French polishing DVD review

“Many practical skills can be learnt by reading a relevant book on the subject, but learning to play a musical instrument is not one of them; we all know how important it is to be taught properly by a good musician who is also a communicative teacher.

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French polishing is another skill that is almost impossible to pick up convincingly from a book, and more specifically, French polishing a guitar is even more tricky and awkward than normal, due to the difficult shapes involved, as well as the knowledge that its eventual owner will scrutinize it without mercy.

English guitar maker James Lister (who featured in the November 2012 edition of Classical Guitar) has produced a DVD that demonstrates comprehensively how to French polish a guitar. By enlisting the help of a professional film maker who takes charge of the filming and editing, Lister himself is free to concentrate on the entire polishing process.

He starts with one of his own newly built guitars ready to be varnished, and carries out each stage of the process, often in real time. Although he prefers the ‘natural’ look of rosewood with unfilled pores on his own instruments, he nevertheless goes through the traditional, painstaking process of filling the grain with pumice powder and shellac, which gives a completely smooth surface on which to polish; a smooth glossy surface remains the finish of choice with many makers and players and thus this is a process that every maker needs to master.

The quality of the filming is excellent; for example close up shots of the rosewood back clearly demonstrate when the pores are open and when filled. Even the soundtrack accurately gets across the varying sounds made by the French polishing ‘rubber’; sounds which change according to the shellac/alcohol/oil mix being used at the time. These are the subtleties impossible to portray on the written page.

We see how to combine shellac flakes with alcohol to make up a fresh polish mixture and each step in building up the required shellac thickness is carried out, cutting back when necessary, building up again, smoothing the surface, burning off the oil, and finally bringing the surfaces to a high gloss. The stages at which the polish must be reduced in strength, and exactly when to introduce more or less alcohol and oil are explained in detail.

Lister’s calm and patient manner make it a pleasure to watch. The DVD runs for around two and a half hours, and being divided into bookmarked sections, the viewer can easily move around to drill deeper into any area that needs to be re-visited.

The DVD is presented in a box together with a professionally-printed A5 size booklet that summarizes the major contents, as well as giving useful information about where to obtain all the necessary supplies.

So for any guitar maker or player who would like to understand how to obtain a brilliant professional finish on a guitar, this DVD is highly recommended.”

Roy Courtnall Summerfield (author of Making Master Guitars)

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