Understanding Guitar Finishes

As guitar players, we're seemingly pre-wired to sweat the smallest details. Often details that seem absolutely trivial to everyone else are the subject of much debate for us, but hey, that's part of the fun. From our side of the equation as a store we find ourselves in almost constant conversation about a great number of guitar related topics. Sound awesome? It absolutely is! No matter the specific topic, we learn a lot about gear, but furthermore we learn about what matters to players. Honestly, in many cases there's not a definitive right or wrong answer, as each player is so different. Over the years what we've found works best is to present as much information as possible on the subject and leave it up to each player to decide. We find more times than not they really know what they want, there just is no need to "sell" them on anything.  A topic we discuss quite a bit with customers is guitar finishes. This is a great example of a "no right/wrong" topic. There are quite a few different options and each type of finish is going to offer advantages as well as shortcomings. In this article, we thought it would be useful to look at a few of the popular options for guitar finishes and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each.

What really is the purpose of a finish?

When you look at the vast array of finishes found on guitars it is hard not to think that the sole purpose of the finish is to make the instrument beautiful. No matter what some of the more elitist players may say, the aesthetics of an instrument are important to most folks. If you don't think so, we have a can of lavender spray paint with "your guitar" written all over it ;). It's impossible to deny that the finish does add to the visual appeal of a guitar, however its primary purpose is to protect the material underneath. Wood, which still is at the heart of every great instrument, is a great building material for a number of reasons.  Not only is it naturally beautiful and relatively abundant, but it is also very easy to tool into useful shapes and its natural tonality makes it perfect for building guitars. All this aside, wood has one major downfall. Moisture, or lack thereof, is wood's "Achilles's tendon." Too much moisture will cause wood to swell and often distort from it's shape. This can absolutely reek havoc on a guitar where many parts are assembled with exact tolerances. On the other hand, a climate that's too dry can cause wood to become brittle and ultimately crack.

The age-old way that craftsmen have been addressing this problem for years is to stabilize the level of humidity. The best way to do this is to seal the wood under a finish in order to control the amount of moisture that can enter or leave the wood. Paint is actually a very important and clever invention when you think about it. Not only does it beautify an object but it's also completely functional. Obviously, like everything else, finishes have been improved with the use of technology. Paints/finishes can now be engineered to optimize a number of performance attributes for their given applications.  These newer finishes are not only easier and cheaper to apply, but are also considerably more durable than some of the older finishes. With this in mind it is not surprising that a lot of guitar builder's have ditched the lacquer finishes of yesteryear in favor of some of the newer finishes, though with this switch not everybody is completely happy to see the the older finishes fall by the wayside. Whether it be because of its historical correctness or its unique characteristics, many players still want the finishes that were appointed to many of the vintage model guitars that are so highly sought after. This actually has spawned quite a debate over time and honestly each side has some pretty solid points.

Here is an overview of the two main finishes used in guitar building as well as their strengths and weaknesses:

Lacquer Finishes

Lacquer is a pretty general term that actually describes a few different finishes. Typically, when it comes to guitars, the type of lacquer used is either nitrocellulose or acrylic. For a great number of years lacquer was the go-to finish for many products including guitars. The design for the nitrocellulose lacquer found on many of the vintage model guitars dates back to the early 20th century and was developed by DuPont for automobiles. Ever noticed how many of the guitars and cars from the 40's and 50's came in the same colors? It's not a coincidence, in fact, it's the exact same paint. The name "nitrocellulose" actually explains what the finish is composed of. It is actually a cellulose-based material that is dissolved in a nitro-based solvent. Once the finish is sprayed onto an object, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind the cellulose based coating. Sounds pretty simple, right? Not exactly. Unfortunately nitro based finishes tend to be a bit more work-intensive and time consuming than some of today's finishes when it comes to the correct application. Also the solvents used to make the finish are often dangerous, not only to the environment but also the person spraying them.  For this reason, many builders shy away from using lacquer finishes now that so many modern alternatives are available . Lacquer finishes also tend to be softer and more fragile. They also tend to discolor when they come in contact with certain materials such as rubber or certain plastics for a period of time.

So why do players want lacquer finishes?  

The primary reason why some players favor lacquer finishes are that they are historically correct in terms of what was used on many vintage model guitars. This means over time the finish will wear and develop the same patina that so many collectors love. Newer finishes are actually engineered in many cases not to wear or discolor, as the vast majority of customers want the most durable finishes possible. Another perhaps debatable attribute of lacquer and its effect as a finish is that it is typically applied much more thinly than some of the newer finishes. Proponents argue that this allows the wood to further age and improves the tone of an instrument. With the thinner finish some also believe that the natural resonance of the instrument is not altered to the same degree as with the newer, thicker finishes.  It is hard for us to weigh in on the effect lacquer has on the tone of an instrument, however there definitely is a subtle beauty to a perfectly aged nitrocellulose finish. Call it superstition, but some vintage models just have a glow to them that you just don't get with modern finishes.

Here are a few builders who still offer lacquer finishes as a standard option:

Fano Guitars                Nash Guitars                 K-Line Guitars

Poly-finishes

There are a wide variety of modern finishes that are used for finishing guitars these days. The trend of moving away from lacquer really started around the mid-1960's, as more stable, easier-to-apply finishes began to hit the market. One of the most popular substances used was polyurethane, hence the trend of referring to all non-lacquer finishes as "poly-finish." A more descriptive name would be plastic-based finishes. Most are actually polyesters or some other form of urethane.  These newer finishes are typically engineered to be considerably more durable and less prone to aging or fading. To give an idea of how durable they are, these finishes are actually the same type that you might find on the floor of a gymnasium .  Not only do they do a better job of protecting the wood underneath but they are also safer and easier to apply, not to mention cheaper. For this reason, the vast majority of mass produced guitars use poly-finishes as opposed to lacquer.

Why are some players so skeptical of poly-finishes?

Honestly, most of the modern finishes are great products and perfect for protecting and beautifying an instrument. Some of the anti-poly rhetoric stems from some of the very first instruments to roll off the line with these new finishes. Early on in production, manufacturers tended to spray the finishes very thick and at times in an almost clumsy manner. With the ease of use compared to lacquer, some took a "quantity over quality" approach, which almost never leads to a great final product. Not only did these finishes look poor in relation to some of the lacquer finishes which require a bit of skill to really get right, some also argue that due to the thickness of the finish the tone of the instrument was altered. We will leave the latter up to the guitar gurus to debate, but we will point out that a lot has changed since those first poly-finishes hit the shelves. Most of the poly-finishes you see these days are considerably thinner and sprayed with a great deal of pride. Honestly, at this point there really is not much to fear with the new finishes. They are great at what they are designed to do. With that being said, we still understand the guys that love a nice lacquer finish. You definitely don't have to justify it to us :).