5 Different Types of Guitar Finishes and Their Uses

Types of guitar finishes are a common topic among people selecting a new guitar or considering building their guitar using their materials.

While any experienced guitar player will identify a guitar by its manufacturer and model, and the inexperienced might identify the instrument by its colour, the guitar finish is an equally important aesthetic identifier.

The guitar finish is not the paint colour. The compound finishes the guitar aesthetic and gives it its last little polish.

Here are the different types of guitar finishes, how they’re made, and the pros and cons of selecting a guitar finish.

Type #1: Polyester Guitar Finish

A polyester finish is the least common of the list of guitar finishes on this list. Polyester was first popularized in the early 1970s, predominantly by Fender, as a fast, easy alternative to nitrocellulose and polyurethane.

There are a lot of pros to using polyester as a guitar finish. It doesn’t age easily, and the colour stays bright. Polyester is also resistant to scratching and dents and is one of the most affordable guitar finishes. Some do, however, argue that how the polyester sinks into the wood damages some of the sonic capabilities and resonance of the guitar.

Thereby, a polyester-finished guitar will get more of its sound from the pickups alone rather than from the resonance of the wood. This is why some guitar players argue against using polyester for a guitar finish.

Type #2: Nitrocellulose Lacquer Guitar Finish

Nitrocellulose lacquer, a nitro finish, is the classic electric guitar finish. It is made from plant-based cellulose and is then combined with a nitro-solvent. Affectionately known as ‘nitro,’ it was first used in the 1950s and 1960s, originally applied as a spray-on paint for automobiles.

Guitars then took it over. Nitrocellulose is a softer, thinner-skinned finish, allowing the wood’s natural resonance to come through. The finish can more easily crack, especially during drastic temperature changes, and the finish thins with age. However, why guitar players love nitrocellulose because you’re going to get the best sound from it, and how it degrades over time only adds value, personality, and character to all that guitar playing you do today and in the years to come.

In terms of sound and classic guitar aesthetics, nitrocellulose guitar finish may be your best option.

Type #3: Polyurethane Guitar Finish

Polyurethane was used before polyester paint finishes and as the alternative to nitrocellulose lacquer in the late 1960s. It is a plastic, urethane-based finish first developed in Germany. Polyurethane provides an even finish, is a two-coat finish, and is more reliable than trying to cover a guitar in nitrocellulose. It dries quickly. It also is more affordable compared to nitro.

Polyurethane is hard and abrasion-resistant and provides a glossier look than nitrocellulose. It is also more porous than polyester, allowing a little more natural resonance from the wood. It ages quite well as well.

Most guitar players will want to pick polyurethane for a guitar finish when concerned about cost. It’s the go-to guitar finish for most manufacturers, prioritizing a cost-effective pick.

Type #4: Oils & Wax Guitar Finish

The oldest guitar finish is the oils and waxes acoustic guitars are finished with. They’re less popular today because they lack protection from oils and waxes. The oils are usually plant-based, whereas the wax is usually refined beeswax. Oils and wax will not alter the guitar’s tone, which is necessary when working with an acoustic guitar.

You want all the natural acoustic tones you can get without relying on an amp. You get to see the natural grain of the acoustic guitar in all its charms. Oils and wax will enhance the aesthetics of your guitar, are lightweight, and are very easy to apply so long as the body wood is properly prepped and given some time to dry.

Type #5: Shellac Guitar Finish

Shellac is another type of lightweight, glossy finish that can be applied to a guitar to enhance the natural wood grain patterns in the wood. Shellac is a natural resin from an insect native to Thailand and India. It should not impact the guitar’s tone much and adds a unique aesthetic dimension to your instrument.

For acoustic and classical guitars where you want as much natural sound as possible, shellac is a way to go. For the average guitar player, shellac is easy to apply. However, it will require a full week to dry. The sealant can be applied with a paintbrush or sprayed on and polished to ensure it is evenly applied.

By comparison, shellac is tougher and has more gloss than oils and wax, offering a little more protection.

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