You may be the adventurous type of player who loves to tinker and build their own instruments. Or you may be buying a bare, unfinished body or neck for a project build. In both cases, you’ll often come across applications where the naked wood on your guitar is just too beautiful to cover up with any sort of solid color.
For these ‘natural’ applications, there are three different options that are often used as a finish: Tru-Oil, tung oil, and lacquer. But which one would be the best for your needs?
In today’s article, we’ll take a look at each finish, detailing some of the benefits they possess (along with any downsides they may have).
Tru-Oil is a relatively inexpensive finish that’s often used on gun stocks. It’s easy to apply with just a clean, soft cloth, and it does not have a long dry time. That makes it a great choice if you want to cut down your finish time and apply multiple coats in a single day.
The formula itself combines several other compounds, such as linseed oil, oil varnish, and mineral spirits, so it isn’t exactly a pure organic oil, per se. It’s more along the lines of a varnish. That means multiple coats can build up and obtain a relative level of hardness, making it a good option for bringing out a wood’s beauty and also for protection purposes.
Tru-Oil can be used on any bare wood, but it’s often used in multiple coats on an unfinished neck. With enough coats, you will get a fast-feeling finish that resists feeling tacky or sticky when you are in a humid environment (or when you start to sweat).
As compared to Tru-Oil, tung oil tends to leave a surface that feels more natural due to how it’s absorbed into the wood. That’s particularly true on a guitar neck, where you can really feel the grain of the wood in your hands as you move it up and down. Some players prefer that over the slicker feel of a guitar finished with Tru-Oil or some sort of lacquer.
If you’re looking for a relatively maintenance-free finish option, tung oil may not be your best choice. That’s because it periodically will need to be reapplied as it soaks in and also as your hands naturally work it as you play. You may even notice spots where it may appear to be rubbing off on a guitar’s body due to your forearm.
The protection level afforded by tung oil isn’t all that robust. For sure, it’s worlds better than having nothing at all, but durability over time is not one of its strengths.
Another point to consider is that a guitar finished with tung oil is susceptible to getting dirty, where dirt can still penetrate the actual pores of the wood. Care must be taken to keep your guitar clean, because there are few options for getting the dirt out once it’s set in, other than sanding out as much as you can and starting fresh.
One thing to be sure of is that you’re using relatively pure tung oil. Many products on the market claim to be just that, but they are often really just ‘tung oil finish,’ where the percentage of natural tung oil is actually relatively low. This is why you may find a wide range of opinions about how good a finish that tung oil is because the experiences may not be ‘apples to apples.’
Another finish option that has been used on guitars for many years is lacquer.
Back in the early days of guitar building (particularly electric guitars), lacquer finishes such as nitrocellulose (often referred to as ‘nitro’) were the norm. Nitro finishes have some attractive characteristics. They’re typically applied much thinner than modern-day polyurethane, which some believe may lead to better tone (particularly on acoustic guitars).
Guitars with lacquer can also naturally develop a pleasing visual effect as they age. The glow and patina of an aged (and well cared for) nitro finish is a factor that many players appreciate.
Nitro finishes do have some drawbacks. They can be relatively fragile and can quickly develop finish checking if your guitar is rapidly taken from a cold environment into a warm one. Care must also be taken when using any sort of rubber or certain plastics (such as those found on typical guitar stands).
The bottom line is this: There really is no firm answer to the Tru-Oil vs. tung oil vs. lacquer debate. All three are viable finish options for a guitar.
The main difference between Tru-Oil and tung oil is that Tru-Oil can give a harder, more varnish-like finish, while tung oil lets you experience the natural feel of the wood. Lacquer finishes can provide relatively good protection, but care must be taken to keep them in the best shape as they age.
So what’s the verdict? Which is the best finish choice out of the three? It really all depends on your specific preferences, and it’s essential for you to educate yourself on which choice would best for your tastes.