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
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.
THE FRENCH POLISH YEARS
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
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
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
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.
ENTER THE MODERN FINISHES
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
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
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.
ADVANTAGES OF MODERN FINISHES
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
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
3. Some of the modem finishes on the market may be of petro
chemical derivation with their longevity not proven.
CARE AND REFURBISHING OF THE
FINISH ON A GUITAR
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
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
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.
PAUSE TO REFLECT
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.