If Looks Could Kill: How Gibson Guitars Get that World-Class Finish
New car smell is nice, but nothing beats the look and smell of a new Gibson guitar. Or, for that matter, a Gibson that’s aged into a gorgeous work of highly playable art. Walking through a guitar shop, the colors — enhanced and shining thanks to the classic Gibson application of nitrocellulose — gleam and invite. And on stage, they catch footlights and spotlights the way a silent sea captures moonbeams. The Gibson look is visual poetry.
Let’s take a gander at how that poetry gets “written.”
In both the Gibson USA plant and the Custom Shop, each guitar’s body is sanded, its neck hand-fit, and its set up completed on a PLEK machine. Then sealer is applied, to seal the pores in the guitar’s wood.
Next the guitars travel to the paint shop. Before the guitars are painted all the parts that won't get a coating, like fingerboards, are taped over to preserve their integrity.
What’s immediately striking upon stepping into the paint shop is the Disneyland-ride-like conveyor attached to the ceiling that instruments with various coatings of lacquer and pigment travel along. It’s like the system a dry cleaner uses to juggle clothes, but way sexier given the instruments' sleek curves and alluring colors. And at the end of the line literally hundreds of guitars hang, each one drying overnight next to an electrostatic rod that induces lacquer to better adhere.
The job of painting guitars requires a steady hand, a watchful eye and patience. Each step of applying the two coats of paint and six coats of lacquer on every guitar must be done slowly and evenly, carefully layering each application. The guitar spray booth gives the instruments a positive electrostatic charge and the paint has a negative charge, which makes it stick to every part of the instrument. Nonetheless, the paint guns are hand controlled, which gives the finish of each Gibson guitar distinctive qualities.
Another important part of the visual charm of Les Paul Standards, Les Paul Customs and many other Gibson models is the binding. If you’ve never watched a guitar with binding being built, it’s a surprise to lean that the binding is sprayed over with paint and lacquer during those respective processes. After the paint is dry, the binding is then restored to its original look by an eagle-eyed member of the scraping crew. At Gibson USA and the Custom Shop, the scrapers take the guitars in hand and employ sharp blades they make themselves. Those blades are wielded with the dexterity of sculptors as the scrapers peel the layers of paint off the bindings and the nuts.
Most of the time a scraper can remove the paint from a guitar's body and neck binding with a few long, deft, flowing slides of the blade. It's truly impressive to witness the steadiness and confidence on display in this exacting process.
Next logos are silk screened on the guitars’ headstocks, and they progress to inspection. Any flaws in the paint need to be retouched before an instrument can move on. That’s no easy task. Every finish — even one color ebony — has distinctive patterns of spray gun strokes. More elaborate color schemes like sunbursts, which take two or three colors, are more challenging, since the primary shades used to paint the guitars alter to different degrees when they blend.
The next step is applying multiple coats of electrostatically charged lacquer that build to eight mils — eight thousands of an inch — of thickness. That coating is the foundation of the Gibson gleam. During lacquering guitars make multiple trips through an oven set to 110-degrees to promote drying between the applications of nitrocellulose. Depending on humidity and other atmospheric conditions it typically takes eight or nine hours to get all six coats of lacquer to dry on a guitar.
After the lacquer dries, the next step is scuff sanding. That's essentially a rubdown by hand for each guitar that takes place in a small space near the entrance to the paint shop, where scuff sanders man their stations with sandpaper and hand tools.
After a guitar dries, there are little paint and lacquer build-ups and pockets all over the surface. That's called ‘orange peel.' The scuff sanders’ job is to even all of that orange peel out until the paint surface is perfectly smooth. That requires real touch and precision. Use too much force and the finish peels off, which means the guitar goes back to the paint shop. But when the job is done with Gibson’s high degree of craftsmanship, each guitar is next ready to take a final topcoat of lacquer.
After that final coat, guitars dry for a minimum of three days. Then they're due for the last few processes that will make them player-ready. Lacquer, paint or wood filler that may have gotten onto the frets or fingerboard is removed by delicate sanding. The frets are polished and the fingerboards oiled. And then it's time for polishing and buffing, where the distinctive, deep shine of a Gibson guitar really comes to life.
Each guitar gets three different coats of polish. A red compound smooths the surface, a yellow compound brings out some of the shine, and finally a white polish really brings out the finish's luster. That process also requires a highly developed eye and careful touch. Any fingerprint smudges must be buffed out to achieve the glass-like sheen that’s the final element of the Gibson look.
Read about 2014 finishes here.