How to Paint a Guitar in a Sunburst

By James Anthony
A sunburst guitar.

Creating a sunburst finish on a guitar offers a challenge that will require some attention to detail but, with practice, the results will be well worth the effort. The sunburst finish concept is one that was first developed by Gibson in the 1950's, and since then there have been many variations on the original technique. A sunburst finish uses several different shades of finishing material to create the sunburst effect: a "sun" in the middle of the guitar surface, around which a darker color is then added.

Sunburst finishes are most commonly applied to the face of a guitar. If the face is currently natural (no color, just natural wood grain showing through), skip to Step 4. Otherwise, use a lacquer stripper to remove the existing finish, all the way down to bare wood. A narrow putty knife is helpful in removing the old lacquer. Hold it at roughly a 45 degree angle and gently apply pressure in the direction of the wood grain (to avoid cross-grain scratches).

Use a piece of fine dry sandpaper to carefully sand the wood surface until it is smooth. When sanding, make sure that your sanding strokes follow the "grain" of the wood to prevent unsightly cross-grain scratches. Wrapping the sandpaper around a small block of wood is a proven technique that will help assure a consistently level surface.

Protect the sides of your guitar with strips of newspaper, attaching the strips to the sides with masking tape. The tape should be positioned to closely follow the top of the instrument.

Make sure that all dust has been removed from the top surface and, following the manufacturer's instructions, spray on a coat of clear lacquer. Repeat several times.

Drying times will vary dependent upon humidity, but lacquer generally dries within an hour of application. When dry, use wet sandpaper and naptha to level the lacquer surface. Wipe off any residue with a soft cloth.

Spray on a coat of yellow lacquer across the entire top surface of the guitar. Repeat as needed to assure an even coat of color. When dry (generally within an hour of application), use wet sandpaper and naptha to level the lacquer surface. Wipe off any residue with a soft cloth.

Spray on a coat of clear lacquer. Repeat several times. When dry (generally within an hour of application), use wet sandpaper and naptha to level the lacquer surface. Wipe off any residue with a soft cloth.

Using the darker lacquer color of your choice, spray the outside edge contour of the face of your guitar first. Repeat this process as many times as required for the color to achieve the hue of your preference. The color at this outside edge should always be the darkest, and less so as you approach the center.

Once dry, repeat this process, 1 to 2 inches further in toward the center of the face. Less repeats will be required, as the intent here is to begin to blend a lighter color into the existing darker one.

Repeat this once again to continue blending shades of color. Let dry. Apply a coat of clear lacquer. Repeat several times. When dry, use wet sandpaper and naptha to level the lacquer surface. Wipe off any residue with a soft cloth.

Let the lacquer continue to cure for an additional 24 to 48 hours.

Remove the masking tape and newspaper. Using polishing compound and a soft cloth, polish the top coat of clear lacquer until the finish is even and shiny.

About the Author

Based in Henderson, Nev., James Anthony has been a sales and marketing communications professional since 1980. He has a passion for clear communications - and it shows in everything he develops, from corporate messaging to writing about the arts, food and lifestyle. Anthony received his bachelor's degree from Boston University, and was a Graduate Fellow at The University of Chicago.