View Full Version : French Polish - violin shellac etc

01-27-2007, 09:02 PM
The recent nitro thread got me wondering about shellac and the French Polish method.

This is the method where you take shellac and very slowly rub layer upon layer in a very work intensive and careful way onto the body of the guitar or violin.

Used in acoustics and for violins. I've seen it as an option for hand-made guitars and it was quite a bit more expensive.

If this has good tonal qualities for violins and acoustics then why isn't it used in electric guitars?

In my Teleproject I used shellac, very thinly on the neck before I sprayed Quik-Cote Classic nitro on it . . . seemed to work out.

Is it because it is so difficult to work with?
Any thoughts or experiences?

PB Wilson
01-27-2007, 09:20 PM
A shellac finish using a pad in the french polish way is really beautiful, but can be a bit tricky to do well. I've used it a bit on some woodworking projects, but not a guitar. They can be a bit fragile under the use of folks with toxic sweat, but they are pretty fix-able if damaged.

The cost comes with the time it takes to apply many layers of ultra-thin shellac.

On the topic of violin varnishes, most are pretty elaborate concoctions that are much more complex than shellac flakes and alcohol. I've read some recipes that take about a year just to make the stuff, not including putting it on a violin and letting it cure in the sunlight for weeks or months. Wild stuff!

01-27-2007, 09:39 PM
I have never tried either of these products but have wanted to do so. Supposedly its a simler way than the traditional method.


01-27-2007, 10:21 PM
Now what about the Bulls-eye shellac that you can buy down at the local hardware? it seems to be the same stuff as far as I can tell, but is far cheaper?

I wonder how it would work with the proper dillution and technique?
I used it on my neck and did the French Polish thing but only minimally, and then I did the unthinkable: sprayed nitro on top. It seemed to work quite well though, solid.

PB Wilson
01-28-2007, 08:24 AM
Dunno about the Bullseye, but I know some pre-mixed shallac has wax in it that people often don't want. I mixed my own.

About using shellac on the neck and then spraying nitro over it, I wouldn't worry at all. Shellac is often used as a sealer coat under other finishes.

Big Bob
01-28-2007, 08:46 AM
Kinda off topic but Shellac is the only finish approved by the FDA.

I've always used shellac as an undercoat and never had a problem. Its compatible with everything.

01-28-2007, 11:05 AM
Shellac is great. I've used that bullseye stuff. Great, simple easy finish. I stained the wood before shooting the shellac. One of my favorite necks.

01-28-2007, 02:22 PM
If your going to spend all that time french polishing, don't cheap out with premixed shellac. Buy a bag of shellac flakes and some shellac solvent - could be denatured alcohol but they mix up a special mixture now. That way you no it's fresh. Also the flakes keep forever. I think old violins were finished in varnish. Top quality classical guitars are finished by french polishing.

01-29-2007, 10:14 AM


01-29-2007, 10:51 AM
Have owned 2 classicals with French Polish.......within a year the finish was completely worn off in spots.......would NEVER consider the finish again for that reason.

Rock Johnson
01-29-2007, 11:23 AM
Yeah, but is it mixed with blood like in "The Red Violin" ????

01-29-2007, 11:34 AM

AdamI used that site and its tutorial when I used shellac on my neck . . . its wonderful! Step by step, detailed, comprehensive.

One of the real benefits of French Polish is the ease of repair . . . apparently nicks and scratches can be pretty easily smoothed over . .

But I wonder about the tonal situation with this on a plank of ash let's say?

01-29-2007, 12:10 PM
1- traditional violin finishes and French polishing are different things, though there are similarities.

2- traditionalist's would never consider using pre- mixed shellac. However, i got turned on to Zinsser's Bull's Eye shellac by Michael Dresdener(which doesn't contain wax), and have had good results. Ron Fernandez, an expert FP'er, confirms that others have used it successfully, though he still uses flakes. Bottom line, it works, and will not be the limiting factor in your finishes until you get to be quite good.

3- french polish is not only the material (shellac), but how the material is applied. You can spray shellac on a guitar body, and it will not give the result that padding it will. The amount of alcohol, type of oil, rubbing technique, etc. are all important to the end result.

4- shellac is non toxic, and environmentally neutral.

5- while shellac is delicate (as is nitro lacquer) for the early parts of it's life, it eventually achieves a hard finish, we're talking years here. I've seen 100 year old guitars with original FP finish that are still in reasonably good condition. It is relatively easy to repair.

6 - IMO nothing looks , or sounds as good as a FP'ed guitar. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be used as a finish because;
- it takes too damn long to do.
- too fragile (at least in the beginning). I can't imagine those finishes standing up to Guitar Center treatment.
- there is a lack of skilled practitioners. I've been FP'ing for about 4 years, and have done about 15 guitars (obviously, as a hobby, not a pro). While i do have some results i am proud of, they can't compete with the work of real pro. The skill floor for Fp'ing is much higher than for spraying lacquer or poly.
Perhaps there is someone out there with more experience and differing views than myself? One thing i've found about FP'ing is that there seems to be a tendency for practioners to make rules about what to do and not do that are sometimes at odds . Some will say olive oil only, some walnut, some no oil. Others will say pumice on the pad, others on the work. Others get bent out of shape on the actual rubbing technique. I avoided FP'ing for years because it seemed so complicated. Remember,

-Pumice is sandpaper before sandpaper was invented. It also allows you to do great looking pore filling. Use sandpaper also, if it's easier (between coats).

