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Thread: Question about finishing

  1. #1

    Default Question about finishing


    I have never built an instrument or applied a finish. I have noticed that some luthiers sell unfinished items. I am considering a mandocello, and it is quite a bit cheaper to buy it that way. I am wondering how difficult it is to do. I would just want a natural looking satin finish. The luthier I am talking to provides detailed instructions.


  2. #2
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Feb 2011
    Conneaut Lake, PA

    Default Re: Question about finishing

    Wow, is this ever a loaded question! A lot of the professional luthiers here will tell you finishing is the most difficult part of the building process. However, there are easier ways to go. For a beginner, I would recommend staying away from lacquer, varnish, or shellac applied by French polish. Each of those has a tradition in instrument building and can make for spectacular results. But each of them also has a learning curve and a requirement for a great deal of practice. But here are some good finish options that are great for beginners as they are practically goof proof:

    1. Spray shellac- Zinsser Bullseye in the spray can, available at the big box lumber stores. Apply in multiple thin light coats to prevent runs and sags. Rub out final coat and you're done.

    2. Wiping varnish- my favorite here is Behlens Master Gel. I know of at least one professional luthier who uses that stuff exclusively, and I have used it a couple of times. Wipe on with a rag, let dry, scuff sand, re-apply, repeat until you get the look you want. Other wiping varnishes that have been used here with reports of success are Watco Danish Oil and Formby's Tung Oil Finish. I'm sure there are others.

    3. Tru-Oil- a gun stock finish available at sporting goods stores. Some consider it a wiping varnish but technically it's not. Mostly it's boiled linseed oil with other oils, solvent, and dryers. The oils used have the property of becoming self polymerized when cured, meaning they turn solid. Wipe on with rag, wipe off excess with dry rag, let dry, rub out with 0000 steel wool, repeat until there are enough coats to suit you.

    I highly recommend you acquire some wood scraps of the same species used on your mandocello for practice. Practice on scrap is the luthier's mantra.

    You would be doing our community a service if you would reveal your source for a mandocello in the white.

    2016 Weber Custom Bitterroot F
    2011 Weber Bitterroot A
    1974 Martin Style A
    Fender Octave Mandolin c.2004-2008

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Question about finishing

    Thank you for the detailed response! The luthier's website is

  5. #4

    Default Re: Question about finishing

    Brian, (the Lefty Luthier) used to post here, perhaps still does.
    Bill Snyder

  6. #5

    Default Re: Question about finishing

    I don't know how to do a satin finish, I am happy with a glossy lacquer finish. I use hardware store clear acrylic lacquer over stain, or just a shellac wash coat, or over bare wood. Around 4 coats, let it set for a couple of days, sand with 320 to an even finish, repeat, repeat, but on the final step I let it set for 2 weeks before sanding, I go to 600 wet, then polish by hand (I use aluminium wheel polish), then glaze and buff with Meguires products. Somewhat tedious but in no way would I say it was hard. The last one I did a hand-rubbed sunburst, one of the harder things I did in building that instrument was standing there, patient on table prepped for surgery, me gloved and holding the charged pad of the first dye, and actually starting to stain the top that I had at least 100 hours in preparing... It's a bit of a no-return step into the abyss, when you do it for the very first time!

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  8. #6
    Registered User fscotte's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2010
    Zanesville, Ohio

    Default Re: Question about finishing

    Go to Lowes or Home Depot and get the Watco spraycan lacquer.

    Good stuff, good enough to use on any instrument.

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