From all of the
possible finishing techniques
several are most useful and appropriate
to individual hand-makers and
smaller production shops.

Information & application
techniques for:
French polish shellac
Solvent-based nitrocellulose lacquer
Water-based finishes




There are many design, process and material choices to make when creating a musical instrument. One of the most perplexing for the inexperienced builder is choosing the finish.  In an effort to help with this selection we present an overview of the finishes most often used on musical instruments - explaining the distinguishing characteristics, general application process, and compatible products for each.  Following these general product descriptions these finishes will be compared to help narrow your choice to the most appropriate finish for your needs and shop situation. And finally, in articles separate from this overview - accessible from the drop-down box in the upper left of this page, we provide detailed instructions for the application of five finishing products.

The materials that are used as musical instrument finishes vary greatly in their properties and application.  Almost all of them were developed originally for general woodworking or furniture finishing and were later adopted as musical instrument finishes.  For hundreds of years, basic oils and simple varnishes have been used as the protective coating for musical instruments, wooden furniture, and other wood products.  Nitrocellulose lacquer, however, has been the primary wood finishing material, and American guitar factory preference, for over eighty years.  More recently polyurethane, polyester, and other catalyzed coatings have been used in guitar manufacturing and the quality of water-based finishes has increased steadily so that now the best of them equal or exceed the quality of nitrocellulose finishes . The more exotic synthetic or catalyzed finishes are best suited to factory situations, not to the average small-scale guitar maker.


We hope the previous descriptions of our finishing materials have helped you decide on the best one for you.  Each of these finishes can produce a good sounding musical instrument, so your choice may be driven more by your shop situation and the expectations for the type of instrument that you are finishing.  Even with that said you will have several alternatives that will accommodate your situation or needs. The following observations may help narrow your choice further.