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Step 1. Don't 1960s P-bass I photographed at the Springfield, MO guitar show Owner unknown (contact me for credit) Why not? W...

How to Refinish a Vintage or Antique Guitar

Step 1. Don't

1960s P-bass I photographed at the Springfield, MO guitar show
Owner unknown (contact me for credit)

Why not?

Willie Nelson's guitar 'Trigger'
Image Credit: MentalFloss.com

Guitars are not like furniture in which a fresh coat of poly or shellac rejuvenates them and increases the value. With guitars it is actually more desirable for them to be worn in and show signs of age such as lacquer "checking" (the lines that appear in old finishes from age, temperature, and humidity). Vintage instruments are typically finished in nitrocellulose lacquer (which crackles in long lines) or shellac (which shrinks into cube-like shapes) which act quite differently than modern polyurethane finishes. Old instruments will get dinged and show that wear much more prominently than modern instruments and that is part of the charm.

People love to see the play-wear and the history that a guitar holds in its appearance and you would be erasing that by refinishing the instrument. 

There is a huge fad in the instrument world of "relic-ing" which is the process of taking a new instrument and trying to make it look like an old, well loved instrument. Relicing has its fans and opponents but it is usually always more expensive than an instrument without such a treatment. It often doesn't make sense to people outside the industry but its a serious money maker because the demand is there.

Value 

Instruments have value historically, monetarily, and sentimentally. I keep the original finish on every guitar I work on and recommend it to anyone who asks because a damaged guitar with original paint is worth more than a guitar with new paint. I've owned guitars with original lacquer that flakes off if you look at it wrong but I kept it the way that it was because of the value held in that original, flaky paint

Of course a vintage instrument in pristine,original condition will sell higher than one that has been worn-in but a refinished instrument will almost always sell for less than an instrument that has been worn-in naturally

For example, I have this 1970s Harmony-built Fender acoustic that is dirty, yellowed, and most definitely worn through years of being played and years of being poorly kept. It looks rough to most people but I wouldn't dream of refinishing it because if this is a $400 guitar, it'll be worth $150 after being refinished. It will lose its character and the history behind it.


The neck from the above Fender acoustic
*Note the carvings in the neck*


Amateur Refinishes

Of course I say this as a man whose website is entitled "The Amateur Luthier" but I tend to stay away from finish touchups or work unless the guitar has already been refinished before. It is typically my last resort to try and restore some value to an instrument or make it look somewhat original. As I mentioned above, a refinished guitar will almost always sell for less than an original guitar but it is also important to note that a poor refinish will sell for the value of the parts on the guitar. A guitar that has been refinished poorly with drips or unevenness or a terrible color choice can be worth as little as the value of the parts on the instrument.

If a guitar has already been refinished, you probably can't hurt its value by refinishing it again. The exception is, of course, with very old refinishes or ones that were done quite well.

Here is a 1966 Harmony H56 Rocket that has been refinished, poorly, with a wipe-on lacquer and has had some body work done to make it look like a double cutaway. These are normally $500-600 instruments but the refinish work makes it a $200 instrument.. The poorly done body work and refinish made it nearly worthless so I pulled the parts for use in a better quality guitar and sold the husk to someone who needs a neck and gave them the body for free.


This is a 1964 Hagstrom HIII that was originally sky blue but the finish was stripped down to natural and no finish was applied on top of that. The value of this instrument was tanked by the refinish and the lack of original parts made it nearly worthless. I sold the parts off and the husk to help revive other Hagstroms from the era because it wasn't worth the money to rebuild.

 

What do I do now?

Take it to a decent luthier (not a guitar tech that you would find at Guitar Center) and have them look it over to find an approximate value of the instrument. I've seen thousand dollar instruments that were stripped and became hundred dollar instruments. Especially during the "natural wood" fad of the 70s, that was a rough time for guitar finishes.
  • Use guitar-oriented polishes to gently scrub dirt and grime off the guitar without losing original finish
    • Do NOT use any automotive waxes or polishes 
    • Do NOT buff the instrument unless you are very sure of what you are doing
  • Has the instrument been refinished before?
    • Yes, poorly with drips and runny paint
      • Then it is likely well within reason to strip the paint and make the instrument look better
    • Yes, quite well but its not my style
      • Perhaps consider selling the instrument and buying another that suits your fancy. No need to ruin good work
    • Nope but it is ugly/flaky/cracked
      • Leave it alone, your instrument and wallet will thank you when you go to sell it. Plus you are keeping the decades of history and character 
If you are deadset on refinishing your instrument, consult with luthiers to get a price and find someone who is capable of doing good work.

If you are interested in doing it yourself, stay away from store-bought finishes (especially polyurethane!!) and find some good Shellac or Nitrocellulose. 

Here are some great resources for finding finishing supplies

































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Be excellent to each other dudes