Why Use Nitro Finishes on Electric Violin? - Luthier’s Notes on Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Why Use Nitro Finishes on Electric Violin? - Luthier’s Notes on Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Words by Kinglos Neo Classical luthiers

 

We are writing this blog as the first shippable batch of our workshop violins just have their paints done, and are moving on to the following steps.

It is expensive, and it takes time - Why not making money today, but bearing all the trouble with the nitrocellulose lacquer (nitro finish)?

In case it sounds new to you

Nitrocellulose lacquer is a coveted finish in the world of electric instruments, especially guitars. Derived from plant fibers, this clear finish has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century.

Many believe it is made famous by Fender during its golden age of 1950s-1960s, while the company is stilling keeping this finish on a selection of models today.

 

 

image from menga.net

 

Nitrocellulose lacquer is renowned for its ability to provide a thin, transparent finish. This transparency allows the natural beauty of the wood grain to shine through, creating a visually stunning instrument.

Apart from the aesthetic appeal, its thinness allows the wood of the instrument to resonate more freely, potentially enhancing the overall tonal qualities - That is, compared with most modern finishes.

Nitro finishes defined vintage

Nitro finishes have the ability to age gracefully over time. As the finish ages, it can develop a unique patina, contributing to the instrument's character. Musicians often value the vintage look and feel that nitro finishes acquire with age.

 

 

The thin and porous nature of the finish also allows the wood to interact with the environment, potentially influencing the instrument's sound as it ages. It may be barely noticeable by the general audience, but appreciated by musicians’ ears. In fact, it constitutes a significant part of “vintage” sound of electric instruments. Swapping pickups can be done quickly, but the unique aged tone can only be achieved through decades of time.

Therefore, instruments with nitro finishes are often highly sought after by collectors.

Why isnt everybody using nitro finishes?

Even Fender themselves, who made nitro finishes iconic, switched most lines to a modern finish called “polyurethane” some time around 1968.

After all, it is a technique-demanding and time-consuming finish.

  

 

Proper surface preparation is crucial when applying nitro finishes. The surface should be clean, free of contaminants, and properly sanded to ensure good adhesion. Sanding is also required between coats, and each layer needs to be adequately dried and sanded before the next application.

Nitro finish has a longer drying time compared to some modern finishes. Rushing the drying stages may result in uneven coats, improper adhesion, or a compromised final finish. It could be a severe problem during winter times, when the drying can take even longer.

That means the delivery time of production may be easily affected, which won’t meet the requirement of modern day supply chain.

At Kinglos Neo Classical, we go nitro anyway!

As an instrument maker, we need to ask ourselves these questions - Do our instrument last? Do we make great instruments, or do we make instruments fast?

Being part of the Kinglos Group already saves the workshop tons of time sourcing materials, and helps keep the cost low. We can therefore put a lower price tag on our instruments, but we should be considered “inexpensive” instead of “cheap”.

 

 

If we assume our instrument to last for at least decades, nitro finish becomes an appealing choice, as half of its advantage becomes more apparent over time.

The technique choices including nitro finish will take longer, while the time saved by accessing the group’s resource compensates for that and in the end makes the production viable.

 

 

How do you like nitro finishes? Do you think it is worth it? Next time, we could talk about how users can maintain an instrument with nitro finish in comparison to other finishes.

 

 

Sources

Owens, J. (2023) Finishing School: The science and style of Fender finishes.

https://www.fender.com/articles/behind-the-scenes/the-science-and-style-of-finishes.

Ask Zac (2023) Fender’s Switch from Nitrocellulose Lacquer to Polyurethane in 1968 – Ask Zac 163. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUlPLCURCak.


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