Whether you are interested in venturing into guitar building, or simply wish to change the shade of your instrument, it is important to know how to darken acoustic guitar wood the right way. Although this process of altering the wood’s pigmentation is not as complex as it seems, utmost care is much needed to prevent ruining the instrument.
There are several ways to achieve a darker tone on your guitar wood and you can minimize errors in attempting it. While painting over an instrument is still more difficult than darkening it, there is no harm in over-preparing, since anything related to altering or fixing a guitar is a delicate undertaking.
Before we get to the subject of making your guitar look darker, let us first discuss the main star of this study, which is one of nature’s most valuable gifts – the humble wood.
Let’s talk about wood
Shade and Tone
One of guitar’s most captivating features is the wood that makes sound resonate. Wood has become so deeply rooted into music that some luthiers and musicians have reached the point of obsessing which one is the best.
While the answer will boil down to player preference, some guitar woods are undoubtedly better than others. What matters more importantly however, is the kind of wood that will fit a musician’s aesthetic and tonal taste.
Types of Wood Commonly Used for Guitars
- Exotics (e.g., bubinga, ebony, koa, walnut)
Wood becomes darker as they age
Majority of wood becomes darker as they age but some types of dark wood undergo the opposite by becoming lighter in shade. This evolution in pigmentation is caused by several environmental factors, most especially the UV light emitted by the sun.
Exposure to air also plays a part in wood’s color change. When oxidation and sunlight work together, the wood can show some significant change in just a few weeks or months.
A lot of guitar players love the look and quality of aged wood and will pay to obtain a vintage guitar that possesses one. Fortunately, there are other ways to obtain the darker wood tone seen in older guitars.
Ways to Darken Acoustic Guitar Wood
Dyes and stains are often used interchangeably but they are actually two different coloring agents with unique purposes.
Even though they are naturally transparent, a dye is a colorant that can penetrate deeper into wood due to its much smaller molecular composition.
When mixed with solutions, it could produce some vibrant wood tones while still allowing the grain to stand out. The downside of using dye is that it fades faster when constantly exposed to sunlight.
Although stains are color changers, they are great in bringing out the pattern in large grain woods like ash. However, too many layers of stain application can also obscure the details of the wood.
Stains come in different colors, shades, tints and textures. Due to their larger molecules, stains need to be stirred often to prevent particles from settling at the bottom of the container. They are also similar to paint in that they both contain binders that form a thin seal on the pores of the wood.
More advanced luthiers would use both stain and dye to combine their characteristics. They can use dye to color the wood and then apply stain to make the grain stand out more.
Sunlight accelerates the darkening of wood the fastest and exposing your guitar to it can recreate the aging process. Guitar experts like Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, do not recommend subjecting your instrument to such harsh conditions. He suggests using filtered light inside your home instead.
Aside from the severe effects of the glaring sun, one issue that could arise from depending on it is that your instrument could get unbalanced shades and streaks called “shadowing,” due to the light source being uncontrollable. Using filtered light in an indoor work space will provide more uniformity.
Darkening acoustic guitar wood using dye or stain
Test the solutions
Experience may be the best teacher, but do your best to commit the least errors. For musicians who just wanted a fresh take on their guitar’s look, any mistake could hamper their scheduled jam sessions and for budding luthiers, it could be very tough on their budget and resources.
Testing a variety of dyes and stains on a slab of wood that is identical to what you will be working on, will help you muster your confidence for this project, making your decision-making wiser and more efficient.
Assuming you want to darken the body of a guitar that already has a finish, then you will have to sand the wood until all of the lacquer has been removed. Sanding is needed to allow the dye or stain to penetrate into the pores of the guitar, otherwise it will not affect the hue of the wood.
Rosewood and ebony fretboards are not lacquered so applying wood stain or dye even on a ready-made guitar is much easier due to the lack of an additional protective layer. There are cases when fretboards need sanding like when the gunk has permeated into its crevices and can’t be wiped out with a cloth.
While maple fretboards are usually coated with lacquer, they are not the preferred wood for this procedure as they are too light-colored, making them the least-likely candidate for darkening acoustic guitar wood.
Whether you have just finished sanding the body of your acoustic, or about to begin the process, cleaning up is essential to remove extra dirt that could hinder the dye or stain from seeping in.
Scotch brite and steel wool are useful for removing tiny particles of sawdust from sanded wood. For fretboards, use a lint-free rag that is not too rough and pair it with either lighter fluid, or lacquer thinner. If you want to avoid the nasty scent and the health hazards of the said chemicals, you may use spray cleaners made by some top guitar brands.
Now comes the most fun part which is applying your wood darkener of choice, which you will do with gloves on since you will be working with some liquid chemical solutions. Use tape to cover up parts that you don’t want to be affected by the dye or stain.
Unlike painting a guitar, you won’t be using a paint brush but a piece of cloth. As a rule of thumb, the cloth shouldn’t be dripping wet with the dye or stain, so dampen them moderately and spread it evenly on the desired area.
Don’t forget that the second application of stains will make the wood darker than the first layer. With dye however, the final wood color that you will achieve will be consistent with the first coating.
Post-application cleanup and final touches
Dyes and stains will dry up much quicker and another round of cleaning is needed before putting on some finishing oil or lacquer on your darkened acoustic guitar. For fretboards, the inlays can be cleaned up with q-tip and alcohol before applying some fretboard and restorative cleaner to breathe more life into it.
There are many ways to learn how to darken an acoustic guitar, these are just a few!