Shine a Light… Authenticating a Vintage Fender Guitar (Part 2)

by Rik Mercaldi on October 19, 2012

Handheld Black Light

A black light AKA UV light, ultraviolet light, or Wood’s lamp can be used to help identify an original finish on any vintage instrument that was painted with nitrocellulose lacquer (Nitro). Guitar makers used Nitro until the mid 1960s, with most Fender guitars finished with Nitro until around 1968, when Polyurethane was introduced. Polyurathane is more stable and durable than Nitro, which is very susceptible to cracking (lacquer checking) and fading.

Although, Nitro isn’t as tough a finish as Poly and shows playing wear more quickly, due to it’s nature as a porous lacquer the wood underneath will age through the finish more easily than a plactic based, non porous lacquer like Poly. This causes the tone of the instrument to improve and sweeten over time the more the guitar is played and the more the guitar’s wood cures. Some might argue, but to me it’s physics.

When Nitro is exposed to ultra violet light for many years, it causes a chemical reaction that when viewed under a black light appears as a phosphorescent, greenish yellow glow.

Any black light will work. From a small hand held model to the big one your older sibling (or you!) had in their room for their Pink Floyd posters. Antique experts also use black lights to determine if certain types of glass, such as depression glass, are real or reproductions, by using the same techniques.

Let’s say someone used a magic marker to touch up a small spot on an otherwise original finish, you would see it as a dull or dark spot surrounded by a greenish, yellow, fluorescent glow. Under the black light you can see all of the imperfections, sandpaper marks, brush strokes, dings, etc. on the guitar. Sandpaper marks and brush strokes indicate that the guitar most likely has been refinished.

As with most authenticating processes, you will need to examine all of the evidence closely and look at everything before coming to a conclusion. I once checked out an absolutely, mint condition, all original 1963 Fender Stratocaster, that didn’t glow at all. It had obviously spent most of its life in its case (there were actually stains in the finish from the lining of the case).

So, shine a light, and proceed with caution. Anyone have a black lighting experience, or tip to share? (Insert joke containing references to bongs, headphones, etc. here)

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