How to Paint a Guitar

Published Categorized as Care and Maintenance, Other How To/Tips

It is often said that one of the greatest limitations on purchasing a relatively low budget electric guitar is the fact that there are more often than not fewer options for customisation, and in no aspect is this more evident in one of the most obvious aesthetic elements of a guitar: the paint job.

Very often, the supposedly more learned will encourage aspiring guitarists who are prospective buyers of new and reasonably priced guitars not to learn how to paint a guitar. I, certainly, would also encourage those who are considering venturing down such a path to proceed with caution. However, it shouldn’t be ruled out altogether, particularly if there is the possibility that it could bring you an innumerable amount of joy.

True, there are many things to first consider on a deeper level. This could, for example, potentially alter forever the very fabric of the guitar, the tone, the feel, the weight, and resonance etc etc. If care is not taken, you could irreversibly damage the guitar, aesthetically, sonically, externally or internally.

There are many steps here; this isn’t just a matter of picking up your guitar and wishing it into something else. This takes time, patience and work if it’s going to go in any way towards working in your favour. So, read through all of the steps here listed before making your decision, and make sure you have all the correct tools and materials required before proceeding…

What You’ll be Needing to Learn How to Paint a Guitar:

A lot of the instruments, materials and tools required can be pretty specific, but all are more or less required. Affiliate links will be detailed as we go along, so make sure to check those out if you are unsure of what exactly I am referring to in this short list of those items needed to learn how to paint a guitar:

  • The guitar itself
  • An orbital sander
  • Sanding paper and / or sanding sponge
  • Fine grit sand paper
  • Medium grit sand paper
  • Coarse grit sand paper
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Cloths
  • Mineral spirits
  • White primer
  • Spray cans and / or spray paint
  • Spray gun (if using spray cans…)
  • Clear color coats of paint
  • Ultra fine sand paper pads
  • Dust mask and eye glasses
  • Wire cutters
  • Screwdriver
  • Allen wrenches
  • Soldering iron and solder
  • Masking tape

This is obviously a large list of bits, so you would be forgiven for not having all of these things just lying around the house or in the garage. This can certainly toll up in terms of price as well, though the sum total of all of these items together would pale in comparison to the price that many companies enlist their services for repainting a guitar.

I wanted to change the color of my Fender Jazzmaster at one point, purely because I saw so many people with the same guitar as me, though I was instantly deterred by someone giving me a quote of at least $500 for a paint job. I decided simply to change the pick guard instead.

Step 1: Begin the Disassembly of the Guitar

Considering it is more than likely only the body that you are seeking to refinish, you will first want to get to the bare essentials of the manoeuvre, to learn how to paint a guitar, the guitar in question.

Begin this process by simply removing all of the strings from the instrument, using a pair of plyers or strings clippers or wire clippers. This ought to be self explanatory, for you can’t learn how to paint a guitar with the strings in the way of the body wanting to be painted.

Since all of the strings are thus being removed, some adjustment of the truss rod is likely to be necessary at the end of the process, as the strings are usually what keep the tension consistent, and why even when restringing a guitar I try to keep at least half of the string on at one time.

Step 2: Remove the Neck from the Guitar

The next major element to remove from the body to be painted in the neck, which you are of course not going to want to get covered in paint and such.

This is more often than not fairly straightforward, what with most guitar necks on electric guitars bolted on with large and tough screws that go through the body and into the roots of the neck.

If, however, the neck is either glued on or completely connected to the body as one piece of material then you will simply have to work around this, either covering the neck extensively with protective tape or simply painting it the same color as the you plan to paint the guitar.

Step 3: Remove the Hardware from the Guitar

The next major element in the way of learning how to paint a guitar is the hardware, which of course won’t want to be painted along with the body of the guitar in question. Using a screwdriver and / or Allen wrench, work on removing piece by piece each element of hardware, including but not limited to: the bridge, the knobs, the pickguard, the strap buttons, the pickups, and the output jacks etc.

There are some guitar models where the output jack and knobs are wired to the pickups through holes that are in between each cavity, so you’re just going to need to cut the wires in order to remove each piece of hardware. It is vital, however, that you either memorise or make a note of the wiring before you cut these ties, as you are going to need to connect them back together correctly.

Step 3.5: Removing the Guitar’s Bridge Studs

Often, a guitar will simply come off and unscrew relatively easily. Sometimes, however, a guitar’s bridge might be completely connected to the body via bridge studs which are firmly hammered in place.

