Staining Guitar Tops

Needed tools and supplies
  • Black or dark brown and whatever the primary color is, aniline dye, water soluble. We’re using water soluble because water doesn’t evaporate as fast as alcohol. It will make the grain of our figured maple raise a little which make a nice 3D effect. I got these from LMI.
  • Sand paper, several grits, from P400 to P1200 (USA grades 320 to 600).
  • Cut and fine liquid polish compound from LMI.
  • Some white, lint free cotton cloth to make pads.
  • One or two small bottles with caps for mixing the stains, I used juice bottles.
  • A couple of wood scraps for testing, preferably from the same piece of wood used to make the top. That ensures that it will look the same and behave the same when stained.
Step 1: wood preparation

Maple is not very porous so the only thing that needs to be done is to sand down the surface. Start off with coarse sandpaper and go up to very fine P1200 grade to make the surface as flat as possible. Any sand marks left will be visible after the wood is stained. Do the same with the scraps as we’ll use them for testing and want them to behave as close to the real deal as possible.

Note: do not touch the wood surface that needs to be stained after it’s sanded down. Although it’s not visible right away, oils and sweat from your fingers will be very visible once the wood is stained!

Step 2: black stain

Black or very dark brown stain is used to make the figure pop out and give that nice 3D effect. Mix some dye in 10-20ml of hot water and use cotton pad to apply it to one of the scraps. Leave at least 15 minutes for it to dissolve before applying. If it’s not dark enough add more stain and repeat the process on a new scrap. Once it’s dark enough apply it to the guitar. Let it dry for 24 hours or more. Use the same solution to stain a couple of test scraps. You’ll need at least 3-4 of them.

Step 3: sanding down excess black stain

Because we used water soluble dye, grain has raised but not evenly. Flamed maple doesn’t have even density and grain structure. Some parts will raise more than the others which makes some sort of micro washboard surface. Once dry, you can see it under right angle/light. We want to make the surface flat again, so parts that are higher will be sanded down more than parts that are lower. That means that higher parts will be lighter because more stain is removed. Lowest parts will keep most of it’s stain and remain black. Image below illustrates what happens here (thick black line represents stained wood).

Use fine sandpaper to sand down black until natural maple color appears and the surface is flat. Again, you don’t want to touch the wood. Repeat the same thing with the scraps, sand them down until they look as close to the top as possible. At the end it should look something like this. You can sand down a bit more but dark lines will be a bit less dark. You may or may not want that. On the photo below, part of the top between neck pickup and neck pocket is left unsanded as it will be covered by the fingerboard. You can see the difference with parts that are sanded down.

Step 4: staining the primary color

Dissolve some of your primary color in a new bottle with 10-20ml of hot water. For my guitar we used a lot or red with a hint of black to make it darker, ratio around 10:1. Use test scraps to tweak the color and once happy with it, apply it to the guitar. Leave it for another 24 hours or more to dry. Use color you see while it’s wet, immediately after it’s applied as a reference for what it will look like at the end. Once it’s dry it will look a bit dull, but don’t freak out. Clear coats will make it look lively and shiny again.

Step 5: clear coats

Washboard effect was useful after black stain was applied because it helps achieve that cool 3D look. However, it’s makes clear coating a bit more complicated because it takes a lot more coats to get a nice flat surface. Having a couple of coats before black burst is applied is a good idea because it leaves less room for error. There’s thick clear coat between the black paint and wood, so if any burst corrections are needed, we won’t mess up the stain. The photo below shows guitar after a couple of clear coats – it’s not shiny yet because it’s not polished and it still has some of the washboard surface left.

Step 6: black burst

After several clear coats, surface is flat it’s ready for black burst. I opted for very narrow burst to show as much of the top as possible. Sides and back is also painted black.

Step 7: clear coats

Clear coat is applied on the whole body to make it shiny.

Step 8: polishing

Finally, guitar is polished with very fine sandpaper and two different liquid polish compounds. Cut polish for removing sanding scratches and Fine polish for making it nice and shiny.

Step 9 (optional): burst

This is the only part we left to a professional because we didn’t have the equipment necessary. Burst makes the finish pop out and gives it a nice, professional look. We opted for a very narrow black burst in this case because it complements the red/black staining well.

33 Responses to “Staining Guitar Tops”
  1. Kadek Winawan says:

    Is it required sanding sealer after staining before applying clear coat. Have ever tried using printer ink

  2. Kadek Winawan says:

    Is it required sanding sealer after staining before applying clear coat

  3. Matthew Schulze says:

    How did you apply clear coats? brush or spray?

