There are any number of reasons that somebody may want to repaint their guitar; maybe they bought used and the color wasn’t exactly what they wanted, or they’ve simply grown tired of the original color. There’s also the possibility that the original finish is damaged and they want to bring the guitar back to a like new condition. Whatever the reason, repainting a guitar is a possibility in many cases.
To help you get things done the right way, this KillerGuitarRigs Guide will walk you through the steps to repaint a guitar in great detail. We’ll list all the equipment you’ll need, and we’ll guide you through how to use it to refinish your guitar.
- What You’ll Need
- Tools and Supplies
- Strip the Old Finish Off the Guitar
- Apply the Coating
- Translucent Finish
- Deep Finish
- Level Sanding
- Polish the Surface
- Final Thoughts on Repainting a Guitar
What You’ll Need
Repainting a guitar is a much more in depth procedure than simply buying paint and putting it on top of the existing finish. In order to do this job right, you’ll need to strip the existing finish, prep the wood, prime, paint, paint again, then add your clear coat. By having everything you need available before you need to use it, you’ll reduce the chances of ruining the finish through lack of preparation.
Tools and Supplies
This will save a lot of time when removing the old paint, and also when smoothing off the finish of each new coat.
Having a rotary tool will allow you to get into the corners of the cavities to remove the old finish where an orbital sander or sandpaper sheets simply can’t.
Paint Spray Gun (Optional)
Using a spray gun or spray paint will yield far better result than rollers or brushes.
Spray paint works just as well as a spray gun – we recommend Colortone Brand.
This will be the top coat on your newly finished guitar.
Grain filler will fill the caps created by the wood’s natural grain before painting. This is vital for achieving a factory smooth finish.
Once you’ve painted the inside of the cavity, you can take the opportunity to line it with shielding tape to reduce electromagnetic interference.
Sandpaper (120-3000 Grit)
Having a range of sandpaper from coarse to extra fine will let you quickly remove the old paint, and then create a perfect surface to apply the new finish to.
Tack cloths are sticky sheets that are used to remove dust and debris from the areas you’re looking to paint
Paint thinner can be used to remove old paint, or to reduce the viscosity of paint that you plan to use in a spray gun
This is used to protect areas that you don’t want to paint
Contractor’s paper is used together with masking tape to cover areas (like fretboards) that should not be painted
This will be needed in order to remove the neck of your guitar (where appropriate)
This is going to be necessary for finishing the guitar after the clear coat has cured. This will buff out any swirls, resulting in a smooth finish.
You’ll need polish to use with the buffer in order to get a professional finish. Liquid Ice is our recommendation as it can be used as a 1 step product to take you from rough to mirror finish.
Before starting anything else, you’ll need to disassemble any part of your guitar that can be taken apart. This will help to prevent overspray from damaging areas that you don’t want to paint.
As you take the guitar apart, we suggest you place any screws or hardware into separate labeled baggies so that nothing gets misplaced or put back incorrectly later on.
Remove the Strings
In order to paint behind the strings, they’ll need to be removed. Start by slackening down from the tuning pegs, and either unwrapping them from the posts, or simply snipping them using wire cutters or pliers. Pull the ball ends out of the bridge and discard the old strings.
Remove the Neck
If your guitar has a bolt on neck, you should remove it before you start refinishing. It may seem daunting if you’ve never done it before, but it really is as simple as unscrewing it and lifting it off. The bolts will make it simple to line back up when you put the neck back on, too.
If your guitar has a set neck or is neck-through, then you won’t need to remove it, although you will need to consider whether or not you’ll be refinishing the back of the neck, too.
Remove the Pickguard
To get the best possible finish you’ll want to take off the pick guard so that you can paint underneath it. If your guitar is a Strat style, or anything with the pickup selector switch and pots running through the pickguard, you’ll need to remove the knobs and the pickup selector cap first.
To remove the pickguard, take your screwdriver set and loosen every screw. Be careful when lifting off the pickguard if your guitar has its electronics attached to it. If this is the case, you’ll need to unscrew the pickups and unbolt the pots from the pickguard.
