shells” the sound, dampening resonance and sustain. Martin and Gibson have used nitro since the 1930s and Fender guitars had lacquer finishes up until the late 1960’s. Most modern instruments, with the exception of the affor mentioned Martin and Gibson, (as well as some high-end boutique guitars), use poly or some variation of a urethane finish. Modern technologies have allowed companies like Taylor, Larrivee and Paul Reed Smith to use very thin coats of polyurethane to help alleviate some of the tonal problems associated with poly, while giving the hard protection that lacquer cannot. One strum on any of these guitars will tell you how far finishing has come.

Every repairman prefers touch up and refinishing with lacquer. It will chemically “redissolve” with old finishes, making touch up easier and sometimes flat out perfect. If there are scratches or dents, often they can be touched up by “drop filling” with lacquer. The drop fill must sit for 24 hours to let it dry before a second fill is done. The lacquer will have a tendency to “sink” into the existing blemish or surrounding finish, so several drop fills are generally required. This can be a long process. When the dent is successfully filled, we spray a thin layer of lacquer over the area, and let it dry. Then the area is wet sanded with fine grit sand paper and buffed out on our stationary arbor buffer. Often, we can make a blemish or crack virtually disappear. We don’t generally recommend touch up on vintage pieces, as it will affect the value of the instrument. Only in extreme or unusual circumstances, or if the “Vintage Value” of the instrument has already been affected, will we recommend any touch up on these instruments. Of course, we always do what the customer wants; it’s not our guitar after all!

POLYURETHANE: Poly presents another beast. Poly doesn’t let other finishes “melt” into it. We can tackle touch ups with poly in a few ways. How well a repair goes is often determined by color, texture and location. It’s easier to touch up an inconspicuous spot than a ding right on the top of a poly sunburst Strat! Generally, the area is stained with a color match aniline dye or simply drop filled with Crazy Glue (yes simple Crazy Glue). The area is then wet sanded and buffed out. This is the simplest form of touch up for poly. If a customer wants to pay more, we can drop fill, then spray a coat of color-matched poly or acrylic lacquer over the area. This presents the problem of creating a “ghost line” where new and old paints meet. We have been experimenting with different ways of blending these lines and have had very promising results using a process that we have to keep under wraps. The poly color touchups we’ve done lately have been coming out tremendously well and I think it’s just another way we can keep a hand up on the competition.Whether poly or lacquer, deciding whether or not to have your instrument restored is a personal choice. Only you can place a value on your guitar. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and after all, as one of my customers once said, “Chris, it’s not you up there in the spotlight”.

60 Responses

  1. chris says:

    Yes, the Crystalac is pretty good finish but you can’t really use a color to tone it, it has to go on clear. You should dye it to the color you like and then finish over it. Make sure to realize the color on the guitar may look a little different after the clear goes on. You could try using a cherry grain filler, that is what usually goes on the cherry red finish. We use CA a lot to do touch up on clear finishes and believe it or not you can thin it down with acetone and spray it, though again, most dyes don’t break down well in it. I’s best to go grain filler, dye and then clear on that one I think…

  2. Charlie says:

    Hi,
    I have a K Yairi acoustic guitar that the top finish is damaged (not the woods) and fixed unprofessionally by previous owner it leaves ghost lines around the fixed spots so it looks very ugly. So I think it needs to be refinish (the top only). I am not quite sure it is Nitro or Poly finish. How much do you charge for this repair and how long it would take?

    Sincerely,

    Charlie

  3. chris says:

    Charlie,
    I believe most of those guitars are poly. We can refinish the top of the guitar on that. Sometimes it is the only way to really make chips and bangs go away completely. Refinishing the top on an acoustic guitar is a little more expensive because you do have to remove the bridge and pickguard (and sometimes the neck) to make it look great. With having to take the extra step of removing the poly on the top by hand, and the disassembly/reassembly, look to spend about $550. Turn around on any refinish project runs minimum 90-120 days.

  4. Steve says:

    Hey I’m looking to refinish part of my les paul but only half the finish on top needs repair plus a medium chip hole on the top of the finish in the center of the bottom top of the guitar.Ive got the chip hole stained with oilbased stain but the rest of the bottom has been scoured with steelwool and is cloudy thats where im running into this problem on how to save my les paul.Also there is some blushing around the chip hole which is all the way to the wood.Can you help me?Steve.

  5. John says:

    Question I just got in a BC Rich warlock bass but some one attached a skull with two screws into it, the site I bought it from removed the skull and just left the two holes?

    What is the best way to fix the two holes or to fill them in? the guitar is black in color.

  6. chris says:

    That depends on how you want the guitar to look. If you just want to make sure the holes are filled in, I would fill them with some dowel rod and just use a sharpie! If you want them to look as good as possible, we would need to fill the holes with wood and then touch up the area with an airbrush. Now these sort of things never really go away because the wood shrinks back at different rates and you will always see the holes in the right light, but we can usually make it a lot better.

  7. Wain Ashley says:

    To Whom it may concern: I have a Heritage H170CM that was without blemish; unfortunately a stoner got hold of it and looks like he played it with an ice pick and hammer. My question is: when you drop fill with lacquer, do you first buff out the scratches or will they fill in when you do the final over coat once the dinks have been filled in. Thank you for your response,
    Wain

  8. chris says:

    That is an excellent question! We would generally leave the scratches until the final coats go on. Nitrocellulose lacquer amalgamates with the old lacquer and “melts in”. Those surface scratches usually go away with over-coating. If they are really deep, we may use a reducer to soften up the original finish a bit, it really varies from piece to piece.

  9. Jeff says:

    I just purchased a left handed Gibson Les Paul Traditional in Cherry Burst. The top is amazing, most poeple say it exceeds what you’d find on a Standard. When I took delivery from the store, there was a small dent, about the size of a pencil eraser, on the back, very close if not almost touching the rounded edge. It doesn’t appear the wood was touched, just the finish. The store said they would use a ‘finish pen’ while not making any guarantee or assurance. I learned that ‘finish pens’ are for novices so I said no. Without a picture or more detail, do you have any suggestions or ideas for this? A few people have mentioned just playing it and to expect more dents as time goes by but I intend to put the guitar away as an investment while playing (and beating up) others that I use.

  10. chris says:

    Jeff,
    It really depends on how badly it bothers you. I think that there is some truth in the idea that you are probably just going to bang it up anyway, especially if you plan to play it with regularity. However, I also understand that you weren’t the one who banged it up and it is brand new. There is something about having a new guitar being in perfect condition when you open the box! If it really eats at you, you will need to have it touched up by a professional guitar tech who has lots of experience in doing these sorts of repairs. A lot of folks do use the paint pens but those really are for just trying to cover up some of the damage. If it is to be made as close to like new, you will need someone who can use spray equipment. The problem is, people like that (like us) are usually backed up when it comes to doing that kind of work. You are in demand so you have too many guitars to fix, and it is nitrocellulose lacquer, which can take forever to dry, especially when you are doing drop filling. I would tell you we would need the guitar for minimum of 6 weeks and it would probably cost around $150. Sorry you got the bang!

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