You love your guitar. You’ve been playing it for years, but the time has come to give it a makeover. The color was cool when you bought it (Photo 1), but now you’d like a change.
It’s not too difficult to refinish a guitar. More than anything, it’s a matter of patience. Taking the time to properly prep the wood and allow appropriate cure times can yield excellent results, even for the first-timer.
There are several types of finish used for guitars. Traditional nitrocellulose finishes are found on many high-end instruments as well as production guitars by Gibson and Martin, just to name a few manufacturers. Harder polyurethane finishes can be found on millions of guitars, including most Fender, Ibanez, and Epiphone models. Some manufacturers are now also using environmentally friendly waterborne finishes that are safer to handle.
For this project, we will be removing an existing polyurethane finish and refinishing the guitar with nitrocellulose lacquer in aerosol cans, for convenience. In addition to changing the appearance, this refin will likely result in a better-sounding instrument as well.
A guitar with a thin nitro finish will resonate better than one with a hard poly. But nitrocellulose is flammable and hazardous to inhale, so make sure you have a well-ventilated work area and use proper safety precautions, like wearing a respirator mask.
First you’ll need to solder together and tape off the north coil finish and south coil finish (this is the series link). Then, here’s a list of the items needed along with the StewMac parts numbers and amounts of the products we’ll use:
• Hair dryer or heat gun to remove existing finish.
• Putty knife (#4464 and #1287).
• Sandpaper in a variety of grits for wood prep and finish work (#5562).
• Aerosol lacquer (#5886 Sonic Blue x 1, #3881 gloss clear x 3).
• Polishing cloth (#1815 x 2).
• Liquid polishing compounds (#1845 medium, #1846 fine).
• Respirator mask (#5885).
Step 1: Disassemble the guitar
The first step is to take the instrument completely apart, removing all hardware and electronics (Photo 2). Keep all the parts in one place as you remove them so you don’t have to hunt them down when you are ready to reassemble the guitar.
Step 2: Strip the existing finish
There are a few different ways to strip a finish. Simply sanding a finish off can be very time-consuming and dirty, and using chemical strippers can be very toxic and messy. I’ve found the best way to cleanly and easily strip polyurethane finish of this type is to use a hair dryer or heat gun and a flexible putty knife (Photo 3).
Lightly scoring a starting point in the finish with a sharp putty knife will give you a good entry point once the finish is heated. The idea is to soften and lift the finish without burning it, so it is important to keep the gun moving while heating. With the gun set on the lowest setting, start warming up the scored area on the guitar. When you see the finish starting to lift, work the knife underneath it and start removing it (Photo 4).