Painting On Guitar – How To Get That Professional Finish?

Painting on a guitar

Whether you’ve scratched your guitar playing live, dropped it at home, or just fancy a colour change. I’ll demonstrate how to completely finish painting a guitar at home (Without the use of a spray gun or compressor) .

Check out this awesome painting on a guitar effect using a syncronised bridge type!

How To Paint On A Guitar? Painting a guitar has never been easier. We start my collecting our tools, sand down the wood, fill any holes, sand again, apply the finish/drawing, and finally add the lacquer and buffer.

Whether you’re looking to refurbish and old guitar or create your own design from fresh? In this article, we will discuss the essential techniques to get that professional finish using minimal tools for the job… So, let’s get started!

Painting The Guitar Myself

The good news is that you can paint the guitar yourself and it’s not that hard. Even better news is that if you make a mistake or do a sloppy job then you can redo the process and start again. Wood is an amazing material which can be painted as many times as you need to get the finish that you desire. 

The bad news is that it does take time, but if you’re patient and follow my advice then your guitar will turn out perfect the first time.

“Which Type Of The Guitar Can I Paint”?

We’ll discuss painting a typical solid body electric (something like a Strat or Les Paul). We will also discuss edge bindings for guitars like a Les Paul. You may want to include these if trying to get a Les Paul back to factory settings. 

We will also discuss colours and styles. 

After reading this article, you’ll be able to go ahead and be as creative and technical as you like. 

First Time Finish VS. Refinish

Will your project be a fresh new build or a restoration job?

This is the difference between a finish and refinish. A finish will be applying paint on to wood that has never been painted before. Whilst, a refinish will include applying paint onto wood that already has a set of paint on it.

It is much easier to paint on wood that has never been touched before. 

Difficulty in Refinish Restorations

Refinish restoration projects are much more timely and difficult to do.

Disclaimer: It’s advised by some people to think twice about restoring an old body. You may disassemble the guitar, sell the body, buy a body in the colour you desire, then reassemble it if you’re interested in a straightforward DIY guitar project. If you’re serious about completing a painting project, acquire a brand-new, unfinished body and follow the instructions below.

However, if you’re like me and want to be resourceful and reuse the old wood then we would need to sand down the whole body completely removing all the lacquer. Once we have removed the lacquer we can then paint over it.

Step 1: Get Your Tools & Equipment

We’re going to use minimal tools and the most practical materials. Below we will discuss how we go ahead and use these 

  • 220 grit paper – for sanding down the wood and removing any paint
  • 320 grit paper – for smoothing the wood ready for the first layer of primal paint
  • Backing block – this is used with the grit paper to provide a more even finish
  • Bucket of Water and washing up liquid – used to dip in the grit paper when sanding down the wood
  • Sanding machine (recommend if repainting an old guitar) – 
  • Old credit card – this is used to apply the filler
  • Primal paint – this is the first layer of paint and is always a grey in colour 
  • Filler – this is used to fill the holes of open grain wood types
  • Finish – This is the color paint you are looking for, and will be applied on top of the primal coat
  • Lacquer– this will give your guitar a solid extra coating making is glossy in texture
  • Tack cloth – used to clean the surface to the surface of the wood before painting 

Once you have all your tools we can then move more practical steps.

Step 2: Determine The Wood Type

Knowing the wood type is important because each wood type has different grains. Knowing the openness of the grain will determine how many coats you apply, and whether you need filler or not. 

Open Grain Vs. Closed Grain

You may not know the type of wood of your guitar, but i have written a post of all the different guitar wood types so you can use this as a guide. 

However, hardwood, like Maple, is what most guitar bodies are made of. These woods have a fairly confined grain, making it simpler to paint over them later.

Use a light source To determine the grain  

Don’t worry, if you don’t know the openness of the wood, you can use a light.

If you get a light source, you can move it across the guitar at an angle it will highlight the textures and reveal defects by showing shadows within the grain. 

We will later fill these holes, and sand them down until you have a perfectly smooth surface. 

Step 3: Sanding The Body

Before you add any paint or do anything you first want to sand down the whole guitar. If its a new paint job then you still want to sand down the guitar, if its a refurbishment project then you will want to remove all the old paint and lacquer.

Overall, sanding makes the wood shine better and helps the paint stick and stay stuck for a longer period of time.

A New Paint Job

When we apply the gloss paint (which gives us the perfect shine) it will completely reveal all the imperfections of the wood.

This is why we’ll definitely need to fill and smooth the grain if we want to achieve the glossy, reflective, smooth paint job that we’re going for. So, a proper surface preparation is required.

Refurbishment Paint job

If you’re recoating you need to take off all the old paint and strip it back down to the wood. For example, for a telecaster this is a really slow and painful process as the laquer is really thick. But, it can be done.

Make sure there is no lacker left on the body else it will ruin your paint work later on. 

When sanding the body we want to do it in 2 phases to prepare the surface. 

Sanding Phase 1

Start sanding the wood by using the 220 grit paper and a backing block. You will also want a bucket of warm water with washing up liquid. We will sand then dip the sanding paper into the soapy water to wash off old excess paint (this will also help displace old paint).

