How to Polish a Nitrocellulose Lacquer Guitar – 4 Easy Steps

Are dull spots on your guitar diminishing its charm? Like you, I was looking for a save way to bring back the gloss. That’s why I’ve scoured the internet to compile the most reliable and effective methods for polishing a nitrocellulose lacquer guitar, ensuring your instrument’s beauty and safety at every step.

To polish a nitrocellulose lacquer guitar, gently clean the surface with a soft cloth, then apply a high-quality polish fitting for nitrocellulose finishes, using circular motions. Afterward, buff it gently with a microfiber cloth to achieve a smooth, high-gloss finish.

How to polish a nitrocellulose lacquer guitar?

Step 1: Preparing for Polishing

Before you start polishing your guitar, set up the right environment. The ideal space for this task is a clean, dust-free area. 

Dust and grit can scratch the lacquer when polishing, so a clean space ensures that your guitar remains unharmed. Choosing a well-lit area is also advisable to ensure an even polish.

Once you’ve found the perfect spot, gather all the necessary materials. You’ll need a variety of soft cloths – these are essential for applying polish and buffing the guitar without scratching the surface. It’s best to use cloths that are lint-free to avoid leaving any residue.

In addition to soft cloths, you’ll need a suitable polishing compound. It’s important to select a compound specifically designed for nitrocellulose lacquer finishes. Using the wrong type of polish can damage the finish or leave undesirable residues. Read labels carefully to ensure compatibility with nitrocellulose lacquer.

You should also have a few microfiber towels on hand. These towels are excellent for the final buffing stage as they’re soft and highly effective at picking up any remaining polish or dust. Their fine fibers ensure a high-gloss finish without the risk of scratching the guitar’s surface.

Step 2: Cleaning Nitrocellulose Finishes

Cleaning your guitar is important, as it removes any dirt and grime that could interfere with the process. 

Start by gently wiping down the guitar with a dry cloth to remove loose dust and dirt, if it needs more to get the dirt off you can use a little water to dampen the cloth.

In most cases this will be sufficent, if not, apply a small amount of cleaner onto the cloth (not directly on the guitar) and gently wipe the surface. Do NOT use regular household cleaners or alcohol-based cleaners, they are far too aggressive for your guitars finish. Use a cleaner formulated for guitars to avoid damaging the finish. Always test solutions you haven’t used before on small unobtrusive areas.

Work in small sections, cleaning and then immediately drying each area before moving on to the next. This prevents any cleaner from lingering too long on the surface, which could potentially harm the lacquer.
Don’t forget the areas around the bridge, pickups, and tuning pegs where dust and grime can accumulate. Use a cotton swab or a small brush for hard-to-reach areas, but be gentle to avoid scratches.

If your fretboard is particularly dirty, you might need a specialized fretboard cleaner. However, this should be used sparingly and infrequently. Finish with a dry cloth to ensure no moisture is left on the guitar.

Regular, careful cleaning will keep your guitar looking its best while preserving the integrity of its finish.

Tips to avoid damaging your guitar during cleaning:

  • Gentle Pressure: Always use light, gentle strokes. Pressing too hard can cause scratches.
  • Avoid Excess Moisture: Never allow liquids to pool on the guitar. Excess moisture can seep into the wood and damage it.
  • Avoid Abrasive Materials: Stay away from rough materials that can scratch the finish. Even paper towels can be too abrasive for a guitar’s delicate surface.
  • Check Product Compatibility: Always make sure any cleaning product you use is suitable for nitrocellulose lacquer finishes.

By following these steps and tips, you can effectively clean your guitar without causing any damage, preparing it perfectly for a beautiful polish.

Step 3: Polishing Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Polishing your guitar is not just about making it shine; it’s also about preserving the finish and ensuring longevity.

Apply a small amount of the compound to a soft, clean cloth. Gently rub the polish onto the guitar’s surface in a circular motion. Work in small sections to ensure even application. Do not apply too much pressure. Let the polish do the work.

Start with the body, as it’s the largest part. Be extra careful around the bridge, pickups, and backplate. Polish that gets into crevices, can build up over time and look shabby.

Use a lighter touch on the neck, especially if it’s unfinished. Avoid polishing the fretboard if it’s made of a porous wood like rosewood, cocobolo, or ebony.

Avoid rubbing over logos or signatures, as otherwise, they can wear off over time.

Remember, the key to a good polish is patience and gentle, consistent strokes. Rushing the process can lead to an uneven finish or even damage to the guitar’s surface. Take your time to achieve that perfect, uniform shine that makes your guitar look as good as it sounds.

Step 4: Buffing and Final Touches

After polishing your guitar, the next step is buffing, which brings out a high gloss and ensures a smooth finish. Here’s how to do it effectively:

A clean, dry microfiber or microsuede cloth is perfect for buffing. This type of cloth is soft, lint-free, and won’t scratch the surface. Gently buff the guitar’s surface in a circular motion. Start from one end of the guitar and move systematically to the other end.

Apply even pressure throughout the process. The goal is to create a uniform shine without leaving any swirl marks or buffing patterns. Frequently turn the cloth to a clean side to avoid reapplying any polish residue back onto the guitar.

Inspect the guitar from different angles under good lighting to check for missed spots or streaks.

  • Applying Finishing Touches:
    • If your guitar has an unfinished dark (rosewood, cocobolo, ebony, …) fretboard, you might consider applying a small amount of conditioner or lemon oil. This helps to nourish the wood and keep it from drying out. But don’t get it all over your neck (if it is finished) as lemon oil can break down nitrocellulose lacquer. If your fretboard is finished maple, a damp and dry cloth is all you need.
    • Apply the oil sparingly – a little goes a long way. Use a soft cloth or a cotton swab to apply the oil evenly across the fretboard. Let it sit for a few minutes, then wipe off any excess with a clean cloth. This will leave the fretboard looking fresh and well-maintained.

