Close your eyes and picture your dream guitar. Perhaps your thinking about a bright, shiny Fender Stratocaster, its solid color gleaming under bright stage lights? Or maybe a vintage Les Paul with stories to tell. In addition, its burst finish has checked, and is worn unevenly from decades of passionate play?

Guitar finishes

No matter what type of guitar you like. Most guitars have some thin coating around the body and the neck, known as a finish. It helps protect the guitar and dramatically enhances the instrument’s look and how it feels and sounds.

Acoustic guitar beautiful top

Beautifully finished acoustic guitar.

Now, you may be thinking that the type of finish on a guitar is a minuscule element in the grand scheme of things. And to be honest, you’re right. Countless other factors contribute more to a guitarist’s sound and the music-making process.

But for the actual guitar nerds out there, every piece matters. Let’s compare the two most common electric guitar finishes, Nitrocellulose, and Polyurethane. Let’s try to answer the question: which is better?

Nitrocellulose vs Nitrocellulose

So, which is the better finish, Poly or Nitro. We’ll first need to understand exactly what a guitar finish is by design. To answer this question, let’s start at the start and work our way through.

What is a guitar finish?

A guitar finish is a synthetic material applied to the body of a guitar. It is used toward the end of the manufacturing process after carving and staining the wood. It’s applied to the body, back of the neck, and headstock on some models. All finishes are relatively thin, adding a negligible thickness to the instrument.

What is the purpose of guitar finishes?

The primary purpose of finishes is to protect and beautify the guitar. Our beautiful yet powerful instruments are quite sensitive!

Humidity and guitars

Guitar humidity hygrometer and humidifier

Guitar humidity hygrometer and humidifier

When we speak about guitars and humidity, we talk to all guitars. However, we highlight humidity and acoustic guitars mainly. Electric guitars are far less prone to varying humidity levels unless those levels are extreme.

Most guitars are made of wood; therefore, wood will react with varying humidity. One of the most concerning issues is low humidity. Low humidity can potentially cause severe cracking issues over time.

The wood that makes up the body and neck of a guitar will absorb moisture if its environment is too humid. This can cause it to swell and change shape.

Conversely, not enough humidity can leave the wood brittle and dry, which can cause it to crack. Coating the guitar in a finish seals the wood and resists humidity changes. However, in the case of a standard acoustic, the internal wood components are unfinished. Allowing the raw timber to remain unfinished may absorb too much moisture.

Humidity controlled rooms

Many guitar shops or collectors will keep their instruments in humidity-controlled rooms for this exact reason. Learn more about guitars and humidity.

Guitar finishes help protect the guitar.

Finishes also serve as protection from physical damages. Think about how much of a beating our guitars need to be able to withstand on a gig. Spilled drinks, unstable guitar stands, and overexposure to harsh lighting threaten a guitar if not for its protective finish.

“I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man.” B. B King.

Guitar manufacturers need to make sure their craftsmanship and quality pieces of wood survive all the various conditions that musicians play them in.

Guitars are made to be played, so over time, normal wear and tear must be expected, and potential damage to the guitar. Even difficult picking (digging in) can leave scratches or even chips in the wood of a guitar over time.

Furthermore, the oils and sweat from players’ hands would also have a much easier time permeating the wood if not for a guitar’s finish offering a protective coating.

Types of guitar finishes

Most guitars are finished with either Nitrocellulose (Nitro) or Polyurethane (Poly). Although very similar, they each have a few defining characteristics to help you tell them apart and decide which you might prefer for your next guitar.

Nitrocellulose guitar finishes

Guitar with nitro finish

Guitar with nitro finish

Nitrocellulose (Nitro) refers to a lacquered finish composed of cellulose that has been treated with nitric and sulfuric acid. The material is highly flammable and was once used in explosives.

History of Nitrocellulose

Nitro was first used as a finish by the Dupont Chemical Company in 1921. Dupont found the material especially suitable for painting cars and furniture. It could be easily sprayed onto materials and dried quickly.

Fender and Nitro

With the growing popularity of rock and roll and electric guitar during the 1950s. Guitar makers like Fender wanted to capitalize on the booming automotive industry to help sell more instruments. Finishes such as “Fiesta Red,” “Surf Green,” and “Daphne Blue” were all just new names for the Nitro finishes being applied to cars of the day.

Gibson and Nitro

Gibson, Fender’s biggest competitor, also used Nitro finishes on its early electric guitars. The iconic “Gold Top” Les Pauls left the factory with several layers of Nitro finish. Workers would then hand buff the guitar to make the instruments shine.

