ReRanch 101


Spot Repair

Area Repair


Return to Top

Return to Top

Return to Top

Return to Top


Before beginning any project one should ask if the restoration will affect the instrument in a negative manner....

Does it well serve the instrument, the previous owners and all the owners to come? A finish worn by years of work cannot be duplicated only replicated. With that said, there are instruments that beg for restoration. The ones most needy are the instruments that are one step from the parts bin. Most of these were ruined by well meaning but inept restorers. These instruments will most likely need a total strip and refinish. Others that will need attention are guitars that have suffered damage from either accident or abuse.

In general guitars worn by years of honest wear should not be refinished. A touch-up of a chipped finish spot may be acceptable while a complete over spray with clear finish would not be. For example, Fender necks will wear but a 1950's or '60's Fender neck should be left alone. A late 1970's with a neck that is worn to the wood and collects oil to the point of being difficult to play well may be a candidate for a neck recolor and over spray. Unfortunately, this decision does not take into account the aesthetics of the future owners.

Lastly, there are many ways to successfully refinish an instrument. The methods described on these pages represent just one such approach. Developed through experience, both positive and negative, these methods have served the writer well.


Refinishing does not require expensive or complicated equipment. If you decide to move beyond the entry level, as with everything, you can find an item that will make the work go smoother. But excellent quality results are possible with less than $20.00 worth of equipment.

If you will be refinishing a single instrument you may want to consider the Preval Power Unit from Precision Valve Corp. The aerosol spray unit draws paint from an 8 oz. refillable glass container. The spray capacity of the aerosol unit is 16 oz. Expect to use at least two units to do a complete refinish. Using two units will also work to your advantage. By dedicating one unit to clear topcoats and one for colors, clean-up is easier and the possibility of spraying unwanted color specks from a not-quite-clean unit is eliminated.

The drawbacks of this type of unit is that long spray periods can cool the nozzle and cause spitting. This is not a major problem with clear and lightly tinted coats. The drops will dry into the finish and any rises will be sanded out during final finishing. But spitting during initial stain coats can cause spotting. The solution is to not spray for extended periods. (This is not usually a problem in instrument refinishing).

Another option is to use the recently introduced guitar colors in aerosol spray cans. Currently there are approximately thirty of the most popular Gibson and Fender colors being offered by The Guitar ReRanch. The colors are mixed in either dye for the translucent finishes and nitrocellulose for the opaque and semi-opaque finishes. A clear nitrocellulose for clear coating is available in a spray version as well. The cans are offered in the standard 16 fluid oz. size and with few exceptions, one can of color and one can of clear should be enough to complete a body and most body/neck combinations. The cans also incorporate a rotating fan tip for vertical or horizontal spray situations.

As you be come more proficient you may find yourself shopping for a system that offers more flexibility. The more sophisticated guns allow controllable spray patterns (adjustable circles, vertical or horizontal fans) and adjustable air-to-liquid mixing. Standard sized automotive type guns will work but it is difficult to "finesse" the spray down to the smaller patterns that are sometimes needed. Also, the physical size and weight of the standard automotive spray gun does not lend itself well to the scale of motions and angles necessary in instrument refinishing.

A good compromise is to use the smaller "jam" guns used in automotive finish work. They can lay down enough spray to wet out a large area but the pattern can be controlled well enough to do delicate shading and blending. Badger manufacturers a unit, Model 400, which should serve well for instrument refinish work. These midsize units were designed to be used with at least a 1/2 hp compressor capable of at least 30psi of pressure but in a pinch they will work with low cost diaphragm type compressors. (Using an undersized compressor may require thinning the material sprayed). A personal favorite is a no-name jam gun found at a garage sale. Working at 20psi pressure from a 5 hp compressor the gun will easily wet out a top or back with very little over spray or spray "bounce off".

If you use a compressor the compressor should be equipped not only with a regulator but a moisture trap as well. Moisture can whiten lacquer and at worst can be sprayed as water droplets. Should you see small domes in the just sprayed finish you may have sprayed water onto the surface. Do not attempt to wipe or force dry the moisture drops while the lacquer is wet. Wiping can destroy the color coat and force drying may cause the water to boil resulting in greater damage. After the lacquer is dry you will most likely find that the moisture has disappeared. Any remaining signs will be erased with the finish finishing.

Lastly, the newest, most efficient and easiest to use systems are the HVLP systems (High Volume, Low Pressure) These systems operate at volumes of 40 to 60 cfm but at pressures of 5 pounds or less. They allow large amounts of paint to be sprayed with very little over spray. In a typical compressor system high pressure is used to pull the paint out of the paint canister through the gun and unto the surface using the venturi effect. The HVLP system pressurizes the paint canister with low air pressure and pushes the paint out of the gun onto the surface. The lower pressure greatly reduces the amount of paint that "bounces" off the surface being painted and therefore reduces over spray. The efficiency is such that one manufacturer (TIP) claims that a car or truck can be painted with one quart of paint. This is about 1/4th the amount needed in a conventional system. Another added benefit to the HVLP system is that most systems heat the air going through the system. This means dryer air for a smoother paint application. The HVLP systems are not cheap but there are some deals to be found on used equipment. The systems are available in two and three turbine versions. A two turbine system is more than enough for a single gun operation. And lastly, If you can afford a second gun dedicate one for colors and one for clear coats only. Clean up time will be reduced as well as the possibility of contamination of the clear coat by stray paint chips from a previous color.

Spot Repair

Spot repair can take two basic forms. First, is the drop and fill method and second, color and clear coat. Drop and fill is just that. A chip which did not lift the color can be filled . Although, there are some repairmen that have advocated the use of "super glue" lacquer should be the first choice. The reason is that super glue does not forgive well. It dries harder and faster than lacquer and is difficult to blend in without damaging the surrounding finish. If you decide to try super glue do not use accelerators. They add a white tint to the fill.

First clean the chipped spot with naphtha, let the naphtha dry and with a tooth pick or very fine brush drop/flow a drop of lacquer into the chipped area. Let the drop dry from three hours to overnight (best) and repeat. The filled area should be slightly higher than the original finish. When dry the filled area can be wet sanded. Using a small flat block (a personal favorite is a small computer battery) wet sand beginning with #400 and working up to at least #800. When sanding continually wipe the repair dry and check the surrounding area for sand through. After the spot has been sanded flat with no shiny spots in or around the drop, rub out the repair with rubbing compound (red), polishing compound (white) and final polish with a swirl remover. Dupont automotive compounds work well and the 3M product " Finesse It II" works very well as the final polish.

Color and clear coat repairs can also be made in small areas. Simply add a tinted drop fill step to the above. The color medium should color match and must be compatible with the clear lacquer fill coat. It is best to start with a shade a bit lighter than the final color. It is easier to darken the chipped area than to lighten it. Note that oil based stains will not work with lacquer drop fills.

Area Repair

The next area to be discussed is repairing areas larger than a chip. Depending on the size, color and degree of perfection you will accept, you may want to consider an area refinish. Matching color to adjacent color is perhaps the most difficult part of repair. Even if the repair person has the original dye mix used on the original finish, matching will be difficult. The original finish is colored not only by the dye but by environmental factors as well. To demonstrate this, look under the pickguard of a vintage piece. Most likely you will find the color is brighter and either unchecked or more checked due to fading from different levels of light and more or less oil or polish reaching the two areas. Add tobacco smoke and the natural yellowing of lacquer and the problem of matching is multiplied.

Assuming that we can polish out any offending environmental influences or live with any color and checking difference, another hurdle to over come is "ponding". Color can build up against the wall of original finish at the edge of the area to be repaired. Too much color at this boundary will leave a color line in the final finish.

Beginning the repair, first determine the start and finish boundaries. If possible take as the outer boundary the physical edge of the instrument. The edge can be a right angle, sound hole, binding, pickup rout, ect. By stopping at an edge you have eliminated one blend boundary. If an edge stop is not possible then stop at a color. For example on a sunburst try not to involve two colors in the repair. Also, the more the lighter areas are involved the more difficult will be the color match.

After determining the boundaries, try to determine the type of dye used. The choices will be water based, lacquer/alcohol based or in some cases combination applications of the two. ( A third coloring type is opaque lacquer ala Gretsch ). If the damage has exposed bare wood consider if there is enough color left in the wood to match if simply clearcoated. If there is, then the type of dye used to stain the wood is moot. If not, gently wipe the damaged area with a damp rag. Water based dye will stain the rag; lacquer based dye will not. If the wood is stained with a lacquer based stain (or colored filler) you may be better served by not disturbing the raw wood with solvent and solving the problem with tinted over spraying. If you are forced to remove the lacquer coat(s) and find that before wood is reached stain is coloring the clean-up rag, then you are dealing with an originally tinted lacquer color coat.

With the dye type and repair approach determined, prepare the area. This may entail simply cleaning the area with naphtha. You may also find that you may want to feather edge the existing lacquer boundary to reduce the ponding depth. If the repair approach is to use the original raw wood stain, do not attempt any feather sanding. It will lighten the color.

If water based dye is to be used directly on the raw wood, it can be wiped or sprayed. Before either, dampen the area with water. This will even the soak in, reduce the chance of beading and also help in reducing ponding. Water based dyes can be wiped or sprayed. The drawback to wiping is that large areas may streak if the dye dries too quickly during application. The advantages of wiping are that ponding is more easily controlled and it is more difficult to apply too much color. The advantage to spraying is that it may be easier to lay down a more even coat. But spraying a water based dye, especially the first coat, may bead and spraying too much at once will almost always pond. Spraying also has no limit to the color darkness that can be laid down.

As with water based dyes lacquer based dyes can also be sprayed or wiped. But because of the quicker drying speed of the reducers used with lacquers as opposed to water, the advantages/disadvantages are reversed.


Before removing the old finish consider photographing the instrument from various views. Close ups can also be helpful. Not only are photos the best way to back up your bragging rights on a job well done but once the job is completed the photos will allow you to be certain that the patterns of shading and replacement of items such as pickguards are accurate.

Beware of the chemicals used in stripping! The chemicals are caustic. Always wear protective gloves and eyewear when using stripping materials. Also be aware that the chemicals involved can remove not only finish but dissolve plastic bindings as well. They can also damage labels and stain the interior of the instrument. The first step in finishing (after protecting yourself) is to protect all vulnerable areas of the instrument. Cover the bindings with paper tape to protect them. (Plastic tape may melt). Taping the bindings will also make clean-up easier. Before using paper tape be certain that the tape will not pull off the original finish. Paper tape also tends to adhere more tightly the longer it is left on a surface. If in doubt, do not tape over any finish you do not plan to remove. Automotive color supply stores offer an 1/8" fine line tape that will cover most top bindings in one pass (sides in two) and is thin enough to navigate the tight radius curves. (You may find that the waist is best taped with a separate strip and then over taped). 3M manufactures a tape which performs this function well. The 3M brand part number is #233.

To protect the interior of the instrument, stuff newspapers into the cavity through the sound hole(s). Tear the sheets into 1/4 size pages to make removal easier. Stuff more than you think is needed. If not sufficiently packed the paper can shift and leave open areas. Ruining an otherwise clean interior or label is inexcusable.

When stripping always try the most forgiving stripping medium first. Lacquer reducer will remove many finishes, is less of a danger to you ( be sure that your work area is well ventilated and that there are no open flames in the area) and is less likely to attack the bindings. It is, however, slower to work than the "Strip Ease" paste type of remover. Therefore, a combination method, while not the fastest, may be the best.

Use a "Strip Ease" type stripper in the areas which are not close to the vulnerable bindings. Paint the stripper onto the finish per the manufacturers instructions. After allowing the stripper to soften the finish, a 1/2" to 1" stiff paint brush can be used in a short "pushing" motion (as opposed to the pulling motion normally used when painting) to help lift the finish. Fine (#0000) steel wool rinsed in water can also be used to remove the melted finish. An alternative to steel wool are the plastic mesh pads made by 3M expressly for stripping. Although more expensive they can be rinsed with water and reused.

Work from the inside of the area pushing out toward the binding. Wipe the end of the brush often being careful not to drop stripper on the "good" areas. When the area near the binding is reached (about an 1/2" away) use lacquer reducer for the remaining finish. Paper towels moistened with reducer may work best for you. The work will be slower but potential for damage is reduced. Be aware that while not as caustic as "Strip Ease", lacquer reducer can still melt bindings if left in contact too long. Also, if you are planning to save the color of the original bindings then particular care is needed when the binding edge is reached. Be aware that if too much reducer is used it can seep under the protective tape and damage the bindings.

ALL of the old finish in the area to be refinished must be removed. If not removed the new stains will not evenly color. When all the finish is removed wipe the area clean with lacquer reducer. Then wipe the area with naphtha.

Should you ever have the unfortunate job of stripping a polyurethane finish, I have found only one chemical stripper which will remove poly; AirCraft Remover by Kleen Strip. It can be found at most automotive paint supply stores. Be aware that should you decide to use A/R, it is deadly to plastic bindings. Protect the bindings and if possible strip with A/R only up to near the binding area and use lacquer thinner or sanding to remove the finish adjacent to the bindings. One trick; on stubborn finishes, cover the area being stripped with a plastic garbage bag to prevent the stripper from evaporating. This will give the stripper a longer working time. Test the bag first to be sure that it is not attacked by the stripper although most bags do not seem to be affected.

Forward to Wood Preparation, Mixing, Spraying, The Rule of Threes, Final Polishing, Applying Solid Colors, Metallics and Blonde, and Troubleshooting
Fender Custom Colors Gibson Specialty Colors Wood Dye Colors Clear Coats & Tints
Sunbursting Products Finishing Supplies ReRanch Custom Colors Privacy Policy