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Thread: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

  1. #1
    This Kid Needs Practice Bill Clements's Avatar
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    Default Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    This is an unusual request, but I canít think of a better place to make it.

    I received a German Bowlback mandolin this summer. I am overall pleased with the instrument. It was affordable, sounds great and plays well. It came with a terrific HS case which is well-made and protective. While a bit awkward at first, holding the mandolin now is comfortable. Here are a couple photos:

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    The luthier was wonderful, so I donít want to mention his name. In fact, I would not hesitate to use him again.
    My issue is that the shellac finish is not quite to my liking. I wondered if any luthiers here would be willing to look at it and possibly improve or even redo it. Spirit Varnish would be great but nitrocellulose would also be fine. Sending it back to Germany is not an option due to cost. Thank you in advance for constructive comments.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    What's wrong with the finish? It looks beautiful to me.

    The nice thing about shellac is that it's so easy to repair/redo. It can be completely removed with alcohol, you can polish on top of it, you can sand it and then polish again.
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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by poul hansen View Post
    What's wrong with the finish?
    I wonder too... What's the problem? The work on the mandolin appers nice and clean. There are some pores visible in the wood but that is normal (even with other finish types) and many makers don't do extensive pore filling on this kind of instruments like guitar folks do.
    Shellac IS spirit varnish. Actually MOST (if not all) spirit varnishes are based upon shellac. Just some other resins/ oils added to adjust workability or toughness etc.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Looks good to me too! Leave it as is.

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Agree with the folks above, especially if you like the way it sounds and plays. Refinishing will open a can of worms... er... of female lac bugs.
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Thanks for the kind words and advice. The finish swirls are almost impossible to photograph. Here are more pics that might help illustrate my concerns. The white spots are light reflections.

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    I just got off the phone with a friend from Northfield Mandolins here in Michigan who feels it could be an easy fix. He nearly described to a T Poul's remedy.
    Hey Jim, nice to read your emails again.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    I wonder if your Northfield friend can just fix the spots where it needs fixing without stripping everything off and refinishing. Maybe it just needs a little buffing and possibly refinishing in those spots. I can sort of see the swirling. You might try photographing outside. I can never get good photos inside under artificial light.
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Just keep playing it until you don't notice those things.

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    If the finish is french polished shellac, it is an easy fix.
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    If you play it enough, you'll put your own swirls in the finish! It looks good in your photos, but I've been down the road of wanting perfection in a finish after receiving an instrument with the impression of the case lining in a few spots on the ribs - 2 days after I got the instrument back from a touch up, I put a ding in the finish and decided. to live with it. I liked the instrument much more than the wait for perfection.

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by peter.coombe View Post
    If the finish is french polished shellac, it is an easy fix.
    Thatís exactly what it is, Peter: french polished shellac. Thanks.
    David, imagine waxing your car and forgetting to buff out your hood. This is sorta what I see, but it is very difficult to photograph.
    I would just like it to look as great as it sounds and plays. ;) ...and itís not like the mandolin is a vintage or historical piece (like me!)
    Hereís an interesting photo of the mandolin under construction. (label obscured)

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    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Find a specialist french polisher(it's also used on furniture). Many Luthiers don't do their own polish but use specialists for that.
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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    I wouldn't hurry with that. Spirit varnishes inclusding FP do dry quickly to touch and use at the beginning but the final curing may take few weeks or more and during that phase the finish shrinks and may show some things (application strokes of previous coats or pores and such) that were not apparent before. Maker could just wait few weeks before delivery and polish/ buff again and then one more weeka nd buff etc... or just take tiny imperfections as "necessary evil". SOmeone wrote that french polish is never finished it is just postponed. Since FP is very thin you cannot usually buff it like nitro an dapplication of perfect FP is just too timeconsuming and would show in price of the product.
    What you may need is just one more polishing by good french polisher and after some wait buffing.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    I think I agree with those that say leave it as is. The finish just might be too new and those swirls might disappear after a month of playing. I wonder if part of the issue is that people don’t see French polished instruments that often any more. Would have liked to hear more about the instrument and it’s builder. It looks like a really nice mandolin.