  • Tip 1: Don’t just sand with your fingers, always have a backing block of some kind. The block will give you better flatness, which your fingers through the sandpaper won’t do. 
  • Tip 2: Sand with the grain (not across). If you sand across the grain it won’t be as smooth.
  • Tip 3:  Don’t sand with your hands too fast or apply too much pressure as you’ll see distinctive sanding marks.
  • Tip 4: Some areas of the body may be awkward and so you’ll need to just use your hands to account for these areas. 
  • Tip 5: Also, at this stage you can use a sanding machine. This will be especially helpful if you are refinishing a scratched guitar. The sander will help take off the old coat and take less time.
  • Tip 6: You’ll see that the old paint will smear. So, long as you get your grit marks into the old paint and it has faded in colour then it should be alright – as the new paint will stick. However, if in doubt, keep sanding.
  • Tip 7: It’s easy to sand too aggressively, sanding through the finish. The fix is to spray more finish. 

Sanding phase 1 will take you at least a week, and unfortunately it is what is required to get a good finish. However, it will be worth it in the end.

Inadequately prepare the surface. Poor preparation results in spraying and sanding but still having tiny divots or low spots instead of a perfectly smooth surface. 

Sanding Phase 2

Once you have removed/smeared all the old paint, and can see clear grit marks across the whole body then you are ready to move on to sanding phase 2.

Here we want to use the 320 grit paper, and we will basically repeat the process. 

  • Tip 1:  If you can see any 220 grit sanding marks under your 320 grit marks, you have more work to do.
  • Tip 2: keep dipping your sandpaper into a bucket of soapy water

Sanding Phase 3

When you think you’ve done a good job, it’s time to get out the lamp and check your work at all the angles at this point it should be smooth.

If there are still noticeable holes in the wood then we will want to fill them using wood filler. Please see below…

Step 4: Fill The Grain

Once you have done your first sand and the body is looking smooth we can begin to fill the grain. If you have been dealing with a more open grain wood, and you filled the grain you will then have to sand down those areas again until it is smooth. 

If you miss parts of the grain then don’t worry you can apply filler over those areas and then begin to sand those areas down a second time.

Types Of Fillers

Now that the grain has been smoothened flat, we’ll apply some grain filling substance to the guitar to fill any holes or bumps leftover. . Here are a few possibilities:

Plaster of Paris Filler

This is the type of filler used in the above video.

Paster of Paris has a water basis, dries quickly, and also a little messy. It is combined from powder into a substance that resembles pancake batter in texture, and then you can spread on with a credit card.

Once you apply it and come to sanding it will produce a lot of dust.

If you desire a transparent finish or sunburst, this method is not ideal. 

Wood Filler

These fillers work better to fill bigger open spaces in the wood.

Commercial wood grain fillers are widely available. It is an excellent product that is clear and water-based. At this point you want to use a credit card to spread it over the open grain of the wood. 

Work it into the grain using an old credit card, and remove any excess filler. Only a few coats of grain filler will be necessary for the wood you’re working with.

Allow it to air dry, and then once it has dried use 220 grit paper to snad it down. Once it is smooth use the 320 grit paper to make it more smooth. Keep sanding until you get level surface. 

Step 5: Preparing To Paint 

Temperature and Humidity

How well you can get the paint to flow out the paint-can will depend on the temperature and humidity. Painting a guitar is not a project for a gloomy or wet day. However, you can leave the paint-can in hot water and it will heat up the paint and allow it to flow out of the paint-can easier – providing you with a nice finish.

Holding The Guitar During Painting 

By making a one-foot long block of wood, and screwing it into the the guitar neck pocket of the guitar body will help you hold the guitar body. You can easily spin it and control the position of the body and examine all sides.

How Many Coats?

The amount of coats you want to apply will depend on the effect that you’re going for. For example, to get the sun burst effect there will be many layers of different colours. Else, if you’re looking at one colour then it may have less layers. Overall, we’re looking at least enough layers to provide even coverage and a perfectly flat surface. This flatness will give you a more shiny surface.

If you can complete this in just three colour coats to remove all defect then that’s fine. If you have applied 10 coats and are still seeing defects, your prep work was probably insufficient.

Clean The Finish Between Coats

In order to avoid spraying over dust and other small particles on the finish when applying the next coat, clean the finish in between coats. Use a “tack cloth,” which is a fabric similar to gauze that has been coated with a waxy substance that attracts dust.

Tack cloths can be found in any hardware or paint store. Between uses, store them in a tight baggie. Wipe the surface gently; avoid making any kind of heavy contact. As the finishing stage and final coat approach, the need of this attention to detail increases.

Two-part Urethanes

Up until recently, the evolution of guitar coatings roughly paralleled that of automobile paints. A popular material for less expensive equipment is polyurethane since it offers many manufacturing advantages. It is thick, which results in less grain filling, hard, and durable. It is the same substance that is applied on hardwood floors. We’ll pass because it has a thick finish.

