A fantastic alternative to nitrocellulose lacquer is Crystalac Brite Tone. It is a non-toxic waterborne instrument finish that looks and sounds as good as traditional lacquer, without the toxic solvents and noxious fumes. Long term exposure to lacquer solvents is well known to have serious health consequences. After becoming sensitive to lacquer fumes I was seriously considering outsourcing the finishing process until I discovered Crystalac. But the real question is, yes it is non-toxic, but is it as good as lacquer? I can state unequivocally, yes!
Most waterborne products have a bad reputation, because historically speaking, most alternative products marketed to luthiers have never quite lived up to the old standard of nitro lacquer, but Crystalac is a notable exception. Brite Tone is one of the best waterborne guitar ‘lacquers’ ever developed. It is crystal clear, dries hard, doesn’t turn 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 that is nearly indistinguishable from lacquer.
While there is still a small amount of VOCs, it’s more on the level of household paint. I still wear a respirator while spraying, but afterwards, there are no lingering fumes anywhere near the way lacquer gasses off for days and weeks.
Brite Tone is technically a type of acrylic-polyurethane, but not at all similar to the type of 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. Durability is slightly better than lacquer, but not nearly as super tough and deadening as polyester. When applied in moderation, it is tonally transparent, like lacquer. And unlike some water based products like Target which require mixing a crosslinker in order to become hard enough, Brite Tone is already premixed and cures harder than lacquer when fully dried.
Since there is very little technical info on the professional hvlp application of Brite Tone, and because switching to a viable non-toxic finishing process has been such a game changer for me personally, I am sharing my finishing schedule to hopefully advance the pool of shared knowledge among those who may be looking to move away from lacquer and toxic chemicals.
Relative to lacquer, the Brite Tone finishing process is essentially very similar. Building the clearcoat is a series of spraying and sanding sessions. Building up the surface, and then leveling the high points; each time becoming progressively smoother and flatter, until the final polished finish is as flat and smooth as glass.
A big plus is that Brite Tone is easier to sand than lacquer. No gummy pigtails; cuts to clean white powder. Gold sandpaper works fantastic, and causes no fish-eye issues.
For all it’s amazing properties, there is a learning curve involved in switching to Crystalac. It is not as forgiving to spray as lacquer and drips easier. The sweet spot is narrower. It’s all about good spray-gun technique, and laying down smooth thin wet coats.
More time is needed between coats as waterbase evaporates slower than solvents. 3- 4 hours between coats and 3 coats a day maximum in normal temperature and humidity ranges. It dries to the touch in less than 15 mins, but needs more time between coats than lacquer. Ultimately, patience in building the clear top coat allows the final finish to dry faster with less shrinkage.
Blushing can occur in cool or humid weather but does not need any special treatment to free up the trapped moisture, unlike like lacquer which often does. The blush will simply evaporate and disappear as it dries. Hot weather and low humidity can negatively affect proper flow out, but Crystalac makes a dedicated Viscosity Reducer/retarder. Recommended 3-5% reduction in hot dry conditions (above 80F or below 45% humidity), or if the finish is drying too powdery and not flowing out properly. Lately I’ve been spraying a 97% mixture in all conditions, as the 3% reducer promotes all around smoother coats.
Be sure to thoroughly clean all bare wood and surfaces to be coated with a solvent like acetone in order to remove any oils, dust, and residue, to prevent any possible contamination or adherence issues. The base coat is absolutely critical to the adherence of all subsequent coats. Do not use sanding sealer as it is too soft and can cause bonding issues. Use only Brite Tone as the sealer. Brite Tone dries much harder than sealer and contains higher solids, making it an all around better sealer. All-Brite-Tone-to-Brite-Tone contact promotes the best possible bond from wood to finish for demanding applications such as lutherie.
Apollo 7700 hvlp spray gun with a 1.0 mm needle. Set the material flow knob low, opened only about 1/2 turn, with the fan control set a little over halfway. Spray in slow, even, consistent, vertical overlapping passes from about 12 inches away while keeping a close eye on the flow-out. There should be just enough liquid material hitting the surface to flow out nicely without dripping. If you’re getting drips, move the gun faster or turn the flow knob down. Be sure to have enough turbine pressure to spray full strength without needing to thin, about 7psi 130 cfm.
