Does a French polished guitar sound better than a guitar finished with synthetic guitar finishes?
And for that matter, does any finish really make that big of a difference to the sound of a guitar?
Which guitar finish should you use for your guitars?
I have to say upfront that the answers to the questions above are admittedly somewhat subjective, and the real key to finding the best guitar finish is finding the type of guitar finish that you love and that fits your style and the guitars you build. That is exactly what happened to me at a pivotal moment in my life and career as a luthier, which galvanized my personal stance on this topic in an instant, so solidly that from that moment on, I knew there was no going back. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.
If you know me at all, by now you know that I LOVE French polishing my guitars with Shellac, and you may have even taken my online course, “The Art Of French Polishing,” but if we’re meeting for the first time, then “Hello” and thanks for visiting my website and reading this article. If you haven’t yet, you might consider joining the newsletter here on The Art Of Lutherie website to get my free articles, videos and other resources to help you grow as a luthier and build better guitars.
All that being said, my hope is that the story I am about share with you will give you some insights into one of the events that greatly impacted my guitar finish preferences and at the very least might provide you with some food for thought regarding the choice of finish you use for your guitars and how those finishes may be affecting their sound, especially if it is French polished Shellac.
A Little Background
I’m currently preparing to start French polishing a new guitar I’ve been working on. The other day as I was mixing up my Shellac and making preparations, I was reminded of a life-changing and pivotal series of events that happened years ago when I made the decision to French polish all of my guitars from that moment on—I think that was around 2007 or so.
For a little background: Up until that fateful day, I had tried French polishing a few times, but back then it was such a struggle to get results that were good enough for my standards. I read everything I could find about it, but I was unsure about which method was the best. It was a never-ending process of trying different techniques and approaches, never settling or mastering any one specific way, and always doubting the current methods I was trying. I always got the job done, and it did turn out great every time, but the process was touchy and very time-consuming. So I always fell back to spraying nitrocellulose lacquer, which is what I was used to back then. But something inside me keep drawing me to French polishing, and even though the Nitro looked great,
I wasn’t happy with the toxicity and other quirks of using it (I also got sick from overexposure to it once and lit my house on fire from the overspray, which didn’t exactly make me love spraying it—but that’s a story for another time)
That Fateful Day…
It was circa 2007, and I had just finished a new nylon string guitar. The day this drama began unfolding, I was completely finished with the guitar and was literally placing it into its case for the last time and getting ready to ship it the next day. As I bent down to place the guitar into its case and say my goodbyes, a fluorescent light on the ceiling reflected at just the right angle and I saw some issues down inside the finish where there were almost microscopic bubbles that had formed over each pore on the guitar top. It was very hard to see, but it was there, and now that I knew it, I could not ship the guitar that way in good conscience.
Here’s where it gets interesting, AND the part that transformed this situation from a huge problem to a great opportunity, though at first, I didn’t even realize it. Let me explain…
Before I saw the finish issues, I had the strings on that guitar for over a week when it was fully finished with that very thin coat of nitrocellulose lacquer, as I had done on many other of my nylon string guitars. During that period, I set aside time each day to get quiet and play and listen deeply to the guitar and take notes on it in order to identify ways to make future guitars better and to learn what parts of the voice and responsiveness I liked and wanted to retain. I was absolutely thrilled with how the guitar sounded, and I felt it was the best one I had built to date.
So when I saw the issues in the finish, I was devastated, and it seemed like a true tragedy to me. I didn’t feel good about respraying it, because I felt that the bubbles might happen again. The Nitro finish was very thin, and I decided that it shouldn’t be too hard to strip it off of the guitar top and French polish it with Shellac instead. So I got to work…
The funny thing is that what started as a tragedy, realizing on the day before shipping it that my guitar had to be refinished, in the end turned out to be a rare opportunity to play and hear the same guitar with both types of finish on it. What I discovered from this experience was astonishing and ended up being life-changing for me personally and professionally.
The French polishing process was challenging as usual because I hadn’t yet met my mentor Eugene Clark and learned the subtle art of French polishing from him, nor did I have any clue that this event would change the course of my life and thrust me in a new direction. But despite the challenges in French polishing, I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and the finish was stunningly beautiful with all the natural fire and chatoyancy that Shellac and oil bring. If that extra visual fire and deep glossy shine were all I gained from the process, I would have been very happy, but fortunately, there was much more that the Shellac French polish added as well, which I didn’t discover until the strings were back on the guitar…
After the finish was completed and cured, I strung and tuned up the guitar, and sat down to listen to it and play in the strings a bit and get things stabilized and ready for its new owner. To my amazement, something truly magical had happened to it that was completely unexpected: The guitar sounded even better—its voice was alive in a whole new way!
I could hear what felt like every grain of the wood, every breath of air that pulsed in and out of the sound-hole, and even the lightest touch of the string produced a voice full of complexity and woody richness. The French polish had completely transformed the look AND the sound of the guitar in ways I would have thought to be impossible. I realized that even though French polishing was more difficult and took longer to apply, if I truly wanted to get the best possible result from my guitars, I would have no other choice but to commit to only French polishing from that moment on.
A New Door Opens (Meeting My Mentor)
Interestingly, once I made that commitment to French polishing, less than a year later, a seemingly impossible chain of events took place that enabled me to go to Tacoma, Washington, and spend time studying under luthier Eugene Clark in his workshop, even getting to French polish some of his guitars.
He was a living legend and widely known as one of the best French polishers in the world. Not only did he teach me his techniques and formulas for French polished Shellac finishes, but he ended up becoming my good friend and mentor in all things lutherie (and many things about life too) until he passed away years later. I am so thankful for his friendship and all those years I got to continue learning from him during our long talks about life and lutherie.
I will forever be grateful to him for the gift he gave me as he downloaded his many years of hard-won lessons and skills to me and helped me to transform my French polishing from a difficult process to one I look forward to and that brings me so much enjoyment each day…and of course one that improved the voice of all my guitars even further.
Enjoying Each Step of The Journey
As I learned more, I discovered that with the right techniques, and a deeper understanding of the “why” behind them, a properly applied French polish finish brought all of my guitars to life in new ways. My archtops, steel strings and, of course, the nylon string guitars all came alive (as did I, in a way) once I began to work toward perfecting my French polish finishing and learned to slow down and enjoy the process.
I have French polished nearly every guitar since that day and now each time I prepare to start a new French polish session, I am thankful for that fateful day when I saw those tiny bubbles in that Nitro finish and that all these years later I still get to spend those quiet hours polishing my guitars each morning, and to enjoy the deep satisfaction of knowing I am giving them the most beauty and the best voice I can. I am also thankful that French polishing is no longer a struggle but one of my life’s great pleasures—it turns out that, with the right technique and understanding, it’s really not hard at all.
Final Thoughts & How To Learn More About French polishing
I hope you enjoyed this article and learning my story, and I hope it might also have been an encouraging reminder to look for the opportunity hidden in the hardships, that the struggle you are facing right now might just be the springboard that will catapult you to the next level in your guitar-making and in your life.
If you would like to learn more about French polishing,
here are some resources for you to check out:
Free Guide To French Polishing
French Polishing Online Course