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Good French polishing starts with good materials and preparation. The highest quality shellac flakes are dissolved in 200 proof alcohol and tightly filtered to a clear dark wine appearance (approximately two days per quart). The finish material is applied with a pad (or rubber) made of lint free linen filled with cotton. An oil, rotten stone, talcum powder and patience are necessary aids to acheive expert results. Factories usually build their guitars a little thick to insure strength in order to meet guarantee obligations. Finishes are also applied thickly to prevent breaking through the finish to the wood during sanding and polishing operations on the production line. Both of these factors can cause excessively tight sound quality. This instrument, well made in other respects, had a finish that was over .012 (.3mm) thick measured at this location of the soundboard. The soundboard itself at .116 (2.9mm) can also be considered thick for a classical guitar. This finish was removed from the soundboard, the soundboard regraduated and a finish formulation was established and applied. The result was a very much improved instrument. Because of its cost, this operation is practical only on potentially worthy instruments.
The effect of the finish on a vibrating sound-box is an enigma facing all instrument makers. Certainly, the importance of the finish formula of the Stradivarius violin has been discussed at length. However, the degree to which the finish factor contributes to the Strad's overall quality may never be determined. Surely, the age of the woods and hundreds of years of playing contribute heavily to the character of the Stradivarius. There is no doubt, however, that the finish applied to a musical instrument contributes to its overall tone quality. Finishing materials combine with the wood to become the instrument. Hard or soft, flexible or stiff, heavy or thin, the finish will effect quality. The instrument maker can use these characteristics of finish materials to supplement the tone of a guitar. Simply put, adding a hard brittle finish to an instrument will tend to mise the frequency response or brighten it. Naturally a soft flexible finish will lower or dull it. The thickness of this finish material will have an effect on the degree of sound modification. The ideal situation is to control both the properties and the thickness of application of any given finish material. Experimenting with finish materials is essential if an instrument maker wishes to use the finish to advantage. There is always that dilemma; build the instrument tough to withstand punishment or focus on sound quality which means delicate construction. Many makers find the answer somewhere in between.

My first guitar was finished with lacquer. As I recall, it was just ordinary lacquer available in a paint store. The lacquer was applied with an inexpensive and basic spraying device, hand sanded and polished according to typical instruction book directions. The results were impressive to the eye. For the time being, the purpose appeared to be served.

By that time, I had been studying guitar for about five years. I had owned two American factory-made instruments, both with commercial lacquer finishes. Then I graduated to hand-made guitars from Spain with the shellac-based French polish finish. At that time, "those in the know" would have it no other way. French polish finish was the only finish for a fine guitar. To spray a finish on the instrument was to ruin it. When I set up my own guitar shop, this influence encouraged me to perfect the French polish technique for my first legitimate instruments. It was not until several years later that guitars with a sprayed on finish began to appear from one of Spain's leading guitar makers. Then "those in the know" began to change their opinions. Thank goodness! Now we were free to experiment and to sell without that stigma attached. Up to this time, we had no chance of selling an instrument to top players without old world finishing. As a newcomer, I didn't have the influence to introduce change nor the production to offer necessary incentives to compete with low priced foreign makers. It was absolutely necessary to build an instrument of familiar construction and to equal or better foreign-made instruments on the same terms. In order to compete, I offered French polished guitars until the influential admitted there were other alternatives.

Many instruments are very poorly cared for and do the maker an injustice when used as a representation of his work. These photographs of an instrument, undergoing restoration, hardly reveal the extent of the carelessness the guitar suffered. However, with a few extra glue joints on the soundboard, a new back, new frets and a complete finish restoration the instrument was made like new.
In early 1963, books that I could find on the French polish technique of finishing were incredibly vague. The commercial shellac available in paint stores was imposssibly crude. When the chance meeting with Paul Toenniges of Studio City Music produced an invitation for the real know-how, I was elated. I still recall that experience. Even with his expert guidance and correct materials, coupled with demonstrations of the percise technique, I had to strip my first instrument three times, starting over again and again until I was satisified. Subsequent instruments were easier to do and beautiful, but still time-consuming. It took years of practice and refinements of technique to become reasonable efficient. In the end, while there was satisfaction in perfecting this finish techinque, the cause was hopeless. The finish proved to be just too vulnerable for the expectations of today's practicing guitarists. The advantages and disadvantages of the French polish technique are as follows:

