Shellac and Varnish

Finishing is an art which one neglects at the risk of ruining weeks of work in the final moments of building an instrument.

Taking the time to bring an instrument to a superb finish not only protects it and contributes something to its voice quality. It clothes the instrument fittingly for its presence in the world of music.

After the body, top, and fretboard are fabricated as sub-units, they are given three coats of "one-pound cut" shellac, and rubbed out with 320-grit sandpaper. This sizing has two purposes. First, it seals all the inside of the body and the ends of the fretboard. This stabilizes the wood, sealing it at the moisture content at that moment. Thus external changes in the surrounding air will have a much less impact on the wood, from then on. The wood will still give and take a little with temperature changes, but the moisture is locked out.

The second function that this shellac sizing performs is to seal the pores of the wood in preparation for the varnish. The shellac seal keeps the varnish from penetrating the wood too much. This is one of the primary reasons that Bear Meadow dulcimers are so powerful --the wood hasn't been soaked in varnish.

Five to nine wiped coats of Target Coating's Hybrid Alkyd waterborne varnish are applied. These go on very quickly, after one gets some practice. And each coat is ready for another wipe after 15 minutes.

By the time the last coat dries, the instrument is looking pretty nice. After rubbing out with 0000 steel wool, the final treatment is with a very high-carnuba wax. We use a floor wax called "TreWax" that comes in a nice reddish-brown. You don't want white or clear wax, as this will build up white in the pores of the wood. Of courser, the clear formulation is needed for spruce tops. Give the wax five minutes to dry, then buff vigoursly with pure cotton flannel.

The result is a musical instrument that looks like its been sitting on the bench about a hundred years. The finish we are describing here seals the pores without filling them, giving the wood a wonderful tactile feel and lustre. It is an understated finish with a lot of durability and subtle sensuality.

Click for larger image