Published On: Mon, Feb 10th, 2014

Guitar Workshop: Swamp Monster Part 2

A sunburst is a sunburst… right? Not quite. In the second part of our triple-header workshop on adding a custom ash body to a Strat, Huw Price goes a-bursting…

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Prior to starting this project, to be honest, I’d never really thought all that deeply about Fender sunbursts. I’d always loved pre-CBS style sunburst Stratocasters, but in my mind they fell into just two categories – the early two-tone versions and the later three-tones. I certainly had no inkling that ’50s two-tone sunbursts varied so much. In a broader sense the style of the bursts changed a good deal, with the darker band gradually becoming wider as the decade progressed. To further complicate matters, the execution of the sunburst would vary depending on which individual was manning the spray booth on any given day.

In a sense, this is good news for the amateur luthier because you can’t get it ‘wrong’ when there’s no definitive ‘right’. We went through something similar when we were figuring out the look we were aiming for with our Greco LP project; we trawled through all the guitars in the Beauty Of The Burst book and settled on one particular guitar.

This time around we resorted to online searches and accumulated a substantial collection of early Stratocaster images divided into folders by year of manufacture. It soon became apparent, though, that relying on photographs is risky. The same guitar can appear bright yellow in one picture and deep orange in the next. We’re also talking about very old instruments, so each one will have aged differently depending on the conditions in which it was kept and the amount it was used.

The fact is, then, that no ‘definitive’ colour can be attributed to early ’50s sunbursts. Instead you’d be better advised to examine as many pictures as you can and decide what you like. You may prefer a yellow centre, or perhaps a darker amber with a wide or a narrow burst. Further research may indicate which technique Fender used to create that particular finish, in which case following the same procedure would seem sensible. The only objective is for you to achieve your preferred look… because when it comes to guitars, the only judgement that really matters is your own.

1: Nailing It

Most guitar finishers use a paint stick to hold a body while applying lacquer, and that’s my usual method too. I attach a 50cm stick to the neck pocket with screws, with a spacer to hold it slightly off the body. In addition, there’s a drilled hole at one end of the stick so that the body can be hung up to dry. It’s a practical solution, and one that Fender used – but only from late ’62 or early ’63 onwards. No stick was used during the 1950s (and that’s why you should expect to see lacquer in the neck pocket of any original example). So for this project, we decided to dispense with the paint stick.


Four nail holes should be present on every original-finish pre-CBS Strat – the mark of the method used to support the body. We followed Fender’s technique for this project.

During the pre-CBS era Fender hammered nails into the front of the body in four locations, as you can see from the photo on the right. Bodies were placed on their backs on a ‘lazy Susan’ – a rotatable board – and the fronts were sprayed first. Once done, the bodies were then flipped over onto the nails so the backs could be sprayed (Fender also apparently suspended the bodies from one of these nails while the finish dried). For authenticity’s sake we decided to go with the nails, but we used an eyelet screwed into the body to suspend it. Later on, the eyelet hole will be used for the strap button screw.

2: Amber, Orange or Yellow?

Over the years I have come to accept that I don’t have a particularly good eye for colour. For instance, my other half regularly informs me that something I thought was blue is actually green, and I generally struggle to discriminate between dark navy and black. People with an eye for colour seem to be able to distinguish subtle shading differences, and they wield such an intimidating arsenal of arcane terms that it’s like talking to a paint catalogue. Consequently, the first part of our sunburst project was a struggle.

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Having decided that I generally preferred the look of 1955 sunbursts, I opted to spray amber lacquer rather than apply yellow dye immediately after the grain filler, so the amber coats were the first to be applied once the base coats had been flatted back. The problem I experienced was deciding when to stop spraying the amber. The intensity of the amber intensifies quite quickly; however, one’s perception of the shade will vary depending on the lighting conditions.

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Wet and dry coats also look very different. The best advice we can give is work very slowly and to be patient. Spray one or two light coats at a time and allow them to dry thoroughly before examining the body under various lighting conditions. Comparing the progress of the amber coats with your reference photos may also help.

After spraying the amber onto the front and back of our body, I emailed photos to our lacquer supplier Steve Robinson and a few trusted mates.

The general consensus was that the front had ended up too dark, but the back was about right. If you apply too much amber, the colour turns a distinct shade of orange – not unlike a faded Gretsch 6120. Conversely, too little amber will result in a washed-out look. So I ended up sanding the amber off the front and re-spraying.

Eventually Steve said that he thought the shade looked ‘about right’. I still thought it looked a bit too orange but I’m glad I followed his advice, as the look of the centre section is completely transformed when the sunbursting is applied – as we would soon discover.
If you look carefully at the photo below right, you may notice that we didn’t spray amber in the area under the pickups. Fender employees often left this section au natural to avoid wasting lacquer in an area that would be concealed by the pickguard. We’re making no claims that this project is about creating a perfect ’50s replica, but we thought this little detail was easy enough to copy. Before moving on, I protected the amber under a few coats of clear gloss.

