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Thread: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

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    Default Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I am narrowing down my purchase decision on a mandolin. I was just looking at Collings' MF5 and MF5V. The MF5 is nitrocellulose and the V is an alkyd varnish. Is this just an aesthetic choice or is there a tone difference? I might expect nitro to dampen the acoustics a little but suspect Collings would use thin enough coats that it would not be a problem. Thoughts?

  2. #2
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    It's not even an aesthetic decision, they look about the same. It's a marketing decision more than anything. Some people are convinced that anything called "varnish" is superior to anything called "lacquer".
    The thinner the finish, the less it effects the sound of the instrument. A well done, minimal finish has the least effect on sound, and the folks at Collings are quite capable of a good, minimal finish. Get whichever finish you want, you will get a good mandolin either way.

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I would think an oil varnish would have more of a damping effect than lacquer. And that might also be a good thing depending on what you want to achieve.

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Hilburn View Post
    I would think an oil varnish would have more of a damping effect than lacquer. And that might also be a good thing depending on what you want to achieve.
    Do you think it dampens certain frequencies or just overall?

    After looking at it a little more it also seems that varnish has an increase in cost but that seems likely attributed to difficulty in applying it rather than anything else.

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Sothoth View Post
    ...After looking at it a little more it also seems that varnish has an increase in cost but that seems likely attributed to difficulty in applying it rather than anything else.
    Or maybe marketing. After all,
    some people are convinced that anything called "varnish" is superior to anything called "lacquer"
    and some of them are willing to pay extra for it.

    (FWIW, it does generally take more work to apply a good oil varnish finish.)

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Lacquer has traditionally been very hard and brittle. When applied thin it isn't going to restrict the motion of the wood very much. I believe though that it can add to the brightness of the instrument or at least be neutral. However some modern instrument lacquers like Behlens Stringed Instrument or McFaddens are a lot more pliable than the old furniture lacquers like Quallac. Theyre a lot less likely to check than old lacquer especially when applied thin. I think these finishes radiate less high frequencies than very hard finishes.
    Oil varnish can be all over the map from hard to soft but is rarely as hard as nitro. Some wiped on oils can be quite thin but if you brush or spray it is hard to get as thin as lacquer particularly because lacquer shrinks back more as it drys.
    I'm not a violin varnish expert but I believe that soft and damping finishes are often used and can tame the bright side of a fiddle.

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    finish would not be high on my list of priorities when buying. That said I do like the varnish on my Silverangel, but that may have more to do with the distressing. I love an old checked lacquer finish. As you can probably guess, I'm not a fan of new and shiny.
    Silverangel A
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  9. #8

    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Coming from the vintage guitar world, I always have to "re-calibrate" my thinking when discussing finish options -- where nitrocellulose lacquer is the "good" finish compared to poly, which is the inferior finish (as seen on cheapo instruments, as well as many mid-level instruments.) In the mandolin world, varnish is king, but I would have to agree with John that it is mostly marketing, at least on a quality mandolin.

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    Registered User Tom Morse's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I know that a lot of instrument makers use Epifanes varnish, a marine varnish from Holland. I can't weigh in on what the microscopically thin layer of varnish or lacquer does to affect the sound of the mandolin, but I do know that marine varnish has a natural pliability that helps it retain its good looks without cracking or checking. If you think the body of your mandolin vibrates a lot, just imagine how much vibration, flex, pounding, and shudder a brightwork finish Chris Craft or Lyman (to name just two) motorboat endures on an average day on the water.
    Jethro lives! (Tiny, too!)

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I've used spirit varnish (shellac), Mohawk lacquer, Waterlox phenolic resin varnish, and now waterborne alkyd urethane varnish (Enduro-Var). After doing several of each, all applied very thinly, I haven't found any tonal properties which I can attribute to the finish. Strings, picks, and technique all have far more impact than the finish. I can actually get a thinner acceptable-looking finish with Enduro-Var than I can with lacquer or shellac, and it's much less hazardous than lacquer, so I use Enduro-Var now, even though it is trickier to work with.

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Mando View Post
    Coming from the vintage guitar world...
    I'm in the same boat. I have done quite a few guitar builds and tried several other types of finishes, all of which are vinishes acceptable to woodworkers, and finally concluded that they all stink compared to nitrocellulose. I never studied the finish compositions or asked too many "why"s, I just had issues with the poly turning funny colors when mixed with a little sweat, and not handling it well when the guitar dropped or was knocked over. Don't even get me started on what a thrown (full but uncapped) beer bottle will do to a poly finish

    Mandolins (to me) see much more (compared to guitars), unique. Every one has it's unique character and sound. It certainly seems like it's difficult to really pin down what contributes what to the overall tone to anything resembling hard science. I guess I just have to try them all and then when I happen to pick up the one that's my soulmate, just buy it.

