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Adding Color to an Instrument – Full Text

Today’s Tips du Jour Mailbag question comes from Chile.
“Dear Robert, I want to finish a Les Paul guitar but I don’t know which order to apply the products. Should I apply the dye, then sealer, then lacquer? Also, it is even necessary to apply a sealer? Thanks for your response. – Ignacio in Chile.”

Well, Ignacio, adding color to your guitar can sometimes seem intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s actually quite easy. A color coat can be quite easy like an opaque, solid color on the guitar. It can also be quite detailed and ornate like a sunburst finish. When I do an opaque color, what I like to do is first sand the guitar up to the appropriate grit, using 220 or 320, and then apply a sealer. I then apply color to the top coat. That way, it’s reversible. You don’t like the results, you can sand back to the sealer coat without having to sand back to do wood. For a sunburst type finish, where I want to pop the grain and accentuate the grain and show it off, I start by painting the guitar with a black dye. This dye can be alcohol soluble or water soluble. Now, the difference is that the alcohol flashes off quickly, therefore the dye doesn’t penetrate as deeply into the wood. A water soluble dye will penetrate deeper into the wood. Once I’ve painted the surface with the black dye, I let it dry and then I sand it. I don’t sand it all the way off because it goes pretty deeply into the wood, especially if you used the water based dye. I just want to pop the grain or accentuate the grain. Next, I apply a vinyl sealer. Now, this helps seal in any contaminates. It is also a leveling agent, it’s easily sandable. However, if you want to apply your color coats directly on the wood, you can. Be careful, though. If you don’t like the results, you have to sand it all the way off and that means sanding the wood. Usually, what I do is I add the color to the lacquer (if I’m using lacquer – sometimes I use other products). But if I’m using lacquer I add the dye to the lacquer, then I dilute it about 50%. That way I get a very, very thin color coat and the lacquer serves as a binding agents. Then I spray the guitar. Be careful because the more you spray, the darker things get. If I’m doing a sunburst type finish where I want things darker around the perimeter, I spray more in those areas or I add more dye to the mix so it’s more concentrated. I dial down the width of the fan on my spray gun so that I’m just hitting around the edges. Afte a very light sanding, being very careful not to go through your color coat, I then add the top coat. How many top coats you apply depends on you. I usually spray 3-4 coats, let it sit, level it, then spray another 3-4 coats. But you want to make sure you get enough on there that you can level and buff afterwards without going through your clear coats. After appropriate cure time, leveling and buffing, the results can be quite stunning. And it’s really not a lot of work. It’s not that difficult to do. Now here’s a good rule of thumb – always test on scrap before you try this on your guitar. That’s important. So Ignacio in Chile, I hope this has answered your question and I look forward to receiving pictures of your guitar. Happy finishing.