In August of 2020, we were staring into the face of endless lockdowns.  With most of my hobbies on hold, I felt the need to learn and do something new.  So, I bought a classical guitar.  And I have been tinkering with it ever since – mostly open tunings; all finger style.

But eventually, every aging boomer feels the urge to play a power chord through a 1-Watt tube amp (we’re trapped at home, so rational limits apply).  My wandering eye brought me to many cool guitars available for purchase.  I nearly bought an electric guitar on several occasions.  Instead, I started looking in to building guitars (two new hobbies for the price of one).

This body and neck came from Precision Guitar Kits in Vancouver, Canada.



I choose not to go with a traditional ash body and maple neck.  Instead, I wanted a highly-figured tonewood so that I could put a transparent finish on the guitar and highlight that figure.

This guitar body and neck are made from black limba and the neck has an ebony fretboard (under all that tape).  Limba is an African wood related to mahogany.  Note that all limba wood comes from the same tree.  The boards are sorted after milling, and any board with black streaks becomes “black limba”.  Likewise, any board without black streaks becomes “white limba”.

In comparison, limba is somewhat lighter than genuine mahogany (from South America) which is somewhat lighter that African mahogany.  Similarly, limba is not a hard as genuine mahogany which is not as hard as African mahogany.  Cost wise (as far as this guitar kit goes), limba is on par with genuine mahogany which is a bit more expensive that African mahogany.

Limba (under the trade name Korina) is best known as the tonewood of Gibson’s Modernistic Series of the late 1950s—the Flying V and Explorer.  Limba is a warm, resonant, and balanced tonewood that also yields great clarity, definition, and sustain.

Classics Gibson Les Paul Jr., Les Paul Special, and SG guitars were made of solid mahogany (with mahogany necks).  Mahogany’s tone is warm and somewhat soft, but well balanced with good grind and bite.

Thus, this guitar is “fenderish” in style and scale length, while being “gibsonish” in tonewoods.  It should be interesting to see what the final tone of the guitar is.

Limba is somewhat porous.  So, it is necessary to fill the grain before finishing the wood.  The photo above shows the guitar after filling the grain (I forgot to grab photos before I got started).  The photo below is a close up of the rosewood grain filler that I used.  The “white” parts of the guitar seem to have larger pores than the “black” parts.  The rosewood filler stands out nicely against the light-colored wood.



The limba itself has dark streaks in the grain.  Rosewood was the darkest grain fill that I could get from (they didn’t have ebony in stock at that time).

There are three basic options for finishing the body and neck of the guitar:

The modern way: Plastic – Polyurethane.  Poly is easy to apply.  Requires no special tools.  Has minimal Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  Produces a hard and durable finish.  And when you are done and have a high-gloss finish, your wood looks like plastic.  My classical guitar with white ebony tonewood looks like wood-grain plastic up close under bright lights.   Pretty much all modern guitars of modest price are finished in polyurethane.

The old school way: Nitrocellulose lacquer.   Nitrocellulose lacquer is made by taking cotton and treating it with sulfuric and nitric acid, generating an acidic pulp, which can be strained to produce a watery resin. The resulting resin is then combined with a number of fast drying solvents to produce the finished lacquer.  Applying lacquer requires skill; a paint booth with ventilation; and personal protective gear.  More than a dozen coats are required with sanding between coats.  But the resulting finish is gorgeous.  It is also prone discoloration and checking over time.  Old guitars have yellow lacquer and checking.  Old guitars are cool; therefore, yellow lacquer and checking must also be cool.  High-end electric and acoustic guitars are finished in nitrocellulose lacquer.   For a few extra bucks, you can get a new guitar relic’d so that it looks old.

The really old school way: French Polish.  French polish is a process not a material.  Shellac is added in extremely thin layers with constant buffing.  French polish requires much skill; but shellac itself is inexpensive, quite tame (denatured alcohol is the solvent), and can be done in pretty much any room with some minor ventilation.  High-end classical guitars and classical stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, etc) are finished with French polish.

I choose to go with none of these ways (not completely anyway).  I am finishing this guitar with shellac.   I picked two different shades of shellac.  I used lemon (on the left below) for the body of the guitar.  I used super blonde (on the right below) for the neck.  While the shellac looks quite different in the jar, there is actually little difference in the final color of the body and the neck.



Using the same basic process as the Walnut Panel Chest that I described recently, the overall process is:

  • Sand with 320-grit sand paper to get a smooth surface. Then put on two coats of 1/2-lb cut of shellac.  Let it dry, then repeat.
  • Sand with 400-grit; then two coats of shellac.
  • Sand with 600-grit; then two coats of shellac.
  • Sand with 800-grit; then two coats of shellac.
  • Sand with 1000-grit; then three coats of shellac.

This is a grand total of 11 coats of shellac.  This produced a nice satin finish.  I could make it shinier by adding additional coats of shellac and buffing it out.  But the finish that I was going for was “looks like wood, feels like glass”.  Held at an angle, the surface of the guitar does reflect light like a piece of glass.


The Final Result


The photo on the left was taken in the kitchen under “daylight” LED lighting.  The photo on the right was taken in the dining room under natural light from the windows (slightly overcast day, no direct sunlight).



This is how I solved the problem of being able to apply shellac to all sides of the guitar while the shellac was not dry on any given side.  This photo was taken after the first two coats (and taken under the kitchen lights).



For those that want to dive into it, here are some resources on applying lacquer to guitars and/or shellac to wood.

Paint and Lacquer and Part II and Part III

How to French Polish

Applying A Quick and Easy Shellac Finish