Remove Remaining Hardware
Once the pickguard has been taken off, you can start to take off the remaining hardware. The easy parts to remove are the strap buttons, bridge, saddle, tremolo cover, and pickup covers. If you’re refinishing a guitar with a set neck, and you’ll be painting the neck and headstock, go ahead and remove the tuners, too.
The final step in disassembly is removing the electronics, as in the output jack, potentiometers, and pickups. The process is quite different depending on what type of guitar you’re painting. For example, on a Strat, everything is right under the pickguard, and will come out relatively easy. On an SG, however, the wire from the output jack to the pots is routed through a closed channel, meaning you’ll have to snip the wire at the jack end and re-solder it once you’re ready to reassemble.
The key thing when removing the electronics is to take lots of pictures so that you know exactly where everything came from, and to be extremely careful with the delicate components.
Now that the guitar is broken down into components, take an inventory of everything you have, and make sure everything is placed into labeled containers or bags. Repainting a guitar properly can take several weeks depending on the type of finish you’re applying, so taking the time to organize before moving on to the next step can save you the expense and inconvenience of having to order new parts because something got lost.
Strip the Old Finish Off the Guitar
Before you can apply a new finish to your guitar, you must remove the existing lacquer. If you try to paint directly on the old finish, especially if it has a polyurethane coat, new paint will not properly adhere to it, and even if it dries evenly (which it likely won’t), it’ll peel off very quickly and probably look worse than when you started.
While you can strip off the clear coat, rough up the surface, and paint on top of the old paint, it isn’t recommended. It’s much more effective to start with bare wood. If you paint on top of old paint, you may end up with color bleed, which will make the new finish look different to the way you imagined it. Plus, starting on bare wood, you’ll get a much more even finish with fewer coats, which can potentially help your tone.
Apply Protective Coverings if Necessary
If you are refinishing a guitar with a set neck, now is the best time to cover the areas that won’t be refinished to prevent accidental damage from the sanding process. This is probably going to mean fully covering your nut and fretboard using masking tape and contractor’s paper. Take the time to ensure that there aren’t any bubbles under the tape, and that it’s stuck down securely to prevent any paint from bleeding under.
Sand the Body Down
The first step in stripping off the old finish is to sand down the body. This is where the orbital sander we recommended in the tools list will be most useful. Having a power tool like this will dramatically speed up the process, and likely net you a better finish.
On your first pass with the orbital sander, use coarse grit sandpaper. This will help you break down the old finish much more effectively, especially polyurethane lacquer. Remember to use a dust mask during this process, and only work in a well ventilated area – the dust could be potentially hazardous to your health. When using a powered sander, be careful of edges and contours, and try to make sure you keep the sander flat to the body to prevent shaving down the wood and altering the shape.
If you find that the shape of the body is making it difficult to remove the finish in certain areas, don’t be afraid to take a sheet of sandpaper wrapped around a sponge to manually strip that section.
When you’ve got the body down to bare wood, start to gradually moving to finer sandpaper, until you get to a medium grit. Going too smooth at this stage will make it more difficult to get the paint to adhere properly. Be careful of edges and contours, and try to make sure you keep the sander flat to the body to prevent shaving down the wood and altering the body shape.
Strip the Cavities
Once you’ve removed the clearcoat and paint from the bulk of the body, it’s time to do the same for the cavities. This isn’t technically necessary as you won’t see this area on a day to day basis, but if you want a professional looking finish, it’s worth taking the time to do
The flat areas can be tackled manually with smaller strips of coarse grit sandpaper. When it comes to the corners, and any of the nooks and crannies like cable routs that you can’t get your fingers into, the rotary tool comes in very handy. Load it up with a sandpaper bit and you’ll have the cavity stripped fairly quickly.
After using your sander, if you’ve noticed that there is still finish on your instrument, you can use sandpaper to remove the rest.
Curved areas on your guitar are going to be difficult for your sander to reach, so coarse grit sandpaper or a coarse grit sanding sponge can be used to remove the finish in these hard-to-reach places.