Take your time with these steps to ensure the best possible results, and enjoy the beautiful, high-gloss finish on your beloved instrument.

Understanding Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer is a type of finish often used on guitars. It’s known for its ability to enhance the natural beauty of the wood. This finish is created by dissolving nitrocellulose, along with plasticizers and pigments, in a solvent. When applied, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind a thin, glossy layer. This layer is not just about looks; it also protects the wood from damage and wear.

One of the key characteristics of nitrocellulose lacquer is its thinness. This allows the wood of the guitar to resonate more freely, potentially improving the instrument’s sound quality. Additionally, this type of finish ages gracefully, developing a unique patina over time that many musicians and collectors value.

However, nitrocellulose lacquer is different from other types of finishes like polyurethane. Polyurethane finishes are generally more durable and resistant to scratches and chemicals. They form a thicker layer on the wood, which can potentially impact the sound quality, as the wood has less freedom to vibrate. Polyurethane finishes also tend to maintain their appearance over time, unlike nitrocellulose lacquer, which can develop cracks and a yellowish tint as it ages.

Another difference lies in the maintenance requirements. Nitrocellulose lacquer requires more care and gentle handling to maintain its appearance, while polyurethane finishes are more low-maintenance.

In summary, nitrocellulose lacquer stands out for its thinness, aesthetic appeal, and the way it ages. Its distinct properties, compared to finishes like polyurethane, make it a popular choice for many who value both appearance and the potential impact on the instrument’s sound.

A Word on Cleaning vs. Polishing a Guitar

Cleaning involves removing dirt, dust, and grime from the guitar’s surface. This is usually done with a soft cloth and, if necessary, mild cleaners specifically designed for guitars. The goal is to maintain the instrument’s hygiene without affecting its finish.

On the other hand, polishing is about enhancing the guitar’s finish. It involves applying a specific polish to the guitar’s surface to create a shiny, protective layer. This not only improves the guitar’s appearance but also helps protect the lacquer or finish from minor scratches and wear. Polishing is typically done less frequently than cleaning, as it’s more about preservation and less about regular maintenance.

Both cleaning and polishing are important for a guitar’s longevity. Regular cleaning ensures that the guitar is free from substances that could damage its finish over time, while occasional polishing keeps the guitar looking its best and can even enhance the wood’s natural beauty.

Always using the right products for both processes is key to not damaging the finish, especially for guitars with sensitive finishes like nitrocellulose lacquer.

Recommended Products

When it comes to polishing compounds and cloths, brands like Dunlop, MusicNomad, and Gibson offer products specifically designed for nitrocellulose finishes. Their polishes and cloths are trusted by guitar enthusiasts and professionals alike.

How to Keep Your Guitar’s Finish Looking Its Best

One of the simplest yet most effective ways to protect your guitar’s finish is by storing it in a case when not in use. A good case shields your guitar from dust, sunlight, and changes in humidity, all of which can affect its finish over time. Hardshell cases offer the best protection, especially if you travel frequently with your guitar.

A Warning About Nitro Finishes and Guitar Stands

When your guitar is out of its case, placing it on a stand is a safe way to avoid accidental knocks and scratches. But be cautious, some guitar stands can damage the nitro finish, especially those with rubber or synthetic foam padding. These materials can react chemically with the nitrocellulose lacquer, leading to softening or discoloration, causing so called “stand rash” or “nitro burn”. Opt for stands with natural cotton or wool padding, and avoid leaving the guitar on the stand for prolonged periods.

Be Mindful of Your Belt Buckle

An often overlooked aspect of maintaining your guitar’s finish is being mindful of your clothing. Belt buckles, zippers, and even some buttons can scratch the back of your guitar while playing. Consider wearing smoother fabrics or removing belts with large buckles when playing to keep your guitar’s finish scratch-free.

Taking these simple steps can greatly extend the life and beauty of your guitar’s finish. Regular care and mindful handling will ensure that your guitar not only plays well but also maintains its aesthetic appeal for years to come.

Polished a nitrocellulose lacquer guitar

Tips on Maintaining Your Guitar’s Finish

Taking good care of your guitar, always pays off. Regularly wipe your guitar with a soft, dry cloth to remove sweat, fingerprints, and dust. If you manage to do it after each playing session you’ll prevent build-up and thereby the need for a deep clean. And as already mentioned above store your guitar in a case or a dry, temperature-controlled environment to protect the finish. Avoid extreme temperatures direct sunlight and humidity, as these can cause the wood and finish to crack, discolor or warp.

How often should you polish your guitar?

Generally, polishing your guitar once every six months is sufficient. However, this can vary based on the guitar’s usage and exposure to different environments. Over-polishing can also damage the finish, so it’s important to not do it too frequently.

Remember, taking care of your guitar’s finish is not just about maintaining its appearance. It also helps in preserving the guitar’s value and ensuring that it continues to produce the best sound quality. Regular maintenance and proper storage are key to extending the life and beauty of your guitar.


In this guide, we’ve explored the essential stepson how to polish a nitrocellulose lacquer guitar. From preparing your workspace and gathering the right materials, to the careful application of polish and final buffing, each step is crucial in maintaining the guitar’s lustrous finish. Regular cleaning and gentle handling are key to preserving both the beauty and value of your guitar.

By consistently applying these techniques and using recommended products, you can ensure your guitar remains a treasured instrument for years to come. Remember, a well-maintained guitar is not only a joy to play but also a piece of art to behold.

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