If you’re really desperate to remove the bridge studs, you can heat the wood up with a soldering iron so that the wood heats up and when the studs start to cool down, they will contract and become easier to remove. The downfall to do this is that when you use pliers to remove the bridge studs, you can scar the finish of the studs and actually end up ruining their appearance.

Soldering Iron Station Kit, Soldering Station w/ 392℉~896℉ Adjustable Temperature (C/F),10-Min Sleep Mode, LED Display Digital Soldering Iron Kit, Fast Heating Up

Step 4: Organising Guitar Hardware

Before proceeding any further on how to paint a guitar, it is vital that you lay out cogently all of the hardware thus removed from the guitar in question, at the very least labelling each piece and making sure it is placed somewhere in which it is likely not to be disturbed.

Refinishing the instrument can take you a couple of weeks (or even a few months), so you’re really going to want to make sure that you have each bolt and screw labelled, as this will help to prevent any confusion when you’re going and reassembling the guitar.

Step 5: Sand Away the Old Guitar Finish

There are two main options that you can follow in doing this: you can decide to either sand away the finish completely, useful for when repainting the guitar and deciding to go with a stain paint, a translucent paint, or going back to the original finish that’s darker than the color of paint that you’re going with

Or, inversely, you can rough up the finish that’s already on the guitar to put on a fresh coat of paint that’s going to stick to the instrument, perfect for if you are simply going to use a solid paint color on the instrument.

Keep in mind that a lot of guitar builders agree that a thick coat of paint or finish will tonally diminish your instrument.

Step 6: Cue the Orbital Sander

Enter from stage left the Orbital Sander, to make your work a whole lot easier, an essential tool for anyone learning how to paint a guitar on a long term basis, for the removal of most of the finish.

You can fit an orbital sander with some coarse grit sandpaper and work it over the entire body of the instrument, making sure to use circular and smooth strokes.

Whatever you do, DO NOT use paint stripper as many have been tempted to in the past: not only is this an extremely toxic and messy process, but most paint strippers also don’t have the capabilities to remove the rock hard polyurethane that a lot of guitar manufacturers use.

DEWALT Random Orbit Sander, Variable Speed, 5-Inch (DWE6423)

Step 7: Get Personal with the Finer Crevices

There will undoubtedly be points that the orbital sander, chunky as it is, is unable to quite reach, so get down and dirty with these finer crevices to make sure that all of the paint that you intend to remove is removed.

Curved areas on the guitar are going to be difficult for your sander to reach, so using coarse grit sand paper or a coarse grit sanding sponge (between 200 and 400 grit) can be useful to remove the finish in these hard to reach places.

Step 8: Get Personal with the Finer Sand paper

Using a finer grain of sand paper like so will enable you to smooth out the body to an adequate level, ready for painting!

Once round the whole guitar with a medium grit sand paper of around 120 grit will ensure the body is ready to receive the paint, and going back over the guitar with an even finer grit of 220 will make this doubly the case.

Step 9: Vacuum and Organise the Work Station

Removing all of the dust and particles of residue at this stage will almost certainly ensure that the process of learning how to paint a guitar and providing it with a smooth finish run as smooth as possible.

A vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer are more than fit for the job, though feel free to use a can of compressed air to remove the dust from particularly tight areas of the guitar, or simply use a moistened cloth dampened with water.

And at this point, it can’t help to take the opportunity to get your work station nice and organised too!

Falcon Dust, Off Compressed Gas (152a) Disposable Cleaning Duster, 1, Count, 3.5 oz Can (DPSJB),Black

Step 10: Fill in the Grain with Grain Filler

Though this is only an optional step, it would be best if it was at least considered. Unless you are purposefully going for the unfinished and distressed look, you are going to want to apply grain filler to the guitar’s body when you’re working on mahogany or other porous woods.

A grain filler is another term for putty or a filler to make the guitar’s surface even for when you start painting.

If you decide to go with a filler, choose an oil-based or a water based one that will ideally match the finish or paint that you’re using.

ColorTone Powdered Grain Filler, Neutral

Step 11: Introduce Mineral Spirits

Bring into the equation mineral spirits, which seek to remove all of the oils lying invisible on the surface of the guitar. Make sure not to touch the guitar after this step, certainly not without gloves or before it has dried, so that you don’t apply oils to the cleaned surface and so that you don’t ruin the new finish, the bed on which the paint will be applied.

Gamblin Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits Bottle, 4.2oz

Step 12: Prepare to Paint

At this stage you should place the instrument inside of a large box that is sitting on top of a type of portable table. The opening of the box should be laid on its side so that when you’re painting your guitar, all of the paint is contained within the box, while also allowing the guitar to slide in and out of the box with ease.

