What is a guitar refinish?
Guitars can take a battering, it’s true. Whether it’s just the knocks, dents and dings of everyday use (how many of us started out with a guitar with no case?), fading resulting from excessive exposure to sunlight, some damage sustained from an accidental drop, or even deliberate abuse with flaming lighter fluid à la Hendrix-at-Monterey. And sometimes a guitar can sustain more serious damage requiring a structural repair – maybe a headstock or even body break. Any guitar can be brought back to ‘as new’ condition with a complete or partial refinish. A refinish, or refin, is basically a renewal of the guitar’s paintjob, either over existing lacquer, or on completely-stripped bare wood. But is there any reason not to perform guitar finish repair? Can I perform a DIY guitar finish? And if I leave it to a professional luthier, what is a guitar refinish likely to cost?
The fact is, the finish, thin and fragile as it is, is all that protects the wood from grease, sweat, beer, and a whole lot more. Whilst not essential for the instruments function, the finish also creates an important first impression; your stage act might be highly polished, your look crucial, your music tight as humanly possible… but your favourite guitar would look so much better in black… So is refinishing the answer?
Figure 1 – Play wear, especially on a vintage guitar, may not be reason to refinish a guitar; refinishing can improve appearance but dramatically reduce value!
Is refinishing always a good idea?
Although there are good reasons to refinish a guitar, there are also reasons not to. However battered a guitar is, it’s value will be affected by any finish work carried out. In general, valuable vintage guitars should never be refinished unless they have no original finish left. Minor damage, play wear and weather checking are not, generally, sufficient reason; these are better regarded as the ‘patina’ associated with a vintage instrument. Even major repairs can be fixed by a good luthier with minimal impact on surrounding original finish.
Furthermore, not all luthiers offer refinishing, and it may be necessary to travel some distance to find someone with a good reputation. It is easy to do a less-than-perfect job, and as with all things in life, you get what you pay for.
The best guitar refinishes take time
So how much does it cost to replace the finish on a guitar? This is not a simple question to answer. It will depend, most of all, on the amount of preparation work required. If the guitar is to have a translucent finish it will require labour intensive stripping of the existing finish. Some wood species, mahogany for example, also need a treatment of grain filler in order to get a flawlessly smooth result. And even with a solid (opaque) color, there will be a good deal of sanding required.
The new finish will be applied in numerous thin coatings of color and potentially clearcoat. Burst finishes are again more labour intensive than single color finishes. Then we have to consider the amount of the guitar requiring work. Does the whole guitar need paint, or just the body or neck? Is decal / logo work required?
Figure 2 – Sunlight can dramatically fade guitar finishes, specifically areas that are not protected by scratchplates / hardware
Nitrocellulose guitar finishes and polyurethane guitar finishes
The original nitrocellulose lacquer finishes used on the majority of older guitars, and still today by the likes of Gibson, are more expensive than polyurethane guitar finishes. They are more time consuming to apply, though they are certainly considered superior, and worth the effort / cost. They age really nicely and can have an effect on guitar tone – especially important for acoustic guitars, or vintage electrics.
All in all, this work can take many weeks, even months to perform.
So bearing all of this in mind, it really isn’t surprising that guitar refinishes are far from cheap, and certainly not quick. A solid finish on a Fender-style body (i.e. no binding, no logo work etc.) might be as low as $200 from a local luthier – whilst a full refin on a 335 could easily reach $600. Double that if you ask the Gibson restoration department to take on the work. At these prices it is obviously not economical to refinish the vast majority of new instruments. So… can you do it yourself?
DIY guitar refinishing
The answer is, of course, yes, but with a few caveats. Guitar finish work requires skill, patience and the correct equipment. Simply spraying with a tin of auto paint will work, and can be an effective means of changing the color of a guitar, but it will never have the durability or quality of a professional job. What’s more, it will most likely look pretty poor in a very short time. If the guitar was a cheap instrument to start with, perhaps this is all the expense that can be justified. As with a complete strip down, only an exceptionally smooth surface will result in a perfect finish.
Figure 3 – One of the best reasons to refinish a guitar is to a cover a previous poor refinish
But there are a few intermediate options. Many players like the look of natural wood, and like to strip down a guitar for an ‘oiled’ finish. Furthermore some companies sell specialist guitar finishing supplies – tins of nitrocellulose lacquer, especially developed for guitars, at quite reasonable prices, and these can give good results. Smaller ‘touch-up’ pots are also available to perform minor guitar finish repairs. But as with any paint project, these approaches are entirely dependent on adequate preparation of surfaces and careful application. With some work, and relatively little financial outlay, a decent refinish is possible.
Leave refinishing work on rare / valuable guitars to a professional. Check out examples of their work if possible.
If you do decide to undertake the work yourself, it is definitely worth practising on a cheaper guitar first. Maybe several! Make sure surfaces are perfect before painting.
Be sure to avoid damaging / removing serial numbers when preparing the guitar.
Nitrocellulose is a dangerous product, and must be used with extreme caution, following carefully the manufacturers instructions.