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Thread: Varnish vs Lacquer

  1. #1
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    Default Varnish vs Lacquer

    The responses to the recent thread on epiphanes made me wonder if many builders are now using varnish rather then lacquer or french polishing. I have used it on various home projects but always had some brush marks so I never considered it for fine work. Is there an advantage over lacquer I am not aware of?
    Bob Schmidt

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob Schmidt View Post
    ...Is there an advantage over lacquer I am not aware of?
    Price.
    Loars were the best mandolins even made and will never be equaled, Loars were varnished, that means varnish is best. Armed with those beliefs, many customers will gladly pay more for a varnish finish, usually with no thought as to what varnish.

    Though it is generally more work for the luthier, prices are often artificially elevated for varnish (and hide glue and red spruce; things I have used as standards for over 30 years.)

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Advantages? No need for spray equipment, and the fumes are less toxic.

    Depending on the quality of the varnish and the skill of the worker, varnish finishes can be very attractive.
    French polishing is usually done with shellac, which is a spirit varnish.

    One reason for "elevated prices"-- Those of us who work on instruments know that the fees we can charge for many standard shop operations such as making a nut or removing and re-gluing a guitar bridge are well below our ideal "hourly shop rate." We've got to make a little extra money somewhere or we won't be able to buy groceries.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Water, moisture, humidity. Not a problem with a lacquer finish...
    Decipit exemplar vitiis imitabile

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    Water, moisture, humidity. Not a problem with a lacquer finish...
    Most mandolin luthiers these days use spar varnishes or similar products which are by definition very durable against water. Even Loars were most likely finished with similar oil varnish. Only the top coats are french polished.
    Some makers use spirit varnishes but some formulations of those can be as durable as lacquer (nitro).
    But after decade or two there is no guarantee what any of those will do...
    Adrian

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  10. #6
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Varnish has always been a complex subject, and gets more complex every year.
    It started out with oil based and alcohol based varnishes. Then came alkyds. Then, polyurethanes and poly-whatever-else-the-labs-could-come-up-with.

    At first, the goals of new formulas were faster drying time, durability, and ease of manufacture.
    Then came health and safety concerns about toxicity, flammability, and regulations demanding the reduction of VOC's [volatile organic compounds] being released into the environment.

    Now, we've got conversion varnishes, catalyzed varnishes, water based varnishes, etc., and the list keeps on growing. Each one has its own look and characteristics.

    Adrian makes an interesting point. We know what old-fashioned oil and spirit varnishes and nitro will do over time. As far as the modern stuff is concerned, only time will tell.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    I’ll go ahead and put the target on my back. I use varnish because of the sound. Fire away.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    I don't take shots at accomplished builders.
    But, if you don't mind sharing the information, I would like to know what varnish you use.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    While I haven't been exploring luthiery for as many years, I have been a wood worker for the last 25, and I have always been a big fan of the deep amber brought out by any oil based finish. Not to say that lacquer doesn't amber, I just prefer the deeper amber brought out with oil based finishes, particularly varnish. I use Epiphanes, following the recommendation Mr John Hamlett!

    I tried a water based varnish, and while I loved how easy it was to use, the amber just wasn't there ... so I thought it ended up looking weird.
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    I spray a coat of shellac to seal, brush on the Z-spar (or Captain’s Varnish or whatever it’s called these days), then French polish. Usually 7-8 brushed coats to build up to a level surface. Not really building with the French polish. Linseed oil based alkyd resin varnish I believe. Best to ya

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Many thanks!

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Alkyd based oil varnish is softer than lacquer and never quite hardens like lacquer does over time. The way I do it takes 10 times the effort over lacquer. I like the look, I can get it very thin and buff out the final coat to a lacquer gloss in 6 coats. Like Will, I believe it sounds better. The biggest factor for me is it's not going to check and crack in 10 years like lacquer does. I've seen many spirit varnish only mandolins that have severe checking in just a few years, and just about every older lacquer instrument has checking and cracks. I'd much rather spray lacquer and buff it out 2 weeks later.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    There are so many different formulations and application schemes of varnishes or lacquers that in ten years no one will be able to tell what material given instrument is finished with.
    Some lacquers are very soft and flexible while some are hard and prone to cracking, same for oil varnishes or spirit. Even experts on violin varnishes will tell you that it is generally nearly impossible to tell by looking whether 50 or 100 years old violin has oil or spirit varnish unless it is known from original maker.
    What matters most is the application thin vs. thick.
    I remember when I was stripping an F-9 I removed the most of the finish using my thumbplane. It just shaved off the wood like a leather strips. It didn't crack or crumble at all. It was not new but several years old (perheps even over 10) nitro lacquer.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by HoGo View Post
    ...
    I remember when I was stripping an F-9 I removed the most of the finish using my thumbplane. It just shaved off the wood like a leather strips. It didn't crack or crumble at all. It was not new but several years old (perheps even over 10) nitro lacquer.
    Yes!

    My 2002 F-9's nitro finish is either extremely soft or extremely thin, or maybe both. It (or the underlying stain) has a nice dark tea color which I like (no sunburst), but it mars, scratches and polishes extremely easily. Just from routine gentle wiping with a soft cloth the satin finish on the top has buffed to a gloss -- I'm actually ok with that, but I'm sure it'll wear through eventually. It's a good sounding instrument that I don't intend to replace, so I just play it. But the finish is so soft I've often wondered if it was varnish.

    In comparison my very very inexpensive 2016 MK's poly finish is hard and thick, like a plastic encasement made for playing in the rain. It will probably last into the next age.

    A few of my older instruments supposedly have varnish finishes and they have survived fairly intact for nearly 100 years.

    I've had very limited nitro finishing experience with a few instruments back in the late '70s, converting a bathroom into a spray booth. The work was successful, but crazy; it's something I'll never do again. I highly respect any of you who do finish work today.
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by HoGo View Post
    There are so many different formulations and application schemes of varnishes or lacquers that in ten years no one will be able to tell what material given instrument is finished with.
    Some lacquers are very soft and flexible while some are hard and prone to cracking, same for oil varnishes or spirit. Even experts on violin varnishes will tell you that it is generally nearly impossible to tell by looking whether 50 or 100 years old violin has oil or spirit varnish unless it is known from original maker.
    What matters most is the application thin vs. thick.
    I remember when I was stripping an F-9 I removed the most of the finish using my thumbplane. It just shaved off the wood like a leather strips. It didn't crack or crumble at all. It was not new but several years old (perheps even over 10) nitro lacquer.
    I don't disagree with you. I'm just stating why I use it based on my experience. Gibson adds a lot of plasticizer to their nitro. It peels off like you described even on the most expensive Les Paul guitar models. I have 10 year old instruments finished with oil varnish that look new except for play wear. A standard nitro formulation, even thin tends to crack.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Thanks everyone for your responses.

    For my non-instrument wood working I typically use Helmans marine spar varnish. It has UV blockers and a nice amber patina, but it lays on thick and leaves brush marks. I don't know how much it can be thinned.
    It seems the choice of many is either epiphane or trueoil.
    Can they be thinned to the point where brush marks are less of a problem, or enough to be sprayed?
    Can french polishing with spirit based shellac over these finishes work as a final coat?

    I have had issues with lacquer cracking, but I assumed that I laid it on a bit to thick, and/or did not wait long enough for it to gas out and harden sufficiently.
    It is difficult to wait to hear what a new instrument sounds like.

    Although I am comfortable with the nitro process it is messy so oil looks like it may be a better alternative.
    Bob Schmidt

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  32. #17
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    For those that have brush marks - I'm curious - do you level sand once you have enough thickness to do so? Surely that takes care of the brush marks? I ask because almost any finish can be brushed on - particularly if you lay it on carefully with a foam brush. Level sand, skim on a few thinned top coats to fill the sanding scratches, and then rub out with micro-mesh and buff. Just try not to burn through to the wood too often!

    With regard to TruOil: no need to thin, it's pretty thin already, and can only ever be applied in super thin coats anyway or it will never go hard, so I certainly wouldn't spray it (but I'm sure someone has tried it, most things have been).

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Several things:
    -As I mentioned before, thinning spar varnishes with mineral spirits (or the maker's thinner) makes brushed coats smoother with less brush marking. That can work for spraying also, but runs and sags must be avoided.
    -Thinning varnish with lacquer thinner makes spraying relatively easy with less tendency for runs and sags.
    -Although perhaps it is not needed, I often thin Truoil with mineral spirits for later coats when smoothness takes precedence over build.
    -French polish over oil varnish seems to work for some people, but for me it has always been a recipe for serious checking of the shellac. Makes an instrument look pretty authentically old, a look that some like.
    -I use Epifanes (or whatever varnish) and Truoil as a top coat, so it's not an either/or situation. TO top coat does not check like a shellac top coat.
    -Brush marks can indeed be leveled and buffed away

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Have a look at the Girouardmandolins.com site.
    In the "G-notes" location there is a well done documentation for their effort for a Griffith Loar A. It describes the Epifanes brushed on and french polish top.
    rcc56 is often stating here that any kind of finishing work cannot be rushed. Believe that.

