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Thread: Lacquer for first mandolin?

  1. #1

    Default Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I have finished applying color to my first ever mandolin build. I'm starting to get things organized for applying the finish. I really don't like overly shiny or glossy finishes, so I'd like something more satin. I do not have a spray gun but plan to pick one up this weekend.

    Is there a commonly available lacquer that I can use for this, and where would I get it? Or do I have to use a specialty lacquer like those from LMI or StewMac?

    This is my first instrument build, as I said. I've done my best, but the instrument was clearly built by a novice. It's not going to win any awards. So on the one hand, I don't need the fanciest lacquer. On the other hand I do plan to build more mandolins, so having and also learning how to apply a nicer finish might be helpful.

    Thanks.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Do you really have your heart set on lacquer? It is very toxic, and success includes a steep learning curve. Do you have a ventilated spray booth set up to go with that spray gun you plan on buying? And a proper buffing wheel set up? Having tried working with lacquer with only moderate success after much struggke, I came to the conclusion that lacquer should be left to the professionals with the room to set up a proper shop to handle it. That said, acceptable results can be had with rattle cans from Stew Mac or Guitar ReRanch. You have to follow the recommended finishing schedule for best results. That is time consuming and a lot of work hand rubbing if you don’t have a power wheel. And of course you will get a very shiny finish unless you buy matte or satin. They are actually the same as the gloss but with flatting agents added. And yes, the lacquer marketed for musical instruments is superior for that purpose to anything you will find at Home Depot or Lowe’s. All lacquers are not the same.

    You say you don’t want anything too shiny? Would you be willing to try a non lacquer finish? Here are some options to consider. Good old shellac is a very nice and easy finish for a beginner. You can spray it on, or even brush it. You don’t have to learn French polishing although that gives you a very nice finish. But it’s not necessary to achieve good results if you make the cut just right, thin enough for irregularities to go away but thick enough to prevent runs. You can use a Preval sprayer for a custom cut. And if it doesn’t turn out the way you want you can easily sand it out and try again. Also, you could try a wiping varnish like Danish Oil or similar. You can even make your own wiping varnish by mixing equal parts of you choice of oil based varnish, you choice of boiled linseed or 100 percent tung oil, and mineral spirits. It works great! Easy wipe on application and cures hard. I achieved outstanding results on a project with multiple coats of homemade wiping varnish with two clear coats of Tru Oil. Tru Oil, available at spirting goods stores (gunstock finish), is great stuff. Practically goof proof. Some of our members have reported great success with a couple of coats of shellac as a sealer, with multiple coats of Tru Oil over that. I love the look of Tru Oil. Shiny but muted, classy looking, like a fine violin when done right. Another product, a bit newer, that some of our members love is called Royal Lac. It is an easy to apply shellac based finish with other resins added for hardness. The Achilles Heel of shellac is that it is soft, so the Royal Lac tries to address that.

    And, my two cents worth before someone chimes in and says this finish or that “kills tone”, it is my opinion that, as far as tone is concerned, it really doesn’t matter what you use to finish your instrument as long as it’s thin. If you keep it thin enough, it just doesn’t add enough mass to be significant to the tone. And, before anyone says that you need a finish that allows your instrument to “breathe”, that’s nonsense. Even if your instrument did breathe, which it doesn’t, it would be able to do so just fine through the unfinished interior.

    I hope this all helps. Good luck.
    Don

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  4. #3

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    The only reason I am/was considering lacquer is because everything I have read (Siminoff, et al) states that lacquer is the best and most traditional finish. I do not have a lot of space--half a garage. I am open to anything. But I do plan on building more mandolins. Something resilient, easy to apply, that doesn't come off as plasticky... Whatever meets those criteria I am open to.

  5. #4
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I just checked Stewmac's site and they sell aerosol cans of 'guitar lacquer', including satin lacquer. That would not be your cheapest option, but perhaps the easiest way to get the finish you are looking for. Good ventilation, common sense and a proper respirator will keep you safe.
    As for lacquer being "the best" finish, ignore all of that. The type of finish makes very little difference in the ultimate quality of an instrument.

  6. #5

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    One other point: I do not know how to play the mandolin. I've always wanted to learn, which is why I am building one. So to learn properly, I would like for this one to sound proper. I would prefer the finish not to interfere with the sound, even though I know the chances of that are slim.

  7. #6

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Use a water-based finish. Lacquer is dry to the touch in an hour or so, hard enough to buff out after a week but really should be left as long as possible (after 6 weeks you'll get diminishing returns).
    With a water-based finish, you get much less shrinking, and you don't even need to use pore filler because the varnish finishes shrinking in less than a week. I'd buff an instrument up after 2-3 days and think nothing of it, ready to ship to the customer.
    Also, you can dry sand instead of wet sanding. This one is huge in and of itself.
    Then you can clean everything up with water (free) instead of expensive, highly flammable, toxic acetone/lacquer thinner.

