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How about we refinish it? - Jul/Aug 2003


Arrrrgggggghhhhhhhhh! No! No! Please No! The finish on good quality instruments is a part of the instrument’s tone. Refinishing, especially with inappropriate finishes, can destroy the sound of your instrument. And, if the instrument has value as a vintage piece, refinishing will certainly ruin it. 


The least expensive student instruments often have finishes that do nothing to enhance tone (polyurethane) & refinishing such an instrument would cause no damage. However, better quality instruments - even student instruments - have finishes that are light & flexible. Just as the wood in a good quality instrument becomes more flexible & tonally vibrant with playing, so does a good finish. Nitrocellulose lacquer, French polish, spirit vanish & oil varnish are the most common high quality finishes. All of these finishes change with time & exposure to the vibration of playing. The changes enrich tone. While you can “touch-up” dings & scratches, an overall refinish is heresy - even when the instrument LOOKS pretty shabby. Because a new finish is tighter than an aged, played finish, the tone of a refinished instrument will regress to that of a younger instrument. Many hours of play time will go into regaining the lost tone (that is, if the tone is fully reclaimable). 


Violins: The least expensive student instruments often are finished in the dreaded polyurethane. If so, there’s virtually nothing you can do to damage the tonality of the instrument. Better student violins sometimes have nitrocellulose lacquer finish. While “nitro” is more typically a guitar finish, it is a credible finish for a beginner’s instrument because it simultaneously has excellent tonal properties & more durablity than the varnishes used in more advanced instrument.


Nitro, while more delicate than the armor plating of polyurethane, is still somewhat forgiving of the care that beginners sometimes give (or fail to give) their instruments, & is relatively easy for qualified repair people to, “touch-up.” Varnishes are the standard finishes for advanced student & master grade violins.


Varnishes are thin, delicate & sensitive to temperature & many solvents. Their delicacy is the very attribute that makes varnishes tonally superior. Small touch-ups on spirit & oil varnish finishes are possible, but are more difficult to do well. Only someone knowledgeable about violins & varnish finishes should attempt touch-up of a varnish finish.


Even if “repairs” to a finish make the instrument look better & tone is unaffected, even minor changes to the finish can seriously reduce a vintage instruments’s financial worth. An well-intentioned person who is unfamiliar with instrument values & maintenance procedures can, with the stroke of a brush, cost you a lot. 


Guitars, Mandolins & Banjos: Again, the least expensive student instruments often have thick, shiny, heavy polyurethane finishes that suffer no damage with a refinish. Also like violins, better quality instruments - even relatively inexpensive instruments - have better finishes.


Many good quality guitars, mandolins & banjos have nitrocellulose lacquer finishes, some have catalyzed copolymers that have good tonal properties. A few guitars (very few) have varnish or French polish finishes. The guidelines for repairs to the finish are the same for guitar, mandolin & banjo as for violin. Touch-ups are acceptable if they’re well done by a qualified repair person & do not affect tone.


Even touch-ups are risky on a vintage instrument with significant financial value. You could end up with a great-looking, hideously-depreciated old instrument. While total refinish of a varnished instrument is never advised, total refinishing of nitro- & copolymer-finishes is sometimes, but rarely, done. For example, Martin refinished a mid-1990s guitar for one of our customers when large pieces of finish began to chip off; the finish damage was extensive; the repair was under warrantee.


Conversely, vintage Martins that come to our shop for other repairs leave with the pick wear, belt-buckle scratches & cigarette burns with which they arrived. Your interests are best served if you consult with a knowledgeable, experienced instrument repair person before authorizing any finish repair. 


What can I do?

Every instrument family has its own set of “Dos & Don’ts” regarding repairs & restorations. While the particulars of “acceptable repair practices” for brass, woodwind, percussion & keyboard instruments vary somewhat from those of stringed & fretted instruments, the basis is the same: Do repairs only if they are necessary & recommended by an experienced, expert repair person who specializes on the type of instruments that you have. Violins are not guitars; guitars are not flutes; flutes are not keyboards; expertise on one family of instrument does not create capability on all instruments. 

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