Monday, May 17, 2010

French polish- some thoughts

I’m now underway with French polishing the parlour guitar and some of the first stages can be seen in the new video. There is loads of information on t’interweb (Bob and Orville Milburn’s is probably one of the best) about this black art, so I’m just offering a brief description so you can get a flavour of what French polishing is all about.

I’ve been French polishing my classical guitars and, indeed, most classical players demand this type of finish. I had been a bit unsure about French polishing steel string guitars, thinking that maybe most steel string players would prefer a lacquered finished. However, during my musing, I came to the conclusion that a steel-string player, paying a four-figure sum for a bespoke luthier guitar would show as much care for their instrument as a classical player and would probably be an enlightened, well-informed sort of person anyway. As it happens I was right- the next three acoustic instruments (there’s Phil’s custom ergonomic electric coming up soon!) on my list are all steel-strings and all of the clients have been more than happy to go with French polish.

It’s interesting to see how many luthiers are now French polishing and even some of the US “boutique” manufacturers offer shellac finished soundboards.

Let me re-cap my reasons-

Primarily, you are putting on the instrument- (the one that you carefully choose the best tonewood for, thicknessed to the nearest 0.1mm, carefully braced and tapped tuned) a thin finish that will not dampen the instrument's tone. I think that I use 75% less material when French polishing compared to using lacquer! The beauty of the wood is enhanced by the optical quality of the shellac and the “feel” particularly of the neck is silky smooth.

Secondary reasons are- In this day and age of sustainability and various environmental issues, French polishing is probably as green as it gets. You are using shellac which is a secretion from an insect and harvested from the bark of the trees where it deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk. Alcohol as a solvent, pumice powder (from volcanoes) as a filler and its all applied by a pad made up from cotton wool and old well washed white T-shirts. To stop the pad sticking olive oil is used as a lubricant. Also, to spray safely you must have a purpose built spray booth, good extraction, spark proof electrical equipment etc.

Enough of that- here’s the video!

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Blogger Josh P. said...


Great tutorial on French polishing.

Thanks, Josh

2:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Brown said...

Gary, when you refer to methylated spirits, are you referring to the 100% so-called industrial meths, or have you found the hardware store variety adequate?

11:23 AM  
Blogger Gary Nava, Luthier said...

Just good old purple, hardware store meths.

5:50 PM  

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