There are brand-new, extremely durable, and lustrous vehicle paints known as “two-part urethanes.” Chemical curing of them requires both paint and an activator. Because these substances are so dangerous, you shouldn’t even consider using them unless you’ve gained some experience and done your homework. In a professional paint booth with industrial ventilation, wearing a complete suit and respirator is the only way to utilise these products safely. Additionally, these paints are highly pricey.

Step 6: First Coat – Adding Primer (Spraying Phase 1)

Auto primer works pretty well, especially to hide and fill tiny imperfections and dints in the wood.

If you’re using a closed grain wood, and the guitar body is smooth and even in colour from sanding then you may be able to skip this step.

However, i always find adding primer will give you a better paint job after you add the finish.

You can buy primer at car part stores or auto paint shops. The “high-build” variety is better at filling the grain.

Step 7: Adding Paint Finish (Spraying Phase 2)

Once you’re happy with with the primer coat and you’ve sanded down any imperfections, we can then apply the finish coat.

Wood Spray Paint

Wood spray is the most common example used and with clever technique it can be used to get the sunburst effect when layered with different colours (see below…)

Wood Stain

Wood stain can give a very unique effect when blended with different colours also. PRS use this technique alot to create the zebra like effect (see below).

Spray some paint on, then use 400 grit wet sandpaper. For wet sanding, you’ll need “wet or dry” sandpaper and a drop of dishwashing soap in a bowl of water. Sand by hand rather than with a sander. Dry it off with a gentle cloth. Wet sanding involves small circular strokes as opposed to simply following the grain. Work your way up from 600 grit; 800 and 1,000 grit are not excessively coarse.

Adding Drawing

How To Paint A Guitar Sunburst Effect

How To Paint The Wood Stain Effect

Finishing the Neck

The neck on your project is probably maple, so you caught a break: no grain filling is required. The procedure is pretty much the same as the body, except now you’re going to spray clear nitro instead of a color. Seal it first with shellac, sand, and you’ll be amazed at how fast the neck will build up with the nitro finish compared to the body. Sand and polish the same way. Be extra careful to not sand through the finish because the neck has more curves and sharp edges. Mask off the fingerboard through the process.

Adding a See-through coat

Spray it with a clear coat once you’re happy with the colour coat finish. Once more, the objective is to make the transparent coat “flow out.” Aim for two or three layers with as little wet sanding as possible beginning at 600 grit. Pay close attention to avoid sanding through to the colour coat.

Sanding the See-through Coat

Once you are happy with your finish you can begin to sand it down a final time.

Sanding through the finish is the biggest pain, so be careful. Don’t worry if the paint appears a little dull after wet sanding; it will polish to a high gloss.

Step 8: Third Coat – Adding Lacquer

All of this leads us to nitrocellulose lacquer, the same material that was utilised in factories to create the classic guitars that people today adore. The overall finish can be kept thin, “Nitro” is simple to apply, dries quickly, provides good protection.

We’re going to apply it outside and constantly use a respiratory mask, even when sanding it since it dries by solvent evaporation. Due to environmental concerns, it is not permitted in many states. Future repairs are made simple because the lacquer coats “melt” together, even after many years between applying coats.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

The paint should “flow out,” not just rattle about in the rattle can. In order to prevent the body from becoming dry and dusty, avoid spraying too far from the surface. When you spray too closely, the paint runs or pools. It’s not the end of the world if you have to sand it out and try again if that happens. On a piece of cardboard, practise. Spray pattern overlap should be roughly 50%.

Important: Anytime you’re spraying or dry sanding nitro, wear your respirator mask.  You don’t want any of it in your lungs, either by vapor or dust.

Avoid Orange Peel

Here, the lacquer is rough and somewhat resembles the surface of an orange rather than lying flat as it should. There are numerous causes, but sanding it out is the only cure. “Color sanding” is the term used for this in the automotive industry. It will nonetheless buff to a flawless sheen.

Step 9: Buffing

Once the final layer of lacquer is applied we can also enhance the shine by buffering.

To polish up the finish and improve the sheen, we can use 2000 grit and liquid buffing solutions.

However, its important to be careful that you’re not too aggressive as when buffering you don’t want to cut through the lacquer.

Be careful; the more aggressive ones will cut through a finish in a hurry. You can use foam buffing pads in an electric drill if you don’t have a small electric buffer. It’s also totally cool to do this by hand. We’re going to go through 3 grits of polishing compound. Meguiar’s polishes #3, #7 & #9 will leave a mirror finish, follow their instructions.

Conclusion

It’s easy to paint a guitar. Unfortunately, sanding takes up much more time than painting. Use caution when handling potentially dangerous and combustible products, and use a respirator when sanding. Nothing in the world of finishing is permanent, so if you make a mistake, just sand it out and try again.

RitchieRich

I have been playing guitar for over 15 years and have come to learn the "tips" and "tricks" of how to overcome some of the most difficult barriers when it comes to your guitar playing; some of which most people never overcome. Im confident that with my help coupled with your inspiration and passion for music you can overcome these too!

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