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Thread: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

  1. #1
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    I tend to plant my right hand pinky a little, not all the time and I am doing better avoiding it but it still seems to happen... I had an early gibson A-9 and wore a patch of finish off the top, right down to the bare wood. Not sure how that A-9 top was finished, kind of a matte? In general I realize I am somewhat rough on the finish in that area. And to make it difficult I donít really like pick guards. My lacquer finish mandos havenít had the same problem.

    Anyway, for those reasons and others I have stayed away from varnish finishes up to this point. I am dreaming of a higher tier custom build but all the builders I am looking at do varnish finishes.

    I will plan on keeping my current mandos (and have a specific bar mando), so this would be a bit of a ďcase queenĒ primarily for home use or a nicer gig where I can use a microphone.

    Anyone have experience with varnish finishes (positive or negative) and the ďpinky plantingĒ area? Varnish finish and a tone guard? How about high humidity in the heat? Is my fear of varnish needless?

    Thanks!
    Dan
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

  2. #2

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    The original A9's didn't have much of whatever the finish was that they used. That was a quick, simple finish, not at all what high-end builders mean when they say "varnish".

    The "varnish" I use is actually far more durable than lacquer. As always, there aren't any universal rules when it comes to finishes.

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  4. #3
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Quote Originally Posted by dang View Post
    ...I am dreaming of a higher tier custom build but all the builders I am looking at do varnish finishes...
    A custom builder should be able to use nearly any finish you want.

  5. #4

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    How about a pickguard? That worn pinky plant area is a deal breaker for me on any prospective purchase, and I can overlook a lot of cosmetic issues.
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  6. #5
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    A custom builder should be able to use nearly any finish you want.
    I agree, this is more of me wanting the best offering, making sure my previous bad impression didnít bias me against varnish needlessly.

    Quote Originally Posted by Br1ck View Post
    How about a pickguard? That worn pinky plant area is a deal breaker for me on any prospective purchase, and I can overlook a lot of cosmetic issues.
    Not a big pick guard fan, they just kinda annoy me. But yeah, seeing a >$10k instrument with the worn pinky area annoys me more...
    Maybe I can make the switch, it would force me to work on my right hand. But also I feel lile I could do that without a pick guard on there.


    How hard is it to have a good luthier touch up that area if the finish is thinned but not warn into the wood or anything?
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

  7. #6

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Quote Originally Posted by dang View Post
    I agree, this is more of me wanting the best offering, making sure my previous bad impression didnít bias me against varnish needlessly.
    Remember that "best" is user-subjective, and price may not have any correlation to tone. Best for you might be a more durable finish. There is no correlation that I'm aware of between tone and durability. You do not have to sacrifice tone to get a top that you can plant your pinky on for many years without it getting destroyed (assuming you do keep your fingernails cut and smooth).

    There can be a correlation between finish thickness and worse tone, but anyone you're going to hire is going to be doing a respectably thin application of whatever varnish they recommend as being "best" for you.

    Quote Originally Posted by dang View Post
    How hard is it to have a good luthier touch up that area if the finish is thinned but not warn into the wood or anything?
    It's not difficult (edit: it's super difficult, but not time consuming once you know how to do it), but if you're talking about French polish (aka spirit varnish), it will be weeks, if not months, before that particular area is actually really hard again. Plus, no matter how good you are at touching up a finish, it's not something you want to build in to your long-term plan for an instrument. It will cost you money and it's always detectable if you look close enough.

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  9. #7

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    They also make those clear plastic pickguards that cling to the wood for guitars--aren't glued on. You could cut one down to protect your pinky area although it might need to be bigger to stay put.
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  11. #8
    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Exclamation Other side

    Back of my varnished brown mandolin did not react well to my sweaty T shirt..
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  12. #9

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    I've seen plenty of lacquer instruments with finish worn away by pinky planting and pick wear so it won't withstand pinky planting a whole lot better. Varnish can mean a lot of things but the traditional form is an oil-based finish, and by nature doesn't get as hard as nitrocellulose lacquer. This may give the instrument a slightly mellower tone, but it's also more prone to scratches and rub wear.

    If you aren't going to give up pinky-planting then I think Don's suggestion of a small piece of clear plastic pickguard material on the top of the mando is a good one. I was a planter myself for quite awhile, also would catch myself hooking my pinky under the e strings to register where I was. When I noticed the finish changing where I was planting on a mandolin I'd built, I broke down and made a slender finger rest, angled down away from the strings some. I got used to it, and now my fingers just barely brush the finger rest but I never have to look. I find it really helpful for playing jigs and reels but bluegrassers are usually turned off by it if they play one of my instruments. All three of my mandos now have finger rests (silky smooth ebony)

  13. #10

    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Don't plant the pinky! Problem solved

    I'd think a clear plastic pickguard on top of a 10k mando would look just as bad as a worn spot. Or embrace that it will have a worn spot, imbue the instrument with your mojo. I know that the tone gard and arm rest I put on my new Girouard will inevitably leave marks. Of course, it isn't anywhere near 10k, and I don't see myself getting rid if it.

    What are you looking to get Dan?
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  14. #11
    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Buy what you want and play the hell out of it! You've seen Monroe's Loar? Or Mike Marshalls? Willie's Trigger? Don also offered excellent advice on using a thin, clear piece of plastic where you plant your pinkie.

  15. #12
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Leonard View Post
    I'd think a clear plastic pickguard on top of a 10k mando would look just as bad as a worn spot. Or embrace that it will have a worn spot, imbue the instrument with your mojo.
    This characterizes my overall thoughts pretty well, get what I want and embrace the wear I put on it, thanks Gary

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Leonard View Post
    What are you looking to get Dan?
    Not totally sure, but I need a 1 3/16 neck with radius to be happy... An Apitius is a dream I have had for a while - but if I could find an A-style Nugget with a wide neck (thatís been my dream longer) I could be happy. Or Gilchrist. Or Ellis. Or ...
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  16. #13
    Registered User Pete Summers's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Don has the solution. The clear plastic pickguard is the obvious answer - cheap, effective, virtually invisible and easily removed. Buy a whole sheet on Ebay, cut it to the shape you want and press it down. I've used them on several old mandolins and they work great. They do no harm while you are deciding on other solutions.

  17. #14
    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Exclamation Re: Varnish finish vs lacquer - durability question

    Carrying on from # 8, The Tone Gard kept my '22 A4,
    from having the backside finish damage my 22 Brown A sustained .

    Both already had finger rests.. on the Front ...



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