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Painting Guitars

A couple of years ago, my friend Paul – who is also my wood connection when I’m not on Vancouver Island – asked me if I’d accept a project to paint his wife’s guitar. It was a classical, nylon string acoustic. I asked if it would be a problem to sand the finish and reapply after painting and she said no.

Paul’s wife Judy is a musician. I knew that the guitar I’d be painting on would be played – not just displayed. I painted the entire surface of the body in a butterfly design. It worked, considering the natural shape of the guitar. Judy loved it, and I was hooked. If anyone wanted a painted guitar, I certainly wanted to do more.

Recently, a potential client asked me if I would be interested in painting her husband’s guitar. Now that I had the experience, I knew what was involved and how much to charge. There wasn’t just painting involved. I’d be stripping, sanding, painting, and refinishing. The surface of the artwork and the intricacy of the design also had to be considered. I quoted a price, but the client was apprehensive. She told me that her husband would be concerned about the sound of the instrument after I painted it.

I’m not a musician. I’m a carver. I can only respond as someone who has worked with wood throughout my entire life both as an artist and a craftsman.

When I approached Judy’s guitar project, I knew that I had to leave the instrument in the closest condition it was when she handed it over to me. I understood that in order to get the best results of painting, I needed to strip the finish and work on bare wood.

First I used a heavy-duty gel stripper by Heirloom Max, to penetrate the wood quickly to clean the surface. Then I gently sanded with a 220 grit to give me a smooth palate to work on. I drew the design, then painted with Golden Artist Colors Inc. Acrylics. After two coats and set to perfection, I used Varathane® to finish the work, leaving the coat as thin as it was before I had stripped it.

After my potential client expressed concern over the sound of the instrument – I went back to Judy, thinking that it’s only best to ask the person who commissioned me on this project originally. In an email, Paul wrote: “…she was playing it yesterday and the sound is awesome. She loves it inside and out. She was worried about that very thing too but it didn’t seem to change the sound at all.”

I still wanted to do more research, and found some comments on Quora, Acoustic Guitar Forum, and The Gear Page about this very subject.

Lastly, I spoke with Rufus Guitar Shop in Vancouver and was given the answer that, “…yes, any type of [thick] finish can alter the sound of the guitar, which is why manufacturers use very thin finishes.”

So the consensus seems to be, a thin finish is preferred for minimal or no affection to tone. This is exactly what I had done for Judy, and will do again for a client who requests it.

Like all items that a client gives me to work on, ask yourself if you have any sentimental value to the piece – as reworking it to its original state will either be time-consuming, difficult, or impossible.

Otherwise, giving your guitar some character with a personal design from Sanford Williams, and allowing the fresh, thin finish to add some protection might just make your music visually interesting as well as audibly.

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