As a guitar player, you probably know that nitrocellulose is a type of paint used to finish guitars. But did you know that it’s also a key ingredient in many of the top lubes and creams used by people all over the world?
It doesn’t make it any less suitable as a finish though. Let’s look at that.
What is Nitrocellulose?
Nitrocellulose is a type of finish used on guitars and other instruments. It’s been around for a while, and it’s known for its unique look and feel. But what is it, and why is it so popular?
What is Nitrocellulose?
Nitrocellulose is a type of finish used on guitars and other instruments. It’s made from a combination of nitric acid and cellulose, which is derived from plants. It’s a thin, transparent finish, and it’s known for its glossy look and feel.
Why is Nitrocellulose Popular?
Nitrocellulose is popular for a few reasons. First, it’s a great looking finish. It’s thin and transparent, so it allows the natural beauty of the wood to shine through. It also ages well, developing a unique patina over time. Plus, it’s durable and resistant to scratches and dings.
Does Nitrocellulose Affect Tone?
This is a bit of a controversial topic. Some people believe that nitrocellulose can affect the tone of an instrument, while others think it’s just a myth. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to decide what works best for them.
Nitrocellulose: The Explosive History of Guitar Finishes
The Explosive History of Nitrocellulose
Nitrocellulose has a pretty wild history that’s definitely worth talking about. It all started in the early to mid nineteenth century when a bunch of chemists developed the same material at the same time.
My favorite origin story is about a German-Swiss chemist who accidentally spilled a nitric and sulfuric acid mix and grabbed the closest thing he could find – his cotton apron – to mop it up. As he left the apron near the stove to dry, it caught fire with a huge flash.
It’s no surprise that one of the first uses of nitrocellulose was as guncotton – a blasting explosive. It was also used in shells, mines, and other dangerous stuff. During WWI, British soldiers even used it to make improvised grenades by filling ration tins with guncotton and poking a makeshift fuse in the top.
Nitrocellulose Becomes Plastic
Cellulose is an organic compound found in plants, and when you mix it with a couple of different acids, you get nitrocellulose. After the apron-explosion incident, nitrocellulose was used with other treatments to make the first plastic (which eventually became celluloid). It was used to make photographic and cinematic film.
Nitrocellulose Lacquer is Born
After various unplanned cinema fires, film stock moved to the less-incendiary ‘Safety Film’. Then, a guy called Edmund Flaherty at DuPont figured out that he could dissolve nitrocellulose in a solvent (like acetone or naphtha) and add some plasticisers to make a finish that could be sprayed.
The car industry was quick to jump on it because it was faster to apply and dried more quickly than the stuff they had been using. Plus, it could easily take colored dyes and pigments, so they could finally drop the “any color so long as it’s black” statement.
Guitar Makers Get in on the Action
Musical instrument makers also caught on to the nitrocellulose lacquer trend. It was used on all sorts of instruments in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s an evaporative finish, which means the solvents flash off quickly and subsequent coats can be applied with less delay. It’s also possible to end up with a thin finish, which is great for acoustic guitar tops.
Plus, pigmented lacquers allowed for custom guitar colors, dyes allowed for translucent finishes, and sunbursts were all the rage. It was a golden age for guitar makers.
The Downside of Nitrocellulose
Unfortunately, nitrocellulose lacquer isn’t without its downsides. It’s still highly flammable and dissolved in a highly flammable solvent, so there are plenty of safety issues. When spraying, it’s definitely not something you want to breathe, and overspray and vapours remain flammable and harmful. Plus, even after it cures, it’s still susceptible to many solvents, so you need to be careful of your nitro-finished guitar.
How to Care for a Nitrocellulose Finish Guitar
What is a Nitro Finish?
Nitrocellulose is a lacquer that has been around for over a century. It has been used to finish guitars by companies like Gibson, Fender, and Martin. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was the go-to finish for guitars, and it is still popular today.
