View Full Version : Hand staining instruments

Mar-17-2004, 10:24am
Howdy Everyone,

I have hand stained and lacquered 11 mandolins to date. Seems that the maple always looks great and the spruce is a nightmare. About 1 out of 2 tops seems to have some grain thing happening that makes the top very splochy. So far I've been doing some airbrush shading with colored lacquer to even the sunburst out. There has got to be a better way!!! I'm certain this has been discussed before, but missed thread. I'd love to hear how you all are handling similar situations. Pesonally I like the top to show grain and be a little rustic. However, there is a point where rustic just becomes rough.

Thanks for any guidance or suggestions. --jap--

Jim Hilburn
Mar-17-2004, 11:02am
Seal it with shellac first. Then the stain can't get down in the capillaries of the wood.

Jan Ellefsen
Mar-18-2004, 5:20am
It is interesting to see that Jim Hillburn is using shellack. Some time ago in this forum there was a reckomandation of using very thin hide glue and then I wondered if shellack could do the same job. I recently talked to a violin maker and he used hide glue. It would be interesting to hear if anybody has experience with both methods and tell us about it. The violin maker also used hide glue on ther maple parts. He said that the stain would not make such contrasting patterns in the maple, but he got a much better 3-D impression in the wood. Of course the glue must be sanded afterwards.


Skip Kelley
Mar-18-2004, 6:45am
I too have had the same problem with hand staining the spruce. On my last mando #009. I sealed the top with thinned hide glue. I don't think I will ever use anything else. I brushed on two coats, let dry 24 hrs. and then sanded it with 400 grit. The results were wonderful. Here is a picture.

Jim Hilburn
Mar-18-2004, 8:58am
For the record, I usually spray my stains directly on the bare spruce. This usually enhances the grain of the wood without giving the over-absorption problems of hand staining.
There's a Stew-Mac finishing tape in which Don McRostie uses the thin hide glue method, but I've always assumed shellac would do the same thing.

Mar-18-2004, 1:35pm
How thin should the hide glue be? #Can I have the recipe?

BTW Skip, that is beautiful!

Jim Hilburn
Mar-18-2004, 2:23pm
Thin enough to brush on. The idea is to sand it completely off when it's dry. Then,the glue (shellac) will be down in the pores but the surface wood is clear of glue. That's an important step. If you leave any on the surface, it won't accept stain like the rest. This is one I've learned the hard way.

J. Wiens
Mar-18-2004, 3:54pm
Hi guys, there is a well known finishing article by Eugene Clark in the LMI catalog in which he describes his french polish technique . He also warns against using a hide glue size, or filler..... Now mind you he is talking about it's use under french polish, but in it he says that a player's body heat and moisture , or other excess humidity can cause the glue to bloom & swell and possibly break the suface of the finish and cause alligatoring....Made alot of sense to me..... So based on that & the fact that I use water-based stains I've never tried it.

Has anybody on the list tried pumice and shellac for this same stain-evening purpose? I haven't tried this either, but I see it mentioned in violin making books ...I think it's generally used as a grain filler but also, because of the hardening effect that the pumice has on the surface... to enhance the tone of the instrument. Another bonus (for me) is that it would also be water-stain friendly ......................Jamie

Jim Hilburn
Mar-18-2004, 4:24pm
The use of pumice and shellac as a filler is well covered in R.L. Fernandez' video on french polishing. I like construction video's because I'd rather watch someone demonstrate how it's done than try to do something from just reading about it.
I wonder if pumice would even get down into spruce,though. It has almost microscopic fissures and pores.

Mar-18-2004, 4:42pm
Would a sanding sealer not do the same thing or is that a big NO NO?

Jim Hilburn
Mar-18-2004, 5:50pm
I don't see any use for sanding sealers in mandolin finishing because everything on it is a closed pore wood.Sanding sealer is lacquer with a lot of solids in it to build a thicker coat more quickly. That's not really accomplishing what we're talking about here, but it may well work.
If your hesitant about mixing your own shellac,there is the Bullseye Sealcoat that you can use. This is NOT the stuff you find at HD or other hardware stores. You can usually only find it at specialty woodworking stores like Highland hardware or Rockler. Bad part is I think they only sell it in gallons,but it's good for sealing even if you don't want to try to use it for a complete finish. They say it's good for 3 years,too.

Bill Snyder
Mar-18-2004, 5:59pm
Try a Kelly Moore Paint store. Our local Kelly Moore carries the Zinser Bullseye Sealcoat. You can get a quart for about $7.50.

Magnus Geijer
Mar-18-2004, 6:21pm
Would the Tru-Oil Sealer-Filler work for this, or am I completely off the mark?



Mar-18-2004, 7:19pm
It can be hard to get a good even sunburst on spruce, especially Red spruce in my experience, when rubbed by hand. I do it that way anyway. I don't seal the wood first, just rub the stains on. I've had a lot of practice with hand applied sunbursts and I suspect that is one of the reasons I don't feel a need to seal the wood.
I do touch up the edges of the instrument with an airbrush sometimes, but for the color and desired darkness that I want rather than to get a smoother burst.
You can get a good sunburst by rubbing stain on to spruce, but it takes practice and sometimes special techniques.

Chris Baird
Mar-18-2004, 8:07pm
There are commercially available "soft wood treatments" that are wholely designed to prevent uneven staining in pine, spruce, etc. I haven't used it but plan on giving it a try on some scrap.

Mar-18-2004, 9:10pm
Do you have a link to a source? I might like to experiment with that too.

