How to Sunburst a Guitar Body

by Paul Argodale

Developed to replicate the effect of an antique French-polished table, the much sought after sunburst finish has become a mainstay of major guitar manufacturers. The sunburst finish can be executed in a variety of colors with a variety of finishes by the intrepid DIY guitar detailer. Here, we will explain the finishing process for the original two-tone yellow and red in nitrocellulose lacquer on previously unfinished maple.

Items you will need

  • Well-ventilated spray booth
  • Respirator
  • Clear nitrocellulose lacquer
  • Yellow nitrocellulose lacquer
  • Red nitrocellulose lacquer
  • Thinner
  • Wood filler
  • Compressor
  • Spray gun
  • 1000-2000 grit sandpaper
  • Buffer
Step 1

Mask the top and side binding with masking tape and a cutout held in place with masking tape. Coat the entire body in a mixture of one part thinner to three parts nitrocellulose lacquer. Apply filler to the sides and back of the body but not the top. Allow to dry for three days.

Step 2

Remove the masking from the top but keep the masking tape on the binding. Apply four to five nitrocellulose clear coats to the entire body. Allow to dry for three days.

Step 3

Mask the back and sides of the body. Apply three coats of the yellow tinted nitrocellulose lacquer to the top. Allow to dry for three days.

Step 4

Apply four to eight clear coats of nitrocellulose lacquer to the top. Allow to dry for four days. With the body suspended from the ceiling of your spray booth, apply four coats of the red-tinted nitrocellulose lacquer by holding the spray gun at the center of the top of the body and aiming at the edge. This will result in a lot of overspray, so be sure to hand old bed sheet behind the body. Allow to dry for one month.

Step 5

Finish with four to six clear coats of lacquer. Wet sand and buff.

Tips & Warnings

  • Before attempting this for the first time on a guitar, practice on a round table from an unfinished furniture store.
  • Nitrocellulose lacquer is highly toxic and should only be used in a well-ventilated spray booth with a professional-grade respirator.


  • Backbeat Books; Guitar Player Repair Guide; Erlewine, Dan; 2007


  • Taunton Press; The Complete Illustrated Guide to Finsishing; Jewitt, Jeff; 2005

About the Author

Paul Argodale has written for the "Village Voice" in New York City, as well as several specialized academic journals. He holds a Master of Arts in applied linguistics and a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and philosophy.

Photo Credits

  • Polka Dot RF/Polka Dot/Getty Images