Also ensure when getting the area ready for painting the instrument that you’re doing so in a room that’s nice and open, that way you don’t have to worry about furniture being introduced to unwanted paint, nor about huffing too many toxic gases.

Make sure that you’re painting in a dust free environment. Painting outside is more often than not a bad idea because bugs are naturally drawn to the odor of your paint and will get themselves stuck in the wet paint, causing the finish to look lumpy.

When you are painting indoors, make sure that you use a quality air mask and goggles in order to protect yourself against the harmful vapors from the paint or finish.

Step 13: Choose the Paint or Stain

If you are intending to paint the guitar with a solid color, use a paint that’s durable and reliable, like ones composed of nitrocellulose or polyurethane.

Nitrocellulose is typically the more suitable decision and can be found at car part stores or online, though the biggest downside to this paint is that takes a long while to dry.

If, however, you’re looking for a stained finished, you’re going to want to use a water based stain, as well as a nitrocellulose or polyurethane clear coat.

Services like ColorTone offer custom guitar lacquer products, which are far better than mixing lacquers oneself.

ColorTone Liquid Stain for Stringed Instruments, Tobacco Brown

Step 14: Apply Paint Primer

Applying paint primer at this stage, if it is the same colour as the paint you intend to use on the overall finish, will ready the guitar to receive the paint even more, and for it to stay on the guitar for longer.

Apply two to three thin coats rather than one thick coat of primer, as this will ensure that the primer will dry properly and that it won’t drip.

ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer, White Vinyl Sealer

Step 15: Begin Painting!

Whether painting by hand or with spray, make sure that at each stage you are only using thin coats and allowing them to dry before proceeding, to prevent uneven coats and dripping throughout.

Before applying the clear coat of paint, you should allow the colored coat of paint to completely dry for one week before the clear coat.

Step 15.5: Introduce the Stain

Alternatively, if you plan on using a stain, you’re going to need to wet the body of the guitar to make adding the stain to your body easier, while also helping to avoid blemishes.

You’re going to need to apply the stain on the guitar via the instructions that the manufacturer provides and you’ll need to apply as many coats of stain until you’ve achieved your desired look.

ColorTone Liquid Stain for Stringed Instruments, Cherry Red

Step 16: Introduce a Clear Coat of Paint

Once your chosen route of painting has been drying for no less than a week, you may introduce a clear top layer to protect the main color of paint.

A nitrocellulose clear coat is highly recommended, making sure that when you are applying the coats of clear coat that you apply the coat as thin as you possibly can, applying the second layer after the first layer has dried, and so on.

For a factory finish, you can go for up to a dozen coats of clear paint following the same process. If you happen to choose a nitrocellulose or a polyurethane finish, you should wait between three to four weeks for the paint to completely harden. However, using an oil based finish will mean you will only need to wait a few days for everything to harden as it must.

ColorTone Aerosol Guitar Lacquer, Clear Satin

Step 20: Polish the Finish

Make sure you wet sand at this point, going from a fine grit of 400 to a rougher grit of 2000 in very gradual steps.

Don’t skip over or miss any scratches, swirls, or tiny pits in the finish or else they will be impossible to get out.

Also make to ensure that you don’t sand through the clear color coat and into the color coat, so be extremely careful when you’re sanding near the edges so as not to sand into the paint itself.

Step 21: Reassemble the Guitar

If you had to snip any wires to take apart your guitar, you’re going to have to solder the wires back together. This would be a great time to replace any cheap factory components with higher quality ones, to make sure the guitar is as good as it can be.

This is also an opportunity for you to replace the old pickguard with something new, something that perhaps better fits this new finish. Once you have your instrument assembled again, you can clean and shine your guitar with typical guitar polish.

Then restring it, adjust the truss rod, tune, and play!

Final Tones

So, there you have it, a comprehensive guide on how to paint a guitar, whether your own or another’s. Make sure to study each step in order and carefully, and ensure you have all the correct tools before starting to avoid disappointment and upset.

FAQs How to Paint a Guitar

What kind of paint do you use on a guitar?

There’s a variety of different types of paint that can be used for the job, though many will recommend either nitrocellulose or polyurethane paint, at least for the main color finish of the guitar. A clear coat of paint will be required at some point also, usually one specifically designed for the job.

What’s the best paint to paint a guitar with?

There’s a variety of different types of paint that can be used for the job, though many will recommend either nitrocellulose or polyurethane paint, at least for the main color finish of the guitar. A clear coat of paint will be required at some point also, usually one specifically designed for the job.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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