Basic Guitar Finish & Refinish Guide  
So you have a guitar body that you wish to refinish; expect that to be a tough job.  Most guitar companies use catalyzed polyester-urethane paint and chemical strippers won't remove it.

In that event, my advice would be to purchase a small random orbital sander, NOT one of the square, 1/4 sheet vibrating sanders.

I would further advise NOT to totally strip off that polyurethane paint. Start with 220 grit sandpaper and scuff the surface up to 400 grit. There is often a thick coat of sealer under it and there is often a thin wooden veneer under that thick coat of sealer. If you sand through either or both of those layers you'll have a pit that's nearly impossible to smooth out. 

Also, it will be virtually impossible to get your sander into the cutaway areas close to where the neck attaches to the body. You'll need to sand those by hand.

Once you've got the surface scuffed to 400 grit, and wiped with a tack cloth, proceed with the steps below.

Within each step, I explain how to do both opaque and transparent color.


  1. Starting with a clean guitar body, determine whether you want an opaque color or transparent color.

    For an opaque color, I recommend using Dupli-Color  automotive acrylic lacquer. You can buy it in a variety of colors at many auto parts stores. Make sure to get acrylic lacquer, NOT ENAMEL or LATEX.

    AT NO TIME during the following steps should you allow the body to hang in direct sunlight. Blistering can (and probably will) occur.

    Don't mix lacquers with enamels or latexes. Unpredictable and undesirable results can occur.

    Use a mask while spraying, even in well ventilated areas. Don't smoke while spraying.


Bare Mahogany

  1. For an opaque color, first spray a light coat of lacquer primer. DO NOT spray on a heavy coat.

    Don't worry if your first color coat doesn't look like the color on the can. Your second and third color coats will start to look as they should.

    For a transparent color, get a bottle of leather dye in the desired color from a crafts store such as Hobby Lobby. Mix one part dye with at least 2 parts alcohol (70% or higher isopropyl alcohol is okay.)

    The more alcohol you use, the more coats you will have to apply to achieve the desired depth of color. Apply the mixture the same way you apply wood stain; with gloves and a small, soft rag.


Two Coats of Transparent Dye

  1. For opaque color, let your lacquer primer dry for a minimum of two hours. Sand lightly with 600 grit sandpaper until smooth, wipe clean with a tack cloth, then apply a light coat of the spray lacquer you purchased from the auto parts store.

    Start with a very light coat and let it dry 1 hour. Then apply a second slightly heavier coat and let it dry for two hours. Then apply a third "wet" coat and let it dry overnight. DO NOT sand in between the coats, particularly if using a metallic finish.

    In the unfortunate event you get a run, wait till it dries overnight, then sand very lightly with 400-600 grit sandpaper. Wait a couple of hours, then spray on a slightly wet coat of color to cover the spot that had the run. Let dry overnight.

    For transparent color, let the dye dry for a minimum of two hours. Sand very lightly with 600 grit sandpaper and wipe clean with a tack cloth.

    Spray on a light coat of lacquer. Let dry for an hour, then apply a wet coat of lacquer. Let dry for two hours and apply another wet coat . Let dry overnight.

    After the lacquer has dried overnight, sand lightly with 600 grit sandpaper that has been soaked at least half a day in clean water. The purpose of this sanding is to smooth out the "orange peel" texture left behind as the lacquer dries. Soaking the paper lubricates it and helps keep it from getting clogged with lacquer residue.


Lacquer Applied and Sanded Smooth


Doesn't look shiny because
I haven't polished it yet.


  1. For opaque lacquer, your color coats should have dried overnight before proceeding. We now want to protect that color with about 6 wet coats of clear acrylic lacquer.

    Start with a light coat and let it dry for an hour. Then apply a wet coat and let it dry for two hours. Apply another wet coat and let it dry overnight.

    Repeat this process of spraying two wet coats per day until you have sprayed on a total of 6-8 coats.

    Try very hard to avoid spraying so much that you get a run. If you do get a run, allow it to dry overnight and sand smooth the next day.

    For transparent color, your first few coats of lacquer should have dried overnight before proceeding. Apply a wet coat and let it dry two hours, then apply another wet coat and let it dry overnight.

    Repeat this process of spraying two wet coats per day until you have sprayed on a total of 6-8 coats.

    Try very hard to avoid spraying so much that you get a run. If you do get a run, allow it to dry overnight and sand smooth the next day.


No picture of this stage.

  1. The next few steps are the same whether you sprayed opaque color or used transparent dye.

    You sprayed on 6-8 coats of clear lacquer. Let this dry for about a week. That may seem like a long time, but there's a reason. Lacquer dries to the touch pretty quickly, but can take up to a month for multiple coats to dry hard enough to begin mounting the hardware on your guitar body.

    Let it dry for a week, then sand lightly with soaked sandpaper starting at 600 grit and working your way up to 2000 grit. Don't skip any steps along the way (600-800-1000-1500-2000). Always use automotive sandpaper, not the brown stuff from the hardware section of your local store.

    Sand with each grit until the body feels smooth under the sandpaper. Periodically rinse the paper so that residue does not collect and scratch the finish. Don't sand the edges (much); the finish is thinnest there and you can easily cut right through it.

    Wipe it clean with a damp cloth and let it hang for at least two hours before moving to the next grit. Once you've reached 2000 grit, let the body hang at least three days before the next stage.

This is a satin lacquer,
so it's not very glossy.

  1. Now comes a critical stage: polishing. If you're not careful, you can rub right through the lacquer using mechanical buffers, particularly on the edges.

    Buy some rubbing compound and some polishing compound from an auto parts store. Also get a small orbital buffer with a wool bonnet and a foam bonnet. I don't recommend the cheap ones that are intended for waxing cars. They don't create enough friction to polish the lacquer.

    You can do this by hand without a buffer, but it will take longer.

    Another option is to buy a buffing head that fits into your drill and purchase wool and foam bonnets to use with it.

    Lay the guitar on a clean, flat, un-textured surface (we don't want the finish to become marred- and we don't want the guitar to move while buffing).  A big piece of brown cardboard or brown craft paper does nicely.

    Start with the rubbing compound on the wool bonnet and buff until smooth with a cloudy haze. Wipe clean with a damp cloth.

    Now use the polishing compound with the foam bonnet and polish until shiny. If you're not satisfied with your reflection in the finish, go back to the rubbing compound and the wool bonnet and repeat.

    After this step, let the guitar hang for another week or two before attaching any hardware. This ensures the lacquer has cured hard enough that it won't bulge out from under the bridge and/or pickguard.

I bought a buffer similar to this
at a tool store for about $45.


I bought these buffing & polishing compounds
at an auto parts store.
Pricey at about $1 per ounce,
but delivers great results
and a little goes a long way.

  1. Assemble, play, and enjoy.

    BTW, I finished this guitar with satin lacquer. It would be much shinier with gloss lacquer. You can see some examples of higher gloss finishes by clicking on my logo at the top of this page.

    No, I did not discuss assembly, wiring, or setup on this page. Look for info on those topics here.

Polished & Assembled
With a Satin Finish




This page has been viewed
Hit Counter

This collection of information is 2006-2008, Bert Clevenger. All rights reserved.
Third party products, supplies, & websites mentioned herein are Trademarks and/or Copyrights of their respective companies.