Finishing an instrument is no easy endeavor, and is a whole process and art form in itself, especially for more manual and involved processes such as traditional Chinese lacquering and French polishing. This post is not so much a guide on finishing, but rather my experiences in finishing my qin. And yes, I will say it upfront – I chose a French polished shellac finish for my entire qin. For those of you who are not familiar with the qin and/or the process of making a qin, this might seem like no big deal. But for qin makers and players, this may seem like a horrible idea. Remember, the entire top of the qin is like one large fingerboard, which the player presses, slides, and performs various techniques on with the strings. A hard, protective finish is essential. Of the finishes, shellac is one of the softest. It would be like finishing a guitar fingerboard with it – why would anyone do such a thing?! While 99.9% of qin players/makers may tell you it sounds like an initially bad idea, there are several caveats that can be taken advantage of to make this successful for this instrument, and a French polished finish, while certainly having its drawbacks, offers many great advantages. Note however, that this approach is definitely not one that I would advise normally to take, especially for someone with little experience in the process, or are on their first qin build – again, there are a lot of considerations to be mindful of before considering this as a qin finish. However, having successfully gone through the process and ending up with some great results that I am very pleased with, I can also say from firsthand experience that yes, it can certainly be applied and used both successfully and effectively for this instrument, as long as you take certain considerations into account.
This post is not a guide on finishing or French polishing – there are many, many excellent tutorials, both written and video out there that do a superb job at explaining and demonstrating the process. Below, I have broken the post up into two parts. Part I deals with all of the phases of my finishing endeavor (there was much more involved besides just French polishing!), and my various experiences along the way. It was a long and difficult process, with many mistakes along the way, and hopefully my experiences will help you avoid some of the problems I encountered (and more often, brought upon myself). Part II deals with my recommendations, thoughts, and considerations for hopefully successfully implementing French polishing for your project. The last paragraphs at the bottom of the post deals with the majority of the advantages for this finish, but I strongly recommend taking note of all the disadvantages as well – it is ultimately something that you must weigh personally yourself if it is worth the extra effort and maintenance for mainly aesthetic advantages.
PART I: EXPERIENCES AND PHASES OF MY QIN FINISHING ENDEAVOR
PHASE 1 – SANDING
This is a pretty simple and self explanatory phase in the process, and one that I find quite enjoyable in the instrument making process. Sanding the instrument is the first step that turns that rough, marked up, penciled, gouged, and glue-stained chunk of woods into a (hopefully) beautiful, finished instrument. It can be very time consuming and messy, but is both well worth it and necessary to do well and right to prep the instrument for the final finishing process. This is especially true and critical for french polishing, since any mark or scratch will still be visibly seen through the finish, and may look worse (as was part of my unfortunate experience during some of the later phases of the process.) The instrument was already prior sanded with quality 60 grit paper for the buzz checking phase and to remove glue stains, pencil marks, and large dings. I further sanded the instrument all the way up to 600 grit with high quality sandpaper.
PHASE 2 – OIL SANDING AND PRE-FINISH WITH DANISH OIL
This stage was a part final sanding stage, part pre-finishing stage of this instrument build. I decided to use a Danish oil finish under the shellac for several reasons: one, it greatly enhances and brings out the color and beautiful grain patterns of the wood; two, it will help me prepare a much smoother surface for applying the French polish, which is critical for a high-gloss finish that I was after; and three, the oil finish penetrates into the wood, and hardens a little bit. I have used Danish oil in the past with almost all of my instrument builds, and I really enjoy working with the oil as well as the results it attains. I decided to oil sand the wood starting with 600 grit, and working my way up to 2000 grit. In between each stage, I let the oil-sanded layer dry, and burnished the layer while wiping off the excess by vigorously rubbing with paper towels. After the final 2000 grit oil sanding, I went on to apply several extra coats of Danish oil jut with paper towels, allowing adequate time in between each coat, and vigorously rubbing the instrument down after each stage. After it was all complete, I let the instrument sit and outgas for a month. This is very important, as all of the vapors from the Danish oil must be fully evaporated and the finish fully cured before attempting anything with the French polish finish. I order to help speed up the process, I had a strong fan blowing across the qin in a well ventilated room for several days, though I still waited the full month until I could no longer smell the Danish oil on the qin.
