The Importance of Guitar Lacquer Paint and Plastics & Metals

Much to the dismay of the wooden guitar fans, there are a lot of parts made out of different than wood materials. Apparently, all these are said to have negative effect on tonal quality.

Ultimate Guitar


Much to the dismay of the wooden guitar fans, there are a lot of parts made out of different than wood materials. These are metal tuning machines and pickups or humbuckers, plastic on these, plastic pickguards synthetic lacquer, synthetic paints, metal guitar strap holders, metal bridges, metal truss rods, etcetera.

Apparently, all these are said to have negative effect on tonal quality. Particular scrutiny is paid by the tone buffs on the lacquer and paint of the acoustic and electric guitars.

Strangely enough, no one says anything on the negative effect of the acoustic guitar body bars. Nor on the thickness of the woods. But this may as well be a different topic.

How to Make the Wood Good

There are two main types of guitars and, believe this or not, acoustics scrutiny is applied to the two types: electric and acoustic guitars.

For the electric guitars, the acoustics is still important yet not as much as for the acoustic guitars. People look at the type of wood for the guitar body, neck and fingerboard. Some people think the most important for electric guitars are: the lacquer, the lack of plastic pickguard and even plastic pickups, plastic knobs, plastic switches, etcetera; the woods, the guitar body design, whether the guitar body is hollow or there are hollow points or solid. For acoustic guitars, the design of the guitar, the shape of the bottom woods, the woods, the lacquer and the pickguard are very important.

Some people make wooden pickguards from hard or soft wood. I would imagine, these people make wooden knobs and other parts.

The holy grail for guitars is a guitar made fully out of ebony. Taylor makes these guitars upon a custom request and sells them for more than $5000. Most companies would make the bottom wood to be hardwood for better bass frequencies with a top wood made out of soft wood, i.e. spruce for the treble frequencies. Most of the guitar makers would also say the tone changes with the aging of the wood as the wood " opens up " with aging providing for larger pores which conduct or reflect the bass frequencies better.

One of very popular decision is to use basswood, walnut, maple, koa, rosewood, mahogany, ebony for the bottom wood and spruce (the two best out of three types of spruce) for the top wood. I think some people would use oak as a bottom wood. The neck is usually made out of a very strong and hard wood, most manufacturers would match the bottom wood with the neck wood and the fingerboard is usually made out of rosewood with ebony fingerboards being the most expensive and desirable.

There are a few tasks before the guitar is made: decision on which wood to use, selection of the right wood piece from many pieces of this type, natural and artificial aging of the wood, decision and selection of lacquer and other chemicals, etcetera. Decision on the overall design of a guitar is very important though many people prefer established standard designs. The bottom wood may be a bit oval or shaped with some kind of pattern. I have recently been told some luthiers shape the bottom wood as a wave inside believing this would improve the tone. I am not sure what frequency and amplitude they would use to shape the bottom wood and whether even they would believe the parameters of the stereometric sine shape they apply on the body may improve the tonal quality.

However, the lacquer of the guitars is very important because the lacquer can damage the tone which would be produced by the wood. I, personally, prefer real wood without any lacquer nor paint nor chemicals. No one else likes this idea, though, and this is very good for the lacquer manufacturers. As a gross generalization, wood covered with lacquer and paint and the same wood before are two totally different materials.

The lacquer (and the paint in case of any) serves many purposes: 1. Improves the tone in case this is possible, 2. Protects the wood, 3. Ages the wood in some ways and not in other, hopefully, to improve the tone, 4. Makes the guitar look more beautiful.

In case I am ever to use lacquer, I would definitely make one of these two choices (at least, this is what I know at the present): the extremely high quality C37 Violin lacquer or the inexpensive self made natural lacquers. The C37 lacquer is manufactured by a highly scientific approach and is unique in the industry. Obviously, this is the best option coming at a price of 800 Euro for 500mL and 20 Euro shipping and handling. This lacquer is highly recommended for manufacturing of new or maintenance of old expensive, high quality guitars. For inexpensive guitars, a self made lacquer is satisfactory. The only rule in making this lacquer is: everything must be natural and must come from the same wood as much as possible or from wood as much as possible. As an example, dissolve a resin natural to your guitar body wood or as much as possible or natural from other types of wood into natural turpentine oil and voila, the French restaurant is working perfectly well! Some people would add corn cooking oil into the mixture for more even spread. Then paint with a brush or cloth at applying a very thin layer. This is said to provide a better tonal quality than the general purpose synthetic lacquers or paints selected by various manufacturers for a less expensive manufacturing process.