3: A Bit on the Side

The sunbursting process begins with spraying the edges of the guitar, but first you need to mask off the front and the back of the guitar to protect the amber coats. To begin, we taped four sheets of A4 paper together, placed the guitar body on top, and traced a line around it. The body shape was then cut out and fixed to the top of the guitar with loops of masking tape.

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The important thing is that the edges of the spraying template should curl up around the edges to avoid sharp lines after the lacquer has been sprayed. Try to cut the template slightly inside the body line so that you can get coverage on the rolled-over edges of the body when you spray the sides. You may also need to cut a separate template for the tummy tuck chamfer at the back.

We found it best to spray the sides pointing the aerosol downwards at a 45 degree angle. At this point you’ll probably be feeling some degree of excitement, but try and resist the temptation to build up the brown layer too quickly otherwise you’ll end up with runs. We completed this process over a period of three days.

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We sprayed from the top first, then flipped the body over to rest on the nails before spraying from the back. Quite a bit of lacquer was required to completely obscure the grain at the sides of the body; in fact, we ended up ordering a second tin of tobacco brown.

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Fender themselves were known to use Jacobean Oak stain on the sides, and it may be possible to achieve sufficient coverage with fewer coats if you use stain to give you a head start. In this case you may get by with just one tin of tobacco brown – however, we haven’t tried the stain approach, and can’t guarantee it will work. Once the sides had dried overnight, we removed the spraying templates to reveal a very strange-looking body.

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4: Sunbursting Begins

We spoke to guitar restoration guru Clive Brown about the art of spraying sunbursts, and he stressed the importance of not trying to ‘force’ the burst, and said that the can should be directed towards the very edge of the body. What this means is that the can should be held over the body with the nozzle directed outwards; in other words, always spray a burst from the inside towards the outside, rather than from the outside inwards. The aerosol should be aimed beyond the edge of the body and then brought back until you can see the edge picking up colour. Clive also pointed out that if you concentrate on achieving a nice solid band around the outer edge, then the overspray will naturally take care of the transition.

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Since I was going for a narrow band, I held the can fairly close to the edge of the body. If I had wanted a thicker band with a wider transition area, I would have held the aerosol closer to the centre of the body.

Make sure your aerosol can is shaken very thoroughly before you start spraying. Ideally, your aerosol will produce a fine and even spray. Unshaken cans – and cans that are almost empty – often spray unevenly and may spit out blobs of lacquer. If this happens, simply wipe off the blob immediately with the tip of your finger. Allowing blobs to dry and attempting to sand them off later didn’t work for me.

Being fairly inexperienced at this sort of thing, I figured it would be best to get a feel for spraying a sunburst on the back of the body rather than the front. Once again I tried to work slowly and patiently. As it turned out the colour built up quite quickly, and after three or four sessions the back was done. One thing to watch out for is that you need to adjust the angle of your aerosol can as you spray the edge of the tummy tuck. If you don’t, the brown band will end up wider in that area.

Having built up confidence, sunbursting the front was even more enjoyable. I decided to hold off for a day or two to make sure I was happy with the pattern and check that there weren’t any transparent areas around the sides and the rolled-over edges. All was well, so next we can start building up the layers with clear coats.

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It’s often said that the shape and style of a car determines the colour that will suit it best. Similarly, there’s something about a two-tone burst that accentuates the curves and contours of a Stratocaster body like no other finish. We wouldn’t be surprised if Leo Fender and his colleagues actually had the sunburst in mind while they were putting the final touches on the shape we all know so well.

Having said that, we discovered that the sunburst on a Strat does need to be applied with some precision to optimise the effect – and, as always, it’s the small details that really count. Have you noticed how the bands often converge behind the upper horn, right on the ridge of the back contour? Or the way the centre colour can extend into the upper horn at the front to emphasise the body’s streamlined asymmetry? It isn’t an even band – it’s more subtle than that.

In contrast to the early ’50s two-tone sunburst Strats, those three-tone bursts with their rosewood boards and creamy-greeny plastics seem almost cosy and conservative. Fender’s rudimentary and relatively crude early sunbursts contrasted with the stark, uncompromising whiteness of the ‘bakelite’ plastic parts and the pale maple fingerboard to stunning effect, and as we approach the Stratocaster’s 60th birthday, the earliest examples may still be regarded as the most pure and modern embodiment of this seminal musical instrument.

So with our sunbursting done, next month we’ll aim to complete our project in style – first by adding the clear lacquer topcoats, then with a bit of sympathetic ageing, and finally finishing up with some period plastic parts and more.



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