PHASE 3 – PORE FILLING PART 1
In order to get a perfect, glassy smooth, high polish finish during French polishing, any and all pores in the wood should be completely filled. There are numerous ways to achieve this, and as this is not a guide to French polishing, I will just talk about my experiences with the method I chose. For this stage, I chose a very traditional approach, using ultra-fine pumice with a traditional polishing pad with shellac and alcohol. I soon found out that this was a very time consuming and long process. Very long, especially for a large surface instrument such as the qin. If you are using woods that do not have pores, then this step can be skipped. Unfortunately for me, both the topboard of redwood and the bottom board of paradox walnut were riddled with pores (the redwood did not have pores in the same sense as they walnut, but there were still enough pockets and tiny pores that warranted filling, though I did not do this for the redwood until my second pore filling attempt.) My initial choice of cloth for the polishing pad was not ideal, and having no prior experience, I found myself often gunking up the surface with large buildups of hardened pumice deposits. I thought I chose an old t-shirt made from pure cotton, but it had polyester mixed in as well, which ended up with poor results. This meant going back, and re-sanding the built-up parts, and repeating the process, many, many times. It had taken me so long that I eventually reached a point where I decided to attempt French polishing, with a still incompletely filled backboard. This decision would come back to bite me later – for those of you who are also thinking about using the French polishing method, or are in the process at this stage, DO NOT RUSH OR SLACK OFF! The difference in finish quality is absolutely massive, and well worth the extra time and effort to get the pore filling right.
PHASE 4 – FRENCH POLISHING, ATTEMPT #1
This was my first attempt ever at French polishing. It was long, tedious, and tiring. Hours spent rubbing in tiny circles and figure-8s all along the surface of the instrument, over and over and over again. Slowly building up microscopic layers of shellac over the surface. My initial selection for the applicator pad was poor, and many times, the surface became riddled with tiny bumps. I found this out the hard way, and only changed to a proper quality pad in my later attempts. As a side note, proper pad material selection can make a massive difference in how well the french polishing process goes for you, and how well the results will turn up. This first pad clogged up tremendously, and contributed to the sub-par first attempt finish. This required me to carefully oil-sand the entire surface down smooth with mineral oil, and rebuild the lost layers. Since my pore filling was very poor, both the top and bottom boards had many tiny indents and pockets in the surface from pores, which ruined the super-smooth, glassy look I was aiming for. I initially just used the amber shellac that I had purchased for both the top and bottom, but in my final trials I used a bit of ruby shellac in addition to the amber for the backboard to enhance the warmth of the walnut.
PHASE 5 – A NEAR CATASTROPHIC EXPERIMENT IN FINISHING WITH URETHANE
After the many long hours of my first moderately successful French polishing project, I started to talk with other players and makers about my use of shellac for a finish. There were (quite rightfully) many raised eyebrows and concerns over my choice of finish. The main point – it is way too soft to ever be used for a qin top finish. After noticing how indeed soft the finish was with several fingernail tests, I became increasingly unsure and regretful of my finish choice. After months and months of hard work, maybe it would just all go to waste at the very end with a bad finish. After some debate, recommendations, and agonizing decision making, I decided to go with a much harder finish. After looking around and asking for suggestions, I decided to go with Behlen’s Rockhard Tabletop finish. This stuff was supposed to be tough and hard as hell when cured, and resistant to scratching, denting, damage, water, temperature, and other nasty chemicals. Sounded great, right? Well, I decided to give it a shot. I started with the back of the qin – it was flat, smooth, and much easier to repair/hide if I royally screwed up. I bought a high quality natural bristle brush, did my research on proper application and dilution, and began, after sanding down and prepping the surface. As a warning, this is some nasty stuff in regards to fumes – a proper respirator is a must, especially if you are working in a limited ventilation area such as a basement.
