There are a few options when choosing a finish for an instrument, but acrylic and nitrocellulose-based paints are among the most popular. Many guitar manufacturers now use polyester and polyurethane paints as well, in fact, there are many online debates about polyurethane vs nitro.
If you talk to a luthier, they may recommend nitrocellulose which purportedly allows the wood to breathe, or polyurethane, which will stay intact and won’t change color ever. On the other hand, they may say nitrocellulose is a pain to use and not worth the effort. There’s similar talk about acrylic and nitro as well, so let’s dive into this a bit.
The biggest difference between nitro and acrylic paint is that acrylic is water-based and nitrocellulose is oil-based. You can apply more layers of nitro paint than acrylic, and it dries faster and looks more vintage as well. However, most manufacturers now use polyurethane and polyester instead.
Acrylic paint has been around for a long time and many have used it to paint guitars, however, it’s not typically used by manufacturers. As I just said, nitrocellulose isn’t as common anymore either although there is certainly still a market for it and a dedicated fan-base who like the vintage look. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons below.
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What Are The Main Differences Between Nitro and Acrylic
|Durability||Not as tough||Tougher|
|Sustainability||Not as sustainable||Lasts longer|
|Value over Time||Cracks, fades, and yellows in a cool way||Doesn’t fade or age as good as nitro|
|Versatility and Flexibility||Better for a full-body paint job||Good for intricate designs|
|Thick or Thin||Thicker||Thinner|
|Appearance||Thicker and more oily||Clear or milky-looking|
|Ease of Application||Not as easy to apply||Easier to apply|
|Price to produce||More expensive||Less expensive|
|Time to dry and cure||Fast to dry||Even faster to dry|
1) Nitro is Purportedly More “Breathable”
According to its proponents, nitro is a thin, and more breathable paint for wood. Some people describe it as being kind of like glass. Acrylic, on the other hand, is not as breathable.
For a Nitro finish, you have to spray many coats of paint to get the shiny and opaque look of most instruments. With Nitro, you don’t want to spread too heavy per coat; a thin layer will do.
Some say Nitro allows the wood to expand and retract naturally and the layers are only protective and not restrictive in any way.
2) Acrylic is Easier to Use And Doesn’t Take As Long to Cure
With nitro, the coats melt into one another over a few days of spraying; it eliminates the use for sanding between coats. Apparently, this makes it a more straightforward process but also a longer one.
Acrylic – which apparently is easier to apply – will start to crack over time, leaving it vintage-looking but not in a way that’s as beloved as nitro. Nitrocellulose finish is famous and beloved for cracking and looking “vintage” and “worn-down” as well.
From what I understand, acrylic dries faster than nitrocellulose, but according to PTK Guitars, nitro is still known as the paint that dries extremely fast.
3) Acrylic Paint Supposedly Makes the Guitar Heavier Whereas Nitro Allows It to Resonate More
According to some guitar fans out there, if the acrylic paint is painted on correctly, it will have an impact on the weight of the guitar. The idea behind this is that it leads to a heavier sound.
I’m not 100% sure if you could really hear a difference, but guitarists argue that it keeps the sound of your guitar stable over a long period of time. Additionally, it’s supposed to protect the wood as well.
For instance, “Schizotronic” on the TDPRI website says he once stripped down an old Les Paul and gave it a nitrocellulose finish. He expected to hear somewhat of a difference in the sound but states that it’s likely so negligible and small that no one would ever hear it.
He does go on to state that there is a noticeable difference between polyurethane and nitrocellulose finishes, however.
He says that after painting many different guitars in his lifetime, he noticed there was a significant difference after putting on a polyester or polyurethane finish, opting for instead, a nitro finish over polyurethane.
4) Nitro Is Known For Showing The Natural Look of the Wood
PKT Guitars says that on account of the glass-like quality of nitrocellulose finish, it tends to shine a light on the grains and “natural beauty” of the wood. According to Fender’s article on this very subject, they still use nitro and acrylic paints at times for some of their vintage models.
One example, they write, is the “Road Worn” series and the American Vintage series. Apparently, a lot of the artist models have nitro finishes too. It’s clear that even some of the most famous and successful players also like the nitro finishes.
Either way, there is certainly a spirited debate about the different paint styles. Although, like most things in the guitar community, some of it is just pure myth and speculation.
For instance, there was a time when almost everyone chose thicker strings due to “tone” but now it’s cool to use light gauge strings instead. Rick Beato and Rhett Shull played a big role in dispelling this is in their respective videos.
What Are Some Other Differences Between Acrylic & Nitro?
While there’s certainly a market for some of these older styles of guitar finishes, manufacturers will typically choose methods and materials that lower the cost of production.
This video from Steve Guitar is particularly helpful at illustrating some of the differences between polyurethane and nitrocellulose finishes. He says that most manufacturers moved away from nitro because of the time and money it took to use it.
Acrylic paint, on the other hand, is probably used less than nitrocellulose finish as it’s primarily for designs, rather than painting the entire guitar body and neck with it.
According to Hunker, polyurethane and acrylic urethane paints both have fairly similar properties. However, the primary difference between polyurethane paint and acrylic paint is that polyurethane is oil-based and acrylic is water-based.
How manufacturers make the two paints and their primary base play a big role in how they’re used and what are the pros and cons of each. Acrylic is tough, durable, easy to shape, and relatively inexpensive, however, it also depends on how much urethane is in it.
1) Acrylic Is More Resistant to Cracking, Chipping, and Chemicals
Acrylic is a fast-drying paint that can be layered without disturbing the layers underneath. It’s breathable and playable. Acrylic plastic is also fairly resistant to ultraviolet (UV) light and weathering.
This is just another way of saying that the sun isn’t quite as hard on it and it’s better at dealing with climate and temperature changes.
2) Acrylic Is Considered Glossier Than Nitro
According to the same Hunker article that I mentioned earlier, acrylic tends to have a milky-white appearance compared to nitro. Moreover, it’s quite clear and it usually stays clear and kind of glossy looking.
However, some people say that it tends to look kind of weird and drys slightly differently than nitro.
Acrylic gives off an effect that mirrors the effect of oil paint. Although it’s water-based, acrylic paint can be layered thick to look very glossy and shiny.
3) Acrylic Paint is More Durable Than Nitro
Oil-based paints tend to be much thicker and easier to apply, moreover, oil protects from heat and other solvents. If an acrylic paint doesn’t have any urethane or oil in it, it’s not nearly as resistant to heat and solvents.
Typically, the more urethane that’s in a finish, the tougher it is and the more longevity you get out of it. Additionally, more urethane means that the paint becomes more resistant to scratches and other dings and knocks.
So, in simple terms, acrylic paint could be more durable than nitro if there’s a lot of urethane in it. If you’ve got acrylic urethane paint, it could be a more durable option than nitro.
4) Acrylic Is Easier to Repair Than Nitro
Acrylic is not considered a high-maintenance paint, and if you needed to take it off, it comes off easily. It’s also a user-friendly medium that can be used by anyone from a beginner to a more advanced painter.
In other words, I’m not recommending you try this by yourself but you could if you wanted to. As I just said, the paint comes off super easily, so it’s not a big deal if you made a mistake and want to try again.
Nitro, on the other hand, tends to be more toxic and harder to use for people who aren’t used to painting. A person should always use a mask regardless of the paint type, but you’d probably be safer with acrylic for the first time.
5) Acrylic Paint is Used More For Designing Than Nitro Is
Because the paint is so versatile, it’s easily the choice of painters for intricate designs more than just painting a full-body coat. So if you wanted a custom design that no one else has or maybe some kind of picture, acrylic is more suitable for this.
As a medium, it’s easier to work with, comes in a wide array of colors, and is easy to come by. It’s also very safe to use on wood. You see a lot of musicians working with acrylics to paint their guitars for the first time.
You can even use acrylic paint in a spray can. However, painting your guitar with acrylic paint can allegedly devalue it because some people think of it as inferior to polyurethane and nitrocellulose.
6) Nitro is More Sensitive Than Acrylic
A guitar painted with nitro can have up to 30 coats on it, but each can quickly dissolve with sweat which is why there are a lot of old-looking guitars out there. The ones from the 50s and 60s – which people refer to as the “golden era” – usually have nitro finishes.
This is how guitars get that super worn-down look that people go crazy for. Acrylic will crack like French porcelain over time, and you’ll see mosaic-like cracks in the finish, but it won’t fade too much like Nitro.
7) Nitro Will Fade or Discolor As It Ages
Over time nitro will age and discolor, leaving once bright colors dim. Fender’s Olympic White is a good example. Most older Olympic White paint is probably closer to a yellow than a white color by this point.
Acrylic, on the other hand, doesn’t yellow in the same way that nitro does. Especially if the urethane side of the paint has been removed. For some people, the fact that it doesn’t yellow or fades is a drawback, but like most of this, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Which is a Better Finish for Guitar? Nitro or Acrylic?
There are a lot of arguments – including this one and this one – that say either is better, but if I could choose one to be on my guitar, I would choose Nitro. It’s not a quick process and isn’t exactly available everywhere, but the benefits are worth the extra money.
It’s lighter than acrylic, and the people who love it say that it allows the wood in the guitar to breathe. This is supposed to make it age and sound better. Of course lot of this is just theory and conjecture, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot.
The color will fade, but the wood purportedly ages better at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, Fender Custom Shop and Gibson use Nitro-based paint. And some of these vintage-looking guitars are undeniably cool and inimitable.
However, because there are many coats required, it’s more expensive to make the guitar this way. Apparently, the fact polyurethane and polyester paints are so much cheaper is the main reason why guitar manufacturers have largely moved on from nitrocellulose paint.
To me, this makes total sense. I think a lot of people like to look back on the past and think there was a “golden era” where guitar manufacturers cared primarily about the “tone” and “quality.”
However, I imagine the truth is they were trying to mass-produce guitars for as little money as possible the same way they do now. This guy on Reddit, for instance, had a great comment where he said essentially the same thing:
Where Can I Buy Nitro and Acrylic Paint?
You can buy both paints at a typical hardware store or an online store, but I wouldn’t just paint a guitar without really understanding the process initially.
Additionally, I would caution against using no-name paints found on Amazon because a lot of them appear to have questionable reviews. You’d probably be better off going to an actual store or a separate retailer that specializes in that kind of thing.
I actually reached out to an industry expert to advise me on what the best paints are for guitars, however, I’m still waiting on a response. For that reason, I’ve delegated the response to Audio Assemble instead who had the following list for their readers.
As I just mentioned, make sure you know what you’re doing and what you need before you get started. Painting with either type of finish – acrylic or nitro – takes more than one coat, lots of drying time, and a good polish.
Moreover, you don’t want to cut corners or rush through because then you won’t wind up with a solid final product.
You may be better off using one of your older guitars first, or perhaps a cheap one found at a garage sale. I would give the same advice if I were telling you how to make serious changes to any of your guitars, ie, replacing the nut, swapping out pick-ups, etc.