Sometimes a refinish is really obvious like when the guitar is finished in a non Gibson color. This Candy Apple Red 62 dot neck is one of the best sounding ones I’ve ever owned. Certainly in the top 20 if not the top 10. Looked pretty cool too.

It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why a professionally refinished guitar is worth so much less than a factory original. Vintage and antique cars get repainted all the time and the prices don’t drop like a stone. Antique furniture, however, follows the vintage guitar rule: Don’t mess with the finish. A refinish knocks anywhere from 40-50% off the value. That’s a lot considering the guitar with a pro refinish is usually every bit as playable and attractive as it’s original counterpart.

I could go on about how a factory refinish isn’t as much of a decrease in value as an aftermarket refinish even though the work can be superior. I could also talk about Fender’s penchant for putting custom color finishes over sunbursts (and still be considered original). Or the Selmer Fiesta reds being considered by many to be refinished even though they were never sold with any other finish. Or put differently-it’s OK if Fender paints Fiesta over sunburst but not OK if Selmer does it. There’s a clear lack of logic to the vintage guitar rule book and I’m not one to rock the boat. I simply accept the rules and grumble about them occasionally (like now).

What I really want to talk about are refinished and oversprayed ES models. The good news is that folks didn’t feel compelled to refinish these guitars as often as the Fender owners did back in the day. It could be because the Fender finishes tended to chip and wear more easily than the Gibson finishes. It could also be the relative ease of stripping an unbound solid block of wood over a laminated, arched and bound hollow or semi hollow box. So, 335’s and the like simply don’t get refinished all that often but I’ve certainly run across my share. Some done brilliantly, some, well, not so brilliantly. The amateur jobs are pretty obvious but a pro job often requires an experienced eye.

The black light is a useful tool but it has its limitations but it’s a great place to start. The entire guitar should glow evenly under blacklight. If any areas look different, you can bet they were touched up for one reason or another. If the entire guitar black lights consistently, then it’s not so easy. A brand new refinish won’t glow much but an older one will look identical to an original finish under black light if the entire instrument was done. So ends the usefulness of the black light. So, how do I know if the finish is original or not if the black light fails me? Lots of ways.

I start with looking in the nooks and crannies. It is really hard to remove the finish from the deep corners of a pickup rout-especially on a dyed finish like Gibson’s red. The other place to look for remnants of the original finish is in the holes for the pots-folks simply forget to remove it. More obvious is to look inside the f-holes. There is never color in there. I’ve seen clear lacquer from the factory in there on very rare occasions when the guitar has the “2” designation on the back of the headstock-which, by the way, doesn’t mean factory second. It means it went back to the spray booth a second time. In general, any paint or clear lacquer inside the body is a bad sign.

Because it is very difficult to chemically strip a 335, you have to sand. And no matter how carefully you sand, you are going to take some wood off with the finish. Chemical strippers will melt the bindings and they won’t get the red dye out of the wood as it sinks in too deeply. You might get away with a chemical strip of a sunburst but not a red. So, let’s assume the finish is black and it looks really good. They taped off the f-holes and sprayed over the pickup routs and painted over the original color from the all the holes. I usually take a scraper and remove a little finish from inside the pickup rout to see if there is another color underneath. Again, easier on a red one than on a sunburst. But there is an almost foolproof way to tell if a 335, 345 or 355 has been refinished.

The original finish is sprayed on over the bindings and the bindings are then scraped clean of any paint. The bindings end up “lower” than the rim of the guitar or put differently, the rim will be “proud” of the binding. Run your fingernail from the body binding to the rim of the guitar. If its perfectly smooth, the guitar has been sanded and refinished. Period. End of thought. There are no exceptions. Every ES guitar that’s passed through my hands has had the ridge unless it’s been refinished. Do that test first and you won’t get fooled again. Next, we’ll look at oversprays. That’s when the finish is still original but someone has gone and sprayed a new coat of clear over it.

This super rare white ’65 ES-355 had me concerned until I was able to inspect it in hand. The usual photos simply don’t show enough detail to see the ridge I talk about in the post. You can see it here. There wasn’t a trace of any other color anywhere, it black lighted perfectly but I wasn’t going to be convinced until I felt the ridge between binding and rim.

5 Responses to “Refinishes”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, very informative as usual! The tip about the “lip” in terms of detecting a refin is particularly helpful! Best, RAB

  2. Leeds says:

    Ditto regarding RAB’s comments. As a young teen with no woodworking experience, I stripped my perfect early Jazzmaster to refinish it, and while I ruined a lovely old Fender finish, the end result looked quite good. Unfortunately, I sold my mint (‘63?) SG Standard w/Bigsby to my bandmate, who promptly decided to follow my refinishing lead. He used chemical stripper on the SG’s gorgeous factory cherry red. IIRC, he also used a stain. The end result looked godawful. Within a short time bought the guitar back despite its appearance, because it still played beautifully and sounded wonderful. But the appearance bothered me, especially since I’d owned the guitar before it was disfigured.
    The story has a happy ending: After playing it for a year or so, I traded the SG for my first 345 as a high school sophomore, and have owned (but not refinished!) Golden Era ES-345s (and other ES-3xx) ever since.

  3. RAB says:

    Other young and dumb refinishing experiences. At 15 I refinished my all original Desert Sand 1960 Fender Musicmaster because it had, you know, a few chips and scratches (was in 8/10 condition). Stripped it and spray painted it with a can of flat black spray paint. I crowned the result with flame decals culled from my model car kits. Like groovy man! Thank goodness my first electric wasn’t a better model Fender or Gibson!

  4. Collin says:

    In my humble opinion, the reason a refin is such a big deal on a guitar is because it’s the one thing that can never be put back to “original” again. Things like replaced parts and solder joints are pretty minor, but refinishing a guitar is a permanent decision.

    Classic cars are often repainted when the entire car is restored because it physically cannot be operated anymore, you’re doing rust repair and more to get it back on the road. There’s an understanding that – left alone – an old car will deteriorate on its own, so paintwork is maintenance.

    Guitars and furniture, on the other hand, don’t technically need a finish at all to serve their purpose. There is no actual need to ever refinish these items. Consequently, we prize the originality of the finish and even glorify the natural wear and tear of the finish as a mark of authenticity. To the point where that patina is copied in the form of artificial aging, relics etc.

    Personally, I don’t care, if the price is right. I have plenty of refinished vintage guitars that are amazing and still affordable, but there is something special about a guitar that hasn’t been irreversibly modified in the form of a refin.

  5. Nelson Checkoway says:

    Collin – I think you’re spot on in your assessment on refinished guitars. And it aligns with the impact of wear and tear vs. intentional, irreversible changes. A guitar with moderate visible wear, like finish worn off by a players arm, should retain more value than one that has been drilled for new tuners, addied switches or a relocated strap button. It’s the distinction between natural, unavoidable wear through normal use and purposeful alterations. Of course, damage that goes well beyond normal wear and tear, like headstock breaks and body cracks are another story. But it is also notable that the market is forgiving for certain types of instruments in which ‘normal’ wear and tear is often more severe. For instance, most vintage flattop guitars develop cracks (like the notorious Martin pickguard crack, due to the finish having been applied over teh guard) and neck resets which make the instruments playable again after years of string tension distort the spruce top and effectively raise the bridge to an unplayable height. These kinds of conditions and their repairs are analogs to the car maintenance you describe–and such guitars are generally considered “original”.

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