Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Today`s Topic: Guitar Finishes

Everybody expects that when they purchase an instrument they should look great, but how do they do that?
Years ago, custom finishes were never heard of. Like Ford Motor Company President Henry Ford was quoted, “people can order cars in any color they would like, as long as it's black”.
Guitars were much like that. Not much choice in color or finishes.
Today things are much different. Not only because of desire by folks purchasing these instruments, but also because there were, and still are some brilliant minds experimenting with, and implementing their findings into mass manufacture.
Even straight laced, unwavering companies like Gibson have begun using new ideas for guitar finishes and wood combinations. Yes, you can still purchase a 'Black Beauty' that is pretty well the same guitar as it was since it's original inception, but though it looks the same, the finish is very different. I personally believe better than the original. Why?
Well, like so many other companies, Gibson has found when you combine what already was working with what is cutting edge technology, you tend to get something truly remarkable.
The old Gibson guitars were famous for crazing, especially in the back of the instrument. Though that sounds like a bad thing, it really wasn't. It really made the guitar more desirable. The new ones won't do that, only because technology has changed.
Fender, on the other hand, featured finishes that were straight up paint and lacquer. Fender colors in the 50's and 60's were pretty provocative for the times. Their guitars were the standard sunburst and the vintage and polar white, but they also featured a powder blue, surf green, candy apple red and a tri-color sunburst. Though their instruments were straight up lacquer, Fender finishes, like Gibson, only tended to look better as they aged. The antique white guitars that were painted in the 50's, are a beautiful honey hue now. Like they have been in smoke filled bars for years, when really, it's just normal fading of the paint. Again, something very desirable for collectors today.
Still, what Fender was using was the same basic paint an auto body shop would use to paint a car with. They didn't use a clear coat, so the paint would 'off gas' and eventually lighten in color and it's overall look.
Today, with the advent of nitro-cellulose, epoxy based finishes and improved lacquers, guitars can be painted in a multitude of colors and clear coats, and these finishes will outlast original finishes as they are unlikely to fade, craze, check or crack. Your Gibson 'Black Beauty', if purchased today, will probably look the same in 50 years from now, if maintained and looked after.
A new finish used by companies like Paul Reed Smith, Carvin and more recently, even Gibson, doesn't require painting the guitar at all.
What these folks are doing is 'dyeing' or lightly staining the finish of woods like maple, swamp ash, alder, koa, and a myriad of others. What this does is colors the wood, but also allows the beauty of the wood's grain to show through. They might do a straight up color, or a 'fade' finish, where the color goes from lighter in the center of the instrument, to darker on the outer edges of the instrument. This allows the builders to cover the fact the 'face' wood laminate of the instrument. The body might be mahogany, but the top is spalted maple. However, when blended properly, one would find it very hard to see where one wood is melded into the other. After this finish is applied to the instrument, it is clear coated, either by using an incredibly hard finish like nitro-cellulose, which dries very clear, almost 'water like' finish, or a straight up lacquer, which has been improved by technological advancements in quality, and ease of application. Other components, like ultra violet protection and blending with differing polymers, makes this a relatively hard finish as well.
Personally I have used  something similar to PRS on my own guitars. Two of them are hand stained using a blue stain on a swamp ash back and flamed maple top and on another model I used a red sunburst finish, and on the third a straight up sunburst on swamp ash. All three of these are nitro cellulose clear coated. On my walnut bodies that I received from my friend Keith Brommerich in California, I used 7 hand applied coats of tung oil, and on the other walnut body, two coats of hand applied polyurethane. Both of the walnut grains came alive with these finishes. Now these finishes are not as tough as the nitro cellulose models, but with an all natural, solid wood guitar, I believe it's more important to show the beauty and richness of the wood and it's grain. Had they been coated with a high gloss finish, I don't personally believe I would have achieved the look that I was looking for here.
If you are considering refinishing your instrument, there are so many options these days. One only has to go to the internet to see the options and finishes that are available. Keep in mind though, unless you have the proper tools, and you have a facility where you can do the 'prep' work, you might want to leave this to a professional. Also, keep in mind as well, that anytime you are sanding, priming, painting or clear coating an instrument, always use proper safety equipment. Use a proper OSHA mask, or a respirator. And always use safety glasses. Your health and safety is worth more than any guitar on the planet. Don't take short cuts.
Please be prepared to read, in depth instruction manuals on the subject of guitar finishing, or refinishing.
I personally recommend Guitar Finishing Step-By-Step (first and second editions) available from Stewart MacDonald, by Don MacRostie and Dan Erlewine
Don and Dan are probably the most experienced luthiers in the industry. They both have a wealth of knowledge, not just in guitar finishes, but everything you need to know about building and repairing instruments.
Though I barely scratched the surface on guitar finishes, I hope this gives you a better understanding of just what finish might be on your guitar, and why.

Thank you for reading!

Brett McNaueal

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