Finishing School: The Science and Style of Fender Finishes
Here's your primer Into the world of finishes.
By Jeff Owens
A guitar’s look is a major part of the statement that guitarists make to the world about themselves. It says you’re cool, or that you’re hot. It says your style is flamboyant or that it’s laid-back. It’s says you’re state-of-art or old-school; classic or cutting edge. It gives the instrument a big part of its character and its soul, which, in turn, is a part of what you do and who you are.
By its color, its pattern and its condition—pristine, battered or somewhere in between—the finish is a defining element of your instrument and your musical identity. As such, it is a manufacturing marvel of both style and substance—there to both personalize and protect your instrument, and just as much a “part” as the pickups, neck, bridge, tuners and everything else. It helps give color and life to its look, feel and sound, and it provides protection from all manner of external influences.
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Both historically and today, a lot of science is involved in finish coatings for musical instruments. The substances themselves and their various application methods and combinations are enormously complex. And it definitely bears remembering that these finishes are applied to products fashioned from once-living organic plant matter; namely, wood. Wood is a substance that moves and changes with climate, treatment and age, as do the finish coatings that are applied to it.
Fender uses a variety of finish types on its instruments, from the original nitrocellulose lacquer finishes used so often in the company’s 1950s-’60s era (and beloved of vintage guitar enthusiasts) to more modern urethane and polyester finishes. Suffice it to say that, technically, guitar finishes are no simple matter, but here’s a general primer on modern Fender guitar finishes.
Nitrocellulose lacquer (“nitro”) was the finish most often used during Fender’s original 1950s and ’60s golden age, although acrylic lacquers were also used. Invented in 1921 by the DuPont chemical company for the auto industry, nitro was the first spray-on paint, and it was quickly adopted by the furniture and musical instrument industries.
A Fender Custom Shop 1963 Stratocaster Relic (above) shows the kind of wear typically associated with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, which this instrument has. Below, take a look at a close-up of finish checking on a Fender Custom Shop 1952 Heavy Relic Telecaster.
Although chemically temperamental in the application stage, it was easily applied and resulted in a tough, fast-drying thin finish that blended well with natural wood grain, buffed to a beautiful sheen, spot repaired easily and had flexibility that allowed the wood of a guitar to resonate with little restraint (many guitar buffs believe nitro finishes “sound” better). Early on, Fender took its custom colors straight from General Motors under their original DuPont names and part numbers (“Duco” for nitrocellulose lacquer and “Lucite” for acrylic lacquer).
Nitro finishes, however, crack and yellow with age, and they can “check” (guitar-speak for fine hairline cracks) with age or sudden exposure to low temperatures. They get thinner and more brittle as they age because the thinners in them continue to evaporate throughout an instrument’s lifetime. These characteristics actually hold special appeal for many guitarists, as the cracking, yellowing, checking and aging common to this finish type are exactly what many aficionados love about nitro.
Fender still uses nitrocellulose lacquer finishes on a select group of instruments (Road Worn™ and American Vintage series, various artist models). Variants in use include satin nitrocellulose lacquer (Highway One models, Jim Root Stratocaster), which is a flatter finish, and thin-skin nitrocellulose lacquer (Vintage Hot Rod models), which has a thinner sanding sealer or lacquer undercoat.
Fender introduced polyurethane finishes (often shortened to “urethane”) on its instruments in the late 1960s; allowing a glossier, more even finish by replacing multiple layers of nitro clear coating with a mere two layers of aliphatic urethane.
Above, an American Special Stratocaster with a gloss urethane finish (a type of polyurethane finish). Polyurethane finishes look great, age well and are extremely durable.
Polyurethane was invented in Germany in 1937. A highly versatile plastic, it was introduced into U.S. commercial manufacturing in the 1950s. In liquid plastic resin form, it made an extremely fast-drying, tough and durable finish (also used for dance floors and bowling alleys) that formed a much harder and abrasion-resistant layer around a guitar than nitro, while still allowing good wood resonance. Further, urethane ages well—it doesn’t check, crack and yellow as nitro finishes do. If you aren’t a fan of the beat-up look, a urethane-finish instrument is probably for you.
Fender continues to use urethane finishes on many of its instruments (American Standard Series, various artist models), with variants including flatter satin urethane (necks on Deluxe, Standard, Highway One, American Deluxe and American Standard models) and thicker, shinier gloss urethane (American Specials, Ritchie Blackmore Stratocaster).
Fender started using polyester finishes in the 1970s. Thick and hard, polyester finishes were introduced in several industries that decade—musical instrument manufacturing included—and quickly proved popular.
Above, a Standard Stratocaster with a polyester finish. Like polyurethane, polyester finishes look great, age well and are extremely durable.
The chief advantage of polyester is that it makes for a colorful and extremely tough, durable finish. Polyester guitar finishes age and weather especially well and are seemingly immune to climate and injury—they are highly resistant to scratching and checking, and colors remain remarkably pristine. Sonically, you get tones that are more purely those of the pickups rather than other elements of the instrument’s construction, which many players prefer.
As with nitro and urethane, Fender continues to use polyester finishes on a number of instruments and instrument families (Classic, Classic Player, Deluxe, Standard series, various artist models).
Back in Fender’s early days, there was no such thing as a vintage guitar market. Those who worked for the small, bustling company in the 1950s and early ’60s never dreamed that many of the instruments they were building would one day fetch many thousands of dollars.
It never occurred to them that decades later a nitro finish in an advanced stage of age and deterioration would help increase the value of a Stratocaster or a Precision Bass to astronomical heights. It certainly never occurred to them that one day there would be a worldwide network of interconnected computer users who would vigorously scrutinize and debate the most arcane Fender finish minutia regarding, say, the sonic qualities of urethane topcoats, the kind of paint sealer used in 1960, whether DuPont’s Lake Placid Blue was slightly “greener” than Ditzler’s Lake Placid Blue, the slightest inconsistencies in undercoats, the pros and cons of polyester. And on andq on …
The point is well made, though. Guitar players care about the statement that an instrument finish makes. They care about how it affects an instrument’s tone, feel, look and value over time. They care about how it helps projects personality. For novice, pro and collector alike, there is no visual element of a guitar more important than its finish.