This is when disaster struck. No matter how carefully I applied the finish, it would not come out very smooth or uniform. Worse off, when it dried, it looked like my qin was dipped in plastic. A thick, cold, nasty coating of plastic. The horror and injustice to such exquisitely figured, expensive, and rare woods! Gone was the beauty and lustre brought out from the wood from even my beginner’s French polish, which, although riddled with pores, still brought out the warmth and beauty of the wood. And not only did it look terribly of plastic, but it just felt like a chemical, plastic layer, completely cold and lifeless from the warm and smooth feel of the shellac. To even more of my horror, there were several large drips and streaks that ran down and across the top board, despite my best efforts to wipe the excess and protect the top. And when this finish dries, you bet it dries hard. Which makes it even more difficult to remove. To top it off, urethane finishes, unlike shellac finishes or lacquers, which dry hard and brittle, dry very scratch resistant, meaning they cannot be further buffed to an ultra-high gloss that I was looking to get. What I get out of the can is what I get. Though it may be possible to buff to a higher gloss, it requires a significant amount of care and effort. However I had no intention to pursue this route any further. (Now, I am not saying that this is a bad finish at all – it is impressively durable. However, I found that for this instrument project, it just did not achieve the results I was looking for, and ended up being several steps back for me. Although it would make my qin pretty much bulletproof, the look and feel was just not worth the durability, and I became even more set on taking the extra care and effort for a French polished finish, despite some of its shortcomings. However, your results may certainly vary, and you may have much better success with this finish than I did.)
PHASE 6 – A DISASTROUS ATTEMPT TO FIX MY PRIOR NEAR CATASTROPHIC EXPERIMENT
After several layers of the urethane finish, attempting to level it, and reapply it, much swearing and cursing, I became extremely frustrated, and disgusted with the results. Perhaps it was my technique that contributed, but it ended up disastrous. Not a good way to end an instrument after over 100 hours of labor. To make things even worse (just short of my qin spontaneously combusting), when I tried to smooth the layers by sanding carefully with finer grits of sandpaper, it evened the surface all right, but left it horrifyingly scratched. Even after applying additional layers, the scratches remained, and made things look even more hideous. So at this point, I decided to cut my losses (again), said f**k it, and proceeded to re-sanding the entire surface FOR A THIRD TIME to remove the urethane. Unfortunately, just short of sanding down fully to the wood again, the residual tiny amount of finish on the surface still left scratches. I decided, well, maybe I could just go ahead with French polishing. After all, some more of the pores got filled during the process, so it could go better this time (hint, this was the wrong decision.) Not only did this improper and rushed attempt of cleaning off my previous mistake not help much, but left a very ugly surface for my next French polishing attempt.
PHASE 7 – FRENCH POLISHING, ATTEMPT #1.5
Attempt 1.5. That pretty much sums up that this try did not go very well or continue for very long. I attempted French polishing over the re-sanded surface. If anything in French polishing is true, it is that it absolutely will make scratches and imperfections show up more clearly underneath. It cannot be used to hide defects or scratches at all. For this stage, I also tried experimenting with the ruby shellac I had mixed previously. I applied this on the top first, and after numerous layers, I found it to be a bit too red and dark to be used for the redwood alone, and I felt it did not look as good as with the amber. It also noticeably took away the beauty of the paua abalone shells I had used for the hui dot inlays, which turned from vibrant swirls of greens and blues to a dull greenish-yellow. I also tried this on the walnut backboard as well, which I found had a very pleasant effect with the rich grain and color of the walnut. However, due to the still numerous scratches and unfilled pores, I decided to strip the finish off again and start from the beginning, with the intent to do the process correct. Though I had to restart the process all over again, it was at least a bit of consolation in knowing which shellac colors worked best on which woods for this project.
