Disclaimer: We are not responsible for any damage caused to your acoustic guitar through this guide. Guitar refinishing is usually performed by experienced luthiers. If you want to refinish one of your prized instruments, it might be worth buying some cheap second-hand guitars to practice the technique first – to avoid mistakes!
Any work involving polish, paint stripper, or solvents must be done in a ventilated space or outdoors. Good luck!
Sick and tired of your guitar’s boring lackluster finish compared? Your bandmates have been laughing because your old guitar finish looks lame? Well, we’ve put together this guide to show you how to refinish an acoustic guitar with an eye-catching new look.
Another reason to change a guitar’s finish is to repair any damage. Through years of jamming, lacquer cracks, guitar scratches, and war wounds are an inevitability for most guitars. Sometimes a second-hand or vintage guitar is begging to be restored to its former beauty.
New guitars are also often refinished to look like vintage instruments, with a beaten up look, known as “road-worn“.
The process of refinishing an acoustic guitar is not the same as an electric guitar. Electric guitars usually have a thick coat of solid paint, where an acoustic guitar uses a transparent lacquer finish or translucent paint. Electric guitars require more work to remove the finish than acoustics.
This process can be quite complicated, and there is a risk of damaging the guitar or generally lowering its value. If the wrong type of finishing compound is applied, it can completely ruin the guitar, so make sure to check the chemicals are guitar-friendly first, and suitable for porous woods if necessary.
However, if done correctly and professionally, the refinishing can be unnoticeable – other than the shiny new look!
Steps on How to Refinish an Acoustic Guitar:
Items you need to refinish acoustic guitars:
Safety equipment is essential to protect the eyes and respiratory organs.
A clean and organized workspace is also important, ensuring all materials are prepared and available before starting the job. Make sure that there is enough time to complete each stage – don’t rush.
A clamp or guitar stand makes the work much easier by locking the guitar in place. These are particularly useful for sanding and painting to prevent slipping and mistakes.
- & safety goggles
- Orbital Sander (Get a buffing wheel attachment for polishing)
- (A variety of coarse grit, fine grit sandpaper)
- Sanding Block
- Scraping knife
- Heat gun/hairdryer
- (Clear coat for natural finish)
- Liquid Polishing Compound
- Vacuum Cleaner (for removing mess!)
- White Spirit or Mineral Spirits
Disassemble Your Guitar
First, remove all parts of the acoustic guitar that are not involved with the finishing process. Anything other than the main wooden pieces can be removed and carefully stored for reattachment later.
This provides access to the whole guitar, allowing removal of the guitar finish from all the fine crevices for consistency.
Remove all the hardware, electronics, bridge studs, and strings. Any removable faceplates or plastic parts. A soldering iron or Allen wrench may be needed to remove some parts, but not on most guitars
If possible, detach the guitar body from the neck, although the truss rod design of acoustic guitar necks often prevents this.
Any guitar hardware left on the body is at risk of tarnishing, and can interfere with the process.
Completely remove all the old guitar finish
There are a few choices of methods for removing the existing finish completely. The most appropriate for an acoustic guitar is either orbital or hand sanding.
One option, using paint or finish strippers, is quick but toxic.
(Apply mineral spirits or strippers to the guitar finish, following the chemicals instructions. Then rub away the dissolved finish. )
Another option is using a heat gun and knife. This is more practical for electric guitars with thick paint, not the best choice for a transparent or natural finish.
(Score cuts in the finish to open the paint, then heat (do not burn) with the heat gun. When heated the finish will be easy to scrape off with a knife. Lacquer cracks can be used as leverage points for wedging the knife in.)
Sanding is another good option, and probably the best for acoustic guitars with a clear coat, although it creates more mess and dust. Safety goggles and a dust mask must be worn when sanding, to prevent inhalation of toxic dust.
Sanding by hand is arduous and requires some elbow grease, using power tools like an orbital sander will save time and energy.
How to Refinish an Acoustic Guitar with Orbital Sander
An orbital sander is a powered sanding tool and can be used to help quickly remove the finish.
Start by attaching medium grit sandpaper to the orbital and carefully buff away the coating.
As you get closer to the wood switch to using a finer grade on the orbital. Be careful, don’t push too hard or use bad angles at risk of sanding into the wood.
Avoid running the sander in one place for a long amount of time, move the sander around the guitar relatively quickly to prevent friction burn.
Remove any lacquer remains with finer sandpaper. Additional hand sanding (as below) might be necessary to remove all traces of the original finish.
Use Hand Sandpaper
Without access to an orbital sander, Hand must be used to manually remove the finish.
A selection of varying sandpaper grit grades from coarse to super fine will provide the best results.
Using the paper with a sandpaper block is the best way to sand a guitar. Wrap the sanding block in the paper, and completely remove the guitar finish by rubbing the block along the surface.
Start with a round of coarse grit sandpaper (~120). Even finer grit papers should be used as more finish is removed and the wood gets more exposed.
Sand down the entire surface of the acoustic guitar until no existing finish remains.
To tackle tight spots like the neck joint, use a coarse grit sanding sponge to clean those hard-to-reach places. Wet sanding can speed up the hand sandpaper process.