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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    Several things:
    -As I mentioned before, thinning spar varnishes with mineral spirits (or the maker's thinner) makes brushed coats smoother with less brush marking. That can work for spraying also, but runs and sags must be avoided.
    -Thinning varnish with lacquer thinner makes spraying relatively easy with less tendency for runs and sags.
    -Although perhaps it is not needed, I often thin Truoil with mineral spirits for later coats when smoothness takes precedence over build.
    -French polish over oil varnish seems to work for some people, but for me it has always been a recipe for serious checking of the shellac. Makes an instrument look pretty authentically old, a look that some like.
    -I use Epifanes (or whatever varnish) and Truoil as a top coat, so it's not an either/or situation. TO top coat does not check like a shellac top coat.
    -Brush marks can indeed be leveled and buffed away
    I could not get FP over oil to work for me either. It was too much work on the top around the fingerboard extension. I too had checking of the shellac later on.
    Do you wipe on Truoil, or spray it? I experimented wiping it on a few times, but had difficulty getting it to wipe across without getting sticky and dragging.

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  40. #21

    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    For me it depends on color. Anything in the yellow-amber-red-brown ranges, I'll go with Tru-Oil. Blues, greens, black, grey, purple, it's lacquer. I have always wiped it on.

    I prefer the feel of Tru-Oil over lacquer, but that, of course, is personal preference.

    Thanks,

    Magnus

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  42. #22
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    I tried a water based varnish, and while I loved how easy it was to use, the amber just wasn't there ... so I thought it ended up looking weird.
    Try Target Coatings EM2000. It is a water based alkyl resin varnish and it does have that nice amber tint that gets darker with age and exposure to light. The instruments glow, and I have had so many good comments about the finish when I exhibit next to lacquer finished guitars. Being alkyl resin based, like the Captains Spar varnish that Will Kimble uses, it will never crack. I am with Will on this, I use it because I like the sound. I have never used lacquer on mandolins, but have used it on guitars. I varnished one guitar because I ran out of lacquer, and after that have never gone back to lacquer. The varnish has a warmer and "looser" sound that I definately prefer, so all my instruments use EM2000. I can't get Captains Spar Varnish in Australia.
    Peter Coombe - mandolins, mandolas and guitars
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  44. #23
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    I generally don't have checking problems with French polished shellac. The one time I did, I was trying to build it faster than usual. It was an antique mandolin, so I wasn't particularly worried about it.

    Although most of the "books" call for a 2 lb. cut, I use a thinner mixture most of the time-- perhaps 1 to 1 1/2 lb. It seems to be friendlier to me.

    In general, I've found that most of the problems that I had with shellac were due to trying to build too fast, or too much at one time, or not allowing enough drying time between sessions. I also had problems in my first attempts because I was using hardware store denatured alcohol. When I switched to pure grain alcohol, a lot of my problems went away. Golden Grain and Everclear work well.

    If anyone is having problems, slow down, allow a little extra drying time, and try PGA if you're not already using it.

    ================================================== =======================

    Or . . . maybe I've just been lucky so far . . .
    Last edited by rcc56; Mar-20-2023 at 7:56pm.

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  46. #24
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by will kimble View Post
    i’ll go ahead and put the target on my back. I use varnish because of the sound. Fire away.
    x2!

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  48. #25
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    Default Re: Varnish vs Lacquer

    Quote Originally Posted by sliebers View Post
    ...Do you wipe on Truoil, or spray it? I experimented wiping it on a few times, but had difficulty getting it to wipe across without getting sticky and dragging.
    I rub Truoil. It's not exactly wiping, more...well...rubbing. Thin as I can get it, followed by trying to wipe it all back off. It is, of course, impossible to wipe it all back off so that assures the thinnest coat I can apply. Mind you, this is after building and leveling with oil varnish (sprayed).
    If it is sticky, "dragging", or otherwise acting too viscose, add a little mineral spirits.
    The one time I finished a mandolin with only Truoil it took too many coats and too much time to build, so I went back to building with varnish.

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