Both companies used Nitro finishes on their guitars for decades. However, eventually, Polyurethane finishes would replace Nitro as the most common finish.

Nitro features

Nitro finish can be described as soft, smooth, and almost slippery to the touch. Due to the nature of the material. However, Nitro is susceptible to physical wear and tear that leaves visible cosmetic damage. Scratches and dings from regular use will leave lasting marks on the guitar’s body.

Nitro finish checking

Nitrocellulose lacquer checking

Nitrocellulose lacquer checking

In addition, one of the most distinctive features of Nitro finishes is checking. It often occurs when the guitar is subjected to rapid changes in temperature—for example, bringing a guitar inside the house from a freezing car.

Checking refers to the small hairline cracks that form on the surface and spread throughout the body. In addition, Nito finish is also prone to yellowing over time, evident on white guitars.

A guitar with a Nitro finish will experience a visible aging and natural relicing process for the owner. Although these instruments would leave a factory with a smooth and glossy shine, they would take on a worn and discolored look once played for a few years.

Nitro examples

Nitro finishes are found on the majority of both Fender and Gibson Guitars produced during the 1950s through the 1960s. This includes the iconic Dupont-colored Fender models like the Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Jazzmaster. Many Fender guitars and basses of this period also came with a two-tone or three-tone sunburst finish with a clear coat of Nitro on top.

Nitro was also widely used on the now highly sought-after Gibson Les Paul models from this era. Gibson’s iconic Bursts and “Gold Tops” are the most famous examples; however, Nitro can also be found on other models, including the SG and Les Paul JR.

Although it is no longer the most common finishing method for guitars, you can still buy modern guitars with a Nitro finish. The Fender Custom Shop and Gibson Custom Shop will happily make you a guitar to fit your specifications.

Relicing guitars

Guitar strat custom shop relicing

Guitar strat custom shop relicing

Many players choose these custom shop guitars to get a high-quality instrument that is often identical to the coveted instruments made decades ago, without spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Many guitar manufacturers and luthiers will also build guitars with the relicing treatment.

This is where the guitars are artificially worn down. The process involves scratches and nicks and other signs of wear to the guitar to make it look like a vintage instrument was played a lot and is decades old.

Iconic guitars and players with Nitro

Mark Knopfler seated - Les Paul

Mark Knopfler seated – Les Paul

Some of the most iconic players used guitars with Nitro finishes.

Many of these guitars became known for their reputation and how they looked and sounded. Check out some of the more memorable examples.

  • Mark Knofler and his 1961 Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster
  • Jimmy Page’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul
  • Stevie Ray Vaughn and his very worn 1963 Fender Stratocaster

Advantages of Nitro

The most significant feature of Nitro finish is that your guitar will visibly age. For many players, this is very desirable. Your guitar will forever wear every scratch, scuff, and chip as a battle scar and a sign of your love and dedication to the instrument.

This aging process helps many players feel more connected to their instruments and gives them a certain charm that Poly finish guitars can’t match.

Nitro tonal qualities

Because Nitro finishes are thinner, they also let a little more of the tonal qualities of the wood ring out. Some players will say it improves the overall sound and resonance of the guitar. Similarly, the guitars are said to have more sustain and an airier tone. However, it’s tough to quantify and ultimately comes down to how a player feels on the instrument.

Disadvantages of Nitro

The most significant disadvantage to having a Nitro finish guitar is that the instrument is not as well protected. This means you have to be more careful with the guitar and keep it safe from extreme temperatures, lighting, and regular wear.

If you have a Nitro guitar and are not a fan of the reliced look, it is still possible to keep it looking factory new, but it would need to be very well preserved and not played very much.

In looking for a guitar with a Nitro finish, the other main disadvantage is the cost. Because it is no longer the norm, most guitars with Nitro finishes will be significantly more expensive and often have to come from a custom shop or vintage shop.

Polyurethane guitar finish

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Poly (Polyurethane) refers to the modern synthetic finish composed of organic molecules linked by urethanes. Unlike Nitro, it is a type of plastic material. Uses of Poly include kitchen sponges, gymnasium floors, and, of course, guitars.

Poly history

Guitar manufacturers began replacing traditional Nitro finishes with Poly finishes in the late 1960s. One of the main reasons for this was that it was simply cheaper and easier to apply. Unlike Nitro, Poly finishes did not need to be used in multiple layers and dried quicker. This meant they could be produced quickly and with less manufacturing cost, lowering the instrument’s price for consumers.

