View Full Version : To refinish or not to refinish

Sep-16-2009, 3:56pm
We are restoring a 1905-1908 Gibson H-1 Mandola. The luthier sends me this email:

"The original finish is in pretty bad shape, especially on the soundboard (top.) There is also a serious crack in the top from the sound hole to the upper edge of the plate. It has been repaired once, but not too well. I can splice new wood into the crack area and attempt to match the color. I'm still thinking about that one.

There is also a minor split on the back that I will repair. Unfortunately it shows up in the right light, but to really fix it would definately mean sanding that area and then restaining that area to match the rest of the back. That done, it is still very difficult to match 100- year-old varnish.

So how do you feel about refinishing the instrument? There is a huge premium placed on an original finish, but this one is in bad shape."

To all you luthiers out there in MandolinCafe land: What would you do? To refinish or not to refinish: That is the question!:confused:

re simmers
Sep-16-2009, 9:06pm
I restore antique furniture as a hobby. To refinish or not is a common issue. When it comes to furniture, I think that if the piece looks like it would be an embarassment to the original builder it should be refinished/restored to the way it looked when it was originally built. It should NOT look like a 2009 finished piece. If it was built in 1840 it should be finished the way it was in 1840. This is not easy and requires a good knowledge and skill with dyes and other chemicals.

I do NOT think that an antique that has a finish that turned black and crusty should remain that way. If I build a piece of furniture today and it survives 100 years, I hope someone restores it if it looks horrible.

As for instruments, I think the same thing.........EXCEPT for the impact on the sound!!! Not being a luthier, I don't know what that would be. But, it it's stripped properly, and finished the way it originally was......not the easy way.....I would be guessing to say it shouldn't have a negative impact. All just IMHO.

I'm eager to hear a luthier's opinion on the sound issue.


Bill Halsey
Sep-16-2009, 9:55pm
If it's done skillfully with knowledge of the original method of finishing, it probably won't slow down the tone/response of the instrument any more than did the original finish when it was new. The real trick is in learning to patina the refinish so that the instrument doesn't lose all the charm and character of its age.

Bob A
Sep-16-2009, 11:14pm
A refinish cuts collector value seriously. Of course, so do major cracks and repairs.

Tonally, this period is not particularly highly regarded. That said, there are some folks who appreciate the tone of these early Gibsons.

I think pictures would be useful to determine just how bad the current finish might be, before a reasonable judgement can be made.

If it's going to be a player's instrument, repairs and such don't make a lot of difference. The cost of the refinish, along with an estimation of the quality of the likely outcome, should be factored in. I've seen refinishes that look like someone slopped varnish on with a paintbrush, as well as restorations that cannot be seen without UV examination. Bear in mind the cost of repair along with the instrument's value when the process is complete.

However, I'm not a luthier, so maybe I should not be responding to this post.

Sep-16-2009, 11:21pm
Is it worse then the finish on Monroe's '23 F5? If the answer is no then I'd say keep it original to retain it's value. These are rare hard to find mandolas and original will always be original finish no matter how bad it is. Maybe a french polish to retain and protect what is left is more in order then total refin.

Sep-17-2009, 1:09am
You NEVER want to splice in new wood unless some of the original has already been removed. High quality RESTORATION is difficult to find. There are not many builders who have a lot of experience doing correct restoration technique. No instrument should be stripped and refinished. Original varnish in always more important to keep and in areas that don't retain the original can just be retouched. I retouched 90% of a very fine violin top with a #0000 brush. It only took 6 days, but looks very nice now. Do you have any pics???

Sep-23-2009, 6:57pm
I'd be dead sure of the value before I'd do any major repairs of finish work. It's easy to exceed the value of an instrument with repairs. Especially if the instrument has cracks and finish issues. Unblemished originality is what brings top dollar unless it is a really rare AND desirable piece.
Be careful.

I have an old A model that I had repaired just to get it playable it cost me $ 400 bucks. The mandolin is worth about 850 tops. It has been repaired over-sprayed, has cracks. But it does sound great. But I don't know if I'd do it again. I guess I was feeling sorry for it.

Ryk Loske
Sep-24-2009, 9:35am
Why not get a second opinion from another luthier.

Years ago Paul Hostetter did a phenomenal job on my (Time out for a sob and a sigh because i no longer own it.) '28 Gibson L-5. He's out there on the left coast.


Sep-24-2009, 10:11am
The luthier's email sounds like descriptions of repairs one would use on more recent players, rather than techniques for restoration of vintage collectables. You certainly are not dealing with a problem of a lack of qualified persons in drving distance of your location, so I would certainly consider consulting some of them before proceeding. It might not be of importance to you now, but a careful restoration will always pay dividends later on.

Sep-25-2009, 5:40am
"Refinish" is not in my vocabulary. I figure, you gotta ask yourself: Do want to play it & listen to it? ... or look at it?

Refinishing any vintage piece of wood is an ugly thought, regardless of ones intentions.


Sep-25-2009, 7:34am
First things first: I am NOT a luthier, so feel free to disregard my post if you want to. I just wanted to say that I recently made a similar decision with regards to an old violin that I had restored. It was a family keepsake - certainly not "worth" the money it cost to have it restored, if you're only talking about the cash value of the original instrument. Apparently, someone had also tried to "improve" the original varnish by spraying some sort of clear lacquer over it, which had started to disintegrate into a bubbly, rough surface which, when we tried to smooth it out, started to smell like some sort of solvent. The original varnish was also poor quality; it didn't have a ground applied underneath it, so a lot of it was also flaking off.

We decided to strip the entire thing down and revarnish it. I know that for a lot of people, this would be a big no-no. But the two reasons why people usually advise against refinishing did not apply here: One, the original varnish was likely not doing anything great for the sound of the instrument, and two, the original instrument wasn't worth much and I'm never, ever going to sell it, so I don't care how much it appraises for or is "worth."

It's finished now, and I'm thrilled with the results. I think when you make your decision, you should just recognize whatever the tradeoffs are and be willing to take those on, or be willing to assume the risks associated with refinishing (or not refinishing). My luthier did tell me that refinishing was usually a last resort, but he also felt that the original varnish on my fiddle fell into that category.

Tom C
Sep-25-2009, 8:10am
How many times have you seem a Queen Anne on Antiques Road Show that was refinished and workth 40K instead of 250K? I would not refinish unless it was already done in the past and was not a good job.

re simmers
Sep-25-2009, 4:24pm
Just my opinion, but I do not subscribe to the Antiques Road Show's blanket statement of "refinish it and you ruin the value." It's all very subjective, but the Road Show folks are "out there" when it comes to this.

If the finish is in decent shape.........of course an old piece will not be perfect......leave it as is.

If the finish has turned black and cracked to the point of being an embarrassment to the original builder, have it "restored" professionally. That means using the same chemicals and techniques of a master craftsman. Already stated, that's hard to find.

I've been to Williamsburg, Gettysburg, Richmond, the Smithsonian, etc, etc. and seen lots of very old furniture in museums and such. All of that English, French and German made furniture from the 1500's and 1600's is not in it's original finish. If so, it would have been kept from light, and kept in perfect humidity for 500 years.....NOT. It takes a good craftsman to refinish it properly, but they exist. It is an art.

Back to the stuff that has turned black and crusty: that's the stuff that people like me purchase at auctions and from the basement of antique stores, and then "restore" it, keeping it's character, but NOT allowing it to become even more of an eyesore.

As I stated, just my opinion, and the condition of the piece is subjective, and may depend on the skill of the restorer.


barney 59
Sep-25-2009, 10:54pm
Early 20th century Gibson A models mandolins are not rare and mandolas are centainly less common but in the world of antiques they are still small potatoes. If you were ready to put out $1500 to $2500 I'd bet most of the people on this forum could fine one within the hour! It is, from the condition discribed, not a collectors item or ever going to be one but it can be a great player and to be one it needs restored. If it is determined that it needs a finish---raw exposed wood for example--then refinish it.

Sep-26-2009, 4:46pm
If the finish has turned black and cracked to the point of being an embarrassment to the original builder, have it "restored" professionally.

Just checking, but I would say "restore" and "refinish" are two different animals. Restoring an existing finish vs stripping & refinishing...yes?

re simmers
Sep-28-2009, 11:25am

Yes, I think they are different animals.


Capt. E
Apr-19-2011, 4:20pm
How many times have you seem a Queen Anne on Antiques Road Show that was refinished and workth 40K instead of 250K? I would not refinish unless it was already done in the past and was not a good job.

The effect of refinishing a piece of antique furniture depends ENTIRELY upon what it is. For example: refinishing a pre Civil War American piece in original untouched condition will seriously reduce its value, but restoring a french Louis XV piece to all its gilded glory will raise its value. For some reason, the french like things to be shiny. Why do you think they send all those French Country antiques over here? Americans seem to pay more for old, distressed and dirty. There is no one answer.

Big Joe
Apr-20-2011, 6:29am
There are times when a refinish is not that big of a deal, but that is not usually the case. In most cases there is not reason to splice wood into a crack to repair it. That will ALWAYS show no matter what finish you put on top of it. It may match color, but the splice will always look like a splice. Of course, it is easy to make judgements on something without actually having seen it, but the value would generally be better with repaired cracks than repaired cracks and a refinish. The finish may be able to be restored and remain quite functional. On the other hand, maybe it can't. We can only guess since we don't actually have a way to inspect the instrument. Just go slowly and ensure you are comfortable with your decision as to what work you want done. It is your instrument and you are free to do what you wish.

Bill Snyder
Apr-24-2011, 10:30pm
Well it has been over 1 1/2 years since this was originally posted and the OP is still active on the Cafe so what did you do?

Apr-24-2011, 11:25pm
I love these threads with big gaps in them! Someone posts in September '09, someone else replies in April '11 -- lots of water under the bridge in the interim, methinks.

Darryl Wolfe
Apr-25-2011, 2:12pm
I love these threads with big gaps in them! Someone posts in September '09, someone else replies in April '11 -- lots of water under the bridge in the interim, methinks.

Good catch..I didn't notice...several of the posters have not been back here in ages either (or they have a new name)