Chris Baird
Mar-19-2004, 8:09pm
The stuff I have is called "pre-stain conditioner" and is under the brand miniwax. I haven't used it so can't say if it is good or not.

Marty Jacobson
Mar-19-2004, 8:54pm
The Minwax conditioner is mostly for use under Minwax "stains", which are really just tinted polyurethane.

Zinsser Bullseye Sealcoat is just blondish shellac, probably a 2lb cut or thereabouts. I use it because it's the only shellac I know of that can keep for years in mixed form, and the results are identical for sealing applications to old-school shellac. I've known folk to french polish with it, even, though I prefer to mix my own when doing that sort of thing, it's just another added bit of control I have over the process.

All the best.

Bill Snyder
Mar-19-2004, 9:51pm
Olympic and Cabot both make a pre-stain wood conditioner. The Olympic can be found at Lowes. I would wonder if these might have a detrimental effect on tone. I think I would try putting on a thin coat (maybe 1lb cut or thinner?) of shellac instead. Just speculation on my part. I have only put finish on one instrument so far and it is not a sunburst. I tinted my shellac to get the color I wanted.

Jun-22-2009, 9:42pm
I have a can of Stew-Mac aerosol Sanding Sealer. Should I spray this on and sand it down before applying the wood dye? The can says, "Can be applied over ColorTone wood stains," but I'm wondering if I use it before I apply the dye, will it help the dye soak in more evenly. I don't have the setup to use real hide glue, so I'm looking for something that will keep the dye from looking splotchy.
I'm using the aniline dye in the powder form.

Dennis Russell
Jun-22-2009, 11:09pm
I have a DVD here "How to Spirit Varnish by Scott W. Hershey, the reason I am posting this is because in the beginning of the process in the DVD he uses Knox Gelatin diluted with warm water, lets cure for a while 24 to 48 hours then sands it down, The Knox Gelatin is the sealer used on both spruce and the maple...........He is a expert violin builder and wood is wood no matter if it is used on a fiddle or a mandolin, even a guitar, but I have been rebuked about this when the last time I posted, some one said use egg whites to fill pores on wood, but I have had others poo poo at this also so who is right.................Dennis in Az

Bill Halsey
Jun-23-2009, 1:07am
It really depends upon what appearance you're after. For "that" look, I only hand-stain on bare wood, no sealer.


And yes, it can be some dicey. You can bet the newbies in the finishing department at Gibson didn't knock down this trick overnight...

Rick Turner
Jun-23-2009, 1:37am
Knox gelatin is a form of hot hide glue.

I do a combination of hand padded water stains along with airbrushed MEK metal acid dyes from US Cellulose to get a more opaque look when I need that. I'll typically use four colors on a "three color" burst: "warm brown" and a bit of Van Dyke brown at the very edges, yellow for the center, and then red to make the transition from the yellow to the brown. Leave out the red for a more 1920s Gibson look. I lock the color in with two or three coats of Waterlox, and then seal and finish over that.

Jun-23-2009, 4:34am
I saw a video on YouTube where some young fella was saying that you can make Nitrocellulose for an instrument, from ping-pong balls and Acetone


Bill Snyder
Jun-23-2009, 7:08am
Wow. This is one of the oldest threads I have seen resurrected. Over five years ago. I had just finished my first mandolin. I still haven't done a sunburst.

Magnus Geijer
Jun-23-2009, 10:27am

Have you actually used the Knox gelatin for this purpose? I happen to have a whole bunch of it at home that I've had no use for, and now I'm terribly intrigued.


Rick Turner
Jun-23-2009, 1:23pm
I'm not sure that the gram strength is really right for instrument work, but I seem to recall hearing of people using it in a pinch.

Jun-23-2009, 1:43pm
You might as well start a new thread with your specific question. No one's going to notice it buried in this old thread.

Jun-23-2009, 4:34pm
I may try the knox gelatin. I'm a little weary of applying the aniline dye it to bare wood because I know I'm not skilled enough to do it right.
I'm using orange and red aniline to make a light orange to dark red sunburst. I've read that it easier to build up several light coats, rather than starting off with the color you want.

Bill Snyder
Jun-23-2009, 6:59pm
Take a look at this video. (http://www.taunton.com/finewoodworking/SkillsAndTechniques/SkillsAndTechniquesArticle.aspx?id=30182) It might help.

Jun-23-2009, 7:43pm
Excellent video Bill. Thanks.
I wish I had ordered some black aniline to highlight the curly maple. I wonder if a dark red coat followed by sanding would have the same effect?

Dennis Davis
Jun-23-2009, 10:26pm
miniwax makes a sealer for water based stain as well. It works very well but requires 3 coats on spruce to deal with blotching.

Christopher Standridge
Jun-23-2009, 10:49pm
Just try it out on some scrap! And then report your findings.
I am sure that you could help people out as well!

Jun-25-2009, 5:11pm
Thanks for the video link Bill; I was wondering how long this thread would go before that came up.

If you use gellatin, hide glue, or egg whites for a sealer coat, be careful in humid climates- it can mold (sometimes under the finish), the same way hide glue will develop a layer of mold on the top if you let it sit mixed up in the pot with the lid on for too long in between uses.


Jun-26-2009, 4:41pm
It is extremely humid here in Louisiana. Could I spray this ColorTone nitrocellulose sanding sealer on the spruce top--then sand it off--then stain the instrument? Will the dyes soak into the sanding sealer?
Excellent video Mr. Condino. It was very helpful.