Guitar finishes have always been a crucial part of Fender’s guitar building legacy from the day that they started using nitrocellulose lacquer, until they decided to innovate and switch to polyurethane. After all, finishes not only provide guitars a beautiful gleaming look under the spotlight, they also create a first layer of protection for your instrument.
These extra coating on Fender guitars has allowed them to serve musicians much longer through the decades, as an important part of music history that can even be inherited by a next generation of music lovers.
Most common Fender guitar finishes
When did Fender start using nitro on their guitars and when did they switch to poly? Let’s find out by tracking Fender’s lacquer finish evolution.
Originally introduced by the DuPont chemical company for auto production, nitrocellulose lacquer or “nitro,” became a popular spray-on paint in the musical instrument industry.
In Fender’s glory days back the 50s and 60s, nitro has become the more common finish used on the brand’s guitars, with acrylic becoming a distant second option. Today, vintage aficionados revere the typical wear that can be seen on guitars that used nitrocellulose, which is one of the sought-after characteristics of reliced instruments.
Nitro is easy to apply and provides a tough finish that blends well with a guitar’s wood grain. When buffed perfectly, they can produce a beautiful gloss, while still allowing the instrument to resonate to its maximum capacity. In fact, some die-hard guitar-heads are inclined to believe that guitars that employ nitro finishes sound better than others, although many factors such as preamps and pickups can influence the sound of an instrument more.
However, a term called “finish checking” which refers to the parallel or checkered patterns of paint and lacquer cracks often result in nitro finishes. Extreme weather changes and humidity are pointed out as the top culprits in this phenomenon.
Nitro finishes can also get thinner and brittle as time goes by, which is a result of the thinners evaporating after decades of use. However, for vintage lovers, this is what they love about nitro finishes and that is why Fender hasn’t completely eliminated its use. Fender’s “Road Worn” as well as “American Vintage Series” are among the guitar models that still make use of the good old nitro.
Other nitro variants such as thin-skin nitrocellulose lacquer (contains thinner sanding sealer or lacquer undercoat) and satin nitrocellulose lacquer (for a more flat-looking finish) are some of Fender’s options in relic guitar-making today.
In the late 1960s, Fender shifted to polyurethane finishes, making it the standard for a vast majority of their stringed instruments.
Invented in Germany in 1937, polyurethane is a type of plastic with various purposes. It is very fast-drying and durable that they were even used for bowling alleys and wooden dance floors. On guitars, polyurethane provided a much tougher, resistant protection without compromising an instrument’s tonal quality.
One of the advantages of polyurethane is that they age a lot better than nitrocellulose since they don’t undergo cracking, checking and they don’t turn yellow over time. Today, Fender guitars such as the American Standard Series as well as other artist models such as the Ritchie Blackmore Stratocaster, still rely mainly on polyurethane finishes.
For flatter finish, Fender utilizes satin urethane, mainly on the necks of Deluxe, Highway One and Standard models, to name a few. On the other hand, American Specials makes use of gloss urethane for that shinier look.
Similar to polyurethane in durability and ability to age well, polyester was introduced by Fender in the 1970s and has become a mainstay in their production arsenal.
This type of finish is highly-resistant and will protect your guitar from the harsh forces of nature as well as common problems such as checking and scratching. They are also highly-favored by a lot of guitar players because of their ability to preserve the colors of their instruments, making them look as good as new for a very long time.
Which Fender lacquer finish is the best?
Polyurethane and polyester finishes are undoubtedly superior to their predecessor the nitrocellulose. This is the reason why Fender decided to make this switch in the 60s and 70s.
Aside from the fact that they are tougher and will last longer than acrylic or nitro, guitar electronics have also evolved so much, to the point that they have become more influential in establishing sound and tonal quality. Lacquer finish doesn’t impact electric instruments the way they would on acoustic instruments, considering the powerful preamps and pickups that are available in the market today.
That doesn’t mean however, that nitro has no place in today’s wonderful guitar landscape. Even after Fender decided to switch from nitro to poly, every lacquer finish has a special place in Fender’s illustrious history. Poly may be the present and the future, but nitros will always be the standard in vintage and are very much needed to achieve era-accurate refurbishments on iconic Fender guitars.