How to Paint and Finish a DIY Guitar, with No Special Tools

Finish a Guitar Kit like a Pro?

DIY Guitar Kits are the perfect way to build yourself a unique guitar at a budget price. This can also be a gift to a guitar lover who likes to tinker or even a handyman (or woman) who would appreciate the challenge. Most Guitar Kits are modeled resembling some of the most familiar and iconic guitars we are all known by shape if not name. Most kits will also come without a finish. What can make your kit a one-of-a-kind is often the finish you will apply to it. Considering one of the appealing aspects of the kit building is that you do not need to have the tools of professional guitar builders you may ask yourself:

How do I Finish my Guitar Kit (to look) like a Pro?

There are generally three ways (with different difficulty levels) you can finish your guitar, to look great, without investing in expensive equipment, fancy polishing and buffing wheels, or a painting booth.

  • Applying an oil finish (with or without staining)
  • A Mat finish over solid colors or stains
  • High gloss finish over solid colors

These will require no cost other than the materials themselves, maybe some brushes, thinners if needed and sandpaper of different grits.

There are benefits and pitfalls to all these methods with two ways to make up for the low budget and lack of equipment: Patients and plenty of ‘Elbow grease’.

Preparation of the surfaces

Regardless of the final finish, you will use you want to first get your surface to a point where it will be ready to receive the finish and make the best out of it. Chances are, you also want your guitar to be smooth, both for comfort and for looks. This will be achieved by treating the grain and plenty of sanding. Guitar kits will come sanded to about 100 grit, which is a good place to start. If it’s evenly done you can start climbing through 220grit, 320, and 400. You can sand up to 600, but in most cases, it may not be necessary.

The beauty and coarseness of wood grain

The grain and pores of natural wood are what give it its beauty and character. We cherish guitar tops for their unique texture. We often want to preserve or even enhance those very same grain patterns. On the other hand, when it comes to smoothing, the grain and pores (with some wood types more than others) will often get in our way. Sanding is not always enough and grain filling may also be necessary. Much more on this in ‘Make Your Guitar Smooth Looking’.

Sanding Tip: To raise the grain, run a damp rag over the surface. By the time it dries (should be a few minutes) the grain will rise and your guitar will become a little fuzzy. Sanding it with the same grit as your last, or one higher will remove it. This is done to avoid this happening after the first coat of stain/color/varnish, especially if these are water-based.

Staining your guitar

Regardless of the transparent top coat or oil, you will want to have, you may want to give some color. Stains and dyes maintain the natural textures of the wood but add color to it. This may be as simple as tinting the whole surface with a single stain or creating gradients of any type, or even going for one of the so popular bursts. Stains and dyes can be water-based or any type. Most of these can be applied with a clean rag or a lintless paper towel as they will be absorbed into the wood and will not affect the feel. Unless it is part of the painting technique you want to apply the stains and dyes on a smooth surface so you will not end up sanding it off.

Staining Tips:

It is always good to test on a similar surface to see how the stain or dye behaves, especially if you are going to try anything more complex than a one color.

Surface sanded with lower grit (240 grit vs 400 for example) will absorb more stain and will give a deeper color.

Very smooth surface (sanded with 600 -800grit or higher) may be less receptive to stain and will give a lighter result with less contrast

To make the grain ‘Pop’, stain with a darker color, even black, and sand it back to leave just the highlights.

Different brands and stains will give different results

Different woods will receive dyes and stains differently

Sealing your stains

Depending on the type of stain/ dye or colors you are using, you may want to coat it with a sealer. Sealers will prevent the topcoat from damaging and give it better stability. An added bonus to sealers is that they are very ‘sandable’ and will also give a good base for the topcoats. If you are not sure, do a test of your stain/ dye with the clear coat on a scrap piece. Sealers are usually not necessary with oil-based paint and most spray cans.

Finishing your guitar with oil

If you want to preserve the natural look of the wood and don’t care for a glossy shine, oil is by far the easiest route to finish your guitar and can be made to look professional with a relatively simple application. The first layer or two will get absorbed and will deepen the natural colors of the wood. Further layering will build up a thicker and thicker layer of film which can be polished to a beautiful sheen. This will not give the hard shell and the mirror shine of lacquers but will look great and protect against moisture and dirt.

Applying an oil finish

The first application will be the heaviest. Use clean lint-less rag or paper towel and lather the surface generously with your oil of choice. Work it in thoroughly and then wipe the excess of. Depending on the type of oil, you want to give it a few hours before the second application. You want the surface to be dry to the touch.

Oil finish tip

Apply the first layer using a 1200-1500grit paper (I like the sponge) to create a sort of slurry of oil and fine dust. This will help fill and seal the pores a bit better. Do wipe off the residue, you do not want it to dry on top.

