I've been curious about sunbursts for some time, but have had a few obstacles in my way. For starters the guitars that I normally make don't always seem suitable for sunburst. Second, since I don't spray my finishes, I French polish, I'm not really set up to spray a sunburst. Third, a lot of sunbursts don't really do it for me.
|1924 F-4, courtesy of Spruce Tree Mus|
As I started to look into sunbursts I realized that there were a few different ways to do them. One is to stain the wood directly, either rubbing the stain in with a rag or spraying the stain onto the wood. Another is to tint the finish and blend the colors with a spray gun, so the color is in the finish, rather than in the wood. I found out that the sunbursts that I really preferred were done the first way, by applying the colors directly into the wood, staining the wood itself rather than the finish. This is the way that Gibson did their sunburst in their early days, presumably rubbing the stains into the wood with a rag, then applying varnish over the top. As I don't spray my finishes, this seemed like the ideal way for me to proceed.
I was not aware of any guitar makers who are currently doing these types of sunbursts, but quite a few mandolin makers are doing them. Mandolin builders seem to collaborate nicely as they try to crack the secrets of Loyd Loar's instruments. I contacted a few mandolin makers and some great advice. John Hamlett was the person who really seemed to have a method that would work well for me. There's a great video of him applying a sunburst to a mandolin on Youtube. He recommended I practice on a lot of scrap, so that's where I started.
I used several old Gibson guitars and mandolins as my models and for the most part I used three colors, yellow, red, and brown. After I had a blend of colors that I was happy with, I put down a few coats of an orange/green varnish, then French polished several coats over the top. I was extremely thrilled with the results. Applying the color directly to the wood highlights the figure of the wood in a way which having the color in the finish doesn't seem to do. It gives it a depth and softness which seems to be lacking in many modern sunbursts.
Both guitars turned out wonderfully and a lot of folks have been smitten by them. I just sent one off to the awesome customer who ordered one and the practice guitar is still looking for a home. Let me know if you're interested. It's an X braced 14 fret 0 sized peach, red spruce top, maple back and sides. Here are some photos: