Matt Rubendall has been crafting fine hand-made classical guitars in his Red Hook workshop since 1998. As a form, the classical or nylon-string guitar is deeply steeped in tradition. Many makers spend their whole careers emulating long-dead masters of the craft without changing the form one jot. Matt is not one of those makers. While he draws inspiration from those great makers of years gone by, he also looks critically at the process of making. His years of experience have led him to make a number of innovations in his instruments, but they are all guided by the same principal: practicality. This month, Matt showed us his take on that most traditional of fine finishes: the French Polish.
For those who may not know, French Polish is at its heart a hand-rubbed shellac finish. The shellac is applied by using a cotton pad (called a fad, tampon, or muneca, depending on where you live) and is rubbed on in very thin coats building up to a glossy finish that is almost without equal for its clarity and depth. After hundreds of years and vast technological advantages, the French Polish is still one of the most desirable finishes available for fine furniture and musical instruments.
For the hardcore traditionalist, French Polishing may involve a long sequence of steps which starts by filling the pores of the wood with pumice. Rubendall takes a slightly different approach though. “When you think about who was doing this type of finishing years ago, they didn’t have time to worry over every step. They had to get it done and move on to the next piece.” The pumice, he says, does a fine job; but it takes a long time. So he’s found a commercial pore filler that makes the job easier. “It’s not the stuff you’ll find at Home Depot, I have to special order it, but it’s a similar idea and it works great.”
For shellac, he uses ultra blonde, dewaxed shellac that he mixes himself. The shellac comes in flake form and is dissolved in alcohol. Matt’s solvent of choice is an obscure Polish liquor that is 96% pure grain alcohol. “You can drink it, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” he says. He warns against using the denatured alcohol you might find in your local hardware store as it contains all sorts of additives that can be bad for your health. To this basic mixture he will sometimes add small amounts of other ingredients such as sandarac, lavender, or myrrh. These serve to change the elasticity or toughness of the final finish.
To lubricate the pad and keep it from sticking while he applies the finish, he uses extra virgin olive oil. The rest, he says, is elbow grease. “Keep the pad moving. You can watch the alcohol flashing off as you move. That’s how you know how fast or slow to go or how much pressure to apply. It’s really a feel thing.”
Matt will do four or five one-hour sessions on a given guitar, then let it sit for a couple of weeks. Once he’s sure the finish has hardened sufficiently, he’ll go back and do what’s called ‘spiriting off’ which just uses a small bit of alcohol to redissolve the outermost layers of shellac and make it really shine. Then he might give it a light touch on the buffing wheel and that’s basically it. “The finish is so thin and evenly worked that, unlike lacquer or other finishes, there’s not a lot of wet-sanding and buffing that needs to be done.”
Matt was kind enough to bring one of his guitars to show us the final result and it was simply beautiful. As woodworkers, there is often a tendency for us to blindly revere “the old ways” and slavishly dedicate our efforts to reproducing them. Listening to Matt’s demo though was a heartening reminder that if you peer behind all the mystique and romance of time-honored tradition, you’ll find that the people who do these things for a living don’t want to make things more complicated than they need to be. They find what works and keep it simple, and that’s what we should all strive for.
For more about Matt Rubendall’s guitars: http://www.mattrubendall.com