This is a subject that could be debated all day long. But I just happen to have a copy of Leo fender's notes to go off of. Although it has changed many times over the years and sprayed by many different people. The bottom line is. It was always done with either dyes, toners, shaders and of course clear coat. Although we can't go over every secret in Fender's history like aniline dye mixtures and fullerplast here is the way to get the 4 most sought after Fender sunbursts looks.
(54-56) 2 Tone Sunburst
These were in Yellow and Dark salem. On Ash. First the ash was filled using a natural grain filler. Then it was sealed using a sealer and made sure to be a flat surface. The yellow was then sprayed on over the flat sealer usually followed by 1 light coat of clear lacquer (the clear will lock in the colour) Then the Dark Salem Burst was applied. Either normal or a wide burst. If there were any mistakes it was put aside. If it was perfect... or close to it was then clear coated.
Post 1956 Sunburst
These are still yellow and Dark Salem. They switched to Alder though. Mr Fender thought it was to dark. So they bleached the Alder tops and backs. To make it look as light as the Ash bodies. The undercoat is a yellow "Stain" or "Dye" that is right on the bare wood and then sealed with either sealer or clear lacquer. A NGR stain or aniline dye will work or our yellow toner.
Pre 1964 Sunburst
This process is identical to that last burst however they added a red to the mix to make it look more appealing and brighter. The red is always sprayed last. Yellow dye or spray, Dark Salem, then blend the Red in.
Post 1964 Sunburst
You guessed it. On Alder. But... this is when Fender decided they didn't want to bleach the alder anymore. They also decided they didn't like 1-3 piece bodies anymore. This lead to them using a "whiteish Yellow" toner sprayed over up to 4 sealed boards of alder.You'll know these when you see them. They are ridiculously yellow and opaque (so you can't see how many pieces of wood make up the guitar.... Thanks CBS. However the look is an important part of Fender history.
Just remember, when you put a colour in. Always, always "lock it in" with a coat of clear lacquer. The toner will melt into the guitar like it is supposed to with minimal build. But lacquer has a tendency to shrink things back. That is why this step is done. They still do it in the custom shop today.
1) Sealed, then yellow sprayed or "Stained" followed by a light coat of clear lacquer. (If you want to stain or "dip" you guitar body using a NGR dye stain it should be done before being sealed.)
2)Dark Salem Followed by a light coat of clear lacquer (after you spray your Dark Salem it is a good idea to quickly and lightly tack cloth off any "overspray" from your burst. Wipe very lightly with the grain before you lock in your Dark Salem colour this will blend any specs if there are any and belnd it into the graib pattern.)
3)Red (optional) Aim more into the Dark Salem edge than the yellow and blend in the red. Followed by light coat of clear lacquer.
4)Top coat 4-6 wet coats of clear lacquer.
You will need, a sealer (sealer or clear coat), your choice of Toners and multiple cans of clear coat for a build of lacquer.
Any sunburst that didn't meet the mark was put aside... and you guessed it was repurposed... For a custom Colour. Since then these are highly sought after instruments. So many of Fenders "mistakes" turned into gold years later. And you thought the V neck was on purpose.... sometimes people need vacation or call in sick. And that's how the V neck was born. They should call it the new guy on the sander profile. But we're talking about sunbursts here.
A 1954, 1955, and 1956 (from left to right) You'll Notice the Dark Salem is very dark (almost black) not lighter brown. String trees help indicate year at first glance and the alder body opposed to ash on the 1956 eliminated most of the grain.
Moving on from left to right, a hardtail from 1957. The last year of the 2 tone sunburst. You'll notice the 1958 has red in it. This was the first year of the 3 tone sunburst and still used the same Dark Salem. Some rumors are they switched to a more "Chocolate Brown" Salem. This picture proves otherwise. It remained the same. The last is indeed a 1959. A guitar that was pre Slab Rosewood fretboards.
This is Buddy Holly's 1958 3 Tone Sunburst. An absolute perfect example. As you can see the grain pattern is an beautiful piece of Alder and the Dark Salem is again almost Black.
The guitar pictured is a 1963. As you can see they went to the "mint green" guard. It's actually a rare Mahogany body and it appears to be bleached to enhance the yellow and red toners used, the Dark Salem is perfect. The guitar behind is another rare Mahogany.
The 3 guitars above are a 1960, 1961, and 1962. The custom colour is on the 1961. The 1960 has a degree of fading as you can see from the output jack (red). Notice a beautiful yellowed white finish on the 1961.
The 1965 version used a solid Whiteish Yellow to hide the amount of boards to make a body blank. As you can see the 1965 and on was a very nice finish and a important part of history.
The is no grain patter to the CBS 1965 and on sunburst finishes.
PRE-64 THREE TONE
PRE 56 TWO TONE
CHOCOLATE TWO TONE SUNBURST
TWO TONE SUNBURST
56 TWO TONE SUNBURST
Gibson sprays their sunburst colours very similar to Fender. It's all done with toners and shaders. Their early red faded like crazy and created a line of very rare 58-60 bursts that could be worth more than your house. There is also the ever popular tobacco burst, and the newer blueberry burst. You can use our dye stain to colour the top of your maple cap to your liking or use our yellow toner that comes in aerosol. Make sure you tape off any part you don't want colour on. You'll probably end up having to scrape your binding with a razor blade... But that is better than overspray everywhere. Remember once you apply one colour always spray a light coat of clear lacquer over it to lock in the colour and make your work easier.
Toners and Shaders
Toners/shaders are not lacquers. In fact most toners or shaders have little to no lacquer in them. They are not made to build lacquer up. They are meant tonadd colour. They are very light and thin and are meant to burn into your sealed guitar body or clear lacquer and flash off fairly quickly leaving the colour behind. If you do burst with a nitrocellulose lacquer you run the risk of have large speckles in your finish. When using our toners, spray them lightly. You can always add more colour, but you can't take it away. Overdoing it will result in a run. You should NOT use the same settings on your spray gun for bursting as a solid colour or top coat. Many people make this mistake. Dial in less product and a finer pattern with less air. You can also use an Air Brush gun or a smaller 1.0 Tip gun set properly.
Our toners are matched to actual instruments from Fender and Gibson. We used a 1958 Stratocaster to dial in the colours from Fender. We used various Gibson Les Pauls to replicate the Dark Tobacco Burst and Cherry Bursts.
If you've been to the Fender or Gibson Factories you'll know they spray vintage toners and not lacquers for all of these type of finishes. When they are done spraying these you'll notice they coat the guitar with clear lacquer before it goes for it's top coats.