Tips for an oil finish?

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by GeoffK, Sep 9, 2004.

  1. GeoffK


    Sep 9, 2004
    I'd like to change the lacquer finish on my DB to an oil finish. Any tips on best oils, best way to strip the old finish, pitfalls to avoid?

    thanks everyone.

  2. BrandonEssex


    Feb 21, 2003
    Berkeley, CA
    I would suggest that you think long and hard about switching to an oil finish, especially if you don't have any experience with finishes.
    First of all, if your bass has a lacquer finish, it's probably not a very expensive instrument, and you may be better off saving your time and money for another instrument.
    2. An oil finish provides no protection whatsoever to the wood underneath. If your bass never leaves the house, or it's an electric bass, then that's fine.
    3. Oil finishes take an extremely long time to dry, and considering that you'll need a few reapplications to get anything that looks nice, your bass will probably be out of commission for over a month. If that is okay, you might as well learn to do a french polish, which is the way most nice basses are finished anyway.
    4. If your bass needs a new finish because the old one is damaged or horribly ugly, you can reapply lacquer much more quickly, and get better protection and looks than a first attempt at oil or french polish.
    So, if you want to refinish your bass as a project, and you want to use oil, Solvent 17 is a good way to remove lacquer. It is H2O soluble, so clean up is easy, but if you get it on your skin, it will burn. There are some effective strippers that take longer, and are safer, just ask at the paint store. Make sure to use boiled linseed oil if you use straight oil. Regular linseed oil will not dry at all. There are also blended finishes availible, such as boiled linseed oil and varnish, ask at the paint store again, see what they have. If you go ahead, take your time and have fun!
  3. Martin Sheridan

    Martin Sheridan

    Jan 4, 2001
    Fort Madison, Iowa
    Bass Maker
    Here's my opinion. Stripping lacquer is an absolute drag. If you must, see if you can pay somebody else to do it!
    I don't agree with Brandon above about oil varnishes, and I've never met any one in a paint store who knew anything about them. I use Tru-oil varnish which is sold in gun stores as a gunstock finish and like it better than anything I've ever got from a luthier supply or made myself. It will dry in two hours.
    You'll need to color it with something. Check out the supply houses for your favorite poison. All in all it's probably not worth it for you to do it. Expect a lot of down time and prepare to be disappointed with the results. When I first started making basses I thought the wood work was the hardest part to get right. Thirty years later I think it's the varnishing. Though some would say I haven't got either right yet!
  4. GeoffK


    Sep 9, 2004
    many thanks to you both for your valuable insights, guys.

    a little more info: It is a double bass, a recently-purchased new student model (solid back and sides, laminate top).

    I am a recording jazz guitarist/vocalist -- if you're curious you can hear my stuff at -- and a bass player for recording purposes only (i.e. I don't anticipate playing double bass live).

    I anticipate using it almost entirely at home (in a humidity and temperature controlled environment), and in any case a few dings never bother me. My nylon-string guitar (my main instrument) is an oil finish and the sound is so different to a lacquer instrument that I could not conceive of going back to lacquer. However, not being highly sensitized to the subtleties of bass sounds, I wonder if the difference is as noticeable....any thoughts?

    Brandon, altho' I appreciate your exhortation to save my money for another bass, I -- not being a bass player per se - anticipate that this will be my only instrument, and so I am prepared to do whatever I can to optimize the sound.

    I am looking for a very traditional sound (i.e. bossa nova, jazz standards) -- I was thinking of stringing with gut to get this, but I am concerned that I would have to set the action impossibly high...thoughts on this?

    Martin, I have found a good deal of support for your views on Tru-oil -- and by writing to the company, I managed to find two UK suppliers (the maker is not permitted to ship oils outside the continental US) -- the price for the three oz bottles is astronomical (about 10x what it costs in the US) so I am going to see about the larger bottles. Any suggestion about how much I will need.

    colour -- the bass is right now that kind of auburn orangey-brown - ugh! I would like a dark "antique" finish -- any suggestions? A walnut stain, perhaps? oil or water based?

    I have some experience with furniture refinishing, and since time and effort spent is not a factor, I don't mind doing the work. One chap from another bass forum suggested that I skip the lacquer stripper and just take to it with coarse sandpaper by hand -- this approach, I confess, concerns me -- coarse sandpaper would gum up pretty quick I would think, and so I am more inclined to use stripper, followed by a medium fine paper (100 or so), using a sanding sponge for the fine work on the scroll, neck and bouts, and a power sander for the larger surfaces. Opinions?

    many, many thanks again chaps. Hope to hear from you.

