Can You Repaint A Stratocaster?

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

The Fender Stratocaster is indeed an iconic and sought-after electric guitar. It is one of the primary electric guitars used by many guitarists for performances and practice sessions because of its excellent sounds and performance features. 

However, with excessive usage, it is only normal for its color to fade and have scratches, which is why most guitarists think of having them repainted. Since the Stratocaster uses polyurethane finishes, a premium paint or varnish that typically lasts longer compared to Nitro paints utilized in entry-level or cheap electric guitars. 

Before you begin refinishing your instrument, be aware that it is much more difficult to refinish and repaint a guitar than it is to refinish any other wood object because a significant amount of care and attention must be observed to achieve a smooth, sleek, factory-like appearance.

Make sure you’re ready to take your time before beginning this project because painting guitars and properly finishing their bodies is a labor-intensive process that can take weeks to complete. Keep in mind that to get the best results, you must not rush through this task. Every step you rush or any mistake you commit in the process of repainting your guitar will show in the final output.

This article will go over the needed materials and tools, the proper procedure, and the ideal paint to use when repainting your Stratocaster to obtain the best results.

Needed Materials And Equipment/Tools

Sand Paper or SpongeStratocaster
Fine grit, medium, and coarse sandpaperOrbital Sander (Optional)
ClothsVacuum Cleaner (Optional)
Mineral Spray gun (If you use paint cans)
White PrimerDust mask and protective glasses/goggles
Spray paint/paint cansWire cutters
Clear color coatingScrewdriver
Ultra-fine Sandpaper padsAllen wrenches
Masking tapeSoldering Iron and solder
Paint Filler

Steps In Repainting Your Stratocaster

  1. Disassemble Your Stratocaster

Taking apart your guitar is a good way to get the painting process started. You can start this process by simply clipping the guitar’s strings off using a pair of wire or string clippers.

The fact that you cannot repaint a guitar with these strings in place means that, once you’re done painting, you’ll probably need to re-adjust the truss rod after putting the instrument back together.

  1. Detach The Neck From The Body

The next step will be to work on removing the guitar’s neck after you have taken the strings off your Stratocaster. Since the Fender Stratocaster features a bolt-on neck construction, there should be bolts present on the back of the neck joint on your guitar’s neck which can simply be unscrewed. Once done, you can gently wiggle the neck free from the body.

However, if your Stratocaster happens to be glued on and bolted-on neck which isn’t intended to be removed, the best course of action is to leave the neck alone and repaint it to match the body’s color.

  1. Remove The Hardware

After you’ve detached the neck off of the body, you should work on taking off all of the hardware present on your Stratocaster. The bridge, knobs, strap buttons, pickguard, pickups, and output jack can all be taken off using a screwdriver or an Allen wrench.

Some guitar models require just a simple wire-cutting operation to remove each piece of hardware. For instance, the output jack and knobs are connected to the pickups through holes that are located halfway between each cavity which can only be removed through wire cutting.

To ensure that everything is put back together properly, you should make sure you take pictures or notes of how the wires are connected.

  1. Remove Guitar Bridge Studs

After removing some of the remaining hardware, the next procedure will be working on the bridge studs. If your instrument doesn’t come equipped with any bridge studs, removing the bridge from the body may require simple unscrewing using either a screwdriver or an Allen wrench. It is also important to note that they are hammered into the guitar’s wood which means that bridge studs occasionally present a challenge to remove.

The wood should be heated with a soldering iron so that it can expand once the bridge studs start to cool. This approach works well, especially if removing the studs is proving to be quite challenging. Although this method makes it easier to remove them with pliers, it has the drawback of perhaps damaging the stud’s finish, which would reduce the stud’s aesthetic appeal.

  1. Organize And Label Every Component Removed

After removing everything from your Stratocaster, you should label and set aside all the hardware and fasteners in plastic baggies.

Remember, it may take you a few weeks (or even months) to finish repainting your guitar, so you should really make sure that every bolt and screw is clearly marked. This will help you avoid any confusion when it comes time to assembling back your guitar together.

  1. Sand off And Remove Your Stratocaster’s Old Finish Coat

You can now begin to sand the guitar’s original finish since all of your hardware is no longer attached to it. There are two options on how to approach the process of sanding the guitar’s existing finish: you may choose to either completely sand away the finish, or rough up the one that already exists to ensure that the new coat of paint you’ll apply will adhere to your Stratocaster. 

