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Why You Should Shellac Your Weissenborn Guitar
When I began to build my Queensland Maple Weissenborn guitar I almost immediately began to think about what kind of finish it was going to have. To be perfectly honest I really had decided right from the start that it was to be a Shellac or “French Polish ” finish.
The maple was extremely tough and very lightweight with a beautiful flame finish and there was no way I was even going to contemplate drowning it in a thick heavy man-made plasticky goo that would kill every vibration and overtone that these rich and vibrant guitars produce. I had used Shellac before on various older guitars and one of my particularly favourite guitars, a 1967 Levin Goliath had been re-coated using white shellac, another variant of the polish. The sound of this forty five year old guitar recently converted to a lap steel has to be heard to be believed.
Shellac and spirit based finishes have been in use since the early eighteenth century and have stood the test of time. It has the advantage of being simple to prepare, non toxic and apart from methylated spirits, the greater part of which flashes off to the atmosphere, chemical free. It is a natural product derived from the secretions of a South American beetle and is gathered by hand from the trees where the beetle lives and ends up in a dried flaky form and is dissolved into Methylated spirits or alcohol ( Two pounds to a gallon) and stirred thoroughly until the consistency thickens.
It is applied in several ways, by hand using a ball of cotton wool wrapped in a soft lint free cloth known as a ‘rubber’, brushed thinly or even sprayed on to the timber.
It has, however, an Achilles heel and the application techniques must be mastered before an acceptable finish is achieved. In this rush around world where many arts and skills have to be mastered many people have no patience to actually persevere with the learning and move on to the easier methods of guitar finish application.
Once some initial success has taken place, the frustrations of hand polishing shellac onto a quality guitar and the great sounds that it helps produce, will quickly be forgotten.
WHY USE SHELLAC?
There are many reasons why shellac is the favourite of many luthiers. The application technique, once mastered, can be stunning and in the hands of an expert can look exactly like it has been sprayed with the highest quality lacquer.
However, the primary reason that I personally prefer it is because the shellac, once applied, dries almost instantly and when several layers have been applied is extra lightweight with a beautiful lustre that allows all the natural timbre and overtones of the soundwoods to vibrate freely and allow the rich fullness of sound to be set free. It is no coincidence that may of the incredible qualities of the beautiful and unique Stradivarius Violins were made with Shellac, although the exact formula is still unknown.
Shellac also has other endearing qualities. Many shades of wood stains are able to be mixed with the Shellac to produce many varying timber colours but still retain the transparency to allow the grain pattern to show through.
The amazing colour of natural orange shellac is full of lustre and seems to glow and smoulder setting the timber alight with an appealing glow.
APPLICATION OF SHELLAC
There are usually two preferred methods of applying shellac, one known as padding and brushing.
Using a soft, natural hair China brush the shellac has to be brushed on with long fast strokes. The shellac will dry almost instantly allowing many people to think it is impossible to get a decent finish. However, perseverance is required and the secret is never to re-brush back over the previous stroke until it has totally dried. Re-brushed when the first layer is still wet will simply cause the half dried shellac to tear and smear as the ‘sticky’ brush picks up the previous layer. Initially, lots of patience is required!!!! Also as the mixture is usually very thin it is not unusual to have to apply twenty or more coats until the layer is built up evenly enough to attain a reasonable layer!
The second method, seemingly preferred by many, is the padding method. However, it is the more difficult of the two methods and will not be learned in an hour or two. Constant and regular practice will enable confidence to grow and the results may well astound you!
There are a few preferred and seemingly unorthodox methods to build a ‘pad’ The idea is to wrap a soft inner material (or reservoir) of soft material (such as a clean cotton sock) with a ten inch (or so!) square of lint free cotton muslin. The muslin is formed into a ball with the free material twisted into a ‘handle’ and the ball dipped into the shellac/alcohol mixture and applied in a long even stroke onto the timber.
It’s as well at this stage to point out a few tips: Don’t allow the inner pad to be ‘flooded with excess shellac…the shellac may well dry so quickly that the ‘pad’ may drag or stick to the surface of the timber …a happy medium must be attained…in order to help do this a small bowl of clean light mineral oil can help matters considerably by lubricating the pad on it’s stroke. Dip into the oil, then the shellac and repeat the stroke.. It has been likened to a plane taking off and landing!
There are once again, a few different methods in use. One is to apply a coat, allow to dry and using 400 grit (very fine) sandpaper sand the dried coat, remove the fine white chalky dust residue and re-coat again…then the whole process is repeated. Others will apply a few coats and then sand the work.
Once the desired amount of coats are applied ( there is no real figure here but at least 5- 10 coats) the whole piece of work is allowed to dry for at least 24 hours . The direct application of many coats will result in a mirror like high gloss finish but many folks prefer to rub the work down with 0000 finish steel wool to remove any ‘nibs’ and then polish with a silicon free wax polish until a high lustre is obtained.
If a satin type finish is required simply rub with 0000 grade steel wool and polish very lightly!
If you liked this article and would like to read more there is some more detailed information in a further article called Advanced French Polishing Techniques by the same author.
Terry Buddell, the author is an enthusiastic and competent writer of many similar articles that may be found on his web site http://www.buildaweissenborn.com where many other articles and the plans book and CD are available for building a high quality Weissenborn lap steel acoustic guitar may be found.
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