Before Gibson began spraying fast-drying nitrocellulose lacquer in 1923, the company used varnish finishes on its instruments. 

Some of the nitrocellulose finishes applied in the mid to late 1920s would become brittle and flake off and by the late 1930s Gibson applied a thicker finish that had a tendency to yellow with age (for more on the finishes that Gibson used in its Pre-War period see Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941 published by Centerstream.

Gibson researcher Darryl Wolf adds: “I consider the change to lacquer to have taken place in late 1924 / early 1925, somewhere around serial number 82000 (go here to read Darryl’s feature: ‘An alternative take on interpreting Pre-War Gibson Serial Numbers’). 

“Quite a few instruments in the 80000 – 82000 also have lacquer overspray. However, the lacquer that I refer to is different from the lacquer that Gibson used later. It is softer and when it checks, the effect is finer. Around serial number 89000, the company switched to using a lacquer that was thicker and shinier with a more modern look.

“An inordinate number of late Loar-era instruments (signed  in 1924) with a serial number in the 77000 to 80000 range appear to have an after-the-fact overspray. This was probably done to speed up the drying of the varnish or to simply ‘shine them up quickly’ for shipping. I suspect that these may have been instruments that hung around for a while.”

Gibson Cremona Brown Sunburst 

The information below originally appeared on the website Mandolin Café and was written by Gibson expert, Joe Spann. 

“Like so many of Gibson’s now world-famous innovations, the ‘Cremona Brown’ sunburst finish used on the Master-Model instruments from 1922 forwards was the invention of an obscure employee. Turns out that Master Lloyd Loar had nothing to do with it.  

“Here’s a short article from the January 1921 issue of Gibson’s ‘Sounding Board Salesman’ magazine, which identifies the man.

“Not so very long-ago Fred Miller, Foreman of the Gibson Finishing Department, brought into the sales manager’s office, a Gibson mandolin that looked not a cent less than a million dollars. Fred had been taking liberties with the catalog finish specifications and while the F-4 was an F-4 in every other respect, the finish was about “F-100%”, according to our estimation. Practically every girl in the office said she adored it and even the janitor raved over it. In fact, everybody was so enthusiastic about Fred’s work that we forthwith commissioned him to put through a special lot of Gibsons in this new finish, which he calls Cremona Brown. Very soon we expect to have available a few F-4 mandolins, H-4 mandolas and K-4 mando-cellos in this new Cremona Brown finish, which for the time being we will bill at $5.00 additional to the regular wholesale price. If you don’t think the finish is about as beautiful an effect as you have ever seen on a mandolin or violin, just ship back the instrument and we will send it to somebody who likes it.” 

Joe Spann adds: “According to my serial number list, the earliest Gibson instrument yet seen with a true ‘Cremona Brown’ sunburst finish is H-4 #65241. According to my revised serial number chronology this instrument would have shipped in August 1921. 

“Frederick Martin Miller, the creator of the “Cremona Brown” sunburst was born in Mecklenburg, Germany on 25 February 1885, emigrated to the United States in 1891 and was working at Gibson by 1909. By 1920 he was the Foreman of the Finishing Department and evidently left Gibson at or about the same time as Master Lloyd Loar, Sales Manager Lewis A. Williams and General Manager Harry Ferris, late in 1924. 

“By 1926 Fred was working around Kalamazoo as a housepainter, and in 1930 had started his own auto-body repair shop with his eldest son. The Great Depression killed his business, and he was forced to seek employment as a painter at the Checker Cab Company factory. He died in Kalamazoo on 11 February 1944 at the very young age of 58 and is buried there. Ironically, a lifetime of breathing in varnish and lacquer fumes is what likely led to his early death.” 

Frederick Martin Miller, above, created the Cremona Brown finish. The combination of ‘burst pattern and wood grain makes every L-5 as unique as a fingerprint! 

The L-5s pictured below span a period of approximately ten years. It’s interesting to see how the burst pattern developed over that time.

These examples of finish are from the following serial number guitars 

Top row, left to right: 76707, 77405, 81707, 84677

Second row: 85437, 85558, 85758, 86842

Third row: 88290, 88786, 89354, 90303

Fourth row: 90315, 91100, 91522, 91930

Natural Finish 

A total of 21 L-5s were shipped with a Natural finish in 1937 and 1938, despite the fact that this option was not officially available until 1939 (this number includes one of the last 16-inch models, which was delivered with a Natural finish in May 1938). The spruce and maple used for instruments with the new Natural finish had to free of flaws that might have been concealed beneath the darker areas of a Sunburst finish.