Spraying Nitrocellulose Lacquer

NITROCELLULOSE FINISH HISTORY 

Nitrocellulose was the first documented man made "plastic", and was created in 1862. It was composed of cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent.

Celluloid was developed in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt when he created a material called camphor nitrocellulose, the first "thermoplastic". His invention was a contest entry to find a new material to make billiard balls.

In the early 1920’s nitrocellulose lacquer became the preferred finish on high-quality furniture and musical instruments. It is a fast-drying solvent that provides a durable finish and is easy to work with. Hence being still used today. And making it over 100 years old in the instrument business. 

It is a myth that nitro "needs" months to cure before sanding and polishing. It's a thermoplastic finish. Meaning it softens as it's polished due to the heat caused by friction and hardens as it cools. Anyone who says this should learn their chemistry. (Thermo(heat) plastic(moldable). *Greek 

Big builders like Gibson and Fender spray the same nitrocellulose lacquers you can buy here. They aren't chemically altered, catalyzed or changed to cure faster. They sand and polish ranging from 6-8 days.  Well before the "1-2 month secret" myth cure time.

It is also a myth that nitrocellulose lacquer is or was illegal in Canada. We've sprayed our colours for years and years perfecting them with our private instrument/lacquer business. You never saw the stuff available for purchase for basically one reason. There was a contract between a large supply company in Canada and the manufacturer that spanned some 30 years for distribution rights. Unless you mixed your own colours like us you were SOL.That contract is now over. This may be why you see other companies popping up offering it as well as other "nitro type products" that are similar to our colours/the originals.

Nitrocellulose is historically a very forgiving finish. Many mistakes have been made and fixed within 1 coat. Spatter, runs, orange peel. It is all repairable. Nitrocellulose is a highly sought after finish for a reason. It is all top manufacturers most expensive/ top of the line finishes. It has been used in the finishing of musical instruments for over 100 years. It provides a durable finish while aging with the player. It is light and thin and lets the instrument resonate and vibrate more freely than any other protective finish. Poly finishes do not. Poly finishes are very thick, weigh a ton, and when they do chip or crack it looks terrible. Oil finishes are nice, but a custom colour oil finish? No way. Nitrocellulose only has one real downside. It isn't good for your health. So people, please be smart about it. Don't spray indoors (your house...ever). Use a well ventilated area (ex. garage, spray booth, shed, or outside). Always wear a respirator and safety glasses. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to email the shop. Or read the back of the product, look up the SDS or product information sheets. We will answer all of your questions to the best of our ability.

Spraying Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Spraying Nitrocellulose lacquer has a few rules (guidelines). That being said, many manufacturers have their own way of using/changing these rules and it all works. A couple of quick "guidelines",

1) Make sure your work area is always clean and dry

2) Spray when conditions permit. Humidity being the most important factor. Try not to spray much over 60% humidity to be safe. An increase in humidity can cause blushing.

3) Spray warm lacquer. Never cold. Cold lacquer will spatter. Large builders use heated lacquer, but you can use hot tap water. Warm your can a few minutes before spraying for best flow. This step makes sure the lacquer flows out like it is supposed to. (Very Important)

4) Spray enough lacquer, but not too much. Too little or to far away from your guitar body can result in orange peel or an "over spray" effect (a rough surface caused by lacquer drying before it hits your guitar). Too much can produce a run or sag.

5) Spray approx 8-12 inches away from your guitar or neck. Overlap as much as possible usually 50% is enough.

Our lacquers and toners are mixed to the perfect spraying consistency allowing you to have all of the control over your finish. Unlike other lacquers which are thinned down considerably.  These lacquers tend to run easily, and blush more due to their over thinned properties.

6) If you have a run or sag, STOP! Let dry and sand out with 400 grit. Remember it is fixable. Just let it dry. This is key. It doesn't have to be 24 hours, 1 hour is plenty. If you make a mistake during the clear coating process sand with a higher grit sandpaper to avoid scratches being seen in the clear. 600-800 depedning on the mistake.

7) Do not sand metallic. The small metal particles suspended in the colour coat is what makes a metallic a metallic. The particles are meant to be suspended. Sanding will ruin this effect and more colour will need to be applied.

8) Let dry/cure a few days after spraying your final coat. It needs time to cure/harden. A week is is ideal for newer finishers, and it will harden more each day it cures. Gibson and Fender don't let their guitars sit for a month before sanding and polishing. Draw your own conclusion, but a week or two is recommended for first time finishers.

9) Wet sanding and polishing is time consuming. Take your time. Sand in one direction. I have found it produces less obtrusive scratches than a circular direction. Use a block to help stay flat and always use a lubricant.

10) Spray vintage toners and shaders very lightly. Use until you achieve your desired colour or burst. You can always add colour but you can't take it away. These don't have a build like nitrocellulose lacquer they are designed to add colour with minimal building. They melt in and flash off leaving colour behind. 

11) Have fun. Enjoy learning what makes these guitars so special. If you have questions, ask.

Spraying Aerosols

Aerosols are easy to use with less equipment and they store when not needed. There is enough product in our cans for up to 3 coats of lacquer on a normal guitar body. Usually the first coat is lighter, followed by wetter coats. As far as coverage goes. You only need good coverage on the primer and colour coats. The  sealer will build a flat level surface and the clear is what needs to be built up due to wet sanding. Hence needing more cans of clear lacquer.(Always clear nozzle after spraying) you can also put it into thinner. Our colours are supplied with a cone tip and a fan tip. Use the cone for more precise application in the cut aways and sides of the body. Switch to the fan tip (larger) for a wider pattern for the front and  back of guitar body. Clean your tips with lacquer thinner. Our fan tips are interchangeable with all of our spray cans. These tips are interchangeable and can be used on any can. Always keep thinner handy. Drop your tips into the tin of thinner for best results.

Spraying Metallic with Aerosols

Spraying metallic with aerosol or spray equipment is different from a solid or trans colour. It is easy to do, we basically would explain it as a "dry" coat. After you get good coverage colour wise you can do one of two things. Stop and let it flash off, or if your first coat wasn't a wet coat you can proceed to lightly cascading a coat over the entire guitar body. Metal flake is meant to be "suspended" in the lacquer. They fall at different angles which gives you a metallic shimmer in certain lights. If you spray a heavy coat the metal flake with basically float around in your lacquer. After your "dry" last coat of metal flake you can apply a light clear nitrocellulose lacquer coat. Spray a little lighter so that it does disturb the metal flake coat. After that you can clear coat as normal until you build sufficient lacquer.

 

Spraying with Spray Guns

If you have the equipment and know how to use it this method is great. Our colours come in a variety of containers. These provide enough lacquer for any project you have. Clears and sealers are also available in a variety of containers.These both should leave you with enough product to get good coverage while not wasting lacquer or having a bunch left over. If you know how to use your equipment you should not run into issues. If you are spraying with a ton of over spray and wasting good quality lacquer you may need more product. Make sure your gun is set right before spraying the lacquer. Guitar bodies and necks are smaller than most projects. You don't need the same settings as you would for a car to get good coverage.

Troubleshooting

If your nozzle appears clogged, stop. Remove tip and place into lacquer thinner. This will remove the clog and you can continue. This can happen if your lacquer is cold. That is why you should use warm lacquer. Should you run into any other issues please feel free to contact the shop for help.

Wet Sanding and Polishing

When you feel your finish has hardened you may start your wet sanding and polishing. There is no "one way" to do this. When you start wet sanding you can start anywhere from 800 to 1500 grit depending on your finishing experience. This is because wet sanding and polishing overlap based on products. Polish is just a "liquid" sandpaper so to speak. The more coarse the polish is the more it will "remove" scratches still leaving behind smaller ones. Nitrocellulose is a "thermo-plastic" finish. This means it "softens" as it heats up (polished/rubbed). No matter how hard your finish is, 1 or 4 weeks cured. It will still need to be softened when polished. This is how Gibson and Fender can wet sand and polish after only 6 to 8 days of curing. If this is your first time finishing we would recommend letting your finish cure one week. Sand up through the grits starting at 1000 moving to at least 2000 grit "p" grade wet sandpaper. Then polish with a medium fine compound followed by a fine compound/swirl remover. Let your finish cool after buffing a few minutes. (because it's thermo-plastic) It's still soft due to the heat caused by buffing. After it's cooled, clean off the leftover compound with a soft cloth or clean buffing pad and move to the next step until you are finished and have a mirror shine. If you are doing a relic job you can stop at any point you feel your guitar looks the way you like it.