Advantages of the French polish finish:

1. This finishing needs no special mechanical equipment to apply. Hand application is all that is necessary.
2. Because of the method of application, the finish can be applied very thinly, will be light weight and thus will have little detrimental effect on the inherent sound quality of a specific guitar.
3. When the finish becomes dry or worn, it is easy to reapply a new layer by refrench polishing or amalgamating the new layer on and into the old layer.

Disadvantages of the French polish finish:
1. Shellac, the basic ingredient, is not a durable finish in itself. Its thermoplastic properties make it vulnerable to any proximity to warm temperature. For example, if the guitar sits in its case in the sun or in a warm car trunk, the finish can melt. The lining may stick or leave impressions on the finish. Even the warmth of an arm in contact with the finish while playing in warm conditions will leave an impression at the point of contact. This finish wears quickly through contact and is subject to damage by water, alcohol and perspiration.
2. Because of its thermoplastic properties, it is difficult to use this finish to help control the quality of sound. Wood, without a finish applied, will take on its most natural inherent sound based on its mass. As layers of finish are applied to the wood, sound characteristics change relative to such factors as the basic properties of the finish material itself and the thickness of application. In the case of shellac, most properties can be controlled with additives but the thermoplastic condition remains. As shellac is applied thicker, its susceptibility to softening and impressions increases. It is therefore necessary to apply shellac thinly to an instrument and the inherent sound of an already-made instrument usually cannot be enhanced.
3. Because of these properties, it can be assumed that under extremely warm conditions, the sound quality of a French polished instrument may appear duller due to the relative softening of the finish. High relative humidity will also cause a dulling effect; a later article will deal with this subject.
4. It has been my experience that French polished instruments that are not well cared for become duller in quality as they become older. This dullness can be attributed to oils and dirt derived from many sources-from the hands to the atmosphere itself-being absorbed into the wood fibers through fissures in this thin finish. This condition, being very gradual, will go unnoticed until well advanced.
5. Heavily played, overly sensitive instruments that suffer a breakdown in sound quality may be revitalized (see chapter three on sound-boards); however such renewal is very difficult with the French polish finish.
6. Good French polishing is almost an art. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find employees to learn this technique and apply it consistently.


When the sprayed guitar gained acceptance, the door for progress was opened. In about 1964,1 began to test a variety of recommended lacquers. To play it safe, I continued to French polish the soundboards while only spraying the backs, sides and necks for increased durability. My customers and I were familiar and satisified with the results we were accustomed to getting. I cound not risk the radical changes of quality an unproved finish might produce.

Eventually a favored lacquer was tried on several complete instruments. The results were not exceptional and I concluded that even the best lacquer when applied to the soundboard was not up to French polish in tone quality.

The practice of French polishing the soundboard only and spraying the rest of the body continued for several years while experimentation continued. The double operation added extra time to the finishing process but we felt it absolutely necessary at the time. Our guitars continued to be popular as evidenced by two years of advance orders.

Eventually, testing went from the lacquer family to the catalyzed type finishes. There always remained compromises either in the workability or the characteristics of the resins themselves. Gradually, with the help of chemists in the industry, I found ways to modify these resins and control them with absolute satisfaction. We had discovered formulations that produced sound characteristics superior to anything that we had tried. The finish material was controllable and could be modified or adjusted to a wide degree of flexibility or hardness so as to enhance a particular instrument as needed. Its incredible durability and beauty has proven itself over the last seventeen years. Its superiority has been illustrated further when French polished soundboards were refinished with this finish to the guitar owners delight. The French polish guitar sound may remain the choice of some guitarists but it is no longer absolutely necessary. I now French polish only on special request.

