You are here:

Guitar Making and Repair/Drying time on new nitrocellulose finish guitars


I have read your previous article on nitro and poly finishes but have another question. In the past several years I purchased four Gibson guitars with high gloss nitro finish. They range from a few weeks to a year old at time of purchase. They all have that nitro smell which at first is pleasant but soon burns my sinuses and gives me a headache. I have had two of them on a countertop with the case open for 6 months with only a slight diminished smell. The most recent one (A year old but kept in the case by the store.) really reeks and after a short while of playing leaves a foggy look to the back (body heat?) and an impression of the fabric from my shirt like the finish is soft. Is there anyway of speeding up the drying or "curing" time for the fumes to be gone and I can play these guitars more often? I have older Gibsons I got many years ago and did not have the smell problem then at all. Thank You, Dave.

Hi, Dave:

Pick any one guitar component, from fretwire to pickguard to (yes) type of wood, type of construction, type of finish, and there as many facts as fables to be considered when making any kind of personal choice, and the two are inevitably blended and traded on so that truth is impossible to sort out from the mess.

In my experience, the two areas least likely to ever be sorted are pickup construction and finishes.

I wish I could give you the "inside scoop" from Gibson's spray booth, as to just why the new nitro finishes are taking so long to settle down. I wish that I could tell you for sure that, for instance, Gibson has switched lacquer thinners to reduce VOCs, or that they've added a retarder to improve gloss, or maybe that the new guy who orders paint materials decided to go with a different supplier for one or more materials...or maybe somebody went in and turned down the heat in the spray booths or drying room?

All I know is that this is not the first time I've heard this and it seems to be common knowledge in some music retailers' sales rooms. My own opinion (and it is an opinion, not fact) is that the paint formula has changed for the umpteenth time since Ted's days, and, tradition notwithstanding (it makes GREAT holier-than-thou advertising copy) nitro has moved into the 21st century, is applied much thicker these days, and does not air-dry as quickly as previous formulas.

It's all kind of odd that nitro, which is basically an air-dry material, still ranks way beyond any polyurethane paint finish in musicians' sonic evaluations. Despite the fact that many nitro finishes are much thicker than a quality polyurethane finish, people still argue that polyurethane "blocks" sound and nitro "lets an instrument speak".  I'm sure that you've chuckled with the rest of us as you've realized that many of Fender's "Custom Colors" were actually acrylic lacquer, not nitro, and though thin in themselves, we applied over a heavy dip-and-drip coating of catalyzing Fullerplast filler/surfacer. So much for "air-dry" and "thin-shell".


Short answer: A combination of formula, increased film thickness, and less time allowed for air drying seem to be the multiple culprits in this one.

You ask if there is a solution. Yep, you betcha. You can be certain that, since nitrocellullose is an air-dry finish, in anywhere from five to ten years' time, all of that solvent that's still evaporating and offgassing to make you sick, will eventually last-gasp into the air we breathe and leave the nitro finish hard, durable, and stink-free.


Guitar Making and Repair

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


paul wilczynski


Anything concerning building, tuning, theory of construction. Specialist in finishing (40 years' experience); extensive knowledge of Rickenbacker instruments of all vintages. Rickenbacker factory connection on personal level; ONLY licensed Rickenbacker luthier in the world.


Extensive. I build and restore electric and acoustic guitars (steel string and nylon classicals). I build all of Rickenbacker's acoustic instruments in my own shops in San Francisco and Healdsburg, CA. I write two online columns with a total of over 15,000 posts since January, 2005. Google my name or my screen name, "jingle_jangle".

American Guild of Luthiers.

Mostly automotive and hobby (in the past).

Manage the University Department workshops(Industrial Design) in SF, also have taught and written design and fabrication classes for almost a decade. Have produced online classes, written curricula, syllabi, etc. Run an online forum for my students (500 in number).

Awards and Honors
Awards won for product, vehicle, and preschool toy design in the past.

Past/Present Clients
Rickenbacker International Corporation, Waterstone Guitars LLC, many Fortune 500 companies before I worked in guitars (I ran a design studio for 22 years). I have hundreds of individual--private party--customers.

©2016 All rights reserved.