Switch over to fine grit sandpaper and wet sand off any leftover marks.
Remove all dust and mess
Once the sanding is finished use a moistened cloth to remove any dust and old paint from the guitar surface.
Clean all dust from the workspace with a vacuum cleaner, otherwise, there is a chance that grains of dust will blow into the wet finish before it dries. This will be stuck into the hardened finish. Dust can fall through the hole of the acoustic guitar and get stuck in the body, so use the vacuum to suck it out.
Use a (optional)
Guitars made from porous woods sometimes need a to fill their pores for a more consistent finish. Choose a grain filler that is oil or water-based depending on the paint you plan to use.
Sand the wood down to around 240 grit to remove any scratches and lacquer cracks.
Apply the grain filler to a cloth or squeegee, then rub over and dab into the wood in thin layers.
The filler can be further pushed into the pores using a knife or card.
Once filled, and whilst still wet, the excess filler can be scraped off. Alternatively use mineral spirits to remove the oil.
Once dried, use more sandpaper (320 grit) to sand off any excess dry filler. Check over the guitar, if any areas are missed the process needs to be repeated.
Now, you’re ready to refinish your guitar!
Once the guitar has been stripped of the old finish, and the wood is treated, it’s ready to be refinished.
Make sure you have enough paint, materials, and time to finish the procedure in one go. It is a bad idea to stop and start this process halfway through.
Any areas of the guitar which cannot be removed, but do not want painting or spraying, should be covered up with tape and plastic bags to prevent splashes. This is particularly important for the fretboard as it will impact the playing feel and interfere with strings.
(These are aerosol sprays so be careful of fumes!)
Primer is a material that acts as a base coat helping the paint solidify to the body. There are many types and colors of primer available.
For a natural wood guitar finish, use something like a nitrocellulose clear coat ().
A white colored primer is the best primer when using a solid color paint, this is generally more suitable for electric but not acoustic instruments. Although some acoustics are painted with thick paint.
Using a hanger or stand can help when spraying the guitar to avoid handling it whilst still wet.
Start by applying a thin coat of primer across the entire body, then let it dry. Apply a few thin coats (2-3) in the same way.
Ensure the coat of paint is even and consistent across the whole body of the guitar without any gaps, then leave to dry completely. (Drying times should be specified on the primer bottle.) The body is now primed for the main finish.
Painting the guitar
Now for the fun part, let’s start painting! Painting guitars is an art form in itself, so this can be a very creative and exciting stage. For more complex designs, templates and stencils should be used for accuracy, also a test run on a cheap guitar is always a good idea.
There are a few types of paint: satin, gloss, , metallic, transparent. Check on the paint can for drying times. Generally, for an acoustic guitar, a clear coat or translucent paint is most appropriate, however, people sometimes use a solid color. Using solid paint will hide the natural wood though.
Spray paint cans can be faster and more consistent than paintbrushes but have a wider spray range so need to be used in an outdoor or sheeted space.
Apply the paint in thin layers – going too thick can result in an uneven texture and longer drying times. Go slowly to avoid mistakes or painting any guitar hardware. Let each layer dry before applying the next. Make sure to fill all fine crevices.
Use 2-3 thin coats to optimize consistency. Check around for any spots or gaps in the paintwork of the guitar and fill them in. Guitar necks can be difficult to paint because of their angle, and connection to the fretboard.
Once painted, it can take up to a week to dry, (oil-based finishes take longer), so make sure the guitar is in a safe place where it won’t get bumped, ruining the coat of paint and hardened finish.
Polishing the finish
Once the guitar is dry it can be polished to a glorious shine.
Try to use a wood-friendly polish that is recommended by guitar manufacturers.
Power tools like a buffer machine, with a buffing wheel, will massively speed up the process. (Some orbital sanders have buffing wheel attachments). Otherwise, be ready to crack open the elbow grease again!
Apply the polish to a cloth then rub over the guitar’s body. Smooth the polish around an area with the cloth, then with a clean section of the cloth, or a separate cloth, rub any excess polish off and rub into the surface. A few coats may be needed.
The polish then needs to be buffed in to finalize. Buffing can be done manually with a buffing pad, or quicker with a power tool if available.
A wet sanding technique with super fine paper can also be used to get a shiny finish.
Polishing instructions vary from brand to brand but the general process is:
Apply Polish to cloth > apply to guitar> polish with cloth > remove excess polish > buff with buffer pad.
When the polish has dried and the guitar’s finish is shining, it’s time to reassemble!
Reattach all the hardware, including the bridge studs, electronics, faceplates, and knobs. (Keep the Allen wrench close!)
If new strings are installed on the guitar, ensure loose ends are cut with string clippers so they don’t scratch the new guitar surface.
Get ready to rock!
Related: Do you want to attach a guitar strap but don’t know how to do it? Make sure to take a look at our how to attach a guitar strap to an acoustic guitar article.
Refinishing a guitar can give that beloved old axe a new lease on life by spicing up its aesthetics. Hopefully, now you know how to refinish an acoustic guitar!
The process may take a bit of practice to get right, but once learned is a valuable skill for any guitarist or luthier. Almost any acoustic instrument can be refinished in a similar way.