A fantastic alternative to nitrocellulose lacquer is Crystalac Brite Tone. It is a non-toxic waterborne urethane instrument finish that looks and sounds as good as traditional lacquer, without the toxic solvents and noxious fumes.
Most waterborne products have a bad reputation, and deservedly so, because they are genuinely awful, but Crystalac is a notable exception. Brite Tone is the best waterborne guitar ‘lacquer’ that has ever been developed. It is crystal clear, dries hard, doesn’t blue, doesn’t fish-eye, doesn’t check, doesn’t hurt tone, and can be wet sanded without streaking or cracking. It has properties similar to lacquer in that each coat burns into the previous coat, shrinks while it dries, sounds great, and buffs to an exceptionally smooth high gloss, making the final polished finish almost indistinguishable from lacquer.
Brite Tone is technically a type of polyurethane, but not at all similar to the polyester resin that most people think of as ‘poly’. It is nowhere near as thick and bulletproof. More similar to lacquer in how thin the coats build and how scratch/dent resistant it is. That is to say, like lacquer, durability is adequate, possibly a little more scratch and dent resistant than lacquer, but not nearly as super tough and deadening as polyester. Brite Tone, when applied in moderation, is tonally transparent, like lacquer.
Since there is very little in the way of first hand instructional info available, and because switching to a viable non-toxic finishing process has been such a game changer for me personally, I decided to write this blog. Long term exposure to lacquer solvents is well known to have serious health consequences, and after so many years of noxious fumes, I was seriously considering outsourcing the finishing process, until I gave Crystalac a try. But the real question is, yes it’s non-toxic, but is it as good as lacquer? I can say unequivocally yes! Don’t believe the naysayers on forums who have no specific first hand experience, and nothing to show for. Brite Tone is an excellent instrument finish.
The manufacturer’s recommended directions are a bit vague and oversimplified. When they say “fast building, high solids”, I take that to mean relative to lacquer, in that I end up spraying about the same amount of coats in the end.
I do not recommend their sanding sealer product, as it is too soft in my opinion. Better to seal with Brite Tone all the way, as it dries harder. If you want to tint the color, use a high quality water/alcohol based stain/dye, like TransTint.
I spray color with an Apollo HVLP 0.8mm needle for super fine atomization and gradiation. Dyes, stains, and powdered pigments, mixed with alcohol, and 10% Brite Tone as a binder. Here in California, solvents are so restricted that I’m actually using 80 proof vodka, and it works surprising well. Ideally the less water the better for minimizing grain raise and faster evaporation, but 40% booze is plenty sufficient.
After color-work and detailing begins the actual top coating with Crystalac Brite Tone, at which point I switch to a 1.0mm needle. According to the directions, it can be thinned 3-5% with their viscosity reducer to improve leveling and flowout. I find this to be absolutely critical, as Brite Tone is slightly too thick to spray straight imo. The viscosity reducer also enhances adhesion and melting into the previous coats. Be careful though, as it also makes it easier to drip. Amazingly, if you do get a drip, it can be wiped up immediately while wet and will self level as it dries. Try that with lacquer!
For all it’s amazing qualities, there is a learning curve involved in switching from lacquer to Brite Tone. It is not as forgiving to spray as lacquer, and drips easier. The sweet spot is narrower. It’s all about proper viscosity, good spray-gun technique, and laying down smooth wet coats. Not so wet that it drips, but not too dry and pebbly either. Start by thinning by the recommended 3-5%, and set the spray gun material flow knob low, opened only about 3/4 turn, with the fan control set a little less than halfway, not too wide. Spray in slow vertical overlapping passes, about 6-10 inches away, while keeping a close eye on the flowout to get an idea of how fast your hand speed needs to be. There should be just enough liquid material hitting the surface to flow out nicely, without dripping. If it’s too rough and pebbly, try increasing the material flow rate slightly. If you’re getting a lot of drips, move the gun faster, or turn it down. Practice on some scrap first till you’re confident.
Spray gun cleaning is easy with warm soapy water, and they also make a dedicated spray gun cleaner, vinegar-type solution.
Another plus is that Brite Tone is easier to sand than lacquer. No gummed up sandpaper and pigtails. Sands like a dream; cuts to clean white powder. It is easier to sand through though in that respect, so be careful. 3M gold sandpaper works fantastic, and causes no fish-eye issues. 400 grit between spraying sessions, maybe 220 if you’ve got some real rough areas. Clean with Surface Conditioner after sanding, before resuming spraying.
