The Mysteries of Guitar Making – Part 2 – French Polishing

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The art of French polish is perhaps the most mysterious and difficult to master aspects of guitar making. In principal, it is deceptively and devilishly simple – the ingredients are few: Shellac (a natural resin excreted by the lac beetle who feeds upon tree sap in the forests of India and Thailand) dissolved in alcohol. As it is applied thinly with a cloth or ‘mop’, the alcohol evaporates leaving a hard layer of shellac.

Practically, it is a very mysterious process because although the ingredients are few, the variant factors which can affect the finish are almost limitless. These can include: The type of cloth used (old cotton bedsheets are the best, I find, although I’ve heard some people prefer ex-navy linen pillowcases and others say well worn t-shirts), the weather, temperature, humidity, the time of day, the dilution strength, the type of shellac, type of alcohol, type of wood being polished, the ammount of pressure applied – or the variation of pressure according to other factors previously mentioned. The use of oil, or not. Which type of oil. When to use it, or not. And how. Likewise, pummice powder (ground up volcanic rock) and other types of grain filler and abrasive. The list could go on and on and would come no closer to helping you, the reader, unravel the mysteries of French polishing. If that’s what you’re trying to do.

In order to master the art of French polishing one must first fully comprehend what the polish is. Unfortunately this is almost impossible to put into words, because it’s not a description of where it comes from, how it works, or how to use it. What I am talking about is understanding, grasping its very nature, it’s manifestation of form. The way it changes form from liquid to solid state. The way it changes what it comes into contact with. The way it connects on an invisible level. Of course, this can only be achieved with lots of practice. The same could be said of lots of things:

To master playing a musical instrument, one must become the musical instrument. To bake bread (and really understand how to bake bread – not just follow a recipe) one must understand the nature of yeast – another of earth’s mysterious substances. One must become one with the dough, as it were. Likewise, to master the art of French polishing, one must become One with the shellac.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a master of playing music, or making guitars, or baking or anything else for that matter. I just had a momentary understanding – a glimpse, lasting maybe 2 or 3 seconds – when for an instant I fully understood the nature of something and hence the nature of everything.  The moment passed and then it was back to the difficult task of getting the polish to work.

What I can say about getting the polish to work (and I don’t know if this is any more helpful to anyone that what I’ve already said) is this:

Sometimes there are days when it (French polishing) is going really well. Perfectly, in fact. The polishing mop is gliding effortlessly across a mirror smooth surface leaving an iridescent vapour trail that disappears without a trace (unlike those mysterious aircraft that leave trails all over the sky, which turn to haze and unseasonal rain-storms).

On those days, there’s no need for anyone to tell you what you need to do. You know what needs to be done and how to do it. And you know it. However, a word of caution: Don’t get too carried away with self-congratulation. Things can change at any moment and start to go wrong with no warning. You need to stay focussed.

When things do go wrong – or at least, not so perfectly – you have two options:

The first is most advisable and most successful in most cases, but not always. That is, to stop, put everything away, step back for ten minutes, an hour, a day, a week a month, a year – the longer the better, when it comes to French polishing at least – and that’s what this is about. Then, when it’s time, go back and sand down lightly with fine abrasive if it’s only the surface that you’ve messed up, or heavily with course sandpaper and positive determination, if the damage goes deeper. Then carry on, with the hope that it will go better for you today – and the belief that it will – or at least could.

The second course of action if things aren’t going so well, is simply to carry on regardless. Sometimes a slight change in the dilution, a change of cloth, a change in the wind direction or the music you’re listeningto , or a change in your state of mind can turn the situation around. Suddenly everything falls into place and starts working just like you know it should.

Now, I can’t tell you which is the best course of action to take in any situation. The second course can, of course, lead to a right mess – and the eventual need for the course sandpaper and positive determination – but sometimes the best way to understand how something behaves is to watch it when it misbehaves.


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