Clean Your Workspace
At this point you should have a fully stripped guitar. Before moving on to the painting, it’s really important to clean up the work space. There is likely to be a significant amount of dust after the sanding, and if that dust ends up in the wet paint, you’ll have a rough finish, and will likely need to start over. Sweep up, vacuum and otherwise clean until the dust is gone.
Once you’ve finished cleaning up, take your tack cloth and dab the entire body (and neck if applicable). These cloths will pick up any residual dust, hair, or debris from the surface.
Fill the Grain
Using a grain filler powder will fill the gaps that naturally occur in wood grain without dampening the tone or otherwise altering the performance of the wood itself. It will create a much smoother surface to paint on, which will get you the best possible finish. All purpose filler works best, as it’s compatible with all coatings.
Once the filler is applied, rough up the surface a little with some medium grit sandpaper. This will make sure that the filler is only in the crevices, and it will further prep the surface for paint.
Clean the Surface
Take your mineral oil paint thinners and apply a light amount to the entire surface that is to be painted. You’ll have to do this one side at a time. The aim here is to strip away any oils that are left on the surface of the bare wood. These oils can interfere with the paint, and cause uneven coloration.
Once you’ve cleaned one side, allow it to dry completely before touching it to flip it over. When both sides are cleaned, you’re ready to start applying the first coats of primer.
Apply the Coating
At this point you are ready to paint. If you haven’t already figured out the type of finish you’re looking for, read on for some advice and suggestions.
If you’re looking to stick with a more natural look, and you’d like the wood grain to show through, you’ll want to consider staining rather than painting your guitar. Stain will tint the wood to the color of your choosing, but as it’s absorbed rather than laying on top of the surface, the grain shows through.
You’ll need to wet down the body of the guitar before staining, but pay close attention to the stain manufacturer’s recommendations before starting, as it could vary between brands.
The more coats of stain you apply, the darker the look will be. We suggest you experiment in the cavity to see if you like the finish. If it’s not what you expected, it’s much easier to hide. Always start with a very light coat, and build up gradually until you have the tint you want, remember that the finish will look different after drying.
If you’re planning to stain your guitar, skip the paint section and rejoin at the clear coat section.
If you’re planning to paint, there are a number of steps to take to achieve the perfect finish. First, you need to decide what kind of a look you’re going for. This will impact the steps to take to refinish the guitar, so this is the point of the process where you need to make a final decision.
Before you get started with the painting, make sure you’re working in a well ventilated space, using a proper respirator mask to prevent inhalation of paint spray. It’s also a good idea to set up some of your contractor’s paper behind the guitar to catch any overspray and prevent paint getting on anything you don’t want to be painted.
If you want a painted finish that still shows a hint of woodgrain through as you’d find on a Cherry Red SG or a TV Yellow Les Paul Special, you’ll need to skip the primer. To get this kind of finish, you’ll apply a single, very thin layer of paint directly to the bare wood. Allow it to dry and see whether there’s too much grain showing, or whether you got it right. If you want to cover more of the grain, add a second layer of paint and allow it to dry.
When you have the desired look, you will then need to apply your clearcoat. As with a stain finish, you’ll need to choose between nitro and polyurethane. Poly tends to be harder wearing and have a glossier finish, while nitro tends to allow the color of the paint to really shine, and will age beautifully over time if applied correctly.
If you’re looking for a deep finish like a Gibson Ebony, or a Fender Candy Apple Red, you’ll need to follow a number of steps in order to achieve perfect results:
Primer will prevent wood grain from showing through the paint, and it will also provide the correct surface for paint to bond to. When spraying on your primer, start with the edges of the guitar before moving on to the front and back. Spray from about 8 to 10” away and always perform a double pass on each area you coat.
After the first coat has dried, lightly sand and then apply a second coat. Once the second coat is dry, you can use fine grit sand paper to lightly abrade the surface again. If it’s necessary, apply a third coat of primer, and sand again.
Once your primer is dry, dab the body down with your tack cloth to remove any dust, and you’re ready to move on to paint.