    Ideally I could be a marketing stooge but I like the idea of varnish. I do agree (based on no fact whatsoever) that if the finish is pretty thin the wood and other factors are much more likely to contribute to the tone and it's OK to have something different from varnish.

  13. #12

    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Br1ck View Post
    ...I do like the varnish on my Silverangel...
    How do you like the Silverangel other than the finish? Was just looking at the web site...

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I have used Epifanes on my boat, nice varnish, I think it has quite a high proportion of Tung oil and can take quite a time to harden. It does last well though and gives a very nice finish. The main things for marine varnish are flexibility and UV resistance, I am not sure how appropriate those criteria are for musical instruments.
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I love my Silverangel. It is a pretty different take on a mandolin. Probably the most distinguishing factor is the redwood top, then there is a more pronounced arch to the back that does make case fitting an issue. I had to rebend a tone guard to clear, then it barely fit in the Travelite case,maybe the only case possible with a SA.

    Another interesting detail is the saddle is angled a bit back toward the tailpiece to counteract the natural tendency of the bridge to pull toward the neck. Then there is the degree of distressing, from light to beat to hell. Mine is light, which has the look of a well cared for fifty year old mandolin. His cracking of the binding is very realistic, as is the look of binding shrinkage, the odd scrape and bruise, and a very appealing to me finish grain sinking in the top. If your idea of beautiful is a new Collings, not the mando for you.

    Now the important thing is tone, and here you will get a very resonant warm and woody fat sound. Certainly not bright, but all the frequencies are there with an absolutely brilliant G string. Maybe not the best for cutting through a bluegrass jam, but it's still pretty loud. Really lovely for classical, almost an oval hole tone but not. Hard to describe.

    Huge value IMHO. I would not trade it for an MT ( but I'd like one of those too). The neck is a soft v and very comfy.
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    mandolin slinger Steve Ostrander's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    but I do know that marine varnish has a natural pliability that helps it retain its good looks without cracking or checking.
    The main things for marine varnish are flexibility and UV resistance, I am not sure how appropriate those criteria are for musical instruments.
    All true, but there are other finishes used on boats, including teak oil and Sikkens, which is kind of a hybrid of varnish and oil. The important thing on boats (aside from the high UV protection factor) is that the more coats the better, so the finish is usually pretty thick. It's not uncommon to apply 5-10 coats of varnish by brush.

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Ostrander View Post
    All true, but there are other finishes used on boats, including teak oil and Sikkens, which is kind of a hybrid of varnish and oil. The important thing on boats (aside from the high UV protection factor) is that the more coats the better, so the finish is usually pretty thick. It's not uncommon to apply 5-10 coats of varnish by brush.
    I think the normal here is 7, plus rubbing back every year and putting a couple of new coats on top.
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I think the normal here is 7, plus rubbing back every year and putting a couple of new coats on top.
    Yep. Another reason why I'm selling my sailboat...

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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    There are three ways I would look at these finish options: 1) sound 2) protection 3) aesthetic.

    Nitrocellulose Lacquer is stightly harder and more resilient than most varnishes (though some new alkalyds come close). It can also be sprayed on with a very few coats, and does not require tremendous drying time before setting completely. Last, the molecular weight of NC lacquer is higher than that of oil based varnishes when comparing fully cured samples (full curing may require 6 months).

    An oil or alkalid based varnish dries much slower compared to a Laquer, and so the application method is different. It typically includes several very very thin layers with light wetsanding/rubbing/polishing in between coats. Also, varnish coats are often tinted to get the optimal color result on the finished instrument. The interaction between varnish and wood traditionally bring out figures and play with light very effectively; giving more life and movement to the finished product. The oil base is a large component of the ultimate visual impact. Because of the application method, and low molecular weight, Varnish finishes (all things being equal) tend to be slightly louder than comparable NC laquer finishes, and I've heard some claim a tonal richness and complexity as well.

    Aesthetically, I prefer the subtle results achieved with varnish. However, it is far more labor intensive, especially if shooting with a tint (can take weeks to do it right). Lacquer is more resilient to wear, and to temperature and humidity changes. Varnishes will more easily be marred by fingernails, picks, or other scratches/impacts. Varnish will More easily craze over time due to expansion and contraction of the wood, so greater attention to humidity and temperature control are necessary.

    If you use a pickup or amplifier, then the volume benefits are moot. If you have kids around, or students that have will use the instrument, I recommend NC Laquer.

    Since you're contemplating an MF5 or MF5V, I'd give this advice: It's approx 8k vs 10k-11k. At that pricepoint serious players/performers will want top woods, tone, and finish. Most will opt for varnish, and will have little qualm with the 2k upcharge because they can see and hear the difference. As well, the very best (private stash) backs are held for custom MF5V's. If you are set on Collings, fly to Austin to pick the wood with Bill and his team for your MF5V. It's a worthwhile experience that may require a year, and will make the instrument that much more memorable.

    Best,
    D

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    Registered User Billy Packard's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Said with respect to all comments above and coming from a guy that knows next to nothing about the various finishes mentioned,
    I WILL say this...

    Stephen Gilchrist,
    Michael Kemnitzer,
    John Monteleone,
    Lynn Dudenbostle,
    et al,
    ALL use their own secret recipe of spirit varnish, nothing else.

    Wonder why?
    I bet you can guess!!

    Billy Packard

    billypackardmandolin.com
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    Registered User McIrish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I've played a lot of mandolins over the last few years and my opinion was always that varnish was going to sound better. I simply bought the hype. When purchasing my last mandolin, I didn't concern myself with anything except finding the one with the sound I wanted. Many were lacquer and many were various types of varnish. I ended up with a Gibson Fern. It wasn't at all what I expected when going into this. It has a lacquer finish and has a huge 3D type of sound. It easily beat out mandolins that were double and triple the price. As it's been said already, a different set of strings or a different pick are going to make way more difference than the finish (if applied thin). I'd say, don't buy into hype and marketing. Also, don't ever buy a mandolin without playing it first. Every single one sounds different; even from the same builder. I used to think I could buy one based on specs. Now I know that specs mean nothing when it comes to sound.
    Gibson 2016 "Harvey" Fern
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    Fingertips of leather
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Well, if varnishes are resins dissolved in solvents (oil or alcohol as examples), nitrocellulose lacquer is in fact a varnish,nitrocellulose resin dissolved in toluol based solvents.

    other than Collngs, I don't believe builders a-b test based on finish. And I don't know about blind testing of those. I certainly don't have identical models with different finishes., lthough I have varnish and lacquer finished mandolins.

    Lots of lore and marketing here, in my opinion. Ymmv
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    Well, if varnishes are resins dissolved in solvents (oil or alcohol as examples), nitrocellulose lacquer is in fact a varnish,nitrocellulose resin dissolved in toluol based solvents.

    other than Collngs, I don't believe builders a-b test based on finish. And I don't know about blind testing of those. I certainly don't have identical models with different finishes., lthough I have varnish and lacquer finished mandolins.

    Lots of lore and marketing here, in my opinion. Ymmv
    Bill, I recently tested two instruments that were manufactured to identical specs, gradations, and wood was used from the same tree. One was laquered with NC, the other varnished with traditional French polish.

    The varnished model was quite a bit louder, and had more sustain. It's not marketing. That said, the difference in price is reflective of the labor required to do a proper french polish, not necessarily the quality difference in the resulting instrument.

    D

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    Fingertips of leather
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    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    I don't doubt your perception, although I don't know what physics could explain the difference.

    But my point was the 'nitrocellulose lacquer" is in fact a varnish. And I agree the the labor of French polish is considerably more expensive than spraying 'lacquer'.
    Play it like you mean it

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  25. #24

    Default Re: Nitro laquer or alkyd varnish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    I don't doubt your perception, although I don't know what physics could explain the difference.

    But my point was the 'nitrocellulose lacquer" is in fact a varnish. And I agree the the labor of French polish is considerably more expensive than spraying 'lacquer'.
    Bill, here is a common set of definitions for Lacquer and Varnish that may help. While you are correct that there are commonalities to the two finishes, there are some distinct differences.

    1) Varnish consists of a resin, a drying oil, and a thinner or solvent

    2) Lacquer is a type of solvent-based product that is made by dissolving nitrocellulose together with plasticizers and pigments in a mixture of volatile solvents. Lacquer also contains a solution of shellac in alcohol that creates a synthetic coating.


    Clearly there is a difference in the way these two solutions are produced, and their qualities. Varnish does not include plasticizers, for example... which is one reason it is softer and more flexible. The other major difference is in the speed of drying. The drying oil in a varnish reduces the water content a bit and helps it set a touch faster than without the oil added. But, it still takes quite a while to set and dry, which is why you can even do french polish.

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