How can I finish my musical instrument quickly and easily, with a minimum of preparation?
The short answer is, "You can't." You'll get out of a finish what you put into it. Surface preparation is all-important, equally so for clear and painted finishes. Some finishes, such as wipe-on oil finishes, require less work and much less dust control than sprayed lacquers, but they're not appropriate to all instruments.
I don't have any spray equipment. Do I *have* to use nitrocellulose lacquer on my instrument?
No, you do not. It was Bob Taylor who said, "A long time ago, some guy figured out that if you keep spraying and sanding a guitar, you can make it really shiny. We need to exhume that guy and shoot him!" While nitrocellulose lacquer has become "traditional" and a mirror-like lacquer finish is the standard, there are many other finish options including waterbased/waterborne lacquers, French polish/shellac, varnish, and various oil-based finishes like Tru Oil.
Don't be afraid of using a finish that doesn't look exactly like nitrocellulose lacquer, but be aware of possible problems when using oil-based finishes on tropical woods.
I don't have a spray booth. Can I spray my instrument with nitrocellulose lacquer outside or in an unheated garage, then bring it into the house to dry?
Lacquer funes are extremely noxious, and a sensitizer. Not only is exposure very bad for you and anyone else living in your house, but you can become so sensitive to lacquer that you will no longer be able to use it. If you don't have a safe method for isolating the fumes from both your living space and your workspace, you should use some less noxious finish like waterborne lacquer or French polish or varnish. And always protect your lungs from overspray by wearing a good respirator. Inhaled mist will harden in your lungs, and this is never a good thing no matter how "non-toxic" the finish is.
I finished my instrument weeks ago. Why won't the finish dry?
The oils in many tropical woods inhibit the chemical processes in oil-based finishes, including varnishes and urethanes, that allow them to cure. If you're working with any kind of tropical wood, test your oil-based finish on a piece of scrap first to make sure it will dry. If it doesn't you can either switch to a finish that dries by evaporation (lacquer, shellac, French polish), or use an evaporative finish as a sealer under your oil-based finish. Be sure to test your sealer-under-oil finish on scrap, too!
Can I leave my instrument, or just the neck, unfinished?
No. Finish is absolutely necessary to protect the wood, and without it the wood will quickly become dirty from handling. If you're concerned about the "sticky" feeling of a neck finished with lacquer, many of our customers report that using a tung-oil based finish gives them a "fast" neck.
Can I stain/dye my instrument with clothing dye/food dye/any other kind of stain or dye not originally intended for use on wood?
We strongly recommend against using any dye or stain that is not sold specifically for use on wood. While it may look good at first, you don't know how it will hold up and whether or not your deep forest green will fade to a sickly yellow over time. This is not the place to experiment, or to try and save a few pennies.
I have a vintage/collectible instrument. I want to refinish it, what should I do?
Stop! Please reconsider! Even if the finish is in bad shape, your instrument is almost certainly more valuable (dollar wise) with the original finish. Search your area for a professional to consult about repairing the original finish before doing anything irreversible.
I have an average/low-value/worthless instrument. I want to refinish it, what should I do?
Stop! Please reconsider! A good refinishing job is hard for a beginner to do well - it takes considerable practice. If you don't have the experience you may end up with an instrument that looks worse than it did when you started, or even one that's been ruined from sanding too aggressively. Many modern commercial finishes are tough, and difficult to remove. If your instrument is in good shape and the only thing you don't like about it is the color, consider selling it and using the money to buy an instrument more suited to your tastes. If there's minor cosmetic damage, a touch-up may be more appropriate, or just leave it - you are almost certainly going to make matters worse if you strip and refinish.