I would also explorer and or prefer the option to use colophon dissolved in turpentine oil. The problem some people have with this: needs a long while to cure. Remains sticky for a while.

I would like to chat on the situation with the guitar market: There are expensive guitars, electrical and acoustic, in the US / Canada market which only very rich people can afford. The prices are $3000, $ 4000. Also, there are old guitars from the '60s and '50s which are expensive now: can go $20000. As well, there are memorabilia guitars: a guitar owned and played by Jimi Hendrix may reach $100000 and some collectors or rock stars can pay millions for such. One of the avid expensive guitar collectors is Keith Urban: a lighting fast country guitar superstar who has a collection worth a few million dollars kept in a secure storage which may be approximated to be the guitar Fort Knox.

These people, in these expensive cases, as well as all rock stars who may love to recondition their guitars from the 60's or now, may and will be happy to pay you 820 Euro for the C37 Lacquer.

C37 Violin Lacquer is very famous amongst guitar builders and players and is considered the best for an acoustic or electric guitar.

Along with the crazy expensive guitars for rock stars, there are a lot of midrange, inexpensive and very inexpensive, usually made in China. Most people in Canada and the USA would purchase inexpensive or very inexpensive guitars and a lot would spend some money on midrange guitars. Very inexpensive guitars cost $100 to $150 (some are as low as $40). Inexpensive guitars would be $150 to $250. Sub mid range is $250 to $400. Mid range: $400 to $1000.

Even the $100 Chinese guitars are very well manufactured now because guitars are 100% machine manufactured (except luthier made guitars which are expensive and luthiers may also be happy to get C37 lacquer, although they do not want to spend money, just to make). Machine manufactured guitars may use inexpensive or expensive woods. When they use expensive woods and still sell inexpensively because the wood is purchased from inexpensive countries and fabricated in China, the problem is they use inexpensive synthetic lacquer.

Therefore, in case there were different lacquers at different prices for different markets and differently priced instruments, you may be able to sell well.

Y'all are able to figure out what people would pay you by knowing the prices of the guitars. Obviously, a person who purchases a $100 guitar would only want to pay $5 for a lacquer or would not use at all. These, who spend $1000 may decide to go to $50 or $100. Etcetera.

Usually, guitar makers who want to build good guitars yet not so expensive, prefer to use only natural lacquers or C37. As y'all know better, natural lacquers are very good on the wood (they are derived from wood) and very inexpensive. Basically, these are colophon or natural tree resins dissolved in turpentine oil which is a natural dissolver. With knowledge and research, one would be able to design natural lacquers with a mixture of natural products such as resins and minerals. Th se can be priced accordingly: inexpensive natural lacquers, mid range, expensive, very expensive, etcetera.

As far as manufacturing goes, one can either do this yourself or with your company or you can give the formula to another manufacturer, usually in China or Eastern Europe. Obviously, the problem is they would steal your formula but they could do so anyways because an inexpensive mass spectrometer would tell them almost all or all they need to know.

There is no problem, of course, for one to mix own lacquers and to keep the formula secret. The only problem is one may not be able to achieve a satisfactory in a very expensive country to manufacture into. Very difficult to achieve high volumes and sell at low price but sell a lot. Very difficult to jump over the threshold of manufacturing. Otherwise one may run into non manufacturing at all because no one would be happy to pay the price chiefly when the profit needs to be high because of the impossibility to assume high volumes.

Anyways, too much words for just saying: in case one can manufacture several products for several clusters of the price market, you may and will be able to make a lot of money or, certainly, more than now. This is because one has knowledge and abilities which others do not possess.

People say Stradivarius was using Brazilian wood (mahogany or rosewood) then aged to improve the wood pores, strength and cavities and other qualities by dipping the wood into a special water place in the Amazon or other rivers to age and soak minerals and, after a few months, was drying the wood and making violins and putting special secret lacquer, most likely natural resin and natural oil based.

