View Full Version : Vintage Gibson Finishes

Mar-13-2006, 6:01am
It's great to have the Vintage Instruments forum; thanks for whomever put it together.

I am sure this has been discussed before elsewhere, by why not here...

What type of finishes does the teens and twenties Gibson A's, oval hole F's and F-5's have?
My uninformed opinion is that it varied by product and date. However, were most of them oil varnished with a French finish top coat, or did it vary by era with different things?

A 1921 F-4 I am familiar with is Cremona colored with an oil varnish finish which I believe was French polished. I have been told that the Cremona finish on a '21 F-4 is rare, that Loar was experimenting with such finishes then. At any rate, I thought this could be an interesting and informative discussion with all you vintage experts out there!

Mar-13-2006, 7:54am
They are believed to be shellac/french polished.. cremona ones from '21 are fairly thin on the ground, and that is the prevailing wisdom- prototypes of the F5 finish

Paul Hostetter
Mar-13-2006, 6:30pm
I believe it was a more complicated finish than just a French polish, because it doesn't behave like French polish in certain key ways. It is:

1) very heat sensitive
2) doesn't strip or chemically soften easily, as a typical shellac/alcohol finish would.

It was applied with a pad like French polish, but behaved quite different afterwards. So it falls in the corner of that the broad category of spirit varnishes that contains a significant oil component as well as an alcohol carrier. Straight FP (which is also consider "spirit varnish" but essentially amounts to shellac) dries hard quickly and stays that way. I truly wish I knew what that old formula really was. There are a lot of similar finishes one sees on violins too, but none quite like the Gibson finish.

Bill Halsey
Mar-20-2006, 9:18pm
The subject of varnish seems to surface here occasionally, so here are a few ideas to toss around.

Having lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan most of my adult life I had a lot of casual exposure to Gibson products and history. Occasionally I would find someone who seemed to know first-hand answers to my questions in those days.

There was a paint and art supply store downtown, operated by an old man named Al Lakey. It had been there forever and so had he. He decorated his street window with parts of Gibson instruments, rejects from the factory. Plenty of that stuff around town in those days.

Lakey knew a great deal about the technology and history of paints and varnishes, as well as the local history. It was probably in the 1960s that I asked Mr. Lakey if he had any idea what sort of varnish Gibson used before the advent of lacquer. Without a word, he went to a back shelf and brought forth two small cans, blew off the dust and set them on the counter. The brand was Benjamin Moore & Co. (still a very high-quality brand in the U.S.). I read the analysis and asked about the “quick drying” claim on the label. He said it referred to the old-fashioned “quick-drying”, meaning overnight. The label specifies setting time 2 hours, and drying time 5 hours. But he said overnight is best.

I purchased the old varnish and used it a few times on instruments, and it seemed to work well; yellowing and texture eventually becomes much like the subject instruments.

I’ll attach a photo of the label.
The general analysis reads as follows:

Non-Volatile (Tung Oil, Linseed, Phenolic Resin, Ester
Gum, Rosin, Napthenate Dryers) . . . 44.5%
Volatile (Mineral Spirits) . . . . . 55.5%

This all seems to make some sense, as Gibson always had a great number of instruments in production at any given time which would allow for a rotation system for varnishing and drying. There are photos from those early days at 225 Parsons St. of a very large varnishing room, draped with fabric curtains at an angle to catch falling dust, etc. Clearly, varnishing was a major part of the production effort.

The use of dryers in the varnish, the widely variable weather conditions in Michigan, and the possibility that the workers may have more or less pushed the recoat time a little, I think provides a fair accounting for the various
degrees and patterns of craquelure apparent in the Gibson instruments of that period (pre-1925). Building up coats with the old commercial linseed oil varnish is always tricky; the label specifies that it must harden thoroughly and to use “OO” sandpaper between coats. However, if it hardens too much, sanding can expose a layer signature between coats when rubbing down.

Many agree that there seems to be a topcoat of French polish on these old instruments; it’s a quick way to hide any scratches or layer signatures from sanding.

