Everyone knows music performance is an art. For the sake of human expression, you burn scales and melodies into muscle memory, develop focused listening skills, and craft meaningful tunes.
However, the further you get into the music business, the more you realize music is more than just performance.
For example, sound designers create sounds you use every day, and software developers make your DAW. Although they aren’t performing, their specialized skills certainly function as artistic expression.
Building and decorating guitars is another art all on its own. While some guitarists use outrageous axes as stage gimmicks, others use the physical look of their guitars as legitimate canvases of expression.
Maybe you’ve thought about painting your guitar, or somehow changing its appearance. You’ve painted or drawn a design already, and are wondering what the next step is.
In order to keep your design and guitar body safe, you need to apply a finish to it. The two most common products for finishing a guitar are tung oil and tru oil. Below, I explain the benefits and cons of both.
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What Exactly is a Guitar Finish?
A guitar finish is that thin layer of clear “stuff” providing a barrier between the air and its wood. I’ll explain what the “stuff” is, but for now think of it as protection for the guitar’s body.
The finish is hard like plastic, protecting the wood and paint from denting, oil, and sweat. This protects the guitar cosmetically, but also preserves it longer and keeps it sounding good.
Finish is also important for its feel. As you move your hand on the fretboard, the neck needs to be both smooth and easy to navigate. No one wants to worry about getting splinters while playing riffs on the 21st fret!
Option 1: Tung Oil
If I described tung oil in one word, it would be “natural.” It’s used to preserve the guitar’s original look and feel as much as possible. Often (but not always), it tends to be more natural than tru oil or other finishing products.
Tung oil will cover the neck while still allowing the wood to retain its feel. Even after applying tung oil, you can still feel the subtleties in the grains.
Additionally, it accentuates and enhances the wood colors without browning over time.
Tung oil is made of three ingredients. First is varnish, which provides the finish’s thickness and clearness.
When I say thick, I mean THICK. It’s almost solid and very sticky – as a kid I stuck my whole hand on drying varnish and it actually hurt when I pulled away.
That’s why the second ingredient is “mineral spirits,” cleaning agents with a water-like consistency. They make the varnish less goopy and potent.
Lastly, the third ingredient is seed oil from the eponymous tung tree. It provides tung oil with its wood-enhancing properties. It’s why tung oil is considered an “oil varnish blend” product to woodworkers.
Now while tung oil might sound fantastic from an aesthetic perspective, it has several major drawbacks. The biggest drawback is extensive maintenance. Like, a LOT of maintenance. While the wood might look nice, tung oil wears away with time.
Your finger oil will eat it away, and the wood will also absorb it. Eventually, you will see lighter spots where your skin and sweat touch it the most. This is fixable, but it means stripping your entire guitar and reapplying the oil every six months.
Additionally, tung oil is a magnet for dirt and grime. The wood won’t be affected (given the oil hasn’t worn down too much), but the neck and body themselves will be dirty to touch.
If your guitar’s wood aesthetic is important and you’re willing to do constant maintenance, tung oil can work. Otherwise, I would recommend tru oil for the reasons I mention below.
If you want tung oil, Minwax Tung Oil is a popular product that online communities constantly recommend. Other products like Danish oil and Teak oil achieve similar results, albeit with the same maintenance. Watco Oil and Furniture Clinic Teak Oil are commonly used.
Applying Tung Oil
Whichever finisher you ultimately choose, you want to make sure your guitar is completely clean and debris-free. Make sure you are in a well-ventilated area.
Now grab yourself a rag, and sandpaper for smoothing the oil. Apply a LARGE amount of tung oil and allow it to dry (read the bottle for a specific time).
After drying, smooth it over with the paper. The sandpaper will produce lots of wood dust which will get rubbed into the wood grain and pores. This is actually a good thing, since it will fill empty areas that would otherwise fill with grime.
As a humanities nerd, I like to say tung oil application is like Michaelangelo carving King David from rock: you start big (with lots of oil) and slowly take away the excess (like shaving off chunks of rock).
Option 2: Tru Oil
If I could sum up tru oil in one word, it would be “durable.” While tru oil might not be as natural-feeling as tung oil, it requires little maintenance and offers long-term protection. Plus,it can provide a snazzy sheen when applied correctly.
Tru oil feels more like synthetic varnish or plastic than wood, but it doesn’t have to feel “fake” or cheap. Tru oil is still comfortable to play over, and with less maintenance it’s hard to pass up.
It’s durable because it doesn’t include seed oil like tung oil does. It is simply a mix of the other two products – varnish and mineral spirits. Essentially, it’s plain old thinned varnish, which is why it’s known as a “wiping varnish.”
If you prefer the practicality and durability of tru oil, Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil is a common recommendation from online luthiers.
Applying Tru Oil
Like tung oil, make sure the guitar is clean and in a well-ventilated area.
Applying tru oil is similar, with several key differences. Find a rag, then find some steel wool (that’s the different part!)
Start small by applying a thin layer of tru oil all over the wood (that’s the other different part!) Let it dry before applying another layer. You want several layers to make the protection robust.
The great thing about tru oil is you can never add too much. The more you add, the more sheen you create. Apply as much as you want!
If tung oil is like Michaelangelo, tru oil is like Picasso making clay sculptures: start small (like a small chunk of clay), then slowly add more (like ears on a clay head – creative, right?!)
Since many musicians are curious about other creative fields, painting and finishing your guitar can be an exciting process. If you need inspiration, just try Googling “creative guitar designs” or similar queries.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to add visuals to your guitar as long as you follow the correct procedures.
Joe Satriani drew pictures all over his guitar with sharpies. Eddie Van Halen used spray paint, covering sensitive parts with painter’s tape. Even George Harrison couldn’t escape the trend in the 80s when he had his “Rocky Strat” painted with psychedelic colors.
With that advice, go brainstorm, get inspired, and have fun making your one-of-a-kind axe!