A Word on Colours and one of the Original Charts

This image is taken from a vintage Fender book.

You'll notice a few things, 1) Blond is spelt "Blond". That's it's original name. Calling it BLONDE is actually historically incorrect. Even Fender screws this up all the time.

2) The colours were not available on everything they carried and on what they did carry it was rare anyone even knew plus it was an extra charge of 5%.

3) It says "14 Colours". You'll notice that Shell Pink is missing. It was swapped out with probably a more luxurious at the time colour Candy Apple Red. Which is also the only NON CAR COLOUR they developed at the time other than BLOND. Which was taken from the furniture industry. Shell Pink was apparently still available as its seen in other sheets. These are the original Custom Colours. 

4) At a time fender would finish your guitar in any DUCO colour with a code at 5%. Which is why there are some crazy colours out there that are very rare and worth big bucks. Like for example Tahitian Coral. They didn't advertise this which is why you don't see many around.

Fender finishes and Replicating them with Nitrocellulose Lacquer

For over 70 years Fender has used nitrocellulose in their finishing. A lot has changed in that time including their colours and process. Even from year to year. If you're trying to replicate a finish we can help. We can do it or help you achieve it yourself. For information on Sunbursts please see our Sunburst page. For all other finishes you can read below. 

*Covering every single colour finish would take an insane amount of space to do. Here we will cover some popular ones. Please reach out to us for any finish/look you are chasing.

Chasing After "Blonds"

This is a subject that could be discussed for days. So many changes and varying degrees of ageing from different products Leo could get. Many many ways to get there and unfortunately for every other supplier one "Retail" Can of "Butterscotch Blonde" is often never enough to get what people have in their head.

The "Blues"

A popular colour family from Fender. One that changed a lot from year to year and guitar to guitar. It's absolutely astounding the different variations.

Daphne Blue Over Sunburst (Front) Lake Placid Blue (back)

More Blues... Two Sonic Blue Strats and two Lake Placid Blue Strats. You'll notice that the Sonic Blues are different years and appear different colours. Could be age, could be guards, could be who sprayed it.

(Right) Two Lake Placid Blue Strats... Honestly they're both different from the actual car colour. Again different years, and different ageing. 

Reds

The first "official" custom colour is documented as Fiesta Red. Was it. Probably not. Either way.... Some very powerful colours are in this spectrum of finishing. Fiesta, Dakota, Candy Apple, Cimarron, and even Shell Pink are here.

Candy Apple Red, Dakota Red and Fiesta Red are cult classics for any fender freak. More likely to see Fading with these. However yellowing is a factor on some. Candy apple being the most interesting. DYK Fender often sprayed it over an already (yellowed) body that was ready for Sunburst. They used with Silver or Gold undercoat over a White Pimer and then sprayed a very light Red Transparent Toner over the Metallic Flake. 

Two 1955 Dakota Red Beauties

Green Machines

Like the Blues, this colour is all over the place. Sweet lord where to start. This range of colours is susceptible to both fading and yellowing. How sweet it is. Take a look at this Famous photo. No one really knows whats what.

Here what we see are different guitars, from different years, different colours (Surf and Sea Foam) and different ageing. Sea Foam and Surf Green with yellowing is definitely a touchy subject they photograph very differently but... you can still replicate ever single finish here with our help.

The Paisley

This subject is a rabbit hole to say the least. Lets just start by saying whatever Fender is putting out today is much "Pinker" than the originals from 1968 and 1969. This finish did not last for a long time making these extremely rare to find. We've replicated our 1968 Paisley Finish from examples from the original finish. Originally called "Red Paisley" it was only sold for 2 years. A lot of time and attention to detail has gone into this finish. Here are some examples of the originals.

This finish is no joke. There isn't another finish that requires more attention to detail.

As you can see, it's much more of a Red with a hint of Pink than a Pink with a hint of Red. This is because the original paper had red in it more than a dominate Pink.

Bill Crook would be considered the Grand master of anything paisley. His work is excellent and his attention to detail based on years of ageing is second to none. As you can see again. His finishes are a Redish Pink more than Pink. Like the Originals. He also incoropoartes some Golds to replicate a yellowed silver finish.