The second application will need significantly less oil and will be applied in much the same way. After the second layer, you can keep adding more and more and they will slowly build up. I like to apply one coat per day for it to fully dry. But you can probably do two or three in warmer weather. It’s really up to you how to decide how thick you want to build it. After a few layers, you can also give it some light sanding to get it a bit smoother. Sanding will matt it a bit so you want to do it between every few coats. After you are happy with the result you can give it some dry buffing to give it its final sheen. Done.

Types of oils for your guitar finish include a wide range, which all have their strengths and characteristics. It also depends on the make. Some luthiers will swear by one type. The most common ones are: Tang oil, True oil, Teak oil and Danish oil.

Applying a Solid Opaque Color

A solid color can be a great choice if you don’t want the natural look, you are trying to hide anything or just like it. In most cases a solid, opaque color you will want to spend extra time on the preparation, grain filling, and sanding, as the flat surface will highlight any blemishes. Filling the grain and any other cracks or scratches will be much easier than layering more and more paint to make up for it later. The smoothest way to apply an even coat is by spraying it. Assuming we don’t have a spray gun available our best choice is spray cans. Regular spray cans don’t provide the same versatility and fine-tuning as a professional gun, but the proper application (see some tips below) can provide an excellent alternative. The spray will provide a much thinner coat than a brush, roller, or sponge but in a more even manner.

Artistic Tip:

An alternative to a plain color finish can be painting on the guitar, gluing a printed image, cloth cover, and more. There are also many versatile sprays with glitter, metallic finish, and textures. The possibilities are endless.

Applying Color to your guitar Using a Spray can

Shake the can thoroughly until you here the metal ball rattling freely inside. This is equivalent to stirring, so you can’t overdo it.

  • Hold it about 10”-15” away from the surface.
  • Spray at a bit of an angle in relation to the surface
  • When you find the right distance and angle that works, try and stay consistent with it
  • Spray back and forth with about 50% overlap.
  • You can and should apply a couple more coats 10-15 minutes apart when it’s still a bit tacky.

Layering your paint

Drying time is under 30 minutes to the touch and I will usually layer about 2-3 coats and then leave it overnight. We want these three coats to dry enough before the next 3. At that point, I may also sand it lightly to remove any inconsistencies and help the next coats stick to it. 1200-1500 grit pads or paper should be ok here. Our aim is to apply a few layers to get it thick enough for good coverage. Once that is achieved there is no benefit to more paint and you can move to the clear coats. Often the first layer will expose little bumps or scratches which we will need to go back and sand or fill. This may be a local issue in some cases, and the whole surface in others. This is where patients will be your biggest asset.

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Tips for Painting Your Guitar with a Spray Can

Always start spraying off your surface and work on it. You don’t want the bigger droplets ‘spit’ at the beginning of the spray

Too little is always better than too much. Avoid runs at all cost, it’s better to have to do a couple more, thin coats, than sand and repeat.

Put your can in hot water for a few minutes. The warm paint will flow more evenly and give smaller drops.

To avoid clogging of the nozzle, spray upside down when finished a layer, and dip it in hot water before the next.

If it does clog, clean with a wet rag or take it off and soak it in naphtha, thinner or mineral spirit.

Clear coating your guitar

Now that the color/ stain part is done, you may want to give it a thick clear coat for both protection and look. There are two main ways to apply clear coats to your guitar, spray and manual. The spray will give a more even but thinner coat, so you may need more layers to work up to the necessary thickness. The manual methods will not come on as smoothly but will give a much thicker coat, faster.

Wipe-on and Brush-on polyurethane

These two are fairly similar with the brushed version being a bit thicker. The application is fairly similar to oil. You will apply a few layers with either a rag or brush and build up a thick coat. Check the manufacturers’ recommendations for how long to wait before coats. It should be around 3 hours, and if you are not sure, just wait a bit more. This will give you a thicker layer than a spray can would, so 3 or 4 layers may be enough. If your surface is thick enough but still uneven, you may want to first sand with 800-1000 grit paper. The final stage here is fine sanding with 1200-1500 grit paper. This will give it a very smooth and even look while scuffing it enough to remain matt. You can work it to be glossy if you wish, but more on that later.

Spraying your clear coat

Using spray cans for your clear coat is similar to spraying color. Again, you will want to layer multiple coats to form a thick smooth transparent surface which you will be able to sand with high grit sanding paper. You can apply multiple layers with a 15-minute drying time for multi-layering, but if you need to sand between sessions, let it dry overnight and preferably a few days. These usually dry to the touch fast but final curing can take up to weeks.