- alcohol is the thinner

- oil stops the pad from sticking.

-the "pad' is just a glorified rag.

- the padding motions that you might see in books aren't necessary. just move the pad quickly enough so it doesn't stick, and randomly enough so that there aren't swirl patterns in the finish.

01-17-2015, 09:21 PM
topic close to my heart. I could write pages about my experiences with french polish. THere is no good reason the classic guitar finish could not be applied to top-shelf electrics. It's a s durable as anyhting out there and can last 100s of years once it sets up properly. Correct, thin application only takes a few days, a couple hours each day at most. THe process is addictive, entrancing. ANd you can drink your leftovers if you use everclear instead of denatured! Lacquer sticks to anything and can seal any surface. People who deride the stuff (made from bugs' nests) are just conventional. Nitro is grreat stuff but is super delicate forever compared to properly set-up natural shellac.

01-17-2015, 10:01 PM
I have used dewaxed flake shellac and it's a great material to work with. Achieving good results in french polish application is not very difficult, but it can take some time and getting used to.

The only down side to using shellac as a final topcoat is that it's alcohol soluble; regular gigging in places where alcohol is served can damage the finish on the guitar. Anyway, it's an 8 year old thread.

01-18-2015, 06:30 AM
I have actually used Zinser Shellac on a couple of guitars with great results. However, I did not use the spray and I did a faux French Polish.

By faux FP, I mean that I took some hints from that process and made it a little more time 'useful'. I did not use a pad, but I did use a rag. I did thin the mix, or cut, a great deal with denatured alcohol. I also waited a good while (a few hours, two was my minimum) between coats. This made it easy to apply a thin, even and, what has turned out to be, a very durable and hard coating.

Amber shellac has a nice vintage tint to it that instantly looks like an aged finish. So, I use a mix of clear and amber. I use a little patience, but literally within two days, maybe three, I have a hard finish, ready to be assembled.

I have a Pinecaster that was finished almost five years ago now and it feels beautiful and looks fantastic. I did a VERY thin finish on it and it has relic'd nicely... But has not fallen apart. The neck is super smooth and is never sticky, unlike nitro finishes. It does not feel plastics like poly finishes can. It has shined up like glass from my hand and has not really worn through much, unlike the satin nitro finish on my LP Jr Special.

If it were up to me, all my guitars would be finished in shellac.

The only real worry, is someone spilling alcohol on it. It will melt the shellac. However, give it a few minutes to evaporate and it hard again. And tomorrow, a little denatured alcohol and a little more shellac, she'd be good as new.

01-18-2015, 08:29 AM
one other thing about shelllac, it's quite easy to repair. Less chance of "witness" lines that you get with other finishes on spot repairs.

01-18-2015, 08:58 AM
A good French polish is a nice finish. Looks good with a warmer glow than lacquer. Whether it sounds better? I have never had a single guitar finished both ways so...I do have a French polish nylon and it sounds very good but there are too many factors at play to know how much influence is from finish.

Some seem to have different experiences but mine is French polish is very delicate. By comparison, lacquer is like armor. French polish dents and scratches with a very light touch, rubs off with moderate friction, it clouds up with moisture and is dissolved by alcohol.

It could be used for electric but would age very rapidly. At least for a gigging electric.


01-18-2015, 09:50 AM
Shellac is some great stuff and has been around for a very very long time. I often use a little to pop the figure a bit and add a little warmth and color under a more traditional top coat. It also has the added benefit of being a great sealer and barrier coat.

Mixing your own from flake is best. Besides being fresh, you have more options on color and variety choices. Fresh mixed also seems to dry a bit harder and faster than the over the counter canned stuff. Shellac.net (http://www.shellac.net/) is one source with a good selection.
If you absolutely need to use canned shellac from the big box stores, Zinsser Sealcoat is a good choice and wax free.

01-18-2015, 11:47 AM
I built this little short-scale guitar for our 8-year-old grandson for Christmas using alcohol-thinned Bullseye (the no wax formula). Not sure that my process is pure French polish, but I thought it turned out pretty good. His name is Zane, if you haven't guessed.

https://fbcdn-sphotos-f-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xap1/v/t1.0-9/10405341_1514115278865964_2718242420484137237_n.jp g?oh=9e9e0649ffa2964d84028e9eb774df35&oe=55265DF4&__gda__=1429160141_325511284845181e707ba420d066d89 e.https://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xap1/t31.0-8/1410663_1514115298865962_13624373943470283_o.jpg