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Nitro/Poly/Active Catalyzed? Which finish?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Fingerz, May 7, 2010.

  1. Fingerz


    Jan 21, 2008
    In the stages of completion of a bass I'm having made by a luthier. I was talking to him about different finishes, seems there are three options: Nitro, Poly, and the Active Catalyzed (sim to Nitro from what I can gather).

    I know the old Fenders were Nitro, and I've heard it said that this lets the wood breathe better than the thicker Poly lacquers used today. Having some options on how to finish the bass, I don't know weather to go with a thinner old school finish or just the std Poly lacquer and be done with it. If I thought the wood would age better and allow more tone potential over time I would go with that over a thicker finish as I look after my stuff. The bass in question will be a passive 5 string, and I'm trying to achieve an old school tone so if the finish can aid that, then it's worth a shot!

    Does the finish effect the wood? Is it worth going Nitro/or even Active Cat (not really sure of the difference apart from emissions)??

    Any experience would be greatly appreciated..:)
  2. Spinal Tapper

    Spinal Tapper

    Nov 15, 2007
    some say Poly will SUCK out your tone from the wood...:bag:

    I'd go nitro. I love how it wears and feels. Also I'm not big on really shiny finishes. I like vintage/matte finishes.
  3. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Gold Supporting Member

    I'm not convinced that finish contributes to tone. So, I say get whatever looks or feels better to you.

    Keep in mind that nitro is much weaker and will yellow with age, especially if exposed to cig smoke and/or sunlight, and finish checking (cracking) will occur if the instrument is exposed to extremes of temperature. None of that bothers me, though... I love the "relic" look.

    I don't know enough about catalyzed finishes to comment on them.
  4. Bevo1995


    Nov 8, 2009
    Heart o' Texas
    If you go with lacquer expect your wait time to be about a month longer. If you go with a catalyzed urethane not only can you go with any color imaginable, but it takes less than a week to cure.
  5. johnk_10

    johnk_10 vintage bass nut Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 16, 2008
    Thousand Oaks, CA
    John K Custom Basses
    i've been building and painting bodies since 1974 and IMO, all three finishes will sound dfferent. i prefer nitro lacquer.

    IMO, nitro lacquer sounds the best. its not so much that it lets the wood breath, but it is usually very thin & when it ages,it continues shrinking and becomes extremely hard/brittle and eventually will check.
    IMO, some of the older poly finishes could sound pretty bad, as it was like encasing the body in a thick plastic, which deadened its resonance. however, the newer, thinner hard polys sound very good, but take ALOT longer for the tone to 'age'.

    the trade-offS:
    the nitro finsh is much more fragile, will wear/ding easier, are susceptible to solvents. the new polys are very durable and can actually be wiped off with acetone without effecting them.

    nitro chips/dings can be 'touched up' and the touch-up melts into the original finish. and poly dings cannot, as the touch-up lays on top of the original finish.

    nitro can be polished to a higher gloss than poly, and scratches can be buffed out easier. poly can get almost as glossy, but scratches are usually alot harder to buff out, epecially by hand.

    2 cents.............
  6. bassman10096

    bassman10096 Supporting Member

    Jul 30, 2004
    I tend to agree generally with johnk_10. I've painted a lot of bodies with nitro and poly. But I haven't noticed any major sonic differences between different finishes over a solid body, once the volume's turned up. I love nitro dearly and do a lot of it, but it is fragile. If you crave a relic'd look, nitro will give it to you - I promise. On the other hand, as I've spent more time in and out of venues, I am, frankly, sick of a new ding every month on my nitro bodies. To each his own. Good luck with your new bass. Having one built with you in mind is a lot of fun. :D
  7. dj5


    Sep 17, 2009
    I will give £1000000 to anyone who can hear the difference between poly and nitro finishes on say, two side-by-side cuts from the same plank of timber. I think it's just the instinct to go for the romantic that makes people talk about the wood breathing, and heavy finishes smothering the sound, etc, etc, ad nauseam.
    I know lots of builders say that it's true, but I suspect that it's because some of them are charging $1000 for a nitro finish now. Timber will only dry out to the ambient humidity, so the fact that it might take longer with a poly finish doesn't really matter much. As for a thick finish dampening the vibrations in the body, well if you can hear the difference you must have super powers -and don't forget, nitro finishes can be thick, and poly finishes can be ultra thin. Poly is just a type of varnish, it's not some evil tone-sucking invention of the devil, it just doesn't look quite as nice as nitro, but that's a cosmetic issue, which in my opinion is what the choice is all about.
  8. johnk_10

    johnk_10 vintage bass nut Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 16, 2008
    Thousand Oaks, CA
    John K Custom Basses
    well, i guess that i have 'super-powers' then.
  9. dj5


