The Old World Guitar Finish

I built my first guitar in 1990 while I was attending The Musicians Institute in Hollywood California. It was a rebuild of a Charvel Model 1 guitar that accidentally “fell” down a flight of stairs during a marathon study session for the Musicians Institute first phase ear training course. The Charvel was originally fitted with a cheap Kahler copy tremolo and after the fall the body was cracked and it wouldn’t stay in tune so my creative juices got flowing and I decided to do a makeover.

I ordered an unfinished ash body from a place called Veneman’s Music Emporium which I don’t think even exists anymore and a few weeks later I was in business. I fitted it with a brand new Floyd Rose Bridge and an EMG 81 and I was off to the races.

It wasn’t the greatest guitar in the world by any means and it would go through several rebuilds as the years went on. But this guitar had something that no other guitar I played had and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. It was more responsive to my touch and I could feel the resonance more than any other guitar.

I realized that what was giving me the responsiveness was the fact that the guitar was completely unfinished. The body was unfinished raw wood that still had the planer marks on it and I had completely sanded down the neck and headstock so it was as raw as could be and it was incredibly responsive.  I was convinced that I would never again play a guitar that was sealed with tons of clear coat gloss because I loved the way this guitar felt. Granted it was quite possibly the ugliest guitar I had ever seen or so I had thought.

I loved the feel and responsiveness of my new guitar and played it everywhere and I soon came to realize just why every guitar I had ever played had been covered in gloss.  It’s because raw wood can get very dirty.  After about 6 months my new guitar had begun to turn a slightly blackish/green from the build-up of sweat and other substances. Pretty soon it looked worse than ever and quite frankly it smelled bad.

Eventually I took it apart, sanded it down and began to do some research on just how I could seal the guitar and protect it without sacrificing the responsiveness that came from the unfinished wood. I wanted to harness the natural tonal character of the wood without compromising it under layers of polyester or lacquer.

I began do research on various finish types and styles that included everything from Tung Oil and Lemon Oil to Gels and Urethanes and while each finish had its advantages it also had several disadvantages.

Tung Oil finishes would penetrate the wood and dry hard but not as hard as a polyester or urethane finish. It could be buffed to a shine but the oils would evaporate over time and the finish would lose its lustre and would need to be reapplied.

Lemon Oil is an excellent penetrant that is used to clean and preserve fingerboards and unfinished necks it penetrates into the wood but doesn’t dry to a hard finish so it feels slightly oily and slick. This works great for the back of an unfinished neck or a fingerboard but not so great for a guar body. It also evaporates very quickly and needs to be reapplied almost daily

Hand Rubbed Gels can work great as a top coat for a guitar finish. They can be applied  very lightly and will seal and protect the wood but they often come with a slight amber tint to them so they cant be used on colored or stained finishes .They also have  an opaque finish to them that clouds up the grain pattern .

 In my quest to find the ideal finish I spoke to several different types of woodworkers and craftsman as well as contemporary luthiers and traditional violin makers.   I discovered that while several chemical advances had been made in the area of wood finishing some of the best secrets to tone were in the traditional style of finishing instruments in the 1800’s. Vintage violins and cellos that were used long before electricity and amplification would fill an auditorium with their rich sound and I wanted to know what was used to seal and protect this wood on these century old instruments.

My research over the years led me to develop what I call “The Old World Guitar Finish”. It is a unique finish that as far as I know is exclusive to my shop. It is a super thin sealer that seals and protects the wood from moisture while still letting it breathe and respond.  It is a combination of oils and urethane varnishes combined with modern hardwood chemistries that enhances the grain of the wood yet dries super hard and can be buffed to a permanent high gloss.  It has the tonal traditions of old world violin makers and the modern chemical advances of today’s toughest hardwood finishes. I can take no credit for discovering the oils and chemistries that are used because they have been around for centuries.  The secret is not so much in the oils and the chemicals used as it is in the order and the process in which they are applied. This process allows the finish to dry “in” the wood instead of “on” the wood leaving a super thin, super hard protective layer that doesn’t choke the natural vibration of the wood making  the guitar much more responsive.

 Through nearly a decade of experimentation I have come up with a finishing process that seals and protects the wood with a minimal amount of finish that is extremely hard and durable yet retains the responsiveness and tonal characteristics of the natural wood.  

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