“This 1927 L-5 was sent back to the factory in about 1940 and the finish on it is distinctly different from the finish it would have had originally.
On the refinished 1927 L-5, you can see the wood grain very nicely here in the lighter area but you don’t see the wood grain much in the darker part up here or round at the edges.
This type of finish is achieved by putting stain in the lacquer, not directly onto the wood. First, the wood is sprayed with a clear sealer coat and then sprayed with light coloured stained lacquer. Darker stained lacquer sprayed around the edge creates the sunburst effect, so it is essentially a two-step process.
I don’t have a completely original 1927 example here right now but I do have a 1929 L-5. What they did here was to stain the bare wood and then put a clear coat over that, so that you get quite a different effect. This is the style that was done through to about 1931. It’s darker round the edges than it is in the middle but if you look, you can see the wood grain very clearly over the entire back. It’s a bit more work but it results in what I consider a prettier effect. Gibson instruments made after about 1932 onward typically have the stain in the finish.
Sunburst finishes at Gibson go way back. The A-4 mandolin, the F-4 mandolin, the L-4 guitar and the L-3 guitar – those typically had sunburst finishes. It was a reddish burst but those had sunburst finishes even before 1910. Gibson also did some that had a jet black top finish, and they did quite a few that on the back were just a uniform reddish colour.
Gibson, in the 1950s at least, charged extra for a Natural finish because you had to have neat, clean edge work. Any chips in the spruce top by the binding could be easily hidden beneath a sunburst finish but you couldn’t with a Natural finish. They typically picked prettier wood and took extra care to get everything meticulously neat and clean.