  5. BrandonEssex


    Feb 21, 2003
    Berkeley, CA
    Definitely listen to Martin before me, all my experience is with pianos and furniture, and one very odd paint store, I suppose, where I met some guys that really knew what they were talking about. Must have been a fluke..... I'll try some tru-oil too, sounds like good stuff! :)
    Anyway, if sound is what you're after, I'd start with strings, as that is a sure way to change the sound of your instrument with the least investment. If you want a darker, more traditional sound, you'll want a softer string, but there are many options in between Spirocores and all gut. Innovation makes two types of synthetic core strings , both called "piccato" (sp?). The jazz strings are solid core and very large in diameter. They sound huge, but are somewhat stiff and difficult to play. The orchestral version of these strings has a braided core, and they are somewhat eaiser to play. I like these quite a bit and am using them now. They sound a bit strange when new, however, so if you go with these, you'll want to reserve judgement until they break in. Another option would be Pirastro oliv. These are gut core, and all in all probably the best sounding string I've put on my bass yet. They are very pricey, however, about 300 USD, and will most likely last about 6 months. Mine were on for six months, and then they all self destructed in the space of a week, but they sounded awesome until then. If you don't play every day they may last longer, I don't know. A less expensive alternative would be Pirastro obligato, (@90 USD). These are pretty good, last a long time, are pretty easy to play, but they aren't nearly as warm and round as the olivs.
    All this, and your bass will react the way it does, meaning that trying a few things out will be the only way to know for sure.
    On gut strings, they are very flexible, so a higher action will be more eaisily playable than with steel or synthentic. Stay away from Eurosonics, they claim to be like gut, but are just very very strange..... I'd also avoid nylon strings of any kind, unless you can try them ahead of time, they tend to be dissapointing, though they are mellow, and very easy to play.
    So my two cents just became two bucks, whadda ya know....
  6. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    San Francisco, CA
    IMO, I wouldn't waste my time, especially if the bass is just going to sit at home/studio. A varnish vs. an oil or some other finish prob won't make that much of a difference in sound from what I remember from reading other peoples thread. A DB isn't a classical guitar nor are the physical characteristics going to affect it the same. Apples and oranges. Sounds like more trouble than it's worth. I'd rather save my money and spend it on a good setup & FB dressing and on the search for the right set of strings. Maybe a new tailpiece cord or custom bridge even. It still will take you weeks just to let a set of strings settle in to see how they'll sound.

    Instead of fixing the bass in the shed, I'd rather be shedding on the bass. That's time better spent. :)
  8. GeoffK


    Sep 9, 2004
    man, you guys are all so helpful. This is dynamite! Ken, I read about the Behlan's yesterday, and I think I will try that instead of the Tru-oil (I had a look at -- who was it? jlammy? -- step-by-step, with pics, finishing of the Sam Shen SB100, and it was such a beautiful job that I was sold on that approach).

    may I ask what we mean by "glazing" -- just another term for applying?

    is there agreement on using strong tea as a first step to take the "blueish purple" out of white wood?

    some terms I don't know -- "madder"?

    thanks again all -- I will post pics when this herculean task is done. I hope to do you all proud!

  9. jstiel

    jstiel Jim Stiel

    Jun 5, 2004
    Lake Orion, MI
  10. Here's a link to a violin makers site describing how he uses the glazing method.

    I've never been a big fan of using tanic acid (strong tea) on tone wood except when I'm trying to "age" an new piece of repair wood to come closer to matching the appearance of the old wood in an instrument. I don't see any place for it during a refinish. Except for the traditional yellow ground, any kind of stain on the bare wood usually ends up looked worse than using nothing at all. Most factory made instruments simply spray the color finish over the "white" wood without any color in the wood itself.
  11. may I ask what we mean by "glazing" -- just another term for applying?

    Glaze is coloring applied between or on top of varnish. It should be transparent. There are many types, I like artists oil colors that you can get at the art store. Mix them with oil varnish such as Behlens Rock Hard so it makes a thin but not runny consistency and fingerpaint it on the bass which has a smooth varnish layer already applied , dried and rubbed out. Use your hands, paper towels stippling brushes or whatever you like to get the age and wear pattern good. Any streaks will stick out like a sore thumb so use you eye with good light streaming across the bass. Wait until the glaze is slightly dry but not real dry. Test the glaze by rubbing your hand across it lightly and if you get the feel of fine sandpaper and hear a hissing sound you are ready to apply a coat of clear varnish. This is important in making the glaze layer transparent. Colors are to your taste and not all artists oil colors are transparent and good quality. The cost will be a general guide to quality, don't go cheap here! Squeeze some of it out of the tube and roll it inbetween you finger and thumb, it should be smooth not gritty. Colors I like are Asphaltum and Alizerin Crimson by Gamblin. Also, Grumbacher Alizerin Crimson Golden and Burnt Umber is a nice combo. Make sure it is TRANSPARENT! It should be written on the tube. Test this process on a piece of wood with different combinations of glaze.

    is there agreement on using strong tea as a first step to take the "blueish purple" out of white wood?

    Hah, that is funny, there is no aggreement on anything related to violin finishing. This can look good though. I like a yellow ground though and actually my finishing process uses a ground with beeswax, amber varnish, gamboge. This is a whole other subject (ground) and not too important for a plywood bass. Tea is good as is safron I have heard. Or even yellow Aniline dye (of the lightfast type)

    some terms I don't know -- "madder"?

    thanks again all -- I will post pics when this herculean task is done. I hope to do you all proud!

  12. GeoffK


    Sep 9, 2004
    thanks to you all for your help, chaps. I almost feel like I might be able to do this...if I take it veerrrrrrry slowly