Using a similar technique to the primer, begin spraying your color of choice onto the guitar. When spraying, aim for 50% overlap on each pass; so, if you have a 4” spray pattern, move the nozzle 2” down for each new pass. Don’t expect to get 100% coverage on your first coat.
Chasing total coverage here will result in an unevenly applied finish, and this won’t look good. Once the first coat has dried, repeat the process, using the 50% overlap method again. If you’ve done it right, you’ll have covered the entire guitar at this stage. There should be no need to apply more than 2 coats of color.
Once your chosen coating is applied, be it stain, translucent paint finish, or a deep paint finish, you’ll need to apply a protective clear coat afterwards. Remember, you should allow upwards of 2 weeks drying time for your paint before applying clear coat, depending on the type of paint or stain you’ve used.
When the color has been properly cured, you can dab the surface with tack cloth, then you can begin to apply the clear coat.
The process is slightly different, depending on which type of clear coat you’ve chosen. Read on to learn more about each method
Spray the first layer to the body using the same method as you did for primer and paint and allow it to dry. It will probably feel dry to the touch after around 45 minutes, but you must allow it to cure for longer to get the correct look and to achieve the proper hardness.
After around 3 hours, you should be able to abrade the surface using synthetic wire wool. The aim isn’t to sand the surface down, but rather, to provide a better surface for the next layer of poly to stick to. Wipe off the surface with a microfiber towel, and apply the next coat. Repeat this process for the first 6 coats, allowing at least 3 hours in between layers, and abrading the surface before applying the next.
After the first 6 coats are on, you can cut down the time between coats to around 45 minutes if you’re in a hurry, but sticking to 3 hours will result in a better finish. In total, you’ll need about 12 to 15 coats of polyurethane to get a professional looking finish. Once you’ve applied the final coat, do not abrade the surface.
Once all coats are on, you should allow 2 to 4 weeks for the polyurethane lacquer to properly cure before moving on to the next step
A nitro finish needs to be handled a little differently to polyurethane. It will still require curing time, but it does not need to be abraded between coats. This is because each subsequent layer of nitrocellulose gently melts the surface of the previous layer, removing the need to prep the surface for adherence.
As with poly, apply a thin coat, and allow to dry before applying the next layer. Nitro takes longer to dry than poly, so the whole process can take several weeks longer. For the best finish, try to apply no more than 2 coats a day, although sticking to 1 coat a day will yield the best results.
Once you have 12-15 coats, leave it to cure for no less than 2 weeks. Remember, the longer you wait, the better the finish will be when it comes to polishing.
Once the clear coat has fully cured, you’ll need to use some ultra fine sandpaper (between 2000-3000 grit), and carefully wet sand the surface. The purpose of this is to ensure an even, level surface. Do not push hard when wet sanding, a very light touch is needed to avoid sanding through the clearcoat back down to the primer.
Some will tell you to use multiple grades of sandpaper, but it’s unnecessary and can make it more difficult to polish out the swirls. Sticking with 1 or 2 grades will almost always result in a nicer finish in less time.
Be careful not to allow water to contact any bare wood, as this can cause swelling, resulting in finish cracks down the line.
Polish the Surface
Now that the surface is even, it’s time to polish. Using a fine cloth on your rotary buffer, apply a small amount of the Liquid Ice, or other polish, and work it into the surface. You should quickly start to see the finish looking more like something you’d see from the factory.
Take your time when polishing, but remember that the polish itself is abrasive, so the more pressure you apply, the greater the chances of you breaking through the clear coat.
Polish isn’t necessary inside the cavities, so don’t worry about not being able to reach down into them. Now is a good time to take your shielding tape and fully line the cavities.
When you’re happy with the finish, that’s it – all done! It’s now time to reassemble the guitar, and you’re ready to play.
Final Thoughts on Repainting a Guitar
The process for painting a guitar, as you’ve just learned, is not quite as simple as you might assume it to be. The key is to always take your time, ensure a clean work space, and to use quality products.
We’d suggest that if this is your first time attempting to paint a guitar that you look into buying a cheap, unfinished body to practice on before trying out your skills on a valuable instrument. This could save potential heartache and also help you to gain valuable experience prior to starting.
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