Chemically stripping a guitar body: Some options

  • Posted by Krishna
  • at 11/16/2008 06:22:00 PM -
Usually the first step in the refinish process is removing the existing finish on the guitar. In some cases this is very easy, requiring just some sanding with a random orbital sander and a block - and other times a standard chemical stripper, such as ZipStrip, will work to cleanly bubble the finish off.

However, there are also a whole breed of indestructible finishes - starting with Fender's polyester finishes of the 70s and 80s - and including a whole variety of other recent instruments. These finishes have the advantage of being very chip resistant and pretty much wear free - for example, the back of the neck on my 1970 P-bass is still shiny shiny - while the body, which was finished in lacquer - is missing about 1/2 the paint from age and wear. The problem with these super tough finishes arises when you want to remove them.

In the past, I have worked on a number of 70s Fender - and in those cases, I simply sanded/ground-off the polyester finish, usually leaving a good portion of the clear sealer coat underneath, since it was equally tough.

Recently, I was asked by a customer to strip an 80's "shred" neck - and then apply a thin satin finish on the wood, to improve the feel of the neck. The neck had a VERY shiny black finish - with binding - which I carefully masked off.

I first tried a standard Methyl Chloride-based paint stripper - this is Ace Hardware's version of zipstrip or 5F5 - all pretty similar. Unfortunately, after letting the stripper sit for about 40 minutes, the gloss was barely even dulled by the stripper - and the finish was certainly not going to be coming off anytime soon.

I then decided to search for what I heard referred to as "Aircraft Stripper" - which was supposedly made for the purpose of stripping paint off of aluminum skinned aircraft (e.g. when USAirways took over Piedmont Airways and repainted all their planes). After a little calling around, I found the product pictured below at AutoZone - $13 for a quart container.

I applied it to the neck - left the basement for 20 minutes - and when I came back - I was able to scrape off a bit of the finish (with a plastic scraper) - finally something that at least softened the finish!

After another application - I was able to remove the entire color coat with the scraper and some steel wool - but this revealed a clear coat under the black paint.

I started again - with a heavy coat of the aircraft stripper - and let it sit for 40 minutes. This did soften up the finish - but I had actually still use metal scraper - CAREFULLY - to get the finish off . I didn't scrape the neck completely bare this way, as I didnt want to damage the maple neck, but what was left was sandable and loosened up anyway.

I am impressed with the capability of the aircraft stripper - I guess the ultimate test will be on a 1979 Fender body - if it can strip that, it can strip ANYTHING !!

A final note - WEAR GLOVES WHEN YOU USE THIS STUFF !! - it will start to burn your fingers within a few seconds of you getting it on bare skin - and it really hurts if you get some on more tender skin, like say the insider of your forearms !! Hear me now and believe me later ....


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  1. in order to protect my self from this stuff, I had to wear latex gloves under rawhide gloves....and I still got a little burned....I suggest something with neoprene maybe....and longsleeves....2 shirts.

  2. I used two spray cans of extra strength Zip-Strip on 79 Mocha Strat body, spray on thick and let soak for at least an hour each application and keep repeating scraping and stripping process till you get to the wood. Be careful to not dig into the wood-use a thin flexible 1.0" steel scraper to peel the paint and red scotchbrite pad to do a final clean up once you get to the wood. Keep your scraper angled low so as not to dig into the wood-especially the corners of the scraper, use patience and your instincts to keep from scratching/tearing up the wood. A plastic scraper will work but no as good as a metal one for penetrating a thick finish.

  3. Not sure if my previous comment posted. I wanted to know if you think a stripper would also remove pencil markings? I have a 61 p bass that has a horrible acrylic lacquer refin that I want to redo in a nitro solid color, but I don't want to lose the authenticating pencil dates that are still visible.

    1. Hi there - I actually really need to update this post (well - actually the whole blog) but I have managed to remove all sorts of overlying paint without losing the pencil marks - but you do have to be careful. The pencil marks are on the bare wood - then the yellow stain is usually over them and then the undercoat (fuller plast or just nitro sanding sealer). So they are protected to some degree - but what I do it use a milder stripper in the areas with pencil marks (pickup routing usually) - such as Citristrip - and do one application and then use a plastic scraper to get the paint off, but don't dig TOO hard. Then I try to clean up the area with a rag and some denatured alcohol - and see what I have - ideally you'll leave some of the sealercoat over the penciled in dates