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French Polish

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by rickbass, Mar 26, 2002.

  1. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    I've never been so fortunate as to own a bass with a French polish (or "French varnish" as some say).

    Everything I've read about it over the years mentions how it is so superior to other finishes in terms of beauty and the tone the instrument produces.

    So, one would think we'd see more custom and high-end basses with French polish. But, they are few and far between.

    My questions are;

    - Is French polish a real advantage in terms of cosmetics, (and/or), tone, to your knowledge???

    - Is it that much of pain to employ a French polish to the extent where it necessitates a dramatic increase in the price of a bass??? .......(Some wood/luthier sources I've read say it's really not all that hard to do).

    - If French polish is "the ultimate", why don't we see more fine basses with French polish??? (Lord knows - we bassists go nuts over woods and finishes).

    Thanks for any thoughts or experiences.
  2. DP Custom

    DP Custom DP Custom Basses

    Feb 7, 2001
    NC, USA
    Well, let me give it a try..

    "French Polish" isn't another material, but a technique for applying shellac. While it has a certain "air" and reputation , having been associated with better furniture and instrument making hundreds of years ago, it's argueable whether a shellac finish can stand up to thr rigors of use as well as modern formulations such as polyeurethane, lacquer, or modern tung oil based varnishes.

    In addition, applying Shellac with the French Polish technique IS not only pretty labor intensive, but takes some time and skill to become proficient at.

    Is it truly "the ultimate" as far as finishes for string instruments? I think that's a very subjective thing, and highly questionable these days..

    I can see where some high end acoustic or acoustic/electric guitars / basses might be done via this technique, particularly if the owner is very aware that the instrument will have to be handled as delicately and judiciously as a good violin or viola (especially protecting it from humidity). But IMO it's hard to see any justification for a solid body instrument, especially with the alternative materials available today.

    DAve P.
  3. michael tobias

    michael tobias MTD

    Mar 21, 2002
    French Polish is a VERY hard finish to apply properly. There are few who can do it anywhere. Varnish dampens the tone and it is used to help control the voicing of violins and basses. It is a beautiful finish but for most people who play bass, I think it is not very durable. For that reason, you do not see it very much.

    If I remember correctly, it takes about 2 months to apply a violin finish and then it must cure for a long time before the fiddle can be assembled and played. It is not practical for most modern applications and is so labor intensive that the price may be prohibitive.
    Snaxster likes this.
  4. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    Jeez, Michael, that never stopped a lot of bassists before ;)

    What got me going about the technique is an old Rick Turner article where he said, "Thus you get a right-at-the-surface gloss; you're not looking through the finish, you're looking into the wood" (that's when I began salivating).

    But he did mention the same caveats you and Dave made clear. Although, he made the wear/durability aspect seem to be less of an issue. He said it's easy to touch up, but I don't know if I would trust myself to do that.

    Unfortunately, it sounds like it's a dying art.

    Thanks to you both for explaining very well why we don't see it on high-end customs.
  5. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    One place where it's more or less universal is in the construction of (expensive) classical guitars. That instrument barely has sufficient volume to compete with other stringed instruments, so a light finish that doesn't dampen acoustic tone is preferable to a more durable varnish.

    Not a dying art. Just concentrated and labor intensive.

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