Guitar Finishes, Poly Vs Nitro Finish

Poly Vs Nitro Finish

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The Guitar Finish Debate Rages On

This page is currently a loose collection of some of my thoughts and is definitely not finished. If you decide to read it before it is finished you may come away with some incorrect assumptions. Please wait till this article is finished before you make any decisions.

There are numerous ways to paint guitars and there are people who claim that one way is better than another.
Again there are lots of opinions & arguments.  This page is to try to explain a little about the basic differences. This page is written in plain English and I have refrained from using some impressive scientific jargon "big words" that no one can relate to anyway.

What's the Difference?

Poly paint jobs are easier and inexpensive to make look very good. Most every company uses it from Ibanez to PRS. Poly finishes are easily identifiable by the thick glossy finish. Polyester as opposed to Polyurethane is resin based and therefore thicker & goopier. (Not great for resonance-tone). Polyurethane is more expensive but it's thinner and sounds measurably better than Polyester.  At least this is what one of my outside paint shops told me !!!

Regarding the statement I made above !!!

Some technoid propeller head has written me a couple of letters lately, telling me I don't know what I'm talking about. I never claimed to be a chemist, and I think they missed my point anyway. The point I am going for is to keep the finish thin.  Maybe, he didn't read the first sentence at the top of the page maybe then he would have waited to write.  I am certain that some of these people who write some of these letters are simply attention getters with too much time on their hands & may even be paid shills for the big companies to discredit anyone who exposes their little games to the public.

Look at a JET Guitars finish, Some sort of poly hybrid but you can plainly tell it is incredibly thin. Now look at a McNaught or a PRS finish looks good but there is so much clear that the wood pores have to be getting choked off. No problem if you are playing metal. Metal players rarely if ever read my tech articles anyway  !!!

Some of the guitar companies are floating a color finish between layers of clear. This assists in the 3 dimensional look.  Cool, except they are using way too many coats of clear and therefore the finish buildup will be detrimental to the sound.

Nitrocellulose is a lacquer and is harder to work with. Nitro is what all the companies from Fender to Gibson to D' Angelico used to use in the 50's & 60's. Nitro is a much thinner finish than Poly and it doesn't clog the wood pores.  Some companies are putting a layer of Nitro over the Poly finishes to try and fool the end consumer or maybe to make the guitar turn yellow with age.  (More Stupidness)

Today only a few companies offer a Nitrocellulose option, I know that I do. However there are other ways to extract good tone from solid body guitars even using poly finishes.

The real key of course is thickness. An easy way to measure thickness is to unscrew your strap lock or strap pin and look inside the hole. If you can see a layer of filler like on ESP, Schecter, Jackson, & Ibanez you will know what I am talking about.

This filler stifles your tone. It dampens the resonance so much that you get a very dead tone. Ok, that may be fine if you are playing metal but a jazz guitarist or blues guitarist will want more natural overtones than one of those guitars generates.

Personally I like oil finishes over highly polished wood. That is absolutely the best way to achieve the most resonant overtones.


Nitro is nowhere near as durable as Poly. It's easy to see why those old fender finishes rubbed off over the years. That could never happen with today's modern finishes. Many people think the old guitars were made better than the new guitars. Part of the reason is, the older ones have stabilized over the years, and the finishes have thinned so that they are more resonant. (I believe that the new guitars are in almost every case better than the old vintage guitars)

The other reason people tend to think old guitars are better is not quite as obvious.

Because during the early and mid nineties those guitars were selling for stupid money. Anyone who bought one would make absolutely sure he was using a good luthier to service the guitar. In the hands of the better luthiers, many things were fixed like sloppy neck joints, poor solder joints, lousy frets, cheapy fingerboards, etc etc. This of course resulted in the fact that the guitar was great. A guitar with a sloppy neck joint will not be stable. It will sound weak, A tight neck joint results in much better tone transference and of course the guitar will hold tune better if it's stabilized. (Another Myth Debunked) remember you heard it here first.

Years ago I did not realize this fact and I made several mistakes with finishes. When I started building the Quicksilvers in 1999 I delivered a couple of $1,395.00 models that were just tung oiled. When I played the first one I was amazed at the harmonic overtones coming off the instrument. It wasn't until I built & played the second one that I was a total believer. 

I have made a statement that I would put my $1,695.00 economy model Quicksilver Guitar up against any post 1995 PRS over $20,000.00 and I would guarantee to blow it away tonally.

No one has ever challenged me on this. That's a no brainer for me because the real expensive PRS models seem to have the most wood enhancing done and therefore they always have thicker finishes so I could hardly lose that one.

To be totally honest my Quicksilver might not fare as well up against PRS's lower priced models. I have said and I always will say "The PRS lower priced 24 fret Classic models are without a doubt the best guitars PRS ever made" The pre 1995 PRS Classic sells for $2,200.00 and up post 1995 models sell as low as $1,000.00 The finishes were thinner on the older models and the wood was much more resonant. In fact the differences are obvious even to the untrained ear.

There are a lot of things written on this site about our industry leader.... PRS ? I recommend spending some time reading these reviews because a lot of the information is surprising.

Poly finishes are rock hard and they don't fade as fast as Nitro either. If you spray them on thick like PRS or ESP does the guitar loses it's tonality. If you use a super thin coat like Hamer or JET the guitar will sound much better.
Some of the best Nitro finishes I have seen are Terry McInturffs. Terry came from Hamer and he must have attended the Jol Dantzig school of guitar painting because his finishes are awesome. He might be using a hybrid of some kind, I am sure Terry won't tell me any of his secrets. Especially after I reviewed his guitar pretty badly on my site for everything else. I am not a huge fan of Terry's guitars but I always give credit where it is due. I do like his finish work.

Ease of Repair

In my shop we can repair anything!!! Nitro is easier to repair but less durable in the first place. Almost any competent shop can do Nitro repairs.

Poly is durable but most people think it that it is not repairable. My shop has repaired some poly finishes so perfectly that they aren't even visible under a magnifying glass. When the chip is large it is much harder but it is possible. Call me for information regarding this. We fix PRS finishes on a daily basis.


Many production companies use a thick coat of filler on the wood before they paint it. The filler tends to hide seams and a host of other problems. You cannot do this on an instrument that you want to extract a good tone from. The popularity of the early PRS guitars started because they used clear stained finishes that made it possible to see the actual wood. It was easy to tell that there was no filler there. PRS guitars were beautifully executed in the early days. The actual quality of the wood was without a doubt the best thing to have ever happened to date.

PRS enjoys immense popularity today because of that. It's a shame that they no longer do anything that even comes close to those first guitars. In fact PRS will tell you their biggest competitor is their own early model guitars. "That's another story"

Gibson Finishes

Look at the older Gibson guitars, Everyone agrees that the early ones sounded far better. In this business it's pretty rare for everyone to agree on anything. Look at the older Gibson's the seams are easily seen. Sometimes there are 3 contrasting pieces of wood on a Les Paul with a translucent finish. The seams look absolutely horrible but they did resonate better than the ones today that they pay more attention to the cosmetics of.

Still More To Come When I Get The Time

Ed Roman