Generally, guitar makers would be interested in getting lacquer which can perform well, gives the same or better tone then the wood over a long period, ideally with the tendency to improve or not to lower the quality of the tone with aging, helps the wood to age faster, of course, without breaking.

Most guitar manufacturers look at the immediate performance of the lacquer but don't know anything on how the lacquer would affect the aging of the wood nor what the aging of the lacquer would be.

Here is what I think of the wood aging:

Wood aging can be achieved naturally after a long period which may prove to be 10 years or more.

Wood aging can be, at least, helped by scientific ways: by varying the temperature and the relative humidity of the storage place over some period; by applying an or soaking the thin wood into chemicals, usually natural but may be synthetic; by organic treatment: allowing and creating environment for bacteria and fungus to grow on the wood in case these are found to improve the wood pores and the wood tonal properties. The organic treatment can be used only for an initial treatment of the wood or can be used with the guitar after manufacturing and selling to continue to work. Some people say wood can be improved by nuclear or electron or ion irradiation.

Obviously, the storage of the guitar and the treatment thereof by the musician or the customer is very important. Temperature and relative humidity are the most important factors.

To make the point: The wood artificial aging, chemical, thermal, humidity, biological treatment, irradiation are not things which manufacturers would do nor they would like. There may be a possibility to apply present scientific research possibilities to look into these spheres of expertise and chemicals, organic or non organic; synthetic or non synthetic not only to protect the wood and to make the wood sound good when they are applied, not only to improve their own qualities with aging but also to help the wood, in case this is possible, to age faster.

Obviously, there are other materials used for guitars which would not depend on the wood strangeness as for example, composites, metal, animal bones, other natural or synthetic materials, etcetera. One of the most beloved approach in North America, alternative to wood, was to use the turtle shell for the back of the guitar body. This has been outlawed in many countries due to protection of turtles and difficulty to grow these in captivity or lack of interest into farming these animals because of the limited market. Also a turtle shell fully develops in many years. They live ~ 130 years. Collecting shells of turtles may be legal in some countries to do but illegal to sell not to allow for illegal sales and because of the difficult control.

Here is a bit of logic to the Stradivarius points: The science and technology during Stradivarius period was very primitive, mainly based on alchemistry ways. The music, however, was a big business with lots of reach people, noble people, kings and queens paying top dollar to quartets and orchestras as well as to composers.

People were trying to make violins sound so to be heard. As a gross generalisation, there is no much logic in using the tiniest instrument as the solo instrument. However, violins were inexpensive and so tiny, people can put them in their space lacking homes and even carry them with them. Hence violin has been established as the most popular instrument: the guitar of the period.

Native peoples have discovered a ways to make the wood harder which they needed to do in order to hunt and fight as well as to built fortifications. Even the British were using ebony, stolen from the colonies, to guard their precious ships and castles from bullets and shells. Believe this or not, wood was stronger than metal for the possible then amounts. Ebony is so strong so doesn't float but sinks just like stones and metal. Yet ebony is lighter than iron. Obviously, wherever the floating wood was necessary, they used oak or other hard woods which were also able to float.

One of the ways of hardening the wood was by thermal processing: burning the piercing end of the wood. This helped for easier shaping as well. Then they would clean the carbon deposits of the burned wood until they reach the hardened wood. Much like steel. They may have even soaked the burning wood in water to invoke huge thermal gradient which may harden the wood as well as to brake or make the wood brittle. Obviously they knew the point where to stop.

Another technique, used by various tribes was to soak the wood. Not only for easier bending but for more strength and hardness. They would probably choose natural oily ponds with a lot of rich on minerals mud. There may have been some dissolved resin present as well although in tiny amounts because water cannot dissolve resin but mineral oils can.

Other techniques include hot or dissolved resin where they would soak their wood for the resin to penetrate as much as possible in the wood to strengthen the wood. Much like lacquer but they wanted for the resin to penetrate as much as possible in the pores of the wood whereas some guitar makers would want for the lacquer to penetrate as tiny as possible to have the wood do most of the tonal job.