Crystalac recommends 2-4 hours between coats, but this is not a realistic time-frame for instrument finishing. I’ve found 1 hour between coats to be fine as long you’re in a normal temperature and humidity range (above 65 degrees, below 50% humidity) It dries to the touch in about 15- 20 mins. Spray no more than 5 coats per day. Blushing can occur in cooler or more humid weather, but does not need any special treatment to free up the trapped moisture like lacquer sometimes does. The blush will simply evaporate and disappear as it dries. Sunlight or gently blowing with a warm hair dryer can speed things up.
So my typical finishing schedule goes something like this:
Sand bare wood to 220, raise the grain, flatten with 400
Mask and spray color, (TransTint mixed with vodka and 10% Brite Tone)
Pull tape and detail.
(Note, I use primarily close pored woods, maple and spruce, so typically only the head-plate needs pore filling. Crystalac clear pore filler.)
Now on to the top coat. 5 coats of 95% Brite Tone (thinned 5% with viscosity reducer, not water!) 1 hour apart, then allow to dry overnight.
Carefully, lightly, block sand only the high points with 3M Gold 400. Don’t attempt to sand flat and level yet, and do not go through into the color coat!
Clean the instrument with Crystalac Surface Conditioner to remove dust and fingerprints.
5 more coats of 95% Brite Tone, 1 hour apart, dry overnight.
Now if you’ve laid down nice smooth coats with minimal drips or mistakes, you can block sand mostly level with 400, leaving some pores and depressions here and there. Better to spray a 3rd session to fill in the rest than risk a sand through or a buff through.
3-5 final coats of 95% Brite Tone. Really concentrate on spraying perfect smooth coats.
Hang and allow to fully dry 10 days minimum, 3 weeks is good, or longer if you’ve got time. The longer the better for less sinkage later. I personally like a little bit of shrinkage to occur after the final polish, as it looks natural like lacquer, so 2 – 3 weeks drying time usually.
Wet sand the entire instrument with 1500 grit wet or dry sandpaper. Work small areas at a time with minimal water, wiping up with a soft clean microfiber towel frequently. Do not allow water to run into f-holes, sound holes, tuner holes, or cracks. Water can swell bare wood and crack the finish, and seep into cracks that haven’t been properly sealed, but finished areas will be effectively sealed and water resistant. Now the surface should be completely flat with a satin sheen.
With a random orbit palm sander on low, gently wet polish the entire instrument with a 2000 grit Abralon pad backed by a soft interface. Don’t use too much water. The Abralon pad should be moist, but not dripping wet. It will need to be washed and wrung out several times as finish residue builds up.
Carefully inspect for any remaining 1500 grit scratches, and keep polishing with the Abralon pad till they’re gone. Now the finish should be completely smooth, with a low gloss sheen.
On to machine buffing. I use a 1HP 1725 RMP motor with 12″ wheels. One side of the machine has a hard canton cotton wheel for pink Menzerna P-204 medium cut dry stick compound. The other side has a soft dommet cotton wheel with Menzerna extra fine P-175 dry stick compound. This is the most dangerous part of the finishing process. One slip can spell disaster. The buffer can easily grab the guitar out of your hands and smash it on the ground in the blink of an eye, or catch an edge and burn right through the finish. Be especially careful around edges, corners, and f-holes. Light, controlled passes. Let the compound do the cutting, not too much pressure, and keep moving, don’t let heat build-up. Also be sure to wear a dust mask and eye protection.
If you’ve polished thoroughly with the Abralon pad, a beautiful high gloss finish should easily be achieved with just a few passes on the medium wheel in alternating directions. For example, polish the entire back with horizontal passes across the wheel, then turn the guitar vertical and repeat. Polishing the top around the f-holes is a bit trickier. Maneuver around, and be very careful not to catch an edge.
Wipe the entire instrument with a soft clean microfiber cloth and inspect for scratches. Any remaining scratches can be polished out with another trip back to the medium wheel. The surface should be glossy and nearly perfect looking, with just a slight texture from the wheel burnishing the surface.
A few more passes with the extra fine soft cotton wheel brings the finish up to an incredible ultra high gloss.
Final step, hand polish the entire instrument with Meguiars Ultimate liquid wax. This adds the ultimate deep wet glass like shine and cleans up any remaining lint and compound dust. Also makes a great guitar cleaner for removing sweat and fingerprints down the road.
In summary, anyone looking for a viable lacquer alternative, or looking to rid their shop of toxic chemicals should be taking a serious look at Cyrstalac Brite Tone.
It is an excellent finish that looks and sounds as good as traditional nitro lacquer, without the associated health risk and terrible fumes.
Tad R Brown