There’s something about a guitar that has a few scars on it.
Each ding, crack, and chip tells the story of late-night jams and gigs in smokey bars or stadiums. This kind of aesthetic is quite apparent in vintage guitars, or in new ones that have been relic’d by the manufacturer.
However, can those road-worn looks come by easily on new instruments?
With its chemical composition and overall hardness, poly finishes are much harder to relic over time than guitars with nitro finishes. Also, the wear and tear on poly finishes will be different. What a poly finish does offer is something that will keep your guitar looking its best for much longer.
Let’s take a look at some of these things and see if we can scratch the surface of this topic (see what I did there?)
What are the most common types of guitar finishes?
When it comes to guitar finishes, there are two common types: nitrocellulose (the nitro finish), and polyurethane (the poly finish).
Nitro was the most commonly used finished at the beginning of the electric guitar’s life, primarily because that was what they had.
Nitro finishes are plastic-based finishes that are sprayed on the guitar in several coats, giving a smooth finish once it dries.
Early nitro finishes were also brittle and fragile, giving vintage guitars the natural checked and relic look we come to expect.
Poly finishes came into use during the 1960s. They provided a much harder finish that stayed looking like new for much longer periods and was also much easier to apply (and safer to use) than nitro finishes.
Poly finishes continue to be the main type of finish available on most guitars today, though some higher-end manufacturers will offer nitro as an option.
Are poly finishes more durable than nitro finishes?
Because of the nature of the formulations, poly finishes are much more durable than nitro finishes.
Nitro tends to cure over much longer periods of time and is much softer than a poly finish.
This makes it very susceptible to things such as temperature (changes in heat and cold expand and contract the finish, resulting in checking) and the rigors of the player’s life (bumps, scrapes, and wear from general use) will wear off the finish much faster, even in ideal conditions.
Poly finishes, on the other hand, cure much differently and become very hard.
This allows the guitar’s finish to stay in a pristine condition much longer compared to nitro finishes. The finish is much more durable against scratches, wear, and weather (to an extent); you can get some wear on these instruments, but it’s a much longer process.
These guitars look new for much longer under the right conditions.
Can poly finishes relic with time?
Much like anything that gets a lot of use, poly will relic naturally like any other guitar.
While the finish is hard, it is not bullet-proof, and will chip and crack if bumped, dropped, scrapped, dragged, and mishandled, like any other instrument.
Though it may take a bit more effort, and these are not always apparent at first.
The finish may also fade if left out in direct sunlight, but you might not get the fading in areas where you contact the instrument (ie. where your arm sits while strumming).
In short, poly will make your guitar look newer for much longer.
Do nitro finishes relic easier?
Because of the nature of the finish (its chemical composition, application, and overall hardness), nitro will age much faster and much more easily than poly finishes.
Being thinner, the finish will rub off much more quickly from the body and neck of the guitar with general use, adding those marks that make a guitar look played.
Its sensitivity to temperature also makes it easier to get check lines on the body, which is commonly seen on road-worn vintage guitars.
A lot of players find these things desirable, indicating a well-loved instrument that has seen its share of playing.
Do poly finishes look good when worn out?
Ultimately, if you like the look of a worn guitar, a worn poly finish will look very nice! It’ll be a slightly different kind of aging with some more pronounced chips in the paint, maybe some fading in the paint, and maybe some checking, but possibly not in the same way as a nitro finish.
The harder nature of poly does make it more resilient, so more time and effort (and maybe a few tools and techniques; such as dragging the guitar’s body behind a car) are needed to achieve that look.
Do relic guitars sound better?
This is a debate as old as time. One thing you should keep in mind is that modern relics (the new ones) are done purely for aesthetics, giving players’ instruments the look of something that’s been road worn.
There is also debate among guitar players that nitro finishes generally sound better since the thin finish allows the guitar to breathe and age more naturally than poly finishes, yielding a better sound.
However, this is all a matter of opinion since no two guitars will sound identical. You can grab a new poly-finished guitar that will sing under your fingers, then a vintage one that may sound like a dud.
There is no answer to this other than grab a guitar, plug in, and play it. If it sounds good to you and makes you want to keep playing, then we’re good to go!
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.