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
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
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
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
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
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
I personally recommend Guitar
Finishing Step-By-Step (first and second editions) available
from Stewart MacDonald, by Don MacRostie and Dan
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!