You will be forced to entirely remove the existing finish of your Stratocaster if you choose to repaint it with a stain, or translucent paint, or return to the original finish, which is darker than the color of paint you’ve chosen. Roughening up the instrument’s surface will be applicable if you choose to go and use solid paint on it.

Note that a thick coat of paint or finish, as many guitar builders agree, will tonally diminish your Stratocaster.

  1. Utilize Orbital Sander

Most guitar technicians advise using an orbital sander with little coarse grit sandpaper when removing the finish from your instrument. The Stratocaster’s paint and finish are gently rubbed off by this device in a circular motion, leaving your guitar with a smooth, even wood surface.

The use of a paint stripper is one piece of advice that you should seriously disregard. This won’t just make removing paint difficult; it will also damage your guitar and leave you with a mess because it can’t completely remove the tough Polyurethane finish found on Stratocasters.

  1. Manual Sanding

If your Stratocaster still has visible finishes on it after you’ve used an orbital sander, you should manually remove them with sandpaper to finish the job.

For curved surfaces on your Stratocaster which are difficult to manually remove and reach using ordinary sandpaper, it is highly suggested to remove these finishes using a coarse grit sandpaper or a coarse grit sanding sponge to make the task hassle-free.

  1. Fine Sanding Or Smoothening

To make sure the body of your guitar is smooth after manual sanding, apply fine or final sanding. The use of fine-grain sandpapers can be made to complete this process.

The body of your Stratocaster should first be sanded using a medium-grit, preferably 120 grit, and then the same procedure should be repeated using a finer grit, such as 220 grit fine-grain sandpaper.

  1. Clear Up The Mess

Your Stratocaster needs to be thoroughly cleaned of all dust, especially after you’ve finished working on removing its old finish and sanding the body down.

Although optional the use of a vacuum cleaner is highly recommended. This does an excellent job removing dust, minimizes any additional mess, and of course, fastens the process. If you have no access to one, using a soft clean paintbrush can do the trick decently. After vacuuming or brushing, any leftover dust can be eliminated by wiping it away with a moistened cloth that has been dampened with water or by spraying it away with compressed air.

  1. Apply Grain Filler

In working with woods, especially with porous kinds, it is advisable to always apply grain fillers to your guitar. This will prevent it from having any pores and uneven surfaces ensuring that your Stratocaster’s surface is smooth and even before applying the paint. Although optional, this is highly beneficial in the finished product. 

If you do decide to apply grain fillers or putty on your Stratocaster, it is recommended to use either an oil-based or water-based – one that will match your chosen paint or finish.

  1. Apply Mineral Spirits

Once you are done applying the grain filler all over your guitar, use mineral spirits to get rid of any remaining oils from the body. It is important to not touch your guitar after using the mineral spirits. During this stage, there are oils from your fingers that may ruin your new finish if you touch it before the mineral spirits have had a chance to dry.

  1. Prepare For Painting

Place your instrument inside a large box that is sitting on top of any type of portable table before you start to apply your new paint (like a TV tray).

In order to keep all of the paint inside the box while painting your guitar and make it easy for the guitar to slide in and out of the box, the opening of the box should be laid on its side. As you prepare your space for painting your instrument, make sure the room is spacious so you won’t have to worry about your furniture unintentionally getting painted.

  1. Decide On What Paint To Use

At this point, you should have already chosen the paint or stain you intend to use. The paint should be long-lasting, such as one with nitrocellulose or polyurethane, if you intend to paint your guitar a solid color.

The best choice for you is to choose from either nitrocellulose or polyurethane. Nitrocellulose provides you excellent consistency when applying it but is easy to damage and laborious to apply, yet they are also easy to fix. In addition, this paint will surely give you that classic and vintage look you desire. 

On the other hand, Polyurethane is a kind of paint that is long-lasting and is less susceptible to fading, chipping, and scratches. This paint’s only drawback is that it may feel quite plasticky and they are difficult to repair when damaged. 

Alternatively, you could decide to use oil-based finishes and a stain. Spray-on finishes are another option because they eliminate the possibility of brush strokes showing up on your finished product.

  1. Apply Primer

The last layer of a substance you should apply before beginning to paint your Stratocaster is primer. It is crucial to pick a primer that will complement the chosen color you intend to repaint your guitar with. 

