Staining Guitar Tops

Crafting and perfecting the appearance of a guitar is an art form in itself, demanding attention to detail and a passion for the instrument. Each step in the process, from preparing the wood to applying stains and clear coats, requires precision and care. As the guitar takes shape, the focus turns to enhancing its aesthetics, bringing out the richness of the wood grain and achieving a stunning finish. Polishing becomes a meticulous task, with fine sandpaper and specially formulated compounds gently revealing the instrument’s true luster. Throughout this intricate journey, guitarists understand the importance of every element, including the accessories they choose. That’s why selecting the Best Guitar Picks becomes paramount, as they contribute to the overall playing experience and sound quality. With handcrafted options available, such as those offered by Iron Age, guitarists can find picks that are not only reliable but also beautifully crafted to suit their individual preferences, elevating their playing to new heights.

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.

So, if you’re delving into the art of guitar craftsmanship and are interested in enhancing the appearance of your instrument, understanding the intricacies of guitar tuning types is a vital step. Just as selecting the right tools and supplies is essential for achieving a desired finish on a guitar, tuning your guitar appropriately is crucial for producing the best sound and performance. Whether you’re exploring standard tuning, alternate tunings, or open tunings, the choice you make can greatly influence the music you create. Dive into the world of guitar tuning types to unlock the full potential of your instrument and discover the unique sounds and possibilities that each tuning offers.

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.

47 Responses to “Staining Guitar Tops”
  1. Luis Parker says:

    Great DIY guide! This is very helpful to a lot of people especially to those musicians, who don’t need to hire someone.

  2. Seth Adams says:

    This is my second time doing building a guitar. First time was when I found my dads old beat up guitar all torn apart 2 years ago it had been a pet project of mine ever since now completed I am moving on to building my next guitar form scratch. This guitar on this website looks great though. Last time I sanded off all the primer and just straight stained it. This time I am staining with red mahogany which in truth is a darker shade of things but at the same time I am working on a total of 3 guitars waiting for the other two kits to arrive. So my question is couldn’t I use 2 different color of shades of stain to get a wild design?

  3. jerry says:

    How did you mask the cap wood from the body wood so that the stain didn’t bleed on the side?

    • bancika says:

      It doesn’t really matter in this case because we applied sunburst effect and sides are opaque black. In other cases we had plastic binding. But you can use masking tape I guess.

  4. Eugene says:

    Was wondering what options are there other than a clear coat finish on a stained body? Was interested in doing a matte or natural looking finish no gloss. Thank you and thanks for all of this info! Much appreciated

    • bancika says:

      You can do oil finish on top of a stained body. It will add protection without too much shine and it would leave the wood pores visible. It’s super easy to apply and doesn’t require any special tools…you can just rub it into the body with a piece of cloth. We did a mini Les Paul with brown-stained body that is oil finished. Looks cool


  5. Ido says:

    Hi, What a beautiful guitar! I’m building my own tele- style guitar from mahogany and I’m thinking of doing a light burst effect – but I don’t want to stain the mahogany – I would like to keep the brownish natural mahogany at the the center with a narrow black burst at the end, similar to yours. Any suggestions on how to get that effect? Do I neet to do something to the mahogany (other than filling) ?

  6. E says:

    Is there anyway to do this with regular stains for wood?

    • bancika says:

      Sure. Pretty much any stain will take on wood. It’s just a matter of experimenting more to get the right shade/intensity you need. I like stewmac liquid stains and LMII powder because they are nice and vivid.

  7. monki says:

    Looks great! thank you for the detailed infos and photos. Just wondering what brand dyes you use and also for an entire body ( front sides and back but no neck ) How much stain should I mix to have enough… I am using tintfast powder..

    • bancika says:

      That guitar is stained with LMII waterbased powder stain. Stewmac liquid stains are maybe even better, more versatile (can mix in anything) and easier to use. As far as the ratio hoes, I can’t remember. It’s crucial to test the mixture on a piece of wood. The look you get right after the application is about what it will look after clear coat. When it dries it looks a bit dull.

  8. Jonno says:

    How long did it take for the clear coat to set? I would like to build a guitar for a school engineering assignment but I need to know how long that takes to set because I only have a certain amount of time to be able to complete it

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    The idea behind this site is to share my experience with Do It Yourself approach to guitars, amplifiers and pedals. Whether you want to save a couple of bucks by performing a mod or upgrade yourself instead of paying a tech, or want to build your own piece of gear from scratch, I'm sure you will find something interesting here. Also, this is the home of DIY Layout Creator, a free piece of software for drawing circuit layouts and schematics, written with DIY enthusiasts in mind.