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Brain Snack: 5 Things About Guitar Finishes

February 15, 2012
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1 Finishes Sure Are A Hot-Button Topic

Who would have thought that anyone would get so heated over the composition of a guitar’s finish, regardless of its actual appearance? But talk to fans of vintage gear, survey a handful of small-shop “boutique” makers, or visit online chat rooms, and you will find opinions on the effects of guitar finishes on tone widely divided over the efficacy of nitrocellulose lacquer versus polyurethane, and views passionately expressed. Is it a matter of Luddites vs. pragmatists? Truth seekers vs. head-inthe- sanders? Whatever the case, the subject demands some exploring.

2 From Nitrocellulose To Polyester To Polyurethane

In the 1950s and early ’60s, makers like Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, and Rickenbacker used nitrocellulose lacquer (“nitro,” or “lacquer”). Period. Nitro finishes, however, were hard, porous, and somewhat brittle, and therefore aged unevenly and wore relatively poorly. The spraying of these compounds also released a lot of harmful vapors into the atmosphere. Several companies, Fender among them, hit upon “thick skinned” polyester finishes in the late ’60s, which were much more durable and less hazardous to apply. Later still, many makers began using polyurethane, which had some of the look of nitro, but was easier to apply and wore better.

3 The Word On Nitro Is That It “Breathes”

The oft-quoted benefit of nitrocellulose lacquer is that it breathes, and therefore lets the wood of the guitar resonate freely. Which is to say, nitro doesn’t sound good in and of itself, but allegedly constrains the natural tone of the guitar less than some other finishes might. The fact that nitro ages and thins with time, and therefore replicates the look of guitars made in the ’50s and ’60s has made it de rigueur for vintage-reissues, retro models, and accurate reproductions—but its supposed tonal benefits have also made it a must-spray for plenty of contemporary makers, regardless of styling.

4 The Word On Poly Is That It “Chokes”

But hold on, that’s a claim mainly made by its detractors, and far from proven fact. A lot of the bias against poly finishes comes from the fact that thick polyester finishes used from the late ’60s and into the ’70s on Fender guitars, and forever after on many budget makes, noticeably constrained the wood’s resonance. The polyurethane used by many top makers today, however, is a completely different animal. Several makers of high-end guitars—Nik Huber, Paul Reed Smith, Roger Giffin, and John Suhr among them—use polyurethane on the majority of their guitars, with excellent results both visually and tonally.

5 So Is The Truth Out There?

Possibly, but can we ever truly discern it? Since wood is an organic, imperfect material that differs even when cut from the same tree, while other components such as pickups are nearly as variable, a scientific A/B listening test between nitro and polyurethane is nearly impossible. Maybe it’s best, then, to close on the comments of skilled guitar-builder Scott Lentz, who uses both without prejudice: “It isn’t so much the type of finish used, but the skill with which it is applied, the thinness of the final finish, and, more than anything, the quality of the guitar itself.”

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