Cleaning up is easy with just warm soapy water.
Sand all bare wood to 220, blow off the dust with compressed air and thoroughly clean all surfaces with acetone.
Seal with 2 coats of Brite Tone Instrument Finish, 3 hours apart.
Pore fill if needed with cyanoacrylate.
Block sand with 400. Blow off the dust and wipe down with isopropyl alcohol, then two more coats of Brite Tone, 3 hours apart.
Repeat till all surfaces are completely flat and sealed, usually 2-3 sessions.
Mask and spray color. (liquid dyes or dry pigments mixed with isopropyl alcohol and 30-50% Brite Tone as a binder)
Pull tape and carefully detail. Do not sand the color coat.
3 coats of Brite Tone, 4 hours apart, dry overnight.
2 to 3 more coats the next day, dry overnight.
Carefully and very lightly cut down just the prickly high points with 220 sandpaper on flat and curved sanding blocks. Do not attempt to sand level yet, and do not go through into the color coat!
Blow off the dust and wipe down the surface with Crystalac Surface Conditioner to remove dust and reside in preparation for the next coats. This is critically important, to promote the best possible bond and prevent any easily avoidable contamination problems.
3 more coats of Brite Tone, 4 hours apart, dry overnight.
2 to 3 more coats the next day, dry overnight.
Block sand partially level with 400, leaving pores and depressions. Those will fill in during the following sessions. Better to spray more coats and be conservative about leveling, rather than sanding too aggressively, which could result in a sand-through.
3 to 5 more coats should be enough to sand entirely flat and level, leaving only a few tiny pores here and there.
3 final perfectly smooth thin wet coats.
Hang and allow the instrument to fully dry for at least a month or longer. Patience in longer drying times ultimately equates to a harder finished surface that takes a better polish with less shrinkage over time.
Wet-sand the entire instrument with soapy water and 3M wetordry 1500 grit on flat and curved sanding blocks. Work small areas at a time with a very minimal amount of water, wiping up with a soft clean microfiber towel frequently. Do not allow water to run into f-holes, sound holes, tuner holes, or any unsealed surfaces! Water can swell bare wood and crack the finish, but finished areas will be effectively sealed and waterproof. I like to stuff wads of paper towel into tuner holes and other critical areas for extra preventative. Now the entire 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 frequently as finish residue builds up.
Carefully inspect for any remaining sandpaper scratches; keep polishing with the Abralon pad till they’re gone. Now the finish should be completely smooth, with a low gloss sheen.
I use a 1HP 1725 RMP buffer with two 12″ wheels. On one side is a hard 60/60 cotton wheel with pink Menzerna P-204 medium cut clay compound. On the other side is a soft bleached domet flannel wheel with yellow Menzerna W-16 fine.
Be especially careful around edges, corners, f-holes, and soundholes. Light controlled passes. Let the compound do the cutting. Not too much pressure. Keep moving, and don’t let the surface heat up! Also be sure to wear a respirator and eye protection.
A beautiful high gloss finish should easily be achieved with the medium buffing wheel by gently polishing in alternating directions. Wipe off the compound dust with a microfiber towel and inspect for any remaining scratches. The surface should be glossy and nearly flawless, with just a slight texture from the wheel burnishing the surface.
The soft flannel wheel and fine compound then brings the finish up to a spectacular high gloss.
Final step, hand polish with Meguiars Ultimate liquid wax and a soft clean microfiber towel. This lends the ultimate deep ultra glossy shine and cleans up any remaining lint and compound dust. Also makes a great guitar polish for removing sweat and fingerprints.
Anyone looking for a viable lacquer alternative, or looking to rid their shop of toxic chemicals might want to take a serious look at Cyrstalac Brite Tone. It is a beautiful instrument finish that looks and sounds as good as traditional nitro lacquer, without the toxic solvents and associated health risks.
Tad R Brown