I should stress that I assume what Al Lakey showed me was a typical example of what Gibson would have used in the early days, and that the original varnish may or may not have been made by the Benjamin Moore Company. Gibson’s records from that period were known to have been lost in a fire, but diligent investigation into the records of varnish suppliers of that era might reveal the manufacturer and exact composition of what was supplied to Gibson. However, I don’t think that is so important as simply considering what the average composition and method of application was for commercial varnish at that time. They would have used a lot of it, and it must have been fairly easy to apply. Remember, the term “quick-dry” did not mean then what it means now. I believe that the napthenate dryer may be a significant ingredient, both for efficiency and to eventually cause the craquelure. Of course the idea here is that, being a production factory, Gibson’s concern was to make instruments efficiently and economically (much of their wood came from Michigan) with as much common skill level as possible.

Grand Rapids, a town to the north, was a large furniture-manufacturing center with many fine carvers, joiners and finish craftsmen. Some of them may well have been recruited to move to Kalamazoo to work at Gibson. My guess is that whatever varnish or polish was used on furniture, also found its way onto instruments.

A very helpful book is “Formulas For Painters” by Robert Massey. It contains much of the technology of the time we are interested in, and many of his own insights.

Mar-21-2006, 2:02pm
billbows -- great post

Ken Waltham
Mar-21-2006, 2:27pm
That is a great post. And, I don't doubt it for a minute. It only stands to reason that in the factory setting they are going to do the most expedient method, but, get the best job they can.
It makes perfect sense to me.

Mar-21-2006, 8:29pm
mmmmm...is it home made, no its Betty Crocker http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Tom Smart
Mar-22-2006, 12:55pm

Your post is the only one I have seen on this particular subject that makes any sense at all. Thank you.

I'm planning an article for the IAMA magazine, the monthly magaine of our local bluegrass and acoustic music association. The article will look at the ways some manufacturers and individuals have promoted their products by claiming to have unlocked "the secret of Stradivari," "the secret of Lloyd Loar," etc., usually though some kind of mysterious alchemical varnish voodoo (since that's the one thing people can't just directly measure and attempt to copy).

I'm not sure what shape the article will take yet. It seems to be a touchy subject, and it's hard to find the right balance. But I may want to refer to your anecdote and thoughts on the matter, and possibly even include one of the images you posted. I hope you don't mind. Let me know if that would bother you.


Paul Hostetter
Mar-22-2006, 1:43pm
Many agree that there seems to be a topcoat of French polish on these old instruments;

It's also fairly well known that the old Gibsons finsihes were applied with a pad: not the topcoat (never heard that before, and I don't see evidence of that on old instruments) but the whole finish.

The non-volatile ingredients are the usual ones, but no proportions are described, so the real formula isn't there. It seems counterintuitive that this stuff could be padded on. Sure would love to find some and try it though.

The "secret of Stradivari" varnish stems from an old myth. The instruments that carried the Strad reputation into the modern era have largely been refinished. Very few Strads have original varnish. Or necks and scales. Even if they did, it wouldn't tell us much about what they sounded like 300 years ago.

Mar-22-2006, 1:58pm
Bill, thanks much for that post! It really filled in some gaps for me.

I had already concluded that Gibson likely used a phenolic resin varnish in the "Loar era", simply because that was probably easiest to find at the local paint store, or wherever, in those days. Alkyd resins weren't really common until later, from what I've read.

I'm like Paul, though, The teens Gibsons seem like something else. Looks like shellac to me, and I see no layers or top coats.

PS. I assume that can is empty now(?) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Darryl Wolfe
Mar-22-2006, 3:31pm
I agree with sunburst. I believe there were two distinct finishes. Varnish of some sort as Bill says with a "topcoat/french polish". This may have been reserved for higher end instruments or possibly started at a particualr point. The teens finish seems to be more of a simple shellac finish, but I am certainly no expert on shellac. My experience indicates that airbrushed shellac produces a similar looking finish to the teen mandos

Paul Hostetter
Mar-22-2006, 4:32pm
The teens finish seems to be more of a simple shellac finish

I have never been able to budge it with alcohol. Or even acetone. That's why I think it's not a shellac.

I'm also wondering how Mr Lakey of Kalamazoo could have had a product on his shelves in the 60s that was used on Gibsons half a century earlier.

Jim Hilburn
Mar-22-2006, 5:53pm
Did they even have those kind of paint cans in the early 20's?

Tom Smart
Mar-22-2006, 7:05pm
Did they even have those kind of paint cans in the early 20's?
Yes. Visit the Benjamin Moore web site, and you can see a pictorial archive of their products and advertising over the last 100+ years:

Benjamin Moore Archive (http://www.benjaminmoore.com/wrapper_pg2art.asp?L=info&K=hist&N=coinfo&art=7.2.1)

You'll see paint cans much older than the 1920s in that style, and you'll see labels, samples and ads in a style very consistent with the varnish can pictured above.

Also note: Bill specifically says that he's NOT claiming to know they used THAT specific product. He's saying they most likely used something similar that could be purchased off the shelf.

I would be very surprised if a major manufacturer like Gibson--concerned with production numbers, finishing and curing time, and ultimately the bottom line--would have used any kind of secret voodoo recipe when they could have purchased something like that off the shelf.

Just my uninformed opinion,

PS--I agree with Paul's assessment that the "secret of Strad" probably has little to do with the varnish, given that so little original varnish remains. But the theory got a huge shot in the arm when no less than the Hill Brothers (who probably examined more Strads than anyone else in history) touted the varnish as the "secret" in their biography of Stradivari. It's a powerful myth in the popular imagination even today, thanks (?) to the self-promoting efforts of guys like Joseph Nagyvary.

I find the whole "secret to Loar, Strad, Del Gesu, fill-in-the-blank" topic fascinating, not because of what it says about instruments themselves, but what it says about the people who promote the "secret" and the people who buy into it.

Bill Halsey
Mar-22-2006, 8:34pm
Guess I've got my foot in it now -- here goes...

Re 'teens Gibsons: My experience with the mando finishes of this era certainly says there are layers of something. I don't violate the original finish unless it's in the course of restoring either it or some underlying problem. The times I have had to work my way through the top coat, it has acted a lot like very old shellac. As shellac ages, esp. dewaxed shellac, it becomes less and less solvent in alcohol. This top coat will eventually give way to alcohol mixed with a limonene, exposing an under layer of finish of an apparently different solvency. It is typically hard and smooth, but will show sanding scratches and small irregularities that were filled in by the top coat.

I have a passal of these 'teens awaiting one thing or another to bring them up, and some will involve bits of finish work. No time now, but as I work through them I'll post what I find, if anything of value.

Tom, that Ben Moore archive is great! Thanks!!

Paul: "I'm also wondering how Mr Lakey of Kalamazoo could have had a product on his shelves in the 60s that was used on Gibsons half a century earlier." -- Probably because Lakey was standing in his shop a half century earlier, as well. If you saw him and his shop, you'd believe it. Again, I'm not so sure these particular cans of varnish were from the teens or 20s; they're pretty old, but I think he was illustrating a point. The suggestion here is not that Gibson bought their varnish from Lakey; merely that he seemed to know what they used.

Sunburst: "PS. I assume that can is empty now(?)" -- No, it's still about a third full, somewhat thinner than varnishes nowadays, and it hasn't skinned over. It's only a half-pint.

Paul: "It's also fairly well known that the old Gibsons finsihes were applied with a pad" -- How can one tell? It's sometimes pretty thick inside the scrolls and under the fingerboard on the extension.

Tom: "...possibly even include one of the images you posted. I hope you don't mind." -- I certainly wouldn't post it here if that were a problem. I'll PM you a higher res. of it if you want. There may be a tech support person at Ben Moore who could help with your IAMA article -- may be an interesting distraction if they have time for it. Please share your findings with us.

Jim Hilburn
Mar-23-2006, 9:24am
I did a quick search and found out the first patent for a metal paint can with a tightly sealed lid was in 1868.

Darryl Wolfe
Mar-23-2006, 9:59am
The teens finish seems to be more of a simple shellac finish

I have never been able to budge it with alcohol. Or even acetone. That's why I think it's not a shellac.
Paul, I find this interesting as we have "opposite experiences". Maybe there is a datable change in finishes or something. I worked on a brown 23 snakehead a while back and had some trouble with the original finish dissolving too much when french polishing a small area. So there is something to be discovered based on your experience and mine as a whole.

Mar-23-2006, 10:00am
Thanks Bill for bringing this out!
On emore support for comercial varnish is the fact that they couldn't vait weeks for traditional violin varnish to dry. They finished the instruments all the year round, and product like what Bill shows is VERY probable. I believe it can be applied with a pad too, though I don't really know How Loars were finished.

Mar-24-2006, 4:19am
OK, how about this one. I spoke with a builder recently who was speculating that the earliest true Gibson sunbursts (the red ones circa 1914) appear to be sprayed. Any thoughts? Did that equipment exist then?

Tom Smart
Mar-24-2006, 12:17pm
According to Wikipedia, the airbrush was invented in 1879 and essentially perfected by 1893.

Mar-24-2006, 12:41pm

I've worked in art supply stores in the past, and before electric airbrushes and pantone sheets, graphic artists used a simple device that you blew through to get that effect. No reason why it could'nt be used on a mandolin...?


Paul Hostetter
Mar-24-2006, 12:55pm
Airbrushes powered by human lungs go way back before that. Millennia. It's about what was sprayed that helps date what was going on. Dr. DeVilbiss's invention of the spray gun in the early 1800s was for applying medicine and anesthetic to dental patients. Probably something like a perfume sprayer. The squeezable rubber bulb was the technological advance.

Nitrocellulose was discovered by a Swiss guy named Schönbein in 1846, but it wasn’t until 1868 that a method was perfected to stabilize nitrocellulose that led to considerable use in the production of celluloid in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. And it was not until the invention of the real modern spray gun around 1907 that cellulose lacquers began to gain any real popularity as a coating. Cellulose solutions were used as dope for aircraft production during WWI, and their use as coatings for furniture and instruments developed soon thereafter. We’re talking 1918 – 1920.

So spraying finishes on instruments and furniture (and aircraft) certainly preceded Dupont’s products, and probably a lot of things were tried. The impetus to DuPont’s product was the appearance of Henry Ford’s assembly line and the need to get a finish on quick and fast. Alkyd enamel replaced nitro lacquer for automotive finishes fairly quickly. I think it was hard to always find parking spots in the shade.

At any rate, sprayable nitro is an invention of the mid 1920s, and if anyone was spraying shellac, spirit varnish, or natural lac bug-based finish before that...well, except for airplane doping, I’ve never been able to substantiate it. Martin and Gibson started using nitro (and spray equipment) in the 1920s. The entire industry, from furniture to instruments, used brushes and pads until Duco came along.

Dupont introduced Duco, their proprietary - and the first commercial – nitrocellulose finish, in 1923 but spraying of lac-based concoctions must have been around a bit longer, since the technology existed. I thought I’d seen sprayed spirit varnish finishes on cheap violins from around WWI, but knowledgeable people in France insist that they were brushed on, not sprayed.

The thing is that a lot of those old finishes are so well done, you'd think they were sprayed lacquer. Those guys knew how to use a brush, pads, sandpaper, and pumice better than we do! Now we have people who are so good with a spray gun that they can replicate the old padded finishes to a degree that it’s hard to tell which is which.


1932. The venting was the airshaft out the window behind the booth. The woman in the picture is still alive in Paris.

Bill Halsey
Mar-24-2006, 6:36pm
Brilliant posting, Paul -- thank you for the history & photo!

Paul Hostetter
Mar-24-2006, 6:58pm
Here's some spraying from 10,000 years ago:



Mar-24-2006, 7:57pm
The woman in the picture is still alive in Paris.
That's good to know, considering she's not wearing a respirator, and that doesn't look like an explosion proof air shaft!

Bill Halsey
Mar-24-2006, 9:07pm
OK, how about this one. I spoke with a builder recently who was speculating that the earliest true Gibson sunbursts (the red ones circa 1914) appear to be sprayed. Any thoughts? Did that equipment exist then?
I've certainly wondered about that. I have yet to see one that is entirely convincing, but some of them certainly come close. What usually tips the balance is when I see evidence of some of the problems that I experience myself when I try to do one.
I don't have a sunburst from 1914, but here's one from early 1915:

Bill Halsey
Mar-24-2006, 9:10pm
Here's another one from the same year, a couple months later:

Mar-24-2006, 9:50pm
ahhh, this is a GREAT thread - i know absolutely nothing about finishes, but this was an interesting read - makes me kind of chuckle at the posts i read some time ago about charlie derrington spending years to develop the *secret* varnish that was to be used on the new MM's - and all the while, the authentic *formula* was a standard off the shelf ben. moore product.

i have noticed on certain loars i've been able to inspect, that on the wear areas, you can see 3 distinct layers - is that how they are still doing varnish finishes? seems like on all the modern mandos i only see 2.

Mar-25-2006, 8:18pm
Some Loars recieved an overspray of lacquer. This could be the third layer you have seen.

Mar-26-2006, 8:24am
makes me kind of chuckle at the posts i read some time ago about charlie derrington spending years to develop the *secret* varnish that was to be used on the new MM's - and all the while, the authentic *formula* was a standard off the shelf ben. moore product.
I wouldn't be too sure on that! There were certainly changes over time. I was wondering to myself which coat that might have been, which color.. etc. More than one way to do them. With the 2 f4s shown above, the first one looks to me like it was done with pads (a few "Bad swipes" as they say!) and the second looks sprayed..

Mar-26-2006, 9:33am
Dan, with all due respect, and having done hundreds of sunbursts in my life, I can't tell anything about those two F4s from the pictures.
With an instrument in hand, I can usually tell how the 'burst was done, but there are probably ways to do one that I've never seen.

If I were to guess from looking at the pictures, I would lean in the oposite direction. The first looks sprayed, and the second looks rubbed.

kudzugypsy, supposedly, the Loars had a sealer, varnish, and a top coat. It's easy to see two layers in many of the ones I've looked at, but I don't recall seeing three.
From what I know, Gibson is still using a sealer, varnish, and top coat.
(I hadn't known of lacquer overspray on late Loars until recently here on the cafe.)

Mar-26-2006, 10:58am
Hi John,

Of course I'm just speculating, but The smoother blending on the lower one just seems.. well.. smoother? It seems that if there was spray equipment and hand work at the time, who knows? The evidence for handworks seems easier to spot, especially if there is an area that looks like a wide pad-sized streak or so, but of course it's all speculation. I'd really like to know what folks think about it is all http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Mar-26-2006, 11:56am
Dan, in the pics of the second one, I see more influence of the wood grain on the blending of the stains. That's one of the big differences between rubbed and sprayed 'bursts. Sprayed stains or dyes are less influenced by the wood grain.

See the streaks following the grain in the top on the right? That one really looks like it was rubbed. There's also more grain visible all the way out to the edge of the plate, and that also indicates a rubbed 'burst.
The one to the left looks smoother in color and in transition, and could have been done any number of ways, including rubbed or sprayed. I'd have to look at in in "person" to know more, and there's always the chance that I couldn't tell what was done.

Jim Hilburn
Mar-26-2006, 12:35pm
I think I mentioned this before, but on one of Stew-Mac's early finishing video's Don McRostie demonstrates applying a hand-rubbed sunburst to a banjo resonator. By using lots of clean alcohol-soaked rags, he is able to get an amazing blend area by adding dark stain to the outer part and then fighting it back with the clean solvent rags and even lifting out some of the excess stain. I think it would be very hard to distinguish his final result from a well applied spray job, but then it is on one of their rather grainy video's and not in person.

Gail Hester
Mar-26-2006, 12:49pm
Interesting but both F4s look hand rubbed to me just using different techniques. The second one appears to have been done with mostly vertical strokes.

I went to a Benjamin Moore store yesterday to check out there old time interior wood varnish 407 with the intention of trying some out. They claim it’s a very old formula. I noticed it had a really high rating for volatile solvents and had them open a can for me. Wow, very toxic stuff compared to what I’ve been using so I gave it a pass.

Bill Halsey
Mar-26-2006, 4:05pm
We're a bit limited on resolution, but here's another look --

Bill Halsey
Mar-26-2006, 4:45pm
Flip sides --

Mar-26-2006, 5:28pm
I think they're both rubbed. The "grain reversal" is stronger than with most sprayed dyes or stains.

Bill Halsey
Mar-26-2006, 6:20pm
I agree, John -- for me, that's what is lacking in the more two-dimensional appearance of most sprayed vignettes.

Ken Waltham
Mar-26-2006, 6:48pm
I am sure no builder, but have had tons of F4's. My uneducated opinion, based on looking at tons of them... is they're both hand done.
For what it's worth.

Mar-27-2006, 4:36am
Very interesting thread.. as a follow-up question, I'm curious to know what the spectrum of opinions is on how the finish process was done for a couple different periods.. say something like a teens F2 with a near-solid red


And here's one with a dark sunburst..


My amalgamated (and very clearly non-builder!) view was that there was a base stain put on both.. the center color I suppose.. and then on the burst the dark was rubbed inwards from the sides.. and finally a topcoat (french polish perhaps) to seal it all up.

The ones with darker color on the sides seem to show hand/pad marks more. The Loars almost all have visible streaks and asymmetry on them that to me gives them their character. Some of the teens ones from around 1916-1917 seem to me to show signs of spray work, so very evenly and subtly blended, versus the high contrast work such as in the darker of these two photos..

Just to be very up front, I'm hoping folks who know what they are talking about can educate me on this, I'm not a builder and didn't want to come accross like I knew what I was talking about in this subject!

Mar-27-2006, 9:30am
Dan, yes, I've seen streaks, sanding scratches, finger/thumb prints, and areas where the stain (dye) was applied too wet on Loars. I Think some of the best 'bursts Gibson ever did were done in the teens.

I always assumed that they were all rubbed on, and this thread is the first mention of Gibson having some sort of early spray equipment that I've heard. I really don't want to get into speculating about how finishes were done from looking at 72 dpi pics on an old cathode ray computer monitor.

The "standard procedure" for a sunburst is: stain the whole thing yellow, I think this is sort of an imitation of gamboge, and perhaps they did use gamboge on some of them. The burst is then applied with increasingly dark colors, (usually two) around the edges, constantly blending the darker color into the yellow, toward center, with a wrung-out alcohol rag. As you go to darker colors, you stay closer to the edges of the instrument, so that the color fades gradually from the dark edge to the yellow center.

I'd be curious; if Gibson had some kind of equipment to spray the dyes, and it worked well, why would they abandon it and subsequentley rub the stains?
That sort of thing could come down to something like; they hired a new guy who had been finishing furniture with rubbed-on stains, and he said, "I ain't using that spray contraption!". (Wouldn't time travel be fun?)

Well, it's something I'll be looking for when I have teens Gibsons around, or wherever I see them.

FWIW, the second photo does display some of the tip-offs that make me think it was rubbed, and I can't tell much from the first, but even if I could, I could be wrong easilly.

Mar-30-2006, 11:11am
One thing that puzzles me lately is: Did they apply stain to completely bare wood?
Everyone seem to agree that they used lot of umnatched, off quartered wood or wood with severe run-out. The run-out would be especially visible on burst rubbed to bare wood, but I don't remember seeing a pic of old Gibson where the runout is accentuated by sunburst. Please post such pics to correct me if I'm wrong here...
Gamboge applied before stains would suppress this effect. Or maybe gelatin for water based stains. I know that Gamboge was widely used among violinmakers of early 20th century as it was believed Stradivari used it too...

Mar-30-2006, 11:32am
Off-quarter is a big part of the Loar vibe to me. No ray fleck or silking for the most part, or very subtle.. the wood doesn't seem to have depth and the finish takes on more of a matte surface.. lovely!

Jim Hilburn
Mar-30-2006, 12:18pm
One place to look for hand applied versus sprayed is the section of the sides from the neck to the point.
At least on the Loars, there's a very distinct dark to light area that's nearly impossible( at least for me) to duplicate with a gun.