Removing finish from a guitar neck

Down here in the south, things get a little sticky some times (ok, most of the time). Sweating is just a part of life down here, and sometimes that can cause a guitarist’s hands to stick to the finish on their guitar neck. Usually my advice is to simply hit the back of the neck with some 0000 steel wool to remove the gloss from the finish, which can help keep sticky-ness to a minimum. It’s easy to do, and it’s completely reversible. Occasionally, I’m asked to go beyond this, and to strip the neck down to the bare wood. Here’s how I go about removing finish from a guitar neck.

First, it’s worth noting that this is a pretty serious mod – it’s not something you can just buff right back to the way it was before. I personally don’t have any qualms with modifying guitars (see my 1974 Ovation Magnum), but some might cry fowl over modding “vintage” instruments. The way I see it, a guitar is a tool for self-expression, not a museum piece, and if I can help a player get what they want out of their instrument, then I’m happy to oblige. This particular guitar neck is a Fender Telecaster from the early 1970s, and it was about to get a serious overhaul. Here’s what it looked like before I started – very shiny with a thick polyurethane finish:

removing finish from a guitar neck

First order of business after removing the neck was to tape off the areas of the neck that were to be left alone. This guitar’s owner wanted to leave the headstock finish intact and strip the rest of the neck (a wise move, methinks), so I taped it across the back of the neck starting from behind the nut, like so:

removing finish from a guitar neck

I then scored a line through the finish with a razor blade, to help reduce possible chipping:

removing finish from a guitar neck

Next I began to remove the finish with a series of scrapers. This is something that requires both a ton of elbow grease and delicacy – it would be easy to accidentally reshape the contours of the neck if too overzealous with the scraper. Obviously, this takes a long time to do, and creates a pretty big mess:

removing finish from a guitar neck

removing finish from a guitar neck

removing finish from a guitar neck

Phew! That was a lot of work. The next step was to sand the neck smooth, using graduating grits of sandpaper, starting with 600 grit:

removing finish from a guitar neck

Funny thing about wood – it’s fibrous. One can’t just sand it and call it done, as the fibers tend to lift later. To alleviate this, I wipe the neck down with a damp cloth, which raises the tiny wood fibers, so they can be sanded off. This is an important step: I can’t let a furry neck go out the door!

Now that the finish was completely removed and the neck was sanded totally smooth, I peeled the tape off the headstock and inspected my finish line. Considering I didn’t spray the finish on this neck myself, methinks the line came out looking pretty good. Of course, it’s impossible to make it completely perfect, but one would be hard pressed to notice unless they were specifically looking at it.

removing finish from a guitar neck

Now here’s the fun part: coating the raw wood with gunstock oil. This makes the neck feel nice and smooth, and protects the wood from moisture. Over the course of 24 hours, I apply about 5-6 coats. (Note to self: use gloves, dummy! Gunstock oil is sticky!)

removing finish from a guitar neck

Once the gunstock oil has had several hours to harden, I buff it out with 0000 steel wool, and it’s done! This neck looks and feels fantastic! No more sticky fingers!

removing finish from a guitar neck

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