How Do I Remove Scratches From My Guitar's Finish?

Obviously scratches are a part of life, but on occasion we want to spruce up our instrument and erase some of the wear and tear associated with playing.

Buffing scratches is an option if they don't go too deep. When buffing scratches out, quite literally, finish is being removed until you are at the bottom of the scratch, making the finish a smooth flat surface again. For heavy scratches, wet sanding often precedes buffing.

While this is completely reasonable for very fine scratches, you can quickly guess why attempting to buff out a very deep scratch can end in disaster.

On instruments with color, a clear coat sits atop the color coat. If too much clear is removed you may buff into the color coat. Doing so leaves a hazy dull ring around the area of transition.

If the instrument is merely clear coated, the same applies, sanding or buffing thru the finish will leave bare wood exposed.

Drop filling a scratch, leveling the fill with the surface and then buffing the instrument is another technique. However, when drop filling lacquer and other finishes, the fill normally shrinks with time and a dip is still seen even after a spotless repair.

Glazes and waxes attempt to "fill" scratches and claim to make them less noticeable. However, coming from an ex-body shop manager and car detailing buff, it isn't as easy as all that.

A good rule of thumb here is, if you can hear your fingernail click when running it across the scratch, it is probably too deep to wet sand or buff out.

Refinishing Vintage Instruments

When dealing with vintage and collectible instruments it is usually in the best interest of the owner to preserve its originality as much as possible, monetarily speaking. As is common with other antiques, refinishing is detrimental to the value often associated with rare or vintage instruments.

Generally speaking, the only time I would recommend refinishing a vintage instrument is when damage is severe enough that it is simply required or when it has already been refinished very poorly as seen in this photo.

bad refinishing attempt on martin guitar
This Martin D-28 appeared to have been painted with a brush.
View same instrument after refinish.

Types of Finish Repair


When I use the term touch up I am usually referring to a relatively small area that can be repaired by brush work (drop filling finish into a chip or valley) or air brushing a small area.
Lacquer which is drop filled by brush must be wet sanded and polished in order to render the smooth, glass like surface one expects to see.
Of course the most difficult part of touching up chips or scratches is not necessarily the application of the lacquer but the blending of new with old. It is truly an art form in many respects and one must aptly judge the thickness of the finish they are dealing with in order to avoid sanding or buffing thru the finish.

Lacquer Melting

Flaking, brittle lacquer finish that is easily removed by simple contact can sometimes be stopped by amalgamating (re-melting) the finish. Finish that has separated from the wood can sometimes be reattached by this method. Top coats are normally diluted with a retarder and thinners that soften the original coat and allow the new coat of finish to melt into the existing finish.


Overspraying refers to a technique whereby a new lacquer top coat is sprayed over the existing lacquer finish without completely removing the original finish.


It is not uncommon to run across instruments who's binding has begun to crumble and literally fall off. With this type of deterioration it is necessary to replace the binding and of course when we do so the new binding stands out like a brand new penny. Solution...we age it. We can age binding by applying a top coat of tinted lacquer to render the yellow hue we normally see on vintage instruments. On most instruments the yellow tint you see on the binding and other areas is simply the result of yellowing lacquer. Once the lacquer is removed you are likely to find white binding (assuming it was white when new). That's why worn areas often differ in color. Other repairs may also necessitate this synthetic aging technique.

Non-lacquer Finishes

When applying overspray one of the most crucial elements to success is adhesion. It is absolutely essential that our new top coat bite into the existing finish. That bite is one obstacle we often run into when trying to overspray finishes other than lacquer. Many of today's newer finishes are so hard and impervious to chemicals that overspraying them may not be an option. The factory can advise you of your finishes repair techniques.


Refinishing is usually cost prohibitive on anything by high quality, valuable instruments. A professional refinish requires neck, bridge and pickguard removal. These parts are not masked around as finish would pool at the edges and look unprofessional.

As of August 2010 the Martin Guitar factory charged more than $900 for a complete refinish of the body of a D-28. (Neck not included)
Likewise, the Taylor factory charged $800 for a complete refinish of a gloss finished body.
*For exact prices contact the factory.

You can easily see how much more one pays for man hours than for production line work. In some instances the cost to refinish an instrument exceeds it's replacement cost. This comes as quite a shock to most, but can be more understandable once the process is viewed.

Lacquer Repair Challenges

Lacquer is very high in solvents and as a result it shrinks quite a bit. For this reason, the lacquer used to fill a chip or crack can continue shrinking weeks after a nearly invisible repair. Realize that I am being quite picky to say that I can see the repaired area but I try and educate my customers to the nature of lacquer so they know what to expect.

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