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Finish

Defining a Finish There is an old saying among Violin makers that you learn how to build an instrument in a year or two - then spend the rest of your life learning how to finish it properly.  Violin finish has somewhat different goals than what you would apply to an Ukulele.  Still, there can be some beneficial crossovers in technique, ones that we use on our instruments.  Since the language of instrument finish is more detailed in respect to the violin, we’ll use some of those references and language to explain what we do. With an Instrument finish there are two primary functions.  First, is protection.  An unfinished wooden instrument - coming into the frequent contact of body oil and perspiration will deteriorate rapidly, and the sound would likely suffer as well, especially in the case of oils being adsorbed into a softwood soundboard. The second important consideration is to provide this protection without compromising the acoustic properties of the instrument - specifically, it’s ability to vibrate.  This is where the difference in Violin and Ukulele finishing begins.  With a Violin, the finish acts almost as a filter - a medium to refine the sound.  Violins produce tremendous volume compared to Ukuleles and Guitars, and a truly fine finish smooths out what could otherwise often be a very shrill tone.  Thus, Violin varnishes can often be somewhat heavy.  At the same time, however, great emphasis is placed on having a flexible film - one that can protect, smooth out sound, and still let sound reverberate.  A smooth rich tone that still has a long, lingering sustain is the mark of a well finished violin.  You see how challenging this could be, and why Violin makers tend to guard their handmade formulae with utmost secrecy. With Guitars and Ukuleles, a different situation exists.  These instruments, especially the Ukulele have nowhere near the volume of a Violin.  You will sometimes hear that they could sound their best with no finish at all.  Logically therefore, you would feel that the best scenario would be to get as close to no finish as possible.  Oil finishes on hardwood Ukuleles and French Polished finishes are two examples of coatings that meet those goals.  However, durability is an issue with both finishes.  To look their best and do their job, they have high maintenance.  It is not too difficult to learn how to clean and re-coat an oil finished instrument, but French Polish is something best left to someone experienced in that technique. The other approaches often seen in Ukuleles are the use of more modern topcoats, ones that provide greater durability and ease of maintenance.  The challenge here is not to muffle the sound.  Often, however, these finishes are simply piled on with no regard to this factor.  A reference again from Violin makers when describing a poor quality varnish is that this “puts the instrument in a straight-jacket”.    Our Process     In the mythology of Violin varnishing, great emphasis is placed on the secret varnish formulae, and their formulation is, indeed, important.  What is often overlooked, however, is what is called the “ground”.  These base coats are the preparation for the varnish, and their formulation is at least as critical as the formulation of the varnish that follows.  They too need to posses the flexibility that allows an instrument to fully reverberate.  This is where we borrow from the Violin. As woods are different in character, ideally they would have different preparations, and this is what we do.  The ground we apply to one wood will vary from what we apply to another.  In one instrument, we could have 4-5 substantially different woods, and that would mean 4-5 variations of our hand applied ground coats.  Thus, we follow no strict formula for our ground procedure - we have an assortment of ancient finish materials, and the woods guide our application of these coatings.  As they are hand applied, they are generally forced down into the pores of the hardwoods, and this adds depth to the end result as well.  And yes, we are as secretive of these materials and their use as any Violin maker. When we are done with the ground coatings, we actually have a lightly finished instrument.  It is, however, like Oil and French polish, in that it would be a high maintenance finish.  At this point, we move into more modern times.  After applying a binder coat, our “varnish” is a nitrocellulose based Musical Instrument Lacquer, one that we had a hand in formulating.  It is like a standard nitro lacquer in its durability, and also its ease of repair.  Any nitro lacquer can be used for repair or touch-up.  The difference is that in comparison to a standard nitro finish, resins have been added to promote greater flexibility. The end result is that we have a finish that admirably performs it’s function on an Ukulele.  Thanks to the hand applied ground coats the top film does not have to be overly thick, and all the coatings all provide a flexibility that allows great freedom of movement for the instruments sound. The Aesthetics There are a lot of terms like “filled” and “open pored”, “gloss” and “satin”.  None of these do a good job in describing our finish.  Since we are only applying what we feel is adequate finish to protect the instrument, whether the pores are filled or not will depend on the woods.   A closed pored wood will have filled pores, an open pored wood will have what might be best described as “semi-filled” pores.  These variations can be seen on the same instrument, and serve to accentuate the natural differences in the woods we select.  For use of a better term, we like to maintain a “wood-like” appearance, as opposed to that of wood coated in a transparent plastic film. Then there is the color of our finish.  This is something we often purposefully select during our ground coat procedures.   Most of todays synthetic finishes are formulated to have a completely clear resin.  It is often described as “water clear”, and applied heavily, it is what gives the appearance of plastic.  In contrast, the old varnishes always imparted some color of their own.  Most often this was an amber shade, but could lean more toward yellow or red.  The “Golden Varnish” of Cremona is the most famous.  We simply prefer the softer look these resins give to the finish.  It does come at the expense of pure white inlays and marquetry, but then again, most of ours are an off white or golden brown to begin with.  In some ways, it gives the look of an aged finish, but overall, it provides an aspect that is in harmony with the uniquely hand built character of our instruments. Finally, the topcoat is hand polished.  It is not such a heavy coating that machine buffing would be a good idea, and again, we happen to like the result.  There may be very light rub marks visible in some light; again, this is something we feel to be in character for a hand built instrument.  You could not call it “gloss”, nor is it what is commonly thought of as “satin”.  Perhaps “deep polished satin” would describe it best. We are fortunate in that what we feel is a wonderfully performing finish coincidentally happens to be just what we prefer from an aesthetic point of view.  Of course everyone has their own aesthetic; ours tends toward a silky smooth film, one that lets the hand move easily and quietly over it’s surface, but at the same time, retains much of the look of naturally polished wood. Please Note:  As of fall 2013 all Traditional construction instruments will be finished in Central America.  The Easy Care  instruments will continue to be finished in Louisiana, and use the process described above.  The Traditional finish will be substantially the same.  Certain materials and steps in the ground process will not be used, as the variety of woods used for Traditional instruments is not as large.  Appearance, however, will be very similar to the finish we do in Louisiana. We are very pleased to announce this new shift in production, as it will yield savings in cost for our customers.                         
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