There is no definitive vintage Gibson sunburst, because time will have taken its toll on any original finish from the late 1950s. These days collectors divide Gibson sunbursts into various sub-categories depending on the degree of fading. At the well-preserved end there are darkbursts (which faded to tobaccoburst) and cherrybursts. Even when they were brand new, Les Paul tops tended to fade quickly, and by late 1960 Gibson had switched to a more fade-resistant formulation that's sometimes called tangerine red. The earlier cherrybursts went from faded cherryburst to teaburst, honeyburst and finally lemon drop or ‘unburst', depending on how much UV light they were exposed to.
So if you're planning to spray a sunburst finish, you need to decide which look you want before you buy your lacquer. Yasuhiko Iwanade's book The Beauty Of The Burst provides an excellent visual reference. Personally I prefer the faded look to bright cherrybursts on Les Pauls, so I decided to shoot for honeyburst.
As always, Steve Robinson from Manchester Guitar Tech proved to be a mine of information.
He suggested starting with amber lacquer to provide the yellow part of the burst. The maple itself wasn't dyed, as I was advised that dye will ‘kill' the grain. Although dye will accentuate any figuring, it will no longer change as light hits it from various angles and you'll lose that deep, almost holographic effect. So I masked off the neck, headstock and fingerboard extension as well as the back and sides (pic 1) and then sprayed on a couple of clear coats as a sealer.
I followed these with the amber (pic 2), always spraying the guitar flat on its back and elevated above the surface of my workbench to avoid lacquer runs. Once I felt happy with the intensity of the colour I covered the amber with a couple more coats of clear. For a honeyburst, Steve recommended his medium brown clear lacquer. The colour component of the sunburst acts as a filter for the yellow/amber layer beneath, and Steve said the brown would combine with the amber to create the desired orangey red effect.
When spraying with a rattle can, you need to twist the spray nozzle so it's positioned vertically and at right angles to the binding. Hold the spray can over the centre of the body then spray at an angle, with the spray firing away from the centre, towards the edges. Start spraying beyond the edge, then carefully bring the spray towards the edge until you start to see the colour being deposited, then work your way around the edge.
To get a feel for the process I cut an LP shape out of a piece of white card (pic 3) and practiced the technique. It's actually very easy, and I soon felt confident enough to move onto the body. The look of the guitar changes quite quickly, which is very exciting, but you should still try to work slowly and leave drying time between coats. The hue of the sunburst will change as those wet layers dry; it will also change dramatically depending on the angle you're looking from and the strength and source of the light.
The clear coats were added before the medium brown as insurance. Spray cans can sometimes drip and splutter, so if you do have any accidents you can sand off any nasties using fine wet and dry abrasives without damaging the amber layer beneath. Fine dust from the spray will also settle in the centre of the body, so allow everything to dry periodically then gently wipe the top with a clean cloth to reveal the true colour contrast.
After Gibson had finished spraying their sunbursts they finished off with a few coats of clear, which provided protection and helped blend the colours. You can see how these clear layers darkened over the years when you look at the colour of old binding: the off-white plastic develops a yellowish cream appearance, which is a major part of the vintage Gibson look.
It's useful to refer to a picture of the sunburst you're aiming for. On page 24 of The Beauty Of The Burst there's a '58 with an almost identical grain pattern to ours that's owned by Billy Gibbons. I stopped spraying when I thought ours was just a touch brighter than The Rev's (pics 4) because I suspected that the tinted clear lacquer I was planning to spray on top would darken and tone everything down. It's down to guesswork and instinct, but the guiding principle should be that it's easier to add colour than take it off.
2. Les Paul Relic : Part 2