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”.