PHASE 8 – RE-SANDING AND PORE FILLING, PART 2
This is what I should have done, properly the first time, and followed through until every last little stubborn pore was filled. The first thing I did was re-sand all the areas affected by the urethane finish, going from very low grit, and working my way all the way back up to high grit, with oil sanding and everything. Since I sanded more carefully this time and did not have to go all the way down into the raw wood, and since French polishing uses some sore of oil-lubricant for the process, I oil sanded at the higher stages with the mineral oil I used for the rest of the process. This got out a lot of scratches, but there were still enough to be noticeable. I decided to then apply several thick wash coat layers of shellac on the finish, something I neglected to do at the very beginning during my first attempt. These coats were just brushed on using a thicker cut of shellac – carefully applied to minimize streaking, but nothing too great, since they would be sanded back down again after. Once these layers dried, I proceeded to sanding them back down, and applying an additional wash coat to help minimize pores and remaining scratches. I again sanded this coat down, and proceeded with the normal pore filling stage. This wash coat stage helped tremendously, and really made the pore filling go much smoother. Having much practice from before made the process go even better, though it still took longer to get completely right. But what a difference – after it was all said and done, not a single pore remained in the surface. It was quite an amazing transformation to see, particularly the back, which was once riddled with pores, scratches, and a crappy urethane finish, now extremely smooth, pore-free, and uniform. And even though the pumice used in the process is white, all of the pores, even large ones, get seamlessly filled with a mixture of wood-dust, shellac, and pumice that absorbs the natural colors of the wood during the process. Once again, if you are going to go through this process TAKE THE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT!!!
PHASE 9 – FRENCH POLISHING, ATTEMPT #2
This was my final, and most successful attempt at french polishing and finishing the qin yet. The pore filling from the previous stage really paid off tremendously, and the results were immediately apparent as soon as I started the process and began laying down the first few layers. In addition, having experimented with several different pads and materials from my previous attempts, I found both a material and size that worked very well for the process. The previous trials also helped in getting the right amount of shellac into the pad so that it did not clog up and cause issues in finishing during later stages. From my experience, I would strongly recommend you practice first before tackling this finish on your actual instrument, or whatever project you may decide to use french polishing for. It may feel like it will make the process take longer, but having good technique and knowing what you are doing in advance will save you a ton of trouble in the long run, and result in an even better and more beautiful finish. Take it from me – I learned the very, very hard way, but in the end, I still gained a valuable skill and a worthwhile learning experience, an the previous practice was well worth the final results. It is something that you also can’t just fully get from reading – the process sounds easy enough on paper, but still requires lots of practice to develop the feel for it.
As mentioned previously, I decided to use the amber shellac for most of the top. I put in a few layers of ruby shellac during the process to darken the final color a bit, but only just enough to enhance the warm red tone of the redwood without muddying up the color of the wood and the hui. The backboard also used a combination of both amber and ruby shellac, but I applied much more layers of ruby shellac to the back. The ides and edges were all finished in a similar fashion to the top.
Something else of importance to note that I feel really helped contribute to the success of this finish for this instrument, resulting in a substantial difference in finish hardness, and something to consider for french polishing endeavors in general. During the final stages of polishing and glazing off I began to apply extreme pressure to the surface. It is recommended to press harder during the last stages to better burnish and smooth the shellac for a high gloss finish, but I took it an extra step further. Since the qin is made from extremely thick woods in comparison to something like a guitar or violin, I was able to apply radically more pressure than might be attempted on thinner soundboard instruments. Pressing as almost hard as I could within reason. Not only that, but I polished the surface with both pressure and fast rubbing, resulting in the surface getting very warm, almost hot to the touch. This extreme burnishing, I believe, helped contribute to the much harder and more durable french polished finish on this attempt over previous attempts, although other factors such as better preparation, technique, and more layering certainly had greatly helped as well. Note that if you are not careful in doing this however, particularly if your pad is not in good shape or well prepped, you could actually burn through the shellac finish and ruin the surface which you probably will have worked so hard and long to achieve.
PART II: THOUGHTS, EXPERIENCES, AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE USE OF FRENCH POLISH FOR A QIN FINISH
Now, we get to the heart of the subject. Why use French polish, especially on something like a qin? I am definitely not advocating that this is the best option by any stretch, or that it is necessarily a good idea for many alternative qin (though on other instruments, such as classical guitar, violin, etc, I absolutely and highly recommend it!) To be honest, for most cases, you are far better off with a harder finish, either epoxy, urethane, or some other lacquer. I am also personally very stubborn, and I have decided to deal with the extra work and potential shortcomings of the finish, mainly for its aesthetic benefits, both visual and tactile. My experience may also not be the same as other’s, and results can definitely vary on a person to person basis: I can only at best lend my experiences as an additional resource to consider. But I will say this again, that boy, it is rare and difficult to find a clear finish, across all the finished that I have come across so far, that matches the beauty and feel of a quality French polished finish.
