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MAKE asks: Guitar finishing techniques

MAKE asks: Guitar finishing techniques

A few weeks ago, I picked up a LC-Style Guitar kit from the Maker Shed. I have always wanted this style of guitar, and the fact that it’s a kit made me want it even more. The fist step to assembling the guitar is to finish all the wood components, and that’s where I’m asking for your help.


The wood is absolutely beautiful, especially the edge-banded, arched maple top. I was thinking of applying some kind of clear finish, but that seems too simple. A sunburst always looks good on this style of guitar, but that seems too common. I want something that is one of a kind.


I would love to hear what kind of finish you think would make this a truly unique guitar. Better yet, do you know of a great resource for different finishing techniques? Have you made a guitar? Let me know in the comments. When I decide on a finish, I’ll make sure to document the process and post it online. Thanks!

In the Maker Shed:


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56 thoughts on “MAKE asks: Guitar finishing techniques

  1. MacDann says:

    If you want to preserve the look of the maple (and I would) you should use a common technique used by woodworkers that uses dye to make the grain “pop” before a final finish is applied. Here is a good example of the technique:

    Be sure to post some pictures when it is complete – I have always wanted to make a solid body guitar, but never been able to et it on the list of projects…


    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      That technique looks awesome! Combine it with a very subtle sunburst could be really cool. The side by side comparison at the end is really helpful.

  2. guitarify says:

    For all your finishing and building questions that will inevitably come up there is no better place then the reranch forums.It’s a whole community of really helpful guitar DIYers.Trust me, this hobby is very addictive and if you get hooked like I did, this will be your second home:

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      Another great resource, thanks! I searched for sunburst and got 868 matches. That should keep me busy for a while. But then again, maybe something nontraditional is in order?

      I plan on compiling these links and posting a follow-up with a list of resources. Thanks again!

  3. Anne says:

    This blog post is the kind of thing I would go for:

    I like a satin finish on my guitars.

    As for one-of-a-kind, if you want to see the grain, what about modifying part of the guitar? I’m thinking the Takamine direction of adding an inlay, which you should be able to nearly anywhere away from where the hardware mounts. Rockler doesn’t have the selection of pre-built patterns they once did but they do have pictures and techniques. Then you can look at a place like this for your design:

  4. SKR says:

    Maple can be notoriously difficult to stain evenly. I have had great success by dyeing the laquer and finishing with a clear top coat.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      Yes, I read that somewhere too. A nitrocellulose lacquer?

      1. SKR says:

        I have dyed NC laquer with powdered dyes from Rockler. I just dissolved the alcohol based powder in mineral spirits and then use that to tint the laquer. I like a nirocellulous laquer as it is easy to repair and is a classic finish. However, it is easy to damage with modern cleaners as well (a little vinegar and water should do the trick). If you take care of the finish and keep it waxed it should last for a long time.

    2. nick says:

      I don’t see why it would be a problem to dye it directly. On the test pieces of maple and cherry I’ve dyed it’s worked beautifully. I just wiped it on with a lint-free rag (I used a J-cloth meant for dish washing)

      The swamp ash on my bass took a _lot_ more dye, but worked fine too.

      Tinting the lacquer is great, if you’ve got the right spray equipment, but it can certainly be done without.

  5. Math Campbell says:


    Today was the day that I decided I would finally stop dicking around “thinking” about making stuff, and finally commit to buying some tools and start with my first real “make”; a guitar.
    Just bought a workbench on amazon and I’m shopping around for a router. Obviously it’ll be some time before I hit the wood, but it’s still freaky that an article like this comes up…

    I was thinking of eventually going for a traditional fender-like solid colour for my dream guitar (headless steinberger-style, if I can score a tuner/bridge combo cheap enough), but the exact mechanics of doing so is baffling. Even with the 3 “build your own guitar” books I have I’m still confused.

    Acetone or nitrocellulose lacquers? What sort of paint is best for solid, not wood? Can I just use regular artist acrylics then lacquer over?
    So many questions I have. That forum may be the place to help me, so thanks for posting…

    And to the OP whose questions sparked this off, you could do worse than trying an actual painted guitar, ie some sort of artwork on the body. I saw something truly amazing when looking for headless tuners:

    Obviously that’ll take some serious artistic skill, but results clearly are delivered!

    More plainly, some sort of traditional starburst, but in different colours than the usual red-yellow-black.
    Maybe go green-blue with it? The choice is yours.
    I’m still trying to work out what the different types of paint are and what lacquers work with what paints…

    Good luck with your axe.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      Wow, that fretboard is really nice. I would love to do inlay on mine, but the neck is ready to go. Maybe next time!

  6. Art says:


    You might want to head on over to the forum.

    Specifically, have a look at Mark Crenshaw’s posts — he has posted a number of HIGHLY detailed accounts of building electric guitars from scratch. Such as this one:

    (note that you need to be a member there in order to see the images.)

    1. Art says:

      Hmmm, I put in the URL but I don’t see it, let me try again:

      1. Marc de Vinck says:

        That’s a really nice build. I noticed that luthiers seem to share a lot of information, how-to’s, tip & tricks….it’s a great community of makers. I’m learning a lot.

  7. dshookowsky says:

    I’ve used Aniline Dye on birdseye maple in the past for a decent finish. A few coats of that bring out the features in the grain. You’ll still need many, many coats of a clear finish to protect the wood.

    1. dshookowsky says:

      Aniline Dye reference

      Photo of a bow saw I made with Birdseye Maple and Aniline dye finish

      1. Marc de Vinck says:

        That bow saw is beautiful. Thanks for posting the pictures. Did you make it from your own plans?

      2. Jennifer Elaan says:

        I was going to suggest Marc’s site, but you beat me to it. Lots of good videos on finishing (and lots of other good stuff) there.

  8. SKR says:

    If you do dye the wood directly and then use a clear top coat, keep this in mind. A water based dye will raise the wood grain and you will have to sand again. Alcohol based dyes won’t do this. Also, if you have access to a good paint sprayer you can use it to spray the dye. I have found you get a more even dye that way.

    1. Marc de Vinck says:

      A good paint sprayer is something I don’t have. Not yet anyway, but it seems like I should invest in one since most of the finishes rely on it.

  9. SKR says:

    From the aniline article

    “[An aside; PRS has popularized the natural binding look on maple capped guitars. If you are spraying the dye creating natural bindings is simple; after prepping the body to the sand and sealer stage tape the binding line and spray the dye. Remove the tape and clear coat. If you are wiping on the dye it becomes trickier. You can try to tape the area you want to be the binding but the problem is the dye may migrate through the wood and go under the tape giving a ragged binding line. For a crisp line first tape on either side of the binding line to be. Then spray clear lacquer over the binding area. When dry remove the boundary tapes and tape the binding line. You can now wipe on the dye. Even if the dye does get under the tape the sealer will prevent the dye from staining the binding.] ”

    This is very important. Especially the part about hitting the mask with the clear to seal the edge.

  10. Jennifer Elaan says:

    Wow, my comment above didn’t end up where I expected. Strange.

  11. Math Campbell says:

    As an aside, since there seem to be a lot of very knowledgeable folks in this thread, anyone any clue about headless tuner options?
    I’d prefer not spend many hundreds on a tuner, but I’d really like to make by dream of a headless guitar. Obviously steinberger are no longer on the go, and I’ve seen the ABM system (but again, $300 is a bit hefty!), as well as Ola Strongberg’s, but his system is about the same price…

    I’ve also seen a headless tuner/bridge (sans headpiece, so I’d need to source the bit for the end of the neck from somewhere) on eBay for a lot less, but the manufacturer is “Overlord of Music”, which I think is a cheap chinese knockoff outfit. Read some good reviews for these tuners, but I’m on a real budget here, so I can’t afford to buy them only to find they’re rubbish and have wasted the money…

    Anyone any advice? Otherwise I’ll go hit the guitar forum there…

    1. nick says:

      Re headless tuners:
      I’m building a headless bass right now, and have looked around a fair bit without much success.

      It seems your choices are to spend a ton of money, buy one of the cheap ebay ones, or make your own.

      I’ve heard the ebay ones are pretty crappy, but they’re only $50, so might be worth a try. I’d screw them to a 2×4 first, though, and fool with them for a bit to find out it they work decent. (It’s easier than trying to fill in the screw holes on your guitar later)

      I’m just going to make my own. It seems like it should be easy enough to just do it with a thumb screw that directly pulls the string. I’m going to just hold it to my tuner by the hole in the “ball”, and at the “head” end with a setscrew. No special double ball strings necessary, which is important, since I’m building a short scale.

  12. nick says:

    Use aniline dyes.

    Dye it black, but don’t go too crazy with it, You want it black, but don’t try and soak it into every single pore, you just want a thin layer of black.

    Sand through most of it, so it’s primarily left in the grain.

    Let it dry really well, then dye it whatever colour you want.

    Here’s what I did on my first instrument.

    It turned out pretty nice. it would have been perfect if I did a better job of the sanding. I wanted some of the grain texture to come through, but I got a little more texture than I intended.

    You’ll likely get an easier, smoother result than I did on that bass. It’s swamp ash, so it really soaks up the dye, and the polyurethane.

    I’ve experimented on scraps of cherry and maple that I’m building my next one out of, and it looks fantastic. Much easier to work with when your wood doesn’t act like a sponge.

    You can also get sort of a burst/fade effect by scrubbing in a lighter colour after dyeing the dark colour (opposite of what you might expect).

    I dyed a piece “forest green”, and then while it was still wet, scrubbed in some “lemon yellow, and got a pretty nice gradient. I’ve yet to try it on an actual guitar, but it looks like it’ll work. It also happens very slowly, so I’m a lot less likely to screw it up than I would be trying to spray it.

    The other upside to dye finishes like this is that you can use a wipe-on polyurethane, so you don’t need a bunch of spray equipment, etc.

    1. nick says:

      I forgot to mention, some finishes (I used minwax wipe-on poly) will yellow the colour somewhat. It’s not bad, but keep it in mind when choosing a dye colour. what looks like a nice crimson dye will come out an orangy brown under the poly. If you want a nice red, you need to start with a sort of bright magenta. For some colours, you’ll have to try and find a very clear finish.

      Test pieces are really the only way to know how it’s going to work. If you bought as a kit and don’t have any scrap to work with, I’d suggest seeing if you can find some cut off shorts at a lumberyard in the same general type of wood.

  13. mickey @ says:

    I’m very partial to the body style you went for. A cool les paul style classic look. With that being said, a white finish ala the buckethead signature model would be pretty sweet:

    There are many ways you can go with it, and taste is subjective but I hope to see the completed guitar!

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