    On top of all that, you don't have any experience to re-learn, so might as well learn with a modern waterbased varnish. I finished one of my recent instruments with this:
    https://www.amazon.com/Minwax-230254...-1-spons&psc=1

    It came out fine:
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    It's a little softer than Enduro-Var, but cheaper and easier to work with. It's about as hard as lacquer.

  8. #7
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Behlen String Instrument Lacquer is available from Woodcraft in a spray can. It is a nitrocellulose product similar to what Stew-mac sells. Also, the Deft spray lacquer can be used. I have been told that it is also nitro. Deft also has a brushing lacquer. I have used both. The Deft spray can is much more predictable and reliable than the other brands I have tried.

  9. #8
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I built a mandolin in 1979 and had Mike Kemnitzer do the lacquer finish on it because I though instruments were always finished in lacquer. I had no idea that pre 1925 including Loars, some other type of finish was used. I then set up to be able to do lacquer and Mike was kind enough to share a lot of information and I got a lot of the Stewmac videos on finishing.
    If I were starting now and had the resources available I would probably choose a hand applied method. For a first instrument Tru-Oil seems like a very good option.

  10. #9

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I was so excited to get my first mandolin completed, that after staining I applied Tried and True available from Stewmac. It's pretty simplistic compared to all the other great methods presented here, but it was easy and gave me a nice durable finish. The next time I change strings I'll probably apply another coat or two to build a little more gloss. As it was, it was the day before St Patrick's Day and I needed to declare victory and play some Irish music! Here's a link if this is of interest: Tried and True.

  11. #10

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I'm in the opposite crowd having only used lacquer and fearing everything else. From extensive experience I can tell you that the lacquers sold at home improvement stores and hardware stores are inferior compared to stewmac and reranch - I've gone through gallons of lacquer. If you need a non-aerosol and can find it, I really like Mohawk Musical instrument lacquer. My weapon of choice has always been an airbrush so my technique is not actually that different from using an aerosol can. There is a huge difference between lacquers. Both Reranch and Stewmac have very good tutorials and I've never found fault in any of them. I like using a light coat of shellac as a seal coat base.

    You've invested your time and effort into your instrument so don't skimp on your choice of finishing materials and method.

    If you just want a semi-gloss finish that seals the wood and doesn't need to build up to a totally commercial style finish I've had good luck with a Home Depot/Lowes available product called Formbys Tung Oil. Its available in either high gloss or satin. It is not actually tung oil but a mixture of tung oil and varnishes. The application involves wiping on each coat with a cloth and using 0000 steel wool after 12 hours and repeating the process 4 to 6 (or more times). It is by far the least risky or scary method of finishing that yields a good result. You have control of applying either just a few applications and getting a woodgrain surface or you can continue to apply additional coats and actually achieve a high gloss glass-like lacquer finish if your willing to invest in a lot of time building up the finish at 12 to 24 hour intervals. I've heard many testimonials about people using Tru Oil gunstock finish and it sounds to me like this is a similar product but I've never used it.

    If you want the ultimate finish, you should practice on scrap wood and go through the entire process regardless of which finish you decide on. Everything said about the importance of prep is true.
    Last edited by Wrnchbndr; May-24-2019 at 9:55am. Reason: additional info

  12. #11

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Jacobson View Post
    Use a water-based finish.
    Marty, would using a water based finish require me to first raise the grain then sand it down? I've already applied my color to the mandolin, so if I need to raise the grain/sand I imagine I'd have to recolor it, yes?

    Thanks for the suggestion.

  13. #12

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Wrnchbndr View Post

    If you just want a semi-gloss finish that seals the wood and doesn't need to build up to a totally commercial style finish I've had good luck with a Home Depot/Lowes available product called Formbys Tung Oil.
    It's so funny you say that. My father has been a Formby's devotee for decades. When I got in to woodturning he told me it's the only finish I need, so I started using it. I love it! I've got a lot of it in my shop already. I will really have to consider this. Thanks for the suggestion.

  14. #13

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Hilburn View Post
    If I were starting now and had the resources available I would probably choose a hand applied method. For a first instrument Tru-Oil seems like a very good option.
    Jim, with a hand-applied method do I need to worry about holding the instrument in some way while I work? Do you have a good suggestion for how to approach that? You're the second person on this thread to suggest Tru-Oil, and I've read a number of posts on this website singing its praises. But my understanding is that a sprayed finish comes out more even because you don't handle the instrument so much in the finishing process. But I'm probably wrong.

  15. #14
    Registered User Steve Sorensen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Wipe on Tru-Oil with a folded square of old tee shirt. I fold a 3" x 3" square in thirds, then in half so that no loose edges are in the wiping surface.

    I use a hook through the spot where the endpin will be and have the instrument hanging on a little length of chain.

    Since the instrument is hanging upside down, I hold by the neck and go in this order - Back, Top, Sides, Headstock, finally Neck with the taped fingerboard against my palm.

    Also, regardless of how fast you think you can apply new coats, one coat per day gives the chance to actually dry between coats.

    10 coats, light sand; 5 more coats

    Steve

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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9V6CyA8_K4

    This is what I've used to hold instruments for 20+ years.
    The video is of me doing a lacquer finish using it. Good idea to hit the mute button.
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  17. #16

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I used a shellac with polymers called Royal Lac and it worked very well. I whiped on the sealer and base coats, then French polished the top coats. On final sanding I stopped at 1200 grit for a very nice semi shine. It is pricey though. Sold by LMI.

    From a Tom Ellis radio interview, he pretty much described the product word for word.bReplaced laquer on Pavas with it.
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  18. #17

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    Marty, would using a water based finish require me to first raise the grain then sand it down? I've already applied my color to the mandolin, so if I need to raise the grain/sand I imagine I'd have to recolor it, yes?

    Thanks for the suggestion.
    If you've already applied color, you've already done all that, assuming you used a waterbased dye of some sort. If the dye wasn't waterbased, I'm not sure a waterbased topcoat would adhere well.

  19. #18

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    With hand wiped application, consider that you really can eliminate the hanging issue entirely. Just apply finish to only the neck until its done and after the neck is done do the body. Its sounds kinda obvious but it sort of touches on one of the key aspects of a successful result -- don't engage in any practice for the sake of speeding up the process. Regardless of your finishing method, if a thought comes to mind about considering a short cut, repress it. There will be temptations. Hanging an instrument or making a stand using the endpin isn't rushing. I'm just conveying the concept that you should take your time which takes a lot of discipline.

  20. #19
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    This has been a very interesting thread. Putnamm, you are getting advice from some of the best in the world here! My self NOT included in that group. I’ve had some experiences, but not anything like John, Steve, and Marty. They’re real pros. We are lucky they’re so willing to share their experience with us.

    I wanted to say a word about Formby’s. They argue about that stuff endlessly on woodworking forums. Some claim it doesn’t even contain any tung oil. Snake oil is more likely, some suggest tongue in cheek. Because Homer Formby was quite the salesman. He got people interested in refinishing furniture in the ‘70s and God knows how many antiques got ruined because of it. Nowadays people are more tuned in to the fact that antique furniture should NOT be refinished, but retain its original patina. But I digress. The MSDS for Formby’s Low Gloss Tung Oil Finish states that it contains at least 60% but less than 100% light aliphatic hydrocarbons and medium aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents. Any other ingredients it contains do not meet the government definitions of hazardous, poisonous, etc. and therefore do not have to be disclosed. I re-finished a couple of end tables with the stuff once. They turned out pretty good. But if that’s the sort of product you want to use, as I stated above, I prefer making my own wiping varnish. That’s what Formby’s appears to be. Making your own gives you control over the proportions and working characteristics.
    Don

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

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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    French polished shellac, sometimes over a good violin varnish, can produce a lovely finish.

    I'll take it over most of the modern furniture and cabinet varnishes any day.

    Also, Lynn Dudenbostel has been using Pratt and Lambert 38 Varnish for years, and swears by it. The only reason I haven't tried it is that I haven't found a local place that carries it and I've been too lazy to mail-order it.

  22. #21
    Registered User Steve Sorensen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Production of Pratt and Lambert 38 Gloss Varnish has been officially discontinued. Sadly.

    Steve

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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    It's still on their website, but they show the satin in the picture. Are all of the 38 varnishes discontinued or just the gloss?

    Well, if all else fails, there's still shellac and the violin maker's oil and spirit varnishes. Just have to wait longer to re-coat and cure.

    I suppose the day is coming when we won't be able to get nitro anymore, or we'll have to pay an exorbitant price for it.

  24. #23

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    Regarding Tru Oil, is that stuff okay to get on the binding? Do I just wipe it all over? Or do I need to avoid the binding? Thanks.

  25. #24
    Registered User Steve Sorensen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    RCC -- The company rep said that they had discontinued Gloss P&L 38. Since that was what I was using . . . and it was fantastic, I didn't follow up for the murkier versions.

    Putnamm -- Wipe over the whole instrument. I usually do a sealer coat of TruOil before scraping the bindings, then use over the whole instrument with only the fingerboard and nut slot taped off.

    Steve

  26. #25

    Default Re: Lacquer for first mandolin?

    I'm a fan of Tru-Oil for anything in a red-yellow-brown color spectrum, as it adds a little golden tint. For those colors, I consider it a plus, but when I've done something in blue, I've gone with Deft. I've had good results with both, on several instruments.

    Thanks,

    Magnus

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