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Does Nitrocellulose “Breathe”?

Q: I have techy guitar friends who tell me that a nitro finish is better because it “breathes,” which helps the guitar’s wood and sound. Is this true?

A: Sorry, this one of many guitar “urban legends.” Many players enjoy nitrocellulose lacquer finishes on their guitars because they feel they enhance the tone, are thin and light, are hard and durable, are more “vintage,” and because they can be easily repaired.

However, regardless of its perceived or real advantages, nitrocellulose lacquer does not “breathe.” It was developed by DuPont under their “Duco” brand name in the 1920s, and for many years was used as a paint for automobiles — you certainly wouldn’t want a car finish to breathe, as this would allow oxidation (rust) to occur.

The basis for this legend seems to be that nitro cellulose is made from cellulose — the same material found in trees, and that this forms some sort of symbiotic bond between the wood and the finish. However, the cellulose in nitro finish actually comes from cotton, and there is no “bond” between the two materials, other than the one holding the paint to the wood!

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