Mixing Cherry Lacquer

One of the most popular colors for guitars is red, and it’s fitting that our cherry blossom guitar will be just that. There’s something electrifying about a bright red instrument—guitar or otherwise. The Sakura is ready to be colored, so it’s time to mix up the color. I’ll use a coat of red transparent lacquer (referred to as a shader) which I mix using a concentrated tint. The first step is to measure out enough natural (clear) nitrocellulose lacquer into a cup.

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Nitrocellulose lacquer is a quick-drying, solvent based coating that was developed in the early part of the twentieth century. Basically made from cotton cellulose, chemical solvents and various additives, it differs from the ancient Chinese and Japanese lacquers in both substance and in the technique used to apply it. Known as a thermoplastic, it reacts to heat, cold and solvents. Nitro bonds to previous applications by melting the surface of previous coats. As the solvent escapes over time, the hard cellulose material is left behind as a coating. Nitro is revered for its luxurious look and feel, and has been associated with the finest guitars of the last century. Nitro can be buffed to a gloss, but it never looks plastic or overly glossy, which gives a guitar an elegant sheen and depth.

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The tint that I use is made from a powder mixed with solvent. This creates a super-concentrated dye called a toner. Just a few drops of this stuff is all that is needed—you can see how dark the color is in the squeeze bottle.

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Now I use a squeegee  to “draw down” a streak of the color on a test piece of mahogany. The first test was just the cherry red color. I added some amber and blue to the mix and drew those down too in order to get the exact color I wanted.

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Nitro lacquer is slightly yellow, and as it ages it yellows even more. This is what gives vintage instruments their glow, but it also means that the color I mix will not be the final shade. Keeping this in mind, I stop short with the yellow. When the color is exactly what I want, the mix is complete.

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Now the shader is ready to be applied over the base coats already on the guitar. Although there is a definite place for staining or painting directly on the wood, sometimes I like to “float” the color. Layering the color between sets of top and base coats is my secret to adding depth to a finish. Here, I’m pouring the color into the spray gun cup, it’s showtime!