Beautiful guitar finish Koa

Polish a Guitar the Right way

 Last update 5/2/2024

No big shocker here, but 99.99% of the guitars on the planet are made from wood. Wood is about the perfect guitar material due mostly to its strength and tonal characteristics. However, it isn’t bulletproof by any stretch of the imagination.

Polish a Guitar the Right way.

A properly applied finish is the ticket to help protect the instrument and add some visual flair. Some finishes are more ‘stain-like and let the natural beauty of the wood shine through (very common on acoustic guitars). Other guitar finishes can be solid colors or have a pattern effect (like a sunburst). That gives an impression that natural wood alone can’t do.

Types of guitar finishes

The finish, whether it’s a glossy polyurethane coat or a satin-smooth nitrocellulose layer, serves as a barrier against the elements, protecting the guitar’s wood from dirt, grime, moisture, and even temperature fluctuations. Over time, however, neglect can take its toll, causing the finish to lose its luster and become susceptible to scratches and blemishes.

Nitrocellulose lacquer guitar finish
Nitrocellulose lacquer guitar finish

Reviewing the significant types of guitar finishes may be best before we get into the details about how to best care for your finish.

Overall, knowing which type of finish your guitar has is essential. Some of the finished care products available are intended to work best for one type or the other.

Polyurethane (Poly)

It is a very popular finish known for its high-gloss look and durability. It’s a plastic-based guitar finish that is not as “fussy ” as Nitro. It is usually applied as a thick coating and is known to last long without the cracking issue Nitro is well known for.

Compared to nitrocellulose finishes, polyurethane lacks the same aging process. It doesn’t develop the same patina or age-related character over time. However, its resilience makes it less prone to wear and tear, maintaining its glossy appearance for longer periods.

Applying polyurethane finishes requires precision to achieve a smooth, even surface. Once applied, these finishes provide a high-gloss shine that can showcase the natural beauty of the wood beneath.

While polyurethane finishes may not evoke the same nostalgia as nitrocellulose, they appeal to musicians seeking a more durable and low-maintenance option for their instruments, offering reliable protection without the need for frequent touch-ups or refinishing.


Nitrocellulose finishes are commonly used in guitar craftsmanship. They’re created from a nitrocellulose resin, solvents, and colorants blend. These finishes are known for their aging process, gradually developing a distinctive patina over time that adds character to the instrument. This aging allows the wood underneath to resonate more freely, potentially enhancing the guitar’s tonal qualities.

Crafting with nitrocellulose finishes requires precision and expertise due to its delicate nature. Each layer must be meticulously applied by skilled hands, resulting in a glossy, glass-like surface that reflects careful craftsmanship.

While nitrocellulose finishes have their challenges, such as longer curing times compared to modern finishes, they remain favored by those who appreciate their vintage aesthetic and the potential tonal improvements they offer as they age.

How to Polish a Guitar Finish

The following are simple methods that you can use to maintain your guitar’s finish.

Wipe it down

“It is the most delightful thing that ever happens to me, when I hear something coming out of my guitar and out of my mouth that wasn’t there before.” James Taylor

A high-quality microfiber cleaning cloth is one of the most useful – and inexpensive – guitar accessories any guitar player should have. It’s important to note that just any fabric may not serve the proper purpose. Sure, a regular towel is better than nothing. However, be aware it may leave tiny scratches and swirls in the finish (similar to those found on your car after taking it through an automatic car wash).

Guitar cleaning cloths
Polish a Guitar – Microfibre cleaning cloth

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

Could you clean it up?

Keeping things wiped down certainly will help your guitar finish looking great. But sometimes, you have to take things a step further. A complete cleaning a few times a year will help keep any residue from building up over time.

Many cleaning solutions and products are on the market specifically made for guitar finishes. Using other kinds of harsh chemicals or cleaners may do irreversible damage. So, using the right tool for the job is always best. These types of cleaners will help to break up dirt and grime mildly.

Like your car or favorite pair of shoes, your guitar needs regular cleaning to maintain its pristine condition. A soft microfiber cloth is your best friend in this endeavor. Dampen the cloth slightly with distilled water, avoiding harsh soaps or detergents that could damage the finish. Gently wipe the guitar’s body, neck, and headstock, paying particular attention to areas that frequently come into contact with your hands, such as the fretboard and around the knobs.

Polish it out

Cleaners use chemicals to help lift grime off, making it easier to wipe off. Polishing your guitar’s finish is a bit more aggressive as the polish compound itself will have a very light abrasive effect. This will not only remove the dirt but also help remove minor imperfections (like swirls and scratches). It will bring back a shine that may be difficult to achieve with just a cleaner alone.

Guitar polish kit
Guitar polish kit

Think of doing a proper polishing job as putting a coat of wax on your car. Your guitar’s finish will have a brightness and ‘snap’ to it similar to when you bought it new.

When all else fails…do nothing!

So far, everything we have discussed is about keeping the finish on your guitar. Take out recommendations and put them into practice to keep your guitar looking the best it possibly can.

But what if you don’t care?

Getting that worn, dirty, and road-weary look is undoubtedly a trend nowadays. Called “relicing guitars,” it’s a process where you can either buy a used guitar that already looks like it’s been well played. Alternatively, take a brand-new instrument and make it look years older than it is.

So…yeah. No wiping, cleaning, or polishing is required here!

How to clean your guitar


One of the best ways to keep your instrument looking its absolute best is to take care of its finish. Knowing whether you have nitrocellulose or a polyurethane finish can determine which processes and products are best suited for your instrument.

Proper guitar finish care is not complicated. It can be as simple as doing a simple wipe-down after you’re done playing to a complete polishing job to make it look ‘fresh out of the box.’ None of these processes cost much money, but you may have to put some elbow grease into it to get the best results.

The flip side of all the above is this – the beauty of a guitar is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder, right? You can go entirely to the other end of the scale and let your finish get as dirty and worn as you may want it to be. And you can do that without doing a single thing. To get that funky and worn-in vibe!

Transparency disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a commission if you click on a link and make a purchase. This commission comes at no extra cost to you. We only recommend products and services that I believe are helpful and valuable, and we never let the potential for a commission influence our recommendations.

Amazon Guitar cleaning kit

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top