    Sep 17, 2009
    Well if you have, that's great.
    What do you base that on, given the great difficulty of comparing like-for-like, apart from the finish? It can only really be a feeling that the basses you've heard with nitro tend to sound better in general, or have you made two identical basses only differing in the finish you've given them? If it's the latter, there's a rare opportunity to test out the theory - you could get someone to help you with a blind test. BUT - how can you tell that the difference you're hearing isn't just caused by some inherent quality of the bass, and nothing to do with the finish at all? That's the trouble, how can anyone ever tell?
    I'm not trying to be arsy by the way - I just find the whole "golden ears" thing a bit unlikely, and saying you can hear the difference a finish makes isn't far off the hi-fi loonies who can hear a difference when the pre-amp is made of a particular kind of wood (true example by the way!)
  10. johnk_10

    johnk_10 vintage bass nut Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 16, 2008
    Thousand Oaks, CA
    John K Custom Basses
    i base it on that i've built/repaired/restored more than 5,000 fender basses since 1974 and have personally owned more than 120 of them.
    i was also a consultant to Leo Fender when he started G&L.
    and on at least 20 vintage p and j basses that i have restored back to original, i have removed a refinished poly finish and reshot them with nitro and they sounded livelier afterwards.

    but if you can't tell the difference, more power to you.
  11. Didn't all solid colored nitro finished Fenders come with a thick polyester primer though, therefore making the thinness of the top nitro coat moot?
    I personally use 2 part polyurethane, it is quite toxic but it sprays on thin, dries hard in 3-4 days, rubs to a high gloss and is unaffected by most solvents.
  12. testing1two

    testing1two Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2009
    Southern California
    Remind me to buy you lunch one of these days and pick your brain...or write a book.
  13. BZadlo

    BZadlo Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2008
    Seattle, WA
    I've always felt that poly basses feel a bit more "dead" than nitro ones until I got my Mike Lull bass.
    It has a poly finish but is nice and thin.
  14. BZadlo

    BZadlo Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2008
    Seattle, WA

    +1 on this.
    It's really almost impossible to compare instruments since every single one is different.

    However, I once purchased a poorly refinished EB-O on Ebay. After stringing it up and noodling around I quickly decided to sand off this finish.
    I noticed an astounding difference in the response of the instrument after restringing it. I changed nothing but the finish.
  15. BZadlo

    BZadlo Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2008
    Seattle, WA
    I've also spent a number of years working for an amplifier manufacturer setting up demos and A/B comparisons.
    I noticed that MOST people listen with their eyes.
    Ask a customer to turn around/close their eyes and the perceptions are all over the place.
  16. Webtroll

    Webtroll Rolling for initiative

    Apr 23, 2006
    Austin, TX
    I've heard strange claims including being able to tell the difference in battery brands in pedals. As for the finish I like Laquer. I like the look and feel, and since I like vintage gear it helps bring me the feeling of authenticity instead of the new cheap platic poly finish. I know poly is good, I just like laquer better.
  17. johnk_10

    johnk_10 vintage bass nut Supporting Member Commercial User

    Feb 16, 2008
    Thousand Oaks, CA
    John K Custom Basses
    don't get me wrong. IMO, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good thin poly finish, and the difference in tone is usually very subtle at best. i have found that they do age differently, with IMO, the advantage going to nitro. i have quite a few vintage fender basses, and many of them are poly and sound great, but if i had a choice, i'd go for nitro.
  18. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Gold Supporting Member

    Very true... identical instruments will still sound different because of the variable nature of wood.

    The common ground here is that, like all debates regarding tone, this is nothing more than opinion - i.e. no side can claim the high ground and profess to know The Truth. So, hopefully we will respect each others' opinions and avoid the usual de-evolution of these debates:

    Person X: The difference exists, you just can't hear it because you never wore earplugs, go back to your heavy metal band and leave us adults alone
    Person Y: Your alleged difference is an urban legend, nothing more than audiophile snake-oil, I bet you also buy Monster cable and gold-plated power outlets

  19. restringing makes the sound brighter, everybody knows that :bag:
  20. BassFace55


    Sep 22, 2005
    Its all about the $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

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