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Polyester Vs Polyurethane Guitar Finish: Which Is Better (2022 Edition)

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If you’re curious about a polyester vs polyurethane guitar finish and how these affect your instrument, you’ve come to the right post!

Understanding Guitar Finishes

When discussing guitar finish, the immediate reaction, in most cases, is to think of the guitar’s color.

However, the finish itself is not skin-deep and is more than just aesthetic in nature.

Instead of thinking about colors and different visual patterns, think about protection.

After all, wood isn’t exactly the most durable material in the long run, and it needs proper protection.

Wood is great to work with, allowing you to create any instrument shape that you need.

Additionally, it’s in abundance and fairly simple to acquire compared to other potential materials.

Plus, it’s got great sonic qualities, although there’s much discussion about that when it comes to electric guitars.

Regardless, wood is sensitive to external factors.

One of its biggest enemies is moisture which can completely ruin its structure.

With excessive moisture or even lack of it, the instrument’s body can warp and distort.

The finish is there to help prevent these outside factors from ruining your guitar.

Of course, they can’t remove the threat entirely and you need good storing conditions and care.

Nonetheless, the finish is a crucial element for keeping your instrument’s longevity and structural integrity.

To be more precise, the finish seals the wood with all of its grain and pores so that it doesn’t take up moisture.

At the same time, it also keeps the required amount of moisture from coming out of the wood.

Types of Guitar Finishes

However, what’s important to know is that there isn’t just one type of finish.

It’s not just like slabbing a coat of paint and you’re good to go.

There are three main types available today:

  1. Lacquer or Nitrocellulose
  2. Polyurethane
  3. Polyester

What you should also bear in mind is that these are materials that we can use as finishes.

So it’s not about the color itself.

All of these can come in pretty much any color.

However, they’ll have a different visual impact and will feel differently when you touch them.

“Poly” Finishes

Polyurethane and polyester finishes are, in many ways, much more similar if we compare all three.

These days, Nitrocellulose is usually present on high-end vintage-style guitars.

It’s the same thing that car manufacturers used back in the day, so guitars from the 1950s and the 1960s have that.

Polyurethane and polyester, however, are on the majority of guitars these days.

Both “poly” finishes are plastic-based, so that could probably work as a better way to call them.

Another synonym is “non-lacquer” since these two marked important changes when they emerged.

Technically, these two finishes have a couple of major advantages compared to nitrocellulose.

Not only are they cheaper, but they’re also easier and safer to work with and protect the wood better.

Weirdly enough, they’re not considered to be “good” by most high-end vintage enthusiasts.

Some players like this idea of a finish that changes over the decades and lets the wood “breathe” a little, so to speak.

Nonetheless, “poly” finishes are on most guitars today.

Polyurethane Finish

As far as guitars go, polyurethane started being used sometime in the 1960s.

It was much more homogenous compared to nitrocellulose and it required no more than two coatings.

On top of that, it dries more quickly.

Generally, a polyurethane finish is shiny and resistant to outside factors.

What’s more, it’s also very scratch-resistant.

On the other hand, it’s a bit porous so that allows for the wood’s sonic traits to work well.

Of course, as far as the tone goes, some would say it “dulls” the guitar compared to nitrocellulose.

As a result, the tonewood’s sonic properties allegedly won’t shine through.

But polyester still provides your instrument with great protection and allows for solid color options.

Polyester Finish

As for polyester, the material found its use in the world of guitar during the 1970s.

Fender and a few other companies had it on their instruments.

These days, it’s far less common compared to polyurethane.

However, its biggest advantage is how persistent the color is in the long run.

You won’t notice almost any signs of aging.

The colors are usually pretty bright and homogenous.

Additionally, it’s incredibly resistant to scratches and other damages.

Polyester Vs Polyurethane Guitar Finish: Which Is Better?

Before I do any significant comparing, there’s something that I need to point out.

There is no such thing as “better” or “worse” with different guitar finishes.

As long as they’re done properly, everything is good.

However, they come with their differences.

So rather than asking what is “better,” ask what’s better for you and your needs.

And although much more expensive these days, I could say the same thing about nitrocellulose.

Overall, the most common option is polyurethane.

This is because it’s the best “compromise” between durability and sonic traits.

While not as resistant as polyester, a polyurethane finish will be more than enough in most cases.

Additionally, it can allow your guitar’s tonewood to impact the overall sonic output.

The advantage of polyester is that it’s much more durable on average.

Additionally, it can keep the color more persistent over the years.

However, this doesn’t necessarily make it “better” since it’s a personal preference.

Overall, both of these are pretty similar.

And although it may sound controversial to say, there’s hardly any chance that anyone will notice sonic differences.

If you ask me, polyurethane is a better choice if you’re making your own guitar.

This is a “standard” in a way and it’s what you’ll see on most guitars.

Just bear in mind to keep things thin and not add too many coatings.

Some players, on the other hand, are against these finishes.

This comes down to their looks and supposed sonic traits of the instrument.

Additionally, some of the earliest “poly” finishes were done poorly so guitars looked cheaper.

These days, it’s absolutely not the case.

In short — polyester is more durable while polyurethane is the best “compromise” between nitro and poly.  

Polyester vs Polyurethane Guitar Finish: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you think through these guitar finishes and which is best for you.

If you have more questions about the topic, please let me know in the comments!

And if you want to read more about technical guitar questions like this one, check out the following posts:

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