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Before going into too much detail in this article, keep in mind that this is just one method of applying a sunburst guitar finish. This method is relatively easy to do for someone new to guitar finishing which is why I recommend this approach. If you are more experienced there are a number of great resources available online such as stewmac.com and you will also find any number of tutorials available on YouTube. With that out of the way let's rip in!
We will also be using 2 floating masks, so it’s a good idea about how to cut out the mask for the job. The masks will sit above the guitar's surface and will allow you a lot more control over the application. Use cardboard as your mask material and go for something you can cut easily enough with a knife but also something thick that won’t bleed. The first mask will cover the entire face of the guitar. The second mask will be in the shape of a teardrop and be much smaller (Refer to example image above). We are also going to need some lint-free material such as an old cotton t-shirt to apply the base stain.
First, we are going to bring out the natural wood grain which works a treat on flamed maple which is what the typical Les Paul clone will have on its top surface. Essentially we are going to apply a dark base coat stain, work it into the timber and then sand back the surface leaving the wood grain highlighted.
Next, we will be applying 2-3 coats of sealer. There are a couple of reasons why we should do this:
Next, we are going to spray the back and sides using the dark lacquer or black. The important thing here is to mask the guitar body and fretboard. If your guitar has edge binding e.g. A Les Paul you can use painters masking tape to cover the binding nice and tight. This is commonly used in the automotive industry for pinstriping and is ideal for this type of application.
When masking the face of the guitar we want our cardboard mask sitting above the face of the guitar by about ½ inch so our edge coat will feather in a little. You could use matchsticks here or fold some wedges from the cardboard yourself.
With any spraying, it’s a great idea to keep your spray packs in warm water before using. Cold spray packs tend to clog up and run more easily. If you can hang your guitar before applying the edge and back coats then do so, this will make things much easier to spray the back and sides.
Behlen Lacquer is a transparent finish but if applied thickly on the edges and back you will get an opaque finish. You can of course also use a black if that is your preference.
When you are ready to spray remember to keep even arm movements and spray quite quickly. This is going to take a number of coats so don’t try to apply it too thick, the secret is to build up your color layer upon layer. When you are spraying near the face of the guitar hold your can a distance away so that you get a nice feathered edge. Basically the closer you get the harder the edge line you will make. We really want a nice blend of color so keep some distance from your guitar.
Once completed let the guitar dry and then start to lightly sand out any areas you are not happy with on the face of the guitar. Remember since we applied a sealer over the base coat you can sand the black lightly without being overly concerned.
The trick here is to use a lighter gauge sandpaper each time. We are essentially removing the marks from the gauge of sandpaper previously used and then moving on to a lighter gauge with an eye to finally moving to a buffer or polishing cloth to really bring that glossy look out. Keep lightly sanding and then moving to a lighter gauge until you run out of sandpaper, next move onto wet and dry sandpaper. For wet and dry sanding I like to submerge my sandpaper for an hour before using but this isn't essential.
You can then use light steel wool or move on to your buffer. From here you can just keep buffing or hand polishing until you are completely happy with the finished look.