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    What you may need is just one more polishing by good french polisher and after some wait buffing.
    My friend from Northfield mentioned this might work, HoGo. Thanks.

    It looks like a really nice mandolin.
    Thank you, Brian! The mandolin was completed in April, so it has been played for a time.
    I hope to meet with the Northfield luthier next week and Iíll let you all know what he says. As I mentioned initially, the mandolin was reasonably (less than $3K before shipping) priced and other than the finish concern, it is a fine instrument. Iíll tell you more about it when we have a happy ending.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Just one generalnote about FP shellac or spirit varnishes....
    The way how you apply the finish determines the final look. French polish is traditionally applied just with a pad and repeatedsessions build up the thin layer that shines up the wood. It's almost impossible to build layer thick enoug for rough abrasive flattening this way in reasonable amount of time. The traditional way to buff involves very fine abrasives (800 grit an higher, if any) to knock off any dust particles or tiny swirl marks from application and polished with just alcohol on pad that will smooth out the surface, but it will slightly re-melt it at the same time, when most of the alcohol evaporates and surface is not sticky againbuffing is done with bare hand just by friction (heat softens/melts the surface shellac and helps smooth it out). This leaves with somewhat organic surface taht ooks mirror like, but on close nspection it looks like thin skin/leather on the wood.
    Many folks apply spirit varnish (or straitht shellac) with brush or spray gun just likek any nitro or poly lacquer. This allows for thick build up and then after thorough drying possible sanding, polishing and buffing just like nitro. This will result in the perfectly smooth mirror surface like what you see on guitars. The finish will shrink a little over time but it will not show nearly as much character as the traditional application with the pad.
    Most folks are used to see the second variant and the first looks somewhat imperfect to them but it has it's merits in being much thinner and having some natural texture.
    I'mmostly in the first camp myself though I typically apply french polish over few layers of oil varnish layers that make the surface a bit less textured as I need to apply even less of the french polish than traditional (spanish guitar) way on bare wood.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Thanks for that info, Adrian.
    I meet with the Northfield luthier tomorrow morning.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Nice mandolin. Why not just polish out the swirls with something like Meguiars? You could try it on the armrest first and see if you like the result.

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by tom.gibson View Post
    Nice mandolin.
    Thanks, Tom. I’ll have some answers soon.
    Off topic, but the Classical Mandolin Society of America (CMSA) featured the Australian ensemble this evening, Plektra at its virtual convention. They are outstanding. The group is out of Sydney. I noticed you’re in Brisbane. Some fine musicians hail from your neck of the woods!
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Just got home from Northfield in Marshall.
    Tom hit the nail on the head. Just a simple matter of carefully polishing with Meguiars automotive buffing compound will do the trick. My friend applied a bit to the top and the mandolin's appearance was greatly improved in just a few minutes. I should have it back next week.
    Got a fun tour of the shop while there. Gotta plug Northfield while here. There were a couple Calhouns sitting out that were pretty darn nice for the buck. One was all walnut while the other had a "Michigan Koa" back/sides/neck.
    ...I may have to talk to start selling my wife about that next mandolin!
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Clements View Post
    ...I may have to talk to start selling my wife about that next mandolin!
    Hmmmmm. That is an interesting solution to the ultimate MAS affliction: to sell your wife for a mandolin. Hah!
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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Yikes, Jim!
    I meant to say, selling my wife on the idea of buying the next mandolin!
    ...darn senior moments.
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Here are a few photos of the bowlback after a bit of finish "enhancement", which amounted to a few minutes of buffing with Meguiar's Mirror Glaze & Ultimate Compound. The results were quite remarkable. I'm very pleased. Kjell Croce of Northfield also used Howard Feed-N-Wax on the fingerboard. Tricks of the trade. Many thanks to Kjell.
    If anyone has questions about the maker, etc., feel free to PM.

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    Happy Thanksgiving to all!
    "Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay." ~ Alexander Dumas

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    That is good news, Bill. I am glad it was relatively simple solution. Enjoy your mandolin—Play on, my friend!
    Jim

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    Default Re: Refinishing a German Bowlback mandolin

    Nice result Bill. It's a beautiful instrument. (And thanks for reminding me about Plektra.)

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