French polish has benefits, but it has many drawbacks, and especially for the qin, one needs to be careful. For one thing, you absolutely do not want to use this finish for a qin topwood like paulownia. Paulownia, the traditional wood choice for qin tops, and even some other wood choices, such as cedar, are way too soft for this to be even remotely considered. The harder the supporting material under the finish, the more resistant to scratch and damage the finish will be, to an extent. I can dig my fingernail into the French polished backboard of paradox walnut hard and heavy, and it will not gouge or dent unless I use overly excessive force or purposely try to damage it. With the softer redwood top, this is not so much the case, and I need to be more careful. Spruces, which are the harder options of the soundboard materials, may be the best of the soundboard options for this finish. Redwood, which is what I used, falls in between the hardness of cedar and most spruces, and is do-able with a high quality and heavily burnished finish.
Second, you definitely do not want to use this finish for a qin destined to be used with metal-nylon strings. As is, metal-nylon strings can slowly wear away and damage even the hardest of lacquer finishes used on traditional qin, so the shellac won’t stand up for very long. However, silk for certain, as well as composites potentially, can be used. I have been mainly playing with silk strings, and some composites for some time now, and this has not presented an issue. However, over time, it will need to be touched up a bit.
French polishing is also an extremely time consuming process. It is not a finish that you can just slap on and expect it to look good because people who have it professionally done say it looks good. It requires a lot of practice and skill, and is just as difficult and time consuming to do properly as even a traditional lacquer finish for a qin. As I learned the hard way, shortcuts will only come back to bite you in the end, and patience is truly a virtue in the process. It is conceptually a very simple process, requiring very few and relatively cheap materials, but your cost will certainly be in time spent mastering and perfecting the process. You will also find that there are many, many different versions of the process – everyone kind of does it a little different, and has developed their own methods that work for them. There really isn’t a one true right or best way. I would recommend looking up and researching as many of the various methods and tutorials on the process as you can, and formulate a plan. Practicing the process can also be a tremendously valuable experience, and can be a massive help for stages such as pore filling, polishing, spiriting off, and glazing properly, as well as proper pad preparation, and even experimenting with which shellac colors goes best with the woods you are using. There are many shellac colors, ranging from almost colorless super blonde to very dark brown garnet, with various shades of amber, orange, brown, and red in between, and can accent different woods in different ways. Using high quality materials, such as high quality shellac flakes (shellac can go bad over time, so absolutely make sure to buy the freshest flakes from a reputable source, and only mix it when you are ready to start!), alcohol, and polishing pad material is also very important for a high end finish.
That all being said however, there are reasons that I have chosen to not only use a French polished finish, but stick with it with no regrets. For one thing, it is a very safe, organic, and non-toxic finish. The shellac used in the finish is literally just two ingredients – shellac flakes, which are literally edible (shellac is found in many items, from food, to cosmetics, and many other products), and high quality alcohol. The alcohol must have as little water content as possible. In theory, if you used something like 190 proof Everclear, you could literally drink the finish (still not recommended, and I am not responsible for anything that happens to those who try.) Denatured alcohol is most often used, but if using denatured alcohol, you still need to make sure there are as few additives as possible. I wouldn’t recommend getting the cheap stuff from the shelves of your local hardware store, as it has a lot of extra additives that can be more hazardous and possibly interfere with the finish. I opted for Perfumer’s Alcohol, which is a more expensive option, but probably some of the cleanest and highest quality stuff you can get. It comes 200 proof, with negligible additives, and best off, has almost no smell to it, and is used in perfumery, so it is relatively safe for skin contact. The freshly mixed shellac, at least to me, has a sweet and very pleasing aroma, and with the perfumer’s alcohol, smell and fumes was never an issue, and made the process actually more enjoyable: I literally did the French polishing almost every day for over a month (multiple times) in my living room. French polish and shellac finish in general is very easy to clean up, and not very messy to deal with at all. It is also perhaps one of the easiest finishes to repair damage to and touch up if needed, once you get the technique down. Not to mention, it is also a very rewarding experience, and pretty cool skill set to develop.
