Caring For Your Instrument's Finish

As a follow-up to our last discussion on finishes (see article at Your Instrument's Finish), let's talk a little about caring for an instrument's finish. Assuming you have read the article referenced above, bear in mind that this article is written specifically for the musician who wishes to care for a fine Nitrocellulose Lacquer finish. While the techniques and materials we will discuss are applicable to different finishes, I assume no responsibility for the application of these methods. There is a wealth of information to be found concerning specific care issues for such delicate finish techniques as Violin Varnish and French Polish. Urethane-finished instruments typically require less care, partly because the finish is very tough, and partly because the typical urethane-finished instrument is a cheap, poorly-constructed instrument that is unworthy of a great deal of worry.

I have sold a good deal of CB instruments to collectors who wish to add an exceptional and unique instrument to their collection, an instrument that follows the time-honored traditions of luthierie with new techniques and sets itself apart in sound and aesthetics from "modern" factory-produced instruments. These instruments that are in collectors' hands will seldom, if ever, know the rigors of exposure to the weather, sunlight, sweat, and the many elements that can have an adverse effect on an instrument's finish. The information that follows is intended for the working musician, or even the occasional "jammer", who wishes to protect the vital finish of the instrument that represents a substantial financial investment.

As a long-time musician myself, I have played in all kinds of conditions and I've learned a lot through the years. There is little I haven't seen, either first-hand as a musician or as the guy who gets to repair the instrument once the damage is done. Believe me, I could tell you some stories that would curl your hair about how instrument finishes get abused!

One of the best things you can do for your instrument's finish is preventative maintenance, and there is nothing elaborate that needs to be done here. Before you go out to a concert, a festival or a jam, wipe your instrument with Lemon Pledge® and a cloth. Spray the Pledge® on the cloth then wipe the instrument. I don't spray the polish directly on the instrument because it can leave a milky residue on the finish. 

Another good technique is to take a good polishing cloth and some Pledge®, spray the rag or cloth with a good coat of the Pledge®, then let the cloth dry thoroughly. This will put some wax in the cloth. Keep the cloth in your case and carry it around with you as you normally would. This way, when you use the cloth to wipe the sweat off your instrument you will also be cleaning the instrument and adding a light wax for protection. After you're done picking and before you put your instrument away, take the rag in the case and wipe off all the areas that you've touched, paying attention to any smudges on the instrument. This will keep the finish clean and stop gunk from building-up on the finish. 

Once in a while I get an instrument that is so dirty that it's a real problem to get the gunk off of it. Recently I was talking to my collector friend Jim about instruments whose finishes have become so dirty and damaged over the years that cleaning them without damaging the finish beneath the gunk build-up seemed to be impossible. Jim told me he used Windex® on them and it took the gunk right off. Shortly thereafter, I got an instrument in for repair whose finish seemed to be so badly damaged that it seemed a refinish was inevitable, so I thought I'd try it. I'll be darned, it worked! I recommend this technique only on instruments that have been so neglected over the years that methods such as Lemon Pledge® will not work. Proceed with great care, doing a small area at a time using the Windex® applied to your cloth (not directly to the instrument's finish), and do not allow the Windex® to soak in. You will also have to use a polishing compound (I recommend Mirror Glaze #7, available from Stewart-McDonald Supply Co.) to restore the shine and slick it back up after the gunk is gone. The best thing to do is not to let a build up occur using the techniques described above.

The above techniques are great for protecting your instrument's finish from moisture, smoke and grime, but variations in temperature and moisture conditions are among the greatest threats faced by an instrument's finish. If you have ever seen an instrument with a "checked" finish, you have seen the effects of these changes in atmospheric condition. Finish checking is the fine web of cracks that are often found in the finishes of old instruments to greater or lesser degree, and checking, although common, is not inevitable. Finish checking is best avoided by liberal application of common sense. The first thing you can do is to not take your fine instrument out in excessively hot, cold, dry or moist weather conditions, or to use a lesser instrument in situations where playing in extreme conditions cannot be avoided. Basically, if you feel too cold or too hot, then your instrument is too cold or too hot; if you avoid putting your instrument in conditions where you yourself are uncomfortable, then you should have no trouble. If you have to play in inclimate weather, the best way to avoid damaging your instrument's finish is to not let your instrument's condition change too quickly before or after you play. Finish checking is a result of the difference in elasticity between the woods comprising the instrument and the finish that protects those woods - the hard finish reacts to temperature and humidity changes more rapidly than the soft woods, and it is this difference in rate of reaction that causes the finish to check. To avoid this, try to maximize the time for temperature changes take to place; the best way to do this is to use your instrument's case as a regulator, and this is a major reason to always invest in a good case. For example, when you take your instrument from a heated area into a cold one, don't take it out of the case immediately; leave it in the case to allow the instrument to acclimate itself gradually. Similarly, don't allow your instrument to heat up too quickly after going back inside; again, leave it in the case to allow time to for the instrument to acclimate itself gradually. I recommend allowing your instrument to sit inside the case from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the temperature differential, when taking an instrument from a cold into heat or from heat into cold.

In a paragraph above, I briefly touched on refinishing an instrument. While many fine instruments, especially those requiring extensive cleaning of the finish, are antiques in the literal sense of the word, many assume that a fine instrument can be refinished with no more regard than is typically given to a piece of old furniture. This is an incorrect assumption, as a refinish can seriously affect the value of an instrument, especially a vintage one. While a refinish is required in many cases, often an instrument is refinished when it is not really needed, or completely refinished when only a partial refinish or overspray is required. When you are in doubt about refinishing an instrument, the best idea is to get a second professional opinion. Never try to refinish a fine instrument yourself; if your instrument really needs a new finish, a professional and historically-correct finish is a wise and relatively-inexpensive investment. I would be happy to help you in this regard; please click the following link to go to the Repairs & Restorations page.

In summary, an instrument's finish is best described as the single element whose purpose is to protect the delicate instrument from the ravages of heat, cold, sunlight, sweat, moisture and grime. By properly caring for your instrument's finish you are properly caring for your instrument, and you are well on your way to enjoying a lifetime of musical enjoyment.




Last modified: March 20, 2019


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Last modified: March 20, 2019