  4. Cow Dog says:

    Great blog, some really handy points. I recently completed a project on a Jagmaster, take a look here:

  5. Ernest Moberly says:

    Sanding between coats has brought out black marksman my maple. Using 400-1000 grit. What did I do ???

  6. Theking says:

    What kind of maple did you use? and which way is the grain of the wood heading? Toward the neck or the other way? Thanks

    • Bancika says:

      Not sure which kind but I got it from these Canadians, they are selling maple from British Columbia
      As far as the grain goes, I’m not 100% sure I understand the question. Axis of the guitar is aligned with the direction of growth of the tree. Now, I’m not sure if the neck faces up or down, shouldn’t really matter. When we get a top we try it both ways and keep it whichever way it looks nicer

  7. KustumK says:

    What type of clear coat did you use ??

  8. Chase says:

    So I’m curious, I’m ordering my aniline dye, I’m doing purple and white. In your experience, should I put black all over, including where the white is going? And also I noticed they sell it by 1/2 ounce, how many ounces did you buy of each? Was one enough? Or did you have to order several?

    • Bancika says:

      You can put black all over but definitely try on a scrap piece of wood. I don’t know how it’s going to work for you with white over it….some like it. I bought one package of each and it’s enough probably for half a dozen guitars. You need very little.


  9. Brian says:

    Where would I get the dye you used? Am I wrong to be looking at te stain section of my hardware store? Is there a specific type (if I only need teaspoons ).

  10. Robert says:

    You used 10-20ml of hot water. How much of the red did you use? Thanx.

    • Bancika says:

      not much, like a teaspoon, or even less. I was testing on a piece of wood and added dye gradually. When I was happy with intensity of the color I stopped.


      • CJ says:

        another option it so use a “candy” color in your clear coat after staining the black(or what ever base color someone uses). I have found “House Of Kolor” candies are freaking sweet! and you can buy a 2.5oz-8oz bottle for cheap. I used a brandywine color over a black and silver base and when done it you cand see it unless it is over the silver or in sunlight, and thin it looks like blood lol. but they offer lots of colors that us DIY guys seem to like. check them out here

        also I recommend the “Intercoat” clears for the color mixing on guitars, as it alows use of most other urethane or poly clear coats.

        I did a 1977 Ibanez Artist with this stuff and it is great stuff to use.

  11. GJacks says:

    That looks wicked.. In the process of sanding down my Yamaha ERG-121
    It’s made from basswood and has some grain on it.. Hoping to go or a green stain

    So if ANYONE is in the process of working on a guitar and wants to swop notes etc please feel
    Free to mail me..

  12. Boz says:

    Fantastic, inspiring & beautiful work that soon I will take on.
    I wont be doing the Burst but you comment on whats the product for the “Clear Coats” or did I miss it?

    All the best & Thanks

  13. Jordan says:

    Can the black and red dyes used be any water-soluble dye? Or do they have to be water-soluble Aniline dyes? If so, where could I find the Aniline Dyes?

  14. fred says:

    Awesome job man! I did the same process for my DIY Les Paul kit except I went with a Tru Oil finish. I made a few videos on my site if you want to see. Adding that black stain in the beginning was key to getting a great finish.

  15. Alex says:

    Didn’t you have any problems with red dye dissolving and smearing the black one?

    • Bancika says:

      not at all, you wait between each step for dye to dry completely. When you apply the next layer, you’re only doing one stroke, and not back and forth, so there’s no chance for the black to dissolve.

      • Alex says:

        Ok, thanks for the reply.
        I’m going to do a 2 color burst by wiping and mixing aniline dyes, and it will take more than a single stroke. So there’s a chance it will still smear the underlying black. I’ve experimented with black solvent-based stain for popping the grain on a piece of scrap and while it didn’t mix at all with the color aniline dyes (which is good) it looked too different from the dye under the reflected light. Will probably just use the black dye, let it dry for a good while and be careful with color dyes.

  16. Connor says:

    wow that’s gorgeous!

  17. kingknummie says:

    This is the best explanation . well done. ****

  18. Chris McReynolds says:

    Great job. This is the best explanation I have seen for staining with multiple dye colors.

  19. Thanks for this article. For my next guitar build, I have some curly maple I am going to use for the top. This explains what I need to do.

  20. dusparker says:

    Great tips! Thanks for your help!


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