Luthier Tips du Jour – Electric Guitar Finish


There are many types of
finishes for electric guitars. One of my favorites is using color coats
over highly figured pieces of wood. The color helps accentuate the figured grain
and really makes for an impressive finish. Let me show you how I do this. To make the guitar go from this
… to this, takes a lot of work. I started by masking off the sides but left
a portion of the quilted maple top visible so that it looked like bindings. I did the peghead the same way. I then used black leather dye to paint
the entire quilted maple guitar top. On the peghead I sealed the inlay and then
painted the maple veneer black as well. After the dye had dried I used 220 grit
sandpaper to sand the dye off the maple. The highly figured part of the grain soaks up
more dye than the rest of the piece of maple. The idea it to leave the color in this highly
figured grain so that it accentuates it. If you sand the color all the way off then you won’t have the desired
effect of popping the grain. I then chose the color I wanted to use
for the guitar, in my case green. I got these dyes from LMI. Make sure that you get the appropriate
dye for the product you are using. I mixed mine with lacquer thinner and added
a small amount of lacquer to the mix. I then went to the spray booth
and sprayed a few color coats until I got the shade I desired
on both the guitar and the peghead. Next, I sprayed a few coats of clear
lacquer to seal in the colorcoat. For the back and sides of this
guitar I decided to use black. So, I needed to tape off the binding portion
of the maple top I had just sprayed green. I also masked off the top of the guitar. Everywhere I didn’t want
black had to be covered. I then made my own spray paint by
adding some black dye to my lacquer. The first few coats you
spray are semi transparent but the more you apply the darker it gets. I wanted an opaque finish so I sprayed
until I got that amount of coverage. After the first day of spraying I lightly sanded
the entire guitar with 320 grit sandpaper. The key word here is lightly because you
do not want to sand through the clear coat and into the green color coat. On day 2, I apply between 3 to 5 clear
lacquer topcoats at full strength. You must have a good spray technique so
you keep runs and drips to a minimum. Watch my Luthier Tips du
Jour video on spray guns if you need to in order to get a better
understanding on how spray guns work. On day three I lightly sanded again. You can use 320 or 400 grit paper or even
wet sand to a higher grit if you like. This time you want to get the
finish as level as possible in preparation for the final coats of lacquer. After the surface is completely level it is back to the spray booth to
spray another few coats of lacquer. By now you should have your spray
gun and technique dialed in so that you get a nice smooth surface. You can even thin the lacquer
up to 50/50 if you like but be very careful to not get any
runs or drips in your final coats. Once the final lacquer coats are sprayed you get to take a few weeks
off while the finish cures. I like to wait at least 3 to 4 weeks. After that I begin wet sanding the finish
with 600 grit and progress up to 1500 grit. Placing a single drop of
liquid detergent in the water helps the sandpaper grab the finish better. Spend some quality time with the sandpaper making sure that the finish is completely level. This usually happens just
before your arm falls off. You can tell the finish is level when there
are no more shiny spots on the surface. After that spend some time on the
buffing wheel removing all sanding marks until you get a nice mirror finish. Watch my Luthier Tips du Jour video
on buffing high gloss finishes for more info on that. If you did everything correctly you
will have a really cool finish that looks something like this.

100 comments

  • Alex Lopez

    How do you sand the sides? those curves ain't easy.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    very carefully! Do not go through the finish to the wood!

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Thank you. Varnish is a very generic term. When I think varnish I think oil based. Sanding sealers are usally solvent based. I would find out what sealer is on your guitar before attempting to repair it or adding another finish over the top.

    Reply
  • 973DTTL

    I didn't notice you using any kind of grain filler. You just stain black , sand and start spraying lacquer. Perhaps all those layers of lacquer and sanding flat fill the grain ? Thanks

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    The woods used on this guitar are closed pore woods and therefore no pore filling required! Yippee!

    Reply
  • Quentin Parzych

    You guys do apprenticeships? hehehe

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I usually sand dry but you could also wet sand. Your sanding scratches will be covered with more coats. Sometimes I will wet sand just before applying my final coats to make sure I get a perfectly level and smooth surface. This saves me time when leveling the final coats before buffing.

    Reply
  • Robert Sparky Weintraut

    Mr. O'Brien. I'm a huge fan of your videos. I've been building for a few years now, and I was just wondering if a similar dye trick might work to pop the grain of something like bearclaw spruce. Would this be ok to do with french polishing?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    It won't work the same way like highly figured maple and other wood species. You can, however, use a wash coat of shellac to help "pop" the spruce. Usually just a light amber color is enough to do the trick. Happy Finishing!

    Reply
  • Robert Sparky Weintraut

    Thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  • Ralf Caetano

    obrien could you do a video on finishing necks?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I already have. I show a true oil finish. In my online guitar building courses I show lacquer (high gloss and satin) and also French polish for neck finishes. Check out my website for more info.

    Reply
  • Ralf Caetano

    wow thanks 🙂

    Reply
  • 1800NoFault

    what do you use to seal the inlay?? thanks for great vid

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I think I used shellac here but you can use lacquer too

    Reply
  • 1800NoFault

    ok but doesn't the lacquer or shellac get stained by the color tinted lacquer? BTW the finish work is great. Have you noticed how each person has a different amount of coats, drying times, sanding steps, mixing techniques, etc. How did you settle on your system? Was it trial and error or a blend of what you had seen other people do.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I seal the inlay before adding color. I then topcoat with any color. It doesn't touch the inlay. You are right baout everyone havin gtheir own method and probably they all work. I just found a way that worked for me and went with it. It took many guitars to learn to do it right. I probably do it different everytime too. haha

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I seal the inlay before adding color. I then topcoat with any color. It doesn't touch the inlay. You are right baout everyone havin gtheir own method and probably they all work. I just found a way that worked for me and went with it. It took many guitars to learn to do it right. I probably do it different everytime too. haha

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I seal the inlay before adding color. I then topcoat with any color. It doesn't touch the inlay. You are right baout everyone havin gtheir own method and probably they all work. I just found a way that worked for me and went with it. It took many guitars to learn to do it right. I probably do it different everytime too.

    Reply
  • Mike Potvin

    Hi, great video. Thank you for the lesson. I am rebuilding a 1957 Rickenbacker 1000 that is down to the bare wood. What kind of paint should I use to re-paint it ? I don't want to be fancy, just an opaque solid colour, black, white, red, blue or green. I haven't decided.I will be doing it by hand and wet sanding. What kind of paint is best. The wood is maple. Can auto paint be used ?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I would use a tinted lacquer. You can purchase tints and get really nice opague colors. Good luck!

    Reply
  • nicholas menezes

    hey great video!!!! im thinking on doing something similar on my guitar. its a LP imitation its maple just like the guitar in the video. i was wounder what type of paint you used?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Thank you. Glad you liked the video.In this video i use tinted lacquer.

    Reply
  • Steve Solo

    What happened to the edges? Wasn't it supposed to look like it had binding?

    Reply
  • OldSlowGamer

    Leaving too much black (or any dark stain) on the maple will kill its visual "flip" (called chatoyance) so don't overdo the staining.

    Reply
  • OldSlowGamer

    Lacquer is so 20th century. I switched entirely to DuPont ChromaBase acrylic urethane and will NEVER go back to inferior lacquer. I get superior finish clarity and can get a very thin finish if I want to. I also can use formulations that are cured enough to start sanding and polishing in just two hours from spraying. Wait a day and the finish gets glass hard and can be difficult to completely sand out and polish.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Yes, nitro

    Reply
  • Ivan Cacevic

    I have some questions… I wanna to do paint job on my guitar… the wood is alder. I want to apply solid color… i have a one black color formed in the tin for the wood,metal… etc. The question is: can i apply this black color on sanded surface and do this steps with colorless lacquer of course with sending beatween the lacquering… Please reply my post… Great video… 🙂

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Sorry to hear that! What kind of finish do you have access to?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    This type of finish I show here only works on highly figured woods like quilted and flamed species. If you want to paint your guitar a solid color it would hide all the figure anyway.