Most likely, Stradivarius learned from the discoverers of these techniques, don't forget, the discovers brought these techniques to their kings and queens and kept them a secret so only they can manufacture military strength wood. So, Stradivarius may have been the first military counter intelligence officer, the first James Bond to find out how to make wood stronger!

Along with this, a lot of "organic alchemistry" was going on, people were mixing all kind of resins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, cooking oil, hot oil, tempering, doing anything logical and not logical to make gold. Whoever discovered whatever and continued to improve, such as beer for example, would be able to make gold eventually by selling the product for gold money.

So, something alike was possible to bring Stradivarius some kind of natural resin which happen by mistake to be good and, most importantly, the 200 or 300 years of aging as well as the use of a good quality wood, most likely, the best quality mahogany, made these instruments possible.

One is true: whatever Stradivarius was able to do now, we can do better.

The same applies to technology: people keep marveling the technology used during World War 2 and I keep saying: whatever they have had, I can make much better.

The most modern way for wood processing and hardening I have been told is "Wood Irradiation": They bombard wood with electrons or atoms or ions or whatever other particles to make the wood harder and stronger.

I don't know how the irradiation would change the wood properties (I know only in theory) but I was told the leading automotive tyre manufacturers irradiate the rubber of the tyres with a beam of electrons to make the rubber stronger and, in this case, more age resistant as well as more friction resistant.

Anyways: I have always been saying: The guitar is not always the problem. The problem in most cases is the guitar player!

The other thing I know: before, people were looking what wood they have on their land and were using these for guitars: works just as good and is less expensive than importing. However, now, there are a lot of guitar nuts who want to spend a lot of money to get expensive guitars made out of expensive and exotic woods. This effect works for you: these people would be happy to spend a lot of money for high quality lacquer.

I think the funniest topic here is wood irradiation. I hope all guitar players play irradiated guitars, so they get sick and then, I would be the greatest guitar player in the world!


People say the best commercially available guitar lacquer I'd C37 Violin Lacquer. People say there aren't good paints and thus guitars must not be painted at all. People say the natural, self made, dissolved resins or colophon in natural turpentine oil with an addition of a bit of natural non dissolving oil such as cooking oil is the best option for people with normal amount of money or below.

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Bram_Claes Recently a study at a university has concluded that tonewood matters little to nothinge when it comes down to the sound of an electric guitar. In my opinion, the finish is even more bullshit. Anyway, if you pay attention to details like fancy tonewoods and finishes, you miss the point that a good guitar tone is in the fingers
    Steven Bayes
    I do not know of these studies but I agree to a great deal of extend. You may wish to read other articles I have published on the topic and the apologies I have expressed to the angry guitar lovers who have responded otherwise. However, I have also pointed out of the feedback the wood provides to the vibrating string. Again : I agree with you on the engineering and scientific experiments BUT I disagree with you on the marketing side : the guitar makers have been trying to produce electric guitars from expensive woods. In case they want to do so, this is their business. HOWEVER, in case they want to do so, there is no logic, whatsoever, to make guitars out of expensive woods and put a crappy lacquer on them. Instead, they may as well go all the way into making an expensive guitar and use C37 lacquer. Obviously, they use the expensive woods for advertising and marketing purposes as well as to increase the price. Thus, using the famous and proven C37 lacquer will give them even greater leverage in selling their guitars.
    Steven Bayes
    Also, the price of the C37 lacquer would add insignificant percentage over the high overall price and profit.
    Steven Bayes
    MISTAKE : " everything must be natural and must come from the same wood as much as possible or from wood as much as possible " MUST BE " everything must be natural and must come from the same wood as much as possible or from wood as CLOSE as possible " MEANING FROM WOOD FROM THE SAME TYPE, FAMILY, KIND, FOREST, TREE, SORT, ETCETERA. AS CLOSE BIOLOGICALLY AND ORGANICALLY TO THE GUITAR WOOD AS POSSIBLE. IN CASE OF MULTIPLE TYPES OF WOOD ARE USED ON THE GUITAR : DIFFERENT LACQUER FOR ANY WOOD BASED ON THE SAME PRINCIPLES.