Construction - Finishing 2

Currently, I formulate my own spirit varnish using various natural resins.  Some come from Africa, others from the Subcontinent and Indonesia, others yet from South America—all extruded from trees, or in the case of shellac, secreted by insects that colonize certain species of tropical trees.




Using a mortar and pestle and a small amount of alcohol, measured amounts are easily crushed and dissolved.  The components are then blended and strained. The aroma of the resulting varnish makes it a pleasure to work with, contributing to the overall character of the instrument.

Application uses traditional French polishing techniques. Shown here are basic tools of the trade: varnish, alcohol, oil, and several applicators.  Other pieces of folded cloth help work the finish into tighter areas.



The warm appearance of the finish and enhanced character of the underlying wood make the result very appealing.  And the resulting thinness undoubtedly contributes to the sound of the instrument.  Though the process can be a bit tedious at times, I enjoy the hands-on effort and close contact with the instrument.

Many resources exist on French polishing.  No need to repeat that information here. The tutorial at www.milburnguitars.com is a good starting point.

Not surprisingly, finishing F-model mandolins present several unique challenges not encountered with guitars and violins: a lack of flat surfaces, numerous sharp curves and tight crevices, and an underlayment of stained wood. On the other hand, no pore-filling is required, as is the case when using rosewood or mahogany.

I’m always experimenting—striving to simplify the process and improve the result.  No two finishes are ever exactly the same. Consequently, I’m reluctant to go into detail about current practices. However, two comments may prove helpful.

  1. Body & Headstock Scrolls – It goes without saying that these areas are particularly challenging. Applying as much stain as possible to interior surfaces prior to installing the binding can minimize later work. Applying additional stain (and finish) before assembling the neck and body makes handling both components much easier.  Though varnish is my finish of choice, lacquer works well to build up flat surfaces in these “hard to reach” areas.

  2. Cracks & Crevices – Cloth pads used to build up finish during French polishing sessions serve well to smooth out and work finish into the myriad tight areas of an F-style mandolin.