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"Violin Varnish" verses plain old shellac

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by Chasarms, Nov 26, 2003.


  1. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Bettendorf, IA USA
    I have read through the few posts here on re-finishing and specifically stripping plywoods.

    I have an ES9. I really like the feel of the bass, and I have spent enough time and money on set up and string combinations to get it to be a very serviceable instrument, both in my opinion (which ultimately matters) and in the opinion of a few other guys who have played it.

    Anyway. I have decided that I want to strip it of the polygoo that is on it now. Unlike others who have done this, I have only clear poly to strip. There is no nasty orange color on it. It was basically sprayed with poly straight over the white. I plan on just using the least caustic chemical stripper that will do the job.

    Also, unlike some others, the wood on this bass, despite being a plywood, it very attractive. The side and back have a very attractive flame. I want to preserve the transparency so that flame is featured, but at the same time make the bass look more conservative and less of whatever you want to call it now.

    Much of the discussion here involves tru-oil and other rub on stuff. I suppose this could be rubbed on after staining the bass, but from my research most real luthiers feel, and it makes sense to me, that the color should be in the finish, not the wood.

    I have found several recipes for violin varnish as well as a few premixed offerings labeled as such. Excluding the oil-based varieties, most seemed to be shellac in denatured alcohol with various additives like gum of this and gum of that for hardening and softening. Boil for X and let sit for y.

    I know this craft has been developed over centuries and these ingredients and the alchemy have some great advantages. I am just not aware of what those advantages are.

    I have done shellac before on furniture with pretty good results. My thoughts were to simply wash on 1# cut coats one after another using whatever combination of yellow, orange and garnet that I was able to work out as likable.

    I have done this before on a raw desk and just worked out the finish with steele wool every few coats. I was very happy with the results. I don't mind taking the several days it takes to build up a nice, protective finish.

    But I would try the recipe and the extras if the advantage is worth it on an Engelhardt.

    Remember, my goal is get the base fairly dark but with transparency to allow the flame to be featured. And get the best tonal response possible all things considered.
     
  2. If you insist on using a spirit (alcohol based) varnish, I suggest you use the basic 1704 violin varnish. This uses unrefined seedlac and IMO gives a more natual violin color than using refined shellac products. However, building a darker shade requires multiple coats. The problem is that the alcohol solvent tends to disolve the previous coats so you have to have a good varnish brush and NEVER brush over the same spot more than once or it will remove the previous coats. If you have spray facilites, spirit varnish sprays very well and avoids the brushing problems.

    Although oil based varnishes take more time to dry, they do make it much easier to apply multiple coats and achieve darker colors. They also do not chip as badly as spirit varnishes and IMO produce a more transparent, longer lasting finish. The downside ofcourse is that while you can apply a spirit varnish in days, some oil violin varnishes can take weeks or even months to dry unless you live in an area where the sun shines brightly year round or have a black light drying cabinet.
     
  3. Martin Sheridan

    Martin Sheridan

    Jan 4, 2001
    Fort Madison, Iowa
    Bass Maker
    If you use Siam seedlac in the 1704 varnish it produces a very dark brown varnish. A few coats over a yellow ground will produce a light brown color and more coats will produce a darker brown.
     
  4. If your goal is highlight the flame in the wood, you might consider using Kusmi seedlac which produces a more golden brown color. However, as Martin mentioned Siam seedlac will produce a darker brown.
     
  5. Lately, I've been adding small amounts mastic and sandrac to the basic 1704 varnish. The mastic improves adherence between coats, and the sandarac adds a bit of hardness. It seems to go on a little easier than the straight 1704, and thus far appears more durable.
     
  6. I would like to add that I stopped using 1704 or any other spirit varnish about 20 years ago when I discoved that instruments that I had varnished with spirit varnish were not holding up in normal use nearly as well as those I had done with oil varnish. I keep some spirit varnishes around for touch-up, but that's about all I use them for these days.
     
  7. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Chasarms--It seems to me that with your experience in using shellac, this could be the way to go. The top-reputed luthier in the world at this time uses it, as do many others. I personally think it is superior to the formulated spirit varnishes. A little refined English turpentine mixed in will add a bit of workability into the brushing. (Only use fresh turp from a glass bottle.) I prefer oil varnish, as Bob B. does, yet I've worked on many old Yankee basses finished with nothing but shellac which were in great condition. Another possibility for you to consider--anything sticks to shellac; so when you've achieved a color you like, you can sand lightly and apply a couple coats of oil varnish over the shellac. A very famous award-winning German luthier does just that, to wonderful result.
     
  8. Unless Engelhardt has changed their procedures since late 1999 the S-9, Swingmaster, ES9 whatever you want to call it, is finished with nitrous cellulose lacquer. Where did the "polygoo" come from? My understanding from Engelhardt was when you buy their top of the line instrument you get a nicer finish. After four years of messing around with various bridges and seeing how easily it scratches plus how it has yellowed I really believe it's lacquer and why would you want to strip that off? Just to make it darker? IMHO you'll regret it if you strip it.
     
  9. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    Lacquer is widely regarded as an inferior finish for stringed (bowed) instruments.
     
  10. Martin Sheridan

    Martin Sheridan

    Jan 4, 2001
    Fort Madison, Iowa
    Bass Maker
    Like Bob, I haven't used the 1704 in a long time. It's a good finish, but it chips to easily.
    The best spirit varnish I've seen is Behlen's, but I don't personally use it. Nitro-cellulose is death to sound, and I can't stand the smell.
    Lately I've been using Tru-oil, and I love it. It's easy to use, drys fast, and looks better than the German commercial oil varnishes.
     
  11. The Behlen's spirit violin varnish is one of best commercially available varnishes. It is however not without problems. I once sprayed a coat of Behlen's over the existing varnish on a bass that did not need a total refinishing. The varnish has held up very well and does not seen to chip too easily. The problem is with drying. As best of my memory, it dries to the touch in 3 or 4 hours. Three weeks after application, it was put in its case for the first time. It still bears the pattern of the case lining where it touched. It was probably 2 months before it would no longer print. It behaves very much like oil varnish and would probably be fine if you could dry it in the sun or have a black light box.
     
  12. Martin Sheridan

    Martin Sheridan

    Jan 4, 2001
    Fort Madison, Iowa
    Bass Maker
    Bob,
    Since Spirit Varnishes have a shelf life, I'm wondering if yours was old. We use it in the shop for touch up and to varnish neck grafts etc., and I haven't seen that problem.
     
  13. Negative - fresh stock. I use it for touchup too.
     
  14. Could I just ask two questions of the wizards of basses without starting a new thread?

    All.. some.. a few.. Engelhardt or Kay Swingmasters finished with nitrocellulose lacquer will sound better, louder, more open with a strip job and a spirit or oil varnish finish? Isn't it a crap shoot? How can that micro thin layer of lacquer or shellac on top of laminated plys really matter?

    Question #2: If a pro refinished Swingmaster is for resale in your shop doesn't the refin kill the price?

    Thanks wizards, anybody working on a book yet? (ok, maybe that was 3 questions. I mean mebbe!)
     
  15. Sure - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

    About your other questions -

    (1) Nitro Cellulose lacquer is not a particular good finish for instruments because it doesn't hold up. It scratches easily, chips, flakes off, becomes brittle and turns yellows over time. Other than that, it's fine. Sound wise, it's probably better than the heavy plastic gook that they use. You would have to lay it on pretty thick for it to have much of a deadening effect on a ply bass. (Martin Sheridan may disagree)
    (2) No. Probably increase it if done by a pro.
     
  16. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Bettendorf, IA USA
    My experience with nitro is on old guitars and EBGs. As mentioned, nitro is hard and brittle. You may be able to scratch it or chip it with your fingernail, but you wouldn't be able to press an indentation into it. I can press an indentation into the finish on my Swingmaster. It may well be nitro. If so, it is still soft.

    I'm not worried about the value of the bass. It is, afterall, a plywood Engelhardt. Fine for me, but not exactly the first choice of the London Philharmonic.

    I have no pro experience finishing basses, but I have put shellac on wood before. I don't think I will be able to get to it before it turns off cold so it may be spring. I will post photos for all the TB world to see and judge. Good or bad.
     
  17. Martin Sheridan

    Martin Sheridan

    Jan 4, 2001
    Fort Madison, Iowa
    Bass Maker
    Many years ago when I was in graduate school I read a book on the acoustical affects of various finishes. The author concluded that it didn't matter what you used as long as you didn't use too much of it. That may be the case with the Englehardts? I wouldn't bother to refinish a plywood bass. I have stripped heavily lacquered carved basses and refinished them with oil varnish. The results were phenonmenally successful; comparing the sound before and after. Heavily applied nitro just doesn't allow the plates to vibrate.
     
  18. Another negative I just learned about nitrocellulose lacquer is that it can be marred by constant contact with plastic.(from Bob Flexner's book) So beware of plastic coated stands or hangers if you have a nitrocellulose instrument.

    (I made a big batch of guitar hangers in my wood- shop using vinyl tubing and must now find an alternative. Neoprene?)
     
  19. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    I read that during WWI many workers in the nitroglycerin/TNT factories who had heart trouble, especially angina, found they felt great and were without pain when at work. This supposedly led to the development of nitro as a remedy for angina. Also, the hard residue which formed on the floors and benches and lab equipment led the factory owners to market a version for "lacquering", which we now call nitrocellulose. I probably read this 20 years ago, so if someone has more info, please charm in...

    Which leads me to a really bad joke:
    Husband: So, what did the doctor say about your condition?
    Wife: Doc says I have accute angina.
    Husband: I've been telling you that for years...

    Bah-DUMP-bump!
     
  20. More charming tidbits:

    From the book Wood Finishing With George Frank:

    "The relationship between chemistry and wood finishing is similar to that between mother and child. Elementary chemistry has taught wood finishers about the protective and decorative values of oils, waxes, and gums; progressive chemistry has taught us about dyes we can extract from plants or refine from coal tar, and has shown us the incredible potential of shellac.

    During World War I, nitrocellulose was the prime material used in the making of explosives...At the end of the war the fighting nations had a huge stockpile of the material...the destructive compound became the prime material in the most important finishing product of our time. To some extent, the biblical prediction-that swords will be made into plowshares-was fulfilled."

    So a girl named Delores goes into a bar..