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Design Notes





In finishing our instruments, we want to accomplish two things.  Make the finish functional and make the finish beautiful.    

With the body a finish first must protect the instrument from wear and resulting deterioration.  Durability, or at least an ability to easily repair and re-coat are therefore important factors.  There is also no doubt that finish has a pronounced effect on sound.  Too heavy a coating can smother the sound.  The wrong coating can deaden the sound.  Many finishes simply strive to avoid these problems, but it is possible to go beyond that - to a finish that actually enhances the sound. 

There are several approaches to musical instrument finishes.  Many modern materials simply try to avoid interfering with sound while providing durability.  Even when they succeed in this, however, they generally cannot be easily repaired or recoated, so their supposed durability is actually short lived.  It would be understandable to put a finish like this on an instrument of “throw-away” quality, but these finishes are now being applied to expensive instruments as well.

With a background in both historical finish technique and modern production finishing, we have taken a bit from several sources to produce what we believe are exceptional finishes appropriate to our instruments.  We start with the earliest and most sophisticated of musical instrument finishes - those of the violin. 

Violin finishes have their own terminology.  There is a topcoat that is referred to as a varnish.  This varnish can be either oil or spirit (alcohol) based.  Much attention is given to the formulation of these varnishes and the supposed formulations of the masters such as Stradivarius.  What is often glossed over however, is the elements that come before the varnish.  In violin terminology, this is known as the “ground”.  It is the base over which a varnish is applied, and it’s formulation is at least as critical as the formulation of the varnish which follows.  It also needs to be formulated with the instrument’s sound in mind.

Depending on what you are trying to achieve, it can then also fill pores and / or act as a sealer.  For example, if you want to apply an oil varnish (much superior to the spirit varnish in sound quality), it is essential that your ground adequately seal a softwood soundboard without smothering it.  If not, the oils of the varnish will deaden the softwood and ruin the instrument. 

There is one particular ground that is the subject of much speculation: the “Golden Ground”, or “Cremonese Golden Ground”.  This Golden Ground was made famous by Stradivarius and the other masters of Cremona - the ground under the varnish gave off a beautiful golden glow that seemed to emanate from the depths of the wood, and of course those instruments were known for their magnificent sound. 

We use this “Cremonese Golden Ground” as the base for all our instruments.  We say this tongue in cheek, as no one knows exactly what the formulation was.  There are some very well informed guesses, however, and we think ours is as good as any.  It certainly provides an excellent base, one which allows the woods to vibrate without restriction and gives that beautiful golden glow.  You’ll see that trademark golden glow on all our instruments.

Over this ground, we can and do employ a variety of “varnishes”, both ancient and modern.     

Lacquer finishes are a 20th century innovation that have been widely used for many instrument finishes.  Over the last few decades, variations of the traditional nitrocellulose lacquers have been developed.  These contain slightly different resin mixes that give greater flexibility to the coating, allowing it to flex with the vibrations of the instrument.  At the same time, these “Musical Instrument Lacquers” provide excellent durability and are easily re-coated or repaired.  With our background in finish formulation, we have actually helped in the development of what we consider the finest of these finishes.  We use it over our golden ground on the Hardtop and Softtop models, and for the backs and sides of our Hardtop Plus instruments.

On the Hardtop models, neither the ground nor the lacquer are applied heavily.  They give good protection, but the pore is somewhat open, giving the soundboard greater freedom of movement.  The lacquer is hand rubbed to a smooth bright satin sheen. 

On the backs and sides of the Softtop and Softtop plus models, the ground is heavier, to give the pores a semi-filled appearance.  We purposely choose not to fill pores completely.  While on backs and sides this choice doesn’t effect sound, we simply prefer what we feel is a more natural look, one more appropriate to a hand made instrument.  Finish on these instruments is again hand rubbed, this time to a soft gloss.        

While this combination of finishes produces a beautiful look and excellent sound, on our Softtop Plus models, we take one final step.  While backs and sides are still finished in the same manner as a Softtop model, necks now are finished in oil for an exceptional feel under hand, and the soundboards receive special finishes.  While these finishes give an enhanced sound, they are more delicate than the Musical Instrument Lacquer.  They can be repaired or re-coated, however, and as our Hardtop Plus models come with armrests and an option for strumguards (see Design Notes - Models & Features for further discussion), these soundboards are protected from normal wear.   

The two finishes we use on Softtop Plus models are an oil based violin varnish and french polish. 

French polish is really only a resin or two removed from being the spirit varnish held in such low esteem by violin makers.  It is basically an application technique for shellac.  In this application it is applied with a pad, and the build is not as heavy as with a spirit varnish.  It is a favorite among guitar makers, and much of this has to do with the difference in the size between a guitar and a violin.  Soundboards finished with french polish can give a crisper, brighter sound than those finished with other materials, just the qualities needed on a larger deep toned instrument like a guitar.  This is why we use this finish over the golden ground on our larger Softtop Plus models: the Baritone Ukulele, as well as the Tenor and Plectrum Guitars.    

While some ukulele makers use french polish as well, we prefer an oil based violin varnish - our own formulation - over the golden ground on the soundboards of our smaller Hardtop Plus models.  Those sound qualities given by a french polish should not be necessary on a small bodied instrument.  We like an oil varnish for the same reasons violin makers do.  While a ukulele is not quite as shrill an instrument as a violin, with a softwood soundboard, it can be very bright.  A well made oil varnish can do two things.  First, it smoothes and balances the high end of the instrument.  High notes sing out without being shrill.  Second, sustain is actually increased.  This is an important asset for a small bodied instrument, where sustain is otherwise less.  We feel the resulting sound is truly remarkable.