The primary purpose of applying primer is to ensure that the paint you want to color your Stratocaster sticks excellently to its wooden surfaces. Furthermore, primer helps paint last longer and offers additional protection for your Stratocaster’s wooden material. 

Instead of using one thick coat of primer, use two to three thin coats to ensure proper drying and prevent drippiness.

  1. Environment For Painting

Although rarely mentioned when painting procedures, the environment you are painting in can have a negative effect on your output. It is highly important to paint in a dust-free environment especially if you are applying your new finish. 

Some may also suggest painting outdoors, however, this method will attract bugs that may get stuck or trapped on your Stratocaster’s wet paint which may cause lumps and pores in the paint. 

It is highly recommended to paint indoors in rooms that are empty or don’t have any expensive furniture that may be sprayed or splashed with paint unintentionally. It is also advisable to use a high-quality air mask and goggles when painting inside to protect yourself from the dangerous vapors released by the paint or finish. 

Make sure that the room you choose is well-ventilated because the chemicals in the paint are dangerous to your health once inhaled.

  1. Paint Your Stratocaster

Applying thin coats of paint at a time and waiting until each coating is completely dry before adding another is an excellent course of action, especially if you’ve decided to use spray paint. 

Prior to adding a clear coat of paint, it is advised to wait at least a week after the last coat of paint has dried completely.

  1. Start Applying Stain

If you decide to use a stain instead, you are encouraged to wet your Stratocaster’s body to make the staining process effortless and avoid any blemishes. The number of coats depends on if you’ve already achieved your desired appearance. 

It is recommended to read and follow the stain’s manufacturer’s direction in applying to ensure proper application.

  1. Apply Clear Coating

Applying a clear coat to your instrument should be done after your stain or paint has had a week to dry. It is strongly advised to use a Nitrocellulose clear coat. In order to achieve the best results, apply your clear coat coats as thinly as possible, adding extra coats as necessary after the first one has dried, and so forth. 

In order to achieve a factory-like finish, you may be required to apply additional coats. If you decide to go with a Polyurethane or Nitrocellulose finish, you should allow three to four weeks for the paint to fully cure. But if you use an oil-based finish, you’ll only need a few days to wait for everything to harden.

  1. Polish Your Stratocaster’s Finish

It is recommended to wet sand rather than dry sand your polish. Make sure you wet sand the hardened finish when polishing it, starting with a fine grit (400), and moving up to a more coarse grit (2000). You should go through the following grit stages: 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200, 1500, and 2000. 

This multi-pack of sandpaper grit is highly suggested by guitar technicians. It is important to pay close attention when polishing your finish especially since skipping and missing any scratches, swirls, and small pits will be impossible to remove once neglected. 

Additionally, it is crucial to be highly cautious when sanding near the edges of your Stratocaster to avoid sanding into the paint. You also want to avoid sanding through the clear color coat and into the colored paint.

  1. Assemble Back Your Stratocaster

After all these procedures the last thing to do is reassemble and pack every component of your Stratocaster. This step will require you to use the solder to wire back your guitar’s electronics. 

Before fitting back each component, it is highly recommended to evaluate each component you felt was degrading in its functionality since this is probably the best time to replace them with newer ones. 

Ensure that every bolt and component is fitted back properly. Once you’ve reassembled your instrument, you can use a standard guitar polish to clean and shine your guitar. After tuning it and stringing it, play your guitar to ensure that everything was done correctly.

How Long Does The Repainting Period Last?

Depending on the painting technique you select and the weather, repainting your Stratocaster could take anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks. Spray paint dries approximately 30 minutes to an hour, whereas lacquer needs about 48 hours to dry.

Is Resale Value Affected When Repainting Your Stratocaster?

Unfortunately, yes. No matter how great the finish, refinishing and repainting your Stratocaster can make its resale value decrease by as much as half of its original price and worse for vintage and classic models since collectors look for stock and all original memorabilia.

Why Is Paint Stripper Not Advisable To Use In Removing Your Stratocaster’s Old Paint?

Since the paint stripper contains toxic and cancer-causing substances, it is not recommended for removing the old paint from your Stratocaster. Contrary to manual sanding, paint strippers can’t completely remove the Polyurethane finish that Stratocaster guitars are painted with. 

Additionally, using a paint stripper and intending to sand off leftover paint after applying it could be harmful to your health, especially if you are not wearing any safety equipment like masks and goggles. Use them with caution and patience if you do.