If the surface seems uneven or if you have extreme ‘orange peel’, you may want to sand with 800-1000 grit, (very carefully). Otherwise, just scuff it lightly with a 1200-1500 grit pad or steel wool, just so the next coats adhere better. This process can be repeated up to a total of 6-12 layers. Once you have reached the thickness and the smoothness to move beyond a 1000 grit you can choose if want to leave it matt or starting to polish it. This would also be a good time to let it fully cure, and that can take between a few days to a few weeks, depending on the product you are using, the temperature, and humidity.

Finishing with a matt clear coat

The main difference between the products labeled mat or satin finish and the glossy ones is some particles that are suspended in the matt finish. With multiple layers, these may begin to give a bit of a haze to the clear coat. You can avoid that by using the glossy version and either just sanding the final layer with 1200-1500 grit paper, scuffing it with 0000 steel wool, or applying just the last coat with the matt/ satin spray.

Giving your guitar a Glossy finish

To work up a shiny glass-like finish as we see on showroom guitars you will need to polish and buff a lot. The person working at Gibson or Fender can work for over half an hour buffing one guitar using compounds and a large buffing wheel to get that kind of result. To reach a similar effect without professional tools you will need to do two things:

  1. Sand to the highest grit you can
  2. Polish to high gloss
Selected Guitar Kits

High grit sanding as preparation

At this point, you will hopefully start sanding at 1200 or 1500 grit and have a very smooth surface. Look at the surface at an angle to see the tiny uniform scratches. Larger scratches and dents will not be fixed from this point on, and you may, sadly, need to go a step or two back to fix them.

If you do not manage to achieve a smooth surface and need more and more sanding, you run the risk of sanding through the clear coat and into the color.

The smoother you manage to layer your clear coats, the easier it will be to sand and the higher the grit in which you will start the polishing, thus saving both time and effort.

When the whole surface is uniformly sanded to 1500, we can start advancing to 2000, 3000, 4000 and even 5000 grit. Your eye will barely notice the difference, but it will make a the polishing easier.

Polishing to a final gloss

Polishing is in fact an abrasive action, similar to sanding, but on a microscopic level. To achieve this, we will need to use a polishing compound which also has lubricants. Polishing compounds will usually come in set of two or three, with one for rougher, (relatively) deeper scratches, and one or two to follow with medium scratches and very fine swirls. These can be applied with pads which can be mounted on drills, orbital sanders, or designated polishers. They can also be applied manually with a clean cotton or microfiber rag. You can borrow thes products from the automotive industry, but do make sure you are using polish compounds and not wax.

Applying Polish and Buffing

Whether applying by hand or not, the idea is to start from the more aggressive compound, rub it in with circular motion, all over the surface for a few good minutes and remove the residue. You can spritz a bit of water to help if it’s too thick or dry. You should already be getting a nice shine off the surface. Now it’s time to repeat with the fine compound. Make sure to use a new piece of cloth or pad with the new compound and repeat the process. This is all about the elbow grease. If you have a third, ultra-fine compound in your set, just change your pad or rag and repeat. If you think your final pass did not give you all that it should you can just repeat it and get an even better gloss.

If you did sand up to a very smooth surface with say, 5000grit, you may be able to skip the more aggressive compound and just do a couple of passes with the finer one. You can use softer pads or cloth for the last one or two passes.

Polishing Tips

Polishing, especially with a sander or drill, can get relatively hot. Let your surface cool off before moving to the next compound, you don’t want to damage the clear coat.

If you are using a set of pads, they also contain a wool pad for the final passes. Wool pads do tend to heat up more than the foam, so be aware

 Work the compound into the surface with firm and consistent force, but don’t grind it, especially if using power tools. It is abrasive and you can damage the topcoat

Keep your surface moist enough so you can glide on it and not arm wrestle with it.

Be aware of water and other residues accumulating in screw holes and cavities. These can soak and swell. Make sure to dry them out when done.

An Alternative to using polishing compounds

Micro-Mesh sanding pads or paper are essentially ultra-fine abrasives that will bring you up to 10000 or 12000 grit. This will not require much force but sure does require a lot of sanding. Their grit numbering is a bit skewed from the standard, so if you have sanded up the regular 1500, you can start the Micromesh from about 3000 and work up from there. Like most higher grits, they do work better with wet sanding, otherwise, they clog very quickly

Conclusion

Finishing your guitar or guitar kit can be a lot of fun and is an opportunity for a lot of creativity and ways to make it unique. Professional-looking finish can be achieved with simpler tools, but the trade off will be a lot more work. If this is something you think you will enjoy, you can certainly achieve beauty. If you prefer a simpler choice, there are wonderful solutions that will require much less time and effort. Either, enjoy it.

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