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Tech Notes: About French Polish

Updated: May 3, 2023

These are just a few personal comments about French polish. Quite simply French polish is a finish made of a resin dissolved in alcohol, and applied to the wood by rubbing with a small cloth pad. The name French polish is deceptive, because it's not a furniture polish at all, but a varnish, a finish, just as lacquer is a finish. The process is very time consuming, because the "varnish" is put on by just rubbing the pad around and around and around, slowly building up a very thin layer of finish to protect and beautify the guitar.

French polish offers one huge advantage. It sounds great. It allows a hand-made instrument to realize its greatest sound potential because it is very thin and very compatible with the acoustical qualities of wood. Also, the look is appealing, noble, old world. It is the finish used most often by the real master guitar builders of the last hundred and fifty years.

But it does present some disadvantages that you should be aware of. It costs more because it is so much work to apply. It is delicate. It scratches easily, especially the top. It is susceptible to heat, and can bubble or cloud up or soften if it gets too hot, as can happen if the guitar is left in a hot car, or in the sun in a black case, for instance. Also, it is hard to get the kind of flawless appearance that consumers have come to expect. We modern guitar people have been spoiled by synthetic, often very thick automotive-type finishes that are sanded and buffed to a perfect glassy shine with no imperfections. This kind of finish can kill sound. French polish is very thin and won't allow this kind of treatment. It might show light "pad marks" from the working technique, or less gloss close to the bridge, finger board and heel, because the pad doesn't work as well in those corners.

But all of this said, I love French polish as a guitar finish. It makes the guitar sound better - much better. And it looks good. It has a beautiful, warm range of color that really enhances the natural beauty of wood. And it smells wonderful.

Actually, the kinds of wear that French polish will show under normal, or even hard use, can usually be restored relatively easily by someone who knows how. A light sanding and fresh padding will usually do the trick. The problem is, there aren't many repairmen who really are experienced in this. My guitars are French polished with shellac, alcohol and a little oil, that's all. If your Hill guitar needs attention and you don't have someone close by to help, it can be done at International Headquarters here in Felton, California. If you have any questions about French polish, or anything else, don't hesitate to call me, and I'll do my best to answer.

Keep Playing!

© 1999, Kenny Hill, Felton, CA

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