Again however, it takes A LOT of time, patience, and trial and error to get perfectly right. This is especially true if you are going for a super high-gloss, glassy, and durable french polished finish. Technique, proper material selection, and practice are massively important for success. I french polished my qin twice, as mentioned above. The whole process. From start to finish. Pore filling and everything. That’s a lot of work for any instrument, especially one as large as the qin. There was a massive difference not only in quality between my first and second attempt, but strength and durability of the finish as well. With my first attempt, I could dig my fingernail into the grain with relative ease and scratch the finish. Not good. However, adjusting my methods and doing the process much better the second time, the final finish turned out noticeably harder, and I have not had any issues of damage or wear yet even after months of play, and several long road trips without a case. Another benefit that is a bit of an indirect result of French polished shellac being a clear finish, in addition to highlighting the beauty AND defects underneath it because of the finish and process, it really forces you to be careful and meticulous during the build stage of the instrument. With opaque lacquers and use of other heavy and traditional surface preparations and fillers, one may be tempted to slack off – after all, if the surface is being covered with a thick layer of hard lacquer, what difference does it make if there are gaps, cracks, dents, and other stuff when I can just fill it and hide it? This is definitely not the case for clear finishes, and especially if you decide on pursing this finish from the very beginning, the fact that everything will be visible can really be a motivating factor to making the instrument as best you can during the build.
The finish does require a bit more maintenance and care. You need to really pay extra attention and care with the instrument. I always thoroughly and vigorously wide the instrument down after each playing session to remove any oil/sweat buildup from the hands, as well as any dust. Wiping down the qin after playing each time is good practice in general, but even more so important for a french polished instrument. The oils from the hand can be particularly noticeable on an isntrument after a lot of playing, and should be well wiped after. No extreme hot temperatures, near heaters, or in a hot car. While getting a few drops of water on it won’t hurt it if you wipe it off, it is still not a finish you want to be exposing to water, as water damage can occur and be noticeable if left on the surface for too long.
Despite the extra care and effort required, the end result, if done right, is truly stunning, both in a visual and tactile sense. It has a beautiful glassy finish that does not look like plastic or chemicals that is truly unmatched by any other clear finishes, and truly feels organic and is a pleasure to move the hands across. It is also the most freely vibrating and least restrictive of all the finishes, and will be the closest to the tone of the actual wood itself. It is also a very flexible finish, and will not crack, peel, or crumble off over time like some other finishes, if kept in a good environment (essentially, no hot cars or in the swimming pool). Shellac is also known for its universality: it can be applied over or under any other type of finish (assuming good surface prep, allowing other finishes to fully cure/outgas, and that you are not trying to use waxy shellac with dewaxed shellac), and pretty much sticks to anything. It also has the property of really bringing out the natural beauty and warmth of wood, and is even more visually stunning with figured and colored woods. And to be very honest, if done properly, a French polished finish is not really that weak at all. In fact, it can be surprisingly durable. I have gotten water on it, dropped things on the qin, whacked it against the walls on the way out the door (I really need a case), and have been stringing it many dozens of times with all different types of strings, including metal-nylon ones, in addition to regular practice and play. Despite all of this from constant wear, it still looks great, and has little, if no wear or damage to it yet. And once you have the technique down, fixing up, repairing, or maintaining the finish is very easy. It may eventually require some touching up hear and there over time, maybe a re-glossing of the surface once a year or every couple years, but a great benefit with shellac is that it actually gets harder over time, and properly maintained, can last for many years to come.
***One additional note to consider, which is of high relevance to the overall topic of using this finish with a qin. To make the most of this finish so that I can enjoy its beauty for as long as possible, in addition to using just silk or some synthetics, I have also adopted a softer touch and playing technique with my left hand technique that is used for pressing down on the top and sliding with the strings. This includes for other techniques as well, such as hammer-on based techniques. I have noticed that some players really press hard or hammer on the strings quite forcefully – for use with this particular qin, I have decided to adopt a gentler approach, which I personally find can compliment silk string style playing nicely as well. If you decide to go with a French polish finish for your qin, I would also recommend adjusting your left hand technique a bit to accommodate the difference in hardness between this and a traditional qin surface.