Nitrocellulose is a more porous lacquer than polyurethane, so some guitarists believe it allows the guitar to breathe more and helps create a fuller, richer sound. It also has a more organic texture under the hands, and it wears down in the most played spots, giving the guitar a vintage “played-in” feel. Plus, nitro finishes tend to look nicer and be buffed up to a higher shine.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Keep it out of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight can damage the finish over time.
- Regulate the temperature. Extreme temperature changes can cause the finish to crack.
- Avoid rubber stands. Nitrocellulose can react with rubber and foam, causing the finish to melt.
- Clean it regularly. Use a soft, dry cloth to wipe down the guitar after playing.
How to Touch Up Your Nitro Guitar Finish
Cleaning the Area
Before you can get to the fun part of touching up your nitro guitar finish, you’ll need to do a bit of cleaning. Grab a microfiber cloth and get to work! It’s like giving your guitar a mini spa day.
Applying the Lacquer
Once the area is nice and clean, it’s time to apply the lacquer. You can use a brush or a spray can to get the job done. Just make sure you apply a thin layer of nitrocellulose lacquer.
Letting the Lacquer Dry
Now that you’ve applied the lacquer, you’ll need to wait a full 24 hours for it to dry. This is the perfect time to grab a snack, watch a movie, or take a nap.
Buffing Out the Lacquer
After the lacquer has had a chance to dry, it’s time to buff it out. Grab a soft cloth and get to work. You’ll be amazed at how shiny your guitar looks after you’re done!
The History of Nitrocellulose
Nitrocellulose is an interesting chemical process that was developed by several chemists during the 19th century. During World War I, British soldiers used guncotton to make grenades. After some unexpected cinema fires, film stock shifted to Safety Film, which is achieved through the use of nitrocellulose.
The Benefits of Nitrocellulose
Nitrocellulose is great for giving your guitar a professional finish at a low cost. Plus, it’s more forgiving when used for repair and touch-up. Here are some of the benefits of using nitrocellulose:
- Solvents quickly flash off
- Subsequent coats can be applied in less time
- Finishers can achieve excellent gloss and a thin finish
- It’s a pleasure to apply
- It ages beautifully
The History of Nitrocellulose
The Benefits of Nitrocellulose
Back in the day, nitrocellulose was the way to go for a good looking finish. It was relatively cheap and dried quickly. Plus, it could be coloured with dyes or pigments and was easy to apply, making the finishing process quite forgiving.
Here are some of the benefits of nitrocellulose:
- Relatively cheap
- Fast to dry
- Can be coloured with dyes or pigments
- Easy to apply
Nitrocellulose and Tone
At the time, nobody was analysing nitrocellulose for its longevity over years and decades. So, did they stumble upon a finish that allows the wood to breathe and resonate in order to impart a glorious tone?
Well, it’s hard to say. A guitar is a system, and everything in that system can potentially play a part in its output. So, while nitrocellulose might have a role to play, it’s probably not a major factor in the instrument’s tone.
Nitrocellulose in the ’70s
In the ’70s, the thicker, obviously-poly finishes were the easy distinction for less well-thought-of guitars. People assumed the finish was the reason why the guitars weren’t as good, when in reality there were a lot of other factors at play.
So, is nitrocellulose the only way to get a good sounding guitar? Not necessarily. Fender started using Fullerplast (a polyester sealer material) in the early ’60s, and by the time they were offering metallic finishes, they were doing so with acrylic lacquers.
Bottom line: nitrocellulose might have a role to play in the guitar’s tone, but it’s probably not a major factor.
Nitrocellulose is a great finish for guitars, offering a thin, glossy finish that can be sanded and buffed to perfection. It’s also great for custom colors, sunbursts, and translucent finishes. Plus, it’s fast-drying and can be applied with a spray gun. So, if you’re looking for a unique and beautiful finish for your guitar, you can’t go wrong with nitrocellulose. Just remember: it’s explosive stuff, so handle with care! ROCK ON!
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:Subscribe