No big shocker here, but 99.99% of the guitars on the planet are made from wood. Wood is just about the perfect material for a guitar due mostly to its strength and tonal characteristics, but it isn’t bulletproof by any stretch of the imagination.

A properly applied finish is the ticket to help protect the instrument and add some visual flair as well. Some finishes are more ‘stain-like’ and let the natural beauty of the wood shine through (very common on acoustic guitars). Other guitar finishes can be solid colors or have a pattern effect on them (like a sunburst) to give an impression that natural wood alone just can’t do.

Regardless of whether you spent $200 or $2,000 on your guitar, it is an investment that will serve you well as long as you take care of it – and proper finish care is an essential part of your overall guitar maintenance plan. Let’s take a look at the best ways to maintain your guitar’s finish and keep it in tip-top condition.

Types of guitar finishes

Before we get into the details about how to best care for your finish, it may be best to briefly review the significant types of guitar finishes.

Overall there are two kinds: nitrocellulose and polyurethane. Nitrocellulose (often called ‘nitro’) is a traditional finish found on older instruments and selects newer ones. Polyurethane is a more modern type of guitar finish that tends to be harder and more durable.

Nitrocellulose guitar finish

Nitrocellulose

Nitro finishes have a reputation for aging gracefully, but they can be more susceptible to temperature changes (which can result in finish cracking). Also – believe it or not – the rubber from many types of guitar stands can have an adverse reaction with some nitro finishes.

Overall, it’s essential to know which type of finish your guitar has, as some of the finish care products available are intended to work best for one type or the other.

How to Maintain your Guitar’s Finish

The following are simple methods that you can do to maintain your guitar’s finish.

Wipe it down

Playing your guitar will inevitably dirty things up a bit on your guitar’s finish. Sweat, dirt, dust, fingerprints, and other nastiness can build up over time. Not letting it build-up is the first step towards looking out for the health of your guitar’s finish. It can be as simple as wiping your guitar down every time you’re done playing it, whether you’re just doing a little practicing or having a full out sweat-fest during a live gig.

“It is the most delightful thing that ever happens to me, when I hear something coming out of my guitar and out of my mouth that wasn’t there before.” James Taylor

One of the most useful – and most inexpensive – guitar accessories that any guitar player should have is a high-quality microfiber cleaning cloth. It’s important to note that just any fabric may not serve the right purpose. Sure, a regular towel is better than nothing, but it may leave small scratches and swirls in the finish (similar to those found on your car after taking it through an automatic car wash).

Guitar cleaning cloths

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

Clean it up

Keeping things wiped down certainly will help your guitar’s finish looking great, but sometimes you have to take things a step further. Doing a complete cleaning a few times a year will help keep any residue from building up over time.

There are many cleaning solutions and products on the market that are specifically made for guitar finishes. Using other kinds of harsh chemicals or cleaners may do irreversible damage, so it’s always best to use the right tool for the job. These types of cleaners will help to mildly break up dirt and grime, and you will find the best results when using them with (surprise!) a clean and fresh microfiber cloth or towel.

Polish it out

Sometimes you have to go past simple cleaning and apply a good polish to bring your guitar’s finish back to like-new condition. Keep in mind, though – there is a big difference between cleaning and polishing.

Cleaners use chemicals to help lift grime off, making it easier to wipe off. Polishing your guitar’s finish is a bit more aggressive as the polish compound itself will have a very light abrasive effect. This will not only get the dirt off, but it will also help take out minor imperfections (like swirls and scratches) and bring back a shine that may be difficult to achieve with just a cleaner alone.

Guitar polish kit

Think of doing a proper polishing job as putting a coat of wax on your car – your guitar’s finish will have a brightness and ‘snap’ to it similar to when you bought it new.

When all else fails…do nothing!

So far, everything we have been discussing is all about keeping the finish on your guitar, looking the best it possibly can be.

But what if you just really don’t care?

Getting that worn, dirty, and road-weary look is undoubtedly a trend nowadays. Called “relicing guitars” it’s a process where you can either buy a guitar that already looks like it’s been well played or take a brand new instrument and make it look years older than it really is.

But that all costs money, right? If grunge is your thing, then just play away and let your ax get as nasty as you want it to be. Remember, Eddie Van Halen’s iconic ‘Frankenstein’ is covered with cigarette burns on the headstock…we’re pretty sure he didn’t carefully wipe it down after every gig!

Eddie Van Halen’s iconic ‘Frankenstein guitar

So…yeah. No wiping, cleaning, or polishing required here!

Conclusion

One of the best ways to keep your instrument looking it’s absolute best is to take care of it’s finish. Knowing whether you have nitrocellulose or a polyurethane finish can make a difference in which processes and products are best suited for your instrument.

Proper guitar finish care is not hard to do, and it can be as simple as doing a simple wipe-down after you’re done playing all the way to a complete polishing job to get it looking as it was ‘fresh out of the box.’ None of these processes cost a lot of money, but you may have to put a little elbow grease into it to get the best results.

The flip side of all the above is this – the beauty of a guitar is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder, right? You can go entirely to the other end of the scale and let your finish get as dirty and worn as you may want it to be. And you can do that without doing a single thing – just to get that funky and worn-in vibe!

Talk to other guitars players about how to best maintain your guitar’s finish in our guitar chat forum.