In this instructable I'll explain how I designed, etched and colored the custom artwork on the soundboard of my carbon fiber acoustic guitar project, part of a special event at Techshop. This top was designed with my own digital artwork, engraved with a laser, then colored with dye. This was my first, and maybe only, time making a guitar, so I decided to go all-out.

Painting guitars can be a bad idea, as normal paints can kill the sound of the instrument. But I was inspired by the artwork of Peter Cree, a guitar builder who uses colored lacquer and shellac to "paint" full-on artwork on acoustic guitars. He claims that his hand-painted finishing method produces a finish that is 2-4 microns thick - better than many commercial guitars. I couldn't find details of Peter's method, and I have no idea how to measure microns on my finish, but I decided to try and find some way to do something similar.


Before I get started, I want to say that I am NOT an expert luthier (stringed instrument maker). I tried my best to do my own research and follow the plans for my guitar design, but only time will tell if I was successful. If you choose to make your own guitar, please do your own research using professional guides. There are several amateur luthier communities online, as well as good books. I personally used How to build your own Acoustic Guitar - by Jonathan Kinkead, found at my local library.

Step 1: On coloring guitar tops

Many people have found out the hard way that painting or staining a guitar top can severely alter or even destroy the sound of the instrument. Spray paint, acrylic paint, oil paint, stain, etc… - all of these add weight to the soundboard and have binding agents in them that can limit the flexibility of the wood and deaden the sound.

Because of this problem, traditional luthiers are loathe to use too much pigment on the soundboard. Complex artwork is usually limited to electric guitars, where the acoustics of the wood matter much less.  But I wanted to find a way with my acoustic.

My method

Pictured is the first Peter Cree guitar I saw when researching online. You can see more of his work on his website.

I couldn't find details about Peter's methods for coloring his lacquer / shellac, so I tried my best to find my own solution. I needed a lightweight, powerful method of coloring either the wood or the finish. I found the aniline dye offered by Luthiers Mercantile International, where I'd already bought all my other guitar gear. 

I discovered that by using the aniline dye, combined with the laser cutter, I was able to color very neat images directly on the wood's surface. Usually, when dye hits wood, the color explodes in all directions following the wood grain. So dye alone would have led to a very messy "impressionist" style of artwork. But by using the laser cutter, I broke the wood fibers - which stopped the color from flowing everywhere. Just look at the pictures to see the difference between using dye with and with out the laser lines.

As far as adding extra bulk or binders, I've found aniline dye is concentrated stuff, just a small pinch of each color made 2-3 times more dye than I needed for the whole guitar. I chose the alcohol soluble version (water based is also available) so that I could dye the wood directly, and the colors wouldn't run when I put on my water based "lacquer."

Another advantage of alcohol based dye is that then alcohol evaporates in seconds, allowing me to work quickly and leaving behind no extra bulk.

I tested the sound of the guitar before and after coloring - knocking on the top to hear the simple tone and volume, and tuning the strings. I could not hear any difference based on the colors alone. Though of course the tone did change a bit after applying the clear coat - as it would after any finish.

About This Instructable


6 favorites


Bio: I'm a long time tinkerer and lover of Instructables, but recently I joined Techshop in San Francisco, and decided to really get creative. Right ... More »
More by workislove: Shoe organizer bench Wooden drawer pulls -  made at Techshop Do you wanna build a (laser appliqué) snowman? - made at Techshop
Add instructable to: