Fender Custom Color Finishes

Did you ever wonder how and where the folks at Fender came up with those vibrant custom color finishes in the 1950’s and 1960’s? From the automotive industry of course! That’s right your favorite vintage custom color Fender guitar shares the same finish as a Cadillac, Oldsmobile or even a Corvette of that era. The custom colors were manufactured by Dupont who supplied General Motors with lacquer for their cars. Other manufacturers used enamel instead of lacquer. The earlier GM finishes up until about 1956 were nitrocellulose and named Duco. Nitrocellulose lacquer dried fast, was easy to rub out and polish and spot repaired easily. The downside of the nitrocellulose lacquer was that it faded fairly quickly, yellowed with age and “checked” developing hairline cracks. No one wants to see any of these effects on their Cadillac or ‘Vette! So to remedy these ill effects Dupont added acrylic binders to their lacquers. This solved the fading, yellowing and checking issues and by 1959 all new colors were developed in acrylic lacquer. It wasn’t until 1962 that the colors for Ford and Chrysler were switched to acrylic lacquer. The colors that were originally developed in nitrocellulose were still available until the 1970’s.

After the body of a Fender guitar was sealed, primed and painted the custom color, clear coats of nitrocellulose were shot over the color as top coats. The clear coats were then wet sanded and buffed to a shine. The problems with nitrocellulose show up here in the clear top coats just as on the automobiles, mainly yellowing and cracking. When the clear top coats turn a golden yellow color from age it makes the color coat below look different. It is like looking at some thing through yellow tinted sunglasses. For example a Lake Placid Blue color would appear darker and greener like Ocean Turquoise. Or an Olympic White guitar would appear much more cream or even a golden honey color. Where the guitar spent it’s life has a lot to do with the degree of aging. A guitar that sat in a case under a bed would look much more true to its original color than one that spent it’s life in clubs with cigarette smoke. I have personally seen some guitars that were more yellowed on the front than the back and my theory is that this particular guitar may have spent a lot of time hanging in music shop windows having the sun shining on one side aging it faster than the back which saw very little light. Some guitars appear to have yellow sort of streaks or blotches on them and being less yellow on the edges. The streaks or blotches come from sanding. If you sand more in one spot and leave less clear top coat lacquer in one area then it will not turn as yellow in those areas. The edge of the guitar has much less clear top coat lacquer than the center of the body so much less yellowing takes place. The clear coats had the least effect on, you guessed it, black. Some custom color guitars came off the production line without clear top coats. Some reasons are possible hurried production or a way to cut costs. These guitars are very easily distinguished because the colors look much more vibrant. Olympic white is very stark as compared to its yellowed counterpart.

Sometimes the custom color was sprayed right over a perfectly good sunburst guitar! When production drastically increased in the 1960’s these sunburst bodies were sent back to the spray booth to meet the demands for custom colored guitars. Other times custom colors were sprayed over other custom colors for similar reasons or there was a defect in the finish and the body was sent back to the spray booth to fill orders for custom color guitars.


Custom color Fender guitars are rare as compared to the standard Sunburst finish. These custom color guitars are also worth several times more than the standard finish on the vintage market and are very interesting to look at.

So the next time you are at a guitar show or guitar shop that has some vintage custom color Fender guitars think of the cars of that era that were painted with the same finish. It is funny to think that my Stratocaster or Jazzmaster is the same color as a DeSoto. For further detailed information visit Vintage Guitar Info online.

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