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In Search of the Best Finish for a Classical Guitar

You can bring the surface to a smooth sheen by rubbing the wood, with the grain, using a handful of dry spokeshave shavings - before you scoff at the idea, try it.

Drew Langsner, The Chairmaker's Workshop, 1997

The other day I consigned a cedar/Indian rosewood guitar at a guitar shop of a fairly well known guitar maker. He liked my guitars and said that I was doing "a really good job in making them", but he criticized my use of French polish.

He said "Shellac scratches too easily and it doesn't hold up well." He took one of his custom guitars off a wall hanger and showed it to me.

"Here, the way you should go is UV cured catalyzed polyester! You can finish a guitar in a day!" he boasted, "however, you have to wear a hazmat suit to enter the spray booth"

"Why would I do that?" I asked, "I have a very tiny shop and I am trying to be safe and green!"

"It's the finish we like to see these days! Looks like glass, hard, long wearing and very scratch resistant", he replied.

I couldn't help but to notice the slight "orange peel" on the back of the his guitar.

"I've been thinking about going to a water based finished", I said.

"Water based finishes are too pasty looking for my taste!", he fired back, "don't waste your time with them, use a catalyzed polymer or nitro lacquer!"

That was pretty much the end of the conversation and I walked out of the shop.

On the drive home I thought long and hard about what I should use to finish the two guitars that are on my work bench, they need to be finished by the first of June. French polish/shellac is the time honored way to finish high end classical guitars, but shellac takes a long time to harden and continues to shrink, ad infinitum, into any unfilled pore. Not too mention, if you look at a French polished surface cross-eyed you will more than likely scratch it. I would like to revive what George Frank called "an open pore French polish" that he said was very popular in France and the rest of the world in the 1920's. No pore filling, just shellac showing all the beauty of the wood. Problem is most classical guitar players want to own an instrument that has that "perfect factory glass-like finish". And no, no one in the flamenco or classical guitar world wants a guitar that has a soap finish.

I have pretty much decided to go with a water-based lacquer to finish the back, sides and neck of my guitars and French polish the top. There is one company that I will be calling next week to ask "Why should I use your finish for my classical guitars" and see what they say. Their website is very informative and I like the idea of being able to rub out a finish just three to four days after applying it. If I like using a water based finish, once I complete the new workshop I will dedicate a space for a spray booth, yes, I will purchase a HVLP spray gun.

I wonder how many people who read my blog will groan at this post? Wilson not using French polish? It is a wonderful skill to have, but, I am trying to make a living at building and selling my guitars. I am not an amateur. I want the best finish possible for my guitars, that helps bring more customers to me.

Yes, I know there are many guitar makers and players who swear up and down that French polish with shellac is the best finish for a classical guitar, however...

Here is something to think about: the world famous guitar maker, Robert Ruck, who was awarded a life time achievement award from the Guitar Foundation of America in 2016, is considered the man who set the industry standard for classical guitars. He uses a catalyzed polymer finish for his guitars. Shouldn't that be the standard for all classical guitars?

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