The advantages of these finishes lie in their beauty, durability, alcohol and water resistance and property controllability. Add to this the fact that they can be applied with
There is a difference between the modern finish as applied by the aware craftsman as compared to factory application. The spraying procedure must by more exacting than at first perceived. A final thickness of approximately .004 (.1 mm) must be derived after calculating the amount of material layed on during the spraying, accounting for evaporation of the solvents, shrinkage during curing, the amount of material removed between coat sanding and the final amount removed during the final buffing and polishing.
a commercial set-up and their advantages become clear.

1. The technology to work these finishes to a high degree of excellence can be very demanding. A commercial set-up is required with the necessary equipment and conditions including a dust free area with spray booth and equipment, and clutter-free sanding and polishing rooms.
2. Except for modification purposes, it is absolutely necessary that a procedure be established so that after all operations are completed, the final thickness of the finish be no more than .004 of an inch (.1 mm) on the most critical vibrating surfaces. As the thickness is increased, the sound tightens. This degree of precision can be difficult to control in factory type operations.
3. Some of the modem finishes on the market may be of petro chemical derivation with their longevity not proven.

The finish on a guitar has a definite effect on the tone. If you like the tone, care for the finish. When it deteriorates so will the tone quality.
If your guitar has a French polish finish, wipe it regularly with a soft clean cloth to maintain its luster. Using commerical prepared polishes can be hazardous to this finish since many have a cutting or polishing action which will wear the thin finish through. Some formulations may be used occasionally if they are thinned down and used carefully. Because of the thermoplastic properties of French polish, avoid any proximity to warmth. A soft insulating cloth should be used at the point of contact with the body, especially during warm weather. Particularly avoid perspiration.
When the French polish does deteriorate or wear through, it is best to have it restored by an expert in this field who will know how to clean and prepare the old finish before the reapplication. Only in extreme cases of deterioration should the old finish be completely stripped off and redone. The deterioration of the finish will have diminished tone quality because of absorption of oils and dirt into the wood fibers. While the new finish will take some time to mature, the refinished instrument will untimately be an improvement.

Guitars finished with lacquer or other modern finishes can be polished with good commercially prepared polishes. A good finish polish should not be confused with a wax or
The buffing operation is usually carried out on wheels, as shown. With finish that is thin, this is delicate work. It is very easy to burn or polish through to the wood with too much pressure and time. There is a finesse to good polishing.
After machine buffing, the finest of instruments are then hand polished to perfection.
furniture oil type polish. A lacquer polish usually has a cutting or buffing agent in the formulation. Actually, minor scratches or cloth abrasions can be removed with persistent rubbing of the area. Of course persistent rubbing can also rub through a thin finish to the wood. It is always wise to consult the maker of your guitar or a legitimate expert about these matters.

Deterioration in modem finishes can be dealt with similarly, but with some differences in technique. Modern finishes harden or crystalize with age and improve acoustically. These finishes should not be completely removed except in extreme cases requiring complete renovation. If such radical treatment is undertaken, there will be a period of time for the instrument to improve acoustically.

Isolated areas of the instrument in which the finish has deteriorated or has worn through can be touched-up with good working practices by an expert. Bear in mind that adding excessive thickness to the finish at sensitive areas can cause a change in the character of the tone.

In this and previous pieces, I have been writing about the guitar, assuming that the reader is sensitive to differences that come with many many variables that exist in a fine instrument. I have dealt with the variables inherent in the materials, especially the primary determiner-the soundboard-the length of the string scale, the adhesive holding it all together and in this piece, the fine tuning and protection supplied by the finish. Sensitivity to each of these components is important to the instrument maker who can orchestrate materials and techniques to achieve superiority. Awareness of these factors is important also to the consumer, the player. The performer who recognizes the unique qualities of his or her guitar and applies individual artistic skill in concert with the instrument can give the guitar the status and prestige it deserves.