The material is also more environmentally friendly. It’s safer for workers and eliminates the need to dispose of hazardous materials. These advantages helped make Poly the industry standard of guitar finishes. It is now used on most guitars made by large companies and independent luthiers alike.

Poly features

Poly finishes are thicker and stronger than Nitro finishes, and they tend to have a distinctive glossy look. This added thickness makes the guitars they encase nearly impervious to aging and wear. Poly finishes will not wear off, develop deep scratches, or fade with light exposure.

They make a guitar very durable and keep it looking shiny even after years of use. Owners of these guitars will essentially always have a guitar that looks and feels the same as the day they bought it.

Poly examples

Most modern-made guitars have a Poly finish. Despite this, many players tend to think of Poly finishes as associated with cheap low, quality instruments. Almost all budget guitars will have a Poly finish. Many companies still use Poly finishes on higher-quality instruments.

A great example of this is Fender, who uses Poly on the budget-friendly Squire guitars up to their American Standard series.

Iconic guitars and players with Poly

John Mayer with a PRS Silversky

John Mayer with a PRS Silversky

Despite the rich history of players with Nitro finish guitars.

Plenty of modern players choose Poly finished instruments.

  • John Mayer with a PRS Silversky
  • Steve Vai with his white Ibanez Jem
  • H.E.R with her signature Fender Startocaster

Which finish should you choose?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of Nitro and Poly finishes. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages to see which one might be right for you and your next guitar!

Advantages of Poly

Guitars with a Poly finish are indeed very durable. The finish is very thick and robust. You should never need to worry about it cracking or chipping. They also remain pretty shiny for the duration of their life, which is another look many players like.

For guitars that include neck finish, the Poly’s glossiness makes it easier for the hand to move up and down quickly. Lastly, the wide use of Poly finishes means there will be more options within any given budget than those in the market for a Nitro finish guitar.

Disadvantages of Poly

The most significant disadvantage to Poly is that those who want their guitar to show cosmetic damage and have an aged look. Unfortunately, the guitar will not look any different than the day you bought it, no matter how much you play.

“When all the original blues guys are gone, you start to realize that someone has to tend to the tradition.” Eric Clapton.

While some players prefer the shiny look, others may see it as cheap and plastic-like. That would be a disadvantage for them. Lastly, because of the thickness of the poly finish, less of the wood’s natural tones will be heard. Instead, the guitar will have a less resonant sound and more representative of its pickups.
Other guitar finishes

Polyester guitar finishes

Polyester was very popular by Fender in the seventies. It’s a plastic-based finish is that is applied as a thick layer. It is a very durable finish and ages well. The common belief is that Polyester will not affect the guitar’s tone to any appreciable amount.

Lacquer guitar finishes

Lacquer was commonly used on vintage model guitars. A lacquer finish is now often used because of its aging quality. A guitar finished with lacquer is expected to show wear and a similar patina to that seen on vintage instruments.

Guitar finishes maintenance

Guitar maintenance kit

Guitar maintenance kit

Regardless of the type of finish, you have on your guitar. You can take specific steps to help maintain and protect your guitar. As mentioned before, the biggest issue threatening the guitar’s well-being is humidity.

Ideally, the guitar would be kept humidity-controlled. However, we get that it’s not always easy.

This varies depending on the type of guitar. But generally, 70°F and 50% humidity are ideal. This can be achieved by keeping your instruments in a room with a consistent temperature. If you live in a dry area, consider using humidifiers to keep the room from drying out. Storing a guitar in a case with a small humidifying pack is a more compact alternative.

Cleaning and polishing guitar finishes are easy to keep looking nice and gig-ready. Many guitar cleaning kits come with specially formulated sprays and creams that work great. Using a microfiber cloth to clean and apply these products will yield the best results.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the best type of finish will depend on who you are as a player. It’s all about what you like and what you can afford. If you find a modern guitar you want, don’t let anyone convince you that it’s not as good because it has a Poly finish.

If you must have a vintage guitar with cracked Nitro running up the body, and you can afford it, go for it! As guitar players, we take pride in our instrument’s look, sound, and feel.

These elements help stir up our passion for playing and sharing music with others. Sure, it can be fun and exciting to get down to the nitty-gritty details of our instruments. It’s important to remember that music comes from us, the players.

The guitar is merely the tool used to express ourselves. Respect others’ choices, have fun, and rock on!