    Reply
  • ZeppelinFanatic480

    Awesome Video! It helped a ton! But I am a beginner at this and for my very first project I ordered a kit from saga with a body that is already sanded and sealed so it is ready to apply lacquer. However, I really wanna try the grain popping technique by putting the black dye on and then sanding it off. Can I still do this even though my guitar is already sanded and sealed? Thanks so much!

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    If the body is already sanded and sealed then this technique will not work as it soaks into the grain to help pop it. What you can do is use toner to help color the body. Think sunburst.

    Reply
  • ZeppelinFanatic480

    Ok thanks for getting back to me, but this is my first guitar I have ever built so what will toner do? And what do you mean by think sunburst. Please try to explain so that someone who has never done this before can understand thanks.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    This is a good example of a picture really is worth a thousand words.
    I would do some research on google and learn what a sunburst finish is and what toner means when it comes to finishing before attempting to finish my own guitar.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    It is your polishing technique. When you sand you get a dull surface because you are putting scratches in the finish. You then buff them out using a buffing wheel with compound.

    Reply
  • Gledison Fonseca

    Great video!! look, i've just finished my second rattle can of clear lacquer on my Tele. (i know is not so good, but i dont have a spray gun). My question is , shall i sand it out always after three coats? or can i just build up several coates and wet sand in the end? las time i sanded the thin coat, and have to do it all again.. thanks for help

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Well, yes. However you need to get enough on the surface that you have something to sand without going through to the wood. In my case , usually about three coats is enough. I like to level before spraying my final coats as this way my final coats go on smoother which means less wet sanding before buffing. Since you are spraying lacquer though, you could just loud it up and then wet sand. Hope you like sanding. haha

    Reply
  • 1234567890nam

    beautifull.

    Reply
  • TheFinalApproach

    1. Make sure the clear coat is completely cured and set. This can take from 2-6 weeks.
    2. Wet sand at 2000 grit or high sandpaper, but 2000 is the norm.
    3. Buff/polish in steps. First rubbing compound, then swirl remover, then polishing compound. Use a foam or cotton pad.

    Reply
  • Mavrik9007

    Doing some spot repairs on some solid color guitars and using an air brush… what type of paint and clear coat should I use.. Is there a good online source a good source to buy this stuff ? What type of videos I could watch to school me on guitar finish repair that you recommend ?
    The first two guitars I'm repairing are just a basic solid black..

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I use universal tints that I get from Luthiers Mercantile International sold as Transtint. I use this to tint the shellac or lacquer or whatever I am using for a finish. Just add some black to the product you are using and you have just made your own spray paint. There are many sources of info. You have just found one. haha Spot repairs can be fun. Good luck!

    Reply
  • fakiirification

    the "compound" is ultra fine abrasive grid suspended in wax or other binder. so buffing without compound is like washing your car without soap. your not really doing anything at all except possibly friction burning the finish if you press too hard. if you've wet-sanded to 1200 grit, you can probably get some liquid rubbing compound from the auto parts and hand rub to a medium gloss. high gloss will need the buffing wheel and correct compound though.

    Reply
  • emer delago

    Wondering if I can use black Transtint dye instead of leather dye???

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Yes you can, you will want to dilute it a bit.
    Happy Finishing!

    Reply
  • Elizabeth Motoriche

    One question my friend. In minute: 4'05 , your video, you "sprayed" layers 3-5. My question is this: the 3 or 5 layers are "simultaneous"?, Or between layer must be given a few minutes or longer. Because with 3 or 4 or 5 layers polyurethane begins to "drip" Thanks for your help. Best regards.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I let the finish dry to the touch between coats.

    Reply
  • Alexis Garcia Caperos

    Hey, nice work! Im researching about this method and im unable to find a video, or at least some tutorial with pictures of someone doing this process with a black stain on top of the grain accentuation dye.

    My question is, to do so, shall the black stain be more dilutted on the color coats than on the accentuation dye?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I apply the black dye full strength and then dilute the color coats to get the color I want.

    Reply
  • ssdtrain1

    theres a huge run in it at 3:38 also..right in the middle on the back

    Reply
  • Victor Ruiz

    for removing paint or making an aged or distressed look pain job is it possible to use paint thinner?sanding the guitar is a pain in the ass especially when im doing it by hand

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Yes, it is possible to chemically strip the finish.

    Reply
  • Victor Ruiz

    good but do you know or heard of anybody that has?im not going to do this unless i know what will happen if i use paint thinner

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Paint thinner is not a stripper. Go to your local store and get a stripper not a thinner. If you don't know the difference between the two I would reconsider taking onthis project.

    Reply
  • Victor Ruiz

    okay

    Reply
  • Ahmad Yassin

    iam currently done with the paint job and applying the finish ,but i cant wait 3 weeks untill it drys off completely,how can i make this process faster ??? heat or cold for an example would help ?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Don't get impatient. This is the enemy of a good finish. The only way to speed it up is to use a catalyzed product

    Reply
  • Ahmad Yassin

    waiting is going to hurt 🙁 lol but thanks for the advise,and great video

    Reply
  • Chris Beauchamp

    can you make another video but with an acoustic guitar?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I have done some videos about finishing acoustic guitars. Which step did you
    have in mind?

    Reply
  • Chris Beauchamp

    Sanding it then painting it .

    Reply
  • Crg Nrx

    bob odenkirk is a luthier now?

    Reply
  • Andrei Banea

    What kind of lacquer did you use??

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Mcfaddens but any instrument grade lacquer will work.

    Reply
  • Pantherbullshark

    Is the green a dye, or paint?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    it is a dye.

    Reply
  • Magnus Olstad Ditlevsen

    dos it have to be that type of dye:)

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    It can be any type of dye just make sure it is compatible with your finishing product if you decide to add it to you product. For example, water soluble dyes do not dissolve in oil based products

    Reply
  • Magnus Olstad Ditlevsen

    What is the green colur calld

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I call it green. haha At least that is what the label on the side of the dye bottle said.

    Reply
  • foxybrown2

    whats with the holding the guitar in your hand what did you do to let the guitar dry how did you hang it I am shooting a guitar and want to know how to hang it not hold it.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I always spray by holding the guitar in my hand while spraying with the other hand. I then just hang the guitar up on a peg or nail to let it dry.

    Reply
  • kwstikas82

    what kind of dyes and lacquer do you use and what are their pros/cons compared to nitro?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I like to use universal tints which means they dissolve in water, oil etc. the lacquer I use is nitro based but an instrument grade instead of normal furniture lacquer. It moves more without cracking.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    Since I am using lacquer I only sand every few coats. What debris are you referring to? Is it debris from spraying or the residue left after sanding?

    Reply
  • nmssis

    i guess i was referring to the lacquer powder that comes from sanding process.

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    This is how we learn, by doing!

    Reply
  • Nick DiNunzio

    What do you finish with? Nitro or poly?

    Reply
  • Rachamacha

    What can I do if I don't have access to a buffing wheel?

    Reply
  • Bearz Garcia

    I didn't see any grain filler and/or sanding sealer used for this finish. Were they used? If so, which steps would they be? Before the stain or after?

    Reply
  • wungabunga

    Hey kids: If you blow up your house, the insurance company will not pay out. Just saying. 

    Reply
  • alguien162

    excuse me I have a question, when is the last sanded with 1500 grit with water, and the guitar is opaque, is given other lacquer layer or the latter is already polished?

    Reply
  • alguien162

    excuse me i have another question, the peel orange is normal when given the coats of lacquer?

    Reply
  • Vincent Guzman

    have been working on guitars for some time. But I have taken on a refinish job. I used to paint cars but that's metal not wood. I have already stripped the body and finished sanding to 220 grit. I know I should seal the wood, should I use a primer sealer or wood grain sealer before applying the finish color and clear coat?

    Reply
  • DagaProds

    Hey… thanks a lot… 🙂 … can you give me an advice please! =D … I wanna make the same style for a les paul… but it stills have the painting job… what SandPaper should I use for taking off the painting?

    Reply
  • R Wagner

    There's about a minute of lah-dee-dah music at the beginning that skipped over until I got to where I understood what the man is actually talking about. It seem that everybody these days has to use some "theme" music and some visuals before getting down to business.

    Reply
  • Giulio Lardieri

    If i use satin clear coat, I have to sand and buff as you do with high gloss clear coat or not?

    Thank you

    Reply
  • Shenal Wanasingha

    does it have to be maple wood and a solid body guitar for this to work? do you need to sand hard for the first time and could this work on acoustics? thanks again!

    Reply
  • SC86Canuck

    would you be able to record another video with a more complicated finish like candy apple red, with the gold or silver flakes underneath the colour?

    Reply
  • OBrienGuitars

    I have one in the queue that shows how to do a crackle type finish. When it is time I will make it public.

    Reply
  • Lucas Vales

    Beautiful job! what kind of ink and varnish used?

    Reply
  • Carlos Arenas

    what wood is that?
    great finish

    Reply
  • carlos zapata

    hi robert, i have a question, i use polyurethane clear coat automotive, two component, but i have a problem, this no dry to 100%, so when i use the guitar, the texture of pants or any other texture leaves marks in the laquer. so, what clear coat you recommend me? the clear coat automotive is feasible? maybe my problem with this laquer is the lack of activator. what you think? thank you robert… . i use translator, because my english is not so good jeje

    Reply
  • Taylor Rose

    Thanks Robbie. One question. I am at RRCC and don't have nearly that much time to let the finish cure + dry. Any thingI can do to speed the drying process? I will be using nitro for my top coat.

    Reply
  • My Fingerboard

    Great work, looks so beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  • Jose Guillermo Espinosa Cornejo

    Hello, I hope you can help me … I want to paint the body of my guitar with the same materials that were painted in the factory. The specifications say that its finish is in urethane. the question is this … if it says that it is finished with urethane, does it mean that the paint and the lacquer are based on the same compound?

    Reply
  • Jose Guillermo Espinosa Cornejo

    Question … I applied nitrocellulose paint to a guitar body … the question is, after a few days of drying, can I apply transparent polyurethane without sanding the nitrocellulose paint?

    Reply
  • Luiz Antonio Miranda luthier

    Onde compro uma máscara dessas?

    Reply
  • Brian Steele

    Thanks for a great video, Robert. You explained the whole process from start to finish in 7 minutes with no ums and aws. You're one of the few instructors I've seen who mentions the need to give the finish time to cure (weeks!) before going on to the final finishing and buffing. A lot of other posters should learn from you.

    Reply
  • Emerald Otringal

    hey, Robert! quick question: I'm trying to paint my guitar using only spray cans. And there's a twist: the color is fluorescent orange. I say this because in the past I didn't have the problem I'm about to tell you about with regular paint cans like white, black, etc.. Problem is this spray can acts weird. It either sprays a sort of powdery dust which rubs off super easily (as it's just sitting there almost, not stuck to the surface of the guitar), OR the paint is more like a tint/stain of what it should be. Any idea why? On the can it says spraying distance should be 25-30 cm. At this distance it barely leaves any marks. I'm at around 15 cm and it still behaves like it's not even paint. The only time it acts like normal paint is if I spray it from 5cm, but that obviously creates a leaking puddle. So in short, how can I get that nice, uniform light coat with these problems? Is it me or the can? Thanks!!!

    Reply
  • pam carr

    Great job and great explanations!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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