Chances are you’ve got an old electric guitar lying around that needs to be resurrected with a fresh paint job. Now some people like the appeal of an old guitar, but then there are those who want it in brand new condition at all times. Or maybe you don’t like the color on yours and want to get it repainted asap.
The first question you should be asking yourself is – How Much Does it Cost to Refinish a Guitar?
Well, here’s the TL;DR answer.
The starting cost of a guitar refinish is about $200 for the body while a professional custom paint job can cost $600 or even more. Paint and other material will only cost you around $50 to $60, it’s the labor that’s expensive. You can do it on your own, but the process will take a lot of time and patience.
Also Read: How Much Does It Cost to Refret a Guitar?
If you want to learn more about the detailed steps involved, full guitar refinish cost breakdown and some handy refinishing tips, then stick around!
When Should You Refinish a Guitar?
The finish is not only a factor of beautification, it also does the job of protecting the wood. Yes, aesthetics are important, but so is the material at the heart of your instrument.
What’s the single most important thing wood needs to be protected against?
Moisture! And the best way to do that is by coating a layer of finish that seals the wood from any moisture in the surroundings.
Now if your guitar has poorly done mods or you know it has undergone a bad fin job in the past, it might make sense to go for a refinish.
It might vary from person to person, but usually a refinish is practical in one of two cases: Your guitar is one step away from ending up in the parts bin and begs for restoration. Or else, you want to change the look of your guitar to maybe a more inspiring one for yourself.
Before thinking about restoration, one should also consider if the job will have any negative effects on the instrument.
No matter what your guitar brand or model is, its value will be diminished after a refinish job. A bad or cheap finish job will affect the sound and might leave the guitar permanently damaged.
If it’s just years of honest wear, it should not be refinished. A simple touch-up or a basic repair would be enough in those cases.
Types of Guitar Finish – What is the Best Guitar Finish?
Here’s an overview of the main types of finishes used on guitars (and other instruments) as well as a brief discussion on their advantages and disadvantages.
Oils and Waxes
Oil and Wax finishes have lost some of their applications owing to newer finish materials and methods, which offer better protection to the instrument.
But that doesn’t mean they are not useful. Oil and Wax are great at retaining your guitar’s tone, are lightweight and can enhance the wood grain. This makes them great for acoustic instruments in particular as you can achieve nearly transparent acoustics with these finishes.
Oil and Wax are simple to DIY and don’t require special care or equipment like lacquer or varnish, and if you later decide to apply paint, you can simply sand off the finish.
Shellac is similar to Oil and Wax, and has been used for hundreds of years in the furniture industry and musical instruments. It’s a natural resin secreted by the female Lac bug.
Shellac finish enhances the natural wood grain and doesn’t affect the acoustics and tone much, which is the reason why it’s popular among classical instrument luthiers.
It can be applied with a spray or brush, although luthiers prefer to use a polishing pad to ensure an even coating. It does take a few days to dry up and settle, and might require a large number of coatings.
Shellac is usually harder than Oil and Wax, while also being slightly glossier.
Nitrocellulose Lacquer (Nitro)
It is a mixture of a nitro-based solvent and a cellulose-based material, hence the name “Nitrocellulose”. The nitro solvent evaporates upon spraying on your guitar, leaving the cellulose behind. But wait, it’s not as simple as just spraying the material on the guitar.
Firstly, these lacquers are often poisonous, and have to be applied in a ventilated environment by a gun or a spray. This is also the reason why luthiers these days tend to prefer some of the modern alternatives.
Secondly, these are thinner, softer and more fragile that poly finishes. Lacquers are prone to discoloration and wear over time.
So, why nitro?
Because purists love it! The wear and patina associated with this finish is what defines a real vintage guitar. Fender and Gibson among others used nitro in their guitars during the ’50s and ’60s. It’s still the choice for vintage and high-end guitars.
It’s a thinner finish, which some people believe helps in retaining the original vibrations of the wood. Nevertheless, the beauty associated with it is definitely a merit as compared to the modern finishes.
Polyurethane and Polyester (Poly)
The use of lacquer started to decline around the mid-1960s in lieu of safer and easier-to-apply finishes, the most popular of which was “Polyurethane”. It’s cheaper, tougher and requires less number of coating layers and also dries up faster.
They are also less prone to aging, and will usually retain a clearer, shinier aesthetic over time as compared to nitro. In fact, they are so good that poly is used in a lot of furniture industry and even the floors of wooden gymnasiums.
“Polyester” is also a plastic-based material similar to polyurethane. It’s much harder and glossier than nitro, and is applied in thicker but fewer number of layers.
Some people argue that the greater thickness affects the tone of the guitar, however, we’d leave it up to the pros to debate. But you should know that these poly finishes have developed a lot since they first came into the market. They are much thinner these days and live up to high standards.
As the finish covers the wood and vibrates along with it, it might seem like it affects the sound. But that’s not the case entirely, in fact the finish hardly changes the tone of the guitar. It’s there to enhance the beauty of the instrument and protect the underlying wood from humidity and everyday scrapes and knocks.
If you just want the most protection at a reasonable cost, go for a poly finish. There is a reason it’s the industry standards in most places right now.
In the end, the best finish will depend upon what do you want it to look like, available equipment and the cost.
How Much Does a Guitar Refinish Cost?
Like most questions on the Internet, there’s no fixed answer for that.
In general, the cost of refinishing a guitar depends on the following factors:
- How much of the guitar requires refinishing? (Body, Neck or Both)
- Does it also involves stripping the existing finish?
- Any preparation work, sanding etc.
- Type and material of finish (Discussed above).
- Any custom design, logo work, burst finishes etc.
So, How Much Does it Cost to Refinish a Guitar?
A solid color finish will start at around $200, which goes up as you add custom colors and designs. Varnish and Lacquer can probably cost you around $300-400 just for the finish itself. Stripping the body and neck will cost you around $100 each, with poly finishes being the hardest and costliest to strip.
Custom refinish tends to take a lot of time and is a very tedious task, and any unexpected issue will cause the turnaround time to be delayed. For the same reason they tend to be expensive, often more than your guitar’s worth. A full professional refin with burst top/custom design, stripping the neck and body can set you back $700-1000.
Getting a pro refin on a cheap guitar is not a cost-effective decision, it’ll probably cost more than the guitar itself. That’s where DIY refinishing comes in.
Also, I can’t stress this enough, but don’t simply go for the cheapest job you find. Nobody wants a crappy refinish and you might regret it later.
DIY Guitar Refinishing
Good news is that refinishing doesn’t require expensive tools or equipment. If it’s your first time, be prepared to devote a decent amount of elbow grease and about $50-100 for tools and materials.
Our aim is to make it as close to a professional job in terms of durability and looks, in the cheapest way possible. That does mean you have to dedicate a good amount of skill and patience to the job.
If you want, you can just use a rattle can, which is explained in the video below:
- Sand down the guitar.
- Apply primer for adhesion and filling. Let it dry.
- Sand primer.
- Clean the guitar thoroughly using a mild solvent.
- Paint the guitar and let it dry overnight.
- De-nib the finish and buff.
1. Can I Refinish my Guitar?
Yes, and you should try it at least once. You might not get that factory-level perfection, but in the process, you’ll save a lot of money and develop a practiced hand.
If it’s a cheap guitar or just a backup guitar of yours, then there’s no harm in trying that out and it’s the best way to learn how to refinish a guitar.
2. Does refinishing a guitar affect its value?
Yes, especially if it’s a vintage collectible guitar, a refinish will probably diminish its value.
3. Can You Refinish an Acoustic Guitar?
Yes, you can refinish an Acoustic Guitar using the same sanding, priming, painting, and polishing we discussed above. But remember that refinishing will lower its value.
4. Can You Paint Over a Guitar Finish?
No. You need to sand down the existing finish first until the shininess goes away, then apply the appropriate primer and paint. No need to sand all the way to the wood.
5. Can You Use Spray Paint on a Guitar?
Yes. Spray paints are convenient and versatile while being safe and clean as some other methods. Just make sure to sand, clean, and dry the guitar and cover any unwanted areas with tape or paper.
Refinishing can be tricky if you are a novice without any experience in guitar repair whatsoever, but it can be performed if you’re careful and patient enough. It’s not super complicated, although very time-consuming.
If it’s going to be your first time, try it out on a cheap guitar. Otherwise, it’s always a wise decision to take help of a professional in tasks like these. Now that you know how much does it cost to refinish a guitar, you can confidently approach a luthier for the job.
Only perform a refinish when there’s no alternative left. If you’re buying a guitar just to then refinish it, you should give it a second thought.
I’m Pranshu. I’ve been a passionate guitarist, keyboardist, and music producer ever since I got my hands on a keyboard as a small child.
With Harmonyvine, my goal is to share tips and knowledge about music and gear